Still more on Embracing Challenges

In the spirit of exposing a group of high performance junior tennis players to “embraceable” challenges, I recently set up a good-natured exercise to see how they would react to a particular challenge often faced in matches: cheating.

The activity was simple: I asked each member of the group in my session to take 6 shots (with a tennis ball) into a small can from about 12 feet away.  At the end of the activity, the player with the most baskets would win (winning simply meant bragging rights, as there was no material reward attached to this).

However, there was one “actor” in the group.  Seconds before the competition began, I received a fake “phone call” and told everyone I must leave the room, but to begin the game without me.  In my absence, the “actor” was selected to shoot first, and was secretly instructed by me beforehand to cheat.  The actor took 6 shots, but lied to me, in blatant fashion, about how many were actually made once I conveniently re-entered the room moments after the shots were taken.

The actors performed marvelously – that is, there was no giggling or losing character during the act of perjury – and as anticipated, their acting affected the anger levels of many of the shooters next in line.
The temptation is surely for the cheaters – the immoral folk – to take us off our own road.  While we’ve got control of the wheel, in those moments it feels like we don’t.  It feels like our focus, our effort, and our attitude are no longer controllable qualities.

But many players WEREN’T affected by the cheater, and took their own shots with full attention and relaxation.  They stayed on track.  It wasn’t easy for them, not in the least, but as they felt the temptation to sway off their road, they caught themselves.  Their awareness of the anger rising – their own proverbial inner rumble strip – led them to make smart decisions about where to put their attention in that moment (on calming their bodies and minds, and not on the vindictiveness that swelled within them).

The commitment to play our best and give full effort is something that a cheater, or many of life’s other roadblocks, shouldn’t ever influence.  That’s a challenge worth embracing.

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.

Fostering Healthy Self-Esteem in Youth Athletes

Among the items needed for a child to excel on the field is a healthy “sporting relationship” with his or her parents. That is, the dynamic created around the child’s sport – how parent and child interact before games, during games, and after games – is important. The fact is parents heavily influence their child’s self-esteem, particularly at a young age. And a healthy self-esteem can increase athletic enjoyment, dedication to training, determination on the field, and ultimately boost performance. The ways in which parents interact with their child, then, can make or break them as athletes.

A child with a strong sense of self-esteem will feel worthy and valuable, regardless of the outcome of today’s game. “I’m still a good person, even though today wasn’t my day.” This child will know that he is NOT his performance – a loss on the field doesn’t mean I’m a failure of a human being – and will still retain confidence in his ability to be successful in the future.

Under optimal conditions, one’s self-esteem should be built by acknowledging all of one’s abilities and competencies – one’s collective accomplishments and value – to form a solid foundation. And yet, one of the most dangerous (and frighteningly common) things an athlete, particularly a young one, can do is base the entirety of his self-esteem on the successful accomplishment of THIS match or THIS practice. “If I do well today, that means I’m a good player and a good person. If not, I’m a failure through and through.” Young athletes won’t come out and say this directly, but when they view sports in this manner, it is precisely how they feel. Imagine the inherent pressure that accompanies this approach to sports.

Self-esteem surely would not be such a pervasively discussed topic if it weren’t so critically important to us. But it is. So important, in fact, that we find novel ways of protecting it. For instance, if I am engaged in an activity that matters to me – a baseball player playing in his league’s championship game, a soccer player trying out for an elite travel team, a cheerleader competing in a national tournament – and I’m doing poorly, it can be tempting for me to make excuses. I may blame someone else. I may feign an injury or illness. I may simply give up, and stop putting in effort. It’s a highly self-protective mechanism: if I have someone or something to blame for my poor performance, then the fault never lies with me, and my self-esteem never takes a hit. I simply put my shield up and deflect responsibility onto my annoying opponent, or crazy parents, or nagging knee pain. And while this doesn’t justify the behavior, we as parents must appreciate the purpose behind it and subsequently learn how to handle such situations.

Below are five ideas that may help parents build a strong sporting relationship and foster the development of healthy self-esteem within their children.

1. Poker chips – Educator and speaker Richard Lavoie remarks that to enhance our children’s self-esteem, we must give them as many proverbial poker chips as possible. Highlight their accomplishments, point out positives, note their competencies. In other words, be a talent scout: that’s not to say we must falsely or inaccurately inflate our child’s ego, but we must work hard to identify the stuff they’re good at.

2. Know your role – The role of the youth sport parent is to encourage, support, and offer reminders based on the coach’s instruction in preparation for playing. The coaches should coach, and the parents should parent. A young person needs this kind of role clarity. When a parent begins to adopt the language and posture of the coach, it may become confusing or frustrating for the child. Every youth athlete should be afforded the luxury of having clear, honest, direct expectations of the roles of his parents and the roles of his coach.

3. Offer the right support – Researchers recently asked successful college athletes what their parents said that made them feel great and brought them joy when they played sports. The six words they most want to hear their parents say: “I love to watch you play.” Completely devoid of ego-inflating feedback (“You’re the best! You’re an all-star!”), and discouraging instructional feedback (“Why didn’t you turn your hips while swinging?” or “Here’s what you should really be working on for next game”).

4. Align your behaviors with your values – A person who claims that eating healthily is important to him while clutching a bagful of Skittles is not aligning his behaviors (unhealthy eating) with his values (eating well is important). Youth sports parents fall victim to this, too. Most parents insist that winning is not a top priority in their child’s sports participation. Rather, working hard and adopting a positive attitude are likely of greater priority. It seems head-scratching when the poor performance of a child, who is clearly working hard and trying to stay positive, is met with disappointed gestures or frantic instructional declarations from his parent…the same parent who claims that winning isn’t all that important! We must align our actions and feedback as parents around the successful accomplishment of what we claim are the important areas. When, in a child’s eyes, parental love and approval depend strictly on the adequacy of performance (“The better I play, the more love I’ll get”) sports are bound to be stressful.

5. Understand how your presence affects your child’s performance – Does it tend to make them play better? Worse? No affect at all? The only way to reveal this is through an open, honest, direct conversation with your children. If how you are treating your child on the field during competition, no matter how well-intentioned, is steering them away from a successful path, something has to change. Again, even if your intentions are good, if it doesn’t work for your child, it doesn’t work.

-Greg Chertok

Embracing Challenges for Performance Excellence

In pursuit of long-term goals, rarely does the elite athlete enjoy the luxury of a smooth ride.  Very few athletes achieve international greatness in sports with ease, and without obstacles. And especially at the Olympic Games, the presence of obstacles is inevitable, that is, the opportunity to experience “choppy waters” exists at every turn. For instance, the athlete whose life is dedicated to excellence in his or her sport is highly routinized – if not by choice then by necessity – and likely follows a strict daily regimen of sleep, meals, and training. Even down time, or rest, is deliberately structured into the schedule.  Imagine how an ultra-competitive, obsessively disciplined athlete may respond, emotionally and in performance, to a significantly overhauled schedule and new environment upon arriving at the Olympic Village in Sochi.   Combine this with the frequent media distractions, unfamiliar playing conditions, and the presence of family and friends, and it becomes inevitable for an athlete to place a greater value on the Games, causing performance anxiety to heighten and the managing of that anxiety to become more difficult.  Since challenges are guaranteed for every athlete as he or she strives for individual sporting goals, it is necessary to embrace challenges in order to enhance performance.

While the challenges of participating in the Games may be unique and at times unpleasant, mentally tough athletes will know that, as my colleagues Adam Naylor & Matt Cuccaro have described, obstacles also provide opportunities for learning, growth and development. When embraced, challenges, such as having to adjust to a new schedule and competition environment, are seen as tasks to be excitedly overcome rather than situations to be avoided. Confronting and embracing challenge puts athletes in a position in which they are forced to develop skills for focusing and relaxing during potentially stressful endeavors on and off the playing field. Athletes who avoid challenges, or choose not to embrace them, will often remain problem-focused and not solution-focused, and therefore have a more difficult time coping with the adjustments.

Consider a fitness-related example. Curling a five-lb. weight for several repetitions is not a remarkably challenging task – for most, it’s rather simple. As a result, very little muscular growth will occur, and the biceps will remain as it was. Curling a 25-lb. weight for several repetitions is a far more difficult task, and while the feeling in the moment may be uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or distressing, the muscle is sure to grow when put under that kind of stress. The mind, too, needs to be put under stress in order to learn and grow. A player who adopts this approach will not only accept challenges, but begin to actively seek them out as a means of growth. What a wonderful difference between this and the athlete who actively avoids challenging or uncomfortable situations, and subsequently performs poorly due to the heightened cognitive tension (“I don’t want to be here!  I don’t think I can do this!”) as well as somatic tension (muscular tightness, stiff and overly mechanical movements).

Elite athletes also know that embracing challenge means maintaining a healthy performance intensity. That is, they understand the importance, and appreciate the inherent difficulty, of not allowing anxiety to cause them to play over-aroused (“too intense”) or under-aroused (“too relaxed”), both of which can hinder performance. A recent Harvard Business School study reiterates a similar point. Contrary to the belief of many coaches and athletes, whose automatic reaction to anxiety is to relax, there are benefits of getting excited in the face of performance anxiety rather than using mental energy to attempt to calm down. While trying to calm down to manage stress is preferred to simply suppressing or hiding anxiety, the study revealed that reappraising anxiety as excitement is easier and far more effective than trying to calm down. Whereas anxiety is a negative, aversive emotion that harms performance, excitement is a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance.

Any performer who is able to reframe the physiological response from “I’m feeling nervous, I better calm down now to “I’m feeling excited” is taking advantage of the natural surge of sympathetic nervous system energy being experienced. Repurposing anxiety as excitement can help an athlete feel in control, which will improve self-efficacy and focus. A noted difference between professional and amateur athletes, then, is not necessarily the amount of anxiety experienced, but rather their interpretation of it.

Novitiate Sport Psychers: Learn and Be Genuine

This is only my second springtime post dispensing advice to new sport psych grads.  This, in part, because I’m the most recently included PSPS contributor, but also because I’m not too far beyond the novitiate designation myself, having only graduated with an advanced degree in sport psychology six years ago.  My perspective, then, differs slightly from the seasoned views of the two gentlemen who came before me (in sport psych practice and in this blog topic).


I include several points that were particularly personally challenging upon graduation, and yet once I began following them they became some of the most effective steps for me as a young professional.


Network with vigor.  Assume none of your friends, family, or family friends who claim to be well-connected in sport and to have access to the most desirous jobs is telling the truth.  Plus, you present as a more attractive and competent job candidate when you create the relationship and not your great uncle.  I’ve owned a youth summer sports camp for seven years, and I’ve never once hired a coach whose mother reaches out and sings her 18 year-old son’s praises.  Don’t rely on others to do your work – take any help you can get, but don’t rely on it.  Once your praises have been sung by someone who doesn’t share significant genetic material, you know you’re doing good work. 

You may feel alone once degree is in hand.  After all, once you’ve returned home, the constant presence of like-minded budding sport psychers, the stimulating in-class conversations, the fluid face-to-face access to advisors and professors – it’s gone.  It’s at this very point you should begin your networking pursuits, and that includes keeping in touch with former colleagues and professors.  Think about organizing tele-discussion groups as a forum for you and other interested graduates to share ideas and practices.


Read at least 540 seconds of sport psychology material every day.  From valid, peer-reviewed sources: educational journals, clinical articles, grad textbooks, books by respected players in the field.  Nine non-negotiable minutes of reading is far better than nothing, which could very well be the case if you’re “just not in the mood” and decide to take the day off.  Commit to keeping up with the latest research and commentary; it may be useful when you finally land an interview with a coach or athletic director debating whether to render your services. 


Don’t overplay your accomplishmentsIt’s a function of insecurity.  As a new grad, you probably have few, if any, marked professional achievements.   This probably won’t happen until you’re at least a few years into the game.  For now, focus on being a nice, likeable person while fulfilling #1.  During networking pursuits, dedicate more energy showing interest in the person with whom you’re speaking than in making sure they know about your impressive background.


Here’s to taking those first few steps in a positive direction,


How To Live Your Best Potential

I was asked to speak on this topic just the other week.  It’s a commonly posed question – one that’s often directed at sport & performance psychology professionals – which isn’t all that surprising.  After all, the idea of being our best is attractive and seemingly attainable. 


While definitions of “our best potential” differ, it’s not remarkably controversial to claim that many people across many fields aren’t very good at achieving this. 


My wife and I welcomed our first child into the world last month.  Over the past year, lots of our friends have done the same, and so I’ve had an opportunity recently to do some child-watching (as creepy as this sounds, it’s a wholly innocent practice).


It’s my belief that while infants don’t have much in the way of potential, they maximize what they’ve got, thanks to a few simple but deeply-ingrained neonatal qualities.  They are qualities that infants possess thoughtlessly, but that we older folk lose sight of, as a result perhaps of too much thought.  Here’s how living like a baby may help bring us closer to living our own best potential:


Babies are always passionately in the moment – Notice how attentive a baby is while looking at something. This level of focus has a face: eyes wide open, gaze fixed, breathing steady, curiosity spilling out of her ears. And the object needn’t be significant; a baby will invest just as much attention in staring at a priceless Rembrandt work as she does a caterpillar or her own toes.   It becomes more difficult, over time, to do things with that level of complete engagement and total absorption in the moment.  I’m not suggesting you start paying more attention to your toes, but there is value in re-learning art of paying attention.  Think of how often we’re not fully attentive, and how easily we allow our minds to wander onto something totally unrelated to the content of the class/practice/task.  Best potential won’t be lived without really “being” wherever you are.  Babies are purely in the moment, focused only on what’s in front of them.  Which, usually, happens to be their toes.


Babies always practice purposefully – Babies practice skills with purpose.  They never just go through the motions – there is intention behind even the simplest acts. When a baby walks, for instance, her purpose is to explore her surroundings, to learn her territory, or maybe simply to get better at walking. Her energies are devoted to walking.  Rarely do we walk with our minds so quietly and purely on our gait (this stands to reason, as we’ve become fairly competent walkers over the years).  However, many of our daily activities, even those like sports practice, phone conversations with a relative, or a dinner date with a partner that require purposefulness, are approached purposelessly.  It’s tempting to go through the motions, with a “let me just get this over with” attitude, as that approach affords less attentional demand and therefore more cognitive ease.  Most of us attend class/practice not to learn or improve, but because we have to.  Consider the ultimate difference in performance if you were to enter your next sports practice with the purpose of improving a clearly defined, specific part of your game versus not having a focus or purpose at all.


Babies are completely ok with not being perfect – Let’s consider walking once more, and how frequently a baby falters, falls, and fails while learning to walk. Beautiful to watch is the absence of self-esteem issues, which prevents them from getting upset for very long.  Sure, tears may flow, but only ephemerally.  They will always pick themselves up and try once more.  It’s hard to image our high current level of walking competence had we given up after our first failed attempt.  Babies don’t give up – at least not as easily as we typically do – because imperfection is accepted, even if subconsciously. 


Babies are never self-conscious: Take a moment now to reflect on your reaction if you were to soil yourself, rather audibly and in projectile fashion, in front of dozens of family members.  Some level of self-consciousness would (well, should) ensue.  A baby routinely performs this very act, and thinks absolutely nothing of it.  She is completely uncaring about how she is being perceived.  I’ve had someone recently comment on my shirt being too wrinkled, and it ruined my morning.  Maybe I should take a leaf out of my baby’s book, keeping my bowels in order along the way, of course.   



The act of paying attention is an art form, one that improves with practice, and one that allows us to maximize whatever task is presently at hand.  To move forwards, look backwards, and live like a baby.

Developing The Ideal Youth Sport Culture

Upon reading Lynn Zinser’s NYTimes piece on Azarenka’s medical timeout, I felt it appropriate to address the “win-at-all-costs” strategy in sport.  As Dr. Bergeron notes, character development and sportsmanship should trump winning any day of the week, most critically at the youth level.


Though well-intentioned, parents and coaches contribute to the increasingly winning-obsessed, stat-focused, talent-glorifying youth sports culture of today.  While it may seem harmless, such a culture can lead to young athletes experiencing less enjoyment, heightened performance anxiety, and increased risk of burnout. 


In considering the toxicity of today’s youth sporting environment, parents may quickly turn to the sensational headlines revealing off-the-field father brawls and coach vs. umpire physical altercations.  However, these violent physical confrontations, thankfully, are rare.  The subtler, nonviolent everyday interactions between parent-child and coach-athlete are far more common and perhaps just as harmful. 


So, how to assist youth in developing different perspectives on sports – in essence, how do we change their relationship with sports? 


In our attempts to create the ideal environment for young athletes, we may wish to consider why kids themselves enjoy sports as well as the nature of their own performance goals.  Fortunately, this issue is already well-studied.  Youth sports organizations have surveyed thousands of children on why they play their sport, and two themes continually prevail: “fun” and “self-improvement”.  Kids form a connection to a sport or activity when it is enjoyable and they feel competent.  In other words, they recognize that their skills are improving. 


While children have a natural curiosity to learn and will respond positively to being successful, “winning” is rarely identified by young athletes as a motivator for playing their favorite sport.  “Being the best” and “obtaining a college scholarship,” too, are seldom mentioned.  Those desires are often adult-constructed and media-driven.  (To note, if sports parents were to realize that the odds of a high school athlete getting an athletic scholarship is just 2% and getting a full scholarship far worse, they may soon start constructing different desires of their own.)


As the children are the central participants in youth sports, and have candidly reported on “why” they play their sport, it is unsurprising that the most successful youth athletic programs seem to be those whose team, coach, and parent goals are aligned with those of the children. Most importantly at the youth level are the following goals:


  • Fun
  • Safety
  • Personal growth and development (this includes learning such skills as working well with teammates, sportsmanship, leadership, building friendships, accepting defeat, and physical skill development)


The primary focus, then, should not be on a young athlete enjoying an undefeated season, nor must it be on the player excelling at such refined skills as perfectly executed double plays and drag bunts.  Those are undoubtedly important, perhaps primarily so at higher levels. However, at the youth level these are not as significant as helping the athlete develop a sense of passion for the sport.  Many elementary school-aged children lose their passion for sports during these years because they feel unable to live up to the pressure-filled expectations that accompany a winning-oriented competitive environment.  This typically results in a high dropout rate, occurring most frequently at the middle school level.  The importance within youth sport, then, lies on evaluating a player’s success or failure based on happiness, not on performance.


A young athlete’s goals can change in a positive way over the course of a season when their coaches create a focus on “personal excellence” rather than a focus on “winning.” This means that when parents and coaches stress positive communication, teamwork and doing one’s best – acting excellently – a child will believe that he or she can accomplish more challenging goals. The opposite happens in a zero-sum, results-oriented climate, typified by many professional sports coaches, which focuses on winning at all costs.  It is understandable why children whose sense of self-esteem and worth are placed solely on winning would have trouble demonstrating good sportsmanship after a loss.


So, stressing a climate of personal excellence and reinforcing positive episodes for your children – for instance, good performance, good hustle, good examples of sportsmanship or leadership – will help build confidence and increase their passion for participating.  Asking young athletes questions like, ‘What did you do well today?’ or ‘What was the most exciting or fun part of the game?’ rather than ‘Did you win?’ sends a powerful message.  After all, in a child’s eyes, when a parent or coach’s love and approval depend on the adequacy and competency of performance – in other words, “the better I play, the more love I’ll get” – sports are bound to be highly evaluative and highly stressful.


Shifting towards a culture of enjoyment, self-referenced growth, and personal effort and away from a culture narrowly-focused on winning and statistics may effectively cultivate passion within our youth athletes.  And while it can lead to success on the field, passion results in sustained performance, rich social experiences, and positive self-esteem.

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