Lessons learned from the NFL Combine

By: Dr. Doug Gardner (Juplimpton)

If you think school is difficult, the SAT is tough and the recruiting process daunting, imagine having your future employment potential dissected under a microscope, both physically and mentally over a four day period of time. At the annual NFL Combine, future NFL players must endure scrutiny and performance pressure in a very different environment than game day.

After spending a week at the NFL Combine, I came away with a greater appreciation for athletic performance under the most stressful of situations. Football players spend months preparing for their Combine performance. They are in the gym, honing their interview skills and preparing for the Wonderlic test.

Players endure 12-15 hour days, often starting at 5am and ending around midnight. Balancing interviews with 32 teams, physical examinations and psychological evaluations, players then have to step onto the field and maneuver themselves through rigorous drills that have to be performed to the highest degree, under the most difficult and stressful of circumstances.

One dropped ball, one missed cone, let alone a bad snap from a long-snapper, a missed field goal or a muffed punt leaves a lasting impression on the scouts and team officials sitting in the stands.

From a mental standpoint, I have not witnessed a more pressurized environment for athletes. We often think that competitions like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Series and other must-win competitive environments would be filled with more pressure than running a 40-yard draft, kicking footballs, catching passes and other drills in front of a handful of people.

Making a mistake in front of 40 million viewers might be easier to deal with than shanking a kick in front of 32 future employers. I watched a long-snapper fire over 80 snaps to punters and field goal kickers. He was exhausted, sweating and he was the only long-snapper at the entire NFL Combine.

The long snapper position is one of the most pressurized positions in all of football. Remember the Monday Night Football Game this past season when the Raiders lost their long-snapper in the second quarter? Their back-up had not snapped a ball since high school and the game took a disastrous turn soon after.

Whenever watching athletes perform, I am not as focused on the mistakes they make as I am on their reactions to their mistakes and how they perform on the next play or opportunity. The long-snapper not only had the personal pressure of having to snap the ball perfectly every time, as his mistakes also effected the performance of the punters and field goal kickers.

I watched a few bad snaps, which resulted in a few missed kicks and bad punts. In this finely tuned process, long-snappers and kickers practice this exchange extensively, just as much as quarterbacks and receivers build chemistry on pass patterns. At the NFL Combine, players are working with each other for the first time and mistakes are due to happen. I was very impressed to see the long snapper fire the next snap perfectly after his few misfires.

Coincidently, he and I were on the same flight back to the West Coast, along with the Oakland Raiders Special teams coach. As the three of us discussed his experience at the Combine, the coach echoed the same thoughts I shared, in that he was very impressed with both the sheer endurance the long-snapper had, along with his accuracy and ability to focus on the next snap after the few bad one’s he had.

At the NFL Combine, there is money to be made and lost at every turn. The difference between a great and a poor performance is often the difference between buying a house and renting one. How an athlete handles the stress of being on the largest stage of their careers, performing in front of 32 potential employers instead of thousands or millions is very telling about their preparation and ability to deal with internal and external distractions.

Each of you reading this article have and will experience situations similar to the players at the NFL Combine. Try-outs for a travel program, varsity team or college recruiters take on the same importance. Your ability to focus on your execution and the things you control is just as critical as the players trying out for the NFL.

The question I have for you is simple, yet complex. How do you prepare, both mentally and physically to perform at your highest level when the pressure is at its greatest; when you are performing in front of one or a handful of individuals who hold your future employment in their hands?

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.

Ivy League Resurgence?

With Harvard clinching its first bid to the Big Dance since 1946, one has to consider if this is a glimpse into a back-to-the-future scenario.  Can Ivy League sports see a return to the national prominence they once possessed in the first part of the 20th Century?

While I do not believe Ivy League Football programs will be competing with the SEC anytime soon, I do not see any reasons why athletic programs that do not offer athletic scholarships, cannot compete on a national level with other major collegiate athletic programs.

It is no coincidence that a graduate of Duke chose to coach at Harvard.  Tommy Amaker knows that for every athlete-student and one-and-doner, there is an equally talented student-athlete whose academic commitment compliments their athletic achievements.

Just ask Ben Howland if his integrity is now more important than the potential of what his win/loss record could have been with all of the talent he amassed over the past five years.

One of the positive by-products in the development of the modern day student-athlete has been an increased number of individuals who excel at both academics and athletics.  The second by-product of the youth professionalization model is measured in the sheer number of individuals participating in all sports that lead to college playing opportunities.

The bottom line is that there are more individuals who are academically gifted who also throw 92-96, are 6’11” and can dunk hard, or are the equivalent in another college sport.  With the path already paved by previous generations, new migration patterns created by current and future generations of student-athletes will shift the balance of power to more academically inclined schools, similar to migration patterns to cities occurred during the American Industrial Revolution.

History is a great teacher.  In difficult and changing times, people go to where there is opportunity.  Why would this be any different for student-athletes entering college, when going to college is only more difficult, expensive, and competitive than ever before?

Over the past twenty years, the realities of sport and society have drifted apart.  Social change outside of sport has clearly outpaced social change within sport.  Sport sells itself on individual freedom and expression, yet conformity is now the norm, as it is more important to keep sponsors happy rather than take a stand on social issues.

Like the Arab Spring, I believe collegiate sport is on the verge of experiencing its own march towards truly recognizing the “student” in student-athlete.  This will not be accomplished by another NCAA mandate or rule change, but will be a by-product and reflection of student-athlete choice for balance beyond sport.

I believe this trend will not only continue, but will shift talent away from schools who emphasize sport over academics.  There is a perfect storm forming for future generations of student-athletes, as there are large increases in the numbers of individuals pursuing athletic scholarships, yet the number of available scholarships remains relatively constant.

With the realization that athletic scholarships are not all they are cracked up to be, student-athletes are becoming savvy in seeking a balance between athletic and academic opportunities.   For every athletic scholarship, there are 10 academic scholarships, most of which go unused.

It will also be interesting to see how Ivy League Schools and other academically-oriented programs get caught up in Linsanity and the rapid realignment, expansion and change among major college athletic conferences.

There are millions of economic reasons at stake.  The only difference is that individual, long-term economic self-interest will carry equal, if not more weight, than the economic interests of the NCAA.

Is “Shirts and Skins” Outdated?

As my eight year old daughter and I walked into the gym the other night for her basketball practice, we were both confronted with a first.

My daughter had never seen a group of boys playing full-court basketball, with one team not wearing any shirts.  I had not seen a group of young boys playing “shirts on skins” in some time, myself, and it was the first time since the Sandusky and Fine sex abuse scandals.

We both were hesitant to walk in the gym.  Naturally, my daughter was embarrassed to see a bunch of 4th and 5th grade boys running around in nothing but their shorts and shoes.

Seeing the kids instantly brought back uncomfortable memories for me, too, as I always hated being a skin. While very athletic, I did not like my skinny pre adolescent body and I did not like taking off my shirt to play sports.

As my daughter and I peered through the little windows of the gym door, debating if we should or should not walk in, I noticed that many of these kids looked just like me.

Uncomfortable.

Stuck in the small gym lobby, I started thinking to myself, is playing “shirts and skins” appropriate anymore?

In light of the events over the past few months, I wondered if such a commonplace norm in men’s sports, especially in unstructured sport, was appropriate for youth and adolescent participants in 2012.

As a kid of the Cold War era, shirts and skins was a standard practice.  There was no choice, you were either a shirt or a skin, no questions asked.  In 2012, I am not so sure this is appropriate anymore in structured youth sport environments.

I am torn because, on one level, I hated being a skin and I know that there are generations of boys who would agree with me.  There is another side of me, the traditionalist, who says this is simply one aspect of sport that used to be commonplace and should continue as a right of passage from adolescents to manhood, something that is handed down from one generation to the next.

I know there are those out there saying “If you don’t have the confidence to play without your shirt, then you don’t have the ability to play out there anyway.”  This may be correct, yet the point of youth sport is not about how good you are, it is about participation, inclusion and providing an environment for kids to feel comfortable enough to learn about and engage in their sport.

At a societal level, I do not see a place for shirts and skins anymore with boys under the age of eighteen in structured and organized sporting events.   Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against getting a tan and staying cool while playing if you are outside, in hot and sunny weather.  I am not trying to advocate taking any fun out of a game of basketball.

Yet, I do have a difficult time accepting that it is ok for young boys to be running around, barely clothed, in structured and organized practices.

The Sandusky and Fine molestation cases force us to question and rethink any “old school” practices that place kids in vulnerable and uncomfortable circumstances.  I now find myself in daily quandaries, as I am now questioning many long standing traditions in sport.

Many of these traditions were innocently born in the unstructured environments of the playgrounds of the past, yet now it is our obligation to consider consequences and be vigilant about outdated practices that have now become questionable and debatable.

We can no longer assume innocence and claim ignorance when it comes to the motives of adults who coach, teach and mentor our youth.

If we do continue with this blind trust, one day we will read a story about a youth basketball coach, accused of molesting children, who loved to divide their team into shirts and skins.

Back to the Future: BBCOR bats are changing the mind-set in baseball

Back to the Future:  BBCOR Bats are changing the mind-set in baseball

Sporting federations and leagues dedicate enormous resources in regulating the impact of technology on the integrity of their respective sports.  For the first time that I am aware, baseball has joined this ever expanding group, with more restrictive regulations for bats being used in High School and College Baseball.

BBCOR bats are designed to act more like wood bats, as they are engineered to reduce the speed that a ball leaves the bat.  This nationwide movement to BBCOR bats was spurred, in part, by the near death of Marin Catholic pitcher, Gunnar Sandberg, last year after being struck in the head by a comebacker. 

While there are many voices for and against these changes, there is no doubt that the advent and implementation of these bat changes have taken baseball back to its roots.  No longer can a hitter get rewarded with an artificial hit just because his bat is made of some chemical compound.

A recent NCAA article lends some initial support to the effectiveness of BBCOR bats, as 2011 mid-season offensive statistics are below those of 2010.  The trend is expected to continue as long as bat standards continue to be compared to wood bats, not last year’s model.

“Small ball” is making a comeback because it has to.  BBCOR bats seem to be leveling the playing field and separating better players from average ones.  If this progression continues, position players in baseball will be forced to develop more all-around offensive abilities and develop a hitter’s “tool box” that includes different ways to get on base and score runs.

One of my core beliefs, is that inherent in sport is the need to adapt and adjust.  In earlier years, talent can carry someone a long way.  Yet, as talent gaps shrink, adversity increases and athletes reveal their ability or inability to cope with different, stressful and ever-changing circumstances. 

BBCOR bats are revealing weaknesses in hitters who benefited from the technological advantages provided in the pre-BBCOR era.  Hitters will now begin to experience difficulties earlier in their careers, as before BBCOR bats many baseball players eventually learned that their metal bat swing did not get it done when they moved to wood. 

Wood bats are simply the tool that separates good hitters from average hitters.  With BBCOR bats being made to react more like wood bats, this separation will begin to occur sooner in one’s career, rather than later.

From the psychological perspective, BBCOR bats will also reveal how hitters cope with and respond to the adversity created, either real or imaginary.   There are certain patterns I see with hitters, in both baseball and softball, no matter what bat they have in their hands. 

Hitters will show their frustration through swinging more or swinging less.  They will become indecisive and not be able to start their swings or they will swing at any pitch thrown.   Physical tension will show itself in a hitter’s forearms and grip of the bat.  Every hitter knows the feeling of what it is like to freeze on a pitch down the middle of the plate and not understand why they could not swing the bat.

Hitters will think they are thinking too much.  They will search for mechanical and technical quick-fixes, yet their performance may not improve.  In sports, especially baseball, the first thing athletes do is to try and fix something mechanical, when what plagues them is something else. 

This all occurred before BBCOR bats and it is my belief that more hitters are experiencing these roadblocks, frustrations and dips in their offensive production than ever before. 

This is also occurring to a generation of hitters who were used to certain expectations when they hit the ball, fair or unrealistic, and now they will have to not only adjust to the physical limitations but also the psychological ramifications of not having the same outcomes.

Individual players will now have to work harder and work smarter.  No longer can the average baseball player just take 100-200 swings a day.  BBCOR bats will challenge individual players to focus more on improvement, doing things correctly and becoming a complete and all around hitter.

The Power of Words

The Power of Words – Dr. Doug Gardner

Have you ever caught yourself wondering about the meaning of innocuous words and phrases of encouragement given by fans, teammates and coaches? 

Watch Bull Durham again or simply listen closely to the types of encouragement and instruction offered to athletes the next time you are at games.  After attending too many sporting events in my career, I am not surprised why young athletes tune out and ignore adults. 

What does it mean to get a good pitch, or your pitch to hit?  How can you just trust yourself and allow your talent to take over?  Is someone really capable of forgetting a bad play, an error or a strikeout?  What about my personal favorite:  Stop thinking and just play…. Just have fun.

Have fun?  You try it sometimes. 

Try forgetting about the run-scoring double the centerfielder took away your last at-bat.  What about the borderline strike-three call you didn’t get, only to give up a big hit on the next pitch?

Is it really that easy to stay positive and stop thinking at the same time?  Especially when you are mired in a 0-10 slump? 

Despite the positive intentions, athletes often become more distracted and frustrated by words of encouragement and instruction in pressure situations, after mistakes or when negative outcomes occur. 

The hitter knows she needs to get a hit before she steps into the batters box, the pitcher wants to get you out and the fielder wants to make sure he does not make an error.

When mistakes are made, athletes are usually harder on themselves than anyone else could be.  Athletes take it personally when mistakes are made and do not like to hear someone re-stating the obvious, telling them what they should have done and that they will be ok. 

Fans, parents and coaches often forget or have not experienced the empty and hollow feeling of making a mistake in front of teammates, coaches and those who want to see you succeed?  Now add in the aspect that half the fans at a game want to see you fail, and it makes for a very difficult mental balance for the average athlete. 

Athletes are the first to understand the magnitude of their mistake and want to do something to shift negative attention away from their gaffe. 

In these circumstances, athletes tend to “try” harder, so they can make up for poor performances or mistakes.  The pitcher tries to blow a fastball by the hitter, only to get hit harder.  The hitter tries to make up for three bad at-bats by placing more pressure on themselves to get a hit in their last.  The fielder worries more about trying not to make a mistake on the next ball hit to them. 

The unfortunate side of trying harder is often met by continued poor performance, as there is no correlation between trying harder and performing better. 

Usually, when athletes try, they tense.  They tense mentally, in that they cannot input, process and analyze strategic information into action.  They tense physically, as their indecision prohibits their body from acting on decisions that were not made in an athletic and instinctive manner.

The most classic response to tension is to tell someone to relax.  Once again, word choice becomes critical.  What does relax really mean?  How does one really relax in pressure situations?  Is relaxation really the correct goal?

While I cannot discount the importance of utilizing and practicing self-regulation skills, I believe it is incorrect to solely limit mental training to (1) relaxation and (2) not thinking as goals for achieving success. 

The tension/relaxation debate illustrates the larger issues this type of thinking creates: 

The Either/Or Syndrome. 

If I am tense, I should relax.  If I think too much, I should not think.  If I care too much, I should not care.  If I do not work hard enough, I need to work harder.  If I am not relaxed, I am tense. 

My concern is when athletes need everything to be perfect for them to perform well.  Once adversity strikes, many athletes do not possess the mental fortitude to make sense of their situation, define their reality, and make decisions and take actions, win or lose.

Once consequences enter into the equation, athlete decision-making strategies change in predictable and avoidable ways.  This mostly occurs because something was not “perfect” or did not go one’s way and now they are thinking out of emotion, not out of logic and rationality.

All of the positive thinking in the world will not guarantee athletic success.   More importantly, spending time trying to be positive takes away the mental energy needed to be strategic and problem solve. 

Problem solving is a strength that most student-athletes possess in the classroom and it is important to bring this attribute onto the athletic field.

At some point, we can either try to think about something positive, breathe out of our eyelids, or take a few moments to define the reality in front of us.  The choice is yours.

April Fools on New Year’s Day?

By:  Juplimpton

You wake up one morning in January and you are determined this is the year you will work harder, be better prepared and commit more to your sport. You start working out, maybe even eating better. You start to organize times to practice and train and you are highly motivated, as you begin a new year, full of hope and limitless possibilities.

You wake up earlier or stay up later, carving out more time to train. One day, something throws a wrench in your schedule and you do not accomplish what you wanted to do. Sure enough, another day like this occurs and your frustration builds because your plan for the day and the reality of your day do not mesh.

Days and weeks go by, inconsistency increases along with external responsibilities and the internal struggle rages in your mind, knowing that you wanted to work so hard and accomplish so much, yet by April 1st, there is a realization that you just did not get it done.

Life has a funny way of interfering with our best intentions and plans for improvement. Over time, the multiple demands that student-athletes face create obstacles for goal attainment, especially when goals are set with the best intentions but are established incorrectly.

A New Year’s resolution is simply another term for a goal, housed under the context of a different word, a “resolution.” If goals or resolutions are set up incorrectly, individuals and teams are unknowingly setting themselves up for failure, while thinking they are working diligently and with the best intentions.
Despite the attention placed on setting New Year’s Resolutions, most people are never taught how to establish goals in a realistic fashion. The “carrot” is extended to you in the form of what the outcome and end result will be, without discussing the commitment, hard work and the struggles endured to accomplish what we want.

One of the most important jobs of a Sport Psychology Professional is to teach athletes, coaches and parents the correct ways to establish, maintain and adjust personal goals on both the small and large scale.

 The first common mistake athletes make is not spending enough time thinking about what they truly want from participating in their sport. Instead, many athletes blurt out goals without much thought about personal ownership and the short and long-term aspects of what they are trying to accomplish.

To establish effective goals, an athlete must first ask themselves some pretty difficult, honest and direct questions. Why do I participate in my sport? What do I want from my sport? Where do I want to be in 2, 3 or 5 years?

If we cannot address these fundamental and basic questions, how can we truly set purposeful, specific and meaningful goals.

Before setting goals or making resolutions, it is first important to take inventory of yourself and be objective about where you currently are in your development, compared to where you want to be. Identify your current strengths and weaknesses in the technical, physical and mental aspects of your sport and your position.

It is much easier to set realistic goals if you first have an objective understanding of your own ability compared to the ability level you would like to achieve. It is natural to compare your ability to the ability of others, yet the challenge becomes comparing your current ability to your past and future ability.

Goal setting, done correctly, is all about controllability. Set goals that are challenging, not too easy or too difficult. Be specific about the smaller steps that add up to the end result and focus on improving each step within the process. Developing a sense of accomplishment, on a daily basis, is an important motivator to continue working on areas of your game that you consider weak or in need of improvement.

Most importantly, commitment to learning is critical throughout this process. Improvement does not occur without mistakes, frustration and set-backs. You have the choice to decide if you will judge these situations as good or bad or if you will view them as learning experiences to grow from.

Athletes who learn how to blend short-term experience with a long-term perspective will stay more emotionally level and will understand that mistakes are opportunities to learn more about themselves, their performance and their reactions in critical moments.

The reality of goal setting is that it is an everyday process. It is an unfair and unrealistic expectation to wake up one day and radically change everything you have been doing. What makes January 1st any different from any other day?

The real question to ask yourself is: When is your January?

Playoff Pressure?

Playoff Pressure?

What is the difference between the fourth game of the regular season and a Championship game? 

Is the football field 10 yards longer, the basket 1 foot taller or the bases 10 feet further?   Of course not.  But, in the heat of competition, where the loser goes home and the winner gets to practice tomorrow, the game can speed up and fall apart very quickly.

Playoff time is better than any reality TV show.  The intensity that arises from unscripted competition is palpable, as every San Francisco Giants fan can bear witness to the torture that accompanies a World Series victory.

In the 2010 World Series, the Texas Rangers seemed loose, relaxed and having fun, even though they were down 0-2.  They claimed that they were not approaching the games any differently.  In the other clubhouse, there were reports that Tim Lincecum was dancing and joking around before his start in Game 5, and we all know the outcome.

Both teams appeared loose, yet when pressure situations arose, the Rangers fell apart very quickly.  The suddenness of events in playoff games often expose mental and physical weaknesses, as It does not matter how one acts before a game, it matters how they react during critical moments in the heat of competition.

Over the next few weeks, many high school athletes and teams will begin embarking on their own championship quest and will endure their own forms of torture along the way.   Knowing what is at stake, athletes often place more importance on every play because it may be the last. 

We practice our sport for moments like these.  Yet, it is very difficult to recreate the intensity of a game, let alone a playoff game.  Since we cannot truly replicate pressure situations in practice, it becomes imperative that we train for pressure situations in other ways.

This brings us back to the fourth game of the season.  How one prepares and performs in this game is very indicative of how they will perform in playoff competition.  It is not easy to treat all games the same and there is no magic fairy dust that will allow you to tune out the magnitude of what is at stake. 

When athletes “think too much” in critical situations, they are not really thinking too much, they are usually thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time.  The “wrong things” involve both the hope for positive plays and the fear of what will happen when mistakes, especially mistakes executing routine plays, are made.

Since we know that more is at stake in playoff games, athletes become vulnerable of falling into the “either/or” mindset.  This mindset is influenced by emotional reactions to events during competition that are both within and beyond their control.  These mood swings create mental fatigue because athletes start expending too much mental energy reacting to events during a game instead of staying strategic and focusing on what is under their immediate control. 

In preparing athletes and teams for the realities of playoff competition, I often ask each individual to consider the most basic requirements of their given position, execution of routine plays and the responsibilities of the given roles each athlete has within the team or sport. 

I believe that many athletes get too far ahead of themselves in playoff games and mentally fast-forward to the possible end result of critical plays, instead of thinking about the most basic, fundamental elements or “little things” that are required of them to perform correctly.

Thinking about the “little things” is defined as focusing on the aspects of your performance you control, right here, in the moment.  This translates into what your responsibilities are in the execution of this play.  Focusing on your responsibilities, instead of focusing on wanting to make the big play or not wanting to make a mistake, allows athletes to stay mentally under control through the highs and lows in a game. 

Athletes and teams who learn to treat Game Four of the season the same way as the Championship Game are successful in focusing on aspects within a competition they can control.  This is an acquired skill that needs to be practiced, yet too often, there is an exclusive focus on physical and fundamental skills, at the expense of integrating mental purpose into physical preparation. 

Purposeful preparation instills confidence by helping athletes develop competencies that need to be utilized in critical performance situations.  The more consistent this preparation is, throughout a season, the less likely athletes and teams will become victims of playoff pressure. 

In the end, the game does not change because you are playing for a championship.  What changes, is our perceptions, because as we get so close to the prize, it becomes too easy to think about the prize, itself, instead of focusing on the “little things” that will give you the best chance to realize your dream and win your last game.

A little diddy about Practice & Golf

Practice, Practice, Practice

“I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice. Not a game; we’re talking about practice. How silly is that? I know I’m supposed to be there. I know I’m supposed to lead by example. I know that. I know it’s important, but we’re talking about practice. … How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing? They are supposed to be used to playing with me anyway. So my game is going to deteriorate if I don’t practice with those guys?”  –  Allen Iverson, Press Conference after elimination from 2002 NBA Playoffs.

 “Yeah, I’m anxious to come to practice,” a grinning Iverson told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And that let me know that my career is definitely turning for the better.”  “We don’t have time to waste,” Iverson continued. “We’ve got to get it done right now somehow. The concentration level has to be that much higher in all of these practices, getting things taken care of on the court. We’ve just got to adjust faster.”  –  Allen Iverson, after Sixers acquire Chris Webber via trade, Feb 28, 2005.

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The most used and least understood word in sport.  We hear it from our first days in pee-wee sports.  Everyone, from our parents, our coaches and teachers tell us that if we practice more we can achieve anything we desire.  I wish it was so easy.

 Practice has both positive and negative meanings for many student-athletes, especially for athletes playing an individual sport such as golf.  This conflict usually stems from grappling with time management and striking a balance between committing to golf, school and your social life. 

In order to get a scholarship for playing golf in college, performance excellence is essential both on the course and in the classroom.  I believe that there is a connection between how one prepares for academic success and how they prepare for athletic performance. 

 This is why I love to watch athletes practice.  Practice tells me everything.  I will watch a frustrated golfer continuously beat balls on the range, dragging one ball onto the mat after another, only to hit each successive shot worse than the one before.  It takes about 8-10 shots before the individual gets frustrated enough to go on “tilt” for a few shots, then they calm down and hit a few nice shots before starting the process all over again.

 Sound familiar?

 We seek answers and everyone around us tells us to practice more.  Practice more?  What does that mean?  While there is a cause and effect between more practice and performance improvements, if this was the only solution, than anyone could pick up a club and eventually compete with Tiger Woods. 

 Have you ever thought about how you practice?  Do you mindlessly hit balls on the range, to the neglect of your putting, your short game and shots inside of 100 yards?  Do you pound your driver or your favorite club at the range, while avoiding the clubs in your bag you need to work on the most?  

 Tough questions to answer, yet I ask them because research indicates that most athletes seek to work on their strengths, while avoiding their weaknesses.  Yet, in the heat of competition, various situations arise which often require your ability to handle the “tool bag” of shots that arise on the course.  It is in these times that mental and physical preparation are revealed

 There are only so many things an athlete can control during competition.  I believe that preparation is the number one thing an athlete can focus on and control.  If you play golf long enough, the really good and really bad days balance themselves out.  In the end, we strive for consistency, yet many golfers focus on consistency in scores instead of consistency in approach.

 Preparation is about self awareness and is self-imposed.  It is not inherently fun.  It must be deliberate.  It must be purposeful.  Preparation is created, crafted and cultivated in the practice environment and the challenge becomes how to translate your preparation to competition.  Sound like fun?

 The comparison I like to make is that of taking a test in school.  I am sure many of you have received a lower grade on a test and you knew that, had you studied, you would have done better.  Studying is not always fun, kind of like practice, and I ask you to consider the similarities between how you prepare for both.

How do you feel when you really study for a test and really know the material?  How much confidence do you have going into and during the test?  In the end, why were you confident?  The answer is somewhat easy and based in common sense:  you were prepared, you were competent and both fostered true confidence in your ability to do well on the test.

The only way I know to truly develop confidence is to first develop competence.  To develop competence, one must be able to accept that improvement and practice are linked together, both in the long and short-term and that change will not come overnight.  This is the hardest concept for most athletes, especially athletes in individual sports, such as golf, to accept. 

It is difficult for many athletes to commit to something that they know will pay benefits to their long-term game because they are so consumed with wanting to put up good scores now and to have immediate feedback and gratification.  But, real change takes time and the number one rule in learning is that learning takes time. 

This is why preparation is ultimately self-imposed.  At some point, many athletes tune out their parents, coaches and others who try and help them reach their goals whenever the word “practice” is uttered.  At some point, it becomes your individual choice to either give yourself the best chance to succeed or remain stuck where you are.

 The average high school golfer understands what they need to do to improve, yet they do not take consistent action.  The above average golfer has embraced practice and works on their physical game consistently.  The excellent golfer has learned how to integrate both the mental and physical into their preparation on a consistent and purposeful basis.

Take fifteen minutes, grab a piece of paper and a pen and apply the following questions to your golf game:

 1.  Identify your strengths and weaknesses in the following three areas:

            a.  Your physical conditioning.

           b.  The fundamentals of your golf swing.

            c.  Your mental game.

 2.  Based on this information, plan out activities you can do during one day of practice to do something productive in each of these three areas. 

3.  Set aside a time to work on 1-3 areas of your game that need improvement. 

 4.  At the end of this day, take 15 minutes to write down your experiences and insight gained through working on both strengths and weaknesses in practice.

 5.  Based on this insight, identify 1-3 things you want to work on the next day in practice and figure out how you will accomplish this. 

 The challenge becomes, can you do this?  Can you set aside 15 minutes at the end of each day and think about what you did that day to improve, gain insight from your work and apply this knowledge to your practice the next day? 

I know that you know you can do this.  The question becomes, can you do it consistently and with purpose?  Can you do it so practice takes on a more personal meaning?   Can you challenge yourself to take ownership over your preparation? 

Difficult questions to answer.  It is easier to think about more immediate and pressing issues, like wanting to shoot low scores, being happy when you do and being upset when you don’t.  The irony is, whether you shot an 82 or a 72 yesterday, you still want to shoot a low score today.

Congrats Grads: It’s Now Time for the Ten and Ten

By:  Juplimpton

One of my mentors told me the other day that a Master’s Degree and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee.  When applying this phrase to the practice of Applied Sport Psychology, you could add a Ph.D., Ed.D. and a Psy.D., as well.  A few years ago at an AASP Conference, I stood amongst group of professionals presenting to graduate students about how to succeed in the field.  The unanimous answer was to have a back-up plan.  Of course, I was the only one on stage with no such plan.

We all know by now that the backup plans in the field are some form of licensure as a psychologist/counselor and/or pursuing an academic position.  There are no official studies, but I estimate that 90% of all professionals in the field financially rely more on their everyday job then they do from their private practices.  Which brings me to a talk given at the St. Louis AASP Conference by Dan Gould, Ken Ravizza, Gloria Balague and Charlie Hardy in 2008. 

In this talk to 600 or so students and professional members, each of these four professionals stood on the stage and pronounced how successful their private practices were.  Dan Gould reminded everyone to put 1/3 of your consulting fees away for income taxes and he discussed how he made enough money to pay for his son’s tuition, room and board for that year of college.  Charlie Hardy, Ken and Gloria all furthered this discussion and everyone walked away from the room full of hope that, they too, could be just like the legends on stage and have a successful private practice.

But, what nobody realized, is that each of them already had a stable, consistent form of income in place, which would allow them to financially benefit from any applied work they did on the side.  Ken, Gloria and Dan were all professors and Charlie Hardy was recently retired from teaching.  Standing in the back of the room, I could not help but roll my eyes.  I was coming to the end of my worst financial year since I had graduated in 1998. 

The economic crash killed my business, as disposable income disappeared.  I was struggling to pay the bills, find work and at a crossroad with my private practice.  After a run of ten good years, was it all going to come to a quick and sudden end?  Was I going to have to go out and get a “real” job?  I was on the brink and I knew that my reality did not even match that of Ken, Dan, Gloria and Charlie. 

In sharing these brief stories, I want to convey my belief that our field will never evolve until more professionals dedicate 100% of their efforts in developing and creating employable positions, which will help legitimize and grow the field of Applied Sport Psychology.  We have always compared our profession to that of athletic trainers, physical therapists and strength and conditioning coaches. 

It is clear that over the past twenty years, professionals from these related fields have focused their efforts on working directly with athletes and getting into the trenches.  The science of athletic training is on the verge of re-defining how athletes train (see www.p3.md) and professionals in our field are still squabbling over the now twenty year debate of who is better trained to work with athletes, psychologists or academic professionals.

No matter your training, I argue that too many Sport Psychology professionals treat their applied work as a side venture, something to do after their day job.  They get excited about the “extra” money and their work stays fresh and exciting, because they do little of it, do it on their own terms, and only when the work can fit into their existing work and life structure. 

But what about the professional who has to pay his or her mortgage and bills based solely on their ability to provide such services month after month, year after year?  All at the same time, working with the philosophy of doing our job with integrity, ethics and good business sense, just so we can ultimately work ourselves out of a job.

When applying sport psychology and making the commitment to assisting performers achieve excellence, how can we (as professionals in our field) claim to assist them in this process when most of us cannot and/or will not commit to the same process ourselves?

My training in graduate school could not prepare me for the failures, pain, frustration, let-downs, disappointments and other difficult lessons I have learned over the past 12 years.  I feel like I am a grizzled veteran of trench warfare, as I have had to earn everything I have by doing quality work.  We talk with athletes about learning how to appreciate the struggle, yet we seldom place ourselves in a similar position.  Ninety percent choose to take the safe route and apply to that academic position, become a licensed psychologist or go get a job in the real world, unrelated to their education, training and passion.  

As long as this mentality persists, those who seek to employ Sport Psychology Professionals will continue to view us as part-time professionals. only necessary when “problems” arise.  Generations of graduate students have now entered this field with the dreams and aspirations of working with athletes at the highest levels of sport.  The difference between today’s graduate student and those of past generations, is that today’s student has unrealistic expectations and thinks their education has earned them the right to work at the highest levels of sport, without first paying their dues and truly learning their craft.

10 years, 10,000 is so true…

See, investment builds character.  How much investment are you willing to make in you?  Don’t we ask this to our athletes?  Well, I think it is time that you ask yourself the same question about your career.  How bad do you want it?  What are you willing to do?   What sacrifices are you willing to make?  Regardless of your profession, doesn’t it take commitment, over the long-haul, to make it? 

When I began my work with the Boston Red Sox in 1998, I soon learned that the path of the minor league baseball player was no different than that of graduate students in Sport Psychology.  In professional baseball there is a 93% failure rate.  Only 7% of all individuals who sign a professional baseball contract will ever sniff the major leagues.  I believe the numbers in our field parallel those of baseball, in terms of working at the highest levels…Most likely, the numbers are even worse.

So, go to work, start getting your 10 years and 10,000 hours in.  Work at your craft.  Practice what you preach and commit to yourself and your continual growth and development.  If you don’t, your athletes will see right through you.


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