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IN THIS ISSUE: What’s really important? Do you have your life and sport in the proper PERSPECTIVE? I am writing this from the comfort of my office in the basement of my home. I look around me at the walls and they’re covered with pictures and mementoes of my 21 year career as a sports psychologist. Photographs from my many trips to the Olympic Training Center and of several NCAA Championship teams I’ve worked with, a world record setting boomerang, several Frisbees signed by a number of Amherst High School National Champion Ultimate teams, plaques, signed baseball cards and other photos of some of the professional and amateur athletes and teams that I’ve consulted with over the years. On several shelves are my trophies from a long career as a competitive tennis player interspersed with all kinds of sports paraphernalia and signed balls that I’ve collected from some of my clients, some of the teams I& #8217;ve helped and from my own kids. I’m surrounded by all these things that bring back such fond memories for me, pleasant reminders of some of the experiences and relationships that have shaped me personally and professionally over the years. In the adjoining room is my drum set which I occasionally practice on and rather badly I might add. Across the hall is a closet filled with the books, audio-tapes and cds that I’ve produced. They represent my professional contribution to my field and, as an outlet for my creativity, a source of pride for me.
Every day I get up, make the long and very difficult commute two floors down to my basement (rush hour is a killer) and begin my workday. I talk to clients on the phone, see them in person, fill out online orders for my products and work on my computer writing articles, books and answering email. Occasionally I venture outside the house to do team workshops. I take all of this for granted because it’s what I always do and what I’ve been doing for years.
But what if one day I had to evacuate my house and town because of an impending natural disaster? What if I had to seek higher ground because Hurricane Tonya was expected to contract a hit on landlocked Amherst, Massachusetts and turn it into an underwater theme park? How would I feel about having to be part of a 2 million person evacuation? How would I feel leaving everything that has been my life behind me and having to weather the anxiety of not knowing when I could come back and what I’d find when I did? Speaking of which, how would I feel if when I did return to my house, it was under 10 feet of water and every record of my past personal and professional life, everything that was important to me and my family had gone deep sea diving. Or maybe my house wasn’t under any water at all but instead had been completely flattened and reduced to very small pieces of wet and soggy rubble. How would I feel then?
I like to think of myself as an empathic, caring person. However, when I think about the total chaos, havoc and destruction wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on Gulf Coast residents I am at a total loss to adequately identify with what all these people have been and continue to go through. The scope of the disaster is so broad and the devastation so extreme that it’s beyond normal comprehension. I’m trying to make sense of this in relation to my own life. You can’t make phone calls because you don’t have phone service or electricity for that matter. All your records and professional history have been completely destroyed by the water and the winds. Heck, you can’t even go to work because you don’t have the proper training and licensure as a scuba diver to get to your office. Forget the office; you don’t even have a house anymore! That means all those irreplaceable photos, all your possessions, everything has been obliterated. You have no source of income. No way to pay your bills, buy food or get shelter. You have a mortgage payment due on a house that looks like it was flattened by a bomb. It would be nice if you could just get in the car and drive to a relative’s house in another state except that your car has been a submersible for the last several weeks and the highest function it could have now would be as a glorified fish tank. And you have to consider yourself one of the lucky ones because you didn’t lose a loved one.
When I think about how the real world has rudely intruded into these people’s lives like a crazed bull in a china shop it causes me to stop and reflect on a basic fact of life. In the day to day routine of living that we all so automatically run through, it is ever so easy to lose sight of what’s really important: the people we are close to. We often lose our perspective and stop appreciating the wonderful and truly meaningful relationships that we have in our lives, relationships that keep us healthy, happy and fulfilled. Instead we get too caught up with other trivial things that we have deluded ourselves into believing are more important. However, when looked at from the perspective of real tragedy, loss and hardship, from the “bigger picture” so-to-speak, then we see that in fact these trivialities are not at all very important. It’s a sad but true statement that we don’t tend to truly appreciate things until after we’ve lost t hem. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our approach to and view of organized sports.
We participate in athletics, coach or watch our children or other athletes compete and often times lose sight of what’s really important in these games. As a consequence we say and do inappropriate, sometimes stupid, oftentimes hurtful and occasionally embarrassing things. We yell at our kids for failing, scream at the referees for being wrong, (Any call that we don’t like is a bad call and no doubt you are far more objective than the refs are!), feel totally devastated when our team loses a big one or throw a bit of a temper tantrum when we make a mistake or fail. Here in the good old US of A we have made sports so important that we seem to emotionally live and die by the outcome of these children’s games. Grown men and women totally lose all of their emotional control, not to mention most of their brain cells and behave badly just because they did not like how the outcome of a game turned out. We tend to get distracted by the drama and excitement of the athletic contest and forget that feeling, thinking, oftentimes emotionally vulnerable children are the ones competing in it.
Yesterday I was talking to the mother of a very talented high school kicker. Her son has been the go-to guy for his very successful football team for three years. He has always been a clutch kicker, a coach-able kid with a great attitude and a real team player. In a recent game, his last second field goal tied the game and sent it into overtime. In the overtime period the coaches changed the offensive line and when he went to kick a point after, it was blocked by an on-rushing linesman. As a consequence, his powerhouse of a team lost their very first game in three years. Everyone was devastated, fans, players, coaches, parents and the students. And then, one of the “adults” in charge got a wee bit crazy. The assistant coach called this kid out in front of the whole team and whatever crowd was still watching. He screamed at him, calling him a “choker” and single-handedly blamed him for the team’s loss. It’s funny. I must be a total idiot. Here all this time I’ve been working with sports and athletes and I was under the impression that football was a team game and that there were 40-60 plus guys on a squad, 11 guys on the field at a time. How could I have been so stupid? I never realized that one player could be so influential that a loss would be his entire responsibility. Obviously this ASSistant coach wasn’t too troubled by deep waves of thought when he opened his mouth. He went on to tell this player that he was a “loser” and that if he couldn’t kick the “f’en ball” in a game when it counted the most then he was of no use to him or the team and they’d get someone else who could get the job done.
Now, if you’re a coach and you’re reading this please take some good notes here. This ASSistant coach was demonstrating some powerfully advanced educational and coaching strategies which made good use of his “vast” knowledge of human motivation, psychological development and effective communication techniques. First he employed public humiliation and embarrassment to “effectively” get his point across. When in doubt, humiliate! That’s always been my motto. What better way to get the young to listen to you and learn than by being publicly disrespectful and demeaning. Second, this emotionally challenged “adult” also demonstrated the wonderful coaching attitude that every great coach should try to communicate to his/her athletes that “your value to me is only as good as this play” totally ignoring the fact that it was this kid’s last second field goal that had sent the game into overtime in the first plac e. What better way to make your players and children feel appreciated by you and instill a sense of security/trust in you than by conveying this message. This “what have you done for me lately” attitude is a first cousin to his indirect communication, “I don’t really care about you as a person, your self-esteem or your feelings. To me you are nothing more than a performance,” which he loudly communicated to this kid and the rest of the team. Finally, this coach taught his player and other teammates a very stupid, self-defeating lesson: Mistakes and failure are very bad and will get you humiliation so better avoid them at all costs! Want your athletes to play tight and tentatively? Want them to consistently underachieve? If so, get them really worried about failing and making mistakes and how ballistic you’ll go whenever they do!
So is there a problem here? Has someone lost that all important perspective I’ve been discussing? Is winning a regular season high school football game really that important to you as a coach that you would emotionally abuse and traumatize one of your athletes in public and in the process make a total fool of yourself? That’s right! This kind of outburst from a coach is shameful and says far more about the coach, his character and his shortcomings than it does about the athlete. Is winning a stupid football game more important than this poor kid’s long term mental health, self-esteem and future in the sport? I think NOT!
So the athlete goes to school the next Monday and kids he doesn’t even know are coming up to him in the halls and calling him a “choke.” Some of his teammates are actually joining in and saying nasty things to him including blaming him for the loss. His locker has been defaced with additional cruel and hurtful comments. Kids avoid him during lunch and treat him as if he’s a pariah. Help me out here please. Is this kid an axe-murderer? Did he run a “children for slavery ring?” Has he been selling drugs to 4 year olds? What heinous crime did he commit that warrants such stupidity-driven abuse? Have his teammates and fellow students lost a bit of their perspective? Is there something very wrong with this picture? Shame on his classmates and teammates! How dare they join the coach in wrongly blaming him for this loss? Just because your coach may act like a dim-witted Neanderthal doesn’t mean that you have to join in with his prehistori c shenanigans. What is wrong with us that we let something so fundamentally unimportant as a high school football game interfere with our decency, humanity and caring for others?
In this issue of The Mental Toughness Newsletter we will explore the issue of PERSPECTIVE and what’s truly important in sports.
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “It’s just a game, nothing more, nothing less ”
PARENT’S CORNER – “Do you have this whole sports thing in perspective?”
COACH’S OFFICE – “Keeping your perspective means coaching excellence”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “The Mountain Story”
“It’s just a game, nothing more, nothing less.”
Jenny had scored 23 points in the game so far and had single handedly kept her team’s hopes alive for the conference championship. Heck, if it wasn’t for her hitting that game winning shot in the semi-finals, her team wouldn’t have even been in this situation now. As always, Jenny was all over the court setting picks, stealing the ball, getting jaw-dropping assists, bringing down rebounds and running the fast break. And then the game’s outcome came down to one last play. Her team was down by one point with 6 seconds left on the clock. The tension in the gym was so thick that you could cut it with a knife.
Jenny brought the ball up court, quickly breaking the double team trap that the defense had set for her, dribbled to the top of the key, faked out a third defender and with 2 ticks left on the clock she pulled up for an uncontested jumper just to the right of the charity stripe. The packed gym went quiet and time seemed to stand still as the ball slowly arced towards the basket. As the buzzer ending the game sounded, Jenny’s shot began its’ downward flight. It looked good until the silence in the gym was broken by a sickening clunk as her shot hit the back of the rim, bounced back up again and harmlessly fell off to the side. Game over. Her team had just lost a heart-breaker by one lousy point. The championship had been so tantalizingly close and completely in Jenny’s hands. The crowd erupted. Jenny collapsed onto the court in tears. In her mind she had failed. She’d let her team down. She had blown it for everyone, players, co aches and fans. She was inconsolable. Her coach and teammates tried to get her to see how great a game she had played. Jenny had been the game’s high scorer for both teams. She was the team’s MVP for the season as well as for the tournament, but nothing they said could get through to the terrible feelings of failure that were overwhelming her. As far as she was concerned she was nothing more than a loser and missing that last shot was just concrete proof! As Jenny lay sobbing on the court and the celebration went on all around her, she made a decision. She would give the game up. She didn’t deserve to play basketball at all if she was going to play this “badly.”
Jenny stopped going to the gym to shoot by herself. She skipped AAU tryouts and practices. She refused to return the coach’s calls. She was done, once and for all. She continued to beat herself up emotionally by constantly replaying that last shot over and over again in her mind’s eye. How could she have missed it? She was so wide open and everything! The only explanation she ever came up with was that she “sucked.” Her grades started to slip. She didn’t care anymore. She lost her self-confidence. She got more and more depressed.
What is very wrong with this picture? Is Jenny an athlete with her sport or failing in perspective? Does she have an objective view of her real talent and ability? How can you let one missed shot, blown play or mistake define you as an athlete? How can you let a loss or failure define who you are as a person? Something is way off for this young woman in her self-assessment as well as her ability to place events in their larger context……
Jason was the starting quarterback for his high school team as a freshman, but he looked and played like an upperclassman. In just a few games he distinguished himself to be one of the more talented athletes on the entire football squad, leading his team to huge, back-to- back wins over stronger, more experienced conference rivals. He created an excited buzz in his school and town. The newspapers were continually singing his praises and the local TV sports reporters were always looking to him for sound bites. His sophomore year was even better and he began to attract national attention from some of the larger Division 1 football programs. At first Jason handled all this attention well. He remained soft spoken and modest, keeping his role on the team in perspective. But somewhere around junior year all the attention seemed to catalyze an insidious change in him.
Maybe the change was predictable. After all, he was just an impressionable, if not rather immature adolescent and if everyone around you is continually telling you that you’re the second coming, soon you start to believe it yourself. Maybe some of the corruption was the fault of the athletic director and teachers for not holding him more accountable. Jason had always been a decent, conscientious student. In middle school he never received a mark below a B and always turned his assignments in on time. In high school things began to slowly shift for him. It was probably all of the attention that he was receiving from football. Perhaps also the extra demands and pressure placed on him by his head coach diverted some of his attention away from academics. In any case, Jason gradually stopped working as hard in the classroom. He turned in assignments late and sometimes not at all. For the first time in his life he just did what he needed to in order t o get by. Even his attitude about his work had changed. He just expected that everything would get taken care of for him. Besides, most of his teachers seemed to be that understanding. After all, he was a football star. There was no question that several of his male teachers were quite impressed with his heroics on the football field. As a result, they began to give the boy a lot of wiggle room when it came to their assignments. In fact, when he did poorly on tests, they even gave him special help and consideration in allowing him to retake them.
Of course, some of Jason’s other teachers realized exactly what was going on here and they were not so understanding. They appropriately demanded that Jason continue to produce a higher standard of work and when he didn’t, their grades and comments to his parents directly reflected their concern and displeasure.
Unfortunately the athletic director and dean of students, both big football fans, continued to intervene on the boy’s behalf and put tremendous pressure on these teachers to go easy on the boy. They also served as a buffer between the teachers and Jason’s parents, convincing the parents that their son’s athletic prowess on the football field needed to be cultivated and that it would ultimately pay huge dividends in a full college scholarship to almost any school of his choice.
And then there was all the attention and special treatment that Jason received from his classmates. He was a rock star. He was the center of everyone’s attention. He was single-handedly the “in” group and everyone wanted to be associated with him. Girls threw themselves at him, guys wanted to be seen with him. He was continually invited to parties. All of this social attention, along with the extra consideration that he was getting from the teachers, athletic director and the media gradually corrupted him, convincing him that he was indeed special and somehow above the rules that most everyone else had to follow. It created a rather ugly sense of entitlement within him. He first began to believe and then act as if he was better than many of his fawning classmates. It was as if somehow his football skills placed him higher on the food chain than everyone else, as if his athletic prowess was solely what was important in life. His belie f that he was larger than life fed Jason’s cockiness and it began to spill over into never-before-seen behavior, dismissive treatment of others. He openly made fun of those he felt were “less important” than he or his other jock friends.
Gradually, his condescending demeanor began to alienate some of his classmates and even a few of his teammates. It only got worse his senior year when some of the top college football schools in the country began to seriously court him, competing with each other to try to get him to sign. By the time he did commit to one of these top schools he had become a legend in his own mind. He was no longer that sweet, self-effacing kid that had started on the team as a freshman. He had morphed into someone almost completely unrecognizable to some of his old friends. In fact, by senior year, Jason had long ago abandoned each and every one of those old friends. They weren’t “with it” enough for him. Jason was too short-sighted and caught up with himself to realize that his new “friends” really didn’t care that much about him as a person. Instead they were as shallow and superficial as he had become and were only interested in being part of the “Jason Show.”
When he went off to college he didn’t have a clue what had happened to him. He didn’t realize that he had lost total perspective of himself and his sport. Football had become larger than life to him and he saw himself as a giant among giants. What more proof do you need than being awarded a full, four-year scholarship to the Division I college that he was heading off to in the Fall? He was going to be a superstar there and probably even go on to play in the NFL. He had it all planned out in his head. I suppose all this made his career-ending knee injury during preseason of his freshman year even harder to swallow. The kid never even got to play one series of downs for his college before his career was over. Oh sure, he red-shirted freshman year and tried to make a comeback the next year. However, he had lost his mobility and had his confidence badly shaken. He was never the same player again.
Jason and Jenny’s attitudes about their sport and themselves in relation to it are opposite sides of the same coin. Both developed a much distorted and completely inaccurate picture of themselves as a result of their athletic performance. Jenny used her bad performances to convince herself that she was totally worthless both as an athlete and a person and Jason did the exact opposite, he used his athletic prowess as proof that he was worth more than everyone else. Neither athlete had their sport in perspective or understood what was really important here. It’s not about what you do or don’t do on the athletic field that’s important in sports. It’s all about HOW YOU GO ABOUT DOING IT!
Let me explain by taking a page out of the wonderful world of professional sports. This past March, Baltimore Oriole great Rafael Palmeiro testified under oath before congress that he had never used steroids. EVER! Palmeiro is only one of four players in Major League history to hit 500 home runs and amass 3000 hits. He was beloved in Baltimore and almost a sure lock for the Hall of Fame. Then Palmeiro failed a random drug test in July and his reputation and chances for the Hall shattered like a fragile glass figurine. People now think of him as a cheater and a liar and nothing more. The very same thing happened to baseball hit leader Pete Rose who not only bet on baseball, but lied through his teeth in denying it despite irrefutable evidence. How is Rose remembered? Besides the fact that he has been banned from the game for life and his chances of getting into the Hall are next to nil, he is viewed as an embarrassment to baseball and a pariah. And whi le we’re at it, let’s not forget present NFL great TO, Terrell Owens, a brash, over-confident, yet tremendously talented football player who is as much known for his in-your-face celebrations and mouth as he is for his accomplishments on the gridiron. Yes, Terrell is a tremendous football player. However, it’s nearly impossible to get past Owens’ self-centered, obnoxious behavior in relation to his teammates, coaches and opponents to see what is really in his heart as a person.
The point I want to make here is a very simple one. Just because you do something unbelievably good or fantastically bad in the athletic arena doesn’t make or break you as a person. You are not your athletic prowess or shortcomings. The goals and performance reputation that you achieve in your sport will disappear faster than you can blink and eye if you fail to conduct yourself with honesty, integrity, dignity and with a respect and caring for others. If you’re a great athlete, perhaps you’ll always have people lining up to worship you or bask in the warm glow of your “famous” company. As long as you produce, you’ll even have the sports media hanging on every word you say and ready to record each and every one of your awesome athletic performances. However, if you think your athletic ability makes you larger than life, then you are living in a fantasy world. You will not be a great athlete forever. Age and injuries catch up to all of us sooner or later. Furthermore, your adoring fans and the media will turn on you in a heartbeat if you conduct yourself in less than an honorable manner. And when you no longer have your athletic accomplishments to define you, when they are but distant memories from the past, what will you be left with? Look in the mirror! You’ll be left with that person staring back at you. That’s right, when you are stripped of all your athletic successes and failures, when they have faded into the past, all that remains is who you are as a person.
And here’s the funny thing. In the end, once you’ve finally grown up and seen the light, once you’ve been able to put your sports performance into its’ proper perspective, once you’ve put away the balls, bats, clubs, or racquets for the final time, then the only thing that really matters is how you conducted yourself in relation to your teammates, coaches, friends and the fans. The only thing that has a lasting significance to those around you who are important in your life is your character as a person. What kind of a legacy will you be leaving? Will people think about you as a great person of honesty, integrity and caring for others or will they remember you as a selfish, egotistical, mean-spirited brat? The choice is all yours. The ball is in your court. The question is will you be able to keep your eye on it?
“Do you have this whole sports thing in perspective?”
Last March, (2005) Valerie Yianacopolous, a Wakefield Massachusetts woman was sentenced to one year of probation, including 50 hours of community service, and ordered by the judge to watch a sportsmanship video after she was found guilty of assaulting an 11 year old boy who actually had the audacity to cheer for the opposing team at her son’s Little League game. Can you believe the nerve of that little brat! Serves him right!
Then in May Mark Picard, a Hamden, Connecticut father was charged with beating his daughter’s softball coach. I suppose that dad was a wee bit unhappy about his daughter’s lack of playing time. What better or more appropriate way to right such a terrible wrong and make your daughter feel both proud of and protected by you than to physically beat up on that nasty offender. Way to go dad!
Lest you think that we adults have not yet sunk far enough in our quest to completely lose our mind, throw our perspective out the window and act like total asses in relation to our kids’ sports we hear in June, 2005 about head coach Mark Downs of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Falcons. The Falcons, as anyone who’s anyone knows, are an “elite” Tee-ball team. (If you’re keeping score, “elite Tee-ball” is an oxymoron) Coach Downs was accused of and then charged with conspiring to injure a disabled child. Harry Bowers is a 9 year old autistic child who suffers from mild mental retardation and other physical disabilities including extremely poor eyesight. Harry was a member of the Falcons and when his team made the playoffs (If that isn’t a sign that the apocalypse is upon us then I don’t know what is. Playoffs in Tee-ball!) Coach Downs tried to keep the information from reaching Harry’s mom so the boy wouldn’t k now that he had a game. (The rule states that all players who show up must play at least three innings.)
When Harry showed up anyway, Coach Downs allegedly approached an 8 year old teammate named Keith, the hardest thrower on the team. “Coach Downs told me to warm up with Harry,” the young boy testified, “and told me that if I hit Harry in the face with the ball, he’d pay me $25.00 and then Harry would be out of the game.” Keith’s first toss hit Harry in the groin and sent him in tears to his mother. When Harry’s mom encouraged her son to continue, Coach Downs then told Keith, “go out there and hit him harder.” Keith’s second throw hit Harry in the left side of his face and ear drawing blood. Coach Downs then came over and told Harry and his mother that “the balls must be after him today” and he suggested that Harry take the day off from playing.
For whatever it’s worth, and it ain’t much, the Falcons won their game. (It must have been the superb coaching!) Soon after, however, Harry’s mother got wind of the foul smell emanating from the game and immediately contacted the State Police. The police, in turn charged Mark Downs with criminal solicitation to commit aggravated assault, corruption of minors, criminal conspiracy to commit simple assault and recklessly endangering another person. Sure sounds like Tee-ball lingo to me! Let’s see, we’ve got the bats, balls, gloves, tees, home plate and…oh yeah, criminal assault. Yup! We’ve got it all. We’re ready to play! And let’s not forget what a terrific role model Coach Downs is for these young and impressionable kids. In Coach Downs’ defense, he claimed that he was innocent of all charges and blamed his predicament on the media who were trying to make a pariah out of him. There’s no question in my mind that it was the media who made him do it. Or perhaps it was that lying-like-a-rug, low-down, no-good-for-nothing 8 year old Keith who’s really the one to blame here for creatively framing Coach Downs. Only the twisted and vivid imagination of an 8 year old could concoct such a ridiculous and preposterous story like this one.
TIME OUT! Let me ask you a few questions. What exactly is wrong with us as parents and coaches that we take our kids’ sports so seriously that we allow ourselves to completely lose emotional control? What’s wrong with us that competition and winning in relation to children’s games becomes so compelling and all-consuming that we totally set aside our good sense, judgment, ethics and values? Where has our humanness and compassion gone when we would so readily sell our soul for a win at the expense of reason and those more vulnerable than ourselves? Since when has this “win at all costs” motto become the modus operandi of seemingly stable adults?
It’s time for you to march up to that big mirror and take a good, hard and honest look at yourself. When you look at your life right now, what is truly important to you? Is it work? Your family? Perhaps your children’s health and happiness? Your outward success as viewed by the larger community? Your children’s success? Do you consider yourself to be a person of character? Does your self-respect mean anything to you? Can you look at yourself in that mirror and feel good about what you see? Can you be proud of that adult staring back at you when you think about how you conduct yourself in relation to your kid’s sport? Do you act in such a way that you’re making your child feel proud to say that you are his/her mom or dad? Are you behaving in such a way that your child and his/her teammates can feel safe and relaxed whenever you’re around? Are you taking concrete steps to insure that ALL the kids on your child’s team genuinely unde rstand that the main goal in sports is to HAVE FUN? Are your words closely matched by your actions on the sidelines in games and practices? Simply put, do you walk your talk?
My father always used to complain about how quickly time moved in our lives. Being a young kid with all the time in the world in front of me and a ton of playing needing to get done, I never paid too much attention to his nostalgic ramblings. Now that both of my daughters are grown and out of the house, my youngest having just started college and my oldest having just graduated and ready to start her own life, my dad’s words are poignantly coming back to me loud and strong. Life, as precious as it is, goes by so quickly and it seems, as Jackson Brown put it, “in the end it’s just a blink of the eye.”
I walk through my youngest daughter’s empty bedroom, sit on her bed, stare at the reminders of her spirit and energy in the house and I’m flooded with sadness and disbelief. How can that little girl whose smile and laughter used to grace our house be away at college? How is it possible that my little buddy isn’t so little any more? I think back to all those memories of her playing youth soccer, recreational league basketball, running cross country for middle school and then playing AAU and high school basketball and I wonder, “how can she possibly be a freshman in college?” I shared so much of my love of sports with her as she grew up. And just that quickly, she’s out of the house and sports are a very minor part of her life now.
What does that leave me with? Besides all the wonderful memories it makes me wonder about the angst that I felt at various points during her athletic career. My daughter is no different than any other adolescent female which meant we were often on an emotional roller coaster with her as she struggled with the ups and downs, the good and the bad that are both a part of growing up and of playing competitive sports. Looking back, the sports themselves and how well or poorly she might have done in various competitions all seem so tremendously insignificant now. The games and whether she scored 12 points or no points are just faint memories and will only fade even more with time. What is much more lasting and has grown stronger with time is my love for and relationship with my daughter. That, as always, has transcended sports. To me, our relationship and her happiness is far more important than her athletic performance on any given day.
Keeping sports in perspective, they are really just an activity that your kids do, nothing more, nothing less. They are not larger than life. They are not earth shattering. They are not worth losing emotional control over or jeopardizing your relationship with your child over. Whether your kid is the superstar or the bench warmer, whether he has a great game or a miserable one is and should be inconsequential in your life and in your relationship with your child. What’s the point in getting upset if your child fails? What’s the point in getting down on your son or daughter just because they might not have performed to your expectations? In the long run, what difference will it make if they do all that extra training and practice that you want them to? How will your pushing you son or daughter help you both relate to each other after they’ve left home and grown up?
Over the years I’ve talked to far too many unhappy kids whose parents continually pressured them to perform better. Young athletes who just wanted to be loved unconditionally by their parents rather than feeling like they had to jump through hoops in order to earn their parents love and respect. These kids are profoundly sad and alone because their parents had lost perspective of what was really important. In the end, all that we have from this life that means anything are the relationships that we create with those who are important to us along the way. The most important of these relationships is of course the ones we create with our immediate family, with our children, spouse, siblings and parents. These relationships are far too precious and valuable to jeopardize by behaving badly at Billy’s soccer match, punishing young Billy for failing to score on that open shot he had, or forcing the boy to train and extra hour or two each day just because you think he should.
What I’m saying here is very simple and basic. Life is both rich and simultaneously fleeting. Because of this you as the adult and parent have to ask yourself what is really important to you? Is it important that your child be the star on the Little League team? Is it that critical that she start on the varsity and score at least 15 points a game? Is it really that important that you push your child to do all that extra conditioning every day when what he’d really rather be doing is playing with his buddies? If your child is a super star in youth sports is that what’s going to sustain you when they grow older, leave the house and embark on their own separate lives? Is your criticism and pushing of them athletically when they’re younger going to lay a solid foundation for a happy and healthy relationship with them when they’re adults? I think NOT.
I guess what I’m asking you to consider in a number of different ways is “what REALLY matters?” when it comes to you, your child and his/her sport. And you know what really matters? Love and kindness. In the end these are all that really matter.
“Keeping your perspective means coaching excellence”
The head gymnastics coach had been working in the sport for the past twenty years. As a consequence she had compiled a lot of “experience” working with young girls and helping them progress through the levels. Of course, with all of this experience one would expect that she had also developed and fine-tuned her coaching effectiveness. This January, in less than three months, she’ll be retiring from her present position which she’s held for the last 9 years. However, from what I’ve been able to understand about her, the woman’s retirement is about 15 years too late.
Gymnastics is a very difficult sport to participate and compete in. The athlete has to repeatedly do the unnatural every day in training: She has to muster up the courage inside to get her body and mind to defy the laws of gravity and fly. The human organism was not meant to throw itself powerfully through the air, somersaulting backwards or forwards at great rates of speed in tuck or pike positions, twisting and then suddenly stopping all momentum and landing on a dime. As a consequence, the typical gymnast frequently experiences fear and anxiety whenever she attempts a new, more difficult gravity-defying skill. It’s this fear that the gymnast has to continually override in order to get herself to attempt some of these complex skills. And it’s not even that unusual for gymnasts to experience fear right before they attempt skills that they’ve long ago mastered.
One of the reasons for this is that in the normal process of learning new skills gymnasts typically fall. In fact, you can’t properly learn and master a new skill without falling some two to three hundred times. Now most of these falls are innocuous and have very little impact on the gymnast’s long term mental and physical health. However, sometimes these falls are traumatic and result in serious physical injury, sprains, badly bruised bodies and self-confidence or just close calls where the gymnast is more frightened by the near miss than anything else. Sometimes the fear from a near-miss can be more emotionally traumatizing than an actual injury. In any case, these frequent falls may eventually add up to the gymnast reaching a point where she becomes unable to override her fears and throw a skill. How does this work?
Over time, these seemingly innocuous falls gradually build up within the athletes’ mind and body. In fact, every time the gymnast has a scary fall or trauma, she automatically and unconsciously memorizes this entire experience. That is, every detail of the fall, the images, emotions, sounds and feelings, all the physical movements associated with it, get stuck in the back of her mind as well as in her body. Trauma always leaves an emotional and physical-body memory. At some point all of these accumulated traumas reach a critical mass and, with the addition of yet one more fall or scary experience, ultimately surface in a performance fear or block. Quite frequently the event that triggers the emergence of this block is seemingly innocuous. All of a sudden the gymnast cannot get herself to override her fear response. Instead, she becomes immobilized by the fear and is at a loss to explain why. Truth be told, unconsciously her mind and body will not allow her to go.
Working with an athlete who is “frozen” by what looks on the outside to be a totally irrational fear is a very difficult and frustrating undertaking which challenges the coach’s skills, patience and creativity. Because the fear is unconsciously generated and therefore not in the gymnast’s conscious control, there is frequently very little that the coach can do to get his/her athlete unstuck. Since a coach’s job is to help the athlete learn new skills, overcome problems and perform to his/her potential, the athlete’s immobility is a real thorn in the side of the coach’s ego. Simply put, the fear prevents the coach from doing his/her job. As a consequence it leaves the coach feeling immensely frustrated and inadequate. How a coach handles these feelings of frustration and inadequacy is what distinguishes the truly effective coaches from all the rest.
Jenny was one such athlete who had worked with this particular coach for the past 7 years. It makes sense to assume that over this long period of time the coach was able to really get to know this athlete and understand how to be effective with her. Jenny had been struggling with debilitating fears on beam on and off for the past year and a half. It was only in the last three to four weeks that the 13 year old gymnast had finally begun to make some positive gains on this apparatus. The meltdown happened last week in practice. For some reason Jenny was again experiencing fear as she got ready to throw her back handspring on beam. The fear temporarily stopped her from going and her coach of 7 years totally lost it.
Why is it absolutely critical that you keep your perspective when you’re coaching? Why is it a must that you keep the bigger picture in mind as a coach? If you’re working with kids ages 5 through 18 and you want to be both successful and effective, that is, you want to be known as a really great coach, then you have an obligation to coach them as living, breathing, thinking and FEELING organisms. You have a responsibility to coach the kid and NOT their performance. If a young athlete has performance problems, HE/SHE is NOT a problem. What students most need from their teachers/coaches is patience, understanding, kindness and encouragement. A good coach inspires his/her athletes. He/she leaves them with an expanded feeling of “I can do this!” A good coach builds self-esteem leaving his/her athletes believing in themselves and feeling stronger. A good coach leaves his/her athletes feeling cared for and understood. Why aspire to be this kind of “good coach?” Answer: Why aspire to be a champion? It’s all about personal excellence.
So in front of all of the other gymnasts and coaches, this head (case of a) coach screamed at Jenny, “You are a wimp! You’re just a little chicken. You’re always trying to take the easy way out and you’re doing this just for the attention. That’s what this is all about, you know! You just really enjoy all the attention that you’re getting right now. You are totally frustrating me and I just don’t get it!”
Come on people, your job is so much bigger than getting a kid to learn a specific skill, execute a particular play or advance to a higher performance level. As a coach you are always working with kids and kids are always in an emotionally vulnerable state. Their sense of identity and self-image is just in the beginning stages of forming. Their self-esteem is frequently shaky at best. They do not have the resources or strengths that you as an adult have. To them, you are an important person of power in their life and they are looking to you for safety and security. They have their trust in you. If they are having problems learning what you’re teaching, if they are experiencing some kind of repetitive performance problem, then chances are pretty good that it’s NOT because they want your negative attention, are being stubborn or are deliberately trying to make your life as the coach miserable. I have ne ver, and I repeat NEVER met an athlete who likes the kind of attention that was given to Jenny by her coach in this situation. If you are feeling frustrated by your athletes, chances are pretty good that you are experiencing their feelings. That is, that they are also feeling frustrated at their inability to perform for you no matter what they try.
When you stop and think about it, athletes want their coaches to be happy with them. They want their coaches to like and respect them. They want their coaches to be proud of them, to think that they are the cat’s meow and the doggie’s woof. The very last thing that sane athletes want is to bring the coach’s wrath and frustration down upon themselves.
So what’s your responsibility here? To be truly effective and to insure that you don’t destroy that all important coach-athlete relationship you must understand that your athlete’s failures or problems are not necessarily a reflection of your incompetence or inadequacy as a professional. They do not always directly comment on how well or poorly you are doing your job. However, your frustration and feelings of inadequacy may tell you differently. Sometimes, in fact, it’s as if your athlete’s slump or block is directly saying to you, “I am evidence that you are doing a bad job.” Under these circumstances it’s critically important that you keep your ego out of the equation. Your kids need you to be the caring, helpful, objective adult here. They need you to maintain your perspective and optimism as well as to stay in control of your frustrations and emotions. If you a ct out your feelings on them you will do far more damage to them than anything else. Having a meltdown like Jenny’s coach will always reflect badly on you. It will never motivate your stuck athlete to action. You will never help him/her get back on track with this kind of abuse. On the contrary! When you lose emotional control and your ability to keep the bigger picture in mind you will seriously damage your relationship with this kid and insure that they and their teammates lose total respect for and trust in you.
Coaching is far from an easy profession to call a career. Your work is often done under competitive pressure and in front of emotional parents and crowds. The pay is most often minimal and you are always an easy target for criticism from your administration, other coaches, your players as well as their parents. Not only that, but you are most often evaluated on your effectiveness by your team’s and athletes’ success record. You are not usually recognized just for helping kids learn, enjoy the sport and feel good about themselves. Under these circumstances you have to really love what you’re doing to be a career coach and a good one at that. Your love of and passion for the game and for the process of teaching kids about the sport and life will transcend all the bullshit that you have to continually endure. But the common thread that must be woven through everything that you do on a daily basis with your kids is keeping the sport and your coaching in the proper perspective. When you lose this perspective you lose your professionalism and when you lose your professionalism you’ve lost everything!
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
The Mountain Story”
A young son and his father were walking along a high mountain ridge in the middle of a long chain of mountains. Suddenly the boy trips and falls, hurting himself in the process. The boy reflexively let’s out a painful scream: AAAHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!
To his complete surprise, he hears a voice repeating somewhere off in the distance of the mountains: AAAHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!
Curious he yells out: “Who are you?”
He immediately receives the answer: “Who are you?”
Angered by this response, he screams: “COWARD!!!!”
Just as quickly he receives back: “COWARD!!!!”
Even more upset now he yells out: “I HATE YOU!!!”
In return, he quickly hears: “I HATE YOU!!!”
Puzzled, he looks to his father and asks: “What’s going on Dad?”
The father just smiles and says: “My son, pay attention and you might learn something.”
And then the father screams to the mountain: “I admire you.”
The voice quickly answers: “I admire you.”
Again the man screams out: “You are a champion.”
The voice answers: “You are a champion.”
The boy is completely surprised, but still does not understand.
Then the father explains: “People call this ECHO, but really this is LIFE my son. It will always give you back everything that you say or do. Our life is simply a reflection of our actions.
If you want more love in the world, then create more love in your heart.
If you want more competence on your team, then improve your own competence.
This relationship applies to everything, in and out of sports, in all aspects of life.
Life will always give you back everything that you have given to it.”
YOUR LIFE IS NOT A COINCIDENCE. IT’S A DIRECT REFLECTION OF YOU!