Monday, November 25, 2013

Selfish v. Self-full

Young athletes are often introduced to the old saw that there is no “I” in team.   On its surface, the message seems obvious: the team only succeeds when the individual puts his or her own needs aside.  Those needs generally mean thinking that we should be playing a certain desired role, get a huge portion of playing time, and receive the lion’s share of the attention.  Instead, this dictum succinctly reminds us to sublimate the self in order for the common good to succeed. Any thought of the self, this statement suggests, is selfish.
The problem is that this statement is often offered to rather young athletes, people for whom the concept of joining a collective is not yet developmentally appropriate.  We may remember that becoming husbands, wives, co-workers and citizens is a pretty advanced developmental step, because doing these tasks successfully involves already having a pretty fully formed sense of self to bring to those relationships.  But, young athletes, from pre-little league to almost the end of college, are caught up in the tasks of defining self-hood.  That is their full time job.  So, telling a latency-aged or adolescent athlete to have no thought of themselves is a developmentally confusing message.  Furthermore, ignoring athletes’ developmental level often leads to behavior that seems downright selfish.  That is, the more we try to tell the athlete to not have a big self, the more we will see that self asserting itself in ever more frantic ways.  
So, what am I saying?  Am I suggesting that young athletes cannot join teams?  Absolutely not!  But, what I am suggesting is that parents and coaches help clarify for young athletes what their role is in any given team situation so that the young athlete can be invested wholeheartedly in mastering that role.  Fulfilling that role to the best of the young person’s ability, then, can be the way they show up in their full selfness for the team or athletic moment.  In essence, I am arguing for a concept of self-fullness over selfishness.             
To make this difference between more clear, let me give a simple chart comparing common forms of selfish behavior in an athlete and how that can be redirected to more a more self-full orientation.

The Selfish Athlete
The Self-Full Athlete
The selfish athlete feels as though s/he needs and deserves to play the starring role (quarterback, pitcher, batting clean-up, short stop), get the lion’s share of playing time, make the winning play.  The selfish athlete does not see the value of practice.
The self-full athlete knows his/her role on the team and delights in learning and excelling at that role.  The self-full athlete enjoys both practice and game time, and sees them as both valuable opportunities to master their role.
The selfish athlete cannot tolerate setbacks, and blames teammates and referees for them.  The selfish athlete throws temper tantrums in the face of these setbacks.
The self-full athlete feels but manages intense disappointment, and has a balanced appraisal of blame and fault.  S/he does not make a spectacle of him/herself in victory or defeat.
Since, for any athlete, a loss represents a threat to the self, the selfish athlete takes losing as an opportunity to quit.  Quitting is never far from the mind of the selfish athlete.
The self –full athlete abides a loss.  And based on that perseverance, s/he can mine the valuable data that a loss presents.  The self-full athlete gains strength from a loss.
The selfish athlete can’t really identify any reason they play the sport.
The self-full athlete can quickly identify several reasons why they love playing their sport, aspects that make them feel more alive.

There are a few important lessons here for coaches, and parents, and athletes.  

  • For coaches: make sure to clarify for your athletes what their role is at every moment, and what success looks like in that role.  Role clarification is not just good for the team dynamics, it’s an essential component of good team performance.
  •  For athletes: if you notice that the comments in the left-hand column of my grid apply to you, maybe it’s time to re-assess your commitments, and either reconnect with your primal joy for your sport, or, in fact, find another endeavor.   In moments of wavering affiliation, always come back to what you love about your sport, how it feels when you do it right, how uncluttered it feels to have intention and action so closely linked.  It feels great.  It feels like flying.  It feels so full of self, that, at its far edges, it feels selfless.  Those are moments when you’re ready to attach yourself to a bigger canvas, a bigger picture, a bigger plan.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Excuses & Radical Responsibility

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the goofy t-shirt that has common excuses tennis players use when they hit a bad shot.  The shirt says things like: “the sun got in my eyes,” and “my strings were too tight.”  You get the point.  While the shirt is intended as a light joke, it speaks to a natural tendency that all of us have when we make a mistake.  We immediately leap to the mitigating factors that led us astray.  Top athletes, in particular, fall prey to this defense mechanism, often called denial, because they have honed their games to such an extent that they feel as though they are no longer prone to simple mistakes.  This is why you so often see a player glance with a disbelieving look at his or her strings, racket, the ground or the air after a bad shot, trying to fathom the reason for their miscue.  But instead of excusing away a bad shot, I encourage you to use a skill I will call ‘radical responsibility’, in which you avoid the easy balm of environmental fluke and instead take full, personal ownership for the mistake.  Owning your errors is the quickest path to shoring them up, whereas excusing them away is the surest way to remain in the fiction-laden universe of denial and sour grapes.  In this post, I will expand on this common pitfall and promote the skill of radical responsibility as a way toward improved performance.
    Often, there are some other cognitive distortions lurking behind a defense mechanism and it’s important to know which one you might be using when you resort to excuses.  I have written about them both previously, but the first is perfectionism.  Many athletes understandably fall prey to perfectionism because they work so hard and are always striving for the perfect result.  This kind of striving is a good thing.  But it derails performance when the athlete thinks he or she has trained away all mistakes.  But even the best players hit the ball into the net or chili-dip an easy chip shot.  An excuse, then, masks the insult that the mistake has caused to the imagined perfection.  But, often a mistake can be a good opportunity to notice a technical flaw or to realize that your attention has strayed from the task at hand.  The second one is grandiosity, the idea that as we train and get better, we get beyond making certain mistakes, that somehow they are beneath us, that One so Great should never make an error so small.  They say that great mathematicians are not good at simple calculations.  But, that doesn’t make them immune to the laws of nature which addition, subtraction and division describe.
    No.  The real opportunities for learning from mistakes comes from taking radical responsibility for them.  Instead of “I had a bad lie,” try, “I didn’t account for my lie.”  Instead of “the wind really took that,” try, “I didn’t adequately judge the wind.”  That is, radical responsibility demands that you bring your own agency into focus before considering the environmental factors.  Doing so will give you more opportunities to know what you need to work on, and will give you a greater sense of ownership in the outcome.  You take credit for your victories, so you should also put yourself forward as the author of your mistakes.
    I will leave you with two recent examples of how this sense of radical responsibility can play itself out even among the best players.  After missing the cut at this year’s U.S. Open, 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson remarked, “I’d describe the whole course as manipulative.  It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how they manipulate courses.”  Now contrast that remark with one that comes from the 1996 P.G.A. Champion, Mark Brooks.  Many people might not have known that he was actually caddying for another tour player at this year’s Players Championship.  When asked what his years of competitive experience were bringing to his man’s bag, he replied: “One thing I try to get him to do is to take responsibility for his shots, really do it, deep down.  And the second thing is to work on his deficiencies.”  Note that the two are connected: take radical responsibility for your mistakes, see them as windows to deeper technical flaws, and then use that feedback to reduce their frequency.  Radical responsibility: put it in your bag and on your next t-shirt.
(For help with this or any other performance challenge, don't hesitate to contact Altius Performance Works at

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Healing to run, running to heal

In the wake of the events at the Boston Marathon and the subsequent shootout and stakeout in Watertown, there has been much discussion of the strength and resilience of the Boston community.  Our Mayor crowed, “Boston will overcome,” and our president uttered his somber words, “they picked on the wrong city," and, "make no mistake about it, we will finish the race.”  The phrase “Boston Strong,” has gone viral.  Even our busses flash this slogan after their LED banners show the number of the route, as if, no matter what bus you get on, we are all headed toward this same impregnable fortress.  And indeed, many of the runners, even among the injured, have pledged that they will run next year, even if on new fiberglass limbs.  Such a display of strength in the face of such terror is both admirable and simply human.  We endure because we have no choice.  But, what of those who don’t feel this sense of strength, whose sense of safety has been so shattered that they are experiencing far greater disturbances than can be addressed with simple slogans of an imagined bravery?  What if they cannot fathom running the marathon again, or even, running again?  What do we say to them?
    The subjective nature of trauma.  The first thing to say is that trauma is an entirely subjective experience.  Just because you weren’t there, doesn’t mean that you weren’t traumatized.  The images of the explosions and the descriptions of the wounds were repeated so often by the media that we all had a very vivid pictures of the horrific event imprinted in our minds.  Some people can seem to regroup relatively quickly, while others--particularly runners and marathon participants--might feel that their universe has become so inverted that they just cannot imagine returning to their pre-event peace of mind.  The important thing to remember is that there is nothing inherently wrong with either response.
    Know the signs of acute traumatic stress.  The second thing we might offer them is to recognize that certain reactions to trauma, though distressing, are normal and can be overcome.  Professionals often break down trauma symptoms into clusters, the most common of which are: re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares, hightened sensitivity to reminders of the event), avoidance (social withdrawal, difficulty having or naming feelings, avoiding stimuli or activities associated with the event, difficulties with memory), and hypervigilance (an edgy feeling of always being on, of always thinking the event is going to happen again).  Experiencing these symptoms can often make a person feel as though they are going crazy, when in fact, they are part of the body's natural protection system that went into overdrive during the event.
    Grounding exercises.  One good way to help yourself if you are experiencing any of these symptoms is to first recognize that this is what they are.  Then, you can practice some fairly simple grounding exercises to help you through.  If you are having re-experiencing symptoms, it is important to stop the thought or wake up from the dream and say something to yourself like, "It's over.  It's not happening now.  It was only a flashback/dream.  I'm safe."  If you are having some social withdrawal, try to make yourself do something socially that maybe stretches your comfort zone but isn’t impossible.  Ask a friend to do something that feels pretty easy and then expand from there.  And if you are experiencing some hypervigilance, practice some grounding exercises like some deep breathing (exhaling twice as long as your inhale), guided meditation, or even some physical exercise that gets you out of your head and into your body.  One thing that you will notice about these grounding exercises is that they attempt to give you back some control that was lost during the traumatic event.  Loss of control is one of the signal aspects of trauma and by addressing these symptoms yourself you are taking back some of what was lost.  
       Yet another thing that was lost in a traumatic event is some basic trust in the universe, our faith that bad things like this shouldn't happen.  In that regard, trauma represents a spiritual injury as well as a physical and psychological one.  For this sort of injury, I might suggest that running does offer the best bet for a return to spiritual health.  Your running has been a spiritual exercise for you, a time when mind and body synchronize with your surroundings and gave you that sense of transcending the here and now and participating in something larger than yourself.  Thus, running can be a way to re-harmonize what has gone so badly out of tune.  Recognizing and treating the signs and symptoms of acute stress rather than pretending they're not there might just be one way for you to put those shoes back on to begin the long journey back to the starting line.  But, if some of these symptoms are particularly severe or last longer than a few months, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health expert with some experience working with traumatic stress.

Friday, May 24, 2013

On Rivals & Rivalry

When I arrived as the new coach of a squash team, I entered unknowingly into a long-standing rivalry between my new team and that from another local prep school.  The bitterness between the two teams ran long and deep, with charges of thievery at games, boyfriend stealing, slurs on social media, and the standard suspicion that somehow the other side was gaining some competitive advantage through unfair means.  I was, quite frankly, shocked at the level of nastiness to which this rivalry had descended, particularly in the genteel sport of girls' prep school squash, and dedicated my first season to cleaning up the tenor of the rivalry and getting my team focused on the squash and not the banter.  For it seemed obvious to me that not only was this grudge antithetical to the entire mission of the school, we were the ones whose squash was suffering the most and who always came up on the losing end of our close encounters.  I often wondered if my team had decided that they would never beat this team and so had decided to take the consolation prize of winning the smear campaign.  The recent and very public kerfuffle between Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods has brought my old experience back to me quite vividly, and so I thought I'd share some things I tried to impress to my team back then about what a fantastic opportunity a rival represents and how to transform the negative feelings a rival elicits into performance gains.
    Violation of the first commandment.  Becoming embroiled in the negative aspects of a rival violates the first commandment of good sport cognition, namely, to focus on the things you can control, not the things you can't.  Though we need to be mindful of our opponent's moves and gamesmanship, a rivalry starts hurting our performance when our focus moves exclusively on that behavior rather than the appropriate performance response, which will usually just be to commit to focusing on the task at hand.
    Elevate the rival.   Two important distortions occur when a rivalry has gone south.  The first is that a rival is in our way and the second is that the rival is somehow less than human.  We see this latter in the terrible name calling we engage in toward the rival and in attributing evil intent to the rival.  Both of these thoughts elicit hostility, a motivator sometimes, but more often a distraction.  Instead, we have to shift the thinking and recognize that a rival offers a great opportunity to strengthen weaknesses in our own games and train harder, focus more clearly and play better.  In essence, the rival is calling us to a higher place, knowing all the while that if we engage in the negative thoughts and behavior that a rivalry offers, we are actually descending to a lower place.  Use the rival to motivate improvement, not to feed the impulses of judgment and rancor, which, if we are going to achieve our highest potential, need less attention rather than more.
    Take the higher ground.  Always take the high ground in these instances.  Always resort to better sportsmanship when you are being lured into gamesmanship.  Compliment rather than criticize  ("nice shot," rather than "lucky bounce!").  Don't take away your opponent's humanity by imparting evil intent to them.  Doing so is not only better for the game, it's better for your game.  You will find yourself less caught up in your opponent's shenanigans and more focused on your own play.  And, you will not have a moral hangover for slights and injuries that you were lured into, behaviors that linger into subsequent points and games and drain your focus away from the moment at hand.
    To return to the earlier example of Sergio and Tiger.  I think it was fairly clear to everyone on Saturday at the Players Championship that Sergio's blaming Tiger for his own bad shot on the 38th hole of the tournament was an example of bad sport cognition which bit him very bitterly on the 71st.  I have written in these bytes before about Sergio's bad thinking, but his behavior at the Players and his subsequent offhand and racist comments really reached a new level, and in it we should recognize the self-destructive power of the kind of negative thinking involved when a rivalry goes awry.  Think of him what you may, but Tiger Woods is clearly calling the golfing world to a higher level (of golf) and if Sergio could only transform his negative thoughts about Tiger into motivating ones, he might be the one raising the jug on Sunday.  Believe me, no one would be more motivated to play better golf by such a sight than Tiger.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Yelling & Yellers

In one of the schools where I taught and coached, a story fairly well-known to students and some of the coaches circulated about one of the coaches.  At halftime, during one game when the team was not playing particularly well, they received a verbal lashing, all-too common from that coach.  When his rant reached its apogee, the coach became so apoplectic in his rage that he picked up a folding chair and threw it, catching one of his players in the forehead and causing a deep cut that required attention from one of the trainers.  Players collaborated in squelching the event and in contriving the fiction that the injury had happened during game time.  The incident was never discussed publicly and the coach was never censured for an event that conveniently never happened.  I bring this story out of my past for several reasons.  For one, it has always amazed me how the abuser gets protected by the system, and how a group under the thrall of an abuser colludes to keep the abuse a secret.   For another, I have always been perplexed and dismayed at the problem of yelling, a pathology at any time, but one that is particularly malignant in parenting, leadership and coaching; that is, when there is a power imbalance between the yeller and his target.  I hope that with the very public firing of the Rutger’s University men’s basketball coach more people will feel empowered to take a stand against the yeller in their life,  but I have my doubts that the fate of Mike Rice will start a national campaign to eradicate this sickness.  In this post, I’ll give you some reasons why all coaches (parents, bosses, people) should seek to eradicate yelling from their communication repertoire.
    The Pygmalion Effect.  Separate from the locution I coined in my last parent post, psychologists have discovered a phenomenon that shows that if you demand a higher standard, you can get it.  That is, if you have high expectations of people, you will get more out of them than if you don’t.  Yelling is an egregious misunderstanding of this concept.  Yelling, physically abusing them or hurling homophobic epithets at them will definitely have an effect on them, that is, of triggering their fight/flight/freeze mechanism.  So, while some players’ fight response might engage, you are just as likely to have players feeling more timid and even freezing in the face of performance challenges.  Coaches are much more likely to elicit peak performance by setting high standards and by giving more attention and praise when their athletes achieve those levels and by simply paying less attention to gaffes, misses and miscues.  In a team that identifies and rallies around high standards, mistakes are taken in stride and no one needs to get excoriated, singled out or put in the penalty box of shame, from which best results are rarely achieved.
    The Messiah Fantasy.  All groups fall prey to the fantasy that the leader will lead them to the promised land (more wins, greater profit, increased safety from external threats).  The successful leader will always seek to thwart this fantasy by communicating to his group that achieving those gains falls on everyone’s shoulders.  Harnessing the power of the group will always be more effective and reality-based than by having everyone believe that they are following some invincible Magus.  Furthermore, the truly empowering leader will forefront his or her players’ hands in victory and downplay his or her own, but (s)he will always take blame for defeats.  The yeller misunderstands these basic tenets by communicating--through their dysregulation--that their players will succeed only through their obedience.  For the yeller, it is all about him.  For the coach, it is all about the group.  The yeller communicates to his players that they will sink or swim because of the coach, and that they should never forget that.  Whereas the coach communicates that they will sink or swim through the collective efforts of the group and that the coach will do everything to help them swim.
Cohesion.  So, as you can see from above, team cohesion is really the holy grail of successful team play.  The yeller and abuser shatters cohesion because (s)he will split the team’s allegiances between those players who agree with those methods, perhaps because they had a yeller for a parent, and those who think (s)he’s insane and should be overthrown.  But mostly, the yeller creates a code of silence, evidenced by the team I referenced above, where open communication is shunned in part because it is not tolerated, and in part because no one wants to step out of line and feel the capricious wrath of the lunatic in their midst who mistakes himself for a visionary.  Finally, and perhaps most tragically, players will simply ignore the coach during yelling jags, retract their heads into their shells, thus missing important opportunities to process mistakes, clarify misunderstandings, and learn & cohere as a group.
       If history hasn’t then psychologists certainly have taught us about the wages of obedience for the sake of obedience.  They have also echoed the lessons of history in how quickly and easily power is abused.  So, coaches should set their bar much higher than mere obedience and should be much more circumspect about how they use their tremendous authority.  Which is not to say that they can’t reprimand, give consequences or even deliver impassioned lectures about what does and does not float on their particular squad or why that particular drill was not performed well.  Setting high standards and providing the road map to achieving them is a far cry from yelling.  The difference can almost invariably be seen in the results.  Mike Rice’s Rutger’s team didn’t break .500.  The team I referred to above wasn’t even close to .500.  And as for that team’s coach?  He was hired away by a more prestigious institution with a more storied program.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Consistency & the Weekend Warrior

One of the ardent followers of Floating & Stinging wrote in with the following complaint about his weekly basketball game: “I knew it; this always seems to be the case; having played abominably last week, I played out of my mind tonight. What is that? Never know what you're bringing to town, I always say.”  We understand his distress.  Knowing what to count on when you step into the ring is one way athletes seek to control their side of the contest, and consistency is the very backbone of good, not to mention enjoyable, performance.  We also know that top amateurs and professionals achieve consistency through hours of dedicated and focused practice, the very luxury unavailable to the weekend warrior.  But even the weekend hack can employ several fairly easy strategies that will improve consistency and aim at bringing your best game to town on any given Sunday.  Here are some tactics you can try that will not require more time that you already don’t have.
Make the transition.  Here is what is it like: you finish a hard day’s work, punch the clock and rush over to the venue.  Alternatively, you carve out some precious time from your weekend home duties, and ask your partner for yet another time credit on your already overdrawn account.  But as you go, your head is filled with unfinished tasks from the day, some snarky comment or perceived slight, the plaintive glance of your child as you depart.  Then, you show up at the venue, engage in ribald jive talk with your mates, and bang! the game is on.  But instead of this habit, set an intention to make a mental transition as you head to the court.  Have a mental picture of releasing what has come before and open a space for what is about to be.  View a tape in your mind of playing your best, and try to feel in your body what it’s like when you do play your best.  People often think of the warm up--usually short and insufficient under any circumstance for the weekender--as the time to transition.  But try extending that transition to include your travel time to the venue.
The “bounce-hit” drill.  I don’t know if you’ve read any of the Inner Game books, but in the Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey suggests a drill which I think is utterly brilliant and have used to good effect several times when I have been totally unprepared for competitive play.  The brilliance of the drill lies in its simplicity.  When the ball bounces, say in your head, “bounce.”  When you or your opponent hits the ball, say, again, in your head “hit.”  Continue in this way for five minutes.  The point of the drill is to clear your mind of all the flotsam and jetsam and get it focused on what is happening in the here and now.  And the drill is incredibly malleable, so you can tailor it to your sport.  My basketball player should detach himself from the pre-game folderol and listen to the dribbling of the ball, the squeak of shoes, the sound of the net and backboard as the ball pelts it.  Also, he should tune in to his body: call attention to his breath and notice it as it increases its work with his effort.  And he should do these things while dismissing any thought that tries to pop into his head unbidden.  All of these things serve to get him out of his head and onto the court, and also provide some important data, provided he is mindful to it, of how he is feeling and what he will need to do to play better (i.e. up-regulate or down-regulate).
Track the problem.  Note that Mr. Basketball experiences himself vacillating between the two poles of brilliant and abominable.  Well, we’d want to track that problem more closely.  Is it true that his play is that polarized?  Might there be some sign of the cognitive distortion of black and white  thinking at play here, and that his play is really more even over the weeks than he thinks?  If so, he’d want to know that so he can do some cognitive restructuring about what to expect when he goes to the court.  But, taking him at his word for his variability, we’d also want to know whether it was mood dependent and if there was some trigger on the brilliant or the abominable days that produced that particular performance outcome.  If so, we might learn what to avoid or cultivate on game days.  
One more note on cognitive distortions: most weekend warriors fall prey to an insidious cognitive distortion which I will call grandiosity.  This distortion, particularly prevalent in the male of the species, would have you believe that you’ll always play your best regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve played, how much you’ve changed physically since then, or that, when you were playing your best, you played three times per week rather than once.  Interestingly, this distortion is augmented by all the pre-game banter and strut.  It’s kind of endearing that when we think of doing our sport, we think of ourselves performing our best.  It’s a testament to the human spirit, and all that.  But then, it also sets us up for some pretty sore disappointment when we learn that our best checked out of town some fifteen years ago.  All jokes aside, it’s important to be aware of our cognitive distortions, because, as I wrote in a previous post (“Why Sport Cognition,” Sept. 2012), they are like termites in the wood and they need to be eradicated if we are going to have happy & successful (sporting) lives.
I believe that these three tactics will help anyone at any level become more observant of their sport performance and take a more active role in determining the quality of that performance no matter how frequently or infrequently they play.  I also believe that by engaging in these tactics, they will come to know themselves even better, and that this knowledge is, ultimately, the great promise of all sporting endeavor.  And if I’m wrong, well, just call me grandiose.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sport Parents IV: Letting Go

In my roles as teacher, coach, and child and family therapist, I have had many interactions with parents.  But, one of my most remarkable experiences with a parent came at the hands of one of my wisest friends.  I visited her several days after she had given birth to her first child.  After many of the expected pleasantries had been exchanged, she said of her new child, “Well, she was inside of me and now she isn’t.  And I see my job as creating the conditions under which she can move ever more safely and securely, step by step, further away from me.”  That was 12 years ago and I think I’m still in the process of recovering from such an insightful and prescient comment from so new a mother.  I say this because it is exactly the opposite of every inclination we must have when entrusted with a new life so utterly and entirely dependent upon us.  All aspects of this reality must move us to hold on tighter, while the socioemotional and developmental truth remains that in order for this new organism to truly thrive and actualize, we must practice letting go again and again and again.  This reality is also true for sport parents.  You want to micromanage every aspect of your child’s sport experience, shield him or her from the slings and arrows of an outrageous bounce/call/seeding, from the pain of losing, that you grasp ever tighter to every aspect of the experience.  But, for your athlete to get the most adaptive growth out of the experience, for them to truly become the athletes they need to be (and this may entail not becoming athletes), you must practice the skill of letting go.  In this post, I will discuss this most crucial and challenging parenting skill, all in the service of your athlete’s better play, richer enjoyment of their sport, healthier relationship with you, and better life.  Yes, the stakes are that high.
Sport psychologists, studying the social milieu of the athlete, have derived a rubric for the levels of involvement by parents and their young athlete.  Basing their work on research conducted in the area of school involvement by parents, they have declared that sport parents fall into three categories: underinvolved, supportive and overinvolved (Hellstedt, 1987; Hellstedt, 1990; Fredericks & Eccles, 2004).*  In the eyes of these researchers, underinvolved parents produced athletes who were apathetic about their sport involvement, while overinvolved parents produced athletes who showed high levels of stress, performance anxiety and burn out (Fredericks & Eccles, 2004).  According to them, overinvolved parents had a deleterious effect on their athletes’ performance because the athlete absorbed a message of perfectionism, a cognitive distortion which has been proven to be corrosive of peak performance (Anshel & Eom, 2002).**  It is also easy to see how laboring under the cloak of perfectionism--explicitly or implicitly communicated--could lead to burn out in the young athlete.  In this post, I will elaborate on the position of the overinvolved parent, since it is the most destructive for the young athlete not only because it is so lethal to peak performance, but also because it interferes with so many of the positive developmental gains sport participation offers.
The Pygmalion Syndrome.  Think about Pygmalion, the sculptor from Greek mythology who created a sculpture of his ideal woman and then prayed to Venus that she come to life.  The myth has been converted to the stage (“Pygmalion” by G.B. Shaw) and the musical theater (“My Fair Lady”).  The myth has become a metaphor not just for the ardent wish of the artist to have his art have a life beyond his or her imaginings, but for the kind of control that the creative power wants to exert over its product.  Thus, the creation becomes more a projection or mirror of the creator than an entity in its own right.  So, too, with overcontrolling sport parents.  The young athlete becomes not just a project but a product, whose athletic prowess will gain a glory (entrance to elite college, college scholarship, lucrative professional career) that will ultimately reflect back on the parent.  While the parent may succeed in creating this product, it is my contention that both parent and athlete lose a great deal in this overcontrolling configuration.  But, no doubt, the wages on the young athlete are more costly.  One price is that the athlete loses track of why they participate in their sport, and a split opens up in the athlete between their true self that would rather quit and a false self that continues on in the sport for the parents’ sake, divorced from the passion and joy of sport participation.  The fallout from this dynamic can be quite severe, from dispirited performance on the low end of the spectrum to frayed parent-child relations and quitting the sport on the further end of the spectrum.  On the furthest end is the kind of dismaying behavior we see in the dysfunctional athlete: performance slumps, terrible conduct problems, and addictive behaviors.  Think here of famous Pygmalion sport parents and the very troubled behavior of the offspring: Stefano Capriati and Jennifer, Mike Agassi and Andre, Earl Woods and Tiger, John McEnroe Sr. and Jr., Richard Williams and Venus and Serena.  It is my contention that Agassi’s descent into methamphetamine addiction and Tiger’s into his sex addiction, were attempts to ford the gap created between the false self created by the parent and the true self languishing inside the athlete,  a self obscured by the parents’ hard-driving control and choreography of the child’s life.
Whose Experience is this?  Connected to this creation of the false self is the idea that the overinvolved parent has blurred the gap between the child’s experience and the parent’s.  That is, in overcontrolling every element of the child’s sporting life, with an extreme ego orientation, the experience comes to mean so much more for the parent than for the child.  The child is slotted into Pygmalion’s master plan in a way that completely overlooks and even overrides the child’s wishes for the experience.  The creator of the plan comes first and the child second.  In my qualitative study comparing American and international elite squash players, one difference between the cohorts was remarkable: for the American squash player, the entire experience was one of being pulled ever closer into the parents’ orbit and plans for the child, while for the international players, the experience of coming through the squash ranks was one of increasing independence and distance from the parents.  American squash players were told who would coach them, how often they would have lessons, which events to play and which colleges to apply to.  International players traveled to events on their own, were coached by people unknown to the parents and created their own goals and aspirations for their squash achievement.  Thus, the international crowd was able to pull important developmental gains in the areas of individuation and self formation, gains that were thus postponed for the American cohort.  Anecdotal evidence strongly suggested that the international group practiced with greater focus, competed with greater fire and spent less time injured than their American counterparts.
Letting Go.  So, what’s to be done?  What does letting go look like?  Well, the first step of letting go involves letting go of the result.  If you have an end result of your child’s sport participation in mind, you will lose sight of the process and you will become ever more anxious when things look as though they are deviating from your plan.  This kind of anxiety, like all forms of the emotion, cause us to grip tighter, become less mindfully present and more rigidly committed to the old plan.  This rigidity can translate to exerting even more force on your young athlete to conform to the plan.  Instead, you can, starting from very early on in the athlete’s encounter with sport, invest the young athlete with increasing agency over practice and play time, coaching and tournament selections.  It’s not that you can’t point out the consequences of the athlete’s choices (less practice time generally results in worse results), but their practice, play and pleasure will always be greater when the choice is theirs.  And you can certainly provide pep talks through motivational troughs, if they communicate that they’re feeling flat.  Such morale boosters will go a long way, and they need to hear from you and everyone in their social milieu that hard works pays off.  But the well attuned parent-athlete dyad will know when the parent is motivating the child into the parent’s plan or helping the child articulate and actualize their own plan.  Clearly, the key element here is an open and honest communication pattern between parent and athlete, one that values both the agency of the athlete as well as the mature and tutelary powers of the parent.
     It is by no means my contention that letting go is easy.  Indeed, it might be the hardest parenting or life skill that we ever hope to acquire.  But our lives and our relationships with the people we love the most depend upon it.  Someone once told me that if you read the creation story in Genesis, God’s hand in creation recedes with each of the passing six days.  It is the writer’s way of suggesting that God is increasingly practicing the letting go skill even as he applies the finishing touches.  “You take it from here,” He seems to be saying to us.   Looking back at the arc of human history, many might wish that He had held on a little tighter.  But, I like to think that the writer of Genesis was using the metaphor of being a parent when he wrote that creation story.  What great insight into the generative process.  If the Old Testament God can let go, you can too.  Create something, love it with all your might, & set it free.

*Hellstedt, J. (1987). The coach-parent-athlete relationship. The Sport Psychologist, 1, 151-160.
Hellstedt, J. (1990). Early adolescent perceptions of parental pressure in the sport environment.  Journal of Sport Behavior, 13, 3.
Fredericks, J., & Eccles, J. (2004). Parental influences on youth involvement in sports. In M.R. Wiess (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise physiology: A lifespan perspective. Morgantown, NY: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.
**Anshel, M. & Eom, H.J. (2002). Exploring the dimensions of perfectionism in sport.  International Journal of Sports Psychology, 34, 3, 255-271.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sport Parents III: Game Day

Now that Matt Kuchar has become a very successful golfer and household name on the PGA tour, many people may have forgotten a back story of the 1998 U.S. Open, held at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where the antics of Kuchar’s caddie, his father, made almost as many headlines as his son.  The front story is the following: Kuchar was 19, a college junior and playing in the U. S. Open, having gained a berth by winning the US Amateur the previous summer.  On the famously brutal Olympic Club, Matt was improbably tied for fourth after two rounds, and even reached as high as second place on Saturday, before a string of bogeys undid his run.  After a perfectly respectable 74 on Sunday, the young Kuchar finished tied for 14th, the highest finish from an amateur since Jim Simons (5th) and Lanny Watkins (13th) at Merion in 1971.  And now, for the back story: Matt’s playing partners and rules officials were appalled by the father’s overly exuberant celebrations of Matt’s success on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  At several times during the three rounds he was spoken to, glared at and corrected not only for his leaps of joy, fist pumps, and even, impromptu dance moves, but also for his distracting placement of himself and his son’s bag in his competitors’ sight lines.  One playing partner, Justin Leonard, refused to answer a question in his post-round press conference about Kuchar senior’s behavior, while the other, Ernie Els, commented,   “Matt is very calm.  His dad is from the other side of the coin.  He must get it from his mother.”  Kuchar, pére, meanwhile, was unrepentant and responded to the opproprium by stating, “ I don’t care.  Put yourself in my shoes.  Your son just chipped in for birdie.  What are you going to do?  Stand there and pretend you’re at a funeral?”
           Well, while we might point out to the senior Kuchar that potential reactions to a child’s athletic performance include more options than a lilting jig or looking funereal, our main point in this post is to help parents figure out the best way to comport themselves on game day, the way that brings out the best in the young athlete, has the most potential to improve parent-child relations, while at the same time guarantees that the main story is the child’s, not the adult’s, performance.  In this post, I will give you three tips so that you can be the most help to your young athlete on game day.
  1. Have a plan.  Of all the things that scuttle peak performance, nerves might just be at the top of the list.  Therefore, having a plan for game day helps because we soothe the athlete by seeking to control as many variables as possible so that the he or she can focus on the task at hand.  It is important, then, that you work with your young athlete and his or her coach on how you can best be used on game day.  You will want to take their cue on such issues as: how you can help or not help; advice you can give or not give; where you should sit; what should be in your bag versus the athlete’s bag; who will talk to the young athlete and what will they say during whatever breaks they have; and even, what sort of cheering helps or does not help the young athlete, pace father Kuchar.  And once you have a plan, stick to it.  Very few things throw a young athlete off more than trying to focus on an athletic endeavor while wondering why their parent just did what they did.
  2. Don’t interfere.  It must be equal to one of the labors of Hercules not to interfere in an athletic competition when you feel as though your child has just received the wrong call, you have just observed an unnoticed rules’ infraction of an opponent, or when someone has called the wrong score.  And yet, you must avoid interfering at all costs.  For one, your child will be embarrassed.  Secondly, if the sport is run well, your interference will not be welcome by the officials, so you might get yourself ejected from the premises.  Thirdly, your child will now be needing to manage their own nerves, their embarrassment and their anger, a distracting combination which is unlikely to elicit his or her peak performance.  Rather than interfering, it is always a better and more effective strategy to tolerate your distress and voice your concern to a tournament official after the event, preferably out of earshot of your young athlete, than to interject yourself into the melee.  And yes, snide remarks and malicious leers directed at the referee constitute interference.  (I would point to one major exception to this rule: when your child’s conduct is out of line and/or out of control.  In this instance, particularly for the younger athlete, you should intervene, forfeit your child from the contest and have a serious conversation with him or her, saying that such behavior is unacceptable and that you won’t tolerate it.  Don’t expect the officials to do it, and anyway, your actions will carry much more weight than anyone else’s [see tip 3, “Storming,” in “Scattering and Husbanding,” Nov, 2012].  Such a strong intervention is likely to communicate to your child how seriously committed you are to their character and thus, to a mastery orientation.  This is one way in which, to paraphrase an expert, you can be the solution, not the problem, in your child’s life.)
  3. Manage your anxiety.  In this age of ubiquitous recording devices, many parents are video taping their child’s athletic performance.  And that is a good use of both technology and nervous energy.  But many should turn the camera on themselves.  Were they to do so, they might be surprised at the footage:  herky jerky bodily movements in concert with the action on the court/pitch/ice, pained facial expressions at their child’s misfortunes, and the anguish etched across the brow.  It doesn’t look like they’re having fun and yet they wouldn’t miss it for the world.  Nor should they.  But, what they should do is manage their thoughts and feelings in the moment so that they can maintain impassive and encouraging expressions for their young athlete.  They should reflect the kind of composed and confident strength that their child needs to prevail over his or her own battle with nerves.  Thus, the formula is simple: be the affect you want to see in your young warrior.  If you are a nervous wreck, shipwreck.  If you are  calm, you will serve as a beacon in the storm.  Again, it sounds Herculean to do this, but you and the athlete will be stronger for it.

To return to the Kuchar family.  Is it my claim that young Matt would have won the US Open at age 19 if his father had been able to control himself a bit more?  Well, maybe.  I can guarantee, though, that his father might have been more useful to him when things started to falter late on Saturday had he not been so ebullient leading up to the tough string of bogeys.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Matt was having to manage what he imagined as his father’s disappointment along with his own.  Even if his father was saying encouraging things during those holes, the imprint of his father’s unbounded joy could leave no other conclusion in Matt’s mind than that he was letting his father down.  I’m sure Matt would have loved nothing more than to win a US Open as an amateur with his father on the bag.  On Father’s Day, to boot.  But, Father Kuchar just might have made that greatest of golf stories an impossibility.  So, the message is simple: use these three steps to develop a game day process with you and your young athlete and stick to it.  Make a plan, don’t interfere, and manage your emotions.  Oh, and don’t forget number four: have fun!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sport Parents II: Ego & Mastery Orientations

In my last post, I wrote about the importance for sport parents of setting the proper framework for their young athlete.  This framework is the one where the player inculcates the values and attitudes of the parents and uses it as their own internal compass for their ideas and feelings about such important matters as winning and losing, the treatment of opponents and officials, and the overall meaning of the endeavor.  In that post, I called the framework around the young athlete “the amniotic air” that they breathe as they engage in their sport because while parents and children may not think or talk much about it, the athlete absorbs it with every interaction with the parent.  So, as we can see, we are dealing with a very high stakes enterprise and one that bears thoughtful consideration.  In this post, I will discuss the two most common cognitive frameworks that sport psychologists have identified as the ones that parents set for their children.
According to the experts, there are essentially two different frameworks that parents adopt and that they do so by the implicit and explicit systems of rewards they establish around their child’s sport participation.  The first one, often called an ego orientation, places as high emphasis on winning, compares their child’s results to those of other children and sees success in sport as being better than others.  The second framework, often called a mastery orientation, stresses improvement over performance, process over product, and values a child’s sport participation for the larger lessons about life and the self that sport participation offers.*  For ego-oriented parents, sport is about teaching their child to be a winner, while for mastery-oriented parents, sport is about the process of adaptive growth.  The ego-oriented parent judges the success of the endeavor on results, the mastery-oriented parent on how the child’s  sport involvement supports emotional maturation and successful social integration.  People have come to sum up the positions this way: the mastery-oriented parent says, “winning isn’t everything, it’s how you play the game,” while the ego-oriented parent says, “winning isn’t’s the only thing.”
Now, of course, many parents adopt an ego orientation quite consciously because they feel as though it’s the only way to raise a successful athlete and person, caught as we are in this cut-throat, race-to-nowhere culture.  They feel that in order to raise a winner, they need to forefront winning, and that ruthlessness trumps process every day.  But this is not true, and my research on young athletes and their social milieu suggested this truth to me pretty strongly.  Indeed, psychologists in the realms of both education and sport have strongly argued that mastery orientations provide greater motivation toward goal-directed behavior over a longer duration.**  Furthermore, parents, athletes and coaches who privilege winning to the exclusion of all else often overlook the incredible value of losing for motivating improvement, the data it provides for skill & strategy interventions, and the bright light it can shine on the athlete’s thoughts and feelings in the heat of competition.  Of course, if you have a mastery orientation, you are much more likely to attend to and mine this useful data, whereas an ego orientation seeks to sweep a loss under the carpet of easy excuses as quickly as possible.  (For a view of what some of this work looks like, see my prior post from August, 2012 “Scott’s Lytham Opportunity.”)
The next question, then, is how to put into practice some of these insights.  The first is to frame as many of your interactions about your child’s sport performance in terms of questions rather than statements.  For example: “what do you think it would take to beat so-and-so?” rather than “I think you can beat so-and-so.”  “What do you think happened in that match?” rather than “I think you could have won that match.”  “What do you think you need to work harder at?” and “where would you like to see yourself in your age group?” over “If you’d only do what I’ve been telling you to, you’d be top ten.”  “How do you think you could have better handled that bad bounce/bad call/poor seeding?” over “you were robbed!”  Additionally, you should monitor (and control) your child’s bad conduct, because behind bad conduct lie some of the most ego-oriented cognitive distortions, apart from the fact that bad conduct is almost always the tell-tale sign of poor performance.  (For more on this, see my prior post to this blog “Scattering & Husbanding” November, 2012.)  But, one thing is for sure: you cannot fake it for your young athlete.  If you engage superficially in mastery-oriented questions, but have ego-oriented answers in your heart, your reward structure and your outward behavior towards tournament officials, referees, your child’s opponents and their entourages, then your child will absorb your actions far more strongly than your words.
Often, when people compare ego and mastery orientations, they feel as though the “mastery” people stand on the side of losing over winning; that inculcating process over product teaches complacency with a middling result.  In fact, nothing is further from the truth, and let’s be clear that I’m very pro winning and strongly prefer it to the alternative.  It’s just that winning is only one aspect of successful sport performance and very often isn’t nearly the most salient feature of a particular performance.  I firmly believe, based on my years of competitive play, coaching and qualitative research, that a parent’s adoption of a mastery orientation provides a more stable base for the young athlete’s best performance to emerge, greater enjoyment of the sport for a greater length of time, more successful integration into a competitive and complex world, and even, a better relationship between parent and athlete.  And if that’s not winning, then I’m sure I don’t know what is.

*Roberts, G. & Treasure, D. (1995): Achievement goals, motivational climate and achievement strategies and behaviors in sport. International Journal of Sports Psychology, 26, 64-80.

**Turner, E., Chandler, M., & Heffer, R. (2009). The influence of parenting styles, achievement motivation, and self-efficacy on academic performance in college students. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 3, 337-346.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sport Parents I: Setting the Frame

In the 1993 movie “Searching for Bobby Fisher” Joe Mantegna plays the father of a chess prodigy who has to learn how to manage the myriad challenges that come with shepherding a very talented child through elite-level competition, the parent-child dynamic being only one facet of this maze.  In one scene, a tournament director summons all of the parents into a room for a pre-tournament meeting.  When they are all gathered, he locks the anxiety-stricken crowd in the room and tells them he’ll be back to liberate them at the end of the tournament.  Anyone involved in youth sport can identify with this fiction.  Parents, so eager to help and do the right thing by their children, often veer from being helpful and supportive to being intrusive, controlling  and destructive of both performance and enjoyment.  Parental involvement in sport so often stems from the most natural of all parental feelings: to protect a child from harm and to celebrate a child’s natural gifts.  But often, the behaviors parents exhibit with respect to their child’s sport involvement are anything but protective or admirable.  In the next several posts, I will share some insights that I gained while doing research on this very problem with an aim toward helping parents avoid some of the understandable pitfalls of being a sport parent, while at the same time steering them towards harnessing some of the great opportunities sport involvement offers for parent and child alike.
The first aspect of this interaction that I will call your attention to is perhaps the most important of all, and what I will call setting the frame.  Parents of middle and high schoolers feel as though their children stopped listening to them a long time ago, lost as they are in their new world of intense and dramatic peer interactions, increased homework pressure and frenzied extra-curricular activities.  But this is not true.  Sport psychologists who study the social milieu of young athletes call the people in that athlete’s life ‘influencers’, and include in that lot peers, coaches and parents.  Furthermore, they add that of all of those influencers, parents are the most, not the least, influential.*  This power comes from the fact that parents often serve in two vital roles with respect to the young athlete: they both provide the experience for their child and, more importantly, interpret its meaning for the child.  It is in this latter function, that of interpreter, that parents have the most power and why I call it “setting the frame.”  The parents’ own meaning and understanding of their child’s sport participation sets the whole cognitive and emotional framework for the child.  You might call it the amniotic air that surrounds the athlete as they engage in their sport.  Parents might not see it, but their children absorb it as they breathe.  Andre Agassi, in his remarkable book, Open, vividly portrays the way a child comes to acquire the socioemotional framework of the parent.  After his first loss ever in a junior tournament, he finds that his self-talk is blisteringly self-loathing.  Lost in his misery, he contemplates quitting.  As he portrays it, it is a revealing moment:
After years of hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant.  I’ve internalized my father--his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage--until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own.  I no longer need my father to torture me.  From this day on, I can do it by myself.
Agassi is nine years old at the time of this event.
Agassi’s painful vignette speaks to a truth about parents and their children: all children internalize their parents.  That’s just part of the developmental bargain.  So, the question for sport parents is this: what kind of framework with regard to your child’s sport participation do you want them to internalize?  You can set a framework that promotes the kind of socioemotional development that participation in sport is particularly good at offering.  Or, you can set a framework that overlooks those potential gains and that proves corrosive to the kind of enthusiastic engagement, adaptive growth and longevity of participation that encapsulate the promise of healthy sport participation.
In the next post, I will talk in greater detail about how sport psychologists have thought about these two opposing frameworks and how you can cultivate one and try to avoid other.  For now, I will leave you with a quote from golfer Davis Love III’s book about his father, entitled Every Shot I Take.  The title itself should tell you about how powerful the child’s internalization of the parent is.  This quote will also give you a sense of just how opposite a force that internalizing can be than the one Andre Agassi absorbed.  In the introduction, Davis III says of Davis II:
My late father, for whom I am named, is still my hero.  He always was; he always will be....The way he introduced me to golf is the way I plan to introduce my two children to the game.  The way he taught me is the way I plan to teach them.  The he way he raised me is the way I hope to raise them.
Now, needless to say, there are many points along the spectrum between torturing perfectionist and benign tutelary force, but these two views of internalized fathers give clear proof of just what is at stake in setting the frame for your young athlete.

* Fredericks, J., & Eccles, J.  2004.  Parental influences on youth involvement in sports.  In M. R.  Weiss, (Ed.), Developmental Sport and exercise physiology: A lifespan perspective.  Morgantown, NY: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.