Archive for February, 2010

I Got This.

The difference between winning and losing was simply belief. You have to be able to get up on the block and say to yourself, ‘I am the best in the world!’ You have to believe it one hundred percent…To break a world record, you have to say, ‘Not only am I the best in the world, but I maybe the very best that has ever been! In fact, I may be the best that will ever live!’ …Now to get your teeth onto that kind of thinking is very difficult to do. In fact, it is near impossible. Very few people can do it.” Duncan Goodhew – Olympic swimmer & gold medal winner

Confidence was the topic in last night’s Psychology of Sport class. I love showing the quote above to students at the start of class. I’m always struck at how students agree with Goodhew’s assessment of confidence while at the same time pointing at his “arrogance”.

Confidence it seems, is socially desirable – who doesn’t wish for more confidence in certain performance situations? – but like my students remind me – not entirely socially acceptable. This is a shame – since we’ve known for a long time now that belief in an ability to be successful at a given task puts the athlete in a position to succeed. Acquiring and/or maintaining confidence isn’t easy – but it can be done! Here are some tips:

Play your “Highlight Reel” in your head – it’s important we take the time to remember the times we’ve been successful at similar tasks. Albert Bandura (the rock-star of confidence or self-efficacy research) found prior performance accomplishments were the most dependable source of confidence
Choose to picture success – in other words, make the choice to picture how you would want to perform instead of worrying about the thing that might go wrong. Worry is a down payment on a debt you might not owe.
That being said, it’s important that you – have a plan before it hits the fan – well before performance, smart athletes anticipate and prepare for adversity. I think many athletes do the equivalent of closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, and wishing nothing bad happens during this performance. Take some time to think about productive ways to mentally and physically respond to the unexpected.
Make the butterflies fly in formation – Too often, athletes interpret pre-games nerves and jitters as signs that they’re nervous or afraid. It’s possible to reinterpret those simple physiological reactions as, “I’m ready” instead of, “I’m nervous”.
Be aware of what you’re thinking – what we think affects how we feel, and how we feel affects how we play. I’ve always liked Ken Ravizza’s description of unproductive thoughts as, “junk food for the mind”. Unproductive thoughts often lead to worry, doubt, fear, and worst, hesitation. The best, more productive self-talk are those thoughts that instruct our actions and direct our focus in the present moment.


2009 Hockey Summit Reflections: Beyond Muscle, Examining The Strength Coach Influence

While attending the 2009 Boston Hockey Summit the name of an important influence in my professional career was mentioned.  Coach Boyle commented that Peter Friesen, strength and conditioning coach for the Carolina Hurricanes, was in town for a game and might be dropping by the conference.  The impact of a strength coach on a sport psychology guy can be unclear at best, but in 2000 Coach Friesen recruited a handful of Carolina players to participate in my dissertation research.  We exchanged only a couple of notes and I doubt Coach Friesen recollects this assistance, but the value of getting access to NHL players for research and helping a doctoral student become a doctor is as they say, “Priceless.”

The research itself examined professional hockey players, who was influential during their professional years, and how much impact these important others had on their performance (Naylor, 2001).  Eight-two different individuals were identified as influences on players from their minor league careers through retirement from the NHL.  Within this social network, it was found that at about the age of 20 players perceive their relationship with their strength and conditioning coaches as important as close friends.  The strength of this influence only increased as one’s career went on, with strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers being viewed as more important than coaches themselves when a player was in their thirties (in most instances the only people of greater importance at this time were wives and children).  The importance of teachings on strength and health were exemplified in a 13 year NHL veteran telling me the key to his longevity was, “Bottles of water and the exercise bike.”  Certainly the increased importance of strength and conditioning professionals can be explained by the need of maintaining an aging body, but if you look closely this is only part of the story.

A lot of personalities and various perspectives were shared at the Boston Hockey Summit, but I suspect the coaches whose athletes made the greatest gains in the weight room and on the ice had one thing in common – close, trusting relationships.  Even the best laid conditioning programming fails to fully benefit athletes if the coach fails to extend beyond the science of programming.  He or she must chose to be a respected and responsive collaborator with the athlete.  In examination of strength-coach athlete relationships, McCormick (2002) found that the benefits of a true working alliance in the gym extended beyond increased strength, speed, and injury prevention… self-efficacy grows.  More specifically, it was found that college athletes that have close, interdependent relationships with their strength coaches have greater confidence in their ability to succeed both on the Olympic platform and on the playing field.

Quality strength and conditioning coaches are important to both their athlete’s physical prowess and mental fortitude.  Furthermore, these impacts appear to only increase as the pro athlete ages.  Thanks Coach Friesen… for setting these findings in motion and helping a young sport psych guy go from “prospect to professional.”  I look forward to the 2010 Summit, while much will be said about the development of strength, speed, flexibility, and the prevention of injuries – I hope between sessions and during casual discussions a dialogue will begin about how great coaches make the science “stick” and build most resilient athletes – both physically and mentally.

Naylor, A.H. (2001). The Developmental Environment of Elite Athletics: An Evolving System. Doctoral dissertation. Boston University.

McCormick, H.C. (2002). Strength Coach-Athlete Relationships and Self-Efficacy. Doctoral dissertation. Boston University.
Information on the 2010 Hockey Summit and Basketball Symposium visit

Self-Monitoring, Human Nature, and Sustained Learning

It is a psychological reality that self monitoring enhances learning and ultimately enhances performance on the playing field. This process of performance improvement is grounded by well set goals and continued through periodic thoughtful reflections. “Thoughtful reflection” can take many forms. It ranges from Curt Shilling’s in depth journaling during and after games throughout his career to regular meetings with sport psychology consultants to debrief and reflect on practices and performances.

Considering all this, one must consider the philosophical “human nature” factor in the embracing of self-monitoring. Is it reasonable to expect the Schilling-esque discipline of regular and repeated note taking of most athletes? The busy collegiate athlete? The occasionally petulant high school competitor? If it is not reasonable and all agree that self reflection leads to better play, the burden of implementing completion of training logs or journals lies on coaches (aren’t they busy enough already?). Furthermore, if this is the case, little personal accountability for performance is developed.

Young and his colleagues recently examined the use of training logs on athlete beliefs and performance (Young et al. (2009). Effects of self-monitoring training logs on behaviors and beliefs of swimmers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 413-428). Swimmers were asked to complete logs in private and away from the swim center. Athletes were found to have increased adherence to at practice training regimes, furthermore intentions to analyze one’s quality of training were increased (a nice sign of personal accountability). There were minimal differences between the group that monitored “targeted training behaviors” and the group that monitored physical responses to training (i.e. sleep, hydration, etc.). Certainly more examination is necessary to learn about the nuances of how the content of training logs influence different training and competitive objectives. Nonetheless, it continues to remain clear that self-monitoring benefits athletes… for a while, at least according to Young and his colleagues.

In this study, benefits appeared to taper off after about 17 days. Perhaps this is where “human nature” or in more scientific terms habituation rears its head. After a certain period of time, the quality and mental effort put into training logs erodes. It becomes mindless rather than the true goal of mindfulness. This is evident to anyone that has had the opportunity to view journals of youth and high school age athletes at sports academies. Too often, over time, the notes on the pages at best are vague comments dashed onto a page with good intention, at worst many blank pages with only the occasional chicken scratch. Self-monitoring often begins with good intention, good education, and quality reflection, but too often fails to fulfill its potential.

Here are a few ideas to] maximize the potential of self-monitoring and make it stick:

1. Coach Involvement – Players should be expected to complete journals on their own, but knowing they will receive feedback on and acknowledgment of their efforts helps motivation and quality. If it is perceived by the athlete that coaches give self-monitoring little importance, the lead will be followed.

2. Monitor with Purpose and Within Reason – There are a million things that an athlete can monitor – goals (technical, tactical, mental, fitness), stress levels, sleep patterns, nutrition, statistics, etc.  Thoughtfulness about each can benefit player development, focus on all could lead to mental paralysis. Just because you can monitor it doesn’t mean you should. The art of the training log is to make it both user friendly and performance-enhancing.  To improve the mental game and move efficiently towards competitive goals, I believe monthly goal-setting/evaluation and regular competition evaluations are reasonable expectations for most athletes. Quality thought is important throughout. Once well embraced practice evals and more can be added, but it is important to set the athlete up for success in the monitoring process.

3. Periodized-Like Approach – Young and his peers saw positive benefits for 17 days. A successful intervention for over 26 days is seen as ideal for sustained behavior change. If we are to suspect some form of habituation can occur while keeping training logs, it is important to change things up periodically. This could be adding a new factor to monitor while removing another every three weeks or so. It could mean switching from monitoring practice behaviors to monitoring competition behaviors regularly. It could also mean appropriately balancing a focus on stats with attention to performance routines. Be creative and purposeful. Consistency of habits is important, but the mind like the body needs periodic changes in stimulation to stay agile, fresh, and focused.

Quality self-assessment leads to athletes that learn quickly and perform at their potential. Creating and sustaining quality self-assessment can be a challenge. Athletes that reach the highest levels and stay there find the necessary motivation and focus. Challenge yourself to create a plan and a culture for sustained athletic self-awareness.

Accountability = Success

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The Oz Principle written by Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman defines accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results”.  The book parallels the story of The Wizard of Oz showing how the characters spent an endless journey looking for someone to help them attain courage, a heart, brains, and the ability to return home.  In the end, however, the characters find that they had these abilities within themselves all along.  In life, an individual can either choose to play “the blame game” and place personal faults on the shoulders of others or live “above the line” and take personal responsibility for both success and failure in their daily life.

The book identifies a few keys to creating and maintaining accountability…

“You invite candid feedback from everyone about your own performance.”  Although it is important to continually self-evaluate, perspective from another individual oftentimes provides the ability to learn about personal strengths and weaknesses.  Having the courage to be evaluated by another person and then putting that information to use is a critical factor in personal success.

“You don’t waste time or energy on things you cannot control or influence.”  Time and energy is a limited resource.  Most things in daily life are outside of one’s control and many others are outside of one’s influence.  The successful individual focuses these limited resources on the few core items that are under his or her control (self) and creates a plan to manage their time and energy on what other items are worth attempting to influence.

“You constantly ask yourself the question, ‘What else can I do to rise above my circumstances and get the results I want?’”  The individual who strives for continuous improvement holds confidence in what they have already attained, but also knows that slight improvement is a possibility.  Minimal improvement each day adds up to significant improvement over a lifetime.

Although The Oz Principle was written and intended for a corporate audience, it can be easily adapted to suit an individual looking to improve performance in any domain.

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