Archive for June, 2011

Pressure Can Make Us

Elite levels of soccer are the perfect breeding ground for pressure. Players battle for spots on a roster or the starting line-up every time they come to training. Coaches demand a consistent high level of play from their players. There is often little room for error. This sport – like so many others – is so challenging and unpredictable at times that dealing with pressure becomes more the rule than the exception. It’s a mistake for players to believe you can snap your fingers and make the pressure go away. However, young players can learn how to feed off competitive pressure, improve focus, and raise their game to a higher level.

Which is why – at the start of the Women’s World Cup –  I love this new commercial from Nike:

Here are some suggestions for successfully dealing with competitive pressure before and during performance:

Begin to see pressure as a privilege. The pressure of consistently performing well is the price of playing at such an elite level. Too many athletes are simply afraid of pressure-packed situations in games or’ in training. The best players learn to view this pressure as their ally and not their enemy. They see pressure as a tool to push their play to a higher level.

Make pre-game butterflies fly in formation. A lot of players are affected by the pre-game jitters – the zooming heart rate, the butterflies in the gut, etc. This is the body’s natural physiological (fight or flight) reaction to stress. The brain’s job is to make meaning of these signals (which is usually, “you’re nervous”).

The trick to effectively dealing with this is to reinterpret what these physiological signals mean. This is your choice! Instead of thinking, “I’m nervous, I can’t be nervous” when feel the butterflies, change the meaning of this signal to something helpful, such as “I’m ready!”

Focus on the Controllables. The “uncontrollables” as the biggest mental trap athletes fall into in pressure-packed situations. The “uncontrollables” are quite simply all the things in a performance that are directly out of your control (e.g., dealing with a teammate’s mistakes, the play of your opponent, the crowd, the ref, etc). When a player focuses on the uncontrollables three things will consistently happen to him – First, he’ll start to get anxious and physically tight. Second, his confidence will start to slide. Third, his performance will begin to suffer. What are the things we can control? Simple: Effort, attitude, and focus.

Choose to trust what you got. At the heart of playing with confidence in the face of pressure is trusting one’s ability and performing/playing in the present moment. When pressure builds, our minds often become cluttered and we lose our focus. At that moment, we’re usually focused on what just happened or what might (or might not) happen.

The key to being “in the moment” is shifting your mind from “thinking” to “trusting”. Thinking too much can be a big problem – especially when spontaneous reactions allow you to perform your best.

“Don’t think! Just Play!” is usually the advice athletes get when faced with pressure. While such advice isn’t necessarily bad, many athletes struggle with simply cutting off their thoughts altogether. When you find yourself thinking too much, remember that the closest number to zero is one. If you can’t cut off your thoughts altogether, choose one word or a short phrase that directs your focus and instructs your actions.

Effective “cue words,” (such as “quick feet” for a goalkeeper defending a shot, or “first to the ball!” for a player defending a corner, or “what’s important now?” for the forward that just missed a golden opportunity to score) capture what you’re trying to accomplish and help you stay focused on the task at hand.


Fast, Deliberate, Slow

It is exhausting for a fan to what a pitcher step off of the mound time and time again to re-read the signs, adjust his glove, his grip, his uniform, and various body parts. Put a runner on base and the agony can be exacerbated – check the runner, throw to first, check the runner, check the runner, throw to first, throw to first, check the runner, consider pitching, check the runner, throw to first…

Slow play is a problem for fans, for players, for the foursome behind you on the golf course. In golf, it has become a scarlet letter – with the AJGA monitoring the “@getcrackin Pace of Play” at events and country club members fearing reprisals of peers if they search a bit too long in the woods for a golf ball. Although it still occurs, it is rare a kind word will be heard about the athlete that acts like a tortoise when the ball is in play or he has stepped between the ropes.

Fast is good? Not typically – consider the reality that choking on the playing field is typically correlated with increased pace of actions during down time and agitated play when things “count.” Have you ever watched a tennis player race between points, picking up loose balls as if they are about to run away? Fast too often ends up hasty… and as we’ve all heard a time or two, “haste makes waste.” Making waste of precious opportunities to get ahead on the playing field is costly especially as the level of play improves.

The reality is that pace of play really is not a time thing, it is a deliberate thing. Playing as if you are James Bond strapped to a nemesis’s world ending (and you ending) device with timer counting down too often is a good sign of mindless play and avoiding simple stresses of competition. Ruminating over the ball like Sergio Garcia circa 2002 – waggle, waggle, waggle, repeat 23 more times – seems to be a good sign of fear filled perfectionism. Deliberate play lies somewhere between the two. It may even look like ‘fast” play to the untrained eye 😉

Pace of play matters – it’s good for rhythm, it’s good for the mental game, it’s good for performance. Make sure every pitch has a purpose, every play has a plan, and every swing a target – to neglect such ideas would be to drift towards mindlessness. Furthermore, reasonable comfort trumps feeling perfect over the ball and a twinge of uncertainty about the upcoming play’s outcome is part of what makes sports so exciting – settle in and play.

If your pace of play is slow, speed up and trust yourself a bit. If your pace of play is rapid fire, slow down and center yourself a bit.

Advice for a Recent Sport Psych. Graduate

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Here are my BIG 3 SUGGESTIONS for Stacey:

1) Define (and maintain) your Role – Sport psychology and it’s merits can be difficult to measure.  In the reality of the business world decisions are made by how much something is “worth” to customers.  So then, what exactly is sport psychology worth?  The answer…there is no answer!!?  It’s worth nothing and everything at the same time.  Mental success is difficult to define, much less measure, so good luck defining it’s “worth”.  So then, as a practitioner (especially a neophyte) what leverage do you have to convince someone to hire you?

My suggestion is to generate a firm and well founded philosophy that will become your product.  What do you truly believe enhances performance…and HOW will you put this philosophy/product to use with the population in question?  From there it may be effective to create a timetable of how much time and how many sessions will it take to educate the population on your product until they truly “get it”.  It’s one thing to get in the door, and another to stay in (which is a discussion for another post), but it is imperative to stay true to the mission established at the beginning.  I have heard too many disaster stories of recent graduates who end up filling “other roles” with the same population they are trying to do sport psychology work with.  Not only do you tend to lose credibility, but you also lose the ability to develop your sport psychology product and refine it to become successful in the long-term.

2) Maintain a High Standard of Ethics – It’s human nature to want people to like you.  Be aware of that and do not confuse high quality and effective work with the desire to be liked.  Yes, we are hired to listen to and support those around us, but there are professional boundaries that must be established.  As a young practitioner you will likely not be much older than (and you may actually be even younger than) the population you work with.  Be a professional first…and be a professional second.  Period.

3) Establish a Support System – You will need help.  After 5+ years of working with athletes on player development and the mental aspects of performance every day, I still rely very heavily and continue to develop a support system for myself.  Thanks mostly to my colleagues on this blog!!  But there are other local clinical psychologists, family members, and friends who support my professional and personal needs so I can stick my role (see #1) on a daily basis.

Like any other pursuit in life, developing a quality sport psychology product takes highly channeled effort.  Hopefully these BIG 3 SUGGESTIONS assist you to channel that effort effectively Stacey!!

Get Out There and Do It

My response to “Stacey” will be similar in nature to that of my colleagues.  I’ll expound upon one point in particular below.


How do I get my name out there?


By getting your name out there.  I mean no disrespect or condescension with this comment.  I am a young practitioner and only very mildly experienced in the consulting field.  But this action-focused approach has seemed to work well.  You gain exposure by actively exposing yourself as a competent professional to the kind of people you wish to be working with.  You “do” sport psychology by choosing to do it!


Think of most any professional industry – jeweler, accountant, dentist, personal trainer, pizzeria owner, street performer, insurance broker, chiropractor, etc.  In order for each specialist to successfully ingrain oneself into the professional landscape, one must have the ability to captivate an audience (promote the product) and deliver the goods (effectively provide the product).  The Italian-raised pizzeria owner who uses only the freshest of ingredients, the most savory of spices, and the most succulent of meats & cheeses may be out of business in a matter of months if he remains secretly tucked away at the corner of a side street out of public awareness.  The shrewd businessman who buys space at the same corner and builds a pizzeria, allocating all funds towards the promotion and marketing of the business while disregarding the actual making of the pizza may also be out of business fairly quickly once the public discovers the inauthenticity of the food.  A beautiful harmony of product promotion and quality must exist for the pizzeria to thrive.  This is true of sport psychology, too.


Sport psychology remains a field of self-promotion.  The same cannot be said of other performance-enhancing arenas in as literal a manner like nutritional counseling and strength & conditioning.  Coaches may say, Our team is too slow/has too many non-contact injuries/has no energy while competing.  I must employ a speed coach/fitness coach/nutritional coach to address these issues.  Most coaches aren’t as readily willing to acknowledge the potential benefits of a mental skills coach.  It is, then, SO important for us to make ourselves known by going out there and speaking about mental skills training, as Ed says, and its obvious benefits to athletes.  This can be done as an independent consultant (your first job, Stacey, may very well be consulting independently, without the security of an employer).


A personal account: when I first entered the consulting field four years ago, I did so with the narrow vision of doing applied work.  For months I called professionals in the local sports community, left messages, wrote emails, set up meetings, left more messages…I was persistent bordering on irritating.  My goal was to convey the importance of mental skills training in such a way that these coaches/trainers/physical therapists would leave our meeting feeling like they simply COULDN’T survive without me working with their athletes.  How did we go all these years without using this guy? I would picture them say.  Then, the first shred of interest: a high school coach returned my call and suggested that we set up a workshop for his team of 35 boys highlighting a particular topic on which I had some scholastic familiarity.   And at that moment, all I could experience was sheer, unadulterated, defecation-inducing panic.  …Oh no, know what? What the hell am I doing? I don’t know the first thing about running workshops…I’m not equipped to do this.  There are so many consultants that are so much better than me.  I can’t do this.


Part of my feeling this way could have been attributed to the inharmonious balance I created between promotion and quality (I had been spending a greater percentage of my time promoting my services than doing the work, like reading and writing, to become proficient).  But much of it was due to my inexperience.  I wasn’t comfortable giving workshops, so I immediately resorted to panic.  I – and I suppose we as a species – tend to worry more about things that matter to us, so at least I knew this was important to me.  The truth is, going out there and doing sport psychology may at first be scary and intimidating and overwhelming and uncomfortable.  But wasn’t that the case in riding your bike for the first time, or taking your first steps, or shaving?  It all gets more comfortable.  Stacey, go out there and promote yourself with as much self-assuredness you can muster, and don’t allow unanswered messages to act as an immediate deterrent.  It sounds like you love the field – you’ve got to love the process that accompanies it.  Go out there and do it.

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