Archive for May, 2011

Congrats Grads: Practice What You Preach

Ed Kingston started the ball rolling on the PSPS annual wisdom for those graduating with a degree in sport psychology. Expect the rest of the gang to pour in a few thoughts on this topic as well. It looks like an annual tradition – we’re all a year older… and continue our quests to be a bit wiser. Enjoy.

Some of the simplest, bright ideas that sport psychology professionals share with athletes on a regular basis get neglected when considering building a career in the field. The oversight is at times comical… here are a few things you probably know, but forget to turn them on yourself regularly:

Task/Mastery Orientation – Being grounded in self-referenced, controllable goals leads to high performance, facilitative anxiety, confidence, effort, and persistence. Not many surprises in the previous sentence, yet every year when it’s time to get a job I have at least one student tell me they need to make X dollars in their next job. Sounds a bit outcome-oriented to me. What type of work are you going to do? How are you going to do it? How are you going to get better each day?

10 yr/ 10,000 hrs of Deliberate Practice – It is fairly well known that it takes this long to achieve true excellence in any given domain. Many have tried to speed this up, few have succeeded. Yet there are plenty of websites out there promoting “world renowned mental training experts” – perhaps some are, others likely have not put in the 10 and 10 yet seem to be a rush to wear the varsity letter of expertise without playing at the freshman or JV levels. Strive to be an expert, but rushing to the label is a hubristic landmine. Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant status is perhaps the best measure of competence in the practice of sport psychology. This being said, “CC” status in and of itself falls short of the 10 and 10 necessary for expertise (doesn’t even get you a 10th of the way there). Taking this one step further, do not neglect the “deliberate” in deliberate practice. It may be unpopular to say, but extensive sport coaching experience where mental skills are preached and team cohesion sought is not quality deliberate practice in sport psychology hours. In the same vein, the practice of clinical psychology, counseling, or psychiatry with a non-sport population is not quality deliberate practice in sport. This is not to throw water on a freshly earned degree in sport psychology. Competence is an excellent thing, rushing to the label excellence and failing to commit humble deliberate practice seems too often to lead to a very short lived career in applied sport psychology.

Strive to be an expert, but rushing to the label is a hubristic landmine.

Team cohesion (or collaboration vs. alienating competitiveness) – I witnessed a graduate student once sit in a room of 19 of his peers and proclaim, “I am not going to share details of how I work with athletes in this room. Everyone in this room is my future competition.” (I am relieved to say that this individual has grown beyond this stance in the years since.) Can you imagine a truly successful soccer player on a truly successful team standing in a team meeting and saying, “I am not going to share or show any of my preparation strategies or experience with my teammates. They could take my spot in the line-up.” Desire to get ahead and look out for one’s self is a common human urge. Furthermore when one has a mortgage, a family, and a lifestyle they hope to achieve it is easy to see fellow professionals as threats rather than teammates. This all said, there are pages upon pages of sport psychology research that shows that collaboration trumps alienating competitiveness any day. Run towards competent peers, don’t put up walls blocking them out.

(This doesn’t mean peers don’t compete… By 1999, Dr. Gardner interned with the Cleveland Indians and in Penn State Athletics prior to completing his doctoral degree. As I was 2 years behind him in my studies, he looked at me and said, “Beat that before you graduate.” A handful of months later I moved to Florida for 10 months, set up a comprehensive sport psych program at the International Tennis Academy USA, worked with top international juniors through a few top 200 pros, and found myself the next September sitting courtside watching a client at the US Open. I’m not sure if I managed to trump Doug’s pre-doc exploits, but surely I gave it a shot. More importantly, we speak almost daily and hide no professional secrets.)

Run towards competent peers, don’t put up walls blocking them out.

Get Flow – Flow is not simply about great feelings… great feelings can facilitate it or can be a consequence of flow. Yet, flow is about embracing challenge – on the developmental journey, getting after the stresses of differentiation while knowing the calmer waters of integration will exist soon (and then doing it all over again). When we harness our efforts appropriately and the planets are aligned we may find flow… a great place to be. The rest of the time we are trying to wrap our arms successfully around challenge. Don’t forget that. Making a living in applied sport psychology is about “trying to wrap our arms successfully around challenge.” The challenge to be competent, the challenge to clearly articulate and show coaches why your work matters, the challenge to negotiate a reasonable contract, the challenge to survive in a field where very few “help wanted” adds exist, etc. Some days you’ll flow… more importantly commit to embracing challenge in your professional life.

These are just a few textbook sport psych ideas that strike me while writing this post. Sometimes we forget to apply the most important ideas to our own professional practice. Please add to this list and let it serve to steady you as you navigate the field. My thought for class of 2011 sport psych grads… keep your textbooks close at hand and theories close in mind. If you believe they are important to an athlete’s career success, it is likely that they are important to yours. Congrats grads.


Advice For Sport Psych Grad Student

Recently, a new graduate student, “Stacey”, wrote to me asking about how one goes about building a career in sport psychology. “How do I get my name ‘out there’?” she asked. “Where are the jobs? Is the AASP conferences a good place to go when looking for jobs?” These are good questions to ask for a student new to this field. Below is my response (for what it’s worth) – and over the next few days, I challenge my colleagues on this blog to share their thoughts and ideas for this student and students like her around the country – looking to “do sport psychology.”

Hi “Stacey”,

The AASP conferences (national & regional) are good ways to meet others in the field of sport psychology. However, it’s not a job fair (I found out the hard way). Your question about finding work in this field is a good one (and in many ways – it’s THE question many graduate students have). Here is my opinion:

You’ll find that sport psychology work (e.g., presentations to teams, individual work w/athletes, etc) will be a part of what do rather than all that you do – in other words, this will be supplemental income rather than your sole source of income. This is not meant to discourage – but rather to give you a realistic view of the field currently.

 While the need for mental skills training/sport psychology seems to be self-evident to you and me – there are still many coaches, parents, and athletes that just don’t understand the role (or need!) of this training. I know, it still makes me scratch my head sometimes in wonder, but that’s the reality.
So long story short – there are a lot of challenges for sport psychology professionals looking to do good work. It’s easy to get discouraged (especially when starting out).
That said, I do think there are things you can do (that have helped me!):
1) Learn everything you can about the field. Just as we ask athletes to be “students of their game” – so we  must be “students of our craft”. It’s important to cultivate a library of good resources in sport psychology consulting. 
2) Network with other sport psychology professionals whenever possible. It’s very easy to feel isolated. The great thing about meeting others who are as passionate about sport psychology is 1) it’s re-energizing, and 2) a good way to pick up new ideas or concepts about teaching mental skills. You can start this network while in graduate school with classmates.
3) Starting out – you’ll need to find opportunities to present about mental skills training. I think the best way to do this is start in the sport community/culture you know best – for me, this was soccer. Find coaching clinics, camps, and offer to come speak about mental skills training. At the start – you’ll need to do this for free (since the experience is more valuable for you. Over time, you can charge a modest fee for you time). This gives you experience and gives you exposure to other coaches. If there are local colleges, find out if they have summer camps with middle and high school campers – and approach the coach in the off-season about presenting to campers during the camp.
4) Write, write, write. There are many coaching journals or magazines that you could submit articles about mental skills training. This is a good way to start articulating your ideas and again, get your name out there as a sport psychology resource.
5) Believe or not – currently, the single biggest employer of sport psychology professionals is the U.S. Army. No – you don’t have to join the Army. You would work for an independent contractor with the U.S. Army. Basically – the U.S. Army recognizes the benefits of mental skills training for its deploying soldiers and soldiers recovering from injury. Here is the website that describes their program (very interesting stuff!):
Ok – that’s a lot to digest (sorry – I get excited!)
My grad advisor once gave me really good advice about working in the field – “everyone wants to go to heaven, no one wants to die.” His point was getting establish in sport psychology takes A LOT of work and it’s a series of baby-steps. The older I get, the smarter he gets! 😉 I hope this helps.

The Proactive Athlete & Results

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

There are two very distinct ways to approach and respond to results in competition.  One approach is to be reactive, emotional, and helpless. The other is to be proactive, thoughtful, and open to introspection. Let’s use the example of a junior golfer who breaks 80 on a regular basis in practice. Today this player has posted a horrible score of 92 in a major junior tournament. The player is extremely upset and emotional walking off the course.  This is the natural response of any athlete who trains hard and cares about posting solid scores in competition, especially major competitions. After all, college coaches, peers, family members, and friends are all going to see the score and form an opinion about what happened out there.  This is the reality of competing and putting yourself on the line in tournaments. From this moment forward is what differentiates and defines the two types of athletes (the reactive and the proactive).  The reactive athlete will take one course of action and the proactive athlete will take another.  The choice is yours…

Reactive athlete – The reactive athlete allows results to define him or herself.  “If I play well…I am good, if I play bad…I am bad”.  The reactive athlete does not evaluate the round to identify what was done well and what are opportunities for improvement.  This athlete wants to forget about poor results and treats successful performance as though it should always be expected.  This type of person avoids the reality of the situation and simply hopes that tomorrow’s results will be better.

Proactive athlete – The proactive athlete may also show emotion to both successful and poor performances, but it doesn’t last for extended periods of time.  This person knows that a thorough evaluation must be done in order to draw from the experience to become even better moving forward.  A thorough and effective evaluation cannot be done in the heat of emotion, however, so this type of athlete likely sits down to cool off with a meal and some hydration to recover physically and mentally from the stress of competing.  This also means that any support team in attendance (coaches, family, friends, etc.)  respects that the athlete may need time and space to get out of the competitive mindset. Once the proactive athlete feels like they are back in “neutral” they assess their strengths and limitations from the day both physically and mentally.  Statistical measurements can be used to lead the physical evaluation (fairways/greens hit, number of putts, up and down percentage, etc.).  In order to do a mental evaluation, the proactive athlete grades him or herself on their preparation, effort, and ability to recover from adversity that day.  Once the assessment in complete, he or she takes action to maintain their current strengths and works diligently to improve their current limitations.  They make a simple plan to establish priorities moving forward and act upon those priorities to build effective habits. The proactive athlete is always learning, and therefore improving, from both success and failure.

In short, the reactive athlete has an emotional response to results while the proactive athlete uses results as feedback.  All athletes have both successes and failures throughout a career, throughout a year, and even throughout a single performance.  Over the course of a career, the proactive athlete will effectively deal with this reality and continuously improve as a result.  The reactive athlete will either stay the same or possibly get even worse. The choice is yours!  Do you intend to be a reactive or a proactive athlete this summer?

West Meets East On the Pursuit of Excellence

Full disclosure: I have not read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and it’s not on the top of my reading list. It seems shamelessly inflammatory and well marketed. Yet the fact that many reviews say that it is not a terribly reflective “memoir” leaves it low on my reading list. After reading much commentary and many reviews of the book (many great ones in The AtlanticSympathy for Tiger Moms, The Ivy Delusion, America’s Top Parent) I’m ready to add my 2 cents on parenting.

The Tiger Mom isn’t all bad… Having aspirations for one’s kids seems to be a natural parent concern, how it is carried day to day is the challenge. It is also tough to argue with parents expecting a child to practice and promoting commitment to activities. I’m not comfortable with a parent being terribly critical of one’s own child (leave it to good coaches, teachers, and the such… and support them), yet it is clear that blindly building up a child with hollow praise and unrelenting positivity is Western political correctness gone astry.

Encouraging and modeling commitment is a good thing. Supporting and expecting an athlete to practice a sporting, musical, or other extracurricular activity is a good thing.

My problem with the Tiger Mom is the ownership the parent takes and maintains over a child’s activities. True excellence and true persistence cannot occur without the athlete leading the way. When the middle school and teen aged athlete is directed by a parent where, when, and how to play I am not optimistic about one’s true athletic potential to be achieved.

Yes, you can poke and prod an athlete to pretty high levels of performance… you can poke and prod an athlete into a collegiate scholarship. Unfortunately however, once the pushing and prodding ceiling is hit, the wheels fall off in a hurry. It may be the collegiate athlete that experiences suffocating levels of performance stress or perhaps something more publicly visible such as Michelle Wie, Todd Marinovich, or Jennifer Capriati meltdowns, but it seems to come hard and fast. And the athlete seems to have few resources to handle the stress.

As frustrating as it may be to a parent, the athlete must be encouraged to have an active voice and regular choice in activities after the first decade of life has passed. This means that development may appear to move more slowly. A practice missed, a poor effort given, a  distraction from friends all too often arising… these things of teenage-ness can challenge a parents patience and lead to fears for a child’s potential for future “success.” Ironically, these road bumps on the developmental journey nurture the resources that will lead to fulfillment of potential. The Tiger Mom (parent) that smothers the intellectually active sports participant dynamites speed bumps that aid long term development (as was so well stated by the Wall Street Journal – you can brute-force any kid to learn to play the piano – just precisely like his or her billion neighbors, but you’ll never get Jimi Hendrix that way.)

This is not however a is a crucification of the Tiger Mom, too often Western culture lowers standards on deliberate practice and commitment too quickly (how we appropriately model them and support them is a post for another time and another day). Excellence simply cannot be achieved without persistence and practice. This being said, the athlete that is neither active in decisions about his participation nor reflective about her striving and struggling plays at a disadvantage at the higher levels of sport.

There’s some wisdom to both East and West. There is great opportunity in a nuanced and caring blend of both when nurturing a child’s passions in performance domains.

Facing the Fear

“True courage is not the absence of fear—but the willingness to proceed in spite of it.” Unknown
Driving through New York City late one night, I happened upon a radio segment whose host was interviewing a psychologist about the traumatic effects of surviving a high-magnitude earthquake.  Within his practice, he had witnessed the personal havoc that such an experience wrought on sensible, educated, previously healthfully-functioning individuals.  For instance, many of his patients were unable to shower, brush their teeth, or leave their house as they had associated those behaviors with the event.  The fears, noted the psychologist, were irrational and detracted from their ability to function normally.

But rather than encourage his patients to avoid or escape the fear, the psychologist based his work around helping them develop the courage to confront it.  Can’t take a shower anymore?  Well, you have to.  Finding it impossible to get in your car?  It’s got to be done; you can’t live like this.  In response to such firm commands and ‘courage training,’ nearly 80% of his patients made noticeable progress and healthy adjustments back into society.

Athletes, too, adopt irrational, performance-diminishing fears in response to their own “traumas.”  An athlete’s fear itself – of looking foolish or inadequate, of disappointing teammates or coaches, of particular opponents, of failing or succeeding – may not be particularly debilitating.  Instead, his response to the fear is what gets in the way of optimal performance.  Committed athletes, most of whom are highly solution-focused, may opt to escape from situations that cause or exacerbate fear.  The baseball player who is hitless on the season against that night’s starting pitcher may decide to “lay low” before the game and not watch tape or mentally rehearse his at-bats, as doing so may bring up familiar feelings of fear and incompetence.  The hockey player, upon taking the ice for his shift, may secretly wish for the puck not to be passed to him, as having the puck may aggravate his long-standing fear of doing something reckless with it.

Being avoidance-focused is not being solution-focused.  One must deal with a difficult situation in order to be classified as solution-focused.  And the only direct way to address fear is by developing the courage to confront it, and the trust that directly confronting it will produce favorable results over time.

This will take some discomfort.  But to realize our full potential, we’ve all got to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  Start with a firm command…

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