Archive for August, 2012

Adjusting to the FITWOPs

I recently conducted a workshop with a group of U14 soccer players in Northern NJ.  As part of the session, the girls engaged in a wonderful group activity Ed Kingston once aptly dubbed “Happy Fun Ball”.  The purpose of the drill is for the group to keep a beach ball in the air for as many hits as possible, without it touching the ground.  The team, as a requirement for successful performance, must monitor their communication, their strategy, and their response to setbacks.  I typically run “Happy Fun Ball” outdoors, so teams must battle the sun, the wind, noise or distractions from neighboring teams, and any potential natural disaster (you’d be surprised how many typhoons run through Bergen County).

The team finished with 92 consecutive hits.  Not a bad score, considering their first few attempts yielded only 16 hits.  While reflecting on the activity, one of the girls said, “We would have done so much better if the wind wasn’t there!”

That’s true!  But…a realistic complaint?  I wondered if it’s fair to blame something so natural and, well, existing, on less-than-ideal performance.  It would seem silly for a hockey winger to say, “I’d have scored three goals if the goalie weren’t in the crease!”, for a baseball hitter to cry, “That line drive would have fallen if the center fielder wasn’t right there!”, or for a golfer to grumble, “That putt should have gone in had it not been for that stupid slope!” (although this one is probably more commonly uttered than the former two). The wind, like the goalie or the center fielder or the slope, neatly falls into a category I’ve personally acronymized as a FITWOP: factor in the way of perfection.

You hear it from athletes everywhere.  “I would have run a PR if (insert FITWOP).” “My coach would have started me today, except (insert FITWOP).” I even heard a participant of the Tough Mudder, an outdoor obstacle-laden mud-slathered 12-mile fitness event, complain, “This would have been so easy if the obstacles didn’t exist!” I resisted temptation to laugh uproariously, although it took great effort.

If a FITWOP presents itself naturally and consistently – slopes and outfielders aren’t going anywhere any time soon – is it at all helpful to lament its presence?  We seem to have only a certain amount of expendable energy on which successful performance relies.  Using valuable energy wishing against that which is guaranteed is rather wasteful.

Two choices, then, emerge: Bust or Adjust.  Allow the FITWOP to control your performance, or adjust to the certainty of uncertainty.  Break with the obstacles, or adapt to them.

The pessimist complains about the wind…

The optimist expects it to change…

And the realist adjust the sails.

~William Arthur Ward

Rather than grumble about the outside environment, which is where all FITWOPs originate, pay attention to what’s under your control – how you’ve prepared for the performance, the feel of the swing/shot, your energy level during play.  A FITWOP in some form will appear, that I promise you.  Accept it as a natural part of the athletic experience and adjust.

The soccer team could have adjusted to the wind by changing their positioning, which would have resulted in markedly greater performance.  They chose, as a well-intentioned but mental skills-lacking bunch, to yell towards the wind (“This stupid wind!” they screamed craning their necks upward).  Just as football players will get hit and swimmers will get wet , so too will a FITWOP emerge.  Try to identify all the FITWOPs that have taken your energy and affected your play.  Commit to adjusting your next time out.


Why I Love MMA

I’m a somewhat skinny guy, who doesn’t like blood, and is in really no hurry to get into any physical confrontations… so you would be as surprised as me to realize that I really appreciate mixed martial arts (MMA) combat.  Appreciate may be a bit of an understatement, a handful of years ago I joined a UFC training camp/team and recently have collaborated on some scholarly work on the sport.  It is fair to say, I have gone from a healthy skeptic of the sport to, in some small way, part of the sport.

This morning I was pondering why I seem to love MMA.  It occurred to me when I read an article about lag putting on the PGA Tour’s website.  I think Coach Immelman’s reflections are spot on.  In particular, “Strive for crisp contact and good speed control.”  What sticks in my craw is the term “lag putting.”  It strikes me that this is a term that is simply so ingrained in the culture of golf it distracts from player growth and development.

Sporting cultures can be so myopic, that growth and development is impeded.  When I spent time developing the sport psychology curriculum at the International Tennis Academy USA at the turn of the century this was made clear to me.  Players such as Roddick, Fish, and their peers trained and battled day in and day out on sun drenched Florida tennis courts.  Right next to the Delray courts was the Bucky Dent Baseball Academy.  At this time, the off-season home of Pudge Rodriguez.  I asked the tennis coaches about the baseball academy (which I drove by multiple times a day) and they did not even know it existed.  This was a surprise… the replica Green Monster about 250 yards away from the tennis courts was kind of tough to miss.  But if your world is tennis, why would baseball matter to you?  Like if you are a golfer, of course you debate and mediate upon lag putting – who wouldn’t?

A few years ago, I was privileged to eaves drop on a casual discussion among UFC contenders and coaches.  One fighter and former All-American wrestler was showing off a take-down that was one of his go to moves in college.  A couple of Brazilian Jiujitsu specialists watched in awe and excitedly thought about opportunities to add it to the MMA game.  After a few moments and some discussion, the move was nixed from the MMA repertoire (good for wrestling, but exposed the head a bit too much to punches in MMA).  Nonetheless, this interaction was terrific.  Walk into a collegiate wrestling room.  Travel to a Gracie Jiujitsu gym.  Watch Muay Thai training.  Experience a musty boxing gym.  All combat sports, but different routines, rituals, and cultures.  Yet in MMA these cultures not only collide, but seek one another out for growth and learning.

MMA competitors cannot afford to be myopic.  This is what I love about MMA.  Some sporting cultures forget that dynamic thinking and training about athletics exist beyond their well-worn playbooks and wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation.  Looking outside to other sports takes the restrictor plate off of performance.

Golfers need to take more time on drills and in a mindset that develops vivid feel for the speed of a putt.  Just do not say the goal is to develop “L” word.  Such quality practice leads to good putts, no other term is needed.  Sometimes leaving the culturally created terms behind, put great player development ahead.

  • What sport do you need to take a pilgrimage (intellectual and/or physical) to in order to boost your player development?
  • What well worn terms or concepts in your sporting life do you use mindlessly?  Consider if they confine, constrict, and add little value.  If so, it’s likely time to let go of them.

Open your mind to a melting pot of sporting wisdom and enjoy it all.

Green Tootsie Pop Motivation

I have some great reservations about rewarding youth sport athletes with candy, ice cream, stickers, baseball cards, and shiny trophies for all.  Something about bribery of youth sport athletes does not sit well in my gut nor does it settle my psych of performance mind.  Sure it seems harmless enough, but what is the value for enjoyment and performance of play?

Flipping through Daniel Pink’s Drive (2009) got me thinking it was time to put a voice to my uneasy relationship with the token economy of youth sport.  Reinforcing play with extrinsic rewards takes the “play” out of it…. turning it into “work.”  If you consider self-determination closely, one would even realize that providing rewards for batting, fielding, running, and pitching can actually inhibit the growth of inquisitive energy, performance, and fun.  Rewards, although initially pleasing to a kid, actually take the fun out of play.  Extrinsic reward puts someone else in charge of the experience (i.e. coach or parent), robbing the athlete of autonomy.  Extrinsic reward makes athletic tasks seem like mindless goals to accomplish, rather than dynamic challenges with solutions that can take many shapes and forms.  Rewarding a child for playing may be easy, but it really does not lead to long term accomplishment or passion.

This being said, Tootsie pops at the conclusion of a game can be nice.  The green ones in particular are great for motivation.  Watching the Hull Snow Crabs after a fierce hour of tee ball is a sight to see.  They converge on the open bag of Tootsie pops with reckless abandon.  The lollipops are just part of the experience, a relatively benign sign of appreciation and praise.  Their value to the kids is minimal (I often find a half eaten one in my car hours later).  Yet, there are about two green pops available each week.  No player gets the color regularly, but they are the true gems in each bag.  Whoever gets them is random and not guaranteed each week, but the joy that accompanies the luck of finding green in one’s palm is a sight to see.  Green is good, because it is not a reward for efforts and is not always accessible.  It lets play be play and some additional wonder follow.

Nature and Extrinsic Rewards

I find some level of wisdom and humor in the West Wing.  I am guilty of using clips from a show in the past in a post and now I am guilty of using it again.  Sport and society remain simply too slow at getting and applying the power of intrinsic and avoiding the detriments of extrinsic.  Perhaps the West Wing can push the discussion forward.  Substituting “extrinsic reward” for “nature” in Oliver Babish’s following rant (starting around the 49 sec mark) may shed further light and humor on the subject:

Now subbing in “extrinsic reward” or, sport’s great version of extrinsic, “trophy” where “nature” is mentioned:

[Extrinsic reward] is to be protected from… Like a woman, [trophies] seduce you with [their shininess and beautiful engravings and the public adoration that accompany]… and then they break your ankle. Also like a woman.

Sounds like extrinsic rewards can be quite dangerous…

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