Several Sundays ago, I had the opportunity to watch some junior squash matches. It was the last day of one of the JCT (Junior Championship Tour) events, and so nerves were high. I stationed myself at one court, which allowed me to watch matches progress upwards from U11 girls all the way to the U19 boys’ final. Since that day, the phenomenon of encouragement from the entourage has been on my mind. It struck me that how parents, coaches, and even friends communicated their encouragement might be doing the exact opposite from the intent of their message. Of course, the entourage means well, but their words, the tone of their words, and even the intrusion that their words represent might actually pose an unwelcome distraction for the athlete. Here are a few observations and thoughts from that day:
The first is that, particularly with the younger athletes, parents gave certain vocalizations, such as “c’mon!” Or,“this point right here!” Or, “c’mon! Bear down!” Often, they uttered these comments when the young athlete looked out of court after losing a point, or string of points, and had a somewhat stricken look on their face. Now, while none of these comments are, on their surface, bad things to say, it is unclear what purpose they served. I had the thought that if you stopped the action, and asked the young athlete what their parent or coach meant, the young athlete would be stumped. Not that there was ill intention, but that the very thing the athlete needed or might have wanted in that moment was not served by such encouragements. What if the words were a big distraction, rather than a useful tool for focus and motivation? What if the athlete took their parents’ comments as scolding? Sometimes, the tone in the parents’ voice did take on a scolding tone. In that case, the young athlete was concerned about having angered their parent instead of managing whatever anxiety they were facing on the court. Even the comment, “you can do it!”might contribute additional stress for a child wrestling with the very idea of whether or not he or she could, in fact, do it. Given these thoughts, you will not be surprised to hear that there was little correlation between whether the young athlete lost or won the next point after the exhortation from the crowd. Mostly, I noticed that such comments didn’t help reverse a negative spiral, if an athlete were in one.
The other thing that stood out to me was that as the matches went up the age range, and the players got more skilled, and the matches became more intense, the noise from the parents and coaches tapered off. There was almost a reverential silence between points, apart from clapping and “nice point!,” after particularly good efforts. The difference was striking. The main thing that it suggested to me, is something that I have written about at other times, which is that if you want an athlete to improve their focus or their play, one of the worst things you can do is to yell “focus,” “bear down,” “this point,” or “right now.” Essentially, what you are doing is complicating the athlete’s attentional challenge by bringing their focus out of the court, over to you (and all the complex dynamics involved in your relationship), only to require them to bring it back into the court and onto the matter at hand. The parents and coaches of the older athletes knew that the best way to support their athlete was by not complicating the intense attentional demands of the moment. So, I offer these quick points for you and your young athlete, as you come up with a game plan for supporting your athlete:
1) In conjunction with their coach, help your athlete develop some mindful awareness of what it means to focus and what it means to lose focus. An athlete cannot “focus!” if they don’t know what scattered versus focused attention looks like.
2) In conjunction with their coach, develop some tactics that your athlete can use to bring their attention back when it has wandered. You will see top athletes bounce the ball several times before serving, staring at a spot on a wall for a second, or even wiping their hands on the wall, as if to be managing a perspiration situation. Usually, they are using those gestures to refocus their minds.
3) Develop some agreements about what sorts of communications will help and what will hinder your athlete. Some athletes might say something like “I only want to hear my coach’s voice.” Or,“please only say positive comments,” which is good advice under any circumstance.
4) Remember that if you are nervous, you will communicate that to your young athlete in every utterance and facial expression, even if you don’t think you are. So, spend some time mastering your own nerves before you attempt to help your young athlete overcome theirs. If nerves are a problem for you, be receptive to hearing that you should watch from a greater distance, and refrain from vocalizations during the competition.
Viewed this way, the entourage can (maybe) help avert a total collapse of attention and a total victory of nervy play. Also, a well-oiled pit crew will be able to ensure that they are helping the athlete rather than hindering optimum performance. Some athletes may like a lot of verbal encouragement, and some might like very little. Something tells me, though, that the top athletes on that day knew what was going on by having very little communication between them and their entourage, except during the 90 seconds of a game break.
Have fun watching your athlete. Engage them in the incredibly empowering task of putting them in control of their attentional battles. And make it a truly collaborative venture. It will be good for their game, for their enjoyment of the game, and for the good of your relationship.
*A version of this article was first seen on The Daily Squash Report, in the column, "What's on My Mind," Nov 12, 2014.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
A FEW WEEKENDS AGO, the American Ryder Cup team received its now routine drubbing by the European team in their biennial matches. As they usually do, the Americans boasted a far stronger team on paper than the Europeans, and so it’s not without merit that the Americans come away scratching their heads about what happened…yet again. People often comment on how difficult it can be for people to play individual sports in team format, moving from competing for yourself to competing for a collective. But, this answer is insufficient because the Europeans are making a similar switch. So where are we to look?
In some research I did comparing international and American squash players, I looked at the various messages these players were receiving from their environment (parents, coaches, and peers) on their squash participation to try to answer a similar question: what made the international players seemingly more invested and more successful than their American rivals at pulling off the switch between playing for themselves and playing for a team? Here’s what I found:
1. American players received the message from early on in their playing careers that playing squash could help them get ahead in life, whereas the international group in the study received the message that playing squash could be a good way to have fun, meet other squash players, and see the world. That is, their participation was framed less in terms of personal advancement and more in terms of personal engagement with a broader canvas outside the self.
2. International squash parents were less part of the atmosphere of competition, whereas American parents were seen directing all aspects of the athlete’s experience. Thus, participating in sport was seen, by international parents, as a developmental move away from parental control, whereas American sport participation was experienced as staying connected to the parental orbit. In that sense, international sport participation was viewed as moving out into the world to form new bonds, and American participation was seen as strengthening familial bonds and controls.
3. International squash players learned from an early age that major decisions about continuing or discontinuing sport participation resided within them, whereas American athletes were often kept on track by parents, who made all of their coaching, scheduling, and tournament decisions.
In short, everything about the international experience moved that athlete closer to the collective, whereas everything about the American experience moved that athlete more closely to themselves and their parents, with more limited reference points for success and achievement. If we apply this rubric to the American Ryder Cup experience, we can see some of these forces manifest. The Americans have more superstars, which means that for them, the necessary lowering of ego boundaries required for successful team play is much harder. This phenomenon is a version of our well-touted cultural “individualism” at work. Secondly, it appears that their team leadership, Tom Watson, had a similar, insular vision of his own powers, when he engaged in unilateral, non-inclusive decision-making, and expected excellent play just because he, Tom Watson, demanded it.
The European superstar, Rory McIlroy, was quoted as saying: “Personally for me, it puts the icing on the cake of what's been a fantastic summer, and obviously looking forward to more Ryder Cups and more great weeks with these guys." And, of his Sunday singles match: “I was probably up for this match more than I was for the final rounds of the majors I won this summer.” Can you imagine Tiger Woods making such comments?
So: the future success of American team golf will reside in the next team’s captain’s ability to break down the very strongly enforced value of American exceptionalism. It is not impossible, as the last successful Ryder Cup captain, Paul Azinger, showed, but it is coaching against the grain for us. But it is very worth it, for everyone's sake. Imagine telling our children, “One day, son, you will have a great time contributing to a great team effort,” rather than, “one day, son, your name will be in lights.” Now, that would be the day.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
In my last post (http://altiusperformanceworks.blogspot.com), I wrote about the mystery of motivation regarding the hard work it takes to be a successful athlete. One of the crucial aspects of hard work is the motivation to do it, and one of the things that impedes doing that hard work is the very effort required to do it. When athletes come up against the effort of doing strength work, speed work, and the hard, focused repetitions of whatever task, it often feels like hitting a wall. Many stop at that wall, while others push through to the other side. For those who stop at that wall, it may feel like a lack of motivation. And it may look like a lack of motivation to others. But, in fact, it might be the lack of skills necessary to persevere. It may feel like one more ounce of effort is needed when the tank already feels empty. Instead, I am going to suggest in this post that what’s needed is the skill, or set of skills, to separate the effort from the task itself, or, to liberate the effort from the efforting.
Notice the panic: One of the reasons that people stop at that effort-wall is that their minds start to panic. The self-talk gets very anxious, and the mind says things like, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “this hurts,” or, “OH MY GOD!!!!” Good athletes notice this panic and find a way to talk back to these sentiments, and say things like, “keep going,” “almost there,” and “you can do this.” In essence, they say things that any coach, friend or family member might say. Can you imagine a coach saying to an athlete, “yeah, you’re right: you can’t do this”? No.
Lean in to the effort: Another way to push through that wall is to prepare for it and welcome it. You know beforehand that your practice or match is going to be hard so that when it comes, you can talk back to it, and have your back-talk ready: “I’ve got this,” or “even harder.” Many athletes even get to the point where they enjoy that moment when the work gets intense. By leaning in, you continue to push the wall farther away from you. While the wall might represent some real physiological limits, leaning in to them will make them seem smaller rather than bigger.
Breathe through the effort: Everyone knows the expression, “just breathe,” or “take a deep breath.” But not everyone knows how to breathe diaphragmatically. This skill is a life-saver in all contexts in order to properly oxygenate the blood and maintain composure. Short, choppy breaths, even if you think you’re breathing deeply, will increase the feeling of effort rather than decrease it. Learn deep breathing, employ it in all realms of your life to get you through difficult moments, and especially during moments of extreme exertion or stress. Even putting your attention on the breath will take your mind away from the din of anxious thoughts urging you to give up.
The mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn has taught us all to separate pain from suffering, by pointing out that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I am making a similar claim about hard work: hard moments in sport, and life, are inevitable, but separating the panic of the effort from the effort is optional. Liberate the effort. And yourself.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Ben Hogan was known to say, “I’ve noticed that the harder I work, the luckier I get.” The essence of Hogan’s communication is that good things happen when the sweat equity has been put in. Tiger Woods brought a new level to hard work in golf, not just putting in the requisite hours on the range, but transforming the golfer into all-around athlete, adding strength conditioning, ab-work, leg strength and even speed work, thus making golf not just a sport for swing wonky nerd, but for the big-boy looking to hit the long ball, and appealing to the football, basketball and baseball fan. It is also clear that many of the incredible shots Tiger pulled off to win golf tournaments were the direct result of the hard work, both on the range and in the gym, that he had put into his game. Here are some of the benefits of hard work I encourage you to consider:
Confidence: Any athlete will tell you that their regimen of hard work produced in them an invaluable sense of confidence. Confidence is such an obviously vital state of mind that it almost doesn’t bear mentioning. However, many people feel as though confidence is a character trait rather than something that can be honed. But, again, think about Tiger Woods: he may be confident by temperament, but his hard work undergirds every shot he takes, every stride he walks.
Motivation: All teachers, therapists, bosses and coaches want to unlock the mystery of motivation, and solve the question of what makes people want to change, improve, and excel. Often, though, it’s almost impossible even for people themselves to say why they do what they do. So, maybe we can say that hard work itself breeds hard work. Hard work, and the dividends it pays off, flicks a switch in an athlete to hunger for even more hard work. Think again of Tiger Woods: he may be the only golfer you can name who, at the peak his abilities, refashioned his swing no less than three times. Only someone who loves hard work would subject himself to something like that in search of better results.
Audacity: Readers might reasonably argue with me that audacity and confidence are versions of the same thing. I am going to claim that from a performance standpoint, they are quite different skills. Confidence provides the belief that you belong out there and can win, whereas audacity gives you the belief that you can pull off the stunning athletic moment that steals the show and knocks the wind out of your opponent’s sails. Consider just two of the following examples from his amazing repertoire of audacious shots:
Remember: there is a difference between audacity and vainglory. That difference is hard work.
Work hard. Be confident. Be audacious!
Sunday, March 30, 2014
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Because I try to practice what I preach, I want to share with you some lessons I learned from a tough loss. In an earlier post (“On Rivals and Rivalry”), I introduced you to a team I coached that was involved in a very unpleasant rivalry. Without rehashing the details, I am going to tell you about a moment that I have reflected on a great deal since leaving that team. We were going to play our rival for the last time in the season at their home courts, and when I pulled the van into the parking spot at our rival’s venue and was going to give some words of encouragement, my captain said that she had a request. As it was her last match, I acquiesced, not knowing what it was. Then, she pulled out her smartphone, plugged some portable speakers into it and played for the team Al Pacino’s inspirational speech from “Any Given Sunday.” It was a difficult moment for me, because, having agreed, I didn’t feel as though I should turn it off, and yet it felt strange to me that we were listening to a fictional coach give a fictional speech to a fictional team. Wasn’t I supposed to be giving a speech? Wasn’t the captain? Was this a referendum on my motivational speaking abilities? Either way, I had a bad feeling in my stomach, and was not surprised to come out, yet again, on the losing end of an encounter with our rivals, finding that Al Pacino hadn’t worked his magic on our squad.
But, it is not their fault. In all arenas, but perhaps the athletic more than any other, we have become entranced by the power of the pre-game speech to inspire bold performance in players. And although I am a big fan of listening to and delivering a good speech, I would like to dispel the notion that a good pre-game speech makes much of a difference in performance during the game. In particular, I do not think speeches are a good way to overcome performance anxiety, and I would urge athletes and coaches alike to adopt a different approach to peak performance on any given Sunday other than relying on speeches. And so, my advice to coaches when seeking peak performance from their players is to keep the pre-game words to a minimum and follow some simple steps:
Clarity of plan: Most coaches have devised fantastic practice plans throughout the season. Game day is no different. And big game days even more so. That pre-game plan should be extremely detailed, including when people should arrive at the venue (or departure) site, what they should have eaten, what and who should speak before the event, how the warm up should proceed, and, who should watch and coach which players. Finally, this plan should consider all contingencies as the match gets toward its decisive points. As you can see from the vignette above, one problem was that I had not communicated with the captain as to who was going to speak when. Thus, the plan, just like any other kind of training, is seeking to control as much as possible before and during the event and avoid all surprises.
Clarity of Communication: Pre-game speeches are nice, but the most important form of communication--other than discipline in practice--is the kind that happens during the game. If a coach says something to his/her players, it should be brief (“hit to her backhand,” “volley more”) and digestible. A good technique is to ask players to repeat what they heard before they go back into the melee. There is nothing worse that adding to a player’s muddle with muddling words. And remember: raising your voice, or even worse, yelling, is not a way of being more clear. It is likely to contribute to rather than reduce performance anxiety.
Clarity of Role: One of the problems from the example above is that there was a lack of role clarification. The captain was doing something I thought I was going to do, and, perhaps the players thought I was going to do something I didn’t do. In any case, being very clear with a team about who does what and when is a key aspect of any successful team endeavor. Its opposite, role diffusion, leads to confusion, poor performance, and potentially deep rifts among team members, as people are not giving and getting what they need from each other.
Perhaps this is a problem of Hollywood’s making: when we think of good coaches, we think of them delivering rousing speeches. But, really, the main job of a coach is the quite difficult task of fostering group cohesion in order to create the conditions under which each player can grow as a player and person and give her best up for the common good. The three steps I’ve offered here will help. And maybe you don’t want to take my word for it, but just please don’t take Al’s.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
In our ruthlessly competitive culture, there is a huge premium on winning. Unfortunately, there are some pretty obvious negative consequences to this emphasis. First and foremost among these consequences: 'always be a winner' turns quickly into 'winner takes all' and then into 'win at all costs'. But another insidious cost of this attitude is that losing becomes unacceptable. In the arena of youth sport, we have managed this shame often by veering toward the equally unrealistic position of 'everybody's a winner', with score-less games, equal playing time for everyone, and trophies for all. So, how is a young athlete to sort out this contradiction? My answer: preach a gospel of losing. We shouldn't preach this gospel for its own sake, but given that losing is more common than its opposite, we should remove the shame from it and celebrate it for all the things it can teach us not only about life but, well, winning. By being better losers, we can in fact become better winners.
In the very first post of this blog (“Scott’s Lytham Opportunity”), I wrote about Adam Scott's collapse in the last four holes at the British Open in 2012. In that post, I suggested that if he really wanted to contend again in a major championship, he would do well not to shy away from the bitter sting of that defeat, but to really approach it, expand it and investigate it closely in order to mine it for all that it could teach him about how he handled himself in that situation so that he could master it the next time. We'll, if his 2013 year is any indication, he did just that: winning the year's first major in a nail-biting and gutsy playoff, contending again at the British, finishing very high in the season's standings, and just completing a torrid stretch of three major victories in his native Australia. In short, rather than shriveling up in defeat, he gained strength from it. Indeed, he even stated at the time, as reporters were asking him if his terrible loss meant that he wasn't destined to win a major, "No, in fact, it has shown me just the opposite: that I can win a major, that I belong to be there down the stretch, that my hard work is paying off." Now, unfortunately for me, I'm not Adam Scott's sport performance guy, but if I were, here is what I would have preached to him in 2012 that I think every athlete needs to know about the value of losing.
Learning from loss: Every loss has a crucial juncture, a crisis point that we would like to go back to and re-do if we could. Those moments are the ones to investigate. Did they come from a technical weakness or from a psychological one, or, from a combination of the two? Or, did it stem from improper preparation? Put the loss on an x-Ray machine and go through it, detail by painful detail. Doing so will both teach you to avoid those mistakes in the future, and will inure you to the shame of losing. Because one thing I can guarantee you of for certain: if your performance is only motivated by the fear of losing, you will lose often, gain little satisfaction from your victories, and not grow as an athlete or person. You cannot go for broke when you are clenching the till so fearfully.
Practice to lose. In our winner culture, we have become so loss-averse that we think that in order to have winners, we must train winners. But, often a top athlete is only tested in defeat. And so, the top athletes often train under conditions where winning is almost impossible, so that flaws and mental weaknesses can be exposed rather than hidden. Such practices include playing against stronger players, devising pressure situations in practice, and most of all, analyzing what broke down in those situations. In order for such an analysis to be truly effective, it should be conducted with a ruthless honesty and relentless compassion at one and the same time. Shame breeds fear which increases the odds that we are going to play from a protective rather than an appetitive position.
Losing and dying: Many athletes equate losing with dying. They might not be conscious of this association, but it is there. And how could it not be, if they have been bred to be winners, if their culture celebrates winners so extravagantly, and if they have lived sheltered from the real consequences of loss? Perhaps even their parents, in synch with their culture, have adapted an ego orientation with them with regard to their sport participation (“Ego&Mastery”). Often this athlete reveals himself by the temper tantrums he throws upon losing. For him, we should burn the ring of falsehood that surrounds him by over-exposing him to loss. Doing so will test his determination and love for the sport, and will burn away the protective carapace which he has built around himself, sealing him off from learning the lessons of loss.
I am not preaching losing for the sake of humiliation. I do not think humiliation is a good training method. But, on the same token, there are very serious negative consequences to training our young people with an eye toward winning rather than with an eye toward process. I will leave you with a quote from one of sport's most loss-averse losers, a character whose downfall is only mirrored in the pages of Greek tragedy, Lance Armstrong, and his attitude toward losing: "I like to win. But more than anything, I can't stand the idea of losing, because to me, that equals death." So, let's raise athletes with a stronger sense of themselves than that. Let's look loss right in the eye, so we are winning with joy rather than relief. Let's learn from loss.