Archive for April, 2012

10 Word Answers to the Mental Game

I’m a bit of a West Wing junkie – blessed to have called the shadow of the Washington Monument my home for a while and I simply enjoy the show’s wit and wisdom.  “10 Word Answers” is one of the many great pieces of worldly wisdom that can be found in its seven seasons.

“10 Word Answers” seem to abound in pseudo-sport psych.  Pithy statements, nice quotes that can be tacked to the wall of a locker room, and analogies that make an audience ewe and aw seem to be all around.  They are all part of the self-help industry that we all love for its concrete simplicity.  “Positive thoughts leads to positive actions” – wow, so simple.  Fortune cookie wisdom is good entertainment, a quick burst of good vibes, but not a real game changer at the end of the day.

The question one must consider is, “What are the actions, ideas, and cognitive development that follow the bulletin board material?”  In essence, what are the “next 10 words” in the mental game.  Player development and mental toughness is  a complex entity.  The mental game is shaped by opponents, coaches, families, peers, teammates, years of experiences, habits, weather,  future dreams and aspirations, and a handful of other factors.  A quick quote is nice, but depth of knowledge and development is key.  A reflective athlete, thoughtful coach, and competent sport psych professional do not run away from the complexity of sport, but rather embrace it – they can certainly sort through it all for most timely player development.  To do anything less would parochial.

Mental game changers lie in the graceful harnessing of everything that happens after the motivational speech.  Demand that your mental game soundbites have roots.  Ones that hold will hold you in place and give you consistence during that many opportunities of sport.

Complexity is not a vice… but rather the true answer to life’s most engaging challenges.

Freddy Garcia has the “Grip.”

— Juplimpton

Freddy Garcia has the “Grip”.  The “grip” is that dreaded feeling of having no idea where the ball is going to go when you throw it.

He is at 83-84, afraid to pitch.  You can see the mechanical breakdown happen before your eyes.  His mental tension creates physical tension, which creates mechanical breakdown.  It is all over his face and his eyes tell all.

The “grip” is devastating.  It is a career ender.  Dontrelle Willis is the latest victim of this difficult to cure disease.  It ends the careers of many players, at many levels, and there are plenty of examples from Mackey Sasser to now, Freddy Garcia.

Teams have placed players on the Disabled List for this problem.  They label it anxiety.  Players have tried medication, hypnotherapy, singing songs and visualizing something totally unrelated to throwing, yet once a player gets the “grip”, they do not ever rid themselves from its clenches.

It happens for many reasons.  No matter why, the “grip” is all powerful.  Something that you have taken for granted, all of your life, is now a chore, a mystery and a stressor because you have no idea why it has happened.

Why can’t I throw a baseball anymore?

When that doubt is created, a player grips the ball tighter.  They begin to notice things like the runner coming up the line, the facial expressions of those they are throwing to and they worry about their release point.

All of a sudden, the timing, fluidity and transfer of energy a pitcher or thrower needs, is thrown off kilter.  Feet begin to stop moving, which leads to the loss of lower body movement, momentum, direction and power.

When a thrower loses their legs, especially the feeling of using their legs, the pitcher/thrower now must use their upper body to generate power, while also trying to perform complex fine motor skills, such as pitch location and movement.

Once the upper body tries to make-up for power, fine motor skills become compromised.  When taken to an extreme, the “grip” can be triggered by any single event that does cause a person to think about the consequences of not being able to throw the ball where you want to anymore.

Watching Freddy Garcia pitch against the Red Sox today in the 1st inning, I immediately saw the tell tale signs of the “grip.”  Five wild pitches in his first game, significantly lower velocity, physical tension, aiming the ball and not trusting his secondary pitches are all indications that he has caught the virus.

I do not write this to speak ill of Freddy Garcia.  What these and other athletes do are amazing feats that the average individual appreciates but does not truly understand.

How would your throwing change in front of 50,000 people?

Personally, I suffered from the “Grip” when I played High School Baseball.  I tore my rotator cuff, tried to throw through it, couldn’t, and in compensating, I lost all confidence in throwing a baseball.

We called it Gardneritis.

I had no self-awareness at the time of what I was thinking and doing.  After surgery, I studied how this happened to me, learned practical ways to deal with it and have had to continue to work at throwing correctly whenever I pick up a ball.

I have worked with several individuals who have suffered from the “Grip.”  I wish I could say that everyone I have worked with has learned how to deal with it and continue to play.  Some have, but most have not.

But, I do know that there are practical ways for pitchers and position players to deal with the “grip.”  Ultimately, it is up to each individual to develop and enhance their attention-to-detail, focus on the “little things” and choose to work on their throwing like they were rehabbing a major physical injury.

See, the fact is that once you get it, you never truly get rid of it.  Players have to learn how to re-throw.  The “grip” is the mental equivalent of a torn ACL or having Tommy John surgery.  One cannot just all of a sudden get over it.

Learning how to throw again takes time.  It is a process that most players never pay attention to in the first place.

Who think about throwing?

So, when the “grip” happens, it becomes the first time that a person really starts to think about throwing.  Negative outcomes create negative thoughts and, with no history of thinking about throwing, the only memories are the short-term ones that involve the “grip” and thoughts and feelings associated with the total loss of control.

I feel bad for Freddy Garcia.  I know how stressed he is.  He is trying to hide his affliction.  Nobody will talk with him about it because nobody knows what to say and they do not want to think too much about their own throwing and pitching.

It is really a fine line.  Throwing can be so effortless and easy.  Yet, once someone loses that feeling, it can be lost forever.

The Heart of the Matter

I’ve been sitting on the following quote much too long.  It was a bit of a rant and wise ramble from my dear friend and colleague Doug Gardner (known to the blog at juplimpton or the Twitterverse @thinksport).  A handful of years back we were in the midst of a back and forth via e-mail and this quote made a cross country journey into my inbox.  It really nails a big idea and I’ve been relentlessly sharing it in coaching workshops over the past few month.  At first, I thought it was just a twist to throw in to keep things fresh for me, but it turns out it has deeply resonated with coaches.

The bottom line is that motivation is at the core of everything in sport.  Most people do not understand motivation correctly.  This area is one of the best, in terms of one of the most researched and studied areas in psychology.  Theory and research do reflect the real world.  Most people are motivated through outcomes and many process oriented people think they are focused on the process, yet they use the process as another form of an outcome.  Motivation dictates avoidance behaviors, reveals the true intentions of athletes and provides a baseline of focus.  Motivation reveals how someone deals with failure, adversity and persistence.  Ultimately, motivation reveals one’s willingness to learn.  Instead of judging something as good or bad, can’t we just learn?

When sharing it with coaches, we break it down line by line and we really get at the guts of the matter.  Close examination leads to some real light bulb moments for coaching the mental game.  At this time, I’ll trust you’ll give such reflection a shot on your own (If you are up for getting after understanding this aspect of the mental game in full, invite Doug or myself out to your organization to share in person).

Doug and I have been friends and colleagues for over a decade and a half.  In this time, he has been a sport psych intern to the Cleveland Indians, worked for the Boston Red Sox for six years, and recently played a role in a NCAA national championship.  Spend a little time with him and you’re sure to be entertained, but all that aside, he knows something about sport psyching.  Motivation and learning lead to great achievements… do you “get” them?

One Foot In, One Foot Out

The micro-cultures of sport are strong. Norms, values, and common practices of coaches and athletes create athletic worlds that are truly different from the world that exists outside of their locker rooms and playing fields. Walk into many a boathouse and you will see the endurance pain and suffering at the hands of a ergometer praised (i.e. this is not hyperbole… we’re talking blood hands and lost lunches… passing out is praise-worthy not medically questionable). Consider bounty-gate. Within the confines of a NFL locker room encouraging career-threatening harm to fellow players is seen as a path to Super Bowl glory. Witness the hockey parent that seeks out the sport psychology professional because his child is afraid to “hit” other kids. Never mind that “check” is a term more beneficial and sensical, failure to “hit” others is seen as an obstacle to the Hockey East scholarship. The micro-cultures of sport have some strong beliefs.

The strong beliefs of sporting cultures are wise, they have been built on many decades of experience and from the mouths of many passionate coaches and teachers. The strong beliefs of sport are also caps on potential. They may lead to good play, but it is important to question if they truly lead to great play.

In rereading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, I was struck how his description of Berlin Wall falling created a new word-view that “unlock[ed] enormous pent-up energies” was a concept that benefits sport culture.  Friedman states, “The Berlin Wall was not only blocking our way; it was blocking our sight.”  So often the tried and true traditions of a sport’s micro-culture blocks our way and blocks our sight.

This failure to see beyond the walls of habit and comfort that we tend to create is a common theme when considering potential unrealized.  It’s a subtext to many of the thoughts, reflections, and examinations of neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer.  In reading through many of his recent blogs and his new book Imagine, the willingness and ability to think about things “differently” is at the core of creativity and achievements of great renown.  Stepping a bit out of the context and culture in which one practices, competes, and coaches could be considered essential for great strides forward.

Finding the muse of high performance also requires the sport scientist to have one foot in the world of the sport at hand and one outside of it.  A great example of this mindset in coaching action was the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra’s off-season continuing education efforts.  He spent time with Oregon Duck football… rather than excessive hours on the hardwood.  Love or hate the Heat, I feel pretty good about the growth of a team whose coach grows in the sport by looking beyond the sport.  A wise coach asks, “What am I saying?  Is there a better way to say it… one that has greater resonance and meaning to my athletes?”  The excelling athlete wonders, “Just because a television commentator highlights it, is it a truly valuable concept to occupy my competitive thoughts with?”  Conventional wisdom in all sports can lead to good things, great things lie ahead for all athletes and coaches that put windows in their walls so they can look outward for other perspectives on daily practice and approaches to game day play.


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