Archive for November, 2011

Gratitude…it’s the Holidays, after all

Now, in the wake of Thanksgiving, may be an appropriate time to acknowledge the parallels between the holiday and athletics.  The New York Times recently published an article offering some practical advice for cultivating an “attitude of gratitude”.  Research outside the sporting arena has linked gratitude to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others.  Some suggestions were dispensed for enhancing one’s gratitudinal strength:

 

  • Keep a journal listing five things for which you feel grateful, like a friend’s generosity, something you have learned, a sunset you have enjoyed.  Research has demonstrated that people who do this once a week for two months will report more optimism and happiness, fewer physical problems, and more time working out.
  • Try it on your family.  Do one small thoughtful or generous thing for a member of your family, perhaps once a week to start.
  • Write a short letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person. 

 

The tradeoff seems rather advantageous: make a list, do a generous deed, write a letter, and better health & heightened quality of life await.  Granted, completing these tasks won’t guarantee a better life, but living your life purposefully – with a bit more gratitude – is sure to make at least a bit of difference.

 

There’s wonderful applicability to athletics.  Research within sport has identified a relationship between gratitude amongst adolescent athletes and increased team satisfaction, less athlete burnout, and greater overall well-being. 

 

But, being grateful for what, exactly?  The trees?  The dirt?  Making the team?

 

Gratitude, for the purpose of this discussion, can be defined as “an estimate of gain coupled with the judgment that someone else is responsible for that gain”.  Estimating and appreciating gain (performing well; being promoted from bench player to starter; recognizing physical improvements in the gym) and identifying that other people were involved in making it happen, then, appear like important steps towards feeling grateful.

 

Here’s a splendid example: the former Olympian Carl Lewis reports in his autobiography that feeling grateful to his competitors became part of his competition routine.  Without opponents, Lewis could not have been personally challenged to the extent that he was with opponents.  He could not have experienced victory without opponents.  There would be no Gold without opponents.  Lewis chose to embrace the presence of his competitors as required figures in his quest for performance excellence. This attitudinal shift seemed to serve him well.

 

I suggest you live your sporting life purposefully, with a bit more gratitude, and you will become more embracing of each competitive experience, too.

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Performance Cycle: The Key to Continuous Improvement

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Athlete development is a long-term process. Although many gadgets, instruments, and training aids are sold as the ultimate “must-have” item, unfortunately there are no shortcuts or magic pills that allow an individual to reach their ultimate potential without time, energy, and introspection. It should be understood that the only way for an athlete to get where they want to be is through preparation, experience, and continuous learning through evaluation. I utilize the following model to ensure each one of my students gets the most from themselves and their training on a daily basis. This model assists athletes in their journey to reach their potential on and off the field by creating a mindset of continuous improvement.

The prepare stage of the performance cycle is the longest in duration for all athletes. These are the days, weeks, or months set aside for training between competitions. This time is used to develop the technical, tactical, physical, and mental skills required to compete at a high level. This stage of the performance cycle typically starts with a high percentage of instruction in order for the athlete to learn new skills and improve technique. As the cycle continues, the athlete engages in quality repetition of movement to create the feel and trust required to compete without excess technical thought as competition nears.

The compete stage is the time to execute and showcase the skills that were developed and improved during the prepare stage. This is not the ideal time to try something new or uncomfortable that has not been practiced. Competition is naturally a time of higher stress, so an athlete’s mind and body will automatically revert to doing what it currently knows best. This will allow the individual to see where their game actually stands. The compete stage is the opportunity for an athlete to measure their current potential and show how well they can manage the physical, tactical, and mental  aspects of performance in a public forum.

The evaluate & active rest stage of the performance cycle is often skimmed over or eliminated altogether because it may not show any immediate results. However, if the athlete does not have an opportunity to assess themself and take time for other off-the-field needs, long-term development suffers. Success in life is a continuous process of evaluating, learning, and developing; which takes a significant amount of time and energy. Without proper evaluation and rest, athletes typically lose perspective on their sport and life as a whole, which results in burnout and shorter, less fulfilling athletic careers. Once the evaluation is complete, it’s time to create the next training plan to increase overall potential by preparing once again.

This model is clearly the opposite of a “must-have” item or magic pill. It is a training plan that exhibits the time, energy, and evaluation required to excel in sport and life. After going through this cycle a few hundred times, elite performance and skill mastery might begin to show itself.

Getting Better Making You Worse?

Working hard to develop one’s self as an athlete is a noble ideal. Just recently, Dwayne Wade said that he took part in rigorous tests at the Gatorade Sport Science Labs in order to find any edge possible. Athletes are encouraged to lead monk-like lives and are lauded for tremendous off-season commitments. Again, all noble efforts, but one must ask when is enough enough? Perhaps more importantly when is self-improvement making you worse?

Tireless efforts and never being satisfied with one’s current level of performance can actually be performance inhibitors. An off season of extra practice and added discipline in the gym can create heavy expectations if an athlete is not careful. Great efforts prior to a contest can too often leave the athlete “hoping” that investments will reap great dividends… rather than “trusting” that the game will unfold as it should and they are ready. Furthermore, the athlete that is truly never satisfied with his performance level has a difficult time settling in and playing the game at hand. In order to truly compete freely one needs to accept herself and what she has to give that day on the playing field (dig through M. Scott Peck’s Golf and the Spirit for a rich explanation of this concept).

Tireless efforts and never being satisfied with one’s current level of performance can actually be performance inhibitors.

Alina Tugend published a nice piece in the New York Times recently, Pursuing Self-Improvement at the Risk of Self-Acceptance. It is worth a read. It provides a nice lens on the negative consequences of a cult-like approach to self-improvement. Happiness and high-performance is not found in perfection, but rather in acceptance.

It is so easy to trip and tumble over one’s self once you try to improve. Overtraining runs rampant… so often that is simply self-improvement run amok. Pressure to perform can be smothering… after dedicated practice, great outcomes seem required rather than something healthy to strive towards.  Confidence too often is fleeting… if constantly under critical scrutiny it is difficult for self-belief to get a true foothold.

Most days an athlete would benefit from putting forth a solid effort and accept himself as a good athlete. This certainly does not suggest that one is not trying to get better, it simply means that he is not obsessing on it. As a mentor, coach, and friend of mine Paul Assaiante says, “Perfect is the enemy of good… and good is good.” I trust him… he’s won a lot of national championships… 13 and counting.

Technological Failure: Considering Sport and Exercise

Play… sport will be more important than ever in the 21st century because of technological innovations. This is the essence of a premise that Drew Hyland, professor of philosophy at Trinity College, shared with his Philosophy of Sport class in the mid-nineties. He was working off the premise that great technological innovations will make us more efficient and create luxuries of free time that we could commit to play. He was right in that play is more important than ever in this century. However I do not believe its importance is not due to technology, bit rather in spite of technology.

Technology has and continues to change our lives each day. The ability to swap messages across time zones instantly, to do more work faster, and to analyze information in a matter of seconds is a matter of fact rather than science fiction. Keyboards are working their ways towards obsolescence, the internet is accessible anytime and anyplace, and walking a city sidewalk without eyes locked on a mini, personal computer screen is a thing of the past. Innovative technology has had grand impacts on our lives since the above ideas were shared in the liberal arts classroom in Hartford, Connecticut. Technology however has not expanded our time and opportunities for play.

Technology has expanded our need for play… physical activity… sport.

Like an animal in Skinner’s box unable to resist the potential treats, many humans cannot escape the blinking red announcement light on their Blackberry. After “work hours,” during weekends, while on holiday, in the midst of baptisms, weddings, and funerals the glow of the IPhone display lures like a siren.

Yes, these are valuable tools for personal communication and hold many recreational apps, but they still lack the insight to turn off when their proud owners need to turn off. Facebook inundates the workplace while our workplace inundates our weekends. The machines, our stress reducers have too often become our stress inducers. No longer can today’s problem be healthily avoided. No more can the international news of the day be lost when vacationing.

This is where play has become more important than ever. Yes, if active enough (i.e. too sweaty for an earpiece and too action oriented for reading 4 pt font and typing with thumbs) it is a sure escape from e-mails, texts, and all the rest. More so perhaps it combats some unfortunate technological creations… stress and lack of connectedness at an in the flesh human level. As simply stated by psychology of exercise expert Michael Otto, “Exercise works for your mood.” Play takes us off the ongoing roller coaster of good e-mails, bad e-mails, and junk e-mails. Furthermore any team sport (or individual sport team (i.e. running and cycling)) provides opportunities for genuine connectedness – relationships built out of fun, struggle, support, and mutual sharing.

The idea of technology giving us time for play is a wonderful one. There is no doubt it has made us more efficient. Yet rather than rest, we do more because we can do more. Perhaps play gets lost in the shuffle. Because of technology, play is more important than ever… find it and embrace it.


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