Still more on Embracing Challenges

In the spirit of exposing a group of high performance junior tennis players to “embraceable” challenges, I recently set up a good-natured exercise to see how they would react to a particular challenge often faced in matches: cheating.

The activity was simple: I asked each member of the group in my session to take 6 shots (with a tennis ball) into a small can from about 12 feet away.  At the end of the activity, the player with the most baskets would win (winning simply meant bragging rights, as there was no material reward attached to this).

However, there was one “actor” in the group.  Seconds before the competition began, I received a fake “phone call” and told everyone I must leave the room, but to begin the game without me.  In my absence, the “actor” was selected to shoot first, and was secretly instructed by me beforehand to cheat.  The actor took 6 shots, but lied to me, in blatant fashion, about how many were actually made once I conveniently re-entered the room moments after the shots were taken.

The actors performed marvelously – that is, there was no giggling or losing character during the act of perjury – and as anticipated, their acting affected the anger levels of many of the shooters next in line.
The temptation is surely for the cheaters – the immoral folk – to take us off our own road.  While we’ve got control of the wheel, in those moments it feels like we don’t.  It feels like our focus, our effort, and our attitude are no longer controllable qualities.

But many players WEREN’T affected by the cheater, and took their own shots with full attention and relaxation.  They stayed on track.  It wasn’t easy for them, not in the least, but as they felt the temptation to sway off their road, they caught themselves.  Their awareness of the anger rising – their own proverbial inner rumble strip – led them to make smart decisions about where to put their attention in that moment (on calming their bodies and minds, and not on the vindictiveness that swelled within them).

The commitment to play our best and give full effort is something that a cheater, or many of life’s other roadblocks, shouldn’t ever influence.  That’s a challenge worth embracing.

Skill + Time = Results

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

It’s quite obvious that player development is based on building skill over time. The more an individual works at something, the more skills are developed. As skills are passionately pursued throughout a significant timeframe, expert performance appears.  Yet, it can be difficult to maintain this perspective on a daily basis – especially around tournament time. As competition nears, other ideas seem to bubble to the surface:

How many points is this tournament worth?   Who is in the field?  What’s the winning score going to be?

Although these thoughts are exciting to consider, they also tend to become a distraction to performance. The more distractions that arise against the player development mindset, the less attention an individual has to focus on the task at hand; and distracted is not a mindset which is synonymous with success.

Throughout training:IMG_20141007_085300583

Golfers don’t practice making birdies, they practice making smooth swings.

Golfers don’t practice shooting 4-under par, they practice staying target focused.

Golfers don’t practice getting recruited by a college or turning pro, they practice patience.

If distracting ideas start taking over (make birdie, shoot 4-under, get recruited) especially around tournament time, unreliable results are likely to follow. Discussions based on short-sighted results breed a mindset linked to distracted performance, frustration, lackluster effort and potential  burnout.

Parents, coaches and athletes who reinforce a player development mindset (Skill + Time = Results) seek long-term growth and build healthy competitors as a result. These individuals see competition as an opportunity to exhibit skills (smooth swings, target focus and patience) and test personal limits. When skills continue to remain a top priority throughout training and competition, consistent results unfold. As individuals consistently take part in dialogue filled with themes of player development, birdies happen, scores drop and barriers continue to be broken.

This post was originally created for & can also be found at

Of Course You Want It… Go Play

Sitting and talking with athletes vying for national team spots, so often I will hear something along the lines of, “I really don’t care if I make the team, because ___________________ .” I get it. Life will go on without a roster spot. There is life after sport. The best student-athletes are capable of being more than just athletes. But… please for performance’s sake… be straight with me.

Really, I get it. If you could care a little less, it would not hurt so bad if it does not work out. If you could care a bit less, standing in judgement of coaches, scouts, and relative strangers may be a bit less stressful. Sorry though… it’s likely you care.

Yup. There is more to you than just being and athlete. The world will keep in spinning if someone decides you do not fit their team plan. But you care and not achieving the ultimate sporting dream would be a bit of a heartbreaker.

It may also work out that you reach the top and that could be pretty cool.

It’s ok to care. The fun and fear of sports are that heartbreak could happen on the next play, game, or season. Accept it. Embrace it. Go play.

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

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