Thursday, January 18, 2018

Everything I know about squash I learned in my first clinic

I recently served as a referee at the match up of two very highly ranked college teams.  It was a great deal of fun.  The level of squash was something I practically did not recognize from the last time I saw collegiate squash.  Here are the country’s top level amateurs: deft of racket, swift of foot, rife with grit, fire, and flair, but not at the expense of good conduct, directed both at their opponent and the referee.  All in all, it was three hours very well spent.  But, what was so remarkable was not the level of talent, but the stark reminder it served of some simple basics of the game.  In fact, I came away from the afternoon thinking of that book title, “All I really need to I know I learned in kindergarten,” because the stuff that won on this particular day is the stuff that wins on any given day, the stuff you’d pick up in an introductory clinic on what constitutes good, which is to say, winning squash.  Here’s the stuff:

Fitness: Given that these players train five days a week, you’d expect that they’d all be in super shape.  And, they were.  Nevertheless, you could definitely see that there were certain players that were fitter than others.  And for those who were less fit, that weakness got revealed and exploited through the match, and, in fact, could have been the deciding factor.  For the less fit player, he didn’t seem to understand that he was breaking down on that level, though from this side of the glass, it was obvious.  So, remember: you have to be willing to play a succession of very long, very hard points, and be just as physically able to play the next long, hard point without blinking.  There’s no long half time in squash, no tagging out to someone on the bench.  Essentially, there’s nowhere to hide in that ruthless, relentless, well-lit little box.  Everything falls apart when fitness does.

Fireworks from the racket: These players could do almost anything they wanted with the racket, digging the ball for improbable retrievals to send it anywhere in the court; cross-courts to the nick, soft, feathery drops, recovery shots between the legs, behind the back, and over head.  Nevertheless, the most punishing place to put the ball, the place that coughed up the loosest balls from the opponent were the basic, straight rails, those balls that hung tightly to the wall, and bounced well behind the service box.  Good, long, consistent length was the foundation for every other bit of flair from the racket.  It was all predicated on being able to hit tight rail after tight rail.

“Don’t hit tin.”  Hashim Khan’s famous dictum is as salient today as the day he uttered it.  It was astonishing watching how detrimental hitting the tin was: a momentum killer, a spirit suffocator, and a gift to the opponent that just kept on giving.  Invariably, the player who lost the match had hit the preponderance of the tins, and each tin further sealed his fate, rendering a comeback, new life, and hope impossible.  Of course, I was not privy to the heated strategy sessions that team mates and coaches had with the player during the game breaks, but I had the strong urge to barge into the losing player’s confab and say, “hit fewer tins!”  As always, some tins are forced errors from an opponent’s good shot, but it seemed like more often, the tin was the result of poor shot selection, going for too much, and therefore examples of poor sport cognition, a message of desperation that was clearly sent to the player who reaped the benefit.  So, DON’T HIT TIN.

Vocalizations were usually bad for the vocalizer.  I find it’s best to simply keep your mouth shut, no matter the intensity of the emotion you are feeling.  Again, it was usually the player on the losing end of the battle who was yelling or muttering.  Such utterances do not help the player, and only send the signal to your opponent that you are having a temper tantrum inside your head, and not adequately focused on right thinking.  Simple, “nice shot” to the opponent, reasonable appeals to the ref, and maybe a spirited “c’mon!” suffice.  But, generally, a cool head is the one that does not vocalize anything, and also does not say mean spirited things internally to the self if a mistake is made, or when under extreme pressure.  Keep the landscape of the mind cool, self-compassionate, and widely observant for the best results.  It is a great, beautiful, and necessary thing for an athlete to have fire.  The trick is to keep that fire as a smoldering, motivating heat, and not let it become an immolating conflagration.  Harsh and loud vocalizations fuel the fire toward the direction of a bonfire.  Save the vocalizations for the off-court celebration after your victory.

Just some tidbits I re-picked up from my first days of squash on this day of truly wonderful play.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Radical Acceptance*: Embrace Reality to Start Winning

In this picture here, a 19-year old Sergio Garcia celebrates having won the prestigious low amateur honors at the 1999 Masters.  Later that summer, he had a famous battle down the stretch with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah.  At the time, many people felt as though Sergio and Tiger would be a rivalry on the order of Jack and Arnie.  Writing from this vantage point, we know that prediction not to have panned out, as Tiger went on to win 12 more majors, and Sergio went 74 starts in a major before finally breaking through this April at the Masters.  In the intervening 18 years, Sergio experienced some incredible heart breaks featuring some uncanny luck of his competitors, all of it driving some brutally scathing self talk.

As I wrote in this blog in 2012 after he shot a dreadful 76 dropping him out of contention in the Masters, Sergio was asked what he lacked to win a major tournament, and he replied a dispirited: “Everything.”  In 2013, he was asked again what the problem was, and he stated, somewhat more desperately: “I’m not good enough,” he continued. “I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them. I have no more options. I wasted my options. … Tell me something I can do.”
This year, when his tournament-winning birdie putt dropped on the first playoff hole, Sergio ended his long drought.  I’m sure I was not alone in the sport cognition world to wonder what had changed in order to bring this about, since, given his history of bad luck and scalding self talk, this victory would have to entail miraculous alteration in his cognitive approach to the game.  And, in fact, I was right.  Speaking after his victory about his ups and downs at the Masters, Sergio revealed that somehow since his disaster in 2012, he acquired the skill of Radical Acceptance:
“When I came here in ’99 as an amateur, I felt like this course was going to give me at least one major.  I’m not going to lie: that thought changed a little bit through the years because I started feeling uncomfortable on the course.  But, I kind of came in peace with it the last three or four years and I accepted what Augusta gives and takes.  And because of that, I’m able to stand here today.”

When people talk about the most important traits of successful athletes, they often don’t mention the ability to accept reality as one of them, because we often think it is so important for athletes to have outsized egos, as if the ability to succeed depends upon the ability to dwarf reality’s hold on us.  And while I think dreaming big is a key element to success, it is important to separate out dreams from reality, because as the Buddhists will tell us: a sure fire way to suffer is to be at odds with reality.  The problem, from a cognitive point of view is that, too often, people confuse accepting reality with approving of it, as if one were being something of a patsy to accept reality.  We see this in our clinical practice when it comes to trauma or other negative life events: “If I accept it, I must be saying it’s OK,” without noticing that the inability to accept the event cements it as one that will not be overcome.  While a great deal could be said, and has been, about acceptance, here are some aspects of it I want to mention which elevate it from mere spiritual or psychological flimflammery, to a truly transformative power in your sport life and in your life as a whole.

1. The first step is to notice non-acceptance.  The first aspect of reality refusal you need to attune yourself to is that you are engaging it in.  In the sport context, this often involves some form of a tantrum: throwing a club or racquet, yelling at an ref or opponent, or just yelling in general, or thinking in your head that you’re the most unlucky person who ever walked the earth.  While some of these actions seem hyperbolic, every athlete engages in them to some extent.  The successful ones notice it and do everything to move quickly from reality refusal to reality acceptance.

2. Refusal to accept reality keeps you stuck.  If you continue to be in a state of disbelief about something, you will never see your way clear to the answer because your disbelief blinds you to potential solutions.  When you throw a club, a racquet, or argue with the ref or God, you are mired in the moment that has already past rather than seeing your way to potential solutions in the present.  Plus, you can also see that there is some entitlement in disbelieving reality, as if you don’t deserve negative things to happen to you.  As he even acknowledges, Sergio had a big plate of entitlement, winning 1999 low amateur honors, and coming from brilliant Spanish golf lineage: Severiano Ballesteros, and Jose Maria Olazabal (the winner in 1999) both multiple Masters’ winners.  He expected good fortune to rain down upon him.

3. The best opportunity to change your reality begins the moment you accept it.  This fact is the reverse of corollary #2.  Accepting reality is an extremely liberating cognitive move, even if the reality that requires accepting is painful.  It is far different to be in an accepting posture no matter how much your face stings, rather than in a tantrum about how the very thing that is happening isn’t or shouldn’t be happening.

Now, you would think that golfers have more opportunity that other athletes to practice acceptance given that the “rub of the green” is built into the sport, the random, unfair, even bizarre things that happen on the course over which we have little or no control.  Dwelling on them in disbelief just gets in the way, inhibiting success in the next shot.  But, as Sergio’s press conference makes clear, you can be in an 18-year long fight against reality and not know it.  Once Sergio accepted some basic realities, his reality changed, and with it, his entire life.

*The term, Radical Acceptance, as used here is borrowed from Marsha Linehan and her system of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, as laid out in her “Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder,” (Guilford Press, 1993), and the accompanying skills manual, “DBT Skills Training: Handouts and Worksheets,” (Guilford Press, 2015).  Readers will note that Linehan has borrowed heavily from the Buddhist position on acceptance, but, as far as I know, the term “radical acceptance,” is her coinage, adding the notion that acceptance must be full, entire, and all the way to the roots.  It can’t be faked, or half-hearted. I encourage you to investigate the wisdom entailed in her “reality acceptance” skills, of which skills #2 and #3 here are only two.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Just Do It?

Recently, in my clinical practice, I have been hearing the word “just” an awful lot.  Perhaps more precisely, I must have been hearing it for a while, but am now listening to it in a new way.  It is usually in the following contexts: “I just need to get over it,” or “I just need to move on.”  “S/he just doesn’t get it.”  And I have begun to notice that the word, used like this, hides an entire skill set necessary to just do the very thing people are talking about.  Of course, that’s the power and brilliance of the ad campaign: don’t get bogged down in a lot of thinking, just do it.

While I think there’s a lot to be said about quieting and simplifying the noise in the head—just see my last post--, there are two main problems I have with this usage of the word: oversimplification and self-blame.  Both get in the way of peak performance, and both should be guarded against.

Oversimplification.  As I alluded to above, I have begun to hear the word “just” in my practice as a signal that there is some skill, skill set, or process that is being elided when someone says something like, “I just need to get over it.”  I usually ask when they are imagining when they say “just,” and I usually get an answer that is akin to “I’ll just wave a wand.”  So, there is some magical thinking going on.  For example, when people or athletes are talking about getting over a major loss or trauma use the phrase, “I just need to get over it,” they are usually using some rather strong defense mechanisms like denial and avoidance about what it would actually take to get over it.  As a result, they are usually almost guaranteeing that they won’t get over it, and won’t reap the valuable lessons that come from loss, or even, trauma.  And often, it’s usually not that they’re over-thinking the event, it’s that they’re thinking incorrectly about the event, which, again, guarantees that they won’t get over it, and even runs the risk having it happen again.

Self-blame.  I have also been noticing that this usage of the word “just” has behind it a good well of self-blame, because, in our magical thinking culture, we think we should be able to “just get over it.”  So, when someone says to me, “I just need to get over it,” I think both about the unseen, unknown skill set necessary to do so, but I also probe for some sense of shame or self-blame that the person must be experiencing since s/he hasn’t been able to do so to this point.  In this sense, the word is a signal to the kinds of cognitive traps we fall into when it comes to major losses or trauma.

So, what’s the answer?  Well, as I have written in other posts (Scott’s Lytham Opportunity, August, 12, 2012), the main task is to turn toward rather than away, and look at the event with your therapist or coach in as much picayune detail as possible.  “I guess I just choked,” becomes, “I really need to get better at breathing or narrowing my focus toward the end of my match/game/event.”  Or, “I need to really prepare better for all stages of the competition, beginning, middle, and end.”  “S/he just doesn’t get it,” means: “I need to be more interpersonally effective and communicate to her/him what it is s/he’s not grasping, and what’s so important to me about that fact.”  In either case, those point to skills either not learned or not employed in important moments.  Finally, a great deal of self-compassion is to be brought to bear on this practice.  There’s a perfectly valid reason you don’t have that skill set or couldn’t bring it out at the desired moment.  Shoring up that gap is precisely the value of engaging in sport or therapy: so that you can acquire it and bring it to bear the next time.  Yes, definitely don’t forget the self-compassion.  After all, you’re just human.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Think Like Dustin: A Lot Less

The US Open golf tournament is always one to produce incredible drama, and this year was no different.  But, this time around, the extreme difficulty of the course, or golfers’ collapses weren’t the story, but rather, the utterly bizarre way in which the USGA enforced the rules of the game on one of the leaders of the tournament on Sunday.  On the fifth hole, Dustin Johnson, on his way to addressing the ball, noticed that it had moved.  The rules official with that group determined that he had not caused it to move since he had not addressed the ball, and so would not be assessed a one-stroke penalty. Then, on the 12th hole, Dustin was informed that the USGA was reviewing tape of the incident and would decide at the end of the round whether he would be assessed that penalty or not.  This decision led to a situation which is not only unique in USGA history, maybe in the entire history of the sport, and perhaps in the history of sport psychology: the players would have to play without actually knowing the score.  Knowing the score, in any sport, is paramount because it is, after all, the way by which we measure who wins and who loses.  But, it is also vital because it dictates to a large degree the strategic decisions made by the players as they try to win.  In essence, the USGA said to the players, “you go ahead and play with blindfolds, and we’ll remove the blindfolds when the golf is all over.”  While it’s hard to imagine a more bizarre, and indeed absurd, situation, it’s equally hard to know how to handle this situation were you to be in it.  Well, you could do a lot worse than to take a page out of Dustin Johnson’s book, not only because in going on to win the tournament, he taught us how we might manage this situation, all the while reinforcing some very important lessons of performance psychology.

The first one: thought stopping.  When asked how he handled the incredible distraction as to
whether he was going to be assessed a penalty from the 12th hole until the finish, he reported several answers: “I decided that I hadn’t made that ball move, and so that was that.”  While some people might say that he chose to lie to himself, ignoring the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, those of us in the sport performance business see that he was engaging in one of the more difficult cognitive challenges imaginable.  It’s like putting a chocolate cake in front of you and telling you not to think about chocolate cake.  But, it is a crucial skill because it keeps us from racing ahead into future dreadful scenarios and “what ifs.”  Thought stopping keeps us from falling into wormholes, just the kind of holes the mind loves: usually future, calamity related ones.

The skill of thought stopping did not only extend to keeping himself from imagining future demise, it also covered not racing to past catastrophes, of which he has many to call upon, moments of collapse right on the brink of winning major tournaments (2010 US Open, Pebble Beach; 2015 US Open, Chambers Bay), even including problems involving (bizarre) rules’ infractions (2010 PGA, Whistling Straits).  In this regard, he did not fall into the well known “not again,” or “why me?” cognitive trap.  Dustin made it clear that he was not engaging in these past-driven thoughts, when he was asked what kept him from thinking about the past. “I just thought I was playing the golf course, that’s all I was thinking about.”  His three perfect finishing shots to birdie the 18th hole was proof that he successfully stopped any negative past-oriented thought from derailing his play, and allowed positive, present-orient thoughts drive positive play for a positive outcome.
Another aspect to discuss about this remarkable aspect of sport psychology is that Dustin Johnson is often spoken about on Tour as someone not blessed with a very bright intelligence.  I don’t know how that rumor got started, nor am I in a position to comment on it.  I will say that one way to think about this rumor in light of this winning piece of sport cognition is this: perhaps Dustin just doesn’t have that much going through his mind as he plays golf.  And, there is no doubt that one result of having very little going through the thought stream during performance is that there is much less to filter out in order to get to the right thought.  So, when it comes down to it: thinking too much is clearly a problem, thinking well is something you can train, and thinking well may mean thinking less.  Whether by nature or nurture, find your way to thinking a lot less during your next important sport event.