More on Embracing Challenges

by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP

Failure is needed for learning; it is our teacher.
Without taking risk, we can’t fail, and so we don’t learn
or grow toward elite performance or top self solutions.”
~ Mark Divine – U.S. Navy Seal

It’s a counterintuitive way of thinking, really; shouldn’t we avoid failure? Aren’t mistakes bad? This has been, after all, a constant message for many of us throughout our participation in competitive sports.

To embrace failure as the grist for learning goes against many of our fundamental beliefs of athletics: winning means I’m good, failure means I’m bad. But do all athletes adopt this view?

From what I’ve seen in my years of consulting, the immediate and reflexive display of anger after a mistake or a lost point in practice, for instance, is characteristic of most amateur tennis players (that is, those below the professional level). This population generally tends to view mistakes as detrimental, problematic, and anxiety-provoking.

Nearly all of the elite professional athletes I’ve observed practicing – in football, hockey, martial arts, and tennis – tend to view mistakes differently. They view them with curiosity. They truly seem to latch onto a missed point or a poor shot as an opportunity to learn something, and to grow a little bit. This fact isn’t only designated for motivational posters; professionals really do use failure as a stepping stone to success.

Recent research tells us that the brain has a store of “memory errors.” The brain takes errors that were made and, when we do that task again, like hitting a forehand, it remembers past errors when performing the forehand correctly. This means that athletes improve on motor tasks not only by memorizing how to perform it correctly, but also through the experience of making mistakes. Without our conscious awareness, the brain recognizes previous errors, learns something from it, and assists the body in performing the task correctly upon revisiting it. Errors, evidently, are needed for learning.

Equipped with this knowledge, athletes begin to do something game-changing: they begin to embrace challenges. They actively seek out challenging, arduous tasks – like difficult fitness regimens, tough drill stations, intimidating opponents – as a means of growth and learning. They know that challenges force us to stretch, to reach, to put forth more effort, and to display determination, all of which ultimately leads to improved performance.

So, what can we do? The following advice comes from friend and sport psychology colleague Shameema Yousuf:

1. Find enjoyment in improvement, and exert effort on the areas that need work. Remember too, that those opponents who exploit your ‘weaknesses’ are helping you strengthen, in the same way that constantly exerting force on a weak muscle will soon lead to it becoming strong and explosive.
2. Get ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable.’ It won’t always feel comfortable exposing your ‘weaknesses’ or experiencing an error, but growth requires learning from errors.
3. Be involved in setting your goals with your coach. What is it you feel needs work? What do you want to strengthen? If involved in the process of setting your goals, you will relate to them and foster intrinsic motivation.

Redefining Perfection

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Many performers seek perfection. Meticulous details are precisely lined up in anticipation of achieving desired results over and over again. When going well, this approach seems to flow in harmony as efforts are immediately and repeatedly rewarded. As results begin diverging from the crystal clear image of perfect execution, however, frustration and anxiety take a front seat. Execution of the task starts looking and feeling more like a runaway, emotional rollercoaster as the now-strongly contaminated experience unfolds helplessly before one’s eyes.

What most experience or witness through the lens of a prototypical “perfectionist” is one who goes to (and demands) extremes. Perspective is often lost through the keen eye of the result-enthralled perfectionist. Keep in mind that some of the most highly successful individuals carry some perfectionistic tendencies, yet seem to use them to their advantage. Holding oneself to a high standard is an integral component of attaining greatness, reaching new heights and breaking performance barriers; so there is certainly some value in incorporating aspects of a perfectionist approach. The difference lies in the way in which perfection is perceived and applied.

At first glance, it would seem that continuously repeating tasks effortlessly while receiving flawless results would be a euphoric experience. Fortune, glory and fame would consistently linger at one’s fingertips. Life doesn’t seem to get much better than that, right? Yet, a deeper look might uncover something different. If tasks are repeatedly performed to perfection with very little output or effort provided…would those endeavors truly remain enjoyable, worthwhile or interesting? Doesn’t perfection actually become quite boring after a while, with the guarantee that everything will simply fall into place by “just showing up”?

A golfer attempts to make a very short putt

A golfer standing 1-foot from the hole, who repeatedly drains putt after putt has attained perfection for the task. Desired results are achieved over and over again, with little effort or energy expended. After some time passes, however, the boredom of this task becomes just as uncomfortable as the anxiety felt from NOT achieving the desired result repeatedly. Needless to say, it seems there must be another component involved in the pursuit of perfection.

challenging shot

The most cutting-edge and highly motivated performers are those who understand the “perfect” performance is one which stimulates passion, engagement and the thrill of embracing the unknown. Rather than merely (and quite boringly) expecting the perfect result, seek meaningful opportunities to feel the rush of excitement which supplements opportunities to test personal limits and experience what’s possible. By continuously bumping up against the barrier of current skill levels, one starts experiencing the ultimate euphoria which accompanies unlocking human potential. When perfection is measured more by the excitement, stimulation and quality of the experience, rather than just the results which accompany it – passion, engagement and exhilaration take a front seat. This view of perfection will end up taking one much further in life, supplemented by abundant satisfaction from the experience itself, which is often lost on the result-seeking perfectionist. Teetering on the edge of success and failure is truly the perfect scenario to fulfill the human desire for excitement, thrill and bursts of adrenaline. Rather than desiring the boredom of repeatedly completing a task; seek perfection by testing limits, expanding horizons and exploring the limits of previously untapped potential.

Not an Idiot Yet

A handful of years I mused about how there may be little hope for me. The quicksand of sports parenting was destined to swallow me up. I feel fortunate to say that 2nd grade is near and I remain safe on terra firma. Yet before school starts, tennis’s big show (a.k.a. the US Open) takes center stage in our home. The bright lights of NYC will get us to the TV each night and will wander over to the courts a bit more often.

junior racket

Unlike my reflections of a few years back, the games that my daughter and I play tennis courts resemble the sport that most would call “tennis.” The racket remains fun loving. The balls are colorful and developmentally appropriate. The game however involves modern looking forehands – huge follow-throughs, double fisted backhands, and a serviceable serve. Mini-tennis is a stable of any court time… still picking up the balls may hold the most attention. There is knowledge that figuring out topspin is, “So you hit it over the net, but not over the fence.” Yes, a sane human being notices that the balls fly this way, that way, and every other way with little rhyme or reason. Sanity however is not a sport parent’s strong suit… Flushing Meadows is just down the road and I bet tickets will be free when she makes the main draw.

I am shaking out my sport parent fantasy by the request of 7 year old tennis player, “Daddy, give me a challenge!” Clearly it is time to stop daydreaming and get back to the task at hand… finding and embracing challenge. Awesome stuff.

To an observer, it is probably still a bit unclear what game we are playing. We are still playing and she is still dragging me back for more. I hope we can all revel in and nurture kids loving the playful challenges of sport.

 

Sports parenting is filled with fun, stress, joy, self-doubt, and love. For further reflections check out The Sport Parent’s Playbook.

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”

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

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.


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