The causes of performance slumps/blocks

The causes of performance slumps/blocks

IN THIS ISSUE: 

Let’s get the year off to a great start. How about we turn those pesky performance problems around? Overcoming Performance blocks, slumps and losing streaks: If you’ve played or coached sports long enough, then you know that sooner or later you’re going to run face first into a slump, performance fear/block or a losing streak. You don’t have to ever question whether this will ever happen. Instead you can simply count on it! How can I be so sure? These performance problems are a “normal” part of sports and even the very best athletes end up struggling at one time or another in their career. How you choose to handle the frustration, self-doubts, discouragement and anguish that accompany these performance problems will ultimately determine how bad the slump gets and how long it will stay camped out in your back yard. Unfortunately, far too many athletes, coaches and parents approach a slump the wrong way. Their run-away emotions cause them to push the panic button, which only makes the problem much worse. As a result, the slump or block lasts far longer than it should have. In this issue we will try to map out the best path for you as an athlete, coach and parent to follow when trying to find your way out of a slump. 

ATHLETE’S LOCKER - “How to beat a slump”
PARENT’S CORNER - “What should I do when my child-athlete is stuck?”
COACH’S OFFICE – “Managing slumps, blocks and losing streaks.” 
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES –“Just on the other side of impossible.”

ATHLETE’S LOCKER

“How to beat a slump”
 
There are two kinds of athletes in your sport: Those that have already struggled with a slump or block and those that will soon struggle! The fact of the matter is that performance problems are a very normal and common part of your sport. Whether it’s choking, consistently getting too nervous at crucial points in a performance, a slump, a losing streak, an inability to beat a particular opponent or a fear-based block, repetitive performance problems happen! In fact, in some sports like gymnastics and diving they happen quite frequently! If you’re properly prepared to deal with these when they do occur, then you’ll both minimize their negative affects and shorten the time that you end up struggling with them. Furthermore, knowing how to handle slumps and blocks will give you more self-confidence and make you a mentally tougher athlete.  

How you handle slumps and blocks primarily depends on you developing a clear, working understanding of their causes. These kinds of performance problems usually have a trigger or some event that touches them off. For example, losing a close game, striking out with the bases loaded, getting injured or experiencing a frightening near miss, having to perform in front of a huge crowd or choking under the pressure of a huge game are all examples of events that could potentially trigger a slump or block. Sometimes, however, slumps and blocks get touched off without any clear evidence of a trigger.

By themselves, these trigger events don’t necessarily cause the slump.  Striking out or going hitless 4 games in a row doesn’t even mean that you’re in a slump. The fact of the matter is that sometimes you have good games and sometimes you just simply stink the place out. That’s just part of the normal ebb and flow of sports. A slump gets started because of what you do mentally. So when you’re not hitting you start worrying about it. You’re in the on-deck circle and you’re thinking, “what if I strike out again? What if I go hitless” It’s these worries and this kind of performance focus that then sets in motion the slump. Worrying about messing up or failing tightens you up physically and distracts you from a proper focus. In addition you start trying too hard which further tightens your muscles. When your muscles are tight and you’re concentrating on the wrong things, peak performance is impossible. When you then fail again, your worry increases, as does your faulty focus leading to more bad performances as the slump cycle is off and running.

Breaking this cycle starts with you taking a “chill pill.” What do I mean by this? First, you just have to relax about not performing as well as you’d like. It happens and it’s not the end of the world! Getting uptight about your struggles will only make you struggle more. 

Next you have to recognize that you are feeding your own slump by what you’re focusing on and what you’re saying to yourself both before and during each performance. Focus and self-talk are two key elements in performance and the wrong kind of both will cause you to get stuck and under-perform. For example, if you’re a gymnast blocked on a back walkover and you keep balking, then chances are good that whenever you get ready to do this skill, you’re entertaining negative thinking, (“Oh I hate beam. Why do we have to do this? I’m going to get hurt today. What if I don’t go again? Coach will get mad at me again and yell”, etc.) as well as concentrating on what you’re afraid will happen, i.e. missing your hands, landing on your head, getting hurt. 

Slump busting is all about staying positive and being patient. You have to practice being a “good coach” to yourself. When you struggle you shouldn’t get down on yourself. You shouldn’t tell yourself in a nasty voice that you’re pitiful and should be able to do better. Putting yourself down will only further contribute to your problem. Instead you have to learn to be an ideal coach to yourself. For example, “it’s OK. It’ll come around. Take your time. You’re talented and you’ll get this. Be patient, it’ll come.” Etc. 

Being patient is critical to slump busting because impatience always feeds performance problems. If you get impatient with yourself and pressure yourself to get a skill, do better or produce, the only thing that you will succeed in is making yourself perform badly. Pressure, whether self-imposed or coming from coaches or parents almost always works to make slumps worse. Setting deadlines for yourself or threatening yourself with negative consequences for failing will NOT get you unstuck. It will, instead, only dig you deeper into that performance hole. Why?

When you pressure yourself you get into trying too hard. Trying too hard is always a losing game: The harder you try the worse you’ll do. This is because your self-imposed pressure tightens your muscles up and robs you of your timing, speed, smooth execution and just about everything else that is necessary for a good performance. 

If you want to successfully bust that slump then you must instead take all the pressure off yourself. Try to get yourself to trust your training, coaching and body. Let your muscle memory take over and let the performance happen. Sooner or later with this “let it happen” headset your normal, good performance will return.

Finally, you’ll have success busting slumps by learning how to control your focus. Specifically this means learning how to keep your concentration in the NOW. Slumps and blocks are always fed by “mental time traveling.” That is, the stuck athlete goes back and forth between the PAST and the FUTURE. She remembers the last time or two she struggled and then she worries, “what if it happens again?” This past to future focusing tightens the athlete up and makes proper execution impossible. As an athlete you can only do your best when your mind is in the NOW, focusing on what is going on right at this moment. Time traveling breeds fear and undercuts confidence. By disciplining yourself to stay in the NOW, and immediately bringing your focus of concentration back whenever you drift, you will get in touch with your true potential.  

Remember, bad performances are a normal part of sports. Even if you have a string of them, it doesn’t mean that you’re in a slump. If you think you are, relax and understand that they are normal. Try to become aware of how you may be feeding your problems by what you focus on and the quality of your self-talk. Keep yourself positive and stay away from negativity. Negativity will only fuel your troubles. Be patient with yourself and stay away from putting pressure on yourself to produce. Pressure to come up with a certain performance outcome will always backfire in your face. Instead, discipline yourself to stay in the NOW and quickly return your focus should you time travel. Try to trust yourself and get into relaxing whenever you practice and perform so that your performance happens without being forced.  


PARENT’S CORNER

"What should I do when my child-athlete is stuck?"

Under the best of circumstances it is downright brutal to watch your child struggle performance wise. This is even more the case when you know that she's capable of executing a particular skill or playing at a much higher level. There is no question that it is both perplexing and tremendously frustrating for parents to live through their child's slump or performance block.

The two main reasons for this are pretty obvious. First, as a parent you want your child to be happy. After all, isn't that what sport is all about? You're supposed to enjoy yourself, not spend two hours of practice in tears. Second, and let's be brutally honest here, you also want your son or daughter to be as successful as possible. Unfortunately, when your child is blocked by a fear or otherwise stuck in a slump he is neither having fun nor performing to his potential.

You know the scenario. They come home from practice or games absolutely miserable. Their level of frustration and feelings of helplessness are very powerful. Their self-confidence seems to be in a free fall. As a good parent your instincts are clear. You want to rush in there with sirens blaring and lights flashing and instantly make things all better. If a coach is causing the problems your unconscious instantly plays intense fantasies of revenge and retribution. You want to protect your offspring. You desperately want to help. There must be something, anything that you could say or do that would get your child unstuck and back on track.

And then there's all the confusion about why the child is having these stupid problems to begin with. Sometimes in fact, their difficulties don't seem to make any logical sense. Take the case of Jessica the gymnast who all of a sudden, after three years of doing round off, backhand spring, back tucks could no longer do them. Poof!!! Just like that they were gone. Vanished out of the gym and off the face of the earth! Of course she could do a round off and backhand spring, but no back tuck! She would simply stop before the back tuck.

The really frustrating thing for all involved was there was absolutely no logical reason for the skill's disappearance. Jessica didn't get hurt doing them. She didn't see someone else getting hurt. She wasn't dealing with the sometimes overwhelming fear that if she did get the skill, then she'd have to move up to the next level and learn even scarier skills. Here yesterday, gone today! No matter what her coaches tried, Jessica still wouldn't go for the skill!

As you can imagine, Jessica's parents were just as confused and frustrated as the coaches and their daughter. In fact, they couldn't understand what was wrong at all. Jess's dad even said that to her, "I don't understand. Why don't you just go for it? You've been doing the silly skill for years now. What's the big deal?" Of course his frustration and helplessness didn't do anything for Jessica.

Just because the skill may look easy from your outside perspective as a parent, doesn't mean it is. Just because your child had been performing it forever doesn't make their difficulty less real. If Jessica could have simply gone for it, then she would have! Keep in mind, I've have never met an athlete that wanted to have a performance problem. This is never a conscious choice!

So what should you do to help? First off, BE SUPPORTIVE. Be encouraging. Keep your own emotions, needs and frustrations out of the picture. This is not about you. It's about them! REASSURE YOUR CHILD that sooner or later she will get through this difficulty. BE POSITIVE. Communicate in your words and actions that you know in the future they have what it takes to get through this difficulty. Providing the athlete with a long-term perspective here is crucial. Knowing that at some point in the future they will no longer struggle is comforting and helps the athlete relax. Above all, BE PATIENT with your child. Impatience and pressure only adds fuel to the fire. You want to teach your child to relax and be patient and the best way to do this is to model it in your interactions with your son or daughter. Remember pressuring your child or threatening them is not helpful here. Similarly, offering them financial or other bribe-like incentives is worthless and yet another distraction that they just don't need.

If necessary, get your child additional coaching or private instruction to help them work their way through the problem. NORMALIZE the problem for your child. Let them know that setbacks, slumps, fears and blocks are all a natural and normal part of sport. Try to help them change their attitude towards the difficulty. Instead of fighting it and cursing their bad luck, try to get them to use the difficulty as an opportunity to get stronger and tougher. If available, tell them stories of other great athletes or individuals who struggled with and then overcame their difficulties. Better yet, find some real live people who have successfully been through what your child is currently struggling with. There is nothing more powerful than to have a live role model that your son or daughter can identify with.

Closely monitor the situation with your child's coach. Sometimes when a child is struggling performance wise the coach can actually make things worse. Be sure that the coach is supportive and understanding. If you notice that the coach is continually attacking your child's self-esteem, demeaning them or using humiliation, then quickly intervene. If you can't get the coach to change his behavior, immediately remove your child from the program and find them one with a healthier coach. Performance blocks and fears are difficult enough to deal with by themselves without having to also try to manage an abusive coach.

COACH’S OFFICE

"Managing slumps, blocks and losing streaks." 

Most good coaches have two overall coaching goals that influence and guide their daily interactions with their athletes. These are: To teach a love of hard work and a commitment to the pursuit of excellence. The good coach knows that athletic and personal success is impossible without totally embracing both of these values. As a result, these coaches have very little tolerance for half-hearted efforts from their players. In addition the successful coach has a very difficult time with any athlete who tends to accept mediocrity. 

Like any professional, good coaches are very aware of and sensitive to the feedback that they receive for their efforts. This feedback comes in the form of skill and performance changes within their athletes and teams. As athletes and teams improve, the coach gets a clear sense of how effective he or she is as a teacher. The feedback also comes from other coaching colleagues. It comes from the athletes' parents. It comes from the media and fans. And, unfortunately, a ton of feedback comes to the coach in the form of the team's won-loss record.

I say unfortunately here because a coach's won-loss record does not necessarily tell you whether that coach is competent or not. While most everyone else, (the fans, media, parents and other coaches) will tell you that the coach's winning percentage is a clear indication of his or her talent, this is not always the case. I know of many "winning" coaches who were nasty, selfish, abusive individuals. They treated their athletes as nothing more than objects to help them win a championship. They didn't really care about the well being of the athlete. They weren't able to separate their own ego from that of their players. These coaches used fear and humiliation as teaching tools. While their records may show that they were winners, in my book they were losers. The irony of this is that all too frequently these "successful" coaches are awarded "coach of the year" honors. Obviously this choice is completely based on the won-loss record. 

What happens to a coach when his team struggles with a losing streak? What goes on inside the coach when his athlete inexplicably slides into a slump? How does a coach feel when his athlete's performance is suddenly blocked by totally irrational fears? 

There is no question that performance problems and slumps challenge the patience and sanity of even the best of coaches. However, how you as a coach respond to these team or individual athlete problems will oftentimes determine whether the slump or block gets worse or disappears completely. What can you do as a coach to insure that your athletes and teams quickly put that slump or block behind them?

First off, understand that despite what the media, fans or parents may say about you, your value and effectiveness as a coach is NOT necessarily determined by your athletes' performance problems. If your team slips into a losing streak this does not automatically mean that you are a terrible coach. Losing is a result of a number of uncontrollable factors including luck, the skill and strength of the opposition, injuries, the officiating and the individual talents and headsets and individual psychologies of your players. Certainly if you yell and scream at your athletes, threaten them with adverse consequences should they fail to perform to your expectations and continually pressure them with an outcome focus, then you will indeed be directly responsible for their poor play. 

However, all too often performance problems just happen regardless of who you are or what you do or say as a coach. What's critical here is that when they do, you learn to separate your self-worth and ego from your athletes' performances. If you measure your self-worth by how they perform, or whether your team wins, then sooner or later you will end up inadvertently pressuring them to win more. Remember, coaches who coach winning consistently lose. Having an outcome focus is a huge performance trap! When your athletes pick up your need to win, they will most often tighten up and underachieve, regardless of how much they'd like to please you. 

When your athletes do struggle, perhaps the most powerful thing that you can do is to very clearly 
communicate to them that you still believe in them and their ability. The opinion that you hold of your athletes matters very deeply to them. Belief, after all, dramatically affects an athlete's performance. In fact, an athlete is always limited most by what he/she believes is possible. A brief example: 

A high school senior third baseman started the season the way he had left off the previous year, hitting a torrid .480 and batting lead off. Midway through the team's 32 game schedule his hitting started to falter and he slipped into a slump. No matter what he tried he couldn't seem to shake himself free. His batting average soon dropped below .200. Discouraged and frustrated, he began to seriously doubt himself and question his abilities. One afternoon he approached his coach before a big game and said, "Coach, I'm not doing anything for the team. I'm consistently letting the guys down. I want you to move me out of leadoff." The coach looked at him and said, "Thanks for the advice son. However I do want you to know something. You were my leadoff man when the season started and you will be my lead off man when the season ends. Now get out of my office. We have an important game to play!" The athlete went out onto the field knowing his coach believed in him. That was all it took to free him up and help him believe in himself again. As a consequence he forgot about his hitting woes and went 3 for 4, knocking in 5 runs to help his team win big over a cross-town rival. End of slump.

When your athletes struggle, another key stance that you must adopt is to stay positive, no matter what. Being negative will not inspire your team to start winning. It will NOT help an athlete overcome her fear or bust out of that performance slump. A negative attitude will undermine motivation. Let's face it. Nothing good comes from negativity. Negativity disrupts a proper focus, increases the athletes' stress and kills your players' competitive spirit. When coaches are negative the whole team is brought down. No matter how frustrated you may be with your athletes it is crucial that you stay positive and optimistic. After all, if you as the primary adult and team leader can't remain positive, then no one will be able to, and all will be lost. Remember, adversity can't be mastered and setbacks can't be overcome without you maintaining a positive attitude.

Above all, be supportive and patient with your athletes that struggle. Impatience will rarely help an athlete or team get unstuck. Instead, your athletes will tighten up more with the pressure that you put on them when you're impatient. Understand that the athlete who struggles quickly gets down on himself. Your dumping on him also will only make things worse. Your support in these situations is absolutely critical. Ignoring or withdrawing from the struggling athlete will send their self-esteem and performance further down the proverbial tubes. 

Help your athlete or team to refocus. Athletes and teams that struggle naturally have a tendency to become obsessed with and over-focus on their problem. This gets them trying too hard to get unstuck. You can never bust a slump or overcome a fear by trying too hard. Instead you want to help refocus your athletes on what they need to do in order to perform to their potential. Encourage them to focus on what they want to have happen. Give them specific concentration goals that they can focus on during their practices and competitions. These concentration goals should be "process", not outcome related. For example, staying calm before and during the performance (so the athlete may focus on a relaxation technique pre-game), keeping low and moving the feet on defense (basketball), making sure my stroke stays long and smooth, each and every stroke of the race, (swimming), concentrating on the rhythm of my arm swing or the feeling of my shoulders relaxed (running), making sure my hand stay together and feel the beam, (back walkover, gymnastics) are all example of process related goals. Outcome goals would be, going 3 for 3 today, scoring 15 points, shutting out the other team, etc.

One main concentration key to slump busting is to help your athletes keep their focus in the NOW of the performance. Struggling athletes have a tendency to "time travel" from the past to the future both before and during their performance. Peak performance can only happen when the athlete's mind is in the moment, focusing on what is going on RIGHT NOW. Encourage your athletes to leave the past behind them, forget the future and concentrate on what is right in front of them. 

DR. G’S TEACHING TALES

“Just on the other side of impossible” 
 

Do you really know what you’re capable of accomplishing? Do you really know your limits? Are you robbing your potential by kidding yourself into not going for things because you think the tasks are impossible for you? No matter how bleak things may look, no matter how low you’ve sunk, no matter how much your back is up against the wall, on the other side of all that despair and hopelessness your dreams are waiting.

No matter what anyone else says, NO matter how intense your self-doubts, DON’T EVER QUIT.  DON’T EVER GIVE UP. Sheila Taormina “quit” at least 8 times on her way to finally making the US Olympic Swim and winning a gold medal in 1996. Beset by doubts along the way, rejected by the US Swimming’s resident team and having failed every previous attempt to even final at Olympic Trials, Sheila refused to believe that her dream was impossible.

St. Louis Ram’s quarterback Kurt Warner lives a similar story. A mediocre college player Warner was not chosen by any of the NFL teams in the draft. Instead he played Arena football and stocked shelves in a supermarket on the graveyard shift. No one gave him a serious chance to play in the NFL. However, Warner refused to give up on his dream and got himself an opportunity to play backup in St Louis. When the starting quarter back went down early in the season, Warner took full advantage of this chance and proceeded to have a dream season capped off by a Super Bowl win and MVP honors.

Don’t you ever, ever give up on yourself. People are doing the impossible every day. Right at this moment, as you’re reading these very words, someone is out there proving the critics wrong yet again and turning the tables on their life and making their dreams come true. Listen only to your heart. Stay true to your goals and aspirations. Don’t listen to the experts who have nothing better to do than to rain on your parade. Ignore the critics because they know nothing. As Dale Carnegie once said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain, and most fools do.”

Take pleasure in pushing your envelope. Continually question and challenge your self-limitations. Limits, after all, have one purpose in a winner’s life. They exist only to be challenged and broken. Enjoy proving those who doubt you wrong. Use their negativity and doubts as fuel for your motivation. Act as if there is no impossible. The word is simply a creation for those who don’t take risks.  The same holds true for handicaps. We all have them in one form or another. They could be physical or emotional and for far too many people they serve as nothing more than an excuse to not reach your full potential, to not truly go for it. The list of champions who have had debilitating handicaps is endless and covers every sport imaginable: The NFL Hall of Fame kicker born with a clubfoot. The fastest female runner in the world born crippled and told she’d never walk. The multiple gold medal winning swimmer who had debilitating asthma reducing her lung capacity by a third of normal. The NFL Hall of Fame back-fielder who was 40% disabled after having part of his right foot blown off in Vietnam. The little boy, so badly burned by a fire that his doctors told his mother that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair who went on to become the world’s fastest miler. Let’s get more specific:      

Let me tell you the story of a little girl named Shelly, back in the days when a horribly crippling disease called polio wreaked havoc on young bodies. When she was just five years old Shelly was stricken with this dreaded disease. For a time the little girl was almost completely paralyzed. She could scarcely move a muscle. She couldn’t even stand up by herself. As therapy her doctor recommended that the girl be brought to a local swimming pool. The thinking was that perhaps this would help her get a little strength back into her dead arms and legs.

The buoyancy of the water held the crippled girl up. A major triumph came the day she was first able to lift her arms out of the water. She was overcome with tears of joy. She then set a goal for herself to swim the width of the pool. When she finally accomplished that, she went after trying to swim the length of the pool. As she reached one goal, she set another, more difficult one. First she swam one length of the pool, then two lengths, three lengths, four lengths….

Shelly Mann, the little girl so crippled by Polio that she couldn’t even move      
went on to become one of the early greats in American swimming. She held the world record in the 100 and 200meter butterfly and won a gold medal in the 100meter butterfly at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. 

Remember, slumps and blocks happen. Setbacks and injuries happen. However, on the other side of these dark moments is the bright sunshine of success. On the other side of impossible is triumph!

If you or an athlete you know is struggling with a performance difficulty, call me today. I can help!