IN THIS ISSUE:
ATHLETES’ LOCKER – Handling the Pressure of Big-Time Competition
PARENTS’ CORNER – Forget the Start. It only matters how you finish
COACH’S OFFICE – Teaching Your Athletes to Stay Cool in the Clutch
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – You’ve got to get worse before you can get better
“Handling the pressure of big time competition”
(Part II -Techniques)
Once you have an understanding that part of your performance difficulties may be a result of too much or “bad” nervousness pre-race/match/game, then you are ready to learn some techniques to help you calm down. Remember, you can’t perform your best unless you can control your physiological level of arousal. Too much arousal, “bad nervous” will lead to choking, psych-outs and other performance problems. Too little arousal, or “not enough nervous” will cause you to perform flat and uninspired. In order to do your best you must learn to keep yourself at “good nervous.”
Staying at “good nervous requires that you develop and fine-tune some relaxation skills. The following techniques will help you do that. With consistent practice you can learn to stay cool in the clutch. Remember, handling the pressure of big time competition is a learned skill. You must allow yourself ample practice time. If you don’t put the time into some of the following exercises you’ll continue to “melt down” at crunch time.
#1 PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION (PMR)
A foundation relaxation skill that will teach you how to recognize where
specific areas of tension are located in your body and how to then release this tension. PMR is an excellent technique to help you calm yourself down the nights before big performances so that it is easier to fall asleep. In addition, PMR is an effective technique to use shortly after a stressful performance to help you both relax and re-energize your body.
Find a quiet place that’s free from distractions where you’ll be undisturbed
for 20-25 minutes. Lie down on your back with your feet shoulder width apart and your hands resting comfortably by your sides. You will be alternating contracting or tightening one muscle grouping at a time, holding that tension for 10 seconds, with then releasing that muscle group for 10 seconds. For both the tightening and releasing phases, be sure to focus your attention on the feelings in your body.
Tighten & relax legs: Focus your attention on the muscles in your legs, all the way from your feet to your thighs. Deliberately tighten both legs to 90%
of your strength by pointing your toes towards your head and lifting your legs slightly off the ground. Focus on the tension up and down your legs and hold that tension for 10 seconds. Repeat to yourself “let go” and when you do, gradually release the tension and let your legs go loose. Focus on the relaxation for 10 seconds. Inhale slowly and comfortably. Exhale slowly and comfortably. Repeat this same sequence a second time. Tighten & relax pelvic and buttocks: Focus your attention in your pelvic and buttock area and tighten these muscles by squeezing your buttocks together. Hold the tension for 10 seconds, study the tension and then repeat to yourself the words, “let go.” As you do, release all the tension and focus on the growing relaxation for 10 seconds. Inhale comfortably and exhale comfortably. Repeat this sequence.
Tighten & relax stomach: Flatten your stomach and tighten this area (keeping the rest of your body relaxed and breathing) for 10 seconds focusing on the tension. Say “let go” and then gradually release for 10 seconds. Inhale comfortably and exhale. Repeat sequence. Tighten & relax chest: Push your back into the floor and stick your chest out. Hold this tension in your chest for 10 seconds. Remember to keep the
rest of your body relaxed as you tighten. Say, “let go” and then slowly release the tension. Focus on the relaxation as you inhale and exhale. Repeat sequence.
Tighten & relax arms: Make fists and gradually tighten the tension up and
down your arms to 90%. Hold the tension, focus on it and then say, “let go.” Gradually allow your hands and arms to relax, Focus on the relaxation as you inhale and exhale. Repeat sequence. Tighten & relax back and shoulders: Push your back and shoulders into the
floor to tighten them. Hold the tension, study it and then release slowly.
Inhale and exhale focusing on the relaxation. Repeat sequence. Tighten & relax face: Tighten all the muscles in your face by clenching your teeth and jaws together, furrowing your brow, and stretching your cheek muscles. Hold the tension for 10 seconds, then “let go” focusing on the feelings of relaxation. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Repeat the sequence. Tighten & relax entire body: Tighten all the muscles in your body and then release. Repeat sequence.
DEVELOPING A RELAXATION CUE:
As you lie there comfortably think of a “relaxation cue” or signal that you can use to call up these same feelings that you’re having now. You can use a word, color, phrase or image. As you inhale, focus on the feelings of relaxation in your body. As you exhale, focus on or repeat your relaxation cue. Take 7-10 slow deep breaths repeating your relaxation cue as you exhale. With sufficient practice, your relaxation cue will bring back the relaxed feelings in your body. Streamlining your practice: With consistent practice you will find that your relaxation skills greatly improve. Soon this PMR sequence can be streamlined down to a minute or so without the necessity of having to go through the tightening-relaxing process. You will be able to relax your muscles just by focusing on that particular part of your body.
#2 BREATH CONTROL TRAINING (BCT) Diaphragmatic breathing is the fastest way to calm yourself down right before a big competition. Physiologically it is impossible to be stressed out while you’re breathing from your diaphragm.
Preparation: Sit or lie comfortably in a place that’s initially free from distractions. Close your eyes. Later you can deliberately add distractions to your practice session. Spend 5 minutes on this exercise. Procedure: Inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4, being sure to fill up your diaphragm as you do so. Keeping one palm on your diaphragm will help you get used to feeling this happen. Exhale through your mouth to a little faster count of 7-9 feeling your diaphragm empty out. Repeat this sequence over and over again for the allotted time. Keep your focus throughout this exercise on your incoming & outgoing breath and the rise and fall of your diaphragm. Remember to bring your concentration back should you find
yourself drifting away from your target focus.
#3 BREATH BY 3: Preparation and practice time is similar as BCT. Inhale
normally to an internal count of 3, pause to a count of 3, exhale to a count of 3, pause to a count of three. Repeat this sequence for 3-5 minutes being sure to keep your focus on your breathing and counting.
#4 TAKE YOUR PULSE: A quick and effective way to calm yourself down right
before performance. By closely focusing your attention on taking your pulse and then deliberately trying to slow it down, you’ll successfully distract yourself from the things that generate nervousness. Keep in mind that whether you slow your pulse down or not is unimportant. What helps you relax is the process of switching your concentration from your thoughts to your body.
#5 STRETCHING WITH AWARENESS: Another quick and effective way to calm
yourself down is to shift your concentration to a particular stretching routine that you might normally use pre-performance to loosen up. As you go through your stretching be sure to keep all of your concentration “inside” on the feelings of your muscles stretching. This means that you want to really try to “feel” each stretch. Remember to quickly and gently return your focus to your stretching should you find yourself getting distracted by anything.
#6 MUSIC: Many athletes keep themselves calm by focusing on special music right before performance. Be sure that the music you choose keeps you calm, relaxed and ready. Music that is too loud or has too hard a beat might wire you up too much. You can literally listen to a walk-man or tape player or keep the tune in your head. Not only does the music serve to relax you, but it also distracts you from any negative self-talk or other things that might normally get you uptight.
“It doesn’t matter how you start, it only matters how you finish”
Too many coaches, athletes and parents lose their perspective of this whole
sports experience. Coaches get too caught up in the outcome of their team’ s or athlete’s performance. As a result they may pressure the athletes too much or have an emotional meltdown when the team or athlete fails. Athletes fall short of their goals and end up viewing themselves as a failure. Parents get distracted by the addictive “thrill of victory” and say and do things that have most unfortunate consequences.
Parents of 9, 10, & 11 year olds, distracted by the Olympic theme loudly pulsating in their head yell “encouragement” and “suggestions” from the sidelines to the refs, coaches, opposing players, other parents and, of course, to their own children. Parents want their children to excel. They want their child to have every opportunity to be competitive. They want their child to be motivated and take advantage of every God-given gift they’ve been blessed with. Let’s have no squandering of natural talent out there! This youth sports stuff is REALLY important in life! Let’s get serious. After all, if my 9 year old is poorly motivated now and just going through the motions, what will that mean when they get into high school and college, or, worse yet, beyond!!??
“This is why I push, you know!” explained one enthusiastic father. “I realize my son (11 years old) is learning very valuable life lessons in his sports and I don’t want him growing up to be a loser. I don’t want him developing bad habits now that will haunt him for the rest of his life!” So his father informed me that he went to most of his son’s private coaching sessions and
carefully monitored the boy’s attitude, motivation and work ethic in these, practices and at games. When his son “slacked off” or was “lazy” the boy got an earful from dear old Dad at home. Hmmm…. I just wonder if this might have something to do with the boy’s desire to quit the team and the sport? It seems he wasn’t having very much fun anymore. I wonder why????
What’s wrong with this picture? Parents like this seem to have very little perspective when it comes to kids’ sports. They are so intent on having their child excel that they push and pressure too much. What these parents and coaches fail to realize is that they’ve got the wrong race in mind! Wrong race? Yes, YOU’VE GOT THE WRONG RACE IN MIND!!!!!
If you want your child to be a champion right away and that’s why you push, you have what I call a “sprint mentality.” A sprint mentality is “This is it! Give it all you have! Go out as fast as you can! Don’t hold anything back!” Watch any sprint race and this is exactly what you’ll see from the athletes. They explode out of the start or off the blocks, go as hard as they possibly can, because they know that the race will be over soon. This is the nature of any sprint. The race, by design, does not last very long. Therefore the very smartest strategy is to just go all out. Don’t save anything.
Contrast this sprint model with that of a marathon. While a sprint lasts only a few seconds, a 26 + mile marathon lasts for several hours. What would happen if a runner decided to take a “sprinting headset” into a marathon? It wouldn’t be a very pretty sight! That runner would go out just as fast and as hard as he could, leaving his competition far behind and then, within just a mile or so, he’d brilliantly flame out and die! Within a very short amount of time his opponents would easily catch and pass him. You sometimes see this deliberately played out in high-level competition in a mile race. “Rabbits” or runners whose sole job is to go out as fast as possible lead the race for several laps. Frequently they do this to set a fast pace. However, these “rabbits” can’t maintain this intensity for long and therefore fall back into the pack and even drop out before the race is over. A sprint mentality is only good for sprinting. In longer races or marathons you must have a very different headset. You have to be smart about your race and figure out what the best pace is for you. Then you must be able to maintain that pace keeping focused on your body, rhythm, breathing pattern, arm swing, etc. Simply put, in a marathon you have to understand that you’re in it for the long haul. This “marathon mentality” is the only healthy attitude to take into your child’s sport!
Hopefully your child will be lovingly involved in his/her sport for a very long time. Allow them the time to develop this love, the skills and the enjoyment of participating with their friends and teammates. Slow down! Chill out! Smell the roses! Forget about winning right now! This is not what’s important. Too much emphasis on winning and too much pressure to excel and be
the best early on will just burn your child out, slow (not speed up) their athletic development and turn them into a drop-out statistic. Isn’t it interesting that the drop out rates in youth sports across the board is an unsettling 72% between the ages of 8 and 12. Why do you think that is???!!!! That’s right! Parent and coaches pressuring kids to win!It’s not important that your child be a champion at 9, (or ever for that matter!). What’s more important is that your child learns the proper mechanics, develops a love of the sport and good feelings about themselves so that they stay involved in the sport for a long time! Help them pace themselves by keeping this long term, marathon mentality in mind. Remember their youth sports experience is not a sprint.
In a “marathon mentality” kids are allowed to have fun “playing!” They are given the freedom to learn the skills and strategy of the sport in a pressure free environment with adults who understand that this kind of learning is critical to later success. Their long-term involvement in the sport is not sacrificed for the quick fix of “win now!” In a marathon mentality kids are given the flexibility to make mistakes and fail. They are not made to feel guilty or bad about themselves when they mess up. They are therefore encouraged to take risks and really learn the sport. The adults involved keep their heads on straight and remain patient.
In a sprint mentality, parents and coaches lose their heads in competition. After all, if this is a sprint, what goes on in this game is critical. Everything is at stake. There is a desperate quality to the cheering and comments from the parents’ section on the sidelines. No wonder parents get so crazy when they think that the refs may have made a bad call or an opposing player was a little too rough or outplayed their child. Relax. Enjoy the competition. Think about the long haul. Pace yourself and your child. Make sure that your son or daughter’s coach has this same long-term perspective. Settle in with your child and enjoy the sport over the next many years. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Do not contribute to your child’s potential burn-out!
“Teaching your athletes to better handle competitive pressure” (part 2)
I got a phone call yesterday from a women’s basketball coach who bitterly complained about her team’s uncharacteristic swoon during the tournament time of their season. Her team was strong & awesome over the regular season. However, it was “choke city” at crunch time. Her squad would suddenly start committing stupid turnovers and invent new ways to screw up. Their play would get so tight towards the game’s end that they’d frequently steal defeat from the jaws of victory. She was frustrated and at wits end as to what to do about it. She knew the problem wasn’t physical or tactical. She was well aware that her players had the ability and knew how to execute. They had proved that to her all season long. How come they couldn’t produce at tournament time?
The simple answer of course is that at crunch time there is much more pressure on the athletes and team to win. During the regular season the games just weren’t as “big” in the team’s mind as they were in the tournament. In post season play there was more at stake and much more to lose. That’s why in any playoff situation it’s not always the best team that wins, but the team that’s best able to play their own game that day. In other words, it’s the team that can keep their heads on straight at crunch time and stay cool in the clutch that will most often come out on top. What can this coach do to train her athletes to better handle pressure?
Using simulation in practice and putting your players in the same kinds of pressured situations that they could expect to encounter in competition i.e. having to deal with bad calls, being behind with little time remaining, playing in front of a noisy, distracting crowd, having to play in bad field conditions, etc., is a powerful way for you to make the transition easier from practice to big game competition. (see October’s Coach’s Office). This is the concept of training your athletes to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Simulation and regularly pushing your athletes outside of their comfort zone are techniques that you should weave into your practices from the beginning of the season onward.
In addition, you can do a lot to help your athletes stay cool in the clutch by training them to keep their focus off of the “uncontrollables,” (opponents’ reputation, skill level or style, the officiating, playing conditions, winning or losing, etc. (See October’s issue). Remember focusing your athletes on the “uc’s” just before or during performance will send their stress levels through the roof and their performance down the tubes. This means that as a coach you don’t want to coach the “outcome” or overemphasize the importance of the game. Instead you want to keep your athletes focused on those things that they have complete control over, i.e. their job, attitude, how quickly they bounce back from mistakes, their intensity level, etc.
Let me make the following suggestion related to this idea of only focusing on those things that you can control and that should help your team perform better at crunch time. Sit your team in a circle a night or two before a big game/race and have each of them, including the coaches, write down 1- 3 goals that the individual wants to accomplish for that game that will increase the entire team’s chances of producing a winning effort. These goals should be process, not outcome related. Furthermore, the goals should be in the athlete’s full control and stated in a positive way. (“I don’t want to fumble
the ball” or “I’m not going to let any goals in are framed negatively and in addition are “uc’s”). For example, going all out for every ball, getting my mind back in the “now” immediately after a mess-up, pushing harder when I start getting tired, cheering on the starters the entire time I’m on the bench, setting hard picks, keeping my feet moving all the time, and continually challenging the man I’m marking are all examples of goals that are positive, specific and controllable.
Once each team member has finished writing, have them read their goals to the group. By doing so they are committing themselves to these goals in front of their teammates.
Next, instruct each athlete to literally take those goals with them to the
game. They are to put the piece of paper inside their pads, socks, pants or equipment. The purpose of this exercise is to keep your athletes calmer by
keeping their focus off of the “uc’s” and onto specific things that they can
control. When the game or match is over you expect that they can take their paper out, read it and know that regardless of the outcome, they have kept their commitment.
To further train your athletes to perform better at crunch time spend some time, early in the season teaching them some of the relaxation exercises discussed in the Athlete’s Locker of this issue. Taking 20 minutes at the beginning or end of a few practices early in the season to teach these skills will pay hefty dividends later on. Once your players have been taught how to use the relaxation exercises they can then practice them on their own at home. I would also encourage you to take 5 minutes at the end of each practice to use one of the relaxation exercises with the team. Daily practice reinforces the importance of the skill and will build both competence and confidence in it. Furthermore, if you plan on using mental rehearsal with the team, having competence in relaxation training is a prerequisite for effective imagery training.
Speaking of imagery training, one final technique: Athletes who consistently fall apart under pressure can learn to master their nerves by using mental rehearsal. By vividly and repetitively imagining yourself in the stressful situation and “experiencing” yourself remaining cool, calm and collected throughout the performance, you can program yourself to stay calm in the actual competition. Mental rehearsal is a wonderful tool to help you take the unfamiliar (which causes stress) and make it familiar (which keeps you calm).
Keep in mind that staying cool in the clutch is a skill that should not be left to chance. With a bit of creativity and a little extra time on your part you can begin to train your athletes to develop their “relaxation muscles.”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
Becoming a champion – “You’ve got to get worse before you get better”
When I first started playing tennis I had tremendous stamina, decent quickness, great hand-eye coordination, wonderful reflexes and one minor problem. I had slightly unorthodox strokes. Truth be told, my mechanics were quite bad. In fact, you might say that my tennis strokes were downright ugly. Unfortunately, even with such flawed technique, I could still beat most of my friends. In my young vast mind, this was all that mattered.Shortly after my first competitive summer on the local junior circuit I was awarded a scholarship for free lessons through the winter. I was psyched! There was nothing I wanted more than to really get good in the sport. I couldn’t wait for my first lesson. After hitting with me for all of five minutes, Jack, my new teaching pro candidly gave me his assessment of my game. “You have tremendous stamina, great hand-eye coordination and wonderful reflexes, and” he added, raining on my parade, “you’ll never get anywhere hitting the ball the way you do! If you really want to get good as a tennis player Alan, you will have to completely change your mechanics.”
I was absolutely crushed! Didn’t he realize how good I had gotten with those strokes? Didn’t he know that I was “the man” out there, beating all my friends? Apparently he didn’t understand how big a talent he had in front of him. He then explained to me something I have never forgotten. “Goldberg, the way you play now is OK. Cold pizza is OK. However, to really excel in this sport or any other, you must learn the proper technique. No matter how hard you train, you will always be limited by poor mechanics. But remember one thing,” he added, “This is not going to be a fun or easy process. In order to take your game to the next level I’m going to have to help you unlearn all those old, ugly habits of yours. Before I can teach you how to hit the ball correctly, you’ve got to be willing to give up the incorrect way. What this means for you is that your entire game is going to get worse before it gets better. In taking away your old strokes, you won’t have anything better to replace them with at first. This means that you might start losing to opponents you’ve easily beaten in the past.”
“Plus”, he went on, “in the beginning, the new strokes will be very frustrating for you to learn and master. You must be very patient with yourself and with me. You must trust the process, stick to it and know that with enough hard work you’ll soon become a much better athlete.” Intellectually I understood what Jack was saying. “No problem!” I thought to myself. Change can be difficult. Working on your weaknesses is no picnic! I knew all that. However, what I didn’t know was just how difficult the learning process could actually be. In the next minute he demonstrated this for me by completely changing my forehand grip. Suddenly my tennis racquet felt like a dead fish in my hand. I then proceeded to skillfully hit eight balls in a row completely over the fence! How could anyone possibly hit the ball with that grip?! Why don’t I just use the handle to hit the ball? There was no way I was ever going to learn how to play tennis this way! No one could! It immediately became crystal clear to me at that moment that Jack had spent too many long uncovered moments in the hot sun.
After the lesson was over my dreams of becoming a tennis star lay scattered outside the fence with all those wild forehands I had been hitting. Did I really want to go through this process? Was it really worth it? Did I really want Mark, David, Bobby and everyone else I use to dominate to beat me? I immediately had an image of Bobby gloating over his first ever win and the sight of his ugly, sneering face tightened my stomach and made me sick! No way, I thought! Who needs this kind of scholarship? As I walked off the court clearly dejected, Jack, my teaching pro told me once more, “Remember, before you can get better, you’re going to have to get worse. That’s the process in becoming a champion.”
It turned out that Jack’s predictions were right on. My old game broke down while I learned the new one. I spent many frustrating hours trying to overcome my bad habits. I often felt like packing it up and cursed the day that I had gotten that stupid scholarship. Along the way I lost to some of my old friends, (luckily Bobby was not one of them!) and as painful as that was, in the end it really paid off. Once I had mastered the proper mechanics my tennis really took off. I became a top ranked junior in my area and went on to play #1 singles in high school and then at college. I ended my college career having won two straight conference singles titles.
Getting good at tennis dramatically changed my life. I became a teaching pro and paid my way through graduate school. Both my teaching and playing shaped my career direction as a sports performance consultant. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had been unwilling to make those changes when I was 12 because they were too uncomfortable or I just didn’t want to lose to my friends. Becoming successful in any sport/field requires that you go down a similar path. You must allow yourself to be a beginner before you can have a legitimate shot at becoming an expert. You must be able to keep in mind the bigger picture. You must be willing to give up short-term gratification (beating my buddies) and put up with short-term frustrations (losing to my buddies) to reach your goals. In short you must not sacrifice what you want the most, (your dream) for what you want right now, (immediate comfort). In addition, what Jack taught me is that becoming a champion means that you must get comfortable being uncomfortable. You must embrace change. You must move towards your fears. You must continually challenge yourself. You must honestly be willing to take a look at your weaknesses and then work on them.
You must seek out tougher competition than you. You must experiment and try new things. You must put yourself in unfamiliar situations. You must expose yourself to new ideas. You must go harder when you want to quit. You must never take the easy way out. In sum, you must continually push your envelope, mentally, physically and emotionally.
Experts are dangerous because they think they know it all. They think they have all the answers. Therefore they have closed their minds to new learning. The minute you take yourself this seriously by deluding yourself into believing that you know it all, you stop growing as a person, parent, coach, and athlete and begin to slip backwards. Our world is evolving at too dizzying a pace for you to sit back and cling to the same old, same old. There are new technologies continuously being developed. Athletes and coaches are developing more sophisticated ways of training. The latest competitive edge is right around the corner. Where are you in this process? Are your eyes, ears and imagination wide open or do you have your head buried, ostrich-like in the sand? Are you excited about the challenges of excelling or simply threatened by them?
Take risks. Go for it! Play the game fully. Totally commit yourself. Take your ego and pride and send them packing for a long vacation. Both ego and pride get in the way of you truly going for it. Ego and pride prevent you from being a beginner, from freely making mistakes. If your ego is on the line when you compete and you’re afraid to lose or mess up, then you’ll always have trouble winning and performing to your potential. Winning and mistakes are Zen-like concepts. That is, winning will come to you when it is furthest from your mind. You will commit fewer mistakes when you’ve accepted that you will make many mistakes.
If you are consistently underachieving or struggling with a performance issue, call me today. I can help!