Fostering Healthy Self-Esteem in Youth Athletes

Among the items needed for a child to excel on the field is a healthy “sporting relationship” with his or her parents. That is, the dynamic created around the child’s sport – how parent and child interact before games, during games, and after games – is important. The fact is parents heavily influence their child’s self-esteem, particularly at a young age. And a healthy self-esteem can increase athletic enjoyment, dedication to training, determination on the field, and ultimately boost performance. The ways in which parents interact with their child, then, can make or break them as athletes.

A child with a strong sense of self-esteem will feel worthy and valuable, regardless of the outcome of today’s game. “I’m still a good person, even though today wasn’t my day.” This child will know that he is NOT his performance – a loss on the field doesn’t mean I’m a failure of a human being – and will still retain confidence in his ability to be successful in the future.

Under optimal conditions, one’s self-esteem should be built by acknowledging all of one’s abilities and competencies – one’s collective accomplishments and value – to form a solid foundation. And yet, one of the most dangerous (and frighteningly common) things an athlete, particularly a young one, can do is base the entirety of his self-esteem on the successful accomplishment of THIS match or THIS practice. “If I do well today, that means I’m a good player and a good person. If not, I’m a failure through and through.” Young athletes won’t come out and say this directly, but when they view sports in this manner, it is precisely how they feel. Imagine the inherent pressure that accompanies this approach to sports.

Self-esteem surely would not be such a pervasively discussed topic if it weren’t so critically important to us. But it is. So important, in fact, that we find novel ways of protecting it. For instance, if I am engaged in an activity that matters to me – a baseball player playing in his league’s championship game, a soccer player trying out for an elite travel team, a cheerleader competing in a national tournament – and I’m doing poorly, it can be tempting for me to make excuses. I may blame someone else. I may feign an injury or illness. I may simply give up, and stop putting in effort. It’s a highly self-protective mechanism: if I have someone or something to blame for my poor performance, then the fault never lies with me, and my self-esteem never takes a hit. I simply put my shield up and deflect responsibility onto my annoying opponent, or crazy parents, or nagging knee pain. And while this doesn’t justify the behavior, we as parents must appreciate the purpose behind it and subsequently learn how to handle such situations.

Below are five ideas that may help parents build a strong sporting relationship and foster the development of healthy self-esteem within their children.

1. Poker chips – Educator and speaker Richard Lavoie remarks that to enhance our children’s self-esteem, we must give them as many proverbial poker chips as possible. Highlight their accomplishments, point out positives, note their competencies. In other words, be a talent scout: that’s not to say we must falsely or inaccurately inflate our child’s ego, but we must work hard to identify the stuff they’re good at.

2. Know your role – The role of the youth sport parent is to encourage, support, and offer reminders based on the coach’s instruction in preparation for playing. The coaches should coach, and the parents should parent. A young person needs this kind of role clarity. When a parent begins to adopt the language and posture of the coach, it may become confusing or frustrating for the child. Every youth athlete should be afforded the luxury of having clear, honest, direct expectations of the roles of his parents and the roles of his coach.

3. Offer the right support – Researchers recently asked successful college athletes what their parents said that made them feel great and brought them joy when they played sports. The six words they most want to hear their parents say: “I love to watch you play.” Completely devoid of ego-inflating feedback (“You’re the best! You’re an all-star!”), and discouraging instructional feedback (“Why didn’t you turn your hips while swinging?” or “Here’s what you should really be working on for next game”).

4. Align your behaviors with your values – A person who claims that eating healthily is important to him while clutching a bagful of Skittles is not aligning his behaviors (unhealthy eating) with his values (eating well is important). Youth sports parents fall victim to this, too. Most parents insist that winning is not a top priority in their child’s sports participation. Rather, working hard and adopting a positive attitude are likely of greater priority. It seems head-scratching when the poor performance of a child, who is clearly working hard and trying to stay positive, is met with disappointed gestures or frantic instructional declarations from his parent…the same parent who claims that winning isn’t all that important! We must align our actions and feedback as parents around the successful accomplishment of what we claim are the important areas. When, in a child’s eyes, parental love and approval depend strictly on the adequacy of performance (“The better I play, the more love I’ll get”) sports are bound to be stressful.

5. Understand how your presence affects your child’s performance – Does it tend to make them play better? Worse? No affect at all? The only way to reveal this is through an open, honest, direct conversation with your children. If how you are treating your child on the field during competition, no matter how well-intentioned, is steering them away from a successful path, something has to change. Again, even if your intentions are good, if it doesn’t work for your child, it doesn’t work.

-Greg Chertok

The United States Open Championship – “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble”

There will be no defenders moving throughout the course. There is no physical contact allowed between competitors, much less the need for a cut man to monitor lacerations and bleeding throughout the round. Yet this week’s United States Open Championship at Pinehurst No. 2 will certainly feel like a battlefield which tests its competitors from start to finish. Michael Buffer (you know, the “Let’s get ready to rumble” ringside boxing announcer) should be making his trademark announcement on the first tee to set the stage for this emotional competition.

US Open

Although many believe the mental game is all about staying calm and positive, players who expect to exhibit these characteristics for 72-holes (plus an additional 18+ in an playoff situation) under exhilarating U.S. Open Championship conditions are kidding themselves. Cognitive science shows that competitors would be better served to start anticipating scenarios of how to manage and embrace some of golf’s worst-case scenarios, rather than hoping to calmly cruise through this brutal test of golf with their ball settling close to the hole all week. The truth is that motivation will slowly deteriorate as the reality of strenuous competition collides with a calm and positive dream-world. Carol Dweck’s revolutionary work supports this point (http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=fdjqz0TPL2wC&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=challenge+mindset&ots=Bi1–GxDLD&sig=fSZrzW3JiUDBH_vMTEVhyjHm9RY#v=onepage&q=challenge%20mindset&f=false) and is a must-read for athletes, students, coaches, parents and leaders of any kind.

Listen closely to player interviews throughout the week. Do the weekend leaders talk about the calm, simple dream-shots they hit; or is there a more passionate dialogue, filled with the thrills of navigating tight situations on one of golf’s largest stages? Confidence and sustainable motivation come from embracing moments of uncertainty and gutting out the tough stuff. As the rest of us settle comfortably into the couch to watch the action on television, consider the emotion and uncertainty involved in competing effectively in one of golf’s largest and most difficult environments. Take note and start preparing effectively for your next “U.S. Open-like” experience.

 

 

 

 

Now That’s Visualization I Can Get Behind

The difference between a technician and a clinician is the level of understanding of the nuance and dynamic possibilities of mental skills. It is the “plug and chug” approach as opposed to “there are many ways to skin a cat” mindset. Mental skills can seem so tangible… appear to be a black and white recipe for high performance – set goals, develop positive self-talk, practice visualization, and learn a physiological relaxation technique or two – black and white always seems to have its limits however. The technician follows the recipe. The clinician designs the recipe to fit the palate in front of him.

I have been on record over the years of being critical of how mental imagery is often embraced (see Wasting Time on Mental Imagery and You’re Not an Olympian). The traditional close your eyes and imagine a performance from start to finish simply seems to be unnecessary for many athletes and reaps fewer rewards than taking time to develop high performance perspectives and practicing other pregame mental preparation approaches. Yet… there are certain competitive challenges that are simply spot on for settling in, shutting one’s eyes, and taking time to play a mental movie of the upcoming performance. This is an example of one of them:

http://www.redbullairrace.com/en_US/video/fascination-flight-mindflying

There are certain competitive challenges that are simply spot on for settling in, shutting one’s eyes, and taking time to play a mental movie

Most athletes have hours and hours available for physical practice on their playing field. Many athletes have a very stable field on which to compete. Many athletes must read and react to their opponents therefore the variables to imagine are numerous.

Differently, the pilot navigating pylons, the alpine racer hurtling down a hill, and others such athletes compete on a novel course with mother-nature being the only interactive obstacle. In these sports, imagery is perhaps not only a good use of one’s mental preparation time, but an essential part.

Just some food for thought.

Mental imagery can take many forms and shapes for the variety of competitive demands facing athletes. It is a powerful skill if used wisely and well. Also, it is worth considering a necessary skill to develop and practice if one is seeking comfort and confidence on the race course.

Thoughts for 2014 Sport Psych Grads: Generosity

As I ready my cap and gown to celebrate the graduation of another crop of graduates from sport psychology studies, one word bounces around my mind, “generosity.” It seems like a good word for us all to remember when shaping a fulfilling career and supporting a field that is fighting tooth and nail to be legitimate.

Many years ago the wind was depressingly taken out of my typically enthusiastic sails when a graduate student addressed a room of his peers and said, “I really would prefer not to share thoughts about how I practice mental training. Everyone in this room is my competition.” A room of budding professionals not sharing… cooperating… being generous?!? I was not surprised by the sentiment, but struck about how sad a reflection it was on the young man and the field. After a moment of pause, my enthusiasm returned, and I am happy to say that the student has matured over the years.

Sport psychology graduates, be generous.

Scientists that are not generous do not help practitioners practice efficaciously. Practitioners that are not generous do not help science solve real on-field, heat of the moment problems. Practitioners that are not generous fail to see what’s next, because they are not part of rich, creative, and critical discussions. Considering, “What’s next?” leads to efficacious and fulfilling practice. Professionals that are not generous fail to help create a rising tide to help the field float. There are plenty of athletes and plenty of coaches out there… to be accepted a field must have its act together. “Together” is generous.

In this year, I would like to put an additional twist on generosity. Young professionals, please be generous with your patience. This is a quality you will need to succeed in the culture of sports. Yet, also I’d personally appreciate it. As a professional that has been passionately engaged in the field for two decades now, things have gotten a bit hectic. My passion for sitting down over a cup of coffee or pint of your choice is unabated, but I’m a bad juggler. E-mails get missed, my texts read like hieroglyphics, and the second I think I have time to focused something seems to come up (and if that thing is family, you stand little chance of taking priority…).  Please be generous with your patience for anyone that has been actively and thoughtfully engaged in the field for a while. In my experience, they care and are still considering ideas like wild-eyed graduate students. Do not disconnect because of somewhat slow and scatteredness. Perhaps it is part of aging in a still evolving and somewhat disjointed field. Be generous with your patience, we are still building the field with you.

Generosity is more than a politically correct concept, it is a way of being that yields wonderful connectedness and growth.

Cheers to all grads moving on to their next adventures.

Being in the Zone: Not as Elusive as You Might Think

The name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi does not flow effortlessly off the tongue, yet this brilliant cognitive scientist was the individual who clearly defined the zone (a.k.a. FLOW).  “The Zone” is the spot in which an individual performs to their greatest potential. Tasks feel effortless. Results seem to simply fall into place. Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Sounds pretty cool, huh? The difficulty lies in the fact that once an individual strives to find the zone, it seems to become an even more elusive encounter. Rather than fighting to find this enigmatic state, follow these few pointers and lead yourself to greater focus and energy in your tasks ahead:

1. Immerse yourself in activities which you truly enjoy. Flow states are most readily found when participating in tasks filled with personal interest, joy and satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation lends itself very well to feelings of comfort and euphoria. Do not confuse laziness with the zone. Although many consider sinking effortlessly into the couch as a source of great comfort and satisfaction, the truth is that boredom feels every bit as uncomfortable as anxiety. After reading this article, get up and find an intriguing task which puts your skills to the test.

ZONE

2. It’s all about challenge. The zone is experienced when challenge meets skill. If the challenge is too low for your current skill level, uncomfortable boredom starts to creep in as the natural result. If the challenge is too high for your current skill level, anxiety starts to taint the experience. The middle spot (shown in blue above) is the zone, where skill and challenge meet to create a highly successful and seemingly effortless sensation.

If boredom starts to set in, it’s time to elevate your expectations…

  • refine the goal/target – mental stimulation
  • pick up the pace - mental/physical stimulation

If anxiety starts to creep in and you truly want to be a high performer, do NOT lower expectations…

  • embrace the challenge – this allows an individual to accept the difficulty of the task and forge ahead with focused effort
  • a solid exhale is key – this encourages the body to relax and find its natural rhythm while slowing down mental processing to meet the task at hand

 

3. Perspective widens the zone. Expect a bit of discomfort along the way. A little discomfort means you are teetering on the edge of the zone. Within seconds you may find yourself well within it’s comforting grasp. To the contrary, a perfectionist approach will only narrow the zone, making it an even more elusive and frustrating place to find.

 

4. Take a break. Although the zone may feel like an effortless and euphoric place to experience challenges, there is still a cost associated with this type of performance. Under-recovery is the enemy of solid effort and effective long-term performance. Keep in mind the importance of perspective (see #3) and learn to stretch personal boundaries for boredom as well. Effective recovery allows even the highest performers to chase challenges with renewed energy, intensity and vigor while escaping the limitations of extreme anxiety levels along the way.

 

Rather than searching for the elusive zone which will only send it fleeting away, seek out thrilling experiences and attempt to embrace the discomfort within them. The road to success is guaranteed to be a bit bumpy, so why not strive to make it more enjoyable and rewarding by seeking out meaningful challenges along the way?

 

 

 

The Masters and Mastery

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Azelea’s are in bloom. Bubba’s got a bit of a lead. It’s time for championship weekend at The Masters. Who will wear the green jacket on Sunday ought to be anybody’s guess. There’s a lot of golf to be played and early prognostication is a fool’s mission.

The key to getting and staying on the top of the leaderboard may lie in the tournament name itself… a mastery focus will help the knees knock a bit less and focus to stay true. This is old news, but remains tough for even the most seasoned competitor to remember.

The competitor that carries a mastery-oriented mindset into the weekend will:

  • Keep his eyes on his own scorecard – for mastery goals are self-referenced.
  • Have a mind’s eye that allows him to see shots most creatively – mastery motivation leads to curiosity.
  • Will recover well after a lipout or poor club selection – willingness to learn is at the cornerstone of this mindset.
  • He will be filled with positive emotion when in the middle of a shifting leaderboard on Sunday – a mastery-orientation feels the excitement of challenge, but does not fear it.

None of this is new news, but important to be reminded of time and time again. Success at The Masters will be all about a mastery mindset.

Create Olympic Environments – All Year Long

Although the Olympic Games are meant for elite athletes and only come along once every four years, there is much we can learn and utilize from the spirit of the Games in our everyday lives to further performance in all levels and domains. As the modern Olympics began to take shape in the early 20th century, Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee. He proclaimed its core beliefs as, “the important thing is not winning but taking part. What counts in life is not the victory but the struggle; the essential thing is not to conquer but to fight well”. In other words, competition is healthy. Great rivals and competitors push each other to their limits. This type of competition allows individuals and teams to discover each others’ true potential. Yet, this is only done when the environment frames competition and development appropriately, much the way the Olympic Games have been staged.

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Competition run amok can start to look very different. When winning and looking superior becomes the sole motivator, temptation to cheat, harm and take inappropriate action may become the unfortunate result. A scoreboard focus minimizes the ability to compete effectively, causing frustration and angst to overtake more helpful emotions of excitement and inspiration on the playing field.

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What messages are more actively promoted within your environment?

1) Struggle effectively and maximize effort…that’s what will lead us to success. We need great rivals to make us stronger!

or

2) Just get the win. The opponent is in the way of our success!

What would happen if you and your team are more motivated by option #1 for the next 5-10 years? Where will you likely be? Now ask yourself the same for option #2.

Environment matters – It shapes us, motivates us and carries us down the path of life. Our environments create the foundation for the decisions we make, especially in times of high stress and uncertainty. Choose and create Olympic environments whenever possible. We will all be better off in the long run!


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