Archive for November, 2010

Pardon the Hubris

In a small New England church the following call to worship was shared:

L: Should I worship God from fear of hell, may I be cast into it.

P: Should I serve God from desire of gaining heaven, may God keep me out.

L: But should I worship God from love alone, may God be revealed to me and my whole heart filled with God’s love and presence.

P: Let this by my last word, that I trust in your love.

Avoid an outcome-orientation. Be filled with intrinsic motivation. Trust.

Sounded like good sport psychology to me.  As a matter of fact, much spiritual and philosophical doctrine is pretty sound, high performance wisdom.  This is clear in many of the martial arts.  Eastern philosophy is the core from which balance, explosion, grace, and at times, violence emanate.  This being said, how many modern day combatants are true to a spiritual core?  How many truly get it?

The sacred has become profane.  HD jumbotrons, merchandising galore, and talking heads everywhere have turned philosophical genius into trite sound bites.  The glorification of individual achievement over the illumination of transcendent mores inhibits the greatest of greatness… and perhaps stalls unwavering mental toughness.

Sporting coliseums have mistakenly been called temples.  They are not.  Yet, the competitor that is truly in tune with the philosophical (and at times spiritual) sound bites finds confidence (a.k.a. faith) in times of success and challenge.  Reflecting regularly can provide as much (if not more) benefit to the modern day warrior – getting one to the heart of the matter.

Pardon the hubris, but ministers, monks, rabbis, and yogis hold the keys to mental toughness.

Solid Foundations Make Strong Buildings

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The same is true when developing great athletes.  An unstable foundation creates a weak base.  A weak base cannot support continued growth.  Without continued growth, an athletic career will never reach its true potential.  A solid foundation on the other hand, can support a great amount of growth, development, and skill acquisition.  A solid foundation built upon sound fundamentals will also remain stable in pressure situations.  Great coaches and athletes continuously monitor the fundamentals of their sport before moving on to more advanced areas of development, which lays the foundation for long, prosperous, and healthy careers.

fundamentals pic

This model of player development may seem elementary, but following through to physically put the model into action is not.  In the real world of sport and competition, coaches and players face constant criticism and doubt when growth, skill development, and wins do not add up quickly.  This criticism and doubt often comes from those closest to the coaches and athletes themselves (parents, friends, team owners/management, etc…).  The temptation to move on to more advanced and more creative skills quickly builds.  Let’s face it, working on fundamentals is typically not as much fun or challenging for coaches and athletes either.  This adds even greater pressure to abandon the patience and long-term vision required to stick to the basics .  Remember, however, that once the coach or athlete does give in to this temptation, there is no way to turn back the clock.  Before you know it, the model starts to look a bit more like this…

fundamentals2 pic

Which model best fits your philosophy?  Does that philosophy show itself in your everyday training?

Playoff Pressure?

Playoff Pressure?

What is the difference between the fourth game of the regular season and a Championship game? 

Is the football field 10 yards longer, the basket 1 foot taller or the bases 10 feet further?   Of course not.  But, in the heat of competition, where the loser goes home and the winner gets to practice tomorrow, the game can speed up and fall apart very quickly.

Playoff time is better than any reality TV show.  The intensity that arises from unscripted competition is palpable, as every San Francisco Giants fan can bear witness to the torture that accompanies a World Series victory.

In the 2010 World Series, the Texas Rangers seemed loose, relaxed and having fun, even though they were down 0-2.  They claimed that they were not approaching the games any differently.  In the other clubhouse, there were reports that Tim Lincecum was dancing and joking around before his start in Game 5, and we all know the outcome.

Both teams appeared loose, yet when pressure situations arose, the Rangers fell apart very quickly.  The suddenness of events in playoff games often expose mental and physical weaknesses, as It does not matter how one acts before a game, it matters how they react during critical moments in the heat of competition.

Over the next few weeks, many high school athletes and teams will begin embarking on their own championship quest and will endure their own forms of torture along the way.   Knowing what is at stake, athletes often place more importance on every play because it may be the last. 

We practice our sport for moments like these.  Yet, it is very difficult to recreate the intensity of a game, let alone a playoff game.  Since we cannot truly replicate pressure situations in practice, it becomes imperative that we train for pressure situations in other ways.

This brings us back to the fourth game of the season.  How one prepares and performs in this game is very indicative of how they will perform in playoff competition.  It is not easy to treat all games the same and there is no magic fairy dust that will allow you to tune out the magnitude of what is at stake. 

When athletes “think too much” in critical situations, they are not really thinking too much, they are usually thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time.  The “wrong things” involve both the hope for positive plays and the fear of what will happen when mistakes, especially mistakes executing routine plays, are made.

Since we know that more is at stake in playoff games, athletes become vulnerable of falling into the “either/or” mindset.  This mindset is influenced by emotional reactions to events during competition that are both within and beyond their control.  These mood swings create mental fatigue because athletes start expending too much mental energy reacting to events during a game instead of staying strategic and focusing on what is under their immediate control. 

In preparing athletes and teams for the realities of playoff competition, I often ask each individual to consider the most basic requirements of their given position, execution of routine plays and the responsibilities of the given roles each athlete has within the team or sport. 

I believe that many athletes get too far ahead of themselves in playoff games and mentally fast-forward to the possible end result of critical plays, instead of thinking about the most basic, fundamental elements or “little things” that are required of them to perform correctly.

Thinking about the “little things” is defined as focusing on the aspects of your performance you control, right here, in the moment.  This translates into what your responsibilities are in the execution of this play.  Focusing on your responsibilities, instead of focusing on wanting to make the big play or not wanting to make a mistake, allows athletes to stay mentally under control through the highs and lows in a game. 

Athletes and teams who learn to treat Game Four of the season the same way as the Championship Game are successful in focusing on aspects within a competition they can control.  This is an acquired skill that needs to be practiced, yet too often, there is an exclusive focus on physical and fundamental skills, at the expense of integrating mental purpose into physical preparation. 

Purposeful preparation instills confidence by helping athletes develop competencies that need to be utilized in critical performance situations.  The more consistent this preparation is, throughout a season, the less likely athletes and teams will become victims of playoff pressure. 

In the end, the game does not change because you are playing for a championship.  What changes, is our perceptions, because as we get so close to the prize, it becomes too easy to think about the prize, itself, instead of focusing on the “little things” that will give you the best chance to realize your dream and win your last game.

Q & A with the soccer moms

“Should 6-year olds be worried about winning or losing?”

Let me be clear – competition can be a good-thing. After all, competition is a central element in a player’s development. At the youth level, however, a competitive environment shouldn’t be a Final Score-oriented environment. In other words – the score of the game shouldn’t be the sole determinant of a team’s success. The differences must be clear. A competitive environment at the youth level encourages decisions from player and coach alike that focus on performance rather than outcome. With beginning players, coaches should favor skill and creativity on-the-ball as the means to find success within the rules and spirit of the game. The score at the end of the game is just one indicator of performance and at this age, not the most important one.

“The kids keep score – shouldn’t the adults?”

Competition among kids playing games will always exist, whether adults are present or not. Making soccer “fun” at the younger ages does not mean that competition (or even keeping score) is removed. Competition can be positive and healthy. Scoring goals and winning the game are fundamental parts of soccer. Allow the children to enjoy this aspect without making it the focus. Set up other skill-based objectives (such as trapping, dribbling, and eventually passing) as the focal point. At the same time, recognize that children will find competition in anything you set up. Let them compete and have fun with the competitive process. In youth soccer, the emphasis of the coach (and who are we kidding, the parents as well) will often determine if the competitive environment is healthy or not.

“But aren’t the games supposed to be important!?”

At the youth level, games are important as a means to player development (enjoyment, ball skill, insight, and fitness), not as the aim. These competitive situations are a series of tests for kids. Whether it’s learning to dribble the ball into space or getting back on one’s feet after getting knocked down – the  usefulness of the game can occur in many different forms. Parents and coaches should focus on the process and performance rather than the outcome.  It’s important to be prepared for the possibility that your team may lose some games in the short term with this approach. Keep in mind that it is actually easier to win games at this age group with teams that are “organized” but lack skill. Placing the more physically mature players down the middle of the field and just asking players to “kick it down the middle” or only allowing players to specialize at one position may lead to more victories. However, this approach doesn’t effectively teach the players the game and prepare them to continue on in soccer.

Cutting Edge Not So Sharp

Sometimes trying to be on the cutting edge is not such a sharp idea.  This is highlighted in the recent The Atlantic magazine where John Ioannidis and his brave thinking is shared.  Ioannidis and his team strive to bring to light misleading and exaggerated medical research findings.  In an era where scientists are pushed to be cutting edge and journals want to share the most exciting findings, it seems like good judgment and sound practice are sacrificed.  In the medical world, these costs are quite dramatic.  In the sports world, this desire to be ahead of the curve can waste time and effort.  Furthermore, in most unfortunate circumstances, lead to injury and reduced performance.  Sometimes the glitz and glamor of the next best thing blinds to the wisdom of the tried and true.

This is clearly evidenced in the strength and conditioning world on a regular basis.  New weights, plates, and gimmicks seem to abound.  Yet the best coaches in the world can do some pretty amazing things (for the highest level athletes) with body weight and a few dollars of equipment.  Nonetheless athletes can too often be found chasing the next best thing (while too often running away from high performance).

I have been reminded to appreciate the tried and true a couple of times over the past week.  At the Association for Applied Sport Psychology conference in Providence, RI a research lecture ended with the presenter asking the audience to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Psychological theory from 1943!?  Absolutely tried and true… if basic needs are not fulfilled, one can not even begin to consider high performance.  Similarly, in reading Elkind’s The Power of Play I was struck by the importance of old news.  Elkind highlights that he tries “to unite Freud’s motivational orientation with the intellectual approach of Jean Piaget.”  Freud and Piaget… more old news.  Old news that if understood by parents, coaches, and youth sporters of today would lead to happy, healthier, and higher performing athletes.

Do not get me wrong, the next big thing is exciting and certainly loved by the popular press.  Let’s just not throw out the baby with the bathwater by forgetting to appreciate past science and sound theory that may carry a few cobwebs.  Highest performance and highest health is found when the tried and true is refined to most efficient and effective levels.  Truly new ideas are far and few between (click for an example of striving towards a few that are true).  The “new” we typically know are either old ones repackaged (hopefully with greater user-friendliness) or poor one’s adorned with pomp and circumstance.  Searching for “cutting edge” is critical and the wise person is conservative with use of the label.

Looking forward is good.  Just don’t forget to look back on a regular basis.


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