Posts Tagged 'player development'

Are You Willing to Miss?

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

You are walking up the 18th fairway, all-square in a highly anticipated match. Your partner is out of the hole, putting the outcome of the contest squarely on your shoulders. Your spectacular approach shot finishes 4-feet from the cup, leaving a bit of a downhill left-to-right slider to navigate for birdie. Your opponents hole out for a par, meaning this putt can secure the win and bragging rights amongst the group. Your heart starts to race and hands begin to quiver as you realize all eyes are on you.

The big question is, “Are you willing to miss it”?

Your first instinct might be to say “No, I’m not willing to miss…I really want to make this putt”.

Ryder Cup - Day Two Foursomes

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Of course you want to make it, however, take a deeper look at the willing to miss part. If your partner were to utter, “Don’t miss this one”, would that make you feel more confident, secure and ready to put your best stroke on the ball? Probably not! Being UNwilling to miss actually adds unnecessary pressure, tension and acts as a distraction to the performance. It’s not that you want to miss, yet a willingness to do so actually normalizes the situation. It makes the performance a bit more relaxing and frees your body and mind to perform the task assertively, to the best of your ability.

Next time you find yourself in a “clutch” situation and you want your best skills to emerge, be a little more willing to miss and enjoy what unfolds as a result.



Skill + Time = Results

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

It’s quite obvious that player development is based on building skill over time. The more an individual works at something, the more skills are developed. As skills are passionately pursued throughout a significant timeframe, expert performance appears.  Yet, it can be difficult to maintain this perspective on a daily basis – especially around tournament time. As competition nears, other ideas seem to bubble to the surface:

How many points is this tournament worth?   Who is in the field?  What’s the winning score going to be?

Although these thoughts are exciting to consider, they also tend to become a distraction to performance. The more distractions that arise against the player development mindset, the less attention an individual has to focus on the task at hand; and distracted is not a mindset which is synonymous with success.

Throughout training:IMG_20141007_085300583

Golfers don’t practice making birdies, they practice making smooth swings.

Golfers don’t practice shooting 4-under par, they practice staying target focused.

Golfers don’t practice getting recruited by a college or turning pro, they practice patience.

If distracting ideas start taking over (make birdie, shoot 4-under, get recruited) especially around tournament time, unreliable results are likely to follow. Discussions based on short-sighted results breed a mindset linked to distracted performance, frustration, lackluster effort and potential  burnout.

Parents, coaches and athletes who reinforce a player development mindset (Skill + Time = Results) seek long-term growth and build healthy competitors as a result. These individuals see competition as an opportunity to exhibit skills (smooth swings, target focus and patience) and test personal limits. When skills continue to remain a top priority throughout training and competition, consistent results unfold. As individuals consistently take part in dialogue filled with themes of player development, birdies happen, scores drop and barriers continue to be broken.

This post was originally created for & can also be found at

Seeing Warmer Days in a Powerful Light

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

It’s the middle of winter and many athletes are cooped up inside, waiting to get back on the playing field. What an athlete daydreams about during this down time may dictate upcoming performances. If given the choice the between two crystal clear scenarios, which is the better image to hold in mind in preparation for next season?

1) Victory and Celebration


2) Gritty Effort


So…which do you choose?

A simple google search of “Usain Bolt” provides numerous photos, most of which relate to scenario #1. Based on the images we are bombarded with throughout the day (this is just one example), it’s no wonder attention tends to drift toward the lavish scene of victory. However, those who are looking for a little boost in performance this season should start holding onto image #2 – and here’s why.

It takes lots of #2 (gritty effort) to attain just a few moments of #1 (victory and celebration). Gritty effort overcomes difficult conditions. Gritty effort steps up against tough competitors. Gritty effort occupies the majority of training and competitive endeavors. Victory and celebration, even after a monumental win, lasts for a few hours at most – until the gritty effort must begin again.

Those who focus their thoughts and energy on consistently making a gritty effort maximize their potential on a daily basis. While the snow continues to fall and temperatures plummet, continue building a strong foundation by clarifying images of how you hope to compete on the field next season – overcoming moments of doubt and fear with tenacity, patience and energy. While winter weather may deny a physically gritty effort on the playing field, it does not have to contain the feelings, emotions and images that come along with it. Enjoy the competitive fire all year long!

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.


What’s Next?

I am not a fortune-teller.  I do not recommend that athletes try to predict the future… play in the present, the rest takes care of itself.  This being said, it seems like a good time to consider what’s next for the future of player development.

It has been 20 years since Anders Ericsson’s paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.  It has been 5 years since Malcom Gladwell pushed Ericsson’s work into the public consciousness.  National governing bodies now truly understand and embrace science such as Ericsson’s and other foundational player development examinations (USA Hockey’s commitment to ADM is a good example).  As the calendar is about to turn to a new year it is valuable to consider, “What’s next?” in the sciences for sports to embrace.

This is not a call to abandon Ericsson’s work.  It is spot on, well thought out, and I suspect foundational for generations of athletes to come.  A great primer on this research that digs deeper than the typical shelves at Barnes and Noble but does The Road to Excellencenot knock you unconscious like primary research articles can is Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence.  Deliberate practice is a core concept to player development, perhaps the “next” of this research for coaches and organizations to dig their teeth into is the role of rest and recovery.  The research shows that practice matters and rest is necessary.  I think exercise physiology has done a nice job at considering this in the past decade.  “Active rest” has been a hot topic for a while in sport science circles.  Mental and emotional rest has been lagging a bit in its execution however (Matt took this idea on in a recent post).  Taking time to fully grasp rest and recovery from a body and mind standpoint is going to develop better athletes.

This being said, it has been 20 years since deliberate practice clearly hit the stage.  Beyond a call for continued building and understanding of excellence and expertise science, I have thoughts for Effortless Attentionfrom where we may see increasing player development applications for the future.  This past decade has had research from the fields of cognitive science from which sports should take note.  Cognitive science is not about F-MRI machines or neurofeedback, but rather rich insights into decision making, attention, learning, and social forces that shape them.  A nice book to consider adding to your reading list that opens up some of these ideas is Effortless Attention, edited by Bruya.  It is a read that takes time and diligence, but it holds rich implications for coaching and creating better competitors.

Here are a few previews of ideas in this text that I believe understanding will lead to the new levels of player development.  These notes only scratch the surface, so please dig in and dig deeper:

  • Attentional and emotional control as limited resources.  Schmeichel and Baumeister take a thorough look at this concept in chapter 1.  Every athlete needs them.  Every coach preaches about them.  How can we nourish them, maximize them, and help them to sustain from the beginning to the end of an athletic contest?
  • What is the most effective way to cue optimal motor performances and to teach motor skills?  In the third chapter Wulf and Lewthwaite present research that can make coaches better teachers.  Also I believe there are important implications for the self-talk that ought to be encouraged in athletes (tennis pros, keep an eye out for the July/August 2013 TennisPro magazine where Matt and I share some thoughts on how this science can thrive on the lesson court).
  • Flow has been preached and espoused so much over the past decades of sport, I have to wonder if the concept’s potential benefit to athletic development has been watered down and in many instances lost.  A conscientious read of the flow induction literature really gets one considering when flow should be chased, when its absence should be simply accepted, and much more.  Chapter 9 by Moller, Meier, and Wall gets you to both the roots and the future of flow science.
  • A somewhat different chapter that I believe holds interesting athletic applications is Bruya’s chapter, number 11.  Apertures of attention is a relatively philosophical idea, but highlights the power of the salience of mental images and that attention is not one of focus, but rather of foci.  Considering it a bit gives greater depth to the reality that goal orientations are non-orthagonal and thoughts into the best ways to handle this reality (yes, an athlete can hold an outcome orientation… just how big is this mental aperture).
  • Seemingly unrelated to athletic player development is chapter 12, Slingerland’s Toward an Empirically Responsible Ethics.  I think this may be more related to athletic performance than suspected.  Moral decisions are a blend between emotional responses and cognitive reflections.  How these two things are balanced depends on the stress level of the situation.  Sport is a place where decisions must be made under under heightened emotion, yet can be reflected upon later in the film room where the cooler heads reign.  The transfer from moral decision making to athletic decision making will not be a perfectly seamless one, but one to consider nonetheless.

Player development is both filled with norms passed down from one generation to the next and evidence-based practice that treats athletes like finely tuned instruments.  The past decade and a half has done a good job embracing the science… as always, there are next steps.  The above notes are some thoughts about powerful research and thinking that may drive things forward.  Maybe we will see them more often on the shelves of the local bookstore and in the gyms around our neighborhoods… perhaps something else is “next.”  Either way, I am excited to see “what’s next.”


Lemon Drop

Sport psychers… when you think about introducing imagery to a team do you think about lemons?  When you consider focus, do you photocopy a concentration grid?  These things are well and good, but are they really the best ways to develop mental toughness?

Imagining biting into a lemon is a nice introduction to sensory responses, but I’m convinced there are much better ways to help athletes make the most of the dynamic cognitive-emotional benefits of mental imagery.  There aren’t many lemons in locker rooms.

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology’s (AASP) annual conference is upon us.  In recent weeks, John Silva, founding father of the organization, suggested that the “A” dropped in 2007 from Triple-A SP is currently, truly missing – advancement.  There has been some incredible psychological, kinesiological, and educational research in the past decade, has practice in the field advanced with it?

The practice of sport psychology is the artful application of science.  Both artists and scientists are creative and continuous learners.  Lemons are not terribly creative nor a progression in learning.  It will be interesting to see this week how (and if) “advancement” in practice is alive and well in the trenches where sport psychology happens.

Why I Love MMA

I’m a somewhat skinny guy, who doesn’t like blood, and is in really no hurry to get into any physical confrontations… so you would be as surprised as me to realize that I really appreciate mixed martial arts (MMA) combat.  Appreciate may be a bit of an understatement, a handful of years ago I joined a UFC training camp/team and recently have collaborated on some scholarly work on the sport.  It is fair to say, I have gone from a healthy skeptic of the sport to, in some small way, part of the sport.

This morning I was pondering why I seem to love MMA.  It occurred to me when I read an article about lag putting on the PGA Tour’s website.  I think Coach Immelman’s reflections are spot on.  In particular, “Strive for crisp contact and good speed control.”  What sticks in my craw is the term “lag putting.”  It strikes me that this is a term that is simply so ingrained in the culture of golf it distracts from player growth and development.

Sporting cultures can be so myopic, that growth and development is impeded.  When I spent time developing the sport psychology curriculum at the International Tennis Academy USA at the turn of the century this was made clear to me.  Players such as Roddick, Fish, and their peers trained and battled day in and day out on sun drenched Florida tennis courts.  Right next to the Delray courts was the Bucky Dent Baseball Academy.  At this time, the off-season home of Pudge Rodriguez.  I asked the tennis coaches about the baseball academy (which I drove by multiple times a day) and they did not even know it existed.  This was a surprise… the replica Green Monster about 250 yards away from the tennis courts was kind of tough to miss.  But if your world is tennis, why would baseball matter to you?  Like if you are a golfer, of course you debate and mediate upon lag putting – who wouldn’t?

A few years ago, I was privileged to eaves drop on a casual discussion among UFC contenders and coaches.  One fighter and former All-American wrestler was showing off a take-down that was one of his go to moves in college.  A couple of Brazilian Jiujitsu specialists watched in awe and excitedly thought about opportunities to add it to the MMA game.  After a few moments and some discussion, the move was nixed from the MMA repertoire (good for wrestling, but exposed the head a bit too much to punches in MMA).  Nonetheless, this interaction was terrific.  Walk into a collegiate wrestling room.  Travel to a Gracie Jiujitsu gym.  Watch Muay Thai training.  Experience a musty boxing gym.  All combat sports, but different routines, rituals, and cultures.  Yet in MMA these cultures not only collide, but seek one another out for growth and learning.

MMA competitors cannot afford to be myopic.  This is what I love about MMA.  Some sporting cultures forget that dynamic thinking and training about athletics exist beyond their well-worn playbooks and wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation.  Looking outside to other sports takes the restrictor plate off of performance.

Golfers need to take more time on drills and in a mindset that develops vivid feel for the speed of a putt.  Just do not say the goal is to develop “L” word.  Such quality practice leads to good putts, no other term is needed.  Sometimes leaving the culturally created terms behind, put great player development ahead.

  • What sport do you need to take a pilgrimage (intellectual and/or physical) to in order to boost your player development?
  • What well worn terms or concepts in your sporting life do you use mindlessly?  Consider if they confine, constrict, and add little value.  If so, it’s likely time to let go of them.

Open your mind to a melting pot of sporting wisdom and enjoy it all.

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