Archive for March, 2010

C.A.R.E. for Adolescent Player Development

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The phrase “kids are not little adults” has been thrown around in coaching and player development circles for many years.  But what does this phrase mean exactly?  What truly differentiates children, from teenagers, from adults?  Why do adolescents behave in such peculiar (and seemingly irresponsible) ways at times?  The answer lies in brain development.  The following piece will highlight the basics and establish guidelines for working effectively with adolescent athletes.

As the brain develops from childhood to adulthood a series of changes take place.  Although we are actually born with the same number of neurons we possess as adults, the way those neurons connect and interact changes dramatically throughout a lifetime.  Brain development starts from the brain stem and works forward to the prefrontal cortex as we develop mentally.  At approximately three years of age the hippocampus matures, allowing us to retain memories for the first time.  Next, the regions of the brain that handle language and motor development mature allowing us to read and build friendships.  The final part of the brain to fully develop and interact with the other regions is the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls executive decisions (planning, judgment, and decisions).  Therefore, a failure in concentration, focus, motivation, and consistent effort from teenagers is directly linked to a completely normal, yet undeveloped brain…not necessarily laziness or stupidity as some people observe.

Coaches who C.A.R.E. for developing adolescent athletes follow guidelines similar to the following…

Consistent – Teenagers actually thrive under consistent guidance and rules, although they sometimes do not show it themselves.  At the beginning of a season or each individual practice, establish fair rules and guidelines that are mutually beneficial for a learning environment.  For example, “When one person speaks others listen”.  Once these rules and guidelines are established, there is no guesswork involved.  Coaches must also maintain the same consistency with applying these rules and guidelines.  If coaches and team leaders do not model the same behavior toward rules and guidelines, do not expect your athletes to abide by them either. Create a short list of your “non-negotiable” rules of behavior as a coach and be sure that these standards are highlighted and maintained on a regular basis by both athletes and staff.  The same is true for skill development.  Establish a few fundamental skills that will serve as building blocks throughout the season and revisit them regularly to establish effective habits.

Action – In general, teenagers also have a shorter attention span than adults.  Therefore, activities that are geared toward learning through movement and mutual discussion allow for natural shifts in attention.  Rather than speaking at an individual or group for extended periods of time, allow for mutual collaboration and movement.  Discussion and action also serves as a great measuring stick for how much the individual actually understands and can apply what is being taught.  When discussion time is needed, be specific and concise with the message.  Once the athletes get back to action, it will become clear if the lesson has been learned.

Reinforce – Reinforcement goes hand-in-hand with consistency of rules, guidelines, and actions. It also includes positive reinforcement.  When an athlete shows mastery (or improvement) of a skill, be specific with feedback to reinforce effective habits at least as often as modification and correction is made.  Do not fudge the truth and praise athletes for ineffective skill development or behavior; critiques are needed too.  However, be aware of how much criticism versus positive reinforcement is being given and celebrate successes together.  Specific and timely reinforcement with equal distribution (favor towards the positive as often as possible) will enhance the learning environment and mutual respect between athlete and coach.

Experiment – The adolescent brain is heavily matured in creativity, but not as much in the consequences of acting upon these creative thoughts.  Common teenage thoughts begin with “What if…” statements, so use these thoughts to your advantage as a coach in the controlled environment of practice.  Teachable moments will arise in abundance!  Allow players to experiment with new techniques and strategies.  When the appropriate series of events unfolds, stop and highlight any lessons learned from the experience.  In this way, consequences will become more directly attributed to the experimental “What if…” statements.  One of the most effective ways to learn is through experimentation and making mistakes.  As long as these experiments and mistakes are made (and framed) as lessons learned, athletes will be less concerned with making mistakes in competition.  Again, effective coaches are consistent in both practice and competition as well.  So if mistakes are made in competition, acknowledge these mistakes as lessons learned for improvement instead of detriments to growth and development.

Every coach and every environment is slightly different.  However, all effective coaches consistently evaluate themselves as much as their athletes.  Those who C.A.R.E. for athlete development respect individual differences and also maintain a healthy and controlled learning environment at the same time.  By understanding some fundamentals of human development coaches can become more effective leaders of player development as a result.  For a more descriptive and scientific view on the subject of adolescent brain development, follow this link to a piece written by Dr. Laurence Steinberg (2005).

http://www.scribd.com/doc/2074118/Cognitive-and-Affective-Development-in-Adolescence-Laurence-Steinberg

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Wasting Time On Mental Imagery

Mental imagery… perhaps the piece of sport psychology that has made the greatest inroads into mainstream society and pop culture.  It’s hard to find an Adam Sandler movie with some entertaining use of visualization… the ultimate likely being his “Happy Place.”

In a different, but equally humorous vein, be sure not to miss Hank Hill’s visit to the sport psychology consultant in the King of the Hill Episode: How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying.  The trip to the sport psych office is great and the line, “Visualization is probably the only legitimate part of what people like myself practice,” reminds us how goofy mental imagery can be.

Mental imagery is popular for better and for worse.

First year graduate students (and beyond), are enamored with the idea of having athletes use visualization in one form of the other to improve performance.  Could this mental skill be useful?  Yes, but too often it is employed without rhyme, reason, or nuance.

Sports coaches can be seen preaching about the value of mental imagery to athletes in preparation for a game.  Do their athletes play better?  Yes, when the coach artfully applies the idea or when the athlete has some natural talent for visualization.  Nonetheless, it is also often avoided by sports coaches as it appears to be warm and fuzzy mumbo jumbo for which they have little time.

“Hypnotherapy” (or mental imagery on steroids) has gained a loyal following.  Is it valuable?  Perhaps – guided hypnosis conducted by a skilled practitioner has been shown to help people lose weight, quit smoking, and build healthy habits.  Its potential for long term behavior change has mixed results.  It is more likely an intervention that requires periodic “tune ups” for the client.  A valuable tool for some, but too often oversold as cure all by its less professional practitioners.

Considering all of the above, I often find mental imagery a skill that too often falls short of its potential and is a waste of time for an athlete.  This is often because there is a lack of understanding of the basic principles and necessities of mental imagery:

1.  Have a purpose – A collegiate hockey player approached me a few years back and told me he was thinking of trying mental imagery.  I told him it sounded like it could be a good idea and asked why might he be using it.  His response, “Because I heard it was helpful.”  Simply engaging in mental imagery does not make a player better – engaging in targeted, purposeful mental imagery does.

2.  Make a commitment – Mental imagery is a skill.  It is not a magic wand (i.e. just give a try and it will work wonders).  I can take a little while to learn effective use of mental imagery.  Yes, some are more gifted daydreamers than others, but most need to be educated on how to develop vivid mental movies, practice doing it, and then put into action again and again.  It is reasonable to expect that it requires a handful of weeks to learn and to make mental imagery “work.”  Mental imagery requires the ability to relax, recall, emotionally engage, and learn… all of these things take time.

3.  Get engaged – The best mental imagery engages the mind, body, and senses.  Simply “thinking” about an upcoming game or a skill you would like to learn has little power, but images that engage the heart and emotions, not only simulate real life, but also lead to solid mental skill development.

These are basic principles that many know, but perhaps out of human nature or simply the desire to play better “now” they are neglected.  When this happens, the athlete is simply “wasting time on mental imagery” or as the prominent sport psychologist Adam Sandler would suggest leads to one’s unhappy place.

With this all being said, I am not convinced that mental imagery is always a good use of an athlete’s time.  Ericsson’s tenent that quality practice is the key to achieving excellence at a skill applies to mental imagery.  “Unquality” use of mental imagery does not move an athlete towards higher performance or high development.  It is a powerful skill, but there are many powerful sport psychology skills for one to embrace.  The key is to learn them well and use them wisely.

I do however think that the principles of mental imagery can be used quite regularly throughout a sport psychology consultant’s practice.  When debriefing after a competition or when helping an athlete recollect other past performances – cuing accurate memories by encouraging the athlete to paint the seen through the variety of senses is powerful.  Similarly, remembering that relaxation should always precede mental imagery, highlights how settling the mind for a moment or two allows one to take in and process most clearly and effectively.  Elaborate imagery scripts many help some, but for many others either simply taking a few moments to engaging in vivid thoughts heightens awareness or consciously allowing a moment or two to clear the mind to take in new information are powerful performance enhancers.

To often, the use of mental imagery is seen as an either or proposition (i.e. “You must see success before a game in order to play well.” or “Lying on my back in a dark room and breathing just creeps me out and is a waste of time.”).  There are simply too many nuances and reasons to use mental imagery to either accept or reject its use outright.  The athlete/sport psychology consultant that considers both the elements of the skill itself and the purposes for which it can be used reaps many benefits.

The Psych of the Fight

Thursday night, March 18th might be fight night in Boston.  The sports radio pundits have been debating it since March 7th whether the Bruins should seek a pound of flesh for Matt Cooke’s brutal hit on Marc Savard.    To some this may seem like a foolish (even childish) debate.  To others an important question centering the unwritten rules of sport and “code” that must be followed.  Regardless, fighting is part of some sports and how athletes learn it’s ways and application ought to be examined.

This issues is one that has particular credence because sport by its nature is aggressive and there are some sports where fighting is regularly accepted.  The art and science of the fight is something that must be learned by athletes in a variety of sports.  This being said, I on occasion have been particularly concerned by young athletes and their approach to fighting.

One clear example of this was a conversation I overheard on the subway between a few middle school boys.  The young men were planning a mixed martial arts fight that was to take place behind their school in about a week.  The “training” that one fighter was planning on committing to and some basic rules of the contest were being discussed.  Overall I was struck by the vividness in which they discussed the violence they expected one young man to exact on the other.  We are certainly in a day and age where mixed martial arts is a legitimate sport.   One with clear rules, regulations, and governing bodies.  Many sport medicine professionals will argue that it is safer than boxing when all is said and done.  This being said, a couple of teenage boys fighting behind a school is not mixed martial arts, it is juvenile delinquency.

In a second example, I am always struck by young men fighting in youth hockey (and at times coaches and parents encouraging it).  It is quite often that I hear about teenage hockey players regularly starting fights during games just for the sake of starting fights.  I have even met players who have found it to be a badge of courage that they have been thrown out of more games than they completed over the course of a season.  Don’t get me wrong, Slap Shot is a great movie, but fighting has no place in youth and/or minor junior hockey.  It’s just boys succumbing to the social pressure of boys… more often it is purposeless and leads to unnecessary scraps, scares, or even concussions.

With all this being said how is one to put this whole fighting thing into perspective.  Perhaps let’s start by making two clear statements:  1. All sports have an aggressive element to them,  2. Purposely striving to injure someone physically or mentally is wrong.  Considering this, how does one learn to be a successful ultimate fighter without striving to harm others?  Keeping this in mind, how can someone strive to the highest levels of hockey without dropping the gloves a time or two?  The answer likely lies in the art of understanding the subtleties of aggression in sport.  Three types of behaviors are typicially seen on the playing field: 1. Assertive behavior – the goal is to act aggressively/achieve one’s goal, but there is no intent to harm an opponent, 2. Instrumental aggression – the goal is to achieve one’s goal, likely harm one’s opponent, but there is no anger involved, 3. Hostile aggression – the goal is to achieve one’s goal, harm one’s opponent, and there is anger involved.  This is not a nice neat continuum of actions, but rather one where some actions are open to interpretation and often exist in a shade of gray.  It is clear however that combat sports and sports that involve combat (i.e. hockey) are filled with instrumental aggression, yet at the highest levels have little respect for hostile aggression – behaviors that strive to permanently harm or damage an opponent.

This may seem like a strange statement when watching a sport like mixed martial arts where blood can flow and violence is brutally inflicted.  Yet, the name of the most prominent clothing manufacture in the sport says it all, “Tapout.”  Knockouts may happen, but great fights end because one combatant “taps out” – in essence is conscious, relatively unbroken, but feeling helpless and unable to continue.  It is quite rare that even during the pre-fight trash talking and bravado do you hear that one fighters goal is to cripple or permanently harm his opponent.  The bread and butter of ultimate fighting is instrumental aggression.  The fighter that drifts into hostile aggression not only has questionable character, but likely will not fight well (see Emotion: Regulation, Not Control).

Now fighting in hockey is a far more delicate subject than in combat sports. In reality, it is not necessary and most games are contested without the gloves ever dropping (the exception may be in the CHL, ECHL, and other lower level professional hockey). This being said, there is a long tradition of dropping the gloves and enforcement of unwritten rules through violence. It can easily be argued that it does have its time and place in major junior hockey, minor league hockey, and the National Hockey League.  Sports philosophers can argue its necessity, and promoters understand that it puts fans in the seats  Perhaps more importantly many hockey purists believe it is necessary for the safety and good of the game – it is too difficult for officials to always protect players, at times the players themselves must fulfill this role. A thoughtful analysis of the nuances of the “rules” of fighting are well documented in The Code by Ross Bernstein. A well thought out read and one that makes it clear that while there are many potent gladiators in the sport, at the end of the day fights are much more instrumental aggression than hostile aggression.  Fighting in hockey is quite a bit about protecting teammates, self, and the character of the game.

Fighting below the elite levels of sport…  unless it’s a tightly controlled boxing ring or closely overseen in a martial arts center is either a sign of emotional immaturity or simple lack of emotional control.  Immaturity and lack of control are a bad combination if one’s ultimate goal is athletic achievement.  Many mixed martial artists and hockey goons are vocal about the fact that fighting is not child’s play.  If it is a path one chooses or a role one must play – wisdom advocates that it should not be undertaken until the athlete is cognitively able to understand purpose of the violent actions.  This in essence reserves the fight for adulthood.  The rules of hockey fit this path with fighting not allowed in college hockey – while the player bodies may be of adult size, speed, and strength, minds are still developing and maturing.  This plan also fits if one considers that many elite mixed martial artists were wrestlers in college prior to adding striking and “more violent” disciplines to their repertoire.  Even when full adulthood has been achieved too often frustration has led to combat at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.  When the age is right, one way to develop the psych of the fight is through the following plan:

1.  Learn and master the skills of your sport.

2.  Learn and master your emotions.

3.  Embrace aggressive play – whether it be beginning a game with good bursts of energy or playing the body well on a clean check.

4. Remaster controlling and managing your emotions and frustrations.

5.  If your sport demands, fight when the fight is right.

6.  Reflect upon your actions.  Were they done for the right reasons?  Where the done with the right intent?  Were they done without anger?

7.  Continue steps 1-6 over and over again.

8.  WHEN IN DOUBT STICK WITH 1-4.

When the time and mind are right the art and the science of the fight can be learned, but there is no rush, quality skill development, tactical knowledge, and mental toughness need to come first.

What happens on the ice on March 18th is soon to be seen.  Let’s just hope any and all actions are appropriately aggressive yet contain thoughtfulness in the midst of an emotional situation.

Genuine Belief and Self-Talk

I just finished reading Herb Benson’s Beyond the Relaxation Response the follow up to his seminal work The Relaxation Response (1974). Although published in 1984, this text provides timeless health and stress management strategies.  Beyond the RR takes Benson’s initial RR approach (meditative breathing paired with a cue word or phrase) and adds the “Faith Factor.”

While Benson cites many potential ways that the words of organized religions or spiritual paths might add some strength to the Relaxation Response, the “Faith Factor” is not necessarily about either.  The “Faith Factor” in my eyes is actually about what is too often missing from the psychological skill of self-talk or cue words – phrases or statements that are both meaningful and believable to the athlete.  As stated by Benson in step 1 of the RR with the Faith Factor: Pick a brief phrase or word that reflects your basic belief system.

The importance of this concept is perhaps best highlighted by the failings of a simple phrase told to athletes regularly, “Be positive.”  Away from the action most athletes agree with the idea of being positive, but when the ball is in play, sport becomes serious business and positive just doesn’t quite feel genuine.  As stated to me a handful of years ago by an Ivy league tennis player, “I know I need to be more positive on the court, but saying things like, ‘You can do it,’ or ‘Don’t worry, you’re a good player,’ just feels so disingenuous.”  Clearly steady dialogue of kind words to herself would not benefit this player, they were outside of her belief system… or not within her “faith factor.”  Certainly negative self-talk was not a benefit to this player, but she had little chance of changing the dialogue to something that was simply unbelieveable to her at the time.  Self-talk has to be both productive language and dialogue that the athlete can comfortably embrace.

Benson’s Relaxation Response clearly has health and wellness benefits.  When he chose to encourage adding the Faith Factor to the meditative phrase its power to truly resonate with a person was greatly enhanced.  This is an important lesson that needs to be incorporated into an athlete’s self-talk.  Phrases and words should be chosen not because they they are positive or the right things to say, but rather because they are both productive to performance and embraceable to the individual.  Learn from the “Faith Factor,” think about the self-talk you chose, making sure it will resonate and be remembered in the heat of competition.

Practice With A Purpose (Part II)

Lack of effort and focus in practice can often bleed athletic dreams dry. To guard against this, athletes must be sure to be physically and mentally present at practice. In sport, we know the opposite of this as “going-through-the-motions”. Many athletes make the mistake of just trying to “get through” practice time to get to the next game or competition. While it’s often not exciting, practice-time is where real improvement and development takes place.  I like to remind athletes that if they’re killing time in practice, it’s not murder – it’s pure suicide!

A couple of suggestions:

Recognize the signs that you’re going through the motions.  Anyone can practice well when they he or she feels like practicing. What happens when you don’t feel like practicing after a long day at school? For a variety of reasons, many athletes waste valuable training time by going through the motions. They’d rather count down the practice time rather than make practice time count. It’s not a bad idea to have athletes scout their practice behavior. This starts with asking – what are the signs that you’ve mentally checked out of practice? What does look like? (In other words – if you were watching a video of your practice, what are the visual signs you’ve checked out?) The earlier an athlete can recognize these signs, the sooner that athlete can take steps to turn it around in practice.

Turning It Around – Give Yourself 5. It’s important to develop ways to break out of the funk of going-through-the-motions in practice. One way is to see how well you can practice – for just 5 minutes.  Pretend that a scout has arrived to watch you for only 5 minutes. The idea is not to go all “NFL Linebacker” on somebody, but to give your best quality, focused effort for five minutes. After five minutes, stop and ask, “what did I do to check back into practice? What did I focus on?” The answers to these questions are important because they’ll tell you what you need to do to get yourself going in practice and in games.

Practice With A Purpose (Part I)

If you’re interested in reaching your goals or in finding out how good you can be in your sports, then you need to get the most out of each practice session. Contrary to popular belief, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. Getting the most out of practice-time means doing things with the same intensity and focus you would use in a game. It’s great when our coaches help us get the most out of practice, but don’t always expect them to do it for you – the quality of your training session is your responsibility.

Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of practice:
Pick a time or action that means “practice has started” for you (before practice actually starts). Decide on a moment – putting on your practice gear, parking your car at the practice field, walking onto the field – that you become focused on your sport and what you want to accomplish at practice. Leave your off-the-field concerns off-the-field – don’t worry, they’ll be waiting for you after practice is over. In the meantime, it’s important to be physically and mentally present at practice and not focused somewhere else.
Have a specific purpose or goal for each practice. This is a big one. You need to know exactly what you’re there to accomplish each day. Don’t go into a training session just to “see what happens.” Ask yourself: “what am I going to do today to get a little bit better than I was yesterday?” Remember to write down you goal for that day on a post-it note and bring it to practice with you.
Evaluate your effort each day after practice. Ask yourself at the end of the day, “how did I do today this practice?” Get specific feedback from a coach on how well you did at working toward your goal that day. This feedback will allow you to work smarter at the next day’s practice session.

Combating Time and Distance Neurosis

Last evening I received the following inquiry from and old friend and thought that the response my entertain some endurance athletes out there.  Enjoy.

The Question:

I was talking with a crew coach a while back and we were discussing timing/watches and performance. I am really into running now and my fastest times (e.g. 5K) are when I do NOT have a watch and do NOT know my mile splits. It seems like when I know my pace I slow down. Now, when I did the Cape Cod marathon last fall I did not know my splits and went out too hard. The crew coach related to me that his girls do better on their erg (rowing machine) tests when they do not know the splits.

Any thoughts reputable sports shrink?

My Thoughts:

I love your “problem.”  I’m a huge believer that times and distance are what drives runners and rowers crazy.  They become neurotic about these things rather than using them as simple guide posts on the road to the final result.  To me, the ultimate runner is one that could walk

Visit 26.2 for Lisa to support the team.

out with sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt and simply run about up to his or her potential.  The runner that can create an internal pace clock is the one that is able to focus on being a runner rather than being a time keeper.  This is a challenging task, only the best of the best have perfected this incredible self-knowledge.  Nonetheless it is something all runners should strive towards.  Becoming split dependent can confine the athlete rather than allow for maximum potential to arise.

Here are my quick thoughts on mental management for endurance sport.  Don’t plan your marathon by splits, but rather by thirds… how would you like to start, how will you manage the middle, and how would you like to finish.  In reality, for marathons, it is usually the middle that needs the most mental management.  The ideas you come up with might not be time-based.  They could simply be about the attitude, technique, or emotion that will be brought to each stage of the race.  Consider things this way – splits are useful, but should not become a restricting focus of any endurance athlete.  Times and distance foci need to be balanced with one’s own internal running barometer.

Supplementary video – Keep the Middle In Mind for Success:


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