Gold Has a Musty Smell

The spirit of songs from so many legends inhabit the walls of RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. A nondescript building with faded tile floors, walls that could use a fresh coat of paint, and creaky doors is the place of legend. Elvis owned a gold plated Cadillac, but his recording studio of choice had little resemblance to Fort Knox. Dolly Parton rocks the rhinestones, but there is little bling in her Studio B. The Everly Brought some rock and roll to Nashville, but the building where they laid down hits shows little excitement of a a rock and roll lifestyle.

RCA Studio B

Not far from Studio B and Music Row sits the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lots of glitz, a bit of glamour, and many gold records on display. When the lights of the Opry turn on, things sparkle. Rhinestones reflect, artists perform, and the crowd goes wild. Gold records are a lot prettier than the dimly lit cave that is the studio.

Gold Records

The studio and the show are certainly two different worlds. The efforts, excellence, and emotions of the studio are a musician’s sweet spot… where passion and production come together… later to be rewarded on a wall in the hall.

Seems to be a bit like sport. The pomp of big time sport is only the shiny specter of the passion laid out on a dusty baseball diamond, a heat soaked soccer pitch, a poorly maintained tennis court, or a dimly lit rink. It is so easy to notice the gold medals and golden trophies. It is too easy to neglect the effort and excellence laid down in the mustiness.

Performers and athletes blinded by the gold rarely soak in the good stuff provided by a little grime and the stale smells of full engagement in one’s craft.

Of Course You Want It… Go Play

Sitting and talking with athletes vying for national team spots, so often I will hear something along the lines of, “I really don’t care if I make the team, because ___________________ .” I get it. Life will go on without a roster spot. There is life after sport. The best student-athletes are capable of being more than just athletes. But… please for performance’s sake… be straight with me.

Really, I get it. If you could care a little less, it would not hurt so bad if it does not work out. If you could care a bit less, standing in judgement of coaches, scouts, and relative strangers may be a bit less stressful. Sorry though… it’s likely you care.

Yup. There is more to you than just being and athlete. The world will keep in spinning if someone decides you do not fit their team plan. But you care and not achieving the ultimate sporting dream would be a bit of a heartbreaker.

It may also work out that you reach the top and that could be pretty cool.

It’s ok to care. The fun and fear of sports are that heartbreak could happen on the next play, game, or season. Accept it. Embrace it. Go play.

Not an Idiot Yet

A handful of years I mused about how there may be little hope for me. The quicksand of sports parenting was destined to swallow me up. I feel fortunate to say that 2nd grade is near and I remain safe on terra firma. Yet before school starts, tennis’s big show (a.k.a. the US Open) takes center stage in our home. The bright lights of NYC will get us to the TV each night and will wander over to the courts a bit more often.

junior racket

Unlike my reflections of a few years back, the games that my daughter and I play tennis courts resemble the sport that most would call “tennis.” The racket remains fun loving. The balls are colorful and developmentally appropriate. The game however involves modern looking forehands – huge follow-throughs, double fisted backhands, and a serviceable serve. Mini-tennis is a stable of any court time… still picking up the balls may hold the most attention. There is knowledge that figuring out topspin is, “So you hit it over the net, but not over the fence.” Yes, a sane human being notices that the balls fly this way, that way, and every other way with little rhyme or reason. Sanity however is not a sport parent’s strong suit… Flushing Meadows is just down the road and I bet tickets will be free when she makes the main draw.

I am shaking out my sport parent fantasy by the request of 7 year old tennis player, “Daddy, give me a challenge!” Clearly it is time to stop daydreaming and get back to the task at hand… finding and embracing challenge. Awesome stuff.

To an observer, it is probably still a bit unclear what game we are playing. We are still playing and she is still dragging me back for more. I hope we can all revel in and nurture kids loving the playful challenges of sport.


Sports parenting is filled with fun, stress, joy, self-doubt, and love. For further reflections check out The Sport Parent’s Playbook.

Now That’s Visualization I Can Get Behind

The difference between a technician and a clinician is the level of understanding of the nuance and dynamic possibilities of mental skills. It is the “plug and chug” approach as opposed to “there are many ways to skin a cat” mindset. Mental skills can seem so tangible… appear to be a black and white recipe for high performance – set goals, develop positive self-talk, practice visualization, and learn a physiological relaxation technique or two – black and white always seems to have its limits however. The technician follows the recipe. The clinician designs the recipe to fit the palate in front of him.

I have been on record over the years of being critical of how mental imagery is often embraced (see Wasting Time on Mental Imagery and You’re Not an Olympian). The traditional close your eyes and imagine a performance from start to finish simply seems to be unnecessary for many athletes and reaps fewer rewards than taking time to develop high performance perspectives and practicing other pregame mental preparation approaches. Yet… there are certain competitive challenges that are simply spot on for settling in, shutting one’s eyes, and taking time to play a mental movie of the upcoming performance. This is an example of one of them:

There are certain competitive challenges that are simply spot on for settling in, shutting one’s eyes, and taking time to play a mental movie

Most athletes have hours and hours available for physical practice on their playing field. Many athletes have a very stable field on which to compete. Many athletes must read and react to their opponents therefore the variables to imagine are numerous.

Differently, the pilot navigating pylons, the alpine racer hurtling down a hill, and others such athletes compete on a novel course with mother-nature being the only interactive obstacle. In these sports, imagery is perhaps not only a good use of one’s mental preparation time, but an essential part.

Just some food for thought.

Mental imagery can take many forms and shapes for the variety of competitive demands facing athletes. It is a powerful skill if used wisely and well. Also, it is worth considering a necessary skill to develop and practice if one is seeking comfort and confidence on the race course.

Thoughts for 2014 Sport Psych Grads: Generosity

As I ready my cap and gown to celebrate the graduation of another crop of graduates from sport psychology studies, one word bounces around my mind, “generosity.” It seems like a good word for us all to remember when shaping a fulfilling career and supporting a field that is fighting tooth and nail to be legitimate.

Many years ago the wind was depressingly taken out of my typically enthusiastic sails when a graduate student addressed a room of his peers and said, “I really would prefer not to share thoughts about how I practice mental training. Everyone in this room is my competition.” A room of budding professionals not sharing… cooperating… being generous?!? I was not surprised by the sentiment, but struck about how sad a reflection it was on the young man and the field. After a moment of pause, my enthusiasm returned, and I am happy to say that the student has matured over the years.

Sport psychology graduates, be generous.

Scientists that are not generous do not help practitioners practice efficaciously. Practitioners that are not generous do not help science solve real on-field, heat of the moment problems. Practitioners that are not generous fail to see what’s next, because they are not part of rich, creative, and critical discussions. Considering, “What’s next?” leads to efficacious and fulfilling practice. Professionals that are not generous fail to help create a rising tide to help the field float. There are plenty of athletes and plenty of coaches out there… to be accepted a field must have its act together. “Together” is generous.

In this year, I would like to put an additional twist on generosity. Young professionals, please be generous with your patience. This is a quality you will need to succeed in the culture of sports. Yet, also I’d personally appreciate it. As a professional that has been passionately engaged in the field for two decades now, things have gotten a bit hectic. My passion for sitting down over a cup of coffee or pint of your choice is unabated, but I’m a bad juggler. E-mails get missed, my texts read like hieroglyphics, and the second I think I have time to focused something seems to come up (and if that thing is family, you stand little chance of taking priority…).  Please be generous with your patience for anyone that has been actively and thoughtfully engaged in the field for a while. In my experience, they care and are still considering ideas like wild-eyed graduate students. Do not disconnect because of somewhat slow and scatteredness. Perhaps it is part of aging in a still evolving and somewhat disjointed field. Be generous with your patience, we are still building the field with you.

Generosity is more than a politically correct concept, it is a way of being that yields wonderful connectedness and growth.

Cheers to all grads moving on to their next adventures.

The Masters and Mastery


Azelea’s are in bloom. Bubba’s got a bit of a lead. It’s time for championship weekend at The Masters. Who will wear the green jacket on Sunday ought to be anybody’s guess. There’s a lot of golf to be played and early prognostication is a fool’s mission.

The key to getting and staying on the top of the leaderboard may lie in the tournament name itself… a mastery focus will help the knees knock a bit less and focus to stay true. This is old news, but remains tough for even the most seasoned competitor to remember.

The competitor that carries a mastery-oriented mindset into the weekend will:

  • Keep his eyes on his own scorecard – for mastery goals are self-referenced.
  • Have a mind’s eye that allows him to see shots most creatively – mastery motivation leads to curiosity.
  • Will recover well after a lipout or poor club selection – willingness to learn is at the cornerstone of this mindset.
  • He will be filled with positive emotion when in the middle of a shifting leaderboard on Sunday – a mastery-orientation feels the excitement of challenge, but does not fear it.

None of this is new news, but important to be reminded of time and time again. Success at The Masters will be all about a mastery mindset.

Who Are Your Goals For?

I had the opportunity yesterday to share some ideas on lessons from the playing field that could assist in patient care at the Massachusetts Veteran Affair’s Medical Center.  I truly could not have been more humbled by the attention and the enthusiasm he healthcare professionals showed towards the ideas presented.  The lunchtime grand round session broke off into a brainstorming session about goal setting.

The general feeling expressed to me was that goals were valuable, the medical community encourages goals to be set, and the process had become unfulfilling and limited in its benefit to patients.  In order to encourage evidence-based practice and to embrace technology, docs are encouraged to complete some sort of an app with/about their patients documenting goals for treatment and the upcoming months.  Not a bad idea… but one that struggles due to the “Jekyll and Hyde Nature of Goal Setting” and the challenges of technology.  Yet, all of the practitioners wanted goal setting to work well for their patients.

From sitting and listening, the nagging problem with “modern” approaches to goal setting came into focus.  I witness this similar story play out in sports medicine settings on a regular basis.  SMART goal setting is preached to and embraced by practitioners, yet its outcomes seem so… watered down.  Rather than being a double shot of espresso to boost motivation and provide clarity, transparent decaf that does little to change the patient’s psychological status quo is being served.

Goals have dynamic power. They can…

  • Enhance motivation
  • Fine tune focus
  • Enhance learning
  • Nurture self-awareness
  • Improve communication
  • Minimize confusion
  • Calm nerves
  • Clarify direction
  • Build confidence

They can… but are they?

When considering the use of goals in the industrial-medical complex (and elsewhere) the question I stumbled to was, “Who benefits from this goal setting process?”  Tracking goals is valuable data for medical institutions.  Setting goals is useful for practitioners charting a course of treatment.  Goals could be valuable for the patient for all of the reasons listed above.  Unfortunately it seems like the goal setting we have embraced benefits institutions far more than patients.  Useful, but watered down decaf…

Is the process of goal setting that is adopted practitioner-centered or patient-centered?  A check list of milestones to hit and charts to update seem well intentioned, but as a process are not patient-centered.  Patient-centered is a cooperative, learning process between health care professional and patient.  It is one where patient statements such as, “I don’t know how to _______” or “I don’t know signs of progress,” are connecting and educating points rather than answers that need to be quickly found.  Patient-centered is allowing the individual to struggle for days (or even weeks) to articulate specific, positive, and controllable objectives.  Patient-centered engages.  Rather than being disempowering because medical records need to be updated now.

Healthcare professionals should value and set goals.  It keeps them on track and allows for evidence-based practice.  This is important practitioner-centered goal setting.

If the patient is to reap the numerous benefits of the goal setting process, simple questions such as, “What is one thing you would like to do more often this week?” or “What do you think would be a small sign of increased mobility be?” must be posed and dwelled upon.  This is patient-centered goal setting.

In the hustle and bustle of life, goal setting can become an administrative task rather than a psycho-socially rewarding activity.  This is not a call to abandon practitioner-centered goal setting, but rather encouragement to include patient-centered processes (the opposable mind in action – create an “and” rather than an “or”).  Goal setting benefits a person in such dynamic ways… if its process is thoughtfully executed.

Power of the Beanpot


Southern football has The Iron Bowl (and a few other cult rivalry, classics), the colder confines of the Northeast has The Beanpot. Two Mondays of college hockey with bragging rights, a place in athletic lore, and a trip around the Boston Garden ice with some cool hardware on the line. It is touted as a “special” tournament that inspires great play. The reason for this may be that it provides a unique competitive situation that levels the mental game, playing field.

Right now, Northeastern University is exceeding expectations, Boston University is in a bit of a rut, Harvard University is underperforming when pre-season hopes are considered, and Boston College is… well, being Boston College. BU and Harvard have reasons to be glum, Northeastern cause to be energized, and BC… well, to be BC. Yet, for two Mondays in February, it is a bit easier for all to believe the tournament is anyone’s for the taking. This is more than pre-tourney media hype, it makes sport psychology sense.

The situation of the Beanpot brings positive energy and focus regardless of the bumps and bruises that egos have sustained up until this point in the season. The stage is truly set for teams to “play in the present.” Past games and the rankings they manufactured matter little when the puck drops tonight. Also, in many regards, the future is the present. A two game tournament leaves little opportunity for looking ahead or daydreaming about an elaborate path through the finals. Four of the nations best college hockey programs will step on the ice, where conference rankings matter not and excitement will be high. Walking down the corridor towards the Garden ice, postive attitudes and high focus should be fairly easy to grasp. The Beanpot is built for solid compete-levels from all four teams.

Perhaps the big question is… can players find these attitudes and efforts outside of the two weeks in February when the Beanpot-assist no longer exists?

Gable Reflecting on PEDs

Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are in the news again.  Not surprisingly, sport seems to remain littered with pharmacological crutches and questionable honesty.  Right, wrong, and everything in between on the matter is something for a more philosophical discussion.  For the moment, I think Dan Gable legendary wrestler, coach, and competitive freak’s reflection on such matters is interesting.  Gable, likely the greatest wrestler ever, has provided some thoughts on opponents on steroids:

If I knew the guy was on steroids, that would HELP me. Whereas some might think ‘oh, he’s cheating’ or he’s got an unfair advantage, for me you didn’t pay the price. You’re not as committed as I am.  It’ll tear him apart. He may be strong, but all I have to do during that nine minutes of wrestling is loosen one single wire in his brain, make him do something that isn’t perfect, and he’ll fall apart. That’s what I feel.

Gable is extreme, in his training, commitment, and competitiveness… nonetheless these are interesting words to consider regarding the mental game of PEDs.  No doubt this is a unique mindset, yet it is the mindset of a certified champion.

Further reflections on PEDs, the mental game, and character to be posted soon at The Sporting Life. Until then consider the Gable approach, 183-1 with 25 consecutive pins in high school and college, it may not be for everyone, but there is something to it.

Note: Quote from Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind.

Novitiate Sport Psychers: Differentiate Between Profane Emotion and Caring Regard

May is here and novitiate sport psychers are about to hit the sports world with newly embossed masters and doctoral degrees in hand.  The PSPS gang is aging… and has been successfully working with athletes on the mental side of the game in one form or the other for almost two decades.  Time for our somewhat annual thoughts for newly minted sport psych practitioners.  I’ll take the first crack:

Give Before You Try to Get  Sport psychology may not always look like traditional teaching or counseling, but the fact remains that it is a helping profession.  Wharton School management professor Adam Grant examines the role of giving is his now book Givers vs. Takers.  The bottom line is that giving is valuable.  The goals of sport psychology are to help individuals find their potential on (and off of) the playing field.  To be able to serve as this resource, it strikes me that generosity is at the core of an athlete-center approach to service.

Look to Learn Before Asking for a Job  It can be quite off putting when a young professional asks me if I have a job for them.  The request leaves me wondering if they have any sense of my approach, philosophies, and experiences.  A request for a job without a discussion leaves me little opportunity to be generous and support the young professional in any genuine way.  Fielding an unsolicited job application feels to me much like an ATM transaction – insert the card and if there is enough money in the account bills roll out, if not I hit the gas and drive on my way.  Cold, unemotional, and purely transactional.  Some of the best professional work has come out of discussions that are simply curious and growth focused.  Listen to stories and share stories.

Fandom and Passion for Performance are Different  The analysis and talk of fans are great fodder for sports radio and barbeques, but they are not professional.  They can actually be cruel and grossly misinformed.  Working in sport psychology and player development can be fun, but it is work and is actually not terribly glamorous.  Be thrilled when you see a client stepping on the field for the first time as a collegiate athlete.  Enjoy the excitement of the lights dimming, music rising, and athletes bursting onto the field of play.  Yet set your fandom aside, be a pro and show unconditional positive regard for the athletes, coaches, and athletes with whom you interact.

Sports is a funny place to work and thrive.  Take time to step back from the profane emotions of sport and get in touch art of caring and thriving professionally.


Share This Article

Bookmark and Share

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 98 other followers

On Twitter @ahnaylor

On Twitter @MentalCoachMatt