Archive for June, 2010

Greatness is for Losers

Jamie Moyer is baseball’s home run king… he has given up more home runs than any other pitcher in the history of the game (506 and counting).  He has also taken the loss on 201 major league games, given up a 1878 earned runs, and walked 1134 batters.  He is a great pitcher.

To win, you have to be able to accept losing and, with a little luck, learn a little something.  Jamie Moyer also has a World Series champion ring, an All-Star appearance, 25 years of pitching experience in the major leagues, and 267 wins.

The player that can’t take his lumps will struggle to achieve at high levels.  Of course winning is fun and exciting, but losing leads greatness.

PERFECT Nonsense

It’s either shortsightedness or naive embracing of pop-psychology, motivational mumbo jumbo, but there are simply too many people promoting the value of “perfect.” Perfect putting, perfect practice, perfect ___________ (insert your own alliterative example here)… perfect nonsense. “Perfect practice makes perfect,” is a nice sound bite, but misrepresents reality. Perfect is elusive, tough to define, and very rarely necessary.

Yes, we all are enraptured by a pitched perfect game in baseball (yet, even recently we learned that perfect is not exactly perfect ). However, the glamorization of “perfect” is harmful to player development. This is clearly evident when one considers the theoretical foundations of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (see Albert Ellis’s work and writings). Perfectionistic Thinking is rightfully considered irrational and ineffective. It is seen as an obstacle to good living and high performance. Perfectionistic Thinking is something to be modified and minimized… not embraced.

Perhaps the best way to put it into perspective is to consider a quote from Paul Assaiante, Head Squash Coach at Trinity College at team that currently has won 12 consecutive National Championships, “We just ask our players to play about up their potential.”  The key word is “about.” Perfection is neither demanded nor required by perhaps the best collegiate coach in the country. Nonetheless, near perfection is achieved regularly and this lack of perfect mindset has left powerhouses like Harvard, Yale, Rochester, and Princeton on the losing end of many matches.

“Perfect” can lead to nice sound-bites, fun alliteration, and media worthy sporting events, but it rarely leads to high performance. Perfect is fleeting.  Great athletes are consistent in their mental approaches and competitive play. Quality practice, committed efforts, and performances with productive, competitive perspectives are the key to high performance.

Move On.

I had my own “Robert Green Cringe-Worthy-Moment” during my junior year of high school football. In the biggest game of the year, in front of packed stands, against our cross-town rivals, I managed to drop a touchdown pass while all alone in the endzone – went right through my hands. Worst. Drop. Ever.

After the game, I’m pretty sure I blamed the stadium lights for the dropped ball.

Lame.

Robert Green’s cringe-worthy moment came last Saturday against the United States – as he let a shot on goal bounce off his hands and into the goal.

And yet, even with a handy, pre-packaged excuse such as the ball controversy of this World Cup, Robert Green wasn’t having any of it afterwards:

“It is regrettable and not what you want to happen but that’s life and you move on. You hold your head up high and get to work in training. It won’t affect me psychologically. I’m 30, I’m a man, and you have hardships in life and prepare for them.”

Damn straight. There’s something to be learned here about performing, messing up, picking yourself up, and in Green’s words – moving on. “Flush it” has become almost cliché in sport – but just how does an athlete let-go of that really bad performance? I think it involves three steps:

Accept Responsibility. Our ability to effectively respond (or our “response-ability”) starts with taking ownership of our play on any given day. Of course, this is easy to do on great days – a little harder to do when we drop a sure touchdown pass in the endzone. Taking responsibility gives players a clearer perspective from which to decide if there’s something to learn from a bad performance.

Even a shitty mistake can be fertilizer. Sometimes mistakes and bad games happen. But most times – there’s also something to glean from the experience. The best athletes are willing to go back over the experience (even embarrassing mistakes) – just to see if there’s something to learn from it.

Choose a time or action that signifies “moving on”. An athlete once told me their routine after a bad game was to take a 10-minute shower: “I could feel bad for myself when I stepped into the shower,” she told me, “but after 10 minutes – the bad game goes down the drain with the water.” I get it – a nice metaphor. But the real lesson here is to have some concrete action that switches one’s focus from the past performance to the next performance.

Hale’s Right… Fire the Gurus

In the June 2010 Golf Magazine, Hale Irwin, 3 time U.S. Open champion, makes some pointed comments towards some PGA players’ approaches to the game of golf:

Golf Magazine (GM): What’s your take on today’s younger players?

Hale Irwin (HI): I see these kids with a coach and a guru and a guru for the guru.  A whole entourage.  I just don’t get it, and I don’t want to get it.  Young players won’t last long doing things this way.

GM: Why? What are they missing out on?

HI: Who he or she really is.  t’s instinctive.  If I gave you a stick and said, “Go hit that rock,” your swing would be instinct.  But if a guru hand-feeds you the swing, well what happens at crunch time?  You return to instinct-to your marrow, your blood- and your swing is confused.

GM: You once told a reporter, “A sports psychologist doesn’t know what to tell you on the 18th tee.”  If young Hale Irwin had had an entourage- complete with swing coach and nutritionist- would he have won those three U.S. Opens?

HI: Yes

GM: Really?

HI: Absolutely.  Because he would have fired them all the first day.

At risk of costing myself future clients and alienating members of my own profession, I must say that I agree with Irwin.  Firing the gurus may be the best thing a professional athlete can do.  Not because they are not wise in their areas of expertise, but simply because they can inadvertently dis-empower the player and rob him of confidence when it matters.  The best preparation in the world is only as good as the athlete that directs his preparation and makes the knowledge his own.  The official term for this concept is “self-regulation.”  A wise player seeks out consultation and coaching from the best swing coaches and sport scientists he can find, but does not use any as a crutch at the end of the day.

I always find it quite odd when observing the practice area of major golf tournaments.  The sport psychologist wandering up and down the driving range.  He should be behind the ropes and behind the scenes.  The strength coach standing on the putting green.  He should be in the fitness trailer readying players or watching golf on t.v.  I can appreciate a swing coach giving a few small tips at this time.  I must still however question it’s necessity or helpfulness.  Cramming for an exam rarely helps and besides when the ball is play, it is just the caddie and the player problem-solving and competing.

There is a time when a player must let go of the gurus and the gurus need to let go of the player.  Only when this happens does true confidence arise and the greatest achievements are made possible.

I agree with Irwin, beware when a guru “hand-feeds” you a swing, a swing thought, or whatnot, you will only end up with a confused swing.  I do like my job however, so please do not fire the gurus, just use them wisely and be the leader of your development as a player.

For full Hale Irwin interview see Golf Magazine, June 2010, “Hale Irwin: American Idol” pp. 98.

Sport Scientist, Parent, and Potential Idiot

I went to play tennis with my 3-yr old daughter this morning.  The experience went against all of my “mature” adult sensibilities.  The following is a recounting of many of the events that took place during our 45-minute “practice” session:

  • My daughter threw me balls which I was to hit over the net and she was to pick up
  • My daughter stood with her back against the net, stuck her hands out, and asked to have the balls tossed to her (she caught about 25% of them…)
  • My daughter stood with her back against the net, holding the racket with two hands cocked and ready.  Once the tossed ball arrived, she waited for it to stop bouncing and then hit it with her racket.
  • Some time was spent kicking the ball as if we were playing soccer.
  • Some time was spent watching the matches on the court next to us.
  • The session ended with an elaborate game where balls were rolled by her, she got up, ran a little loop, caught up to the balls, and kicked them out a hole in the door.  This was followed by her opening the gate and going to retrieve the ball.  Repeat over and over again.

I made sure she had the developmentally appropriate racket (w/ Dora on it) and tennis balls (yellow and red 36″), yet don’t think I played any game that resembled tennis in my reality.  My wife hopes my daughter will be an un-athletic, bookworm… because I’m a sport scientist and think I know something.  She fears (perhaps rightfully so) that my “expertise” in player development will make me far more foolish that the average sports parent… who himself can be quite ridiculous.

She might be right.  I’m not a fan of the two-handed forehand that I saw today.  I really wish we could have hit the balls over the net rather than at it.  A tennis racket should not be used like a hockey stick (we’ll work on puck next winter).  Yes, the World Cup is all the rage right now, but kicking a tennis ball… come on, you cannot be serious!  Lastly, is it too much to ask for us to keep the ball inside of the court’s fence?

I am not quite sure how, but in spite of my “adult sensibilities” I kept my mouth shut and played the games of a 3 year old.  She ran a lot, laughed a ton, showed creativity that surpasses mine, and wants to go back for more tomorrow.  Maybe  her rules were the right one’s to play by.

I’ll ponder this… her follow-through did look great…

Overtraining: Are You Part of the Problem or the Solution?

Overtraining, overscheduling, overpushing, and all the other “overkills” that face the youth and young adult athlete are a popular topic of public discourse and dismay… but one must truly consider if this “talk is cheap” while the actions of many sports coaches and training professionals  are “speaking louder than words.”  Yes, kids drop out of sport, overuse injuries seem to be more the norm than the exception, and families are spending a small fortune to help little Johnny get ahead.  Little of this is new news (if you want a read piece of the outrage check out Teens Training Too Hard Too Often).

Considering these realities and the public concern, one question must be asked of anyone working in athletics at any level, “Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?”  Too often it seems like poor decisions are made because of money.  Parents and sports coaches trying to save it.  While entrepreneurial coaches are trying to make it.  The reality is that a reasonable investment is usually necessary for athletic health, safety, and performance.  But also, no family ought to feel compelled to “pay in advance” for the potential college scholarship by investing tons and tons of money in any sport.  All this being said, most who work with young and old athletes are caring, passionate, and well intentioned.  Regardless, it is important to look in the mirror from time to time and ask, “Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?”  Some things to be reflected upon are the following:

  • How many months a year of any sport is truly necessary for development and health?
  • When is the e-book, the mini-camp, the website, or the motivational lecture simply a way for someone to make a buck? Worse yet, when is it detrimental the athletes health and wellness because of giving a false sense of sufficient coaching?
  • What is adequate expertise to pass one’s self off as an “expert” in each of the many sports medicine disciplines?
  • When is fancy performance testing or mental profiling only an expensive measure of where one’s at, but provides very little wisdom as “where to go from here” safely and scientifically?
  • When does a coach say, “No,” to coaching or training an athlete despite the parents’ insistence that they want the most and the best for their child? When is the “most” and the “best” not encouraging more and more?
  • At what age should a kid just be a kid and all adults back off to allow one to grow into their athletic potential?

These are a few questions any adult in the sports world should consider regularly… because as is often espoused in the newspaper commentaries, it’s about the athlete’s health, wellness, and enjoyment.

A quick addendum for the consumer of sports coaching and training:

  • Beware if anyone that suggests a child “needs” to do a specific program in order to achieve success. There are many paths to great athletic achievements.
  • Beware of anyone that suggests they themselves can do it all, strength and conditioning, injury prevention, mental training, nutrition, and sports skill training. There is simply too much knowledge in each discipline to truly master them all. A great coach is modest enough to collaborate and make referrals.

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