Archive for October, 2014

More on Embracing Challenges

by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP

Failure is needed for learning; it is our teacher.
Without taking risk, we can’t fail, and so we don’t learn
or grow toward elite performance or top self solutions.”
~ Mark Divine – U.S. Navy Seal

It’s a counterintuitive way of thinking, really; shouldn’t we avoid failure? Aren’t mistakes bad? This has been, after all, a constant message for many of us throughout our participation in competitive sports.

To embrace failure as the grist for learning goes against many of our fundamental beliefs of athletics: winning means I’m good, failure means I’m bad. But do all athletes adopt this view?

From what I’ve seen in my years of consulting, the immediate and reflexive display of anger after a mistake or a lost point in practice, for instance, is characteristic of most amateur tennis players (that is, those below the professional level). This population generally tends to view mistakes as detrimental, problematic, and anxiety-provoking.

Nearly all of the elite professional athletes I’ve observed practicing – in football, hockey, martial arts, and tennis – tend to view mistakes differently. They view them with curiosity. They truly seem to latch onto a missed point or a poor shot as an opportunity to learn something, and to grow a little bit. This fact isn’t only designated for motivational posters; professionals really do use failure as a stepping stone to success.

Recent research tells us that the brain has a store of “memory errors.” The brain takes errors that were made and, when we do that task again, like hitting a forehand, it remembers past errors when performing the forehand correctly. This means that athletes improve on motor tasks not only by memorizing how to perform it correctly, but also through the experience of making mistakes. Without our conscious awareness, the brain recognizes previous errors, learns something from it, and assists the body in performing the task correctly upon revisiting it. Errors, evidently, are needed for learning.

Equipped with this knowledge, athletes begin to do something game-changing: they begin to embrace challenges. They actively seek out challenging, arduous tasks – like difficult fitness regimens, tough drill stations, intimidating opponents – as a means of growth and learning. They know that challenges force us to stretch, to reach, to put forth more effort, and to display determination, all of which ultimately leads to improved performance.

So, what can we do? The following advice comes from friend and sport psychology colleague Shameema Yousuf:

1. Find enjoyment in improvement, and exert effort on the areas that need work. Remember too, that those opponents who exploit your ‘weaknesses’ are helping you strengthen, in the same way that constantly exerting force on a weak muscle will soon lead to it becoming strong and explosive.
2. Get ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable.’ It won’t always feel comfortable exposing your ‘weaknesses’ or experiencing an error, but growth requires learning from errors.
3. Be involved in setting your goals with your coach. What is it you feel needs work? What do you want to strengthen? If involved in the process of setting your goals, you will relate to them and foster intrinsic motivation.

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Redefining Perfection

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Many performers seek perfection. Meticulous details are precisely lined up in anticipation of achieving desired results over and over again. When going well, this approach seems to flow in harmony as efforts are immediately and repeatedly rewarded. As results begin diverging from the crystal clear image of perfect execution, however, frustration and anxiety take a front seat. Execution of the task starts looking and feeling more like a runaway, emotional rollercoaster as the now-strongly contaminated experience unfolds helplessly before one’s eyes.

What most experience or witness through the lens of a prototypical “perfectionist” is one who goes to (and demands) extremes. Perspective is often lost through the keen eye of the result-enthralled perfectionist. Keep in mind that some of the most highly successful individuals carry some perfectionistic tendencies, yet seem to use them to their advantage. Holding oneself to a high standard is an integral component of attaining greatness, reaching new heights and breaking performance barriers; so there is certainly some value in incorporating aspects of a perfectionist approach. The difference lies in the way in which perfection is perceived and applied.

At first glance, it would seem that continuously repeating tasks effortlessly while receiving flawless results would be a euphoric experience. Fortune, glory and fame would consistently linger at one’s fingertips. Life doesn’t seem to get much better than that, right? Yet, a deeper look might uncover something different. If tasks are repeatedly performed to perfection with very little output or effort provided…would those endeavors truly remain enjoyable, worthwhile or interesting? Doesn’t perfection actually become quite boring after a while, with the guarantee that everything will simply fall into place by “just showing up”?

A golfer attempts to make a very short putt

A golfer standing 1-foot from the hole, who repeatedly drains putt after putt has attained perfection for the task. Desired results are achieved over and over again, with little effort or energy expended. After some time passes, however, the boredom of this task becomes just as uncomfortable as the anxiety felt from NOT achieving the desired result repeatedly. Needless to say, it seems there must be another component involved in the pursuit of perfection.

challenging shot

The most cutting-edge and highly motivated performers are those who understand the “perfect” performance is one which stimulates passion, engagement and the thrill of embracing the unknown. Rather than merely (and quite boringly) expecting the perfect result, seek meaningful opportunities to feel the rush of excitement which supplements opportunities to test personal limits and experience what’s possible. By continuously bumping up against the barrier of current skill levels, one starts experiencing the ultimate euphoria which accompanies unlocking human potential. When perfection is measured more by the excitement, stimulation and quality of the experience, rather than just the results which accompany it – passion, engagement and exhilaration take a front seat. This view of perfection will end up taking one much further in life, supplemented by abundant satisfaction from the experience itself, which is often lost on the result-seeking perfectionist. Teetering on the edge of success and failure is truly the perfect scenario to fulfill the human desire for excitement, thrill and bursts of adrenaline. Rather than desiring the boredom of repeatedly completing a task; seek perfection by testing limits, expanding horizons and exploring the boundaries of previously untapped potential.


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