If you’ve been in the world of sports long enough you’ve probably met athletes who are total goofballs. The ones who don’t take the sport too seriously, make jokes or comments to try to make their teammates laugh, and who don’t spend too much time thinking about the sport because they’re just in it for some fun. Maybe they’re new in the sport or maybe they just have a lighthearted personality but these athletes don’t care much about winning or losing as long as they have a good time.
You’ve probably also met athletes who are way too serious about the sport. Who seemingly have no capacity for jokes or laughter because they are too busy overanalyzing every move, putting in extra practice runs, and going above and beyond what’s required of them. These athletes put too much emphasis on the outcome of games and are deeply impacted by losses or setbacks. They’ve lost all sense of fun and have entered “the danger zone” because they run the risk of hurting themselves by ignoring injuries, becoming burned out, and quitting from stress overload.
See a common theme here?
Neither of these types of athletes are going to reach peak performance because their focus isn’t where it needs to be!
The “fun/fun” athlete hasn’t yet made the decision that he/she really wants to excel at the sport. They’re focused on enjoying the process, which is a good thing, but they’re just not motivated enough to really give it their all yet. The important thing here is to allow the athlete to continue enjoying the sport and not push them towards putting more emphasis on winning. If or when they’re ready, they’ll get a little more serious about it, but that motivation has to come from within themselves.
The “serious/serious” athlete is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He/she has lost perspective of what’s really important as the mistakes and game outcomes get blown way out of proportion. The sport becomes a constant source of stress and this is a prime situation for problems like choking, slumps, or blocks. The important thing here if you’re a parent or coach is to first make sure you are not reinforcing an outcome-based approach through pressure to win. Second, make sure the athlete knows they are valued and loved no matter what happens in the sport. If you’re the serious/serious athlete, ask yourself where all the pressure is coming from and consider other ways to address it. Ask for help if you need it, take a break if that’ll help, adjust your concentration, and allow yourself to gradually soften so that you can stay in the flow of your sport without being too hard on yourself.
So that leaves us with the sweet spot of peak performance, you guessed it: SERIOUS/FUN!
This is the best of both worlds where the athlete has made the decision to really try to excel in the sport while continuing to have fun. It usually gets initiated when the individual joins a travel team, gets more intensive professional coaching, and begins to set goals for him/herself. Despite the fact that hard work and sacrifice are necessary prerequisites for success, the athlete still maintains a love and passion for the game. And while the outcome of a competition may become more important to the player than when he/she was just having fun, they’re still easily able to keep these wins and losses in perspective.
This is the necessary stage for true progress as an athlete. And it’s the state in which peak performance happens.
The fun element allows the athlete to remain lighthearted and actually enjoy herself throughout all the practices and games, keeping her head in the game and not getting too caught up in bad breaks. And the serious element allows her to stay motivated to continually improve, set new goals, and seek out the guidance and support needed to reach a higher level.
Interestingly enough, the roles of both parents and coaches don’t change much from the other stages. Parents still need to maintain their primary stance of unconditional love and support, without pressure or coaching. They should help their child get to practices and games, volunteer to help when called, and completely avoid imposing the weight of high expectations. Coaches should continue the magical balancing act of fun and hard work, always prioritizing learning and growth above all else, with a good dose of consistently pulling athletes just past their comfort zones.
What’s been your experience of balancing fun with seriousness in your sport?