Archive for March, 2011

Leader of the Pack

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Many people maintain the idea that leadership skills in sport are only required for owners, general managers, coaches, parents, or team captains.  However, leadership can (and should) show itself in many different ways and situations, as well as from a number of  different individuals from the top of an organization all the way down to the “rookie” or “towel boy”.  A few common ideals that great leaders tend to portray are…

1)      Great leaders unite people to work toward a common goal.

Does this mean the common goal or mission is determined completely by the leader and enforced by the leader alone? Absolutely not!  However, great leaders are those individuals who maintain the vision and passion to drive individuals toward the mission regardless of the ebbs, flows, and potential disasters of a long season.

2)      Great leaders handle and manage adversity in times of difficulty.

In short, effective leaders are self-aware.  Many people get caught up in the drama and emotions that come with the struggles of life in and out of sport.  On the other hand, great leaders manage their own thoughts, feelings, and actions before making any immediate judgments or decisions that will affect the team poorly in the long run.

3)      Great leaders manage conflict.

No two people are exactly the same.  Differences can create conflict.  An effective leader is someone who has strong negotiation skills to balance individual differences, allow all parties to feel heard, and finally establish a mutually agreeable resolution so all parties can move forward with a common goal in mind (see #1).

4)      Great leaders communicate consistently, frequently, and honestly in both word and action.

We all have different styles of verbal and non-verbal communication. Effective leaders are aware of their personal style and maintain consistency in the messages they send from the beginning of the season to the end.  The frequency of communication should also occur along the same lines.  Being a great leader doesn’t mean the individual should speak so frequently that no other voices or opinions are heard.  To the contrary, effective leaders are confident in their decisions, but sometimes do so by asking for help or guidance from others who may have a better pulse on the situation.  The frequency of communication should be enough to keep all parties informed, while also maintaining the feeling of trust and autonomy from those around him or her.  Honesty may be the most integral part of leadership.  In order to gain the acceptance, trust, and power to motivate any group of individuals, honesty must be at the forefront of any communication given to avoid potential contention or doubt within the group.

5)      Great leaders know when to stretch and when to support those around them.

Individuals thrive when they are challenged enough to extend outside of their individual “comfort zone”, but also know there is consistent support immediately following in case of emergency.  Effective leaders empower individuals by constantly being aware of when and how to stretch others while also having a heightened sense of when to come back to play a supporting role.

Great leadership can be found within all of us. The most effective leaders, however, are the individuals who make it a priority and continually work on improving these five ideals to separate themselves from everyone else who follows.  If you have the will and courage to become a leader within your team, there is no better time than now to start developing your role.

Father, Son, Sport Psychology

He was a bit like Curt Shilling taking the mound with the bloody sock (or perhaps more to his liking, Chase Utley patrolling the infield dynamically on one knee). My father, the Reverend Robert Naylor, running a 100+ temperature, having one useless knee (slated for operation soon), walked from the back of the 2nd Congregational Church in Greenwich, climbed up into the pulpit, gave a career defining sermon, and then returned to the pew. This was the final pulpit that he will call his own. Retirement was official as he returned to the seats facing the front with my mother by his side. It was all done with grace, theological weight, and true expertise.

I was once again reminded of the influence that fathers have on sons. I have said many times, that my father was the first sport psychology practitioner in the family. Quite often he could be found on the local Y basketball court “counseling” parishioners. A golf outing on public and private courses with fellow clergy for “brainstorming” was always a sight to be seen. The encouragement of young and old to be active and be playful at church was an enduring theme. Furthermore, he preached weekly from the ultimate self-help and performance enhancement book that predates Jim Loehr, Bob Rotella, or Harvey Dorfman. Through 37 years of being behind the scenes of one of the greatest shows in cloth I learned so much. Lots as a person, but more than a few things about being a sport psychology pro. Here are just a few of the tenets that strike me today:

  • Have fun and be creative. If it helps someone learn and truly “get” the message it’s a good idea. Keep it professional and strive to strike the right tone, but don’t hesitate to go outside the box on occasion.
  • It’s about people coming together. Acceptance without prejudgment or post-judgment connects communities and allows each to reach his or her potential.
  • Care. It takes effort. It takes a focus on others before yourself. It can be exhausting. Yet the beauty of caring about people and social causes is remarkable.
  • Ego is over-rated. It is easy to get blinded on the journey by basking our own glow. True sight comes from striving to see the beauty of others.
  • Be thankful. Appreciate an audience of one as much as an audience of thousands. Appreciate all that others share and teach you.

I could go on, but this list seems just right. The past two days could have been a victory lap for a career well done, however that is not how a true champion signs off. The tone and tenor of his words and actions had weight, clarity, and perspective. Much like a great slugger rounding the bases after a grand slam with a brisk trot and only providing a slight tip of the cap to adoring fans, the pastor returned to the pew with grace.

So much has been taught to a son. Lessons that flow in life and in work each day.

National Tournament Mental Coaching

NCAA ice hockey tournament begins this weekend. There’s a lot of great teams, student-athletes, and college coaches in action battling for the highest prize. Some teams are quite familiar with this time of the year (i.e. BC, North Dakota, Miami…) others are wading into relatively uncharted territory (i.e. Merrimack, Air Force…). Over the past few days I have had the opportunity to wish players and coaches well and to on occasion field a few questions about the post-season mental game.

A big idea that’s been kicking around coaches’ minds is, “What should I say to __________ before his first tournament experience?” A reasonable question, so many players can get a bit mentally off center when the post season arrives. It is certainly a time where probably less is more from a coach. This being said here are a few quick ideas for championship coaches:

  • Notice and manage your own emotional needs. Sometimes there is the urge to say something to a player because of one’s own need to “feel” active when things are important. Anxiety can encourage a coach to get say “stuff” when little is needed.
  • Forget the “this is just like any other game” mantra. This is a lie and players won’t truly buy in. Conversely don’t run around like your hair is on fire because the game is sort of a big deal. Appreciate the energy, excitement, and meaning of the game, simply do not get consumed by it.
  • Forget about telling players how good they are or how they are better than the other team. Encourage them to focus on the simple skills they do well, trust their stuff, and enjoy the opportunity.

Considering it all, basic lessons learned by a player throughout the season and their basic keys to success are the safest spots in which to direct attention. Like most things in life – keep it simple, stay positive, and enjoy the ride.

Youth Sport Coaching and the Opposable Mind

Last Wednesday morning, I was part of an exciting roundtable/thinktank – Youth Sport Coach Development in the United States: Where Do We Go From Here? (hosted by BU’s Institute for Athletic Coach Education, Up2Us, and the Boston Youth Sports Initiative). It was a morning where about 4 dozen passionate, thoughtful, and involved individuals set aside egos and began working towards the common goal of optimizing the resources and information needed to empower the next generation of youth sport coaches. While there was a common goal backgrounds of participants varied greatly: academics in sport psychology and sports pedagogy, national governing body representatives, community sports organizations, national sports organizations, and coach character educators.

While listening to the discussion, I could not help but think that this discussion was a prime example of the need for the “opposable mind.” The opposable mind is an idea trumpeted by Roger Martin. It suggests that often in life (business in particular) one is faced with what appears to be either/or decisions (i.e. profit big or provide incredible quality), those that engage the opposable mind do not accept the either/or scenario. Instead they think “integratively.” They hold two seemingly opposite ideas in their head for a while and work towards a solution that can serve both masters. The ability to think in this manner provides very fulfilling solutions and successful enterprises.

While I listed to academics, player development specialists, idealists, and practical administrators discuss visions of youth sport coach development, I was struck by the either/or conundrum that continued to be a sub-text: You can coach for positive character or you can coach for winning.

I struggle with this. Perhaps I can’t take the only coaching for character because sports without competition is simply not sports. It’s kids running around aimlessly – perhaps getting fit, but not reaping so many additional benefits that come from competitive play. I struggle with the notion of coaching for winning alone because this idea is simply nonsense. Winning and losing do not make the games great, it is the competition, the team work, the shared stories, and the effort. Perhaps most importantly, my opposable instinct tells me that sport is not at its best unless both positive character and competitiveness are being fueled regularly. The coach that neglects either is not truly doing the young athlete justice. The coach that can do both feeds the student-athlete achievement zone.

Is it possible to coach to both masters in today’s society of highlight reals, big money sports, entrepreneurial coaching, helicopter parenting, and all the rest of the silliness? Absolutely. Just put on your opposable mind, believe it is possible, and commit to it.


We love winning. Even before it was turned into Charlie Sheen’s celebrity meltdown catch phrase, the idea of winning got much love. Long before it was regularly hash-tagged, “winning” was dutifully lifted up on the playing field by many a player and a coach – “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Yes, “you play to win the game.” Furthermore ABC’s Wide World of Sports got it right, winning is a thrill and defeat is agony.

This all being said, most wise coaches appreciate and athletes that have spent time in an introductory sport psychology class know that “winning” can be distracting. More specifically, a goal-orientation that leans heavily towards outcomes (a.k.a. ego) doesn’t help… it actually inhibits high performance. Differently, a goal-orientation that is task (a.k.a mastery) oriented tends to lead to positive feelings and high performances. While winning is nice, science tells us that focusing on is not particularly useful. Again, most coaches and many athletes have received this information.

Yet many still get tangled up in “winning.” Why is this so? Despite evidence shouting down its benefits, why do they cling to this outcome orientation so tightly?

Perhaps because winning matters. Winning is exciting. Winning is fun. Winning makes you feel good about yourself. Winning makes people like you a bit more. Anything that would appear to divert one’s attention from winning may feel risky.

This is where so many go astray. It is not an either or proposition. Just because you focus on the task at hand, talk a lot about effort, and care passionately about trying to execute the game plan does not mean that you care any less about winning (it may actually mean you care more about it as you’re willing to fully commit thoughts to more productive endeavors). Diverting one’s attention from the scoreboard or refraining from proclamations about a forthcoming victory do not mean that there is not a thirst for winning… but it could feel that way. It could be reasonable to suspect that some where in our deep dark unconscious (I leave it to Freud figure out the full details of this one), we fear that not giving enough attention to winning makes us somehow less of a competitor. Winning is socially acceptable. Focusing on the things that get you there… not so much and not so entertaining.

The wise athlete and coach, loves winning, but focuses on preparing for and playing the game at hand. Winning happens after the good battle has been fought… let’s wrap our arms and minds around it at that time. Easy to understand, tough to do.

When preparing and playing the game, the athlete that fails to loosen his mental grasp on “winning,” more often than not find himself “losing.”

The Power of Words

The Power of Words – Dr. Doug Gardner

Have you ever caught yourself wondering about the meaning of innocuous words and phrases of encouragement given by fans, teammates and coaches? 

Watch Bull Durham again or simply listen closely to the types of encouragement and instruction offered to athletes the next time you are at games.  After attending too many sporting events in my career, I am not surprised why young athletes tune out and ignore adults. 

What does it mean to get a good pitch, or your pitch to hit?  How can you just trust yourself and allow your talent to take over?  Is someone really capable of forgetting a bad play, an error or a strikeout?  What about my personal favorite:  Stop thinking and just play…. Just have fun.

Have fun?  You try it sometimes. 

Try forgetting about the run-scoring double the centerfielder took away your last at-bat.  What about the borderline strike-three call you didn’t get, only to give up a big hit on the next pitch?

Is it really that easy to stay positive and stop thinking at the same time?  Especially when you are mired in a 0-10 slump? 

Despite the positive intentions, athletes often become more distracted and frustrated by words of encouragement and instruction in pressure situations, after mistakes or when negative outcomes occur. 

The hitter knows she needs to get a hit before she steps into the batters box, the pitcher wants to get you out and the fielder wants to make sure he does not make an error.

When mistakes are made, athletes are usually harder on themselves than anyone else could be.  Athletes take it personally when mistakes are made and do not like to hear someone re-stating the obvious, telling them what they should have done and that they will be ok. 

Fans, parents and coaches often forget or have not experienced the empty and hollow feeling of making a mistake in front of teammates, coaches and those who want to see you succeed?  Now add in the aspect that half the fans at a game want to see you fail, and it makes for a very difficult mental balance for the average athlete. 

Athletes are the first to understand the magnitude of their mistake and want to do something to shift negative attention away from their gaffe. 

In these circumstances, athletes tend to “try” harder, so they can make up for poor performances or mistakes.  The pitcher tries to blow a fastball by the hitter, only to get hit harder.  The hitter tries to make up for three bad at-bats by placing more pressure on themselves to get a hit in their last.  The fielder worries more about trying not to make a mistake on the next ball hit to them. 

The unfortunate side of trying harder is often met by continued poor performance, as there is no correlation between trying harder and performing better. 

Usually, when athletes try, they tense.  They tense mentally, in that they cannot input, process and analyze strategic information into action.  They tense physically, as their indecision prohibits their body from acting on decisions that were not made in an athletic and instinctive manner.

The most classic response to tension is to tell someone to relax.  Once again, word choice becomes critical.  What does relax really mean?  How does one really relax in pressure situations?  Is relaxation really the correct goal?

While I cannot discount the importance of utilizing and practicing self-regulation skills, I believe it is incorrect to solely limit mental training to (1) relaxation and (2) not thinking as goals for achieving success. 

The tension/relaxation debate illustrates the larger issues this type of thinking creates: 

The Either/Or Syndrome. 

If I am tense, I should relax.  If I think too much, I should not think.  If I care too much, I should not care.  If I do not work hard enough, I need to work harder.  If I am not relaxed, I am tense. 

My concern is when athletes need everything to be perfect for them to perform well.  Once adversity strikes, many athletes do not possess the mental fortitude to make sense of their situation, define their reality, and make decisions and take actions, win or lose.

Once consequences enter into the equation, athlete decision-making strategies change in predictable and avoidable ways.  This mostly occurs because something was not “perfect” or did not go one’s way and now they are thinking out of emotion, not out of logic and rationality.

All of the positive thinking in the world will not guarantee athletic success.   More importantly, spending time trying to be positive takes away the mental energy needed to be strategic and problem solve. 

Problem solving is a strength that most student-athletes possess in the classroom and it is important to bring this attribute onto the athletic field.

At some point, we can either try to think about something positive, breathe out of our eyelids, or take a few moments to define the reality in front of us.  The choice is yours.

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