Being Ok With Being Uncomfortable

I recently presented the following 2 scenarios to a group of high-school athletes:

Scenario #1: You’re coming off a good week of practice and a great week of school. You woke this morning feeling great. During warm-ups, your coach praised your talent and efforts in front of everyone on the team. You feel no pressure today and everything feels “on” as your warm-up winds down and you get ready to perform.

Scenario #2: You’re coming off a so-so week of practice. You woke up this morning feeling sluggish (and it’s raining outside). During warm-ups, your coach questioned your ability. Today, you’re playing a team you did poorly against last year. You don’t feel 100% as warm-up winds down and you get ready to perform.

“In which scenario can you have a good game?” I asked. One of the athletes, nailed the sentiment many were thinking with her response, “I’d like to think ‘both’ – but it sure helps to feel comfortable right before the race!”

Ah, comfort zones. We all have internal “comfort zones” that help us play at our best. These are like check-lists that help determine our comfort level. Take for instance the comfort zone of a cross-country runner I recently met:

  • Nice weather
  • Familiar course
  • Everyone getting along on team/ No drama
  • I feel energized in the morning and during warm-up
  • Coach says something motivating to me before the race

 When our checklist and our environment are in sync, in other words – everything is exactly the way we want it – we feel comfortable and ready to perform. But – what happens when reality (poor weather, challenging course, team drama, lack of energy, etc.) doesn’t match our comfort zone? 

 Most athletes struggle to stretch their comfort zones. When our comfort zone is too narrow, we’ll have a tough time adjusting to all of the things that are simply out of our control and our performance likely suffers.  The key is to begin to recognize the limits of our comfort zone and stretch it as much as we can:

 Anticipate the times when it’s uncomfortable.  Each of us knows the “things” that stretch our comfort zones. It might be weather, or a certain opponent, a certain course. Identifying the things that make us uncomfortable is the first step in developing an effective response to the problem.

 Choose an effective attitude. Worry and fear are often down-payments on a debt we might not owe. Too many athletes worry about what might happen – rather than taking the time to think about what they want to have happen with their performance. We have to choose to “see” ourselves performing well in a variety of situations, regardless of what is (or isn’t) happening around us.

 Focus on your response. In other words, “what’s the plan?” What will you think or do to put yourself in a position to be effective?  These actions will be dependent on the situation – but our “response”-ability will be determining factor in whether or not will perform well outside of our comfort zone.

 Put your best foot forward. In the end, we have to experience the discomfort of these uncomfortable situations to know what response works best. This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) wait until the next race, game, or tournament. This kind of quality effort can be practiced each day in training sessions.

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.


Advice For Sport Psych Grad Student

Recently, a new graduate student, “Stacey”, wrote to me asking about how one goes about building a career in sport psychology. “How do I get my name ‘out there’?” she asked. “Where are the jobs? Is the AASP conferences a good place to go when looking for jobs?” These are good questions to ask for a student new to this field. Below is my response (for what it’s worth) – and over the next few days, I challenge my colleagues on this blog to share their thoughts and ideas for this student and students like her around the country – looking to “do sport psychology.”

Hi “Stacey”,

The AASP conferences (national & regional) are good ways to meet others in the field of sport psychology. However, it’s not a job fair (I found out the hard way). Your question about finding work in this field is a good one (and in many ways – it’s THE question many graduate students have). Here is my opinion:

You’ll find that sport psychology work (e.g., presentations to teams, individual work w/athletes, etc) will be a part of what do rather than all that you do – in other words, this will be supplemental income rather than your sole source of income. This is not meant to discourage – but rather to give you a realistic view of the field currently.

 While the need for mental skills training/sport psychology seems to be self-evident to you and me – there are still many coaches, parents, and athletes that just don’t understand the role (or need!) of this training. I know, it still makes me scratch my head sometimes in wonder, but that’s the reality.
So long story short – there are a lot of challenges for sport psychology professionals looking to do good work. It’s easy to get discouraged (especially when starting out).
That said, I do think there are things you can do (that have helped me!):
1) Learn everything you can about the field. Just as we ask athletes to be “students of their game” – so we  must be “students of our craft”. It’s important to cultivate a library of good resources in sport psychology consulting. 
2) Network with other sport psychology professionals whenever possible. It’s very easy to feel isolated. The great thing about meeting others who are as passionate about sport psychology is 1) it’s re-energizing, and 2) a good way to pick up new ideas or concepts about teaching mental skills. You can start this network while in graduate school with classmates.
3) Starting out – you’ll need to find opportunities to present about mental skills training. I think the best way to do this is start in the sport community/culture you know best – for me, this was soccer. Find coaching clinics, camps, and offer to come speak about mental skills training. At the start – you’ll need to do this for free (since the experience is more valuable for you. Over time, you can charge a modest fee for you time). This gives you experience and gives you exposure to other coaches. If there are local colleges, find out if they have summer camps with middle and high school campers – and approach the coach in the off-season about presenting to campers during the camp.
4) Write, write, write. There are many coaching journals or magazines that you could submit articles about mental skills training. This is a good way to start articulating your ideas and again, get your name out there as a sport psychology resource.
5) Believe or not – currently, the single biggest employer of sport psychology professionals is the U.S. Army. No – you don’t have to join the Army. You would work for an independent contractor with the U.S. Army. Basically – the U.S. Army recognizes the benefits of mental skills training for its deploying soldiers and soldiers recovering from injury. Here is the website that describes their program (very interesting stuff!):
Ok – that’s a lot to digest (sorry – I get excited!)
My grad advisor once gave me really good advice about working in the field – “everyone wants to go to heaven, no one wants to die.” His point was getting establish in sport psychology takes A LOT of work and it’s a series of baby-steps. The older I get, the smarter he gets! 😉 I hope this helps.

Training for Patience

It’s important to remember that success isn’t going always going to happen overnight. Whether it’s waiting out a performance slump, looking to break into a starting line-up, or finally overcoming a nagging injury, patience isn’t just a virtue – it’s a necessity. Athletes and coaches can be notoriously impatient. I once reminded a coach that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He told his assistant coach standing next to him that it was strictly because he wasn’t the foreman. I’d be the first to tell you – I’m not very patient. However, I’m a firm believer that good things can and will happen if one is patient and persistent.

Sport is full of examples of patience and persistence paying real dividends for athletes and teams.   Similar to any skill – patience takes time and well – patience – to perfect. Here are some necessary components of patience-training:

Patience starts with developing realistic expectations. Often, previous experience with instant or seemingly “overnight” success can breed impatience – especially when confronted with a task or problem that will take time to fulfill or overcome. Most of the time we aren’t going to experience success immediately – but we can’t get discouraged and give up on our efforts. Success is often a function of time and effort. Setting realistic goals for improvement and/or success is a necessity.

Recognizing setbacks as temporary is another important component of patience. Growth and development rarely occur in a smooth, upward trajectory. We things go awry, you have to step back, evaluate the situation, make the necessary adjustments and continue on. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb after thousands of unsuccessful experiments. Yet, he never viewed his failures as a waste of time – “I realized after each attempt I was successful in proving that you couldn’t make a light bulb in that manner.” Setbacks aren’t just temporary – they may even be necessary feedback in order for us to reach our potential.

Choose to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Setbacks make it easy give into bitterness: “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “I don’t deserve this!” Ultimately, this outlook – one that focuses on outcomes rather than process – doesn’t move us any closer to success. A more effective outlook would reflect patience in the process. It’s asking at the start of each training session: “What will I do today to get a little bit closer to where I want to be?”

Finally, remember that patience is rooted in the belief you can overcome. This kind of belief doesn’t guarantee success but it does create an environment that fosters success. It’s the opposite of doubt, worry, and fear. It predisposes the athlete to perform well and then allows talent to take over. As my graduate advisor loved to say, “Trust is a mindset. It’s not dependent on circumstances or situations. It’s really the will to choose.”

Dear Basketball Dad:

You don’t know me – but we’ve sat next to each other for most of this basketball season. First of all – let me say – I’m impressed that you come to watch each and every game your daughter plays. I’ve known plenty of young athletes who would love to have one or both parents attend even one game in their high school career. So showing up to each game certainly is a sign you care about your daughter.

And it’s clear you know basketball. I’m no mind-reader though – it’s clear you know a little about the game because you’re very free about sharing your expertise and what you’re seeing on the court – with me, those around you, the refs, and your daughter on the court.

It’s also clear you like statistics. I know this because after every game you go down and check the scorebook for your daughter’s numbers that night.

It’s clear you’re very invested in your daughter’s success on the court. Sitting next to you – it’s easy to sense the relief after a close win and the utter frustration that comes with a loss. You seem to live and die with each outcome of a game.

You know, I get it. I’m a sport-parent myself. I easily find myself getting caught up in the game – with his success on the field. Not too long ago, my son was getting subbed out and as he came running off the field, I was there to give him a high-five. “Good job today Dad,” he said, as he ran by me. “I didn’t even hear you once!”

It got me thinking. Didn’t he need me to cheer him on? Turns out – nope, he didn’t. He wants me to be there to watch him play. And that’s it.

Sometimes the level of support that we (parents) want to give is not what our young athlete necessarily needs.

So Basketball Dad – you’ve got to stop.

You’ve got to stop coaching your daughter from the stands. Everyone’s in the gym has a role to play. The athletes’ role is to play the game. The referees’ role is the police the game. The coaches’ role is to coach the players. As parent – you get to parent your athlete. Know your role.

You’ve got to stop shouting instructions to your daughter on the court. Ultimately, successful development of your daughter’s capabilities in competitive performances is predicated on her ability to make key decisions in crucial situations. In order for her to be confident in her own ability to make important decisions, she must experience opportunities where her decision-skills and self-confidence are tested and allowed to grow. Yup – she’s going to make mistakes. But let her learn for herself.

And you’ve got to stop investing so much in the outcomes: the wins and losses, her stats, and her playing time. They feel like tangible things – but in time – the medals, trophies, and news clippings become tarnished, yellowed, and worn with age. Value the effort and courage she displays each night on the court. Let her know you appreciate her effort. The memories and sense of pride that she builds as she faces different challenges each game will live on in her memory and grow in value over time.

Optical Illusions

 Author’s Note: I recently spoke with a club soccer team about to enter league play after a non-league schedule that can best be described as “up and down”. The following was part of our discussion. 

Look at optical illusion – what do you see?

Perception’s a funny thing – we can all look at the same thing – but see things differently. Illusions like the one above work because the contours of one image match the contours of the other in such a way as to confuse the brain in to perceiving two interpretations of what is there.

Take a look at the next illusion – what do you see?

4 wins – 1 loss – 3 ties

Some look at the 3 ties and see missed opportunities

Some look at the 4 wins and only see a .500 club

Some look at the 1 and see a hard-fighting team with only 1 loss. – And they’re all correct.

Paying too much attention to team records can be an illusion. Nothing’s as good as it seems, nothing’s as bad as it seems, somewhere in between reality lies. Successful teams don’t ride the emotional roller coaster of a season by being too up or too down.

You can’t drive down the road with your face stuck in the rearview mirror.

I rarely use the word “win” like most people do. To me – W.I.N. stands for “What’s Important Now?” The most important thing you can do now use today and tomorrow’s practices to tune up for league play.

Q & A with the soccer moms

“Should 6-year olds be worried about winning or losing?”

Let me be clear – competition can be a good-thing. After all, competition is a central element in a player’s development. At the youth level, however, a competitive environment shouldn’t be a Final Score-oriented environment. In other words – the score of the game shouldn’t be the sole determinant of a team’s success. The differences must be clear. A competitive environment at the youth level encourages decisions from player and coach alike that focus on performance rather than outcome. With beginning players, coaches should favor skill and creativity on-the-ball as the means to find success within the rules and spirit of the game. The score at the end of the game is just one indicator of performance and at this age, not the most important one.

“The kids keep score – shouldn’t the adults?”

Competition among kids playing games will always exist, whether adults are present or not. Making soccer “fun” at the younger ages does not mean that competition (or even keeping score) is removed. Competition can be positive and healthy. Scoring goals and winning the game are fundamental parts of soccer. Allow the children to enjoy this aspect without making it the focus. Set up other skill-based objectives (such as trapping, dribbling, and eventually passing) as the focal point. At the same time, recognize that children will find competition in anything you set up. Let them compete and have fun with the competitive process. In youth soccer, the emphasis of the coach (and who are we kidding, the parents as well) will often determine if the competitive environment is healthy or not.

“But aren’t the games supposed to be important!?”

At the youth level, games are important as a means to player development (enjoyment, ball skill, insight, and fitness), not as the aim. These competitive situations are a series of tests for kids. Whether it’s learning to dribble the ball into space or getting back on one’s feet after getting knocked down – the  usefulness of the game can occur in many different forms. Parents and coaches should focus on the process and performance rather than the outcome.  It’s important to be prepared for the possibility that your team may lose some games in the short term with this approach. Keep in mind that it is actually easier to win games at this age group with teams that are “organized” but lack skill. Placing the more physically mature players down the middle of the field and just asking players to “kick it down the middle” or only allowing players to specialize at one position may lead to more victories. However, this approach doesn’t effectively teach the players the game and prepare them to continue on in soccer.

My Problem with Goal-Setting

The idea of having concrete, achievable goals are deeply ingrained in sport and sport psychology. Effective goal-setting (altogether now – SMART goals!) is a part of every student’s graduate training. It’s been the topic of posts on this blog. But let me play the role of sport psychology heretic for the moment by proposing this – It is possible to live and perform without goals, for the most part.

Contrary to what you might have been taught, it doesn’t have to mean you stop achieving things. It means you stop letting yourself be limited by goals.

The problem with goals

Take the following athlete: they set an outcome goal or three for the year, and then process (or performance or action or whatever you’re calling them) goals for each month. Then they figure out what process steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus their day on those steps.
Unfortunately, it rarely works out this neatly. You all know this – put yourself in the athlete’s shoes. You know you need to work on a process step, and you try to keep the end goal in mind to motivate yourself. But this process step might be something you dread, and so you procrastinate. You do other work, or you check email or Facebook, or you goof off.
And so your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. And goals are too hard to achieve. So now what? Well, you review your goals and reset the outcomes. You create a new set of process goals and action plans. You know where you’re going, because you have goals!
Of course, you don’t actually end up getting there. Sometimes you achieve the goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself. I propose the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! Goals as a system are set up for failure.
Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are extremely limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else. Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals.

How it works

Athletes don’t have to set a goal for the year, or for the month, or for the week or day. They don’t need to obsess about tracking progress or actionable steps. They don’t even need a to-do list, though it doesn’t hurt to write down reminders if they like.

What does the athlete do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Doritos? No, they train; they compete; they simply pursue each day’s activity with same passion they bring to field (or court, or ring). Just because they don’t have goals doesn’t mean they do nothing — they can create, they can produce, they can follow their passion. In the end, they usually end up achieving more than if they had goals, because they’re always doing something they’re excited, passionate about. But whether they achieve some goal or not isn’t the point at all: all that matters is that they’re engaged in the passionate pursuit of their sport.

Leave It On The Field

A common expression I often hear before a big match or tournament is, “leave it on the field!: It’s understandable that athletes would want to give it their all, to it all out there when the big game or tournament or tryout comes along. When I coached high school soccer, I can remember hearing, “leave it on the field,” from my players before the last game of the season – it used to make me want to cuss.

Leave it on the field… tonight? Where in the $%@& was that sentiment at the start of the season or halfway through league-play?

I’ve since realized that “leaving it on the field” isn’t like flipping a light switch. That effort and intensity doesn’t just turn “on” right when you need it. Instead, it’s an attitude – something that needs to be cultivated throughout one’s season and career.

Apollo Creed was right – “there is no tomorrow!” He’d been helping Rocky train to get another title bout in Rocky III – and the former champ had just informed Apollo that he’d “work hard tomorrow.”  There’s a pervasive mentality in middle-class athletes that there’s always going to be another game, another shot, another chance to prove oneself. This I’ll-Do-It-Tomorrow-Mentality bleeds intensity and ambition dry.

Figure out what “leaving it on the field” looks like. If today was the last time you would play your sport – what would your last game look like? What – specifically – would we see? “I’m going to play hard” doesn’t cut it. Get specific. This gives you a better, clearer picture of just what it means to “leave it on the field”

Don’t wait until the end of the season to “leave it on the field.” Imagine an athlete or a team truly dedicated to “leaving it on the field” from the start of a season. They recognize that tomorrow is promised to no one. Consequently, they appreciate each opportunity to give their best effort and intensity at each practice and competition. That’s an athlete or team, win or lose, that won’t look back and ask, “what if…”

Move On.

I had my own “Robert Green Cringe-Worthy-Moment” during my junior year of high school football. In the biggest game of the year, in front of packed stands, against our cross-town rivals, I managed to drop a touchdown pass while all alone in the endzone – went right through my hands. Worst. Drop. Ever.

After the game, I’m pretty sure I blamed the stadium lights for the dropped ball.


Robert Green’s cringe-worthy moment came last Saturday against the United States – as he let a shot on goal bounce off his hands and into the goal.

And yet, even with a handy, pre-packaged excuse such as the ball controversy of this World Cup, Robert Green wasn’t having any of it afterwards:

“It is regrettable and not what you want to happen but that’s life and you move on. You hold your head up high and get to work in training. It won’t affect me psychologically. I’m 30, I’m a man, and you have hardships in life and prepare for them.”

Damn straight. There’s something to be learned here about performing, messing up, picking yourself up, and in Green’s words – moving on. “Flush it” has become almost cliché in sport – but just how does an athlete let-go of that really bad performance? I think it involves three steps:

Accept Responsibility. Our ability to effectively respond (or our “response-ability”) starts with taking ownership of our play on any given day. Of course, this is easy to do on great days – a little harder to do when we drop a sure touchdown pass in the endzone. Taking responsibility gives players a clearer perspective from which to decide if there’s something to learn from a bad performance.

Even a shitty mistake can be fertilizer. Sometimes mistakes and bad games happen. But most times – there’s also something to glean from the experience. The best athletes are willing to go back over the experience (even embarrassing mistakes) – just to see if there’s something to learn from it.

Choose a time or action that signifies “moving on”. An athlete once told me their routine after a bad game was to take a 10-minute shower: “I could feel bad for myself when I stepped into the shower,” she told me, “but after 10 minutes – the bad game goes down the drain with the water.” I get it – a nice metaphor. But the real lesson here is to have some concrete action that switches one’s focus from the past performance to the next performance.

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