Archive for September, 2010

Looking Back, Thriving Forward

I recently reread Bruce Abernathy’s Coleman Griffith Address to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology from 1997. Abnerathy is a terrific scientist and insightful patriarch in the field of sport psychology. In 1997, he strove to remind the field of the dynamic work of Griffith. He highlighted that father of North American sport psych was not a counselor, kinesiologist, or coach educator… but rather all of the above. Abernathy makes a strong plea to the field to not forget its roots and remain a diverse and dynamic field that is inclusive of many sports performance and psychological fields of study. He advocated for this, not simply for nostalgic reasons, but for the relevancy of the field and to take performance enhancement to the next level.

A month ago at an internal professional development workshop at the BU Athletic Enhancement Center, Coach Lagomarsine shared some highlights from the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s annual conference. Two of the lectures that stood out to him were about training decision making skills, anticipation, and reaction on the playing field. Certainly these are relevant topics to strength coaches and those striving to develop elite athletes. They are also topics that are ones of psychology… sport psychology. Starting with Griffith and continuing through to Abernathy’s work and others like him, sport psychology was at the heart of these discussions. Now too often, sport psychology seems to be on the edge of these discussions that drive sports performance forward.

If this remains the case, player development really is left to be property of other disciplines. This is not what Abernathy espoused over a decade ago and Coleman Griffith many decades before him. Sport psychology is to be at the core of the player development discussion because so much of athletic excellence is not driven by the body, but rather by perception, anticipation, emotion, understanding, memory recall, and purposeful practice planning.

No field has sole ownership of player development, but by forgetting to be diverse and evidence-based experts, sport psychology professionals relinquish their piece of the pie.

No field has sole ownership of player development, but by forgetting to be diverse and evidence-based experts, sport psychology professionals relinquish their piece of the pie. Preparing to be a vibrant part of the player development discussion is not a linear path – it is multi-disciplinary, it requires effortful study, it takes time, and it leaves one in identity-crisis all to often (i.e. Am I Sigmund Freud? Am I Vince Lombardi? Am I Tony Robbins? Am I Stanley Milgram?).

Perhaps the best modern day analogy on this nonlinear skill set is that the sport psychology professional is a psychological mixed martial artist. Like most martial arts athletes, a common code exists for sport psychology practitioners – ethics. Beyond this the varied disciplines of counseling psychology, motor learning, social psychology, organizational behavior, educational psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral medicine all come into play. Like in MMA, the practitioner that leans exclusively on one discipline struggles to find success. The gifted practitioner strives to blend multiple fields of study fluidly together in order to achieve optimal results. With the athlete’s well-being and performance in mind the sport psychology consultant is always striving to strengthen one’s self in one domain or the other.

Abernathy insight’s in 1997 would be equally timely if spoken in a few weeks at the 2010 AASP conference. Merging of fields of study is important for the good of athletes and the good of the field. The world of sport deserves… requires sports performance consultants free of the constraints of a narrow focus of a single discipline.

A little diddy about Practice & Golf

Practice, Practice, Practice

“I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice. Not a game; we’re talking about practice. How silly is that? I know I’m supposed to be there. I know I’m supposed to lead by example. I know that. I know it’s important, but we’re talking about practice. … How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing? They are supposed to be used to playing with me anyway. So my game is going to deteriorate if I don’t practice with those guys?”  –  Allen Iverson, Press Conference after elimination from 2002 NBA Playoffs.

 “Yeah, I’m anxious to come to practice,” a grinning Iverson told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And that let me know that my career is definitely turning for the better.”  “We don’t have time to waste,” Iverson continued. “We’ve got to get it done right now somehow. The concentration level has to be that much higher in all of these practices, getting things taken care of on the court. We’ve just got to adjust faster.”  –  Allen Iverson, after Sixers acquire Chris Webber via trade, Feb 28, 2005.


The most used and least understood word in sport.  We hear it from our first days in pee-wee sports.  Everyone, from our parents, our coaches and teachers tell us that if we practice more we can achieve anything we desire.  I wish it was so easy.

 Practice has both positive and negative meanings for many student-athletes, especially for athletes playing an individual sport such as golf.  This conflict usually stems from grappling with time management and striking a balance between committing to golf, school and your social life. 

In order to get a scholarship for playing golf in college, performance excellence is essential both on the course and in the classroom.  I believe that there is a connection between how one prepares for academic success and how they prepare for athletic performance. 

 This is why I love to watch athletes practice.  Practice tells me everything.  I will watch a frustrated golfer continuously beat balls on the range, dragging one ball onto the mat after another, only to hit each successive shot worse than the one before.  It takes about 8-10 shots before the individual gets frustrated enough to go on “tilt” for a few shots, then they calm down and hit a few nice shots before starting the process all over again.

 Sound familiar?

 We seek answers and everyone around us tells us to practice more.  Practice more?  What does that mean?  While there is a cause and effect between more practice and performance improvements, if this was the only solution, than anyone could pick up a club and eventually compete with Tiger Woods. 

 Have you ever thought about how you practice?  Do you mindlessly hit balls on the range, to the neglect of your putting, your short game and shots inside of 100 yards?  Do you pound your driver or your favorite club at the range, while avoiding the clubs in your bag you need to work on the most?  

 Tough questions to answer, yet I ask them because research indicates that most athletes seek to work on their strengths, while avoiding their weaknesses.  Yet, in the heat of competition, various situations arise which often require your ability to handle the “tool bag” of shots that arise on the course.  It is in these times that mental and physical preparation are revealed

 There are only so many things an athlete can control during competition.  I believe that preparation is the number one thing an athlete can focus on and control.  If you play golf long enough, the really good and really bad days balance themselves out.  In the end, we strive for consistency, yet many golfers focus on consistency in scores instead of consistency in approach.

 Preparation is about self awareness and is self-imposed.  It is not inherently fun.  It must be deliberate.  It must be purposeful.  Preparation is created, crafted and cultivated in the practice environment and the challenge becomes how to translate your preparation to competition.  Sound like fun?

 The comparison I like to make is that of taking a test in school.  I am sure many of you have received a lower grade on a test and you knew that, had you studied, you would have done better.  Studying is not always fun, kind of like practice, and I ask you to consider the similarities between how you prepare for both.

How do you feel when you really study for a test and really know the material?  How much confidence do you have going into and during the test?  In the end, why were you confident?  The answer is somewhat easy and based in common sense:  you were prepared, you were competent and both fostered true confidence in your ability to do well on the test.

The only way I know to truly develop confidence is to first develop competence.  To develop competence, one must be able to accept that improvement and practice are linked together, both in the long and short-term and that change will not come overnight.  This is the hardest concept for most athletes, especially athletes in individual sports, such as golf, to accept. 

It is difficult for many athletes to commit to something that they know will pay benefits to their long-term game because they are so consumed with wanting to put up good scores now and to have immediate feedback and gratification.  But, real change takes time and the number one rule in learning is that learning takes time. 

This is why preparation is ultimately self-imposed.  At some point, many athletes tune out their parents, coaches and others who try and help them reach their goals whenever the word “practice” is uttered.  At some point, it becomes your individual choice to either give yourself the best chance to succeed or remain stuck where you are.

 The average high school golfer understands what they need to do to improve, yet they do not take consistent action.  The above average golfer has embraced practice and works on their physical game consistently.  The excellent golfer has learned how to integrate both the mental and physical into their preparation on a consistent and purposeful basis.

Take fifteen minutes, grab a piece of paper and a pen and apply the following questions to your golf game:

 1.  Identify your strengths and weaknesses in the following three areas:

            a.  Your physical conditioning.

           b.  The fundamentals of your golf swing.

            c.  Your mental game.

 2.  Based on this information, plan out activities you can do during one day of practice to do something productive in each of these three areas. 

3.  Set aside a time to work on 1-3 areas of your game that need improvement. 

 4.  At the end of this day, take 15 minutes to write down your experiences and insight gained through working on both strengths and weaknesses in practice.

 5.  Based on this insight, identify 1-3 things you want to work on the next day in practice and figure out how you will accomplish this. 

 The challenge becomes, can you do this?  Can you set aside 15 minutes at the end of each day and think about what you did that day to improve, gain insight from your work and apply this knowledge to your practice the next day? 

I know that you know you can do this.  The question becomes, can you do it consistently and with purpose?  Can you do it so practice takes on a more personal meaning?   Can you challenge yourself to take ownership over your preparation? 

Difficult questions to answer.  It is easier to think about more immediate and pressing issues, like wanting to shoot low scores, being happy when you do and being upset when you don’t.  The irony is, whether you shot an 82 or a 72 yesterday, you still want to shoot a low score today.

Injuries and Comebacks

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Injuries.  They are a part of every athlete’s life.  Most of us can do our jobs and perform them equally as well with a jammed thumb, pulled quadriceps, or sprained ankle.   An athlete, however, requires a fully functioning body to perform to his or her potential on the field every day.  For this reason the subject of injuries cannot be taken lightly in the world of athletes, especially in the development of young athletes.  At the professional level (see illustration above) athletes are questioned for resting or being a wimp when sitting out with an injury.  On the other hand, they can also can be viewed as foolish or headstrong for playing when they are injured.  It’s a lose-lose situation.  Hopefully when it comes to developing young athletes, the decision becomes a bit easier.  Protect the potential and future career of athletes above winning a youth championship now.  Utilize the appropriate resources available to decide when it’s time to rest and when it’s time to play.  Medical doctors and athletic trainers are a part of sport culture for this exact reason.  Junior coaches, league officials, and parents hold a tremendous responsibility for ensuring the safety and well-being of their athletes.  When it comes to injuries and comebacks maintain long-term perspective for developing an athlete’s life both on and off the field.

When Things Are Goin’ Good

When one is feeling good, it’s time to sport psych it. If not, the athlete is like the engineer that fails to monitor speed and to be vigilant of traffic signals. He runs the train off the tracks sooner than later.

A young man walked into my office prior to joining the Harvard tennis team, looked at me, and said, “I’m good mentally, I just want to get even stronger.” On the surface, it sounds like a great athlete to work with. One problem… there was no problem. In a lot of ways an athlete with a problem is easier, it gives a sport psycher something to “fix.” Nonetheless, the “problem-free” athlete is right for sport psych. Athletes don’t show up regularly in the gym because they have weakness. They show up because they want to take their strength, speed, and athleticism to the next level. The athlete that is going good should sport psych because they want to keep it rolling… or, better yet, find their next level.

It’s about maintenance. When feeling and playing well an athlete can (rightfully) feel quite content. Perhaps he fears tinkering with what is working may take away from the good run. This is superstitious foolishness. If challenging one’s self physically and mentally led to confident and fluid play, what sense does it make to stop engaging in reflection and the nurturing of self-awareness?

Certainly mental conditioning is met with open arms when things are tough and it is time to get out of a rut. Equally important is mental refinement when things appear on track. Sport can be sneaky. Surprises can arise even during the most benign moments of practice and competition. A personal gut check and some mind maintenance assures confidence with deep roots and regular high performance.

Forget IM… Fight to Win?

In MMA: strikers love to strike, wrestlers love to wrestle, and jiu jitsu black belts like to finish.  Loving what you do… intrinsic motivation (IM) is important for enjoyment of and success in sport.  Strikers probably would rather not lie around on the ground like a wrestler.  Wrestlers probably would rather not get hit in the face to win a bout.  One could even argue that masters in one martial arts domain really does not truly enjoy fighting in another style.

This being said, if you want to win an MMA match you may have to compete in a discipline not of your liking.  And as is said in competitive sport, “You play to win the game.”  Due to the diverse skill set required by the sport, it may be necessary to do things that are not personally, inherently enjoyable in order to succeed.  IM may need to be abandoned for success?  This seems quite paradoxical and even contrary to decades (centuries) of wise psychological wisdom.

This being said, to truly master any of the many martial art disciplines, hours of intensive study is required.  It is common knowledge that to engage in such practice the extrinsic reward must be ridiculously large (it is rare anything reaches “ridiculously large”) or one must have IM for the activity and practice of it.  Winning can be motivating, but in a sport like MMA when contests can be many months, even years apart, a genuine motivation to practice and learn has to be strong.  In this lies the rub:

To have IM or not to have IM that is the question?

The answer is quite simple… have IM.  Whether it is natural or developed it is necessary.  It is very difficult to achieve great things and sustain these successes without IM.  And it goes without saying, these successes will ultimately be unfulfilling.

When considering MMA perhaps this answer actually lies in the beauty of the sport (yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder on this one).  “Mixed” is a key word.  It is not boxing, it is not wrestling, etc.  A true mixed martial artist needs to love the sport and the training for the whole sport rather than viewing it as separate disciplines that simply happen in the octagon together.  Just as a great hockey player embraces playing in the offensive zone, neutral zone, and defensive zone (for it is all hockey), the successful MMA fighter embraces the entire sport rather picking and choosing certain parts of the game for passionate focus.

In every sport there are certain activities that are less fun than others.  That’s o.k., IM is not simply about frivolous fun.  Fulfillment can be found in many rigorous activities of sport.  With practice and perspective, an athlete can find IM quite often.  Regardless of the discipline or the task a competitor can harness…A love of learning.  A love of growth.  A love of challenge.

Quite simply…Can you learn to love it?

A Failure in Contextual Intelligence

I was at the fights in Boston on Saturday night (8/28/10).  I had the pleasure of sitting next to a father of two girls (ages 5 and 4), 20+ year vet of a rural police force, husband of a middle school teacher, and MMA/UFC fan.  He had been following the sport for many years now, appreciated the athleticism of the combatants, and was just simply a good guy.  After the first few fights had concluded he asked me what I did for work.  I told him that I worked in sport psychology.  From looking at his reaction to my answer you would have thought I told him I was from Mars.  He had not heard of sport psychology, nor had any sense that there was a role for sport psych in the UFC.

This same week, it was brought to my attention that a “sport psychologist” was featured on a reality television show.  The role of the sport psychology professional was to interview potential mates for an athlete and share conclusions with the employer.

You cannot be serious! (My small tribute to Mac during this year’s Open).  A thoughtful, passionate sports fan has no idea that sport psychology exists.  The reality television show consumer believes that sport psychology professionals should be used like  I’m thinking that it is better that the former spectator appreciates the field rather than the later.  Yet this does not appear to be the case.

One really has to wonder if this is a gross failure of a field to have a reasonable level of contextual intelligence.  The science of sport and exercise psychology is better than ever.  The expectations of a competent sport psychology practitioner are solid (in particular, see the AAASP doctoral level certification requirements –  Yet, the field seems to not understand how to relate to and educate its core consumers – coaches, athletes, and those deeply engaged in sport.  Rather than relating to these constituents, cheep laughs and publicity are sought out with reality t.v., Oprah, and weak soundbites for news stories.  Sport psychology is too often seen as a punchline rather than credible performance enhancer.

In the grand scheme of things, this has minimal influence on me.  I’m a grizzled vet by applied sport psychology standards (1st research study done 18 years ago, almost 15 years of applied practice, and a decade post-doctorate).  Yet I still find myself very anxious and frustrated when these failures of a field to grow efficiently show themselves so clearly.  I feel this because I talk to students and recent graduates on an almost daily basis and there seem to be no more opportunities in the field than when I started well over a decade ago.

Yesterday I had two discussions with young professionals who can be tremendous practitioners of sport psychology.  One is in the midst of his doctoral studies and wrestling daily with how to best train himself.  While asking questions, days pass where he is not reading journals, working with athletes, or engaging in sport psychology.  The field has frustrated him to inactivity at times.  The other is already a success in the field.  A master’s level practitioner that sees 5-10 hours of individual athletes a week (maybe not enough for an affluent lifestyle, but more than most practitioners in this field).  He is also engaged daily in a sports medicine clinic and its activities.  Both of these young gentlemen asked me, “Is it possible to make a living in sport psychology outside of academia?”

A very reasonable question.  I hesitate at an answer.  This field has been very good to me and I enjoy the work I do.  But this required an early and focused start, many years of athlete’s hours (nights and weekends), and a wife that gets my passion and shows great patience.  All this being said, the field has grown slowly and too often those in it fail to truly understand the realities of competitive athletes and coaches (lack of “cultural intelligence”?).  I want to tell the young professionals that sport psychology is a tremendous and lucrative career for all.  I’m not sure if that is a fair answer to give.  Heck the passionate sports father has no idea that we exist.

All this being said, I have not given up.  There are too many good coaches out there and too many athletes that are ready to work on their mental game.  Sure a lot of strides need to be made by the field as a whole to elucidate things and educate others, but the optimist in me believes it will be happen.  Many in my era of professionals have been frustrated, but many still continue to persurvere  and believe that athlete and coaches want us… maybe even need us.

This optimism aside, the field needs to do a better job thinking about who we truly want to serve and support.  Consider their needs and their reality.  And extend beyond striving for pop culture popularity, rather searching to be respected and accepted in the trenches where sport is played and passionately anaylzed.

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