Contagious Courage

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by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Courage. Those who have it seem to thrive, endure and consistently separate themselves from the rest of the population in powerful and meaningful ways. It allows individuals to adapt, evolve and continue pursuing fresh, meaningful opportunities – all characteristics of our most inspiring leaders, performers and admired role models. Courage may be the most important attribute for success in today’s ever-changing world. So…is it possible to increase courage? Can courage be maintained and nourished to enhance performance and catapult one’s self to achieve feats once deemed unattainable? The answer to both of these questions is – YES.
While courage can be fostered and maintained throughout a lifetime; it’s not a common nor easy path to endure. There is a reason why few are able to sustain it. We are wired to survive; and playing it safe is a fundamental key to survival. For those looking to do more than just survive, those looking to thrive instead, are encouraged to make a mindful choice to pursue the following guidelines. These keys will maximize one’s trajectory moving forward and provide every opportunity to strengthen courage, enhance confidence and nudge an individual toward leading a more powerful and fulfilling life.

1) Courage begets courage. Yes…it takes a miniscule particle of courage to start an unbridled chain reaction. Start small and momentum will slowly build. Take a minimal calculated risk in an otherwise mundane, everyday activity. Gauge how it makes you feel. If a hint of adrenaline and positive emotion came your way, you might be onto something.

2) Own your emotions. An elevated heart rate, increased perspiration and shaking hands are the tell-tale signs of anxiety. They are also signs of excitement. Believe it or not, you decide how to view your physical sensations. Perception of anxiety causes hesitation, over-thinking and undue delay; while interpreting those same physical cues as excitement leads to eagerness, positive energy and enjoyment. How physical feelings are interpreted dictates emotion…and emotion guides the choice to surge ahead, find another path or abort the mission completely. Courage seems to find a way to nudge forward with purpose, especially in the face of challenge and discomfort.

3) Environment matters. Do those around you tend to be supportive or harsh following setbacks? The human experience causes us to cue off of each other’s energy more than we realize or often care to admit. Environment may actually be the most important key to enhancing or diminishing courage. When those around us possess a mindset which is harsh, critical or inflexible our choices toward future action are negatively affected as well. The opportunity to approach risks, especially appropriate ones, becomes less enjoyable as subtle tension bubbles below the surface. These distractions often appear at critical moments when courage and focus on the task at hand are needed most. The wandering thought of the possible critique and retribution to follow a mistake can magnify a slight bobble into a seemingly tumultuous, career-ending blunder. On the other hand, when those around us encourage stretching limits for growth and see personal experiences as learning opportunities (regardless of the result), confidence and courage are consistently fostered. Those same “critical” moments don’t feel as critical anymore, allowing skills and ability to emerge in abundance, leading to more desired and consistent results.

Courage is a highly desirable and potentially contagious attribute. Take the first step, own your emotions and surround yourself with those who support what you stand for. Courage comes from a willingness to fail from time to time. That willingness is the same thread that leads to consistent, enduring and courageous successes that last a lifetime.

Gold Has a Musty Smell

The spirit of songs from so many legends inhabit the walls of RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. A nondescript building with faded tile floors, walls that could use a fresh coat of paint, and creaky doors is the place of legend. Elvis owned a gold plated Cadillac, but his recording studio of choice had little resemblance to Fort Knox. Dolly Parton rocks the rhinestones, but there is little bling in her Studio B. The Everly Brought some rock and roll to Nashville, but the building where they laid down hits shows little excitement of a a rock and roll lifestyle.

RCA Studio B

Not far from Studio B and Music Row sits the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lots of glitz, a bit of glamour, and many gold records on display. When the lights of the Opry turn on, things sparkle. Rhinestones reflect, artists perform, and the crowd goes wild. Gold records are a lot prettier than the dimly lit cave that is the studio.

Gold Records

The studio and the show are certainly two different worlds. The efforts, excellence, and emotions of the studio are a musician’s sweet spot… where passion and production come together… later to be rewarded on a wall in the hall.

Seems to be a bit like sport. The pomp of big time sport is only the shiny specter of the passion laid out on a dusty baseball diamond, a heat soaked soccer pitch, a poorly maintained tennis court, or a dimly lit rink. It is so easy to notice the gold medals and golden trophies. It is too easy to neglect the effort and excellence laid down in the mustiness.

Performers and athletes blinded by the gold rarely soak in the good stuff provided by a little grime and the stale smells of full engagement in one’s craft.

Are You Willing to Miss?

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

You are walking up the 18th fairway, all-square in a highly anticipated match. Your partner is out of the hole, putting the outcome of the contest squarely on your shoulders. Your spectacular approach shot finishes 4-feet from the cup, leaving a bit of a downhill left-to-right slider to navigate for birdie. Your opponents hole out for a par, meaning this putt can secure the win and bragging rights amongst the group. Your heart starts to race and hands begin to quiver as you realize all eyes are on you.

The big question is, “Are you willing to miss it”?

Your first instinct might be to say “No, I’m not willing to miss…I really want to make this putt”.

Ryder Cup - Day Two Foursomes

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Of course you want to make it, however, take a deeper look at the willing to miss part. If your partner were to utter, “Don’t miss this one”, would that make you feel more confident, secure and ready to put your best stroke on the ball? Probably not! Being UNwilling to miss actually adds unnecessary pressure, tension and acts as a distraction to the performance. It’s not that you want to miss, yet a willingness to do so actually normalizes the situation. It makes the performance a bit more relaxing and frees your body and mind to perform the task assertively, to the best of your ability.

Next time you find yourself in a “clutch” situation and you want your best skills to emerge, be a little more willing to miss and enjoy what unfolds as a result.

 

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 http://www.juniorgolfparents.com/2014/01/29/junior-golf-development-tips/

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.


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