Archive for December, 2010

No Secrets, No Shortcuts

In just finished reading The Fighter’s Mind by Sam Sheridan.  It was a solid read.  Sheridan is a bright guy and he regularly referenced some of my favorite sport psych/philosophy reads and writers: Herrigal’s Zen in the Art of Archery a quick, deep read; Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow the work that really did a nice job of Westernizing concepts of Eastern philosophy; Gladwell’s Blink which I think trumps Outliers; Lehrer’s New Yorker articles that always give some keen insights into human performance and action; William’s Applied Sport Psychology in my eye the essential applied sport psychology textbook.

This book is grounded in stories from legends and superstars of the fight game (trainers such as Freddie Roach, Greg Jackson, and Mark DellaGrotte; legends such as Dan Gable, Marcelo Garcia, Frank Shamrock; superstars such as Randy Couture, Kenny Florian, and Renzo Gracie), yet is really an examination of mental toughness for athletes of any sport.  This book has nothing to do with blood in the cage, but everything to do with the mindset of a true warrior – during practice and competition.  The thing that strikes me most about this book is how all coaches and athletes interviewed truly got the mental game.  They share few new insights, but rather they clearly articulate in their own words tried and true principles of mental toughness.  They make it clear that certain ideas are universal to a sound mental approach:

  • To improve your mental game, you have to think about the mental game
  • Ego limits, humbleness with open-mindedness leads to true greatness
  • Purposeful, focused practice is at the foundation of high performance
  • The possibility of losing must be accepted, before focus can truly be placed on competing well
  • Persistence trumps talent
  • Belief in self and one’s potential allows one to go further than most think is possible
  • The process, art, and efforts of competing are more important than the outcome
  • Consistent learning leads to consistent success
  • Loving the sport… the training, the competing, the playing is at the heart of everything

These were not some textbook, scientific findings but rather the words of men that have battled, beaten, and been beaten in the most literal of senses.  Tough guys that get the softer science down to their cores.  They really get that there are no secrets to mental toughness, just limits by lack of commitments to a consistent mental approach.

Not only is this book impressive in that it is not some literary fluff full of shameless MMA love. It is honest.  Neither Sheridan nor interviewees suggest that mental toughness can be found in 3 easy steps, a few moments of visualization a day, five positive affirmation each morning before starting the day, or anything of the like.  They also do not suggest that champions are born mentally tough.  There are no shortcuts.  The mental game, like the physical one is within reach to all that commit, reflect, refine, and practice good mental habits consistently.

While it is popular to make the mental game mystical… it really isn’t… the best know there are no secrets and no shortcuts… yet consistent competitiveness is within reach.  If you are an athlete or coach consider checking out The Fighter’s Mind.


The Push and Pull of Statistics

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.


Numbers don’t lie. Numbers can be a tremendous tool to assist athletic development. But be careful, the slope can become a slippery one if an athlete becomes too fully immersed. There is a fine line between using numbers as an accurate measure for self-awareness (identify strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement); and inadvertently playing “scorekeeper” throughout practice and competitive endeavors. Numbers are helpful markers at the end of a performance, yet often serve as a distraction from competing well in the present. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when using statistics to enhance personal performance.

1. Time Matters:  A junior player and his father have been keeping close track of his driving statistics day-in and day-out. He averages 6 of 14 fairways hit per round. They decide for this junior to lower his scores he must hit more fairways. First thing the next morning, he goes out and works diligently on his ball-striking and driver on the range, making swing changes with his coach. He goes out that afternoon and hits 6 of 14 fairways again. This pattern continues for the next six days, which feels like an eternity for many developing athletes. The player has placed so much attention and effort on hitting more fairways, without seeing results that the junior is quickly losing confidence and gaining frustration. Tension is on the rise as a major tournament is quickly approaching.

After hearing his name announced, the player steps up to the long, tight par-4 opening hole. The player is so intently focused on hitting the fairway that his hands inadvertently squeeze the grip so tight his knuckles turn dead white. Following impact, both father and son watch helplessly as the ball squibs weakly into the right trees, muttering “Here we go again…” as they walk somberly up the first hole.

2. Challenge Matters: 

Day 1: It’s sunny, calm and 75-degrees. The golf course measures 6,800 yards with flagsticks placed securely in the center of huge greens. The player hits 10 greens in regulation. For a tour-caliber golfer that is well below average.

Day 2: It’s a blustery, sub-40 degree day with driving rain on a course measuring 7,300 yards. Flagsticks are tucked deeply in the corners of tiny amoeba-shaped greens. A round with 10 greens in regulation might lead the field in a professional event. So which one is it? Are 10 greens in regulation “good” or “bad” for 18 holes? The answer…it depends!

3. Correlation Matters:

Day 1: 30 putts with 18 greens in regulation (6 one-putts from inside 10-feet and the rest two-putts) – outstanding putting day with a total score of 6-under par 66.

Day 2: 30 putts with 6 greens in regulation (player chips it close every time and converts 6 one-putts from inside 10-feet and the rest two-putts) – poor putting day with a total score of 12-over par 84.

So which one is it? Are 30 putts “good” or “bad” for 18 holes? The answer…it depends!

Are numbers and statistics helpful to developing athletes? The answer…it depends! When calculated and utilized with little perspective in the short-term, statistics may actually reduce motivation and lead to decreased performance. When used thoughtfully in the long-term, these measurements can maximize training time and energy by focusing on key areas of athletic development. Decide what to work on and then get to work. It is human nature to be more critical of our weaknesses than to give credit for our strengths. To reduce this internal bias, great athletes monitor their statistics by entering them frequently and analyzing them infrequently. Good luck on your personal quest with the numbers game and when in doubt #PlayNowScorekeepLater.

Stinks to Be Human…

From prospects to professionals, all have one thing in common… they’re human.  When sitting down with athletes, I find myself often reflecting out loud to them, “Stinks to be human huh?”

Most athletes and coaches see what gets in their way to consistency and great performances, yet still find these obstacles before them regularly.  A few things simply make sense, but are easier said than done:

Positivity trumps negativity when performance is on the line. This being said, when faced with adversity it is easy to see the bad.  Furthermore, one can even argue that it is cathartic to embrace the negativity and get emotional… unfortunately it rarely (if ever) helps performance.  It’s simply human to see the negative and enjoy a good outburst now and again.

Focusing on the play in front of you is far more valuable than focusing on the win, loss, or ranking that may follow. This being said, the scoreboard, statistics, and thirst for victory are easy to wrap one’s mind around… they are tangible and universally praised.  One would be a fool to not care about hoisting the trophy or savoring a hard fought victory, but having this fill one’s head when the game is on can lead to great neglect of the “hard fighting” part.  Focus and motivation that is on target, neglects the outcome and focuses on “this” play.  It’s simply human to want the most positive outcome possible, victory, and to allow one’s mind to drift there regularly.

Trusting one’s self rather than focusing on the too often fickle praise of coaches, scouts, and spectators leads to resilient and consistent confidence. This being said, most people care about what others think of them.  Caring is not bad, but committing mental effort to swaying the perspectives of others is often misguided and poorly executed.  It can be tough enough to manage our own thoughts, feelings, and efforts in a competitive setting – seems foolish to add those of another person (or many people) into the mix.  One must take care of his own practices and performances and trust himself first – the trust of teammates and the praise of others will follow in due time.  It’s simply human to want to be well-liked by family, friends, teammates, coaches, and society as a whole.

Being human is a wonderful thing.  The reasons are simply too many to list, I hope you can come up with a few on your own.  The art of athletics to sometimes subvert a bit of our humanness in the arena.  In essence take some times to set aside those human qualities that protect and feed out egos (i.e. thirst for praise from others and socially acceptable outcomes).  Sports challenges us to struggle in a public forum, to experience failure regularly, and to risk not achieving victory even though significant effort was given.  So how might one step beyond the human condition for a while when the ball is in play?

  1. Accept being human. Even the best have doubts, stresses, and struggles.  Beating one’s self up over humanness is a was of time and effort.
  2. Laugh at being human. It is pretty funny that even though you know your crazy uncle Jimmy knows nothing about hockey you care when he tells you that you stunk.  Your caring makes no sense, but is very human.  Laugh and move on.
  3. Commit to skills and attitudes that lead to high performance in the arena. This is easier said than done, but focus and emotional management on the playing field is a choice (not an easy one, but one an athlete can choose nonetheless).
  4. Reflect on humanness and recommit to productive perspectives. Full engagement in an endeavor filled with competition will lead even the best athlete’s mind to drift now and again.  Confront it and refocus it.

Few athletes or spectators look forward to the day robots take over the sporting landscape.  The glory of victory and agony of defeat will certainly be muted.  With this in mind, our human foibles are what make sports so entertaining, so compelling, and so great.  A little respect for the human condition can lead to more consistent athletic performances.

Optical Illusions

 Author’s Note: I recently spoke with a club soccer team about to enter league play after a non-league schedule that can best be described as “up and down”. The following was part of our discussion. 

Look at optical illusion – what do you see?

Perception’s a funny thing – we can all look at the same thing – but see things differently. Illusions like the one above work because the contours of one image match the contours of the other in such a way as to confuse the brain in to perceiving two interpretations of what is there.

Take a look at the next illusion – what do you see?

4 wins – 1 loss – 3 ties

Some look at the 3 ties and see missed opportunities

Some look at the 4 wins and only see a .500 club

Some look at the 1 and see a hard-fighting team with only 1 loss. – And they’re all correct.

Paying too much attention to team records can be an illusion. Nothing’s as good as it seems, nothing’s as bad as it seems, somewhere in between reality lies. Successful teams don’t ride the emotional roller coaster of a season by being too up or too down.

You can’t drive down the road with your face stuck in the rearview mirror.

I rarely use the word “win” like most people do. To me – W.I.N. stands for “What’s Important Now?” The most important thing you can do now use today and tomorrow’s practices to tune up for league play.

Crease for 1

It is the time of year when many elite goalies are riding the bench, anxiously awaiting playing time.  Many of these are darn good goalies, but sitting on the bench is as much a part of being a goalie as is getting off the ice between shifts is for a skater.  Sure the crease is often shared on youth teams with multiple goalies playing each game.  At collegiate levels and beyond, one goalie plays and one (or more) goalies sit.  Perhaps the most interesting part of this reality is how goalies are somewhat comfortable with it.

Content they are not, embracing of the waiting, practicing, and battling they are.  This sounds like quite an idealistic mindset… but if you are a goalie is there any other option?  Sometimes an athlete studies, listens, and is mentored to mental toughness… other times the situations in which they are put teach it to them.  The unfortunate part of the latter option is that those unwilling to embrace the situations and challenges of their sport too often relent before their full potential has been fulfilled.

What have the great goalies learned from the “situations” in which they found themselves (and they found themselves in some… very few, if any are the starting goalies have been the first off the ice every year of their career)?  They have learned about love.  O.K. that sounds a bit dramatic and a bit too warm and fuzzy for competitive sport.  They have learned about friendship… true friendship.  Still this sounds a bit far-fetched.

Consider the broodings of Platonic philosopher Drew Hyland on the subject.  The greatest potential of sport is friendship.  He is not talking about any of this politically-correct cooperative games stuff or any sportsmanship hullabaloo.  He is talking about competitive, high level, best in the world, best of yourself sport.  A true friend pushes another towards excellence.  A true competitor wants to be pushed towards excellence by a competitor.. a partner in performance.  Great goalies get this down to their bones.

A true competitor wants to be pushed towards excellence by a competitor.. a partner in performance.

Again, let’s be clear, goalies do not like opening the door on the bench during the game.  They would much rather be in the crease.  Yet when all is said and done, they are not against their fellow goalies and really harbor little ill will.  Quite the contrary they are with them and incredibly supportive of them.  Great goalies have egos.  They believe the crease ought to be theirs, but they understand that some nights it is not theirs to have.  Restlessness to play is the sign of motivation, patience during the competitive journey is maturity and an appreciation of the importance of sporting friendship (i.e. outplaying a teammate today, so they will try to outplay you tomorrow).

Goalies that succeed on the journey to greatness reframe the waiting game from a set-back to a true push to greatness.  Lots of ice is nice, but without a battle for ownership of the net maximum growth is tough to achieve.  When the puck is in play, they crease cannot be shared.  Good for the guy on the ice.  Good for the guy on the bench.  It just takes some healthy discontentment and perspective.  Perhaps this attitude is best summed up by Jay Atkinson when discussing a pair of high school goalies battling for the crease in Ice Time, “The two are best buddies and their friendship will survive.”

Great goalies grow because there is only room for one in the crease – they see it as an opportunity and a teacher.  Finding the truth of friendship in competition is valuable to fully embracing being stressed towards excellence.

Humbled Again

I think I am pretty decent at helping athletes and coaches find their potential.  I have studied hard for many years and will continue to do so forever.  I have worked at levels and with athletes I only dreamed about not too long ago.  Yet on an almost daily basis I am humbled.  I might be particularly humbled today.

Some days, I think I have “great” ideas.  Today I finished reading Run to the Roar and was reminded how few (if any) of my “great” ideas I can take full ownership over.  Coach Paul Assaiante is the winningest coach in collegiate sport’s history (perhaps winningest coach ever).  he is also my friend, mentor, and coach.  In Run to the Roar he lays himself and his coaching open for all to see – warts and all.  It is amazing, educating, and inspiring.  It truly is a book with something for everyone.  He’s a squash coach but this is a story of humanness, community, family, and the search for excellence.

I graduated from Trinity College 14 years ago.  To this day, Paul Assaiante’s teachings and spirit are stamped on my work.  It is possible that every single one of the workshops I give to anyone in sports includes at least one Assaiante-inspired idea.  So much for being original!  Perhaps I’ve found the science behind his pedagogy and some day’s I’ve changed the words a bit… but still some days not too original…

A skeptic may read Run to the Roar and say, “Of course he can coach this way when he has talented athletes and wins national championship after national championship.  He could get away with doing anything he wanted.”  These would be words of someone struggling to trust the true path to athletic excellence.  The proof…. he was my coach… and I do not have a single championship ring to show for it.  In reading Run to the Roar, I see and hear the same exact coach that led my Trinity College tennis team.  A winning team, a successful team, but certainly not a national championship team.  Under his tutelage I won matches I had no business winning and for a moment or two felt I had almost as much kinesthetic intelligence as my brother had in one of his limbs (he was a scholarship tennis player while also being a frighteningly gifted distributor of the soccer ball).  Coach took a team of misfits (frat boys, Deadheads, meterosexuals, snotty preppies, and lost souls) and made them respected competitors.  “Overachiever” is an overused word, we went from good recreational players to competitors that would leave all opponents feeling the pain of playing us win or lose (I once lost a match 1-6, 1-6 but it took 2 hours for the opponent to put such a lopsided score onto the board).  Win or lose, Coach coaches for character and victory.  It is just a bit easier to get published on tales of winning… lots.

I am even humbled in my efforts at humbleness.  Coach A (along with my family) had a big hand in modeling this habit for me.  You will see it.  In his relentlessly self-effacing style, he shares his “stuff” with the world.

Someday, I may find one or two ideas to truly call my own.  Until then, humbled is o.k.  Thanks Coach for sharing with me and now with the world.  I hope all can find someone similar to you to inspire their “unoriginal” ideas.

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