Archive for April, 2010

Congrats Grads: Naylor Commentary

In Congratulations Graduates, Doc Kingston did a nice job putting forth some important reminders for young (and old) sport psychology students and professionals.  Continuing on the theme on advice for the journey in applied sport psych, I thought I’d throw out an analogy:

If you want to play in the majors, get ready to journey through the minors.

It is quite hubristic that many sport psych professionals believe because they have a post-graduate degree they are ready to work and should be accepted at the highest levels of sport.  Why should the sport psych professional have the luxury of travelling a different path than big league players and coaches?  “Toiling” in the minors is part of the path towards athletic success, the sport psych professional should expect and embrace a similar route.  Here are a few thoughts that take this analogy a bit further:

  • Sport is not glamorous.  Be ready for smelly locker rooms, foul language, long bus rides, a lack of luxury, and at times a lack of respect.  The journey to the big leagues in all sports takes place in remote destinations that many could argue are the armpits of the world.  This is where sport psych and player development happens.
  • A doctoral degree does not mean you “deserve” X amount of dollars in your paycheck.  Look at the paycheck of a minor league coach.  Look at the paycheck of a minor league player.  They are “essential” pieces of the sporting landscape.  Why does a “luxury” commodity such as sport psych automatically get paid double, triple, or more than those striving in the trenches on a daily basis?  Ultimately, the quality of your work, the depth of your applied experiences, and the quality of the relationships you build determine your paycheck.
  • The process matters, but at the end of the day, results speak volumes.  It is not the most, classy move to post testimonials and is unethical to publicly brag about specific clients with whom you work.  Nonetheless the coaches, organizations, and players with whom you will work will sing praises about your services if results show up on the playing field.  Taking credit for Ws and Ls is inappropriate, but making the outcomes of the work you do tangible to the eye and tangible to the mind will help you move up the prospect list.
  • Love who you are working with today, there is no guarantee about who you will work with tomorrow.  Not all minor leaguers make it to the big show.  That’s o.k.  Similarly, not all (very few) sport psych professionals find substantial work at the highest levels of sport.  Working with the struggling, adolescent athlete is as noble a job as working for the over-paid superstar (it is probably more noble).  If the goal is to work in professional sports, there are easier routes than sport psychology… try sports marketing, sales, or any other administrative job.  In sport psych, as CSN&Y sang, “Love the one your with.”

Success in applied sport psych requires readiness for “minor league” opportunities and challenges.  Ego is a funny thing… it can lead a sport psych person to forget about the reality of those with whom he works and feel a certain sense of professional entitlement.  The minor leagues are where the seeds of great accomplishments are sown.  This rings true for all trying to master their craft and find success at the highest levels.  Beyond checking one’s ego at the door, remember also that a fragile ego does not get one far in this field.  To finish with the analogy for now remember:

If you are playing in the majors… be ready for the occasional demotion to the minors… it’s just part of the game.

Enjoy your journey.


Congratulations Graduate: Now the Hard Part

If I could take a time-machine back in time to meet up with my past-self as I was graduating with my master’s degree in sport psychology – here’s the advice I’d give myself:
Everyone wants to go to “heaven” in this field, no one wants to die. There is a lot of work to do between where you are now in sport psychology and where you want to be in sport psychology someday down the road. If you’re really serious about sport psychology consulting, get into the habit of thinking about sport psychology/mental skills training every day – find ways to write about mental skills training and sport psychology (submit articles to coaching journals/magazines; start a sport psychology blog); offer to speak at coaching symposiums/conferences; attend regional and national sport psychology conferences; speak at local youth camps. Is any of this glamorous of high-profile? Not necessarily. Sound hard? Why yes, yes it is. However, all of these keep you connected to the field but also help you develop your practice/philosophy.
You gotta walk the talk. Everything that is true for enhancing athlete performance is true for consultant performance. We talk about athletes being focused and ready to perform – we too, have to focused and ready to perform when the time comes. To be effective, we have to model what we are teaching – whether that be confidence, concentration, or mental toughness. There will be times when you start a presentation to a group only to have a landscaping crew start leaf-blowing just outside the room where you’re talking. There might be a last-minute change of plan and you might be asked to give a talk to swimmers on the deck of the pool. Athlete can’t fake good thinking when things don’t go as planned and neither can sport psychology professionals. We must live what we teach.

Remember – Word of Mouth is golden. The coaching community in any sport is close-knit and well-connected. Coaches talk to other coaches. Word of your good-work at a camp presentation or with a team during the season will make its way through coaching-circles. Word of your poor or ineffective work will get around too.

Be able to articulate the “What” and the “How” of mental skills training. During my internships in graduate school, I was lucky to be placed with teams and coaches who already understood mental skills training and how it could fit into their daily/monthly training plans. Out in the “real-world” this is simply not the case most of the time. I’ve met a lot of coaches who recognize the importance of the mental side of their sport – they just don’t know how they would fit this into their practice schedule. A big challenge for the young consultant is to articulate to coaches/organizations just how mental training could be incorporated into their training program.

Are you checking-in or checking-out?

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Sport can be a challenge.  Competitive sport can be even more of a challenge!  Individuals who are mentally strong accept this challenge by understanding that mistakes will be made.  They also vow to learn from their mistakes in order to make their future practices and performances even better, instead of allowing these mistakes to continue building, which leads to extreme frustration and ultimately…failure.

The following example is one I have laid out for the golfers I work with on a daily basis, but can easily be applied to any other sport experience (baseball at-bats, hockey shifts, tennis points, etc…).  In order for an individual to learn, there should be a short period of time set aside for awareness and reflection.  After striking a shot, allow for this moment to occur.  Check-in with yourself to learn from both good shots and bad.  What happened?  What caused it?  What should be done to repeat a good one, or what adjustment(s) should be made to improve on a bad one?  The final, and possibly most important aspect of checking-in during competition is acceptance.  Realize that nothing else can be done once the ball leaves the clubface, except learning from the shot and accepting it wherever it lies.

The most effective way to establish this mindset is to make it the main priority before heading out to the course.  Thoughts lead to feelings, and feelings result in action.  By establishing a consistent thought process, consistent actions and results will likely follow.  Become aware of your thoughts by checking-in, before poor habits take over and you find yourself checking-out.

Not Just Sex

Criminal charges or not, Ben Roethlisberger’s off-field behaviors highlight an ugly underbelly of the world of the celebrity, male athlete.  Most have heard the anecdotal reports that men think about sex about every minute.  Also the “raging hormones” of adolescent boys are regularly sited for their inability to focus on a woman’s face when speaking to her.  These things being said, Roethlisberger’s behaviors are not about sex.  Cornering a woman in a public bathroom or aggressively pursuing a hotel employee may look like a sexual desire, but it is clear that they are not loving behaviors nor, at the end of the day, are they “just sex.”

Tiger Wood’s has suggested his sexual escapades were due to entitlement… he may be quite accurate in this reflection.  Two other potential factors were left out: display of power and a supportive cultural/social environment.  These ideas were examined closely in 1999 in, the controversial book, Public Heroes, Private Felons by Jeff Benedict.  Whether one is comfortable or uncomfortable with Benedict’s research, it is valuable… necessary food for thought.  Examining Kobe Bryant’s incident in Colorado a few years back, while now out of the media, it reeks of one person clearly exerting power over another.  Reading the reports of Roethlisberger’s recent nightclub incident one sees a cast of characters and organizations supporting, enabling, and protecting the superstar athlete (the Steelers and NFL seem not pleased with the actions and upcoming weeks will highlight whether they tacitly support or are truly enraged by these events).

An easy justification for these behaviors often is, “Boys will be boys.”  This is a tough one to swallow.  Is this how our local accountants, dentists, doctors, and everyday people act?  Maybe it is “normal” behavior if you a celebrity or powerful person.  This is also tough to swallow.  If you have a daughter would you be comfortable sending her out into a world that operates as Mr. Roethlisberger’s does?  Love sports, support athletes, and cheer for the hometown team.  At the same time however, do not be blinded by the glare of stardom or sport… be part of building a better culture of athletic and personal development.  One that is both safe and savory for all of us and our children.

The Truth About Specialization

Encouraging… pushing a child to specialize in a sport young could lead to amazing athletic achievements.  Practice, practice, and more practice leads to excellence and Ericsson’s research over the years has made this abundantly clear.  The recent New York Times article In Talent, Determination Outweighs Nature and Nurture further reminds us of this reality.  This reminder is a good thing… it highlights the fact that effort trumps talent in the long run.  Searching for someone with sports ability is only the tip of the athletic excellence iceberg.  Good coaching, a supportive social environment, competitive opportunities, and individual effort lead to success at the highest of high levels.

The author of the NYT article wisely points out that this wisdom could encourage adults to push young athletes to specialize early, encouraging rigorous work on the courts and fields in order to achieve great athletic achievements.  The truth is, this approach might develop a great athlete… beyond simply considering the reality that hard work equals success, Law, Côté, and Ericsson found in 2007 that early commitment to deliberate practice is the difference between being an Olympic versus “only” an international level rhythmic gymnasts.  Furthermore, Leisha Strachan, Jean Côté, and Janice Deakin in 2009 found that there were few differences in the learning of the “‘building blocks’ of positive [psychological] development” and enjoyment.  While it might not be politically correct to suggest, maybe encouraging single sport participation from a young age is not such a bad idea…

David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us, did a nice job putting this idea to rest, “I want my kids to aspire to greatness.  I want them to work hard and to have the deep satisfaction of striving. But I don’t want them to have a two-dimensional life.”

Regardless of the potential for athletic greatness through specialization, their are social, emotional, and physical costs that are likely.  Pushing a child to practice and train for one sport opens up a question of values.  What does the family value?  What does the community as a whole value?  How much does the community value the overall physical and social development of the individual.

While a balanced approach to sport may not be the way to develop a super-successful athlete (balanced does develop solid college athletes and more) and although specialization led by exceptionally talent adult leaders may not cause gross damage to positive psychological development, there are clear costs to the youth athlete over-dosing on one sport.  Physically, repetitive use injury is more likely.  Psychologically, exhaustion and burnout are likely.  Socially, there are fewer community connections and integration of sport and family.  Like Shenk suggests, specialization leads to a “two-dimensional” life.

The social-psychological “casualties” of an intense approach to sport are often evident… Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Tiger Woods…  The responsible sports family and community, examines its values regularly.  Do they value the child as both an athlete and a person?  Do they value athletic achievement over athlete wellness?  Other value reflections can be added to this list.  Ultimately, it is true that effort trumps talent on the journey towards excellence.  With this being said, it is also important to remember that there is no one route to athletic excellence, but there are many direct routes to ensuring poor athletic experiences.

Pushing the young athlete towards early efforts and achievements may be tempting, but one must question the ultimate costs and benefits of such behaviors.  Think hard, decide wisely, reflect often.

USA Swimming Revelations just a tipping point…

 By:  Doug Gardner, Ed.D.

Over the past several years, I have been asked what are the new and upcoming trends in sport and applied sport psychology.  These questions usually come from graduate students or others interested in gaining my insight into the cutting-edge training methods for elite athlete of the future.  I usually counter with something unexpected and rather shocking.

I have said and I will continue to argue that over the next decade, we will hear more and more stories related to sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young athletes, who participated in the explosive period of specialization and professionalization of youth sport, starting in, roughly the early 1990’s.  Specifically, I believe we will hear revelations of these types of abuses ten to twenty years, after-the-fact, when the children and adolescents who have experienced such devastating experiences, are old enough to both come to grips with their experiences and feel safe enough to come forward.

In Northern California alone, there  are well over 5,000 travel sport programs, covering several sports, for players between the ages of 7 to 19.  Many of these sport teams are formed in response to the dumbing down of other youth programs, where competition is replaced with feel good games, where everyone is a winner.  In my opinion, this has given rise to polarization and extremism as to what is the most appropriate venue for youth sport.    Travel teams compete in weekend tournaments where coaches, parents and young players stay in hotels and share much common space and time, especially when considering the year-around nature of youth sport. 

The danger in these travel programs is the lack of rules, governing and licensing bodies and overall oversight over the individual teams and the adults who coach, teach and supervise young athletes.  The revelations discussed in the recent ESPN Outside the Lines investigation about wide-spread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within USA Swimming(, is our warning that this issue is much larger than we know and should serve as a wake-up call to all parents, youth sport organizations, teams, coaches and most importantly, to the young and impressionable children and adolescents who entrust us with their physical, social and psychological well-being. 

As more cases similar to the USA swimming scandal come out into the open, I contend that we will hear more stories of these types of abuses.  I hope that I am wrong about this, but I do believe that the youth sport environment, especially when not regulated, can be a fertile ground for those who have ill intentions with young children and adolescent athletes.   Little League and other national non-profit sport organizations have governing bodies who establish and enforce rules, regulations and educational growth.  

Where are these governing bodies for the thousands of travel programs who bounce from one weekend tournament to the next?  Is there a system in place for background checks, coaching education and other skill-development aspects of sport?  Theoretically, travel programs are supposed to have the best coaches and teachers, but how does the consumer really know about these coaches outside of their working relationship? 

Yet, parents often blindly buy into so-call gurus, at what-ever cost, because their son or daughter may get a scholarship or have a measure of success they deem important.  If I were the parents of one of these USA swimmers, I do not know what I would do.

Something has to be done.  Not just within USA swimming, but in all of youth sport, especially with travel programs who work outside of traditional youth sport systems.   If nothing is done, than youth sport may go the way of the Catholic Church, by continuing to deny the existence of such deep-seeded problems and then crumble under its own weight of this denial.   

At what cost and jeopardy do we place our children, just for the chance of elusive and short-lived victory or success?

Great Is About Challenge

In the early 1990’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published Flow (in 2008 republished with a few updates).  It is a worthwhile read that highlights the psychology of optimal performance, creativity, and happiness.  The book has achieved world renown, but it seems like too often the wisdom taken from it is, “Flow is a really cool place to be.  Flow is blissful and wonderful, let’s focus on being there all the time.”  One certainly cannot argue with the idea, but it seems like too often a simple equation that is presented in the book is overlooked: Challenge + Skill = Flow.  When one’s skill set matches the challenge at hand, great performances and experiences can be achieved.

This equation has an important word in it and it is not “flow.”  It is “challenge.”  Too often in discussions of flow (or the “zone” or whatever else you want to call it), the focus ends up on the destination… a happy, high performance state.  It is this focus on the result, rather than the process  (sport psychers reading this, how many times have you heard the last few words in other contexts) that typically holds performers back from actually understanding success at the highest levels.  A true understanding of Flow is not focusing on the wonderful state it can be, but appreciating that embracing challenge is the essential piece of high performance and good living.  Perfect days on the playing field are rare, champions love winning ugly, battling hard, and being challenged.  Consequently enough, the more often challenge is embraced the more likely Flow will be achieved.  The key to success is to forget about flow and love struggle.

How challenge is faced, created, and perceived has direct influence on high performance.  This may be evident in some recent sports stories and journalism:

1.  Failure to Find Challenge = Below Potential Play

In “Federer: My Game Has Issues,” Greg Garber does a nice job surmising about the importance of challenge for Roger Federer’s inspiration on the court.  As it has appeared in “lower” tiered tournaments over the years, Garber commented on Federer’s performance in Key Biscayne:

Even from the beginning, Roger Federer didn’t seem particularly engaged in his match against Tomas Berdych.

What happens when you achieve all your dreams? How do you get up early every day and grind and grind and grind when you’ve already made millions?

This could easily be written as a story about lost motivation, but change the sentence above slightly and it questions where and how Federer finds challenges, “What happens when you no longer feel challenged?  How do you get up every day and grind and grind and grind when there are no challenges left?

Garber makes it clear that Federer gets up for the Grand Slams, a place where he is challenged by champions of the past and his current record of wins.  Federer may be an example of where one’s level is so high that daily competition is not engaging because it is not challenging… been there done that.  A reasonable explanation for seemingly out of character performances.  Can it be combated, “Yes.”  Is it easy to combat, “No.”  (He’s human like us… boredom can be found easily.)

2.  Great Play Is Lost In the Face of Unreasonable Challenge

PGA Tour players play worse when Tiger Woods is part of the field.  This is highlighted in a recent article by Jonah Leher in the Wall Street Journal – The Superstar Effect.  Many of the ideas of the article can be simply summed up in the following line:

Competing against a superstar could make people even more likely to choke.

PGA Tour golfers are phenomenal at what they do (remember the advertising campaign “These Guys are Good”), yet appear to wilt when Tiger Woods walks onto a course.  This seems to contradict everything about great athletes being great because as said earlier, they embrace challenge.  This is where an athlete’s perception of the situation is key.  Leher’s article and the research behind it suggests that Tiger Woods is not a challenge to his fellow competitors.  He is simply a whole other level of play.  When Csikszentmihalyi highlights the importance of challenge, he says that it must be a reasonable challenge, one at or near someone’s skill level.  Some data leads to the hypothesis that many professional golfers see Tiger Woods as being of a skill level all of his own.  Perhaps this is why anxiety is seen more in his supposed peers than the embracing of challenge when he steps between the ropes.

3. Finding Challenge Within Each Day = Greatness

The UConn Women’s basketball team, just simply keeps winning.  Like Federer they had every reason to get bored this past season.  Nonetheless, they kept on cooking, with stumbles being wins that were by less than 20 points.  How could this be… I’d suggest that they looked within for challenge each day.  When your opponents stop pressing you, it’s time to start pressing yourself.  No longer do you look at points or the win-loss column, but rather where could one have been better than ourselves on all ends of the floor.  Ready any of the articles out there, this is certainly how Geno Auriemma views each practice and each game.  It clearly trickled down to his team.

When you are the best you embrace challenge… to stay the best you find the little things within to challenge yourself each and every day.

This has been a rambly examination of Flow theory… yet hopefully one that puts the focus on the importance of loving challenge and finding it each and every day.  Enjoy the days of comfortable flow on the playing field, dig in and live for the days of uncomfortable struggle for they lead to great things.

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