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IN THIS SPECIAL MENTAL SKILLS ISSUE: “The DOORWAY TO SUCCESS”
What if I told you that there was an “actual” doorway to success that you could repeatedly use to pursue and reach your biggest dreams? What if you knew where to find this doorway to your sports goals? Better yet, what if you had a crystal clear image of what it looked like and how it felt to be there? What role do you think this kind of valuable information would play in your athletic career and beyond? Humor me here. Although what I’m saying may sound a little La-La-Land’ish, I’m not nuts! The doorway to success is not a figment of my warped imagination. In my experience it is quite real! I’ve used it repeatedly through the years to help me achieve success on the tennis court and in my profession as a sports psychologist. Look closely at the sports careers of elite athletes and you’ll see that they too passed through this very same doorway multiple times to reach their high level of achievement.
The doorway to success is actually very easy to identify as long as you know exactly what you’re looking for. All too often athletes miss it because the doorway is very cleverly camouflaged. In fact, it’s hidden behind what appears to be extremely misleading feelings. These feelings tend to leave the athlete believing that he/she is extremely far from success rather than close to it. As a consequence, most athletes who happen to get very close to the doorway and experience these rather uncomfortable feelings end up misinterpreting them and abruptly turning away. Despite the fact that they were standing right upon the threshold to success, they unknowingly turned and left! If only they had known what to look for.…..
The doorway to success isn’t really a physical doorway per se. It is, instead a grouping of predictable feelings that each and every one of us experiences at one time or another as we pursue any goal in or outside of sports. As you begin the journey from beginner to expert in your sport, and later, in your profession, you will repeatedly encounter these feelings. The particular emotions that I speak of are extremely misleading because they usually accompany failure and repeated setbacks. That’s the really confusing thing about the doorway to success. It is constructed with all the emotions that are associated with the very opposite of success! The doorway to success paradoxically is made up of frustration, disappointment, confusion, self-doubts, discouragement, lack of confidence and sadness!
How, you wonder, do these miserable-to-experience feelings point anyone towards success? In this end of the year issue of The Mental Toughness Newsletter I will clearly explain how you can learn to use all these feelings that are normally connected with failure as steppingstones to your ultimate success. To do this you must first learn to correctly reframe these seemingly negative emotions in a positive and constructive way. While most athletes feel upset and discouraged after a setback, you must learn to use these feelings as a positive guide to help you get even closer to your goals. Sounds like a magic trick? Not at all!
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Understanding & using the feelings of failure: Your doorway to success”
PARENT’S CORNER – “Properly handling your children’s feelings of failure”
COACH’S OFFICE – “Teaching your athletes how to rebound from mistakes & failures”
DR. G’s TEACHING TALES – “Failing badly”
“Understanding & using the feelings of failure: Your doorway to success”
In previous newsletters I’ve discussed the critical importance of failing in the process of achieving ultimate success. The truth of the matter is that as an athlete, you can’t reach your goals and dreams without enough failures and setbacks! In fact, in everything that you do, both on and off the playing fields, your failures are a prerequisite for your eventual success! This statement usually blows the minds of most athletes I come in contact with who mistakenly view losing and failure as bad things. How can failure be positive and constructive? Is this an Alice In Wonderland kind of thing where “up” is suddenly “down” and “down” is now “up?” Hardly!
The typical athlete tends to have an adversarial relationship with failing and making mistakes. He/she views both as something embarrassing and noxious to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, when you view failing and making mistakes as bad, you become more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by performance pressures when you compete.
If you are afraid of losing or making mistakes and these fears are somewhere near your consciousness at game time, then you are far more likely to perform tentatively. This is because you will be weighed down by the burden of how much you have to lose in the competition. Your “outcome focus” will tighten your muscles, distract your concentration from the flow of the game and insure that your performance will be way off, a mere shadow of your full potential. If you fear failing and/or making mistakes you will play as if you were tied in knots. Since the secret to peak performance is being physically and mentally relaxed, fear of failure/making mistakes tightens you up and makes peak performance impossible. The ultimate irony here is that your worry about making mistakes and failing will actually insure that you will do both a lot!
Going into any competition fearing failure, while quite common, means that you have developed an unhealthy relationship with it. It means that you really don’t understand the true nature of failing. Instead, you must learn to cultivate a very different, healthier relationship with failing and making mistakes, a relationship based upon relaxed acceptance. Losing and making mistakes are NOT your arch-enemies! They are, instead natural parts of the process of growth and development as an athlete and a person. They are important components of a vehicle that will ultimately lead you to success.
Keep in mind that when I talk about a “relaxed acceptance” of failure, I am NOT for one minute suggesting that you embrace mediocrity. I am not telling you that you should feel pleased with yourself whenever you lose or fail. If you’re like any serious athlete, then you hate losing with a passion. For the committed athlete, this is a normal response to failure. Understand that acceptance of failing doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop trying or give up on your pursuit of excellence. It simply means that you must view failure constructively as a natural part of the success process. Failing and making mistakes are what every athlete at every level does a lot of!
Understand that no one breaks into the athletic arena and experiences only perfection and success. This is not the real world! This doesn’t even happen in a Disney movie! There are always obstacles to be overcome, big mistakes to be made and failures and setbacks to suffer through. Simply put, you can’t go from recreational/beginner athlete to accomplished/elite performer without a whole lot of heartache and failure thrown in along the way. You can’t reach a high level of competence in your sport without first experiencing a fair amount of incompetence! This concept is the very heart of learning and mastery.
The learning process in and out of sports always involves failures. Every time that you lose or fall short, you are presented with an opportunity to take a positive step forward in your sport. This is because failure provides you as an athlete with very valuable information about what you just did wrong. When you look carefully enough, and don’t get distracted by the accompanying emotions, failure will almost always tell you what you need to do differently next time in order to get better results.
This isn’t remarkable information I’m sharing with you. This is the foundation of establishing muscle memory that accomplished sports performance is based upon. By repeating a skill over and over again, your muscles eventually learn that “just right feel” of executing the skill correctly. Without all the repetitions, both correct and incorrect, you could never master that particular skill. The incorrect repetitions in this process are equally as valuable to your learning as the times that you do the skills correctly. Simply put, by doing it wrong enough times you eventually learn to do it right. For example, a gymnastics coach once told me that the learning of a basic skill on any apparatus requires that you must do that skill wrong at least 300 times before you can get begin to get it right.
Isn’t this just like what your Kindergarten teachers repeatedly told you way back when? “It’s OK to make mistakes children because you always learn from them.” Let’s go back even further. This is exactly how you learned to walk as a baby. The process of falling enough times taught your infant body and muscles how to successfully balance and coordinate themselves so that you could eventually move upright without falling.
We could stand to learn a lot from our baby selves. As a baby, your attitude towards mistakes and failing was a much healthier one than you probably have today. Intuitively, your baby self understood that falling was how you learned to walk. When you did fall, there was no negative judgment or self-directed anger. You didn’t get discouraged or begin to think negatively that “I’ll NEVER learn to walk!” As a one year old, you hadn’t been taught the self-limiting myth that making mistakes and failing was a cause for embarrassment and upset. So when you fell, you simply picked yourself up and tried again and again. It was only later that your parents, siblings, teachers and/or the larger society eventually convinced you that making mistakes and failing was something awful and embarrassing that needed to be avoided.
Intellectually most of us have taken in the lesson from school that “you learn from your mistakes.” Intellectually! However, the vast majority of us have not yet learned this lesson on an emotional level. What do I mean by this? Making mistakes and failing are almost always accompanied by very powerful, seemingly negative emotions! Losing and failing hurts! It’s embarrassing and frustrating! It’s discouraging, depressing, demoralizing and disappointing. Furthermore, if you fail enough times, heavy-duty self-doubts begin to kick in. Enough failures get you to start questioning your ability to ever get things right and achieve your goals. All these feelings make up a very potent, emotional cocktail!
In fact, these feelings of failure are extremely intense and compelling, causing us to get “emotionally hijacked” by them. Instead of being able to put the failure or mistake in the proper perspective as a learning experience, we’re left feeling badly about ourselves. Understand this: It is absolutely critical that you not get distracted by the seemingly negative quality of these emotions. In the long run, these feelings of failure are NOT negative. On the contrary!! Their negative appearance is only part of their camouflage. Within these uncomfortable feelings lie the seeds to your ultimate success in everything that you do in life. It’s these feelings of failure that make up the doorway to success that I’ve been talking about. You must learn to recognize these feelings as something both normal and positive. You must learn to interpret the feelings of failure as something that you move towards, NOT away from. Success can only be yours when you get in the habit of doing this.
What this means is that feelings of discouragement, for example, are supposed to be there as you travel along the road to success. They are nothing more than a street sign pointing you in the right direction! Do not interpret them for what they appear to be: a reason to feel badly about yourself and give up! When you feel discouraged, these emotions actually mean that you’re getting closer to your goal, NOT further away. It’s the same thing with feelings of frustration and self-doubts. Rather than allowing these feelings to dictate a lack of effort and potential quitting, reframe them as a positive sign that you are actually getting closer to your goal. When you view these feelings of failure as a sign that you are moving towards success, you will always respond to setbacks with renewed determination, motivation and increased effort. It’s this kind of motivated response to failure that will ultimately help you push through that doorway and achieve success.
Remember, every athlete feels these so-called negative feelings when they fail or consistently mess up. Experiencing the feelings of failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Making mistakes and failing are temporary events. As long as you pick yourself up and keep going, they are NOT permanent. The feelings that go with them need to be reframed by you as you experience them. That is, you must get in the habit of changing the meaning of these feelings of discouragement, disappointment, frustration, self-doubts and anger. Recognize them for what they really are: The doorway to success. See them. Experience them. Tell yourself that they are supposed to be there and keep moving forward towards them!
“Properly handling your children’s feelings of failure”
When I speak to parents groups around the country one of my more important messages is: “If you really want to give your children the gift of success in everything that they do in their lives, then teach them how to fail!” The absolute worst thing that a parent can ever teach a child about failing is that it is a bad thing and cause for shame/embarrassment. Unfortunately, this is the lesson that is most often taught in our culture, a lesson that always leaves a child feeling fearful about his/her performance. Fear of failure is probably one of the biggest causes of repetitive performance problems both in and out of sports. This worry steals your child’s enjoyment of the sport, tightens his/her muscles, distracts him/her from the proper concentration and insures that his/her performance will consistently be way below potential.
As a parent you need to go out of your way to help your children separate themselves from the outcome of their performances. You need to help them let go of the twisted notion that making mistakes and failing are two of the worst things that they could possibly ever do. This means that both verbally and non-verbally you have to consistently give them the message that they are NOT their performances. Simply put, when they perform badly, they are NOT bad or when they struggle performance-wise or lose, they are not losers. This means that you have to help them better handle the natural feelings that are associated with failing. How successful you are in doing this depends upon your ability to take an honest look at yourself in the mirror.
Last week I met with a 16 year old tennis player, the youngest of three boys. Mike was referred to me by his father for problems with choking under pressure. It seemed that whenever the match got close, Mike would become overwhelmed by nervousness and stop playing his normally relaxed and aggressive game. Instead, he would get very tentative and defensively push the ball back. As a consequence, he would often steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory and lose to much weaker players. More important, Mike told me that he hadn’t had much fun playing tennis over the past year and half because he was constantly too stressed whenever he competed.
It’s interesting to note here that Mike’s next older brother, Billy, 17, who was a very talented tennis player in his own right, had recently quit the game a year earlier because it was no longer fun for him either. A few years before that, the boys’ oldest brother, Josh had been scouted by a number of high level college baseball teams during his junior year in high school but then he had suddenly and inexplicably quit the game. He refused to talk about it with his parents other than saying “I hate baseball and don’t want to play anymore!”
How do we explain this interesting family pattern? Predictably! It turns out that the boys’ father put a tremendous amount of pressure on each of his sons to excel in their sport. Whenever they performed badly, the father had a tendency to get really angry at them. At times he would leave a game or match in disgust if they were playing badly or losing. After a loss, he wouldn’t speak to the “offending” son for several days. Josh had quit baseball because it stopped being fun for him and because he was sick and tired of fighting with his dad after games. Apparently the same thing had happened with Billy and his tennis. While Mike loved the game and didn’t want to quit, his performance problems and lack of enjoyment were pushing him in that direction. Like his brothers’ problems, Mike’s struggles were a direct result of the pressure that his dad put on him to excel and win.
While I know for a fact that Mike’s dad meant well and truly wanted his boys to be happy and successful, he was totally unaware of how destructive his responses were to his sons’ failures and mistakes. He had inadvertently, by his behaviors taught all of his boys that making mistakes and failing was not only unacceptable, but something that they should avoid at all costs. In the family, the consequences for making mistakes and failing were clear and predictable: Dad would be disappointed and angry and there would be hell to pay for the “offending” son!
As a result of this conditioning, Mike was overly concerned with the outcome of his matches. He was so worried that his dad was going to be upset with how he played after the match that he put an undue amount of pressure on himself before and during the match to be perfect with every shot he hit. Trying to be perfect as an athlete is ABSOLUTE POISON! It creates a sense of internal urgency that tightens muscles, distracts concentration and sabotages performance. This sense of urgency intensifies with every mistake the athlete makes. I know of no better way to set an athlete up to choke than to get him/her worried about making mistakes and failing.
Teaching your children to over-focus on the outcome in this manner will insure that they follow the very same footsteps as Josh, Billy and Mike. They will be fearful approaching competitions, be unable to stay relaxed and properly focused throughout them and will eventually come to hate the sport before they prematurely quit. Do you want your children to have this kind of relationship with their sport? Do you want them to be overly focused on you and worried about your disapproval when they compete?
If you would sincerely like to help your children develop a healthier, more rewarding relationship with their game, then it’s up to you to teach them to have a more relaxed relationship with failing and making mistakes. This means that you have to help them relax more when they go into competition. You have to help them understand that the main purpose of them playing their game is to grow as a person and have fun. Sports are a vehicle through which an athlete can learn valuable life lessons and, in the process, learn to feel good about him/herself. This can never happen if you make the main purpose to win. You may think that you are really helping your son and daughter by emphasizing the outcome in this way. Unfortunately the contrary is true! You are really hurting them.
How do you help your children have a more relaxed attitude towards failing and making mistakes? You do so by how you respond to and manage their feelings of failure. When your children fail or make mistakes, YOU have to learn to respond more appropriately and constructively.
Let me state the obvious here: NO CHILD MAKES MISTAKES AND LOSES BECAUSE HE/SHE WANTS TO! NO CHILD WANT HIS/HER PARENTS TO BE DISAPPOINTED IN HIM/HER. What are the implications of this? When your child fails, he already feels miserable. Even before you open your mouth to criticize or offer “helpful” hints, your son or daughter is already hurting big time! He/she may be embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated, discouraged, sad, angry with him/herself, struggling with feelings of worthlessness, etc. Before you decide to get angry at them and tell them how much of an embarrassment they are to you, STOP & THINK! How is what you’re about to say going to help them? How will it make them feel better about themselves? How will it motivate them to improve? More important, HOW WILL IT HELP THEM MANAGE THE PAIN THAT THEY ARE ALREADY EXPERIENCING?
If you overtly or covertly show your displeasure with their failing, if you criticize or put them down for not living up to your expectations, angrily walk out on them when they’re losing, then you should know that at that very moment, YOU ARE DOING YOUR CHILD A SERIOUS DISSERVICE. To respond to their pain by making them feel even more pain is to emotionally traumatize them. When you do this you fail your child in far more serious ways than striking out to end the game, getting beaten in the last 25 or losing a match.
To teach your child how to have a healthy attitude towards failing you must respond constructively to their feelings of failure: Specifically this means that when they fail you must:
1)Respond with empathy, NOT anger - Step inside their shoes for an instant and feel the pain that they’re feeling. Then respond to their pain, NOT your own selfish needs and wants. For example, you see how upset your daughter is after a loss and, at an appropriate time you say, “That must really hurt hon. I can see how frustrated and disappointed you are. It really feels pretty crappy to give it your all like you did and to come up short. Just keep in mind that you’ll have plenty of other games and there will be other chances.”
2)Respond with compassion, NOT shame inducing comments or behavior - A compassionate response is one that offers kindness, forgiveness and hope to a child. It allows that child to begin to heal and constructively make use of the failure. For example, “It sure sucks to lose. It’s really frustrating. But even though you’re really disappointed, I want you to try and be kind to yourself. You did some things well and you want to be able to forgive yourself if things didn’t turn out exactly how you wanted.”
3)Respond with relaxation, NOT tension – If you are tense watching your children compete and then respond to them from this tense place, you can be sure that what you say and do with them won’t be burdened by deep waves of thought. When you are emotional and tense, you will say hurtful, emotionally damaging things that you’ll ultimately regret. Try to stay calm and relaxed when interacting with your child after that bad performance.
4)Engage, DO NOT withdraw – The very last thing that your child needs from you when he/she is hurting after a failure is for you to angrily withdraw. What they need instead is for you to sensitively and lovingly engage them. This does not mean that you should offer criticism for what they’ve done wrong or force them to talk about the game. These kinds of responses do not address their feelings of failure. Unless you address their feelings of failure, you will not be correctly teaching them how to use failure to become successful. So physically and emotionally be there for them when they struggle. After all, this is the time when they need you, the parent the most!
5)Be kind, NOT mean – This may seem a little obvious, but it still needs to be said. Listen to yourself when you talk to your children after failures. Are you being kind to them in your words and tone? Reframe from hurtful comments like, “you’re a total embarrassment” or “if you’re going to continue to perform this way, then I should just stop wasting my money on you!” Remember, this is your son or daughter that you’re talking to and right after a loss he/she is probably feeling the most vulnerable.
6)Be loving, NOT withholding – Your most important move when your child fails is to remain unconditionally loving. Do NOT link your love and their lovability with their performance. Do NOT withhold your love whenever they fail. Instead, reassure them both verbally and non-verbally that you’ll love them no matter what happens in their performance! Remember, our kids need our love more when the going gets rough. Be there for them unconditionally!
7)Be disappointed WITH them, NOT disappointed IN them – This goes back to your primary job of keeping your child’s feelings of failure foremost in your mind. When they fail, empathize with their disappointment. Feel their disappointment and reflect back to them that you understand how their disappointment feels. “You know, right now I can imagine how awful it must feel to have come so close and then right at the end, come up short. I know you’re really disappointed. It’s tough to lose and it sure hurts like hell.” Under no circumstances should you show that YOU are disappointed in them. Remember, they are NOT performing in their sport for YOU. The sport belongs to them. They should be performing for themselves! If they fail, do NOT make their failure about YOU and YOUR disappointment.
To sum, if you truly want to teach your kids how to have a healthy attitude about failing and making mistakes, then you need to learn how to better manage their feelings when they fail. Paradoxically, in order to do this well, you need to learn how to first manage your own feelings when they fail so that these do not get in your way of lovingly be there for your child.
“Teaching your athletes how to rebound from mistakes/failures”
One of the common characteristics of a peak performance is that the athlete or team goes into the game, match or race without any worry of failing or messing up. In a peak performance, the competitor is totally focused on the “process,” moment by moment. Her concentration is completely removed from the “outcome.” In fact, she is oblivious to the consequences of her actions during the flow of the performance. When your concentration is on what you’re doing in the NOW of the action, you’ll always remain loose and relaxed. It’s this relaxed state that is the secret to the athlete playing her best when it counts the most. When the athlete in the middle of a peal performance does commit an error or otherwise messes up, that mistake is immediately left behind as her focus shifts to the very next play.
When you contrast this peak performance state with that of the struggling athlete, you will immediately begin to see a very different focus of concentration both before and during the contest. The athlete who struggles almost always has an outcome focus. That is, he’s concentrating on the possibility that he could make a mistake, strike out or lose the game. He’s worried about the outcome of the immediate play and/or the outcome of the entire competition. His mind is dominated by the “what ifs.” As a consequence of this faulty focus, he becomes nervous, physically tightens up and performs tentatively. The athlete’s inner experience is one of having too much to lose as he performs.
If you’ve had any significant coaching experience, then you’re probably well aware of how badly a team will play whenever they have this kind of outcome focus and are worried about winning or losing. In fact, one of the bigger coaching mistakes you can make is to over-emphasize the importance of the outcome to your players. I’ve discussed this before as “coaching the outcome,” i.e. “We can win this game.” “This can be a really big win for us. If we beat State, we’ll move on to the quarterfinals.” “This team we’re facing is so bad that it would be a terrible embarrassment for us to lose to them!” “If we don’t win tonight, I’ll see each and every one of you here tomorrow bright and early at 6:00am for a little morning workout!”
You coach the outcome in your practices leading up to the big game, in your pre-game, half-time and post-game talks and, indirectly, in how you respond to your athletes whenever they make mistakes. In fact, your responses to your athletes’ mistakes and losses will largely determine the kind of focus they will have going into and during their competitions. This means that your responses to your athletes’ failings and miscues will ultimately determine how relaxed they are under pressure and therefore whether they will perform to their potential or choke.
Let’s assume that as a coach, you would like your athletes and team to consistently have the best chance for success whenever they compete. This is certainly a reasonable desire on your part. I see nothing wrong with the healthy pursuit of excellence, especially since it should be an integral part of your job. However, if you truly want this, then you need to teach your athletes one of the hallmarks of a champion: how to quickly rebound from setbacks and mistakes. If you handle their failures and mistakes badly, then you will end up “shooting yourself in the foot” and sabotaging yours and your team’s success. What do I mean by this?
Let’s say, for example, that you have a quick “trigger finger” as a coach and you immediately bench a player who blows an assignment or commits an error; Or when an athlete comes up empty under pressure, you loudly make it known to the whole team how upset you are with him for letting you and the rest of the team down; Perhaps you’re a perfectionist who has little to no tolerance for anything short of the perfect execution of the game and your coaching instructions; Maybe you tend towards yelling at or embarrassing players whenever they mess up; Then again you may have the bad habit of actively threatening your players with excessive physical conditioning and other punishments should they lose; Let’s say that you have a tendency to hang onto your athletes’ mistakes; Or, whenever someone flubs up, you angrily pull them off the field and then ignore them for the remainder of the game; Then too, you might be the kind of coach who refuses to give your athletes any feedback or explanation whenever you bench them other than a dirty look. These kinds of coaching behaviors will indirectly, albeit powerfully teach your athletes that screwing up is not only intolerable, but will result in their incurring your considerable wrath, getting immediately benched and becoming a target for future embarrassment. When this happens, you will be teaching your players that if they mess up or fail, the emotional and/or physical consequences will be serious. That is, you will be teaching your players that they have a lot to lose!
Some individuals think that these kinds of coaching behaviors are not only acceptable, but absolutely necessary for maintaining discipline on a team and achieving success. They explain that by coming down hard on players in very visible ways whenever they mess-up or lose, you will be teaching them how to play the game and help them avoid future screw-ups. If you believe this, then you are sadly mistaken. Having a short fuse when your players make mistakes and going ballistic whenever they lose will only teach your athletes that there is too much at stake whenever they walk onto the field. It will teach them to worry about the outcome and fear making mistakes. As a consequence, it will insure that your athletes consistently perform tentatively and far below their potential.
If you really want to be successful with your athletes and train them how to be mentally tough under pressure, then you must teach them how to relax while they perform. However, you can NEVER do this by going ballistic whenever they screw up. Instead, YOU have to do a better job of dealing with their mistakes and failures. It’s how you respond to their mistakes and losses that will ultimately determine whether they are able to immediately relax, let go of their mistakes and mentally get back into the contest.
Here’s the trap: If you are too attached to the outcome of a game, if you are too caught up in your won-loss record, if you consistently measure your own self-worth by whether you win or lose, then chances are really good that you will do a really bad job of handling your athletes’ mistakes and failures. If the outcome means too much to you, if your ego is on the line every time that your team takes the field or court, then you will be vulnerable to losing your perspective during the match. As a result, you will repeatedly get “emotionally hijacked” whenever things go wrong. When this happens you will end up saying and doing things with your athletes that will be counterproductive and performance-disrupting.
Athletes who put their ego on the line whenever they compete will most often choke and perform poorly. Coaches who put their ego on the line during the game will end up doing the same! They will be too emotional to think clearly, stay focused and make good decisions. Therefore, they will ultimately be responsible for their team’s lack of confidence and poor play.
A brief example:
A young D-I basketball coach had a lot to prove. She had recently been hired to help turn around a losing program but her new bosses hadn’t looked carefully enough at her behaviors on the last job. The new coach had inherited a stable of decent players. She had excellent leadership on the team. Unfortunately, she couldn’t keep her own needs and issues off the court. What do I mean by this? She wanted to win too badly and this outcome focus was painfully obvious in how she handled her players.
As long as her new team was winning, she behaved appropriately. She was supportive, encouraging and motivational. She was reasonable to deal with and players could trust what she said. However, the minute the team hit a rough patch and started to lose, she would undergo a Dr. Jeckle/Mr. Hyde transformation! Suddenly she would say and do things that were destructive and confidence eroding. She would dress down her starters in front of the whole team, whether they had played well or not. She would tell them that they weren’t good enough to play at a D-I level and shouldn’t even be on the team. She would scream at players in practice for no apparent reason. She would say one thing and then quickly go back on her word, denying that she had said this in the first place. During games she would suddenly bench a player with no explanation, sometimes making that athlete sit out for the rest of the game.
One of the team’s captains explained to me that the coach had everyone on the team edgy. The players were nervous going into games and had no confidence. They felt like the coach didn’t believe in them. This player told me that the starters were overly focused on the coach’s emotional reactions on the bench during the game, instead of the game. No one on the team was having fun, one player had already quit and several others were grumbling about following suit. To me, the really sad part of all of this was that the coach probably had no clue that she was the one responsible for her team’s poor play.
Let’s just cover some basics here: How do you think your players feel whenever they mess up? You can be sure that they’re not happy. You can be sure that most feel badly about themselves in the process. You can also count on the fact that they don’t want to hurt the team or let you down. So if they’re feeling this badly after screwing up, how will your benching, screaming at or demeaning them help them learn from their mistakes, let them go quickly and play with renewed confidence? The answer is simple: It won’t! Instead, your behavior will have the reverse effect!
Discipline your athletes all you want. Yell at them if this is your personal style and you’ve figured out a way to do this without undermining their self-confidence. Bench them if they make a mistake and you feel like this is an appropriate and necessary action. However, as you do all of this, you have to maintain an awareness of their feelings of failure. In fact, you have to help them manage their feelings of failure. Don’t be a “bull in the china shop” and stomp all over these feelings mistakenly believing that, in the process you are making them mentally tougher. You are doing no such thing!
Help your athletes learn from their mistakes/losses and then let them go. Help them relax after a mistake or loss so that they don’t get even more distracted worrying about what you might do next time they screw up. Demand excellence from your players and a winning effort all you want. Just don’t make them self-conscious (and worried about your reactions) whenever they fall short of this.
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
Two brothers, with their father’s blessings and all of his meager life savings, headed west to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. The father hoped that by fronting his sons the necessary capital, he could share in their profits, allowing him to have a comfortable retirement. Throughout their trek cross country the brothers kept in close contact with their father who provided them helpful guidance, strategy and support as they prepared for the realization of their wildest dreams, finding their own personal pot of gold.
Once in California, they purchased all of the necessary equipment and began prospecting for their golden dream. In the beginning, all went well as the boys quickly discovered what appeared to be a productive vein of the valuable ore. With their father’s enthusiasm and counseling buoying them up, and the visions of great riches dancing in their heads, the boys staked a formal claim and then got down to the serious business of making oodles of money. The brothers made sure to immediately wire their father so he could begin the trip cross country to join them.
For the first several weeks the vein that the brothers had discovered proved extremely lucrative and it looked like the boys had really hit it big. But then, a short month into the prospecting and right around the time that their father joined them, their vein of gold suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. It was as if they had completely dug out all that was there.
However, with their father’s encouragement, they continued to dig at the vein hopeful that they would soon hit gold again. Unfortunately, after several weeks of frustration and no gold, patience and tempers rapidly headed south. The boys began to argue with each other and as they did so, the father began to worry that he had foolishly wasted his life savings chasing a dream that didn’t exist. He began to question the wisdom in letting his sons talk him into this investment.
In their desperation, the boys stopped digging down and instead headed out horizontally from the main tunnel in hopes of finding a continuation of the original rich vein. As they continued to dig, their father’s anxiety got the better of him and he began to angrily admonish his sons for their failings and his stupidity in ever trusting them. As the digging went on without visible return, the father’s increasing fears turned his mood even fouler. He called his boys losers. He told them that they were simply lazy and not working hard enough. He reminded them on a daily basis that they held his life saving in the balance and unless they struck gold soon, his life and future would be totally ruined. As badly as both boys felt at their continued failings, the guilt about potentially destroying their father’s life was nearly unbearable.
Still they kept on, although their discouragement exponentially increased every day. Soon a nagging sense of hopelessness began to creep into their digging efforts. They began to wonder if all of their efforts would only prove futile. Their father’s increasing angry tirades only made things that much worse for them. Soon they could no longer handle his continued abuse. Broken and beaten they told their father that there was simply no point in digging any further. They added that maybe he was right. Maybe they both were losers. The old man bitterly cursed them and left in a disgusted rage to go back home.
The despondent brothers then found a buyer for their original claim rights and their equipment. They were paid only a small fraction of their original investment. Taking those few dollars, they left town totally broken and defeated.
The man who purchased the claim hired an engineer to examine the mine and the surrounding rock strata. The engineer advised the new owner to continue digging vertically in the very same spot where the brothers had stopped. Despite his initial skepticism about this path, the new owner heeded the engineer’s advice. Just three feet deeper, he struck gold! The new vein, apparently a continuation of the original one yielded millions of dollars and proved to be one of the richest finds during the gold rush. Just three feet further!
Failing is never the problem. Making mistakes is never the problem. HOW YOU REACT TO THEM IS THE PROBLEM. Understand that failing and then experiencing the associated feelings of failure are a natural part of the success process. You can’t become successful and reach your goals without first going through enough of these upsetting experiences. If you angrily beat up on yourself for failing, if you punish your athletes for making mistakes, then you will distract yourself from the fact that the pot of gold is just a little further beyond. It’s a question of you digging a little deeper!