He yells at me when I make errors, embarrassing me in front of the whole team! She tells me that I “suck” when I keep missing my shots, as if that’s supposed to make me feel more confident and want to keep shooting! He makes me run wind sprints whenever I’m wild on the mound as if somehow this kind of punishment will help me get back my control! My coaches punish the whole team whenever I’m too scared to throw my back handspring on beam. All that does is make everyone on the squad hate me!
When a coach gets angry at and frustrated with any athlete who’s struggling and then yells at or embarrasses them in front of their peers, the only thing that this ill-conceived behavior does is to further contribute to that particular athlete’s problems and stuckness! In fact, these coaching behaviors make the athlete feel much more anxious and less safe inside, insuring that their performance difficulties will continue unabated!
What usually fuels repetitive performance problems in athletes is an inner feeling of danger. This has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the situation. A pitcher on the mound isn’t really in danger. A gymnast about to throw her tumbling pass isn’t either. Neither is the golfer standing over a tee shot or an important 7 foot putt! Regardless, the athlete who struggles has a nervous system which is consistently misfiring, triggering intense feelings of anxiety and fear. It’s this intense fear which in turn, triggers a reflexive physical and mental freezing. This is what I see when suddenly a basketball or soccer player starts holding herself back, playing tentatively. Or when the golfer starts to yip and can’t control his swing or when a diver can’t get her reverse off the board.
The VERY LAST THING that this kind of athlete needs is a coach who contributes to this athlete’s sense of insecurity by yelling, screaming or shaming them! Instead, what they desperately need from a coach is compassion, forgiveness and understanding. I have never met an athlete who deliberately wants to perform badly. I have never met an athlete who wants to deliberately frustrate or disappoint his/her coach. Athletes who struggle with these problems DO NOT HAVE CONSCIOUS CONTROL OVER THEM. They are NOT “not trying hard enough,” trying to get attention,” “not listening” or “being a head case!” Instead, their nervous systems are misreading their current performance situation as dangerous and so they are reflexively going into the fight/flight/freeze response.
The only way to help this kind of athlete is to respond to them in a way that makes them feel safer! Pressuring them will NOT make them feel safer! Threatening them won’t either! The coach needs to be patient, kind and understanding. He/she needs to put themselves into the struggling athlete’s shoes and ask themselves, “If it was me, how would I want to be treated?” It’s only when you can make the athlete feel safer that you will begin to help them move through and then beyond their performance difficulties!