Archive for January, 2011

A common question…

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Throughout the years I have received thousands of questions.  More than any other question, however, the one I receive most often is, “What exactly do you do for a living?”  The answer is simple and complicated at the same time…

I have designed and implement a mental training program to assist student-athletes in reaching their potential on and off the golf course.  Students are equipped with a mindset which is supplemented by skills to assist them to maximize their potential through quality practice, self-management, and a mindset of continuous improvement.

It all starts with student-athletes creating a clear and specific mission they would like to achieve.  This mission provides purpose and the motivation required to continue learning on a daily basis in order to reach personal short and long-term goals.  An individual with a specific purpose will overcome potential obstacles and distractions that may draw attention away from the task at hand.  Once the student-athlete creates his or her own mission, and understands the importance of having a purpose for every action, they will begin to engage in quality practice.  Quality practice can only be achieved when the student knows what he/she is working on and holds him/herself accountable for it.  Hitting balls, chipping, or putting mindlessly (without purpose) does not maximize time and energy; and worse yet, might lead to overuse injuries.  The more engaged the practice, the more learning and improvement occurs during that time.  Quality practice has two major benefits.  First and foremost, it creates increased confidence that will allow the student-athlete to know they have done everything within their power to prepare for competition.  The second benefit of quality practice is that it will also allow for balance and quality time off the course.  If the student-athlete knows he/she has done everything possible to improve during practice time, there will be no regrets during free time away from the golf course either.

Competition is the time for athletes to showcase their skills and prove their merit.  During competition, there are many external distractions and pressures that athletes must learn to manage effectively in order to play to their potential.  How an athlete responds to these distractions and pressures has much to do with the mindset they take into competition.  There are two distinct mindsets that separate competitors.  One of them is an outcome orientation, which is the mindset of an athlete who is more concerned with the end result (scores, rankings, college scholarships, etc.) and how they might appear to other people.  This mindset leads to inconsistent performances from athletes who typically perform below their potential.  An athlete with a process orientation, on the other hand, is more focused on “playing one shot at a time”.  This mindset allows the athlete to focus on him/herself and the appropriate action to take in the present moment to be successful.  An athlete with a process orientation tends to maintain a consistent level of effort, regardless of the situation, and typically sees more consistent outcomes as a result.

Finally, following competition it is imperative for athletes to engage in active rest.  This is the time for the student-athlete to take a step back and give an honest assessment of his/her own tournament performance and training leading up to the event.  An effective evaluation includes strengths that emerged to continue developing; limitations that exist that may be holding the individual back from reaching their potential; and most importantly, an updated plan to create the next mission to move forward and continue improving with renewed purpose and energy.

Hopefully this piece clarifies, rather than complicates the question of what I do and how I work to assist my student-athletes on a daily basis.  Just as I encourage my athletes to evaluate themselves on a regular basis to reach their potential, I attempt to do the same for myself.  This is my philosophy today.  Only time and introspection will tell if this answer will be the same down the road.

What Stinks About Streaks

Trinity College squash extended its winning streak to 230 matches. The longest winning streak in the history of intercollegiate sport. That’s nice.

Just up I84 in Connecticut the Huskie women’s basketball streak came to an end about a few weeks back. Perhaps this was to the dismay of ESPN. Probably good for the team.

You play to win the game. If you have the good fortune, you play to win the game lots and lots and lots. If the lots and lots and lots comes all in a row so be it.

What stinks about streaks however is how they change the dialogue and change the focus. It’s fun to bask in the glory of victory, but day in and day out it’s more fun and more productive to talk about playing. Streaks hijack the discussion.

Streaks hijack the discussion

Talking about history. Dwelling on bar stool sports such as debating the greatest team ever. Trying to predict the next time the sports gods will frown upon a team. What a bore for a passionate coach or athlete.

Nuanced game plans. Herculean efforts. Crisp execution of the basics. Deferring of ego for the good of the team. Now these ideas stir the athletic spirit. Streaking teams hold these ideas close day in and day out (Unfortunately, the spectating public gets a lot more of the hijacked discussion from talking heads).

As always there seems to be a nuanced nature to excellent performances on the playing field. If a streak is to arise, athletes and coaches talk about, think about, and enjoy “playing.” Once the streak is rolling, having the mental fortitude to stay on message minimizes streak slowing friction.

* The same thing that stinks about streaks is what stinks about slumps… they key to streaking and the key to un-slumping share the same foundations.

Trash Talkin’: Distraction to Whom?

It’s already clear that I’m not terribly impressed with chest thumping and mouth running athletes (see Macho Mumbo-Jumbo).  This being said, Rex Ryan and his crew are great entertainment.  Furthermore, Bill Bellichick and his gang are equally entertaining (i.e. providing Nuke Laloosh soundbites and responses).  It is great drama.  On par with the WWE… Vince McMahon must be a Jets fan.

This all being said, is this simply boys being boys or the creation of some sort of competitive advantage or, as some have suggested, a competitive disadvantage (i.e. don’t irritate Tom Brady, he and his Sampson-like locks are very tough).  The answer lies in the mental discipline of talker and talkee.  The best know better than to pay attention to the press and senseless babble, but they are only human.  We are social beings and what is said by others matters too us all too often.  On the flip side, it can be fun to be the talker.  So much fun, it is easy to forget about being the player.  Few have the sociopathic ability put forth a truly blistering monologue regularly and quickly regain focus on the play at hand (John McEnroe might be the spectacular exception).  When the trash is being talked athletes need to consider a couple of things:

– If you are hearing it, can you laugh it off (see Brady) and focus on the task at hand?  Maybe let it fire you up a bit, but certainly don’t let it allow focus to drift.

– If you are doing the talking do you make the choice to focus on the task at hand regardless of what you have said or may say in the future?  When the balls in play, are you focused on executing the plan or on your last or next pithy remark?

These things make sense, but easier said than done on both sides of the quotes.  Talking trash and playing well is a highly refined art form.  Only the strong and wise survive.

The question that must be considered by any athlete is, “Do you want to be an entertainer or a champion?”  Rabid pursuit of the former is not a terribly efficient way to reach the latter.  Entertainment and victory are not mutually exclusive… but they certainly can be if you are not careful.

Put on a good show for me… chose if you want to win for you.

April Fools on New Year’s Day?

By:  Juplimpton

You wake up one morning in January and you are determined this is the year you will work harder, be better prepared and commit more to your sport. You start working out, maybe even eating better. You start to organize times to practice and train and you are highly motivated, as you begin a new year, full of hope and limitless possibilities.

You wake up earlier or stay up later, carving out more time to train. One day, something throws a wrench in your schedule and you do not accomplish what you wanted to do. Sure enough, another day like this occurs and your frustration builds because your plan for the day and the reality of your day do not mesh.

Days and weeks go by, inconsistency increases along with external responsibilities and the internal struggle rages in your mind, knowing that you wanted to work so hard and accomplish so much, yet by April 1st, there is a realization that you just did not get it done.

Life has a funny way of interfering with our best intentions and plans for improvement. Over time, the multiple demands that student-athletes face create obstacles for goal attainment, especially when goals are set with the best intentions but are established incorrectly.

A New Year’s resolution is simply another term for a goal, housed under the context of a different word, a “resolution.” If goals or resolutions are set up incorrectly, individuals and teams are unknowingly setting themselves up for failure, while thinking they are working diligently and with the best intentions.
Despite the attention placed on setting New Year’s Resolutions, most people are never taught how to establish goals in a realistic fashion. The “carrot” is extended to you in the form of what the outcome and end result will be, without discussing the commitment, hard work and the struggles endured to accomplish what we want.

One of the most important jobs of a Sport Psychology Professional is to teach athletes, coaches and parents the correct ways to establish, maintain and adjust personal goals on both the small and large scale.

 The first common mistake athletes make is not spending enough time thinking about what they truly want from participating in their sport. Instead, many athletes blurt out goals without much thought about personal ownership and the short and long-term aspects of what they are trying to accomplish.

To establish effective goals, an athlete must first ask themselves some pretty difficult, honest and direct questions. Why do I participate in my sport? What do I want from my sport? Where do I want to be in 2, 3 or 5 years?

If we cannot address these fundamental and basic questions, how can we truly set purposeful, specific and meaningful goals.

Before setting goals or making resolutions, it is first important to take inventory of yourself and be objective about where you currently are in your development, compared to where you want to be. Identify your current strengths and weaknesses in the technical, physical and mental aspects of your sport and your position.

It is much easier to set realistic goals if you first have an objective understanding of your own ability compared to the ability level you would like to achieve. It is natural to compare your ability to the ability of others, yet the challenge becomes comparing your current ability to your past and future ability.

Goal setting, done correctly, is all about controllability. Set goals that are challenging, not too easy or too difficult. Be specific about the smaller steps that add up to the end result and focus on improving each step within the process. Developing a sense of accomplishment, on a daily basis, is an important motivator to continue working on areas of your game that you consider weak or in need of improvement.

Most importantly, commitment to learning is critical throughout this process. Improvement does not occur without mistakes, frustration and set-backs. You have the choice to decide if you will judge these situations as good or bad or if you will view them as learning experiences to grow from.

Athletes who learn how to blend short-term experience with a long-term perspective will stay more emotionally level and will understand that mistakes are opportunities to learn more about themselves, their performance and their reactions in critical moments.

The reality of goal setting is that it is an everyday process. It is an unfair and unrealistic expectation to wake up one day and radically change everything you have been doing. What makes January 1st any different from any other day?

The real question to ask yourself is: When is your January?

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