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.