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Playoff Pressure?

Playoff Pressure?

What is the difference between the fourth game of the regular season and a Championship game? 

Is the football field 10 yards longer, the basket 1 foot taller or the bases 10 feet further?   Of course not.  But, in the heat of competition, where the loser goes home and the winner gets to practice tomorrow, the game can speed up and fall apart very quickly.

Playoff time is better than any reality TV show.  The intensity that arises from unscripted competition is palpable, as every San Francisco Giants fan can bear witness to the torture that accompanies a World Series victory.

In the 2010 World Series, the Texas Rangers seemed loose, relaxed and having fun, even though they were down 0-2.  They claimed that they were not approaching the games any differently.  In the other clubhouse, there were reports that Tim Lincecum was dancing and joking around before his start in Game 5, and we all know the outcome.

Both teams appeared loose, yet when pressure situations arose, the Rangers fell apart very quickly.  The suddenness of events in playoff games often expose mental and physical weaknesses, as It does not matter how one acts before a game, it matters how they react during critical moments in the heat of competition.

Over the next few weeks, many high school athletes and teams will begin embarking on their own championship quest and will endure their own forms of torture along the way.   Knowing what is at stake, athletes often place more importance on every play because it may be the last. 

We practice our sport for moments like these.  Yet, it is very difficult to recreate the intensity of a game, let alone a playoff game.  Since we cannot truly replicate pressure situations in practice, it becomes imperative that we train for pressure situations in other ways.

This brings us back to the fourth game of the season.  How one prepares and performs in this game is very indicative of how they will perform in playoff competition.  It is not easy to treat all games the same and there is no magic fairy dust that will allow you to tune out the magnitude of what is at stake. 

When athletes “think too much” in critical situations, they are not really thinking too much, they are usually thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time.  The “wrong things” involve both the hope for positive plays and the fear of what will happen when mistakes, especially mistakes executing routine plays, are made.

Since we know that more is at stake in playoff games, athletes become vulnerable of falling into the “either/or” mindset.  This mindset is influenced by emotional reactions to events during competition that are both within and beyond their control.  These mood swings create mental fatigue because athletes start expending too much mental energy reacting to events during a game instead of staying strategic and focusing on what is under their immediate control. 

In preparing athletes and teams for the realities of playoff competition, I often ask each individual to consider the most basic requirements of their given position, execution of routine plays and the responsibilities of the given roles each athlete has within the team or sport. 

I believe that many athletes get too far ahead of themselves in playoff games and mentally fast-forward to the possible end result of critical plays, instead of thinking about the most basic, fundamental elements or “little things” that are required of them to perform correctly.

Thinking about the “little things” is defined as focusing on the aspects of your performance you control, right here, in the moment.  This translates into what your responsibilities are in the execution of this play.  Focusing on your responsibilities, instead of focusing on wanting to make the big play or not wanting to make a mistake, allows athletes to stay mentally under control through the highs and lows in a game. 

Athletes and teams who learn to treat Game Four of the season the same way as the Championship Game are successful in focusing on aspects within a competition they can control.  This is an acquired skill that needs to be practiced, yet too often, there is an exclusive focus on physical and fundamental skills, at the expense of integrating mental purpose into physical preparation. 

Purposeful preparation instills confidence by helping athletes develop competencies that need to be utilized in critical performance situations.  The more consistent this preparation is, throughout a season, the less likely athletes and teams will become victims of playoff pressure. 

In the end, the game does not change because you are playing for a championship.  What changes, is our perceptions, because as we get so close to the prize, it becomes too easy to think about the prize, itself, instead of focusing on the “little things” that will give you the best chance to realize your dream and win your last game.

A little diddy about Practice & Golf

Practice, Practice, Practice

“I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice. Not a game; we’re talking about practice. How silly is that? I know I’m supposed to be there. I know I’m supposed to lead by example. I know that. I know it’s important, but we’re talking about practice. … How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing? They are supposed to be used to playing with me anyway. So my game is going to deteriorate if I don’t practice with those guys?”  –  Allen Iverson, Press Conference after elimination from 2002 NBA Playoffs.

 “Yeah, I’m anxious to come to practice,” a grinning Iverson told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And that let me know that my career is definitely turning for the better.”  “We don’t have time to waste,” Iverson continued. “We’ve got to get it done right now somehow. The concentration level has to be that much higher in all of these practices, getting things taken care of on the court. We’ve just got to adjust faster.”  –  Allen Iverson, after Sixers acquire Chris Webber via trade, Feb 28, 2005.

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The most used and least understood word in sport.  We hear it from our first days in pee-wee sports.  Everyone, from our parents, our coaches and teachers tell us that if we practice more we can achieve anything we desire.  I wish it was so easy.

 Practice has both positive and negative meanings for many student-athletes, especially for athletes playing an individual sport such as golf.  This conflict usually stems from grappling with time management and striking a balance between committing to golf, school and your social life. 

In order to get a scholarship for playing golf in college, performance excellence is essential both on the course and in the classroom.  I believe that there is a connection between how one prepares for academic success and how they prepare for athletic performance. 

 This is why I love to watch athletes practice.  Practice tells me everything.  I will watch a frustrated golfer continuously beat balls on the range, dragging one ball onto the mat after another, only to hit each successive shot worse than the one before.  It takes about 8-10 shots before the individual gets frustrated enough to go on “tilt” for a few shots, then they calm down and hit a few nice shots before starting the process all over again.

 Sound familiar?

 We seek answers and everyone around us tells us to practice more.  Practice more?  What does that mean?  While there is a cause and effect between more practice and performance improvements, if this was the only solution, than anyone could pick up a club and eventually compete with Tiger Woods. 

 Have you ever thought about how you practice?  Do you mindlessly hit balls on the range, to the neglect of your putting, your short game and shots inside of 100 yards?  Do you pound your driver or your favorite club at the range, while avoiding the clubs in your bag you need to work on the most?  

 Tough questions to answer, yet I ask them because research indicates that most athletes seek to work on their strengths, while avoiding their weaknesses.  Yet, in the heat of competition, various situations arise which often require your ability to handle the “tool bag” of shots that arise on the course.  It is in these times that mental and physical preparation are revealed

 There are only so many things an athlete can control during competition.  I believe that preparation is the number one thing an athlete can focus on and control.  If you play golf long enough, the really good and really bad days balance themselves out.  In the end, we strive for consistency, yet many golfers focus on consistency in scores instead of consistency in approach.

 Preparation is about self awareness and is self-imposed.  It is not inherently fun.  It must be deliberate.  It must be purposeful.  Preparation is created, crafted and cultivated in the practice environment and the challenge becomes how to translate your preparation to competition.  Sound like fun?

 The comparison I like to make is that of taking a test in school.  I am sure many of you have received a lower grade on a test and you knew that, had you studied, you would have done better.  Studying is not always fun, kind of like practice, and I ask you to consider the similarities between how you prepare for both.

How do you feel when you really study for a test and really know the material?  How much confidence do you have going into and during the test?  In the end, why were you confident?  The answer is somewhat easy and based in common sense:  you were prepared, you were competent and both fostered true confidence in your ability to do well on the test.

The only way I know to truly develop confidence is to first develop competence.  To develop competence, one must be able to accept that improvement and practice are linked together, both in the long and short-term and that change will not come overnight.  This is the hardest concept for most athletes, especially athletes in individual sports, such as golf, to accept. 

It is difficult for many athletes to commit to something that they know will pay benefits to their long-term game because they are so consumed with wanting to put up good scores now and to have immediate feedback and gratification.  But, real change takes time and the number one rule in learning is that learning takes time. 

This is why preparation is ultimately self-imposed.  At some point, many athletes tune out their parents, coaches and others who try and help them reach their goals whenever the word “practice” is uttered.  At some point, it becomes your individual choice to either give yourself the best chance to succeed or remain stuck where you are.

 The average high school golfer understands what they need to do to improve, yet they do not take consistent action.  The above average golfer has embraced practice and works on their physical game consistently.  The excellent golfer has learned how to integrate both the mental and physical into their preparation on a consistent and purposeful basis.

Take fifteen minutes, grab a piece of paper and a pen and apply the following questions to your golf game:

 1.  Identify your strengths and weaknesses in the following three areas:

            a.  Your physical conditioning.

           b.  The fundamentals of your golf swing.

            c.  Your mental game.

 2.  Based on this information, plan out activities you can do during one day of practice to do something productive in each of these three areas. 

3.  Set aside a time to work on 1-3 areas of your game that need improvement. 

 4.  At the end of this day, take 15 minutes to write down your experiences and insight gained through working on both strengths and weaknesses in practice.

 5.  Based on this insight, identify 1-3 things you want to work on the next day in practice and figure out how you will accomplish this. 

 The challenge becomes, can you do this?  Can you set aside 15 minutes at the end of each day and think about what you did that day to improve, gain insight from your work and apply this knowledge to your practice the next day? 

I know that you know you can do this.  The question becomes, can you do it consistently and with purpose?  Can you do it so practice takes on a more personal meaning?   Can you challenge yourself to take ownership over your preparation? 

Difficult questions to answer.  It is easier to think about more immediate and pressing issues, like wanting to shoot low scores, being happy when you do and being upset when you don’t.  The irony is, whether you shot an 82 or a 72 yesterday, you still want to shoot a low score today.

Congrats Grads: It’s Now Time for the Ten and Ten

By:  Juplimpton

One of my mentors told me the other day that a Master’s Degree and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee.  When applying this phrase to the practice of Applied Sport Psychology, you could add a Ph.D., Ed.D. and a Psy.D., as well.  A few years ago at an AASP Conference, I stood amongst group of professionals presenting to graduate students about how to succeed in the field.  The unanimous answer was to have a back-up plan.  Of course, I was the only one on stage with no such plan.

We all know by now that the backup plans in the field are some form of licensure as a psychologist/counselor and/or pursuing an academic position.  There are no official studies, but I estimate that 90% of all professionals in the field financially rely more on their everyday job then they do from their private practices.  Which brings me to a talk given at the St. Louis AASP Conference by Dan Gould, Ken Ravizza, Gloria Balague and Charlie Hardy in 2008. 

In this talk to 600 or so students and professional members, each of these four professionals stood on the stage and pronounced how successful their private practices were.  Dan Gould reminded everyone to put 1/3 of your consulting fees away for income taxes and he discussed how he made enough money to pay for his son’s tuition, room and board for that year of college.  Charlie Hardy, Ken and Gloria all furthered this discussion and everyone walked away from the room full of hope that, they too, could be just like the legends on stage and have a successful private practice.

But, what nobody realized, is that each of them already had a stable, consistent form of income in place, which would allow them to financially benefit from any applied work they did on the side.  Ken, Gloria and Dan were all professors and Charlie Hardy was recently retired from teaching.  Standing in the back of the room, I could not help but roll my eyes.  I was coming to the end of my worst financial year since I had graduated in 1998. 

The economic crash killed my business, as disposable income disappeared.  I was struggling to pay the bills, find work and at a crossroad with my private practice.  After a run of ten good years, was it all going to come to a quick and sudden end?  Was I going to have to go out and get a “real” job?  I was on the brink and I knew that my reality did not even match that of Ken, Dan, Gloria and Charlie. 

In sharing these brief stories, I want to convey my belief that our field will never evolve until more professionals dedicate 100% of their efforts in developing and creating employable positions, which will help legitimize and grow the field of Applied Sport Psychology.  We have always compared our profession to that of athletic trainers, physical therapists and strength and conditioning coaches. 

It is clear that over the past twenty years, professionals from these related fields have focused their efforts on working directly with athletes and getting into the trenches.  The science of athletic training is on the verge of re-defining how athletes train (see www.p3.md) and professionals in our field are still squabbling over the now twenty year debate of who is better trained to work with athletes, psychologists or academic professionals.

No matter your training, I argue that too many Sport Psychology professionals treat their applied work as a side venture, something to do after their day job.  They get excited about the “extra” money and their work stays fresh and exciting, because they do little of it, do it on their own terms, and only when the work can fit into their existing work and life structure. 

But what about the professional who has to pay his or her mortgage and bills based solely on their ability to provide such services month after month, year after year?  All at the same time, working with the philosophy of doing our job with integrity, ethics and good business sense, just so we can ultimately work ourselves out of a job.

When applying sport psychology and making the commitment to assisting performers achieve excellence, how can we (as professionals in our field) claim to assist them in this process when most of us cannot and/or will not commit to the same process ourselves?

My training in graduate school could not prepare me for the failures, pain, frustration, let-downs, disappointments and other difficult lessons I have learned over the past 12 years.  I feel like I am a grizzled veteran of trench warfare, as I have had to earn everything I have by doing quality work.  We talk with athletes about learning how to appreciate the struggle, yet we seldom place ourselves in a similar position.  Ninety percent choose to take the safe route and apply to that academic position, become a licensed psychologist or go get a job in the real world, unrelated to their education, training and passion.  

As long as this mentality persists, those who seek to employ Sport Psychology Professionals will continue to view us as part-time professionals. only necessary when “problems” arise.  Generations of graduate students have now entered this field with the dreams and aspirations of working with athletes at the highest levels of sport.  The difference between today’s graduate student and those of past generations, is that today’s student has unrealistic expectations and thinks their education has earned them the right to work at the highest levels of sport, without first paying their dues and truly learning their craft.

10 years, 10,000 is so true…

See, investment builds character.  How much investment are you willing to make in you?  Don’t we ask this to our athletes?  Well, I think it is time that you ask yourself the same question about your career.  How bad do you want it?  What are you willing to do?   What sacrifices are you willing to make?  Regardless of your profession, doesn’t it take commitment, over the long-haul, to make it? 

When I began my work with the Boston Red Sox in 1998, I soon learned that the path of the minor league baseball player was no different than that of graduate students in Sport Psychology.  In professional baseball there is a 93% failure rate.  Only 7% of all individuals who sign a professional baseball contract will ever sniff the major leagues.  I believe the numbers in our field parallel those of baseball, in terms of working at the highest levels…Most likely, the numbers are even worse.

So, go to work, start getting your 10 years and 10,000 hours in.  Work at your craft.  Practice what you preach and commit to yourself and your continual growth and development.  If you don’t, your athletes will see right through you.

USA Swimming Revelations just a tipping point…

 By:  Doug Gardner, Ed.D.

Over the past several years, I have been asked what are the new and upcoming trends in sport and applied sport psychology.  These questions usually come from graduate students or others interested in gaining my insight into the cutting-edge training methods for elite athlete of the future.  I usually counter with something unexpected and rather shocking.

I have said and I will continue to argue that over the next decade, we will hear more and more stories related to sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young athletes, who participated in the explosive period of specialization and professionalization of youth sport, starting in, roughly the early 1990’s.  Specifically, I believe we will hear revelations of these types of abuses ten to twenty years, after-the-fact, when the children and adolescents who have experienced such devastating experiences, are old enough to both come to grips with their experiences and feel safe enough to come forward.

In Northern California alone, there  are well over 5,000 travel sport programs, covering several sports, for players between the ages of 7 to 19.  Many of these sport teams are formed in response to the dumbing down of other youth programs, where competition is replaced with feel good games, where everyone is a winner.  In my opinion, this has given rise to polarization and extremism as to what is the most appropriate venue for youth sport.    Travel teams compete in weekend tournaments where coaches, parents and young players stay in hotels and share much common space and time, especially when considering the year-around nature of youth sport. 

The danger in these travel programs is the lack of rules, governing and licensing bodies and overall oversight over the individual teams and the adults who coach, teach and supervise young athletes.  The revelations discussed in the recent ESPN Outside the Lines investigation about wide-spread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within USA Swimming(http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=5071820, is our warning that this issue is much larger than we know and should serve as a wake-up call to all parents, youth sport organizations, teams, coaches and most importantly, to the young and impressionable children and adolescents who entrust us with their physical, social and psychological well-being. 

As more cases similar to the USA swimming scandal come out into the open, I contend that we will hear more stories of these types of abuses.  I hope that I am wrong about this, but I do believe that the youth sport environment, especially when not regulated, can be a fertile ground for those who have ill intentions with young children and adolescent athletes.   Little League and other national non-profit sport organizations have governing bodies who establish and enforce rules, regulations and educational growth.  

Where are these governing bodies for the thousands of travel programs who bounce from one weekend tournament to the next?  Is there a system in place for background checks, coaching education and other skill-development aspects of sport?  Theoretically, travel programs are supposed to have the best coaches and teachers, but how does the consumer really know about these coaches outside of their working relationship? 

Yet, parents often blindly buy into so-call gurus, at what-ever cost, because their son or daughter may get a scholarship or have a measure of success they deem important.  If I were the parents of one of these USA swimmers, I do not know what I would do.

Something has to be done.  Not just within USA swimming, but in all of youth sport, especially with travel programs who work outside of traditional youth sport systems.   If nothing is done, than youth sport may go the way of the Catholic Church, by continuing to deny the existence of such deep-seeded problems and then crumble under its own weight of this denial.   

At what cost and jeopardy do we place our children, just for the chance of elusive and short-lived victory or success?

Sad Lessons from the Steroid Era

In college I took a class on nuclear disarmament and our professor was an advocate of it. In that class, we had to write one paper for our grade in the course. I argued that disarmament was a noble cause, yet it was an impossibility because the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon would never go away. You can eliminate the bomb, but you cannot eliminate knowledge of how to build one. The professor disagreed with me and I got a C+ on my paper and in the course.

I believe there is a similarity between nuclear disarmament and the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in sport. As I sat there and watched Mark McGwire cry yesterday, I started to think that we are all becoming desensitized to the whole situation. Do you remember when ESPN first began reporting on sport related people getting DUI’s and being caught with illicit drugs in the early 1990’s? I do. Athletes were ridiculed and viewed in a similar fashion as today’s steroid admitters. How terrible it used to be when an athlete got busted driving under the influence, now it is a 10 second story and on to the next one. Even though Gilbert Arenas did a very stupid thing, his conduct is being overshadowed by Mark McGwire today, and then something else tomorrow. We all know how short the public’s memory is…How many more players and how many more admissions will it take until steroid and PED use becomes a 10-second blurb in then news? How long will it take for all of us to be desensitized to illicit PED use in sport?

The sad thing to me is, that I believe, despite all of the wonderful anti-steroid and PED use messages, the young athlete of today views all of this from a very different lens. What is most striking to me about PEDs is that they work. Even though I took graduate level multivariate statistics courses, one does not have to be schooled In Sabermatics to see the glaring discrepancy between the number of homeruns and the distance of them before and after steroid testing. Athletes who used to play 155-162 games a year before drug testing could not play at that pace over the past few years. Just ask Mark McGwire. Hell, I think the banning of Amphetemines had the same impact on the game as did the testing for steroid and other PED use. McGwire discussed his desire to get healthy again and to repair his aging and broken down body. He was able to do this, make millions of dollars in the process, change the complexion of the game of baseball into one of sheer power over skill and took us all on a false and misleading road in the Summer of 1998. To me, there is no difference between anyone in professional baseball associated with steroids and PEDS and the Wall Street executives who defrauded millions of hard working Americans out of their 401k’s and retirement plans, during the recent economic crisis.

Everyone knows that, in the end, it is what the kids think, that matters. I feel terrible in saying what I am about to say, but I believe it to be the truth. I believe that the up-and-coming talented athlete of today is becoming desensitized to all of the illicit PED talk. They see people complain and discuss the moral, ethical and legal implications, yet most of these athletes only receive public scorn and a black eye on their legacy. In about one to two years, most will remember the athletes’ indiscretions, yet they will be placed in their proper historical perspective as time passes and the immediacy of the situation has passed. Roberto Alomar is an excellent example of this, as his not being elected into baseball’s hall of fame had more to do with his spitting in an umpires eye than it did on him as a person or his ability to play the game. Nobody has mentioned this as a reason why Alomar did not make the hall, but I bet this is what held him back one year. And, as soon as Tiger Woods wins another Major, all of his sponsors will come flooding back to him.

Kids do not understand the concept of legacy, as they are too busy being consumed in creating one of their own. What is going to stop a young athlete from attempting to use steroids and other PED’s if nobody will know or test for them? They see athletes, after the fact, admitting to using them, yet they see individuals who also had great athletic careers, made a ton of money and had great experiences. All because they cheated. “Well, they got away with it, why can’t I?” is what I think some kids learn out of this. With greater testing at the higher levels of sport, I am concerned that there will be a trickle-down effect on steroid and PED use, to levels of sport where it is not being tested for. What this means in all sports, is that the risk of athletes using these types of drugs at lower levels and at younger ages can possibly increase because there is little or no testing. The one universal truth in illegal PED use in sport, is that the cheaters are ahead of the testers and cheaters find a way to skirt the system and rules.

The implications of this are tremendous. With all of the anti-steroid advertisements, programs and discussion about the use of PED’s, is the message being lost and drowned out by those who admitted using it to achieve great athletic endeavors? Is their remorse, humanization of the problem and apologies deflecting the real damage done by them? Nobody is erasing Mark McGwire’s records from the record book. Many will look back at the Summer of 1998 with great love and admiration, as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both led us in believing in the Ponzie Scheme called MLB baseball. Their numbers still stand. They are glaringly different than those who came before them and those who are currently hitting a lot of home runs in the big leagues. Will anyone hit over 70 home runs in a year without performance enhancing drugs? I don’t know that, but I just hope some kid out there isn’t plotting the course for that now.


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