Archive for May, 2010

Risk Management… Good for Performance?

“Risk management” is a principle that spans all sports medicine practices and businesses. It is a necessary concept to protect an athlete and a business. It is necessary to protect one’s butt – we are too often reminded that we live in a litigious society. Does risk management however help performance?

For this discussion, let us step away from business endeavors and legal protection concerns and consider if athletes and teams should take a “risk management” approach to their practices and competitions.  High percentage play leads to greater opportunities for successful outcomes. Conservative play rarely leads to optimal performances. Too often a “risk management” approach during competition leads to the later mindset and low performance as a consequence.

Today, the Tufts University Jumbos lacrosse team defeated Salisbury University’s lacrosse powerhouse to win the division III NCAA national championship.  The Jumbos ended the first quarter with a 6-1 lead.  Their defense played a disciplined (high percentage zone), while their offense attacked, attacked, attacked.  Time of possession was heavily lopsided towards the Jumbos in the first quarter of play and an athletic Salisbury team was held at bay.  In the second period of play Tufts took 14 shots, 3 more than in the first quarter.  They only had one goal to show for this aggressiveness.  Sitting among seasoned lacrosse coaches, I watched them repeatedly cringe when a Jumbo attacked the net only to end up turning the ball over to the vaunted Salisbury offense.  While no one said it out loud at this time, there was little doubt the thought, “Just hold on to the ball and kill the clock,” was an idea that teased everyone.  Manage the risk and you might complete this upset.  At the end of 30 minutes of play, the score sat at 7-4 Tufts.  The athletic Salisbury team looked like it had been awakened.

The third quarter saw one goal from each team, but Salisbury mounted terrific attacks in transition and they looked poised to overtake the NESCAC squad.  The 4th quarter, 15 minutes away from a national title…  Manage risk right?  Jumbos, just don’t turn over the ball and do not allow too many goals against.  Nope… an attacking display like the first quarter occurred with the only difference being far fewer points to show for it.  One could see the Tufts fans (and all others pulling for the squad) squirm in their seats as the Jumbos seemingly refused to kill time when in the offensive zone.  No delay of game flags were thrown and it seemed like the longest time taken without shooting was about a minute and a few seconds.  The Tufts D played great and the offense continued to shoot – something that must have felt quite “risky” after watching Salisbury explode into transition off of turnovers.  Nonetheless, “risk management” did not appear to be an option.  As the clock hit 0:00, Tufts lacrosse found itself the owners of the University’s first team national championship.

One must ask, why not manage risk when the shots were not snapping the back of the net and the opponent seemed primed to take advantage of every turnover?  Because a “risk management” approach does not lead to national championships.  Risk management stems from a fear.  A fear in the “real world” of lawsuits or at very least of close scrutiny of business practices.  In sports, purposefully embracing fear only leads to the infamous “choke.”  On the lacrosse field it leads to less precise cuts, more turnovers, and distracted athletes.  Reckless play is certainly foolish and high percentage play is wise (especially on defense), but extra caution just because it is an “important game” or the “game is on the line” too often leads to low performance and positive outcomes only when luck is on one’s side.

Great athletes and great coaches “risk” making mistakes in order to achieve their potential.  Furthermore, they realize that a good and successful game plan in the first quarter is also quite likely the one to roll with when the game is on the line.  Risk management protects your butt, but hurts your play.  If one is unwilling to risk losing, to risk “looking bad” while giving effort, or to risk learning that an opponent is simply better, athletics might not be the right place to strive.  When the game is on the line, the simplest play or smallest action can feel risky to the athlete.  In order to succeed, these feelings are accepted, but not succumbed to.  The focused and disciplined, but unwavering mind is one that strives successfully at the highest levels.

Congratulations Jumbos.

Intent Trumps Content: Learning the “True” Positive

Vic Braden legendary tennis teacher to the masses heralded in “laugh and win” tennis.  Personally, I’m not much for hit and giggle tennis nor am I a preacher of unreserved, unrelenting, and unreal positivity, but there is something to be said about a good chuckle every now and again.

At this time, rather than focusing on a “positive attitude,” I would like to focus on the idea of laughing at ourselves.  A good laugh at one’s self is often a nice sign of self-awareness and a nice first step towards behavior change.  I will suggest this idea might even shed some light on the quality and impact of self-talk (a.k.a. our internal dialogue).

The coach or sport psych professional that pleads with a player to “be positive” is not terribly wrong, but certainly is not particularly helpful (it’s like a parent asking a teenager to clean his/her room).  To often “true” positivity is misunderstood and the player habituates to the teacher’s pleading, tuning out the message.  Contrary to pop psychology wisdom, there is evidence showing that a bit of pessimism can be beneficial to one’s well-being and blind positivity actually being detrimental.

In competition, I wonder, what’s wrong with a little negative as long as it is followed by a laugh and lightbulb moment.  Surely this could be a slippery slope, as verbal self-abuse is easy to conjure up, seems somewhat cathartic, and too often just leaves one bitter.  However, a mature chuckle to let go of a bad play or bad idea can be of great benefit.  Especially when followed by a bit of learning, refocused attention, and re-harnessed energy this is a true “positive.”

So it is time to consider the positive versus negative nature of self talk.  Just like when engaging in active listening, the focus ought not to be simply on the the content of the language, but rather is intent (and ultimately if its emotion is facilitative or debilitative).

Consider examples of two fictitious golfers:

Golfer A follows making a shot at a “sucker pin” that leaves the ball having rolled down a hill behind the green and into a pond with, “You idiot,” followed by a scowl, a death-grip on the club for the next shot, and is stubbornly aggressive for the next few swings.

Golfer B follows a shot at a “sucker pin” that leaves the ball in a green side bunker with, “You idiot,” followed by a self-effacing smirk and a decision to aim for the center of the green in the future.

Golfer B might have just shaved a stroke or two from the round while golfer A certainly added at least couple.

Many years back, I watched a champions tour tennis player miss a passing shot by a few inches, then heard him shout, “That’s ?+@!#*$ risable!”  The content of the language on this one was close to right (grab a dictionary and track down “risable” if necessary), you can imagine the intent and consequence were a bit off.  It was just frustration, with little learning from the missed shot or mental/emotional preparation for the upcoming point.

Perhaps the real question is, “Can you laugh for real when the pressure is on?”  A smile and light laugh is certainly a good tension breaker and if done with humility will lead to a lot of insight.

In A Quick 9 for the Mind I suggest:

The laughs should be laughs of learning – appreciating the “ah ha” moments and the, “I guess I won’t try that again,” wisdom.

Vic Braden is a smart guy and is likely onto something with his commitment to laughing.  I’ll add that laughing at one’s self with humbleness and a learning attitude is a great performance enhancer.

Committed or Not

My grad school advisor liked to say, “The difference between just being involved with something and being really committed to something is like a ham and eggs breakfast – the hen is involved; the pig is committed.” I was coaching high school soccer at the time, and that saying always struck a cord with me. It always seemed once the season really got going – I had more hens than pigs on my team.

What coach wouldn’t want a team full of committed players? It’s easy to think that our committed players are just born that way – that commitment to something, a dream, a team, a cause – is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Either you got it from the start or you don’t.

I’m not so convinced.

Truly committing to a sport (or any activity) requires self-awareness, tenacity, and choice. It’s a process that’s learned over time. And while it’s not as easy as installing a “Commitment” app into our athletes’ brains – coaches can take steps to create an environment of commitment within their team. This starts with encouraging athletes to remember that commitment is about:

Knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself into. If I go into a store to buy a big ticket item I’d be smart to check the price tag first. What will this cost me? Is this going to be worth it? How much time and effort will it take to maintain? These questions are just as relevant when thinking about commitment to one’s sport. Committed athletes not only anticipate and prepare for the challenges, rewards, and setbacks that go into pursuing athletic dreams – they understand the demands, the cost, the sacrifice needed in such a pursuit. Throughout the season, coaches need to clearly explain to each athlete not only their role on the team, but also the demands and challenges of such a role. This gives each athlete a clear picture of what they’ve signed up for this season.

Keeping it simple “stupid”. Many athletes live with the mentality that they can have it all – that reaching great heights doesn’t have to involve letting some things or interests go temporarily. Simplicity of lifestyle and sacrifice go hand in hand when striving to commit to one’s goals or dreams. While I’m not advocating that coaches encourage athletes to pursue a Spartan existence in and out of their sport – it’s fair to say that athletes can perform at their best when outside distractions are kept at a minimum. Encourage your athletes to anticipate and prepare for possible distractions throughout the season. As a former coach once reminded me, it’s smart to “have a plan, before it hits the fan.”

Remembering rest & recovery. When working hard in training throughout the season, it’s easy to forget the role that quality rest and recovery plays in an athlete’s success. The temptation to always train longer and harder can lead to overtraining, fatigue, and finally injury. At the end a long season, it’s not the best team that wins; it’s often the healthiest team left standing at the end. It seems like obvious advice: the key is to weave rest and recovery time into the fabric of a competitive season. Rejuvenated athletes are more likely to maintain commitment throughout a long season.

Being willing to reexamine & recommit. The act of committing to a pursuit is not like flipping on a light switch – where one act or behavior is all that’s needed by an athlete to be committed. The truth is commitment often waxes and wanes over time. It requires attention and perseverance from time to time. Without the self-awareness to recognize that our commitment is beginning to lag, it’s easy to lose the energy to pursue our goals. Without the will to persevere – it’s easy to give up at the first sign of adversity. On a day-to-day level – encourage athletes to start practice with the question: “what am I committed to today – real effort or mediocrity?” Throughout the course of a season, have athletes check in from time to time – are we still committed to our team goals? If not, what changes need to be made? The answers to these questions keep commitment fresh throughout the season.

Great Expectations?

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Expectations – are they helpful when it comes to performance? Professional golfers often comment after shooting a low round that, “I went out there with no expectations today”. But is this the truth? Did they actually have no expectations set for themselves on a day when their livelihood and millions of dollars were at stake? The following is mindset which many encourage. Don’t fall for it, or what you will come to expect is mediocrity.

Expectations junk

I encourage my athletes to have expectations set for every season, competition and practice session. What these expectations are, and how they are framed, however, tend to have a great influence on an individual’s motivation and performances.

Athletes who maximize their ability set expectations for themselves which are effort-based. For the golfer looking to shoot a solid score, instead of heading out to the course with a number in mind, focus more on a skill or mindset to carry you through the ever-changing competitive landscape. Examples might include – embrace the challenge of every shot, engage in a vivid target to lead every swing, feel little tension in the arms/hands stepping up each ball, or take a deep breath to relax after/between each shot. These types of expectations empower the athlete to take charge of the situation and better manage the chaos involved in highly competitive endeavors. The best performers lean on effort-based expectations to lead them to results with less anxiety, fear and distractions.

The next time you have a meaningful performance on the horizon, set your own great expectations which encourage a mindset of #PlayNowScorekeepLater for greater motivation, engagement and success.

Finding Your Rythm… Literally

Poppa Chubby, B.B. King, Susan Tedeschi, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Walter Trout, Johnny Lang, Tab Benoit, Robben Ford, and Albert Cummings were all on the playlist for my 9-holes of golf.  With my Ipod on, I managed to pick my targets, enjoy a walk, and shoot sub-bogey golf and… it does not appear that I broke any USGA rules:

Rule 14-3

Wearing Headphones or Earplugs During Stipulated Round

A. The Rules of Golf do not prohibit a player from using headphones, provided they do not communicate information on the conditions (such as weather) which are relevant to his play or otherwise assist the player in his play. Please refer to Rule 14-3, Decision 14-3/16 and the penalty statement under Rule 14-3. Additionally, the Rules of Golf do not prohibit a player from using earplugs, provided it does not assist the player in his play – (Rule 14-3). Finally, a prudent player would avoid the appearance of any possible breach of the Rules. The decision on whether a breach has occurred needs to be made by a rules official or other member of a Committee on a case by case basis, taking all of the circumstances into consideration.

Upon discussions with others, we decided that some local rules officials might not be pleased with my playing Ipod golf, but that’s not truly the issue I want to take up.  Was my blues list a performance enhancer, a distraction, or just something that made my 9-hole walk a bit more enjoyable?  Andy Saalfield provided a nice summary of the potential benefits to music on physical performance and health in the November 2008 issue of Athletic Therapy Today (vol 13 issue 6).  The following are a few notes of particular interest in this situation:

  • Music influences relaxation levels
  • Certain rhythms can reduce pain and increase strength
  • Music can improve focus and clarify goals
  • Music can stimulate learning (the” Mozart Effect”)
  • Musical patterns can enhance motor skills

While there are certain benefits to music on athletic performance, not all music is created the same and rhythms should be select wisely and used purposely.  The following are a few initial thoughts that should be considered prior to putting The Eye of the Tiger on loop when striving for a Rocky-like performance:

  1. The rhythm of the music must be somewhat in sync with the rhythm of the physical activity.  Aggressive music will lead to high energy and higher levels of stress.  Mellow music will slow the body.
  2. The music cannot take focus away from the task at hand.  If the lyrics are what makes the music great or singing along comes quite naturally, it is probably the wrong musical selection.  The rhythms of the music seem to be the performance enhancing parts.  They by themselves can aid focus and relaxation.
  3. Individualize.  The one thing that seems to be clear is that there is not a clear recipe for musically enhanced performances.  For some music is a distraction, others it aids focus (consider some of Langer’s research and theories).   Also, while rhythms might be relatively universal, the lyrics and styles that go with each can be a matter of taste.

Perhaps the bottom line, with or without an Ipod, is that rhythm is important for mind, body, and performance.  Finding it regardless of the score, pace of play, or competitive situation is valuable.

The actual wisdom and appropriateness of earphones on a driving range or golf course, I will leave for others to debate…

Kids, Yesterday and Today, and Mental Toughness

My 3 year old daughter has a terrific memory.  “Remember yesterday when we saw the panda at the zoo?”  We saw the panda at the zoo five weeks ago.  “We were on the train yesterday!”  The last time we were on a train was a week and a half ago.  “Hey, remember yesterday when we were at the beach in California?”  We were in California almost a year ago.  “I played on the playground with Ben yesterday.”  They played on the playground two months ago.

She does not forget anything, has vivid memories of everything, and it all happened yesterday.”  This is really cool.  As always I find that children give us great insights into keys for athletic mental toughness.  Imagine the success an athlete can have if he or she compartmentalizes the last play, last game, last season in a place called “yesterday.”  Struggles can be learned from and then let go.  Great achievements can be remembered, but do not distract from today’s performance.

"Yesterday" is Behind Me

An athlete can be incredibly successful by adopting a childlike perspective when the game is on.  Children are fully engaged in the activity in front of them and love to play.  Today… this moment is the most meaningful place to be.  Young children put the past in the past and live in the moment, can you?  Yesterday was great… today it is time to play.

Understanding Research Basics = Great Coaching Practice

It is very rare that one can get sound training in any of the sport sciences without having to take at least one research methods class.  Perhaps it is human nature or some sort of cultural creation, but too often such a class is seen as a requirement to pass rather than a true asset to someone that will work in the “real world” of sports.  Unwittingly, this limits the sport-scientist/coach from truly reaching excellence.  It leads to a poor consumer of science and one that is poor in execution of focused player development plans.  With this in mind, there are 5 basic research ideas that I have found important to quality sport science practice:

1.  Research is not about proving yourself right.

Too often young researchers decided that study findings that contradict a study’s hypothesis are a bad thing.  This is absolutely wrong.  If the study was well designed and well thought out, these findings are valuable.  Open mindedness and healthy skepticism is required when looking at all data.  There are risks to viewing one’s self as “right” too quickly (i.e. imagine implementing a training plan that seems to make sense, but in reality only leads to injured athletes).  Similarly, there are risks to dismissing findings that are not in support of a hypothesis without sufficient thought (i.e. the nuances to the solutions to many of life’s complex questions can lie in the contradictions).

Understanding these concepts extends beyond naïve graduate students, but to the public as a whole.  It was surprising to stumble upon the following quote from Bill James, the Red Sox’s famed sabermatrician, “Random data proves nothing and that it cannot be used as proof of nothingness.  Why?  Because whenever you do a study, if your study completely fails you will get random data.  Therefore, when you get random data, all you may conclude is that your study failed.”  He is getting at something with this quote, but the willingness to suggest a failed study because of unclear data is shortsighted.

Research is about keeping an open mind and gaining information through well regulated examination.

2.  Manipulate only one variable at a time if you want precise understanding of the impacts of coaching interventions.

Coaching approaches and philosophies can change quickly.  There is nothing wrong with this, however if performances dramatically decrease or increase it will be tough to determine what the cause of these costs or benefits were.  Single-subject research design tells that during research only add a single new variable at a time and then watch things for a while.  If the outcome being examined changes in any significant manner, you can say it was most likely due to the variable that you recently added.  Differently if you add two or more variables at a time you are left confused as to what actually led to change in behavior.

This concept can be clearly seen in the coaching of Michael Boyle.  While he might have a bit of a “shock and awe” style to his writing and presentations, his coaching is quite disciplined.  It is always impressive to hear him in his talks about refining the strength and conditioning programs of athletes and how he religiously adheres to the “manipulate one variable at a time” principle.  A sports medicine colleague commented to me the other day, “Heck, if Mike added bananas into an athlete’s diet, he wouldn’t mess with anything else for a few weeks until he determined if the banana eating had any significant impact.”  The question for those working in athletics is, “Can you stay this disciplined when refining your player development programs?”

3.  Establish your “baseline” before you change the game plan.

This concept is closely related to #2.  Human beings (at least Westerners) tend to be an impatient population.  When something does not appear to be going right we push for changing something… anything.  Back to considering single subject research, prior to initiating any interventions have a substantial baseline period.  Highs and lows of behavior may just be artifact early on rather than the “truth.”  Giving actions and performances a fair test of time truly allows someone to see “what is what.”

A good example of this is the baseball player calculating his batting average after the first two games of the season.  It is likely that the average is quite high or quite low at this time – and likely a false measure of the player’s goodness.  After 20 games or so, it would appear that things begin to come into focus.  The batter that begins to make swing changes and panics after the second game certainly lacks 20/20 vision for his current status as a batter.  It takes a bit of time to establish a baseline, but it’s worth it because it creates a true foundation off of which one can be coached and learn.

4.  Appreciate the normal curve.

“Outliers” has become a hot term with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book.  This being said, focusing on them can sometimes get us into a bit of trouble.  Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned early on in my career was from Bob Dallis, currently the Dartmouth College women’s tennis coach.  After I concluded a workshop that went o.k. but seemed to miss a few of the players, Bob pulled me aside and said, “Think about the normal curve when considering how and if you reached a team.”  What he meant by this was that there are likely to be outliers.  A small section of every group will love what you say regardless of what you say.  Conversely there is likely to be a small section of the group that will not appreciate your efforts regardless of how good they are.  The job of a good educator is to make sure to get the middle to attend, learn, and embrace the ideas being shared.  Trying too hard to sway the negative outliers leads to a failure to attend sufficiently to others.  Also, basking in the glow of the positive outliers only build the teacher’s ego and does little for the students.  In a lot of ways, you can measure the quality of your work by the growth of the “normal” athletes in front of you.

5.  Embrace evidence-based practice.

“Evidence-based” is a hot term these days… yet it is an old idea.  If one considers it closely, it simply means being an effective and ethical practitioner of your craft.  Part of such quality practice is having the stomach and patience to read primary research and quality reviews of up to date study in the sport sciences.  Appreciating recent publications in referreed journals can help one refine his craft.  The common criticism of this concept is that such sources are too slow to publish about the current trends in sport science, knowledge moves too fast for them to keep up.  This is a cop out and at times can lead to reckless practice (not to mention a waste of an athlete’s valuable training time).

It is true that sometimes coaches and practitioners “in the trenches” are ahead of the scientists.  This does not mean one should abandon evidence-based practice.  In actuality, the wise practitioner realizes that this is an opportunity to create evidence by being thoughtful, focused, and organized in coaching practices.  Evidence-based is about both learning from quality practice that has preceded and objectively creating evidence off of which to make educated coaching decisions when relevant studies do not seem to exist.  This being said, I have found that too few people give a fair crack at the first step of quality practice:  taking a good look at the literature and understanding the nuances of everything read leads to great practices on and around the playing field.  If you want to be able to build great athletes lay a solid foundation by using scientific evidence.

Did you pay attention in your research methods class?  In many regards it was about making good professional decisions and making athletes great…


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