Performance slumps: An introduction

Performance slumps: An introduction

IN THIS ISSUE: 

PERFORMANCE SLUMPS have many causes. Sometimes a bad experience, tough loss or a time when you choked can set the slump cycle in motion. In many sports an injury or near miss can trigger a performance slump or block like a pitcher/batter who gets hit in the face with a ball or a gymnast who falls and hurts herself during a difficult trick. Sometimes slumps are a direct result of technical or mechanical mistakes the athlete is making. Occasionally a slump can even get started because an athlete is in sub-par condition. Almost always slumps and blocks are fueled and self-maintained by the athlete’s faulty focus of concentration just before and during performance. However, there are also those times when a slump is inadvertently started and maintained by bad coaching and/or misdirected “parental enthusiasm.” What a coach or parent says to an athlete and how they say it are the real culprits in planting the seeds to a slump. In this issue we will examine coach and parent caused slumps and what, if anything can be done about them. 

ATHLETE’S LOCKER - “Are your parents or coaches feeding your slump? ”
PARENT’S CORNER - “Why is my child doing so poorly? Sometimes the answer to your question is in the mirror.”
COACH’S OFFICE – “The slump cycle and how coach’s feed it.”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “Change yourself, not the world!”

ATHLETE’S LOCKER

“Are your parents or coaches feeding your slump?”

This is not just about blaming others. This is not just about refusing to take responsibility for yourself. This is not just about being unwilling to really look closely at your weaknesses and shortcomings. If you are ever going to reach your athletic dreams you certainly need to understand that “if it is to be, it is up to me.” That is, it is truly up to YOU as to whether you’ll be successful or not. You must be willing to take full responsibility for your training, actions and failures. However, having said that, the fact still remains that sometimes your coach or a parent can significantly contribute to repetitive performance problems and failures. That’s right! Whether they may mean to or not, there are times when the coach, or good old Mom and Dad can actually cause and feed that slump.

How is this possible? Let’s briefly look at where peak performance comes from. When you do your best, your focus of concentration before and during the action is on what you’re doing and nothing else. When you are “on”, you are unconcerned with what’s going on around you and totally oblivious to the outcome of the match, race or game. You do not, in other words have any expectations about your performance.  You are not worried about the “what if’s”, messing up or failing and instead are completely concentrating on the action as it unfolds. In addition, you are relaxed and having fun.

When you choke, underachieve or struggle performance-wise your focus of concentration is very different. Both before and during the performance you tend to concentrate on your thoughts. That is, you may be worried about your technique, failing, what the coach might think, what mom or dad might say to you afterwards, how your level of play might affect your playing time, how good your opponent is, etc. Poor performance usually goes hand in hand with carrying expectations into the performance. For example, you want to make the team, play well, win the match, get a certain time, not embarrass yourself, not fail, not disappoint others, etc. 

Expectations, which can be either positive or negative usually sink an athlete’s performance when he/she carries those expectations into the performance. The fact of the matter is that when you distract yourself with all these thoughts and expectations, you make yourself uptight and have less available concentration to put on the things that will help you perform well. As a result you don’t have any fun and perform poorly. 
 

Sometimes your coach or a parent says and does things to you which distract your concentration and make you uptight. They may put pressure on you by demanding a certain outcome. When you don’t “produce” for them, they then may react angrily and with excessive criticism. It’s one thing for your coach to constructively point out what you are doing wrong. It’s quite another thing for him or her to ridicule and humiliate you for your mistakes, failures and shortcomings.

The same can be said about mom or dad. If they directly or indirectly expect a certain level of performance from you and react with disappointment, disapproval and or criticism whenever you don’t “produce,” then they are setting you up big time for a performance slump. Why? First off, you don’t play the sport for Mom or Dad.  You don’t “owe” mom or dad anything performance-wise for all that they’ve done for you in the sport. The only “pay back” they should be getting from you is to enjoy watching you have fun with the sport. Second, parental expectations get into your head, place too much pressure on you and get you focusing on the wrong things. Third, pressure to “produce or else” from a parent will kill your fun and sabotage a good performance.  An example: 

A collegiate catcher had never experienced any performance problems until he got to college. His new coach had a reputation for being emotionally abusive. While practicing indoors, the catcher almost hit his coach with an errant throw. The indignant coach began to loudly demean the catcher in front of the whole team, pointing out how inept he was and threatening that if he couldn’t even get the ball back to the pitcher indoors, how could he expect to play for him when the season started outside.

The catcher’s reaction was predictable. Totally embarrassed and worried about another errant throw, he began to think about his throwing and pressure himself not to throw the ball away again. If you’d like to mess something up that’s natural and automatic, just think about the mechanics of what you are doing! The more this athlete tried to throw the ball accurately, the wilder his throws got. Of course, his coach didn’t waste the opportunity to loudly ridicule the catcher who now began to double pump the ball before releasing it. Soon the athlete was thinking about how to throw the ball back every time he played catch and was double pumping on each throw.

When the season started the double pumping got worse as the coach continued to ridicule him. Soon his teammates joined in along with the fans. The more ridicule that came his way, the more self-conscious the catcher became about his throwing and the worse the double pumping got. Not surprisingly the athlete began to dread playing. Within a short amount of time the catcher, the strongest athlete on the team in that position was reduced to sitting on the bench. Soon after, feeling depressed and humiliated, he quit the squad and left baseball, a sport he had loved his entire life.

Why did this happen? Was this kid a head case? No way! This catcher’s problem was his coach! This coach was totally responsible for his player’s throwing problem. If anyone here was a head case it was the coach. As far as I’m concerned, what this coach did to his athlete was abusive and criminal. The man shouldn’t be in the profession. Good coaches don’t tear down an athlete’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Good coaches don’t publicly humiliate their athletes! Good coaches don’t allow teammates to demean each other. Good coaches know better than to make athletes overly self-conscious about their mechanics and performance. It’s one thing for a coach to demand excellence from you and regularly push you beyond your limits. That’s his or her job. However, it’s another thing when the coach’s behavior serves nothing but destructive purposes. It is unfortunate that in this situation the only option that this athlete had was to get away from his coach and leave baseball. 

PARENT’S CORNER

“Why is my child doing so poorly? Sometimes the answer to that question is in the mirror.”

I had the sense that when she first contacted me she thought the coach was way off base. She was concerned that her daughter wasn’t performing to her potential, just wasn’t swimming fast enough the way she used to. She had already pulled Sharon from that team for an entire year and taken her to a club where the kids were said to go faster. This of course was directly against the coach’s wishes who had argued that going fast all the time wasn’t the goal. Sometimes, you have to work on developing good technique and solid mechanics. You have to take your time when building a champion. It doesn’t happen overnight! No, it couldn’t be that, she had argued. Something else had to be going on to explain why her daughter wasn’t swimming faster. After all, what was the point of competing unless you go fast all the time and win? I mean why bother swimming if you lose was her attitude. What did the coach really know?    

The year spent at the other club had set her daughter way back, just as the first coach had predicted. Mom had taken Sharon away from her friends and had her training with kids who were much older. She was forced to over-train and had no fun at all. Mom didn’t realize that the whole point is to have fun! If you’re not having fun, you can’t possibly become successful. Her daughter’s swimming went even further down hill so the mother brought Sharon back with no apologies to the original coach. She still believed that there wasn’t enough emphasis on why her daughter wasn’t swimming fast enough. She didn’t want to consider that perhaps the problem was her attitude and her excessive emphasis on outcome. That’s when I got involved.  

Before all this started, as an age grouper Sharon had set the local swimming world on fire, winning everything in site and holding several national titles. Mom wasn’t too involved in Sharon’s swimming before she really got good. It was just one of those fun things that the girl enjoyed so Mom had kept her distance. However, as soon as her daughter began excelling and the coaches started talking about potential, mom decided she was going to “help” the process along. She took an active interest in Sharon’s practices, began a log of her daughter’s times and watched her closely at meets. If Sharon didn’t swim fast enough or perform to Mom’s expectations, she’d have to hear about it on the ride home. Mom would get especially angry after meets when Sharon didn’t perform well and openly complained to her daughter that her times just weren’t good enough. So that’s when Mom started blaming the coach. After all, it was his job to make her faster wasn’t it? If he couldn’t see this, just what kind of a coach was he anyway?     If your child-athlete goes into a performance and is concerned about your disappointment and anger should he/she perform poorly, or if he/she is overly preoccupied with the outcome of the competition then he/she will perform tightly and way below his/her potential. As a parent, one of your primary jobs in relation to your child’s sport is to allow him/her to have the freedom from these performance-disrupting burdens. 
This means that you should adopt a stance of unconditional love that is in no way tied to the outcome or quality of the performance.

Of course, it became quite clear to me that this was exactly what Sharon was struggling with. She was much too focused on goals and beating the competitors around her. After all Mom was always comparing her swims to everyone else’s. I began to teach Sharon how to have a proper focus. I helped her understand that she needed to be loose and relaxed in order to do her best. I taught her that fun had to be a primary goal BEFORE she could expect to swim well. At first Mom was very supportive of my work. I was, in fact going to help her daughter swim faster, wasn’t I? When it became clear after three weeks that Sharon’s times weren’t going to immediately drop, mom called me quite concerned saying that something was definitely wrong. Yes, something was wrong but it had nothing to do with Sharon or her times!      

When Sharon didn’t “produce” in the very next meet, Mom again called me to complain and wonder what “we” were doing wrong. She generously included the coach in her concerns. It was then that I explained to her that the only problem was how much focus she was placing on the outcome, and that this was the primary reason why Sharon was consistently underachieving. Sharon was under too much pressure to swim fast and this was tightening her up. She politely thanked me for my assessment and vowed to back off a bit. Two weeks later I got another call from Mom to let me know that her daughter had had another terrible competition and that she strongly felt that not focusing on times was “a cop-out” and totally ignoring the problem. I again reassured her that her focus was contributing to Sharon’s problem. She thanked me for “all my help” and told me in so many words that they wouldn’t be using my services. After all, what would I know about this stuff any way?

The epilogue here is sadly predictable. Sharon will continue to swim poorly and feel just awful about herself, Mom will continue to be disappointed with and pressure her daughter, and ultimately the girl will quit the sport feeling like a failure. But then again, just because I’ve seen this scenario played out far too many times, I could be wrong. What do I know anyway?

COACH’S OFFICE

“The slump cycle and how coaches inadvertently feed it”

If you are going to take some responsibility for your athletes performing well, (and I think you should. After all, it is one of many indications that you are doing a decent job as a coach), then you must also be prepared to take an honest look at yourself when your athletes struggle performance-wise. A good coach is always willing to question whether he/she is doing something wrong when things aren’t going quite right. This is not to say that sometimes an athlete may be totally responsible for his or her own performance difficulties. The fact of the matter is that an athlete’s attitude, lack of commitment, inability to handle pressure or failure to concentrate on the right things can and does cause slumps and sub-par performances. However, having said that, there are those times when your athletes’ problems in the competitive arena are directly linked to you. 

A college softball coach at a prestigious Division I program frequently complained to her team why they always seemed to fall apart under big game pressure. She openly questioned their mental toughness and heart. She was especially troubled by the fact that her pitchers couldn’t get the job done. She regularly challenged her hurlers’ toughness in the media, telling reporters after games that so and so just didn’t have what it takes to pitch at this level. When confronted by those players, she defended herself by saying that she was simply “playing head games” with them just to make them tougher! This coach was completely oblivious to the breach of trust issue that going outside the team created, never mind the destructiveness of being indirect and totally non-supportive. 

When this coach wasn’t doing that, she was further destroying the self-confidence of others in practice by yelling at them, continually questioning their skills and putting them down in front of their teammates. When these players responded negatively and with upset to her overt criticism, (she didn’t believe in giving positive feedback because she strongly believed that it made her players soft), the coach used their tears as further evidence that they were simply too weak and needed to be “hardened.” 

What I found quite interesting was that many of these athletes had never questioned their own confidence until they came to this program. None that I talked to had ever struggled with performance problems or batting slumps in high school. Most claimed that they never worried about making mistakes until they joined this team. Each year for the past five, at least one player had transferred out of the program to another school or quit the sport entirely. Numerous parents had complained to the athletic director over the years but this coach had been at the school for almost 18 years and nothing ever seemed to change. Freshmen coming into the program were immediately warned by the upperclassman that the coach was “extremely negative and liked to play head games and what they needed to learn was how to ignore everything the coach had to say and not let her get into their head.” 

This coach further had a reputation of being completely closed-minded. She was unwilling to listen to any feedback coming from her players. Their job was to just “suck it up and play ball!” 

There’s no question that high school and college athletes sometimes blame the coaches for their problems. 

There’s no doubt that athletes need to learn how to take responsibility for their actions and behaviors. It’s a given that athletes need to be open-minded and “coachable.” However, if you truly desire to be an effective coach you have to understand that it’s not all about the athlete’s attitude, work ethic and motivation. 

As a coach, you are a critically important part of the peak performance puzzle. When your athletes fall apart under pressure or continually underachieve you have to honestly examine yourself and how you interact with your players. If you are closed to feedback of any kind coming from your team you will find yourself coaching in a vacuum. In simple terms you will be coaching blindly and as a consequence, you will not be very effective. 

As a coach the relationship that you establish with each and every athlete on your team will largely determine how motivated that individual is to work and compete for you. What you say to the athlete and how you say it will further affect his/her self-confidence, concentration and performance level. Add to this the fact that every athlete on your squad responds differently to you and interprets your words and actions in their own unique way and you have your work cut out for you. Good coaching is an art that demands you continually monitor how your athletes are responding to you and whether you understand exactly where they are coming from. If you say or do something with one athlete and don’t get the response that you wanted or expected, then it’s important that you change your communication. Why?

The meaning of any communication between you and your players is the response that you get from them. It’s not your intentions that are important here. It is instead, the response coming from the athlete or how they hear and interpret your intentions. For example, if you are sarcastic with an athlete and you’re using the sarcasm to try to motivate them and truly mean them no harm, yet they respond negatively, act de-motivated and feel demeaned by your comment, then for all intents and purposes, the real meaning of your communication was demeaning. Likewise if you come down hard on an athlete, yelling at, and singling them out in an effort to motivate them and they respond with improved attitude and a higher level of intensity, then the real meaning of your communication was indeed motivational. 

If indeed the meaning of any communication is the response that you get, it is in your best interests to pay very close attention to how your athletes respond to what you say and do. In simple terms you have to look for and be open to feedback. For athletes and coaches, feedback is the breakfast of champions. When things aren’t going the way you’d like them to, don’t just blame the athletes. Take an honest look in the mirror too. The worst that will happen when you do this is you’ll learn something powerfully positive and you’ll become a better, more effective coach.

DR. G’S TEACHING TALES

“CHANGE YOURSELF, NOT THE WORLD” (From Inspirationalstories.com)

Once upon a time there was King who ruled over a very prosperous country. One day, he went for a trip to a very distant area of his land. When he returned to his palace, he began complaining that his feet were very painful from the long trek. He had never ventured that far before and the road he had taken was quite rough and stony. In an effort to solve this problem for the next time he had to make a trip and visit any town in his kingdom, the King ordered his people to cover every round of the entire country with leather. To accomplish this task, the King would need thousands of cow skins and would have to expend a great deal of money.  Despite the huge expense and the use of all these cows, the King decided that he couldn’t risk hurting his feet again. After all, he felt that it was important that he reach out to all the people in his kingdom. 

Then one of his wiser servants mustered up the courage to talk to the King. “Good sire, why do you have to spend all that money and kill all those poor cows? I feel it would be most unnecessary and wasteful. Instead, why doesn’t your highness just cut a little piece of leather to cover your feet? That way, you may walk in comfort all over your kingdom.”

The King was surprised by this counsel but realized it was sound. He didn’t have to change all the roads in his kingdom. He only need change how he walked along these roads. He then ordered that a “shoe” be made for him to cover both his feet.

If you are struggling with a performance difficulty or you're consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help!