Asking Important Questions
Every decade or so I feel the need to clean out a file drawer, and this morning I did. What caught my eye was the first published magazine column I think I every wrote. It was for a monthly tennis magazine called “Tennis Talk” in Southern California. The copy I found was untitled so I’ve dubbed it “Asking Important Questions”. I found a few others and I will post them later.
From Tennis Talk Magazine June 1980
For sometime now I have been asking questions of athletes i meet at various competitions. The major question I ask is “What do you do get ready for competition?” In a recent meeting with a group of junior players this was their reply:
- X number of hours on court practicing serve, ground strokes, etc.
- X number of hours in competition
- X number of hours running, stretching and weight training to get in shape
This appears to be a good, solid program I said, but aren’t you forgetting something, I asked. They all answered pretty much the same. “We think we are doing what needs to be done.” I then asked what they do for the mental part of the game. At first I got blank stares. “One player said he sometimes tries to psych himself up or psych the other player out, is that what I meant?” I then asked how important was the mental side and they all agreed it was the most important, but that it was what it was.
As a Sport Psychology Consultant, I have run into this set of circumstances constantly. It seems ridiculous to me that athletes neglect the most important part of their game. [though of course I did as well when I was a player] While tennis players spend hours getting in physical shape and improving their strokes, they will not spend an hour and a half a week to improve their mental conditioning.
Reports from the Soviet Union (remember this was written in 1980) have stated that some world-class athletes are spending as much as 75% of their time on mental conditioning. Why? Because it can have a tremendous effect on you game. You can increase your potential by working on some very basic concepts. These Include:
- Relaxation – Knowing how to relax your body
- Attentional Focus – Knowing how to concentrate
- Self-Confidence – To see yourself with a positive self-image
- Avoidance of CHOKE – How to effectively deal with stress
Try working on these areas I urged them. Know that Awareness is the first step in learning how to relax. Learning the skills will help you play at a higher level.
One question they asked right away was what did I mean by attentional focus? Attentional focus is the art of concentration. More precisely, it is the ability to focus your attention from one thing to the next as quickly as possible. In tennis this is the ability to go from knowing where your opponent is to seeing the rotation of the ball to thinking what to do next. If you master this art, you improve your game.
There are many exercises you can use to improve your attentional focus. Here’s one that is fairly simple to do. Close your eyes and get an image / picture of your tennis game. Look at your opponent, then see the ball.Learn to do this as quickly as possible, making sure to see the image as clearly and vividly as you can. Remember if you condition your mind as well as your body, your game will improve rapidly.
It’s hard for me to believe that I wrote that 34 years ago. At the time we called our company Inner Sports. I struggled at the time to write which is why it took another 31 years from when this column was written to write The Athlete within You which by the way for June the Kindle version is now on sale here at Amazon.
Some time ago I wrote a post called Five Frogs Sitting on a Log. You might want to re-read it now. I wrote about the difference between deciding to do something and actually doing something and that they are different. I trust that it made sense to you. The next step is the Two Cs: Commitment and Conviction. I want to start by telling you about an athlete.
About a year and a half ago I got a call from the mother of a gymnast. Her daughter was a junior in high school. She had been a gymnast since she was like 5. She wanted to be on a gymnastics team in college (@ an Ivy League School no less). She had been to Nationals the last several years, but now she was unable to do her release on the uneven bars. That’s a reverse double somersault She needed to do well at State to make Regional’s, and then Regional’s to go on to National’s. Failure at any stage would impact her competing in college at the level and school she wanted. There were college coaches who wanted to see her at Nationals. She was on their radar. Could I help her daughter? Oh and by the way State Championships are tomorrow!
So I went to the gym and watched her be stuck. We talked, she got unstuck. Then we worked on keeping her at a level where she could perform. End of story is the young woman is at an Ivy League College and she is on the Gymnastics Team.
She was just missing a small thing that was keeping her from success. It wasn’t magic. She was under pressure to perform. She had seen a bad injury. Her thoughts were on that and not on her commitment to doing the routine. She was not focused on the NOW, but in the past and future.
With regards to her routine she was focused on the result. She was committed to landing her dismount. This is what I noticed. She was not committed to her routine. It was slow and out of rhythm. It threw her timing off to the point that she could not let go of the bar and do her release. So we talked about being committed from the start.
Being committed from the start does two things (something soccer players should note). 1) It gets you going from the beginning of the event. How many soccer players start of slow? Are you one of them? Make a commitment to bring it from the get go and you will start faster. 2) Commitment is the resolve to be who you want to be and do what you want to do. Commitments are hard. All you need do is look around you to figure that out. So when you make a real commitment, things that were once a problem don’t seem to stand in the way any longer.
The next part is conviction. Don’t get this confused with arrogance. Believing you are right has to be measured. And level doesn’t seem to matter. If you do something well, have the conviction to believe you can do it. In her case she had been doing double back flip releases for years. She just let other images get in her way. It came down to her belief. When she had conviction, her release was easy.
In soccer and other sports I see the same thing all the time. Great players, even if they do things a bit different from everyone else have the conviction that they can be successful playing a certain way. In a team sport of course this better fit the team and coaches style, but you can make it work.
If you have the two Cs you are a lot closer to success than you realize. If you don’t, well it’s just a matter of adding the third C: Convincing yourself that the other two will get you there. Give these two Cs some thought the next time you head to practice or your game.
Is there something in your life that has you stuck?
Five Frogs Sitting on a Log
There is an old saw ab out five frogs sitting on a log. OK so this has been around a while, but I like to use it with the athletes and business people I work with. Riddle me this: Five frogs sitting on a log. Two decide to jump in the pond. How many frogs remain on the log?
Did you say three…. or more?
Most people answer three. Most people look at me like I’m stupid as well, but that is another story. The answer is we really don’t know. We don’t know because deciding to do something and doing something are two distinct and different entities. It doesn’t matter if you are an athlete or you are in business, action is the determining factor. Sitting on a log and thinking about or even deciding to jump in, only means you are sitting on a log. Only when we actually jump in are we going anywhere. So the answer could be three or zero, after all after one jumps in, all the others might just decide to follow.
I’ve used this for years with my athletes and it never fails to help them understand how important action is to their success.
Back when Star Wars was huge (like today as it never seems to go away), I would often quote Master Yoda, “Do or Do Not! There is no Try! Yoda is a great Sport Psychology Consultant helping athletes from many generations to perform at the highest levels.
While Master Yoda is very wise indeed, I have come to believe that these five frogs can be very good teachers as well, and they sort of remind me of something. Maybe it’s that they are all green.
And if you got the riddle wrong, at least you likely have good math skills.
Control Anger: Keep your cool
In sport we often need to control anger. It is a natural emotion experienced by almost all people, and as something that has functional value for survival. Anger can mobilize psychological resources for corrective action. Uncontrolled anger can, however, negatively affect personal or social well-being.
Athletes know when they not focused, not working hard or just plain not bringing it. An opponent likely is getting in their head, or your coach is yelling at you; it can cause frustration that can affect one’s performance causing angry outbursts.
If you are competitive and that winning seems to be everything when on the ice; as most athletes do, and that when the heat of the game is on they may let things go right away. Then in this precarious emotional state something happens in the game. Maybe there is a little extra contact. Maybe someone takes a cheap shot at one of your team mates. So what can you do? Push the player back? Fight? Yell at your coach? Yell at your teammates? Take yourself out of the game? Get thrown out of the game? Whichever one you decide to do, it is probably not the best way to handle the situation, and at the end of the day, is it really helping you? Or is it actually hurting you and your team? Most likely it will be the latter. However, the way you react can make or break the game you are in. A negative reaction can lead to a lack of coordination between you and the other players on your team throwing the entire team off-balance. A positive reaction, however, can inspire you and your team creating an unspoken commitment and drive from each player to put everything they have into the game, creating unity throughout the entire team. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that an aggressive act to protect your team mates or yourself in inappropriate. I could hardly work with hockey players if I believed that o be the case. I am suggesting however that whatever you do is based on cool calculation and not anger. (more…)
Journal of a Sport Psychology Consultant
This is a journal of a sport psychology consultant. A week with the Cheyenne Stampede working with them on the mental game. Pre season Mental training with them. I thought I would take a brief moment to talk about the process. It is a process I have used many times, but it is always different in the sense that flexibility is critical. I had worked out a rough schedule with the GM prior to my flying in. He and the head coach had worked it into a posted schedule on the website so the players were aware of what we were going to be doing. I flew into Denver and drove up to Cheyenne where I met the GM at the Holiday Inn (a team sponsor).
Working with the Cheyenne Stampede, Jr A Hockey Team
Our first session was at 5PM, but our first stop was practice. I met briefly with Coach Quarters as the players hit the ice. Right after practice we headed to Smart Sports which is where they do strength and conditioning. It’s a great facility with its own medical facility. I met the facility owner and head physician Dr. Skip Ross and the personal trainers and physical therapist. There were a few players getting PT while Ro the personal trainer was killing it with the team doing core and strength work.
Headed to the Arena for my first session with the team
Ceremonial Puck Drop prior to Stampede vs Weber State
Talked a little more with Coach Quarters about my plan and then met the team officially. I was introduced to the team by GM and owner Mark Lantz. GM & coach sat in on introductory session. This is important to establish that what we are doing is important to the team’s success. I’ve often been asked to work with teams and the team coaches and front office more or less go play golf. This hurts the programs credibility as players see it as there is no buy in from staff. (more…)