Archive for January, 2010

Assistant Coaches and Studies on Obedience

“Old school” coaches are not a thing of the past.  This is evident from the recent news about coaches behaving badly – Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt – lines were crossed, but these instances only remind us that the “old school” coach is not nearing extinction.  It can even be argued that discipline, high standards, and a little yelling and screaming is o.k. at certain levels of sport.  Leaders come in many shapes and sizes – the strong and proud leader is a cultural icon (“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”).  It would be naive to think that head coaches do not go to great lengths to exert their power and maintain the image of absolute strength.

During a recent dinner with a sport science colleague, our discussion turned to a college coach that was relieved of his duties at the end of the past season. This leader of young men had a fiery personality, quick temper, and rode his players hard.  A good basketball mind, but his approach lost many players over the years and likely cost him his job.  As we discussed this “old school” coach, the conversation turned to assistants.  Let us be clear that head coaches are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make regarding the welfare and development of their players.  Yet, a reasonable thought put on the table was that assistant coaches may have an important role in protecting the “old school” coach from himself (not to mention the players as well).

When “old school” coaching gets out of hand and assistants stand by idly (or even complicitly), classic studies of human obedience come to mind.  In particular, consider Stanley Milgram’s seminal work in the 1960’s and 70’s. Milgram found that study participants would act outside of their moral compass and inflict harm on others when ordered to do so by an authority figure.  Sports coaches whether they be high school, collegiate, or professional have become legendary figures in their communities.  Considering this, one can imagine assistant coaches and other athletic personnel knowing when things are out of hand, but following the leader nonetheless.

Some reasons posited for this thoughtless following of orders are:

  • The assistant coach sees himself as an agent for carrying out the head coach’s wishes, therefore feels no longer responsible for actions.
  • When one is told by an “expert” that something is correct, it likely is, even if it does not appear so.
  • An individual does not feel that he has the expertise to make effective decisions, especially under stress.

Whichever the reason, there are certainly valid psychological causes a to why assistant coaches can fail to speak up when things seem astray.  Whether it be loyalty to the coach, inexperience with tough decisions, or simply the fear of losing one’s job, it is “easy” to “forget” to speak up.  This being said it is a critical skill for an assistant coach to develop and use.

Head coaches ought to be respected, revered, and, even sometimes, feared by young men and women.  However when assistant coaches fear and over-revere, bad decisions can be made, harm can come to athletes, and all suffer.  A coaching “team” is critical for high performance and ethical coaching.  The coaching team must have a leader, but all its members must have a voice.  With this in mind the assistant is not simply a follower, but an independent voice that aids the head coach in navigating the challenges of molding athletes towards success.

From Resolutions To Reality

Most of us at one time or another has made resolutions at the start of a new year. I noticed the gym has been especially crowded the past few weeks with many who have probably set one goal or another to do or lose x, y, z in the coming year.

This got me thinking about the nature of resolutions and difficulty many face when they set out to achieve x, y, or z. Sure enough, starting at the end of January the gym will become less crowded as many of the those people who had started the year with great intentions lose interest/motivation/energy in keeping their New Year’s Resolutions. How do we go from Where-We-Are to Where-We-Want-To-Be?

Matt already addressed effective goal-setting practices in a great post on this blog during December. Reading his post is a good reminder to have specific, measurable, and realistic outcomes in mind. I thought I’d add my 2 cents before my own resolutions become monuments to my good intentions:

Be Reminded of Your Resolutions. Too often, well-meaning individuals practice the “set-it and forget-it” method of making resolutions – that is, many of their plans are easily forgotten once the Holidays end and the new year gets under way. The easiest way to avoid this trap is write your resolutions down and post in places where you’ll be reminded daily. This also helps you retain your focus and keep your resolutions in mind.

Determine Your Commitment Level. Can you imagine walking up to Sir Edmund Hillary after he scaled Mount Everest and asking, “hey, how did you get here?” And he said, “I don’t know, I went for a walk and here I am.” Commitment is the price you’re willing to pay, the sacrifice you’re willing to give, to go where you want to go. This is a reflective process that asks you to balance to “I’d like to do that,” with “I want to do that.”

You Gotta Believe It To Achieve It. So many times we put limitations on ourselves – especially in the face of difficulty. Anybody reading this post could take a 3-foot board, suspend it one foot off the ground, and walk across it blindfolded. There would be absolutely no problem, because we wouldn’t even think of falling off. But if we took that same board, extended it between two skyscrapers two thousand feet in the air, how many of us would even try to walk across. Now, I ask you, why not? It’s the same board, the same width – the only difference is that the board is suspended at a much greater height. It seems the higher the challenge, the more we concentrate on failure rather than success.

Don’t Share Your Resolutions With Just Anybody.  Truth is, our work towards a goal might not always get appreciated by those around us. There will be those who will attempt to discourage us. “Why would you want to do that?” might be the response. Share your resolutions with those people who are going to give you positive and productive support. Another way to build support is to seek the advice of those who have already navigated the journey you’re starting – remember goal attainment and wisdom go hand in hand!

What Makes a Great Teacher… Coach

I enjoy reading The Atlantic on a fairly regular basis. While it is always a mental commitment to work my way through the articles, it is rare that I am left un-rewarded for my efforts. While the magazine is filled with critical commentary on national and international issues of politics, science, and business, I always manage to find some wisdom that applies to sport, exercise, and player development.

I just concluded reading Ripley’s “What Makes a Great Teacher?” Its insights speak to a credible and focused approach to help students fulfill their intellectual potential. As stated early in the article, “The secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication.”  These preconceived notions are part of the foolishness that leaves education (and athletic development) struggling to best serve students (and athletes). Yes, there is an art to great teaching, but behind it is science and clear patterns of effective teaching behaviors. These thoughts certainly extend to the playing field and are ideas that are critical if regional and national player development models are to succeed. To paraphrase from the article – putting it into a sporting context – “The sports organization/team/league, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of the athlete.”

If you have a chance, check out the whole article. In the meantime, the following are a few patterns of behaviors that are evident in great teachers… relayed to you with great coaching in mind:

– Great coaches set big goals for their athletes
– Great coaches perpetually look for ways to improve their effectiveness
– Great coaches encourage students and their families into the developmental process
– Great coaches maintain focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning
– Great coaches plan exhaustively and purposefully – for the next day or the year ahead – by working backward from the desired outcome
– Great coaches work relentlessly, refusing submit to the menaces of budgetary shortfalls and bureaucracy

These are paraphrases of some recent Teach for America research. Look close at the coaches that truly impact youth and develop great athletes, I suspect you’ll see a commitment to the tenets from above.

Cite: Ripley, A. What makes a great teacher?  In The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2010, pp. 58-67.

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.

Taking It From the Range to the Links

The following question was asked on LinkedIn a month or so back:

My big problem is being afraid to trust the new swing I refine at the range when I get out on the course. I often revert to the safe “results oriented” swing. I am stuck at an 7 HDCP and know that this is killing me. I can load the club on the range all day … but get in the center of the fairway 150 yds out, and I panic … and hit the safe knock down / dead hands – safe shot. How do I get over myself and let it fly?

My quick thoughts on this common challenge were the following:

1. Perhaps change your question… it is not “How do I take it from the range to the links?” but rather, “How do I bring the links to the range?” Mix up clubs on the range. Pull a yardage book on the range and use your imagination to play a round. Make practice more relevant to your rounds.

2. You said it yourself… your revert to the “safe ‘results oriented’ swing.” A good shot is one that has a good plan and a solid swing, the “result” is just a by product of this. Commit for a while to judging each swing by your plan and execution. At the end of the round do the math.

3. Lastly, even the wisest golfer needs a little help staying on balanced throughout a round. Make sure your pre-shot routine balances you and focuses you on your target (too often golfers create a bunch of mindless waggles and twitches – make the routine purposeful). Then commit to it regardless of where the ball is landing (it is the anchor that will keep you on track when the waters get rough).

Likely you’ve heard some of these ideas before. They do work and do need a genuine commitment. Laugh a bit at yourself when you stray from them and you’re likely to get back to them.

Have fun with it.

4 Suggestions for Sports Parents…

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

I have spent many years observing sport…actions both on and off the field.  Coaches spend hours training young athletes in the technical, tactical, and mental aspects of sport on a daily basis.  Everyone has witnessed the purity of sport on fields, street corners, and backyards as young people develop their abilities racing around with friends and possibly even family members playing the sport they love.  On the other hand, we rarely see any type of guidance or training offered to parents on how to foster growth and healthy perspective to these young people who work vigorously for days, weeks, and years to develop their passions.  Here are a few suggestions for interested parents to check-in with themselves and gain some supportive coaching for themselves as parents…

1. Maintain a long-term, balanced perspective.  As much as athletes themselves are trained to stay focused and committed to the present moment during competition, parents can provide tremendous support through the gentle balancing act of athletes maintaining a more balanced perspective on their sport and life.  What are your child’s long-term goals with the sport?  Whether they failed (lost game) or succeeded (won game) are they truly progressing toward this long-term vision?  Is your child better after practice or games because they learned something new about their sport or themself…or is it just about winning, losing, or scoring averages?  Physical health plays a large role in this progress as well.  Is your child risking injury by over-training or over-competing because it’s the “big game” or “major recruiting period”?  Would it be more effective and efficient for your child to compete in less events to better prepare before or take more time after to evaluate themself and their performance?  On the other hand, is your child competing enough to gain valuable experience on how to prepare, compete, and evaluate their performances?  A long-term, balanced perspective will not only help your child grow as an athlete, but as a person.

2. With competitive fuel comes fire!  Give your child some time to decompress after a competition.  They are likely still in a competitive (and reactive) state of mind, which does not lend itself to clear and thoughtful discussion.  You likely know your child well enough…you will see it in their eyes or voice when it’s time to check-in and share some thoughts on the competition.

3. Compare self to self.  Many parents are tempted to compare (and share this comparison our loud with) their son/daughter.  As a parent it’s not easy to hear about how much better Johnny’s parents are than y0u…so keep this in mind when comparing their skills as well.  If you can find something in your own child’s performance that has shown improvement, feel free to share…but remember suggestion #2.  If you see something that could use improvement (which also means his/her coach likely saw it as well), decide what will be your single, most important critique.  Make sure it’s the appropriate time and ask some encouraging questions to get some dialogue going.  “What do think about your approach on the defensive side of the ball today?”  Please also remember that if you ask a question…wait for the full answer without comment.  Stay on that one topic and showing that it’s all about self vs. self, by asking something like, “Is there anything you want to work on to improve that aspect of your game?”  The best athletes in the world consistently compare their own performance now against where they came from in the past.  Improvement breeds confidence.  They also measure themselves against where they hope to go and what it will take to get there.  This also breeds confidence.

4. Support the coach.  In some instances, you as the parent will be a part of the decision-making process on who your son/daughter will train with.  If this is the case…do your research and choose wisely!  Do you and the coach share the same ethical standards and long-term developmental ideals for your child?  Once you have done the research and made a decision, you should feel that your child is in good hands.  There will likely be some bumps and bruises along the way, and do your best to handle these one-on-one with the coach by using their expertise to explain the situation.  Whether you get to choose the coach or not, developing a chasm between that coach and your child will do no good for any party involved.  Again, if a conflict arises or something doesn’t seem right…approach the coach and utilize their expertise.  Yelling and backstabbing a coach will only show your child that it’s OK to disrespect figures of authority.  Do you consider it OK to yell at your boss in the middle of a business meeting…because this might be the message your child takes away from the playing field?!!  If something still seems awkward, have an open and fair conversation with your child and decide on a course of action.

Emotion: Regulation Not Control

Upon reading “Seeing Red Might Just Ramp Up Your Game,” I was reminded of some thoughts from Cal Botteril at the first sport psychology conference I ever attended, “Successful performance is about ’emotional management,’ not ’emotional control.'”  This might seem like a subtle play on words, but words can be powerful.  “Control” speaks to confinement rather than allowing the liberated play that emotions can and should afford an athlete.  Many great performances actually occur when one is nearly out of control emotionally and/or physiologically (see catastrophe theory in sport) – the rower, runner, or weightlifter that exerts him or herself until “the blinds almost close” or the basketball, football, or lacrosse player that feels to be playing on the “performance edge.”

The article “Seeing Red” oversimplifies the role of emotion in athletic performance, yet it ought to get one thinking about the complexity and value of emotion during athletic performance.  Energy is needed for explosive and energetic play, yet failing to be able to calm one’s self pre-game and during performance can lead to both physical and mental fatigue.

“Anger” itself is not necessary for good play, but rather the energy, attitude, and focus it brings helps during the many times when aggression in sport is necessary.  Every athlete should learn how to harness the, at times, violent energy needed in many sports.  It often helps for the athlete to find a word that defines what this energy state is to him or her.  This is particularly helpful to the person that finds it difficult to label themselves as “aggressive” or “angry” (This relates to the line in the article – Extroverted study participants were also better at expressing their anger, Dr. Woodman noted, because they may find it easier to show emotion in public.)  These athletes often come to the realization that ideas such as “explosive,” or “dynamic,” can help them find the extra edge.

Conversely, every athlete ought to learn how to calm down when they begin to step over the emotional brink.  A fighter stepping into the ring certainly needs to find the necessary courage and agression to deliver the necessary damage.  At the same time between punches and kicks, one needs to find the good sense to execute a wise game plan and be appropriately patient throughout the battle.

Maybe It’s Not Just Another Game

“It’s just another game.”

That’s usually the advice given to athletes before a big game. It’s a sentiment with good intentions – designed to relax the athlete before the big event.  I can remember telling my players (a few who were wide-eyed and nervous during pre-game) this before a soccer play-off game years ago.

But it wasn’t entirely accurate. While game between the lines might have been the same – I’m sure my players noticed that everything surrounding The Big Game was very different. The build-up to the game had more intense (the first playoff game in a few years for the soccer team). The game crowd was larger (the game had been moved to football stadium at the school). There was more at-stake with the game’s outcome (this was a loser-out game).

This got me thinking about how to help athletes before The Big Game. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts from a sport psychology perspective to consider:

The Don’ts:

Don’t wait until the night before or the morning of the game to think about how you want to play.

Don’t significantly change your physical training routine. More is not necessarily better – overtraining will interfere with your performance.

Don’t get involved in activities, events, or situations that are likely to lead to personal problems/conflicts/drama. This can be emotionally and physically draining. Try to get as much rest as possible.

Don’t get anxious about being anxious. It’s perfectly natural and normal to be nervous (in fact, it’s just your body getting physiologically ready for the game). Remember, it’s ok to be nervous – just don’t lose your nerve!

The Do’s:

Do trust your training and planning – confident athletes they’ve training hard and are prepared for this moment.

Do spend a little time each day leading up to The Big Game thinking and rehearsing how you want to perform in the game. Picture yourself making the play!

Do prepare mentally and physically for anything that might happen during the game. Effective performers have a plan before it hit the fan! Expect the unexpected – surprise can mean trouble if you don’t have a response ready.

Do dress to win. If it works to wear your blue shirt during warm-up, wear it! Superstition or not, if it helps, do it.

Do have fun and enjoy the challenge! This will help create positive energy and keep you relaxed during play.

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