Archive for October, 2010

Words of a Great Competitor

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

C.J. Wilson will play a major role as a starting pitcher in the World Series for the Texas Rangers.  I didn’t know much about this guy or truly watch him pitch until the ALCS against the Yankees.  It wasn’t so much of what he did, but what he said that truly caught my attention.  The following are a few excerpts from an interview Wilson did before Game 1 of the ALCS, a game in which he pitched well, but the bullpen was unable to close…

“My whole life, I never drank, I never used drugs or anything like that. I know that I have not done anything other than work hard and read a lot of books to get where I’m at.”

He clearly makes baseball his priority.  Wilson made a decision from a young age to develop his talent rather than take it for granted.  He even reads…how often do we hear about athletes who read and search for resources to make them better as people and athletes? 

When asked about the influence Cliff Lee has had on him this year…

“Cliff has been great. The thing with Cliff is that he keeps his process the same, no matter what is going on around him. And that’s something that, as I’ve gotten more comfortable in my role as a starting pitcher, I’ve had to thicken those walls in my bubble to keep everything else out and stay in my little zone, and stay with what is making me successful. And that’s the thing he and I talk about all the time.”

C.J. Wilson focuses on and evaluates his process along with his results.  He’s worked to “thicken those walls in my bubble” to make himself ready to compete pitch after pitch on the mound.  He knows most things in the game are outside of his control, so he has tried to make a habit of managing himself from head to toe, knowing that is all he is capable of doing.

“When you’re a little kid and you’re in your backyard, you’re taking … dry swings or pretending that when you’re in the mirror … that you’re somebody or whatever, you put yourself in this position,” Wilson said. “You put yourself in Game 1, Game 7, Championship Series, World Series, stuff like that. That’s what you work for. Every mile I’ve run, my entire life, and every little tubing exercise and sinker I’ve thrown playing catch, is everything I’ve done to get to this point.”

Purposeful practice.  From the time he was a kid, Wilson was engaging in fun, yet purposeful practice…watching himself in the mirror and imagining himself on the biggest stage.  Potentially boring and repetitive activities such as running, tube exercises, and practice pitches…he has added purpose to all of those moments in knowing that every action he makes will prepare him for the moments he is about to face in front of millions of people.


When asked about facing C.C. Sabathia in Game 1 of the ALCS…

“Yeah, his uniform is much bigger than mine and his feet are much larger than mine, but I’m not trying to fill his shoes.”

Quite possibly the most important message for all athletes to keep in mind is stated here.  Compare yourself to yourself.  There are many other pitchers in the game who are more well-known, get a bigger paycheck, and receive more attention than C.J. Wilson; yet he knows that all he is capable of doing is going out to throw the best game HE can every night.  Our eyes are on the outside of our heads, so it is simply human nature to spend every moment of our lives seeing what everyone else is doing.  It becomes easy to get wrapped up in that and focus too much on others.  The best athletes learn to focus on their own training, preparation, and role to play.  From there they attempt to execute their own plan to the best of their ability against the competition…whoever that might be.


I will certainly be watching the World Series and the performance of C.J. Wilson.  At this point, I know he understands the theory behind being a great competitor.  Now I look forward to seeing if he can put the theory into action.


On Celebrating

While watching my beloved Phillies celebrate their victory over the Reds in the divisional series all I could think was…. really?!  Goggles, champagne, and a plastic tarp covered clubhouse for winning the divisional series?  It isn’t exactly the World Series, but they seemed to act it.  It kind of seemed like a bit of an over-celebration and waste of perfectly good champagne.

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated an anniversary for which they don’t make Hallmark cards.  It was a modest affair, but filled with much joy and it certainly created memories that would last a lifetime.  Perhaps celebrations should not be limited to the World Series?

A handful of years ago I heard Ralph Vernacchia share how he ended a series of adult mental skills classes with a cake and “graduation ceremony.”  Sure seems like a lot of hub-bub over some adults that might have learned a bit more about how to be a bit more positive in the face of adversity.  Yet, Dr. Vernacchia took a moment to highlight how a cake and a ceremony is important to acknowledge one’s efforts, further instill lessons into memory, and to signify a transition onto the next challenge.  Celebrations can be expressions of joy, but they can also be much more.

It ought to leave you wondering if enough time is taken to celebrate the little things in sports.  The things that seem a bit ho-hum.  Quite simply, celebrating when things are as they should be.  Plenty of time is taken filling one’s self full of consternation over mistakes in practice or competition.  Coaches can be fervent teachers, critiquing minutia here and the mental errors there.  Yet, is equal effort or emotion spent on celebrating execution of “the basics.”  The foundations of success happen quite often… do we celebrate them or take them for granted?

When the youth hockey player makes the simple tape to tape pass, is a moment taken to acknowledge it?  When the shortstop fields the ball cleanly and fires it crisply to first base, does a thought of “nice work” drift into one’s head?  When the rower drops the oar cleanly into the water, does a burst of pride arise?  Is the ordinary athletic achievement celebrated as much as the minor mistake is criticized?

Is the ordinary athletic achievement celebrated as much as the minor mistake is criticized?

Champagne and goggles aren’t necessary.  Just a little acknowledgment every now and then goes a long way towards building positive memories and harnessing empowering emotions… things that are useful to draw upon when the competition is heated.


Despite a series of disciplined at bats and hard hit balls, when the hits don’t fall over the course of a few games it gets labeled a “slump.” While the effort is there, when the puck simply doesn’t bounce right and the points don’t add up it gets labeled a “slump.” After a few losses despite the quality of the opponents, the label “slump” rears its head.

Once the label hits the real slumping often begins. Failure to achieve desired outcomes over time in common parlance is “slumping.” Too often this classification leads to the heavy duty focus on outcomes. Once the focus becomes needing a hit, hoping for a win, or wishing for a goal… stepping out a slump becomes more based on luck rather than skill.

Un-slumping requires an athlete to have the discipline to trust the process of playing and to commit to quality efforts and attitudes. The label slump is about the scoreboard… therefore it drifts the mind towards the outcomes of sport rather than the playing of sport (i.e. picking a target, committing to a good game plan, finding a feel, etc.). Avoid getting put mentally off-balance by a label. Don’t let it define the direction of focus. Focus on being a player, not a scorekeeper or statistician.

The Psych of Match Play

The following is an excerpt from the second chapter in A Quick 9 for the Mind: Stroke Saving Psychology and Philosophy.  As it’s Ryder Cup time, the reflections on match play golf that it includes seem timely.  Enjoy.


Standing on the 18th tee about one stroke off of the cut line of a regional U.S. Open qualifier a top amateur player decided a little extra energy and additional focus ought to be put into the next few shots. He teed up the ball, stared down the fairway, picked a target, and aggressively attacked the par four. He had spent the afternoon 19 battling breezes and a steady mist, hitting most fairways, and making good decisions.  Coming down the back nine he was hovering around 70 a solid score under challenging conditions. The tee shot on eighteen was hit well – clearly it would outdistance his typical drives. Good distance with a slight draw. It landed about five yards beyond his standard drive on a small embankment which kicked the ball into a water hazard.

This golfer sat in my office and shared this story with me. He shared it because it was not a unique story (the only unique part of it was that it was on the final hole of a U.S. Open qualifier and the consequences of the swing were particularly disappointing). During the final few holes of stroke play, he often tried to increase his intensity level a bit to close things out strong. Upon reflection he found no great benefit to this approach and typically no great detriment.  From listening it appeared that he felt it necessary because one was supposed to take the closing holes of a round “more seriously” in order to finish off strong. With only a handful of swings left to close out a solid round and perhaps make the cut, he chose to tell himself to “Give it a little extra. I need a huge drive to score well. This is an important hole!”

Not able to put his finger on what was not sitting right with him, he mentioned that he found it a lot easier to focus during match play competition. He loved staring down his opponent at the beginning of each hole and then getting down to business. He was proud of his competitive spirit and desire to always come out on top. Typically this relentless focus on beating others is a yellow-flag in the mind of a sport psychology practitioner. Both action and research of high performing athletes over the years has shown that participating to challenge one’s self is one of the key factors that leads to greatest success on the playing field. Perhaps this player was not such a great competitor, but one that was
about to fall into the bad habit that overtakes many when they have reached a level of competition where mental mistakes and a focus on others leads them to retire to the sidelines due to lack of mental toughness.

No… this is a solid golfer and a strong competitor. From listening and looking, it became clear that his success in match play is not due to any macho, cut-throat competitiveness of the player. Rather success was due to the “consistent” structure of match play. From start to finish, the goal on each hole of match play is the same – hit good shots, beat your opponent. Bogies create openings, but both pars and birdies win holes and win matches. It is this set up that led to his “mental toughness” on course, not some internal competitiveness.

For a further preview of A Quick 9 for the Mind and to purchase a copy visit

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