Sports Psychology, Peak Performance and Overcoming Fears & Blocks

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SPECIAL: Olympic Issue

SPECIAL: Olympic Issue

SPECIAL OLYMPIC ISSUE: “A simple OLYMPIC lesson for all athletes, coaches and parents” – As the 2006 Torino Winter Games wind down and end, there are still several earth-shattering questions simmering on the back burner of too many people’s minds here in the good old US of A. Did we win enough medals? How many golds did we actually get? Were we the best or did “our” athletes let us down and choke the big one? And what’s with Lindsey Jacobellis anyway? Did she totally gag away the gold medal or what? And if not, what right did she have to be show-boating in something as serious and important as an Olympic final? And what’s the deal with suppose-to-be superstar Bode Miller? I mean the dude went 0’fer! That’s 5 chances and none, nada, zippo, ZERO medals! What kind of an Olympic effort was that?

It seems that every two years as the summer and winter Olympics trade places, these kinds of life-changing and terribly intelligent questions always remain the same. How’d we do? Did we get the big prize? Did we score the highest? Were we number one and if we weren’t then what went seriously wrong, (as if, whenever you fail to win, something had to have gone wrong)? It’s like when I was a kid returning from a tennis tournament and the only thing that my friends ever wanted to know from me was, “Did’ ja’ win?” My buddies didn’t give an owl’s hoot about how big the tournament was, how well I may have played in a losing effort, how close the match might have been, whether I had done my absolute best, what my competition was like or the hardships that I had to face during the match. They just wanted to get right down to the nitty-gritty, to the only thing that really mattered: “Did’ ja’ win?

And so it goes with the Olympics. Are we THE best? Let’s face it. The Olympics are SOOOO VERY BIG! They are SOOOOO VERY IMPORTANT! They are SOOOO VERY SERIOUS! Maybe that explains why American skier, Daron Rahlves, a favorite in the downhill and a contender in the Super-G was rumored to have not come out of his RV other than for training and racing over the course of the entire two weeks in Italy. He was quoted as saying how very important the Olympics were to him and apparently he didn’t want to be distracted by the other, nonessential parts of the Olympic experience. Unfortunately Rahlves’ serious and monk-like approach to the Games didn’t work very well for him. He failed to finish close to a medal in any of his events. So did Daron take these Olympics too seriously the way his teammate Bode Miller claimed? Or should we carefully consider the source of this criticism, Bode Miller? Bode was reported to have partied and socialized at an Olympic level his entire two weeks. Of course he didn’t medal either. Perhaps Bode had a bit too relaxed of a time?

Truth be told, the Olympics are actually VERY BIG and VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS! The US Olympic Association spends a ton of money selecting and training its’ Olympians. For this investment they naturally expect a reasonable return performance-wise. Simply put, they would like medal winning performances. As for returns, the American athletes who do win a gold medal earn themselves a payday of $25,000 dollars. For each silver medal they earn $15,000 dollars and for each bronze, $10,000. And that doesn’t even touch the potential and very lucrative endorsement deals waiting for all the more “marketable” of these winners. What financial rewards await the medal winning athletes from other countries may differ by country, but there’s no question that winning medals is worth a lot and grabbing a gold is where the big bucks are and that kind of accomplishment can potentially set you up financially for life.

While the Olympics may be financially lucrative to the athletes, the importance of the Games to NBC takes $eriou$ bu$ine$$ to a whole other level. The television network invested megabucks in covering the games on the bet that a lot of people around the States would be interested enough to spend a fair amount of their time in front of television sets watching. With a chance to cash in on this potentially huge viewing public, a number of sponsoring companies poured in millions of their own advertising dollars airing commercials that they hoped would greatly boost product sales.

Maybe that partially explains why our TV sports media take the games so seriously. Headline midway through the first week of competition shortly after the US women’s hockey team was upset by Sweden: “So far, Games are a nightmare for U.S.” It’s quite obvious that winning American athletes are far more likely to garner higher TV ratings than losers. Winning American competitors will get more people watching the sponsors’ commercials and potentially buying their products. After all, how much of an embarrassing failure is it when “American Idol,” a twice to three times a week popular seasonal program totally trounces the once- every-two years Olympics in the ratings? Listening to the media, the TV sportscasters, the visiting experts, the sports writers and all the expert-wanna-be’s weighing in on the internet and anywhere else that they can find a forum, you’d get the impression that the sole purpose of Olympic competition was to win GOLD. It’s as if Olympic success has only one color and anything short of GOLD is, well….NOT GOLD! Perhaps that explains why favorite-to-win-a-ton-of-medals, Bode Miller is getting so heavily criticized for not taking the Games seriously enough and, as a result, coming home empty handed.

So exactly where are we in the “medal count” as the final results are tallied? Did the US finish second in total medals won? Was it third? Let me tell where we ended up! We were WAY, WAY off track as far as I’m concerned and I’m not talking about how many medals we didn’t win!

We’re WAY off track because sports USA is far too obsessed with winning as its’ primary measure for success. It’s as if we live by NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi’s famous, albeit obsessively repeated words, “winning is the only thing.” Or, to semi-quote the mother of former infamous figure skater, wrestler, boxer and “good sport”-co-conspirator-to-the-attack-on-fellow-competitor Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, “if you can’t be numero uno, then you’re nothing!” Now if that doesn’t capture the true Olympic spirit, then I’m not sure what does. Unfortunately it seems that the “true” Olympic spirit has somehow morphed into this obsessive preoccupation with how very serious winning is and the neurotic need to be better than everyone else, regardless of how it’s done or the behavior that we engage in, in doing it.

Now, I understand that I’m not speaking for all of the competing athletes. There are many Olympians, probably the vast majority who have it right. They have the Games in perspective, understand what an honor and privilege it is to have earned the title, ‘Olympian’ and know where the outcome of their events fit into all of this. My beef is that too many visible US competitors, along with virtually the entire sports media (broadcasters, reporters, writers, etc.) seemed to miss the whole point of the Games.

Why is it that American female goal tender, Chanda Gunn angrily heaved her helmet to the ice and skated off in a petulant huff after her team was eliminated by Sweden without even sticking around long enough to take part in the traditional post game handshake? Was the loss that important? Was she that upset with herself or teammates for the perceived failure? What kind of sportsmanship and Olympic spirit does this communicate to our competitors and the world? Why did some of our athletes make lame excuses to the media after performing badly, blaming their failures on missed buses, the fans or the alignment of the sun, moon and the stars? What’s with all the excuses and athlete complaints about the media and the pressure they heap on? (Aha!!!! Here’s one compliant that’s actually very valid!)

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not opposed to winning gold medals and I’m certainly not allergic to competition. I think it’s totally exciting when an American athlete or team comes out on top. The fact of the matter is that I’m just as competitive as the next guy, if not more so. I genuinely believe that healthy competition is not only a good thing, but it’s the only real way to reach your true potential as an athlete, to supremely test yourself. When you get to compete against the very best that the world has to offer, which is really what the Olympics are all about, then you have a wonderful opportunity to really improve as an athlete. It’s this high level of competition that can push your performance to new and dazzling heights.

Like most dedicated and serious athletes, I too love to win and hate to lose. And the Olympic quest is all about striving to do your very best and being totally committed to the pursuit of excellence. Naturally within that quest is a push to be number one. The problem that I have with the Olympics and everyday sports competition here in the United States is when winning becomes too important. It’s when winning becomes the primary purpose of the sports activity or the “be all, end all” that problems emerge. It’s like the process of training and competing gets overshadowed in importance by the need to finish first. To me, this is like dancing to get from one side of the floor to the other, or singing to get from the beginning of a song to its end. It completely misses the point of the activity. This attitude drains the richness out of the competitive experience and corrupts both those competing and those watching.

At every level that our athletic games are played on, sport can get very ugly and downright nasty when the outcome of winning becomes more important than the process of competing. In fact, if you’d like a fool-proof strategy for making a public spectacle and total fool of yourself it’s just this: Make winning or coming in first your primary objective whenever you participate in, or watch a sporting event. This will insure that your performance will suffer along with your character.

Nowhere was this more powerfully demonstrated than on the ice by Italian Ice dancer Barbara Fusar Poli towards her partner, Maurizio Margaglio. The Italians hoped that they would contend with the Russians for gold, especially since they held the lead going into the original dance part of the competition. Unfortunately Maurizio, who has a long history of making mistakes under pressure, lost his footing when he went to lift his partner at the very end of their routine. As a result, the pair ended up collapsing onto one another in a heap, completely ending any hopes of an Olympic medal. As the program ended, Barbara didn’t look at the crowd or acknowledge the judges. Instead she turned and stared daggers at her partner for at least forty very long, seemingly never-ending seconds. If looks could kill, poor Margaglio would have been dead several times over. The silent, icy rage continued through the next day and into the night when Fusar Poli wouldn’t even look at or acknowledge her partner before the final part of the competition, the free dance. It was only until after they had skated without any major mistakes that the ice inside of her finally began to melt. Her expressed RAGE at her partner’s screw up was stunning and of Olympic proportions.

Speaking of teamwork in the service of winning gold, need we look any further than our own backyard and the rather childish and quite unattractive controversy that had been brewing between speed skaters and US “teammates” Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis. Chad was supposedly angry at Shani because Shani refused to compete in the team pursuit, thus potentially costing Chad a chance to win a possible 5 gold medals. Shani didn’t want to compete in the team event because it came too close to the 1000, his best event and he had wanted to save his legs for it. Did Hedrick have a point about Davis not being committed to Team USA? Perhaps, but this shouldn’t have excused the very public controversy that Hedrick fanned the flames of for almost the entire Games.

After the United States lost the team pursuit, Hedrick angrily held Davis responsible for the loss, despite the fact that Davis had made his intentions clear that he wouldn’t be competing in the team event long before the Olympics even started. In fact, the US team had accepted Davis onto the squad knowing full well that he wasn’t going to compete in the team event! Hedrick accused Davis of being unpatriotic and not a team player. Maybe, maybe not. However, despite the overt hostility that had been publicly directed towards him, Davis still found it in his heart to hug Hedrick in congratulations after Chad won his first and only gold medal in the 5000. In keeping with the “spirit” of the Olympics, Hedrick then refused to even congratulate Davis or discuss him with the media after Shani accomplished his life-long dream of winning gold in the 1000. Why? Because, according to Hedrick, everyone just wants to win gold and, “You don’t get anything for second place!” In fact, after finishing a disappointing third behind Davis in the 1500, an event he was hoping to win, Hedrick summed up his Olympic attitude quite nicely, “Second, fourth, eighth, fiftieth, they’re all the same to me.”

To be fair to Hedrick, he’s a fierce competitor and came into the Games with some lofty goals. He had a habit of tenaciously pursuing excellence and found anything short of it unacceptable. However, being this competitive is not exactly the problem. Every great athlete has the same intense and fiery competitiveness demonstrated by Hedrick. The issue is letting that competitiveness get out of control and morph into publicly bad behavior.

No doubt such heart-warming, soap opera-like drama certainly captures the true spirit that the creators of the Olympics hoped to instill in all participants: Good sportsmanship, fair play, supporting one’s teammates through success and failure, overcoming adversity with courage, as well as striving for excellence. What is wrong with this Olympic picture?

What ever happened to the notion that being an Olympian is an honor and one of the highest that an amateur athlete can achieve. Being an Olympian provides you with a chance to represent your country? Do American athletes want to be seen as self-serving, egotistical poor sports? Should American athletes on the world’s stage wear the title, “sore and/or disinterested losers?” Is this how we want people to know us? Do we want to be seen as so obsessed with winning that coming in second, fourth or fiftieth is considered an abject failure?

Again, I think our interpretation of WINNING is what’s mainly wrong here! I think that there is far too much emphasis placed on getting GOLD and much too much pressure placed on our athletes and teams to come out on top. In fact, I think the pressure that most athletes experience is of Olympic proportions and many have crumbled under the heavy weight. Maybe this is what Bode Miller was trying to rebel against in his “unique” approach to this winter’s Games and his attitude towards what others viewed as his “failures.” “It’s other people who want me to win medals,” Miller said in an interview. “I had a great time in Nagano in 1998, when no-one knew me and I could do what I wanted. I went out with my friends and went to watch all the sports.” Miller won no medals at that Olympics either and apparently had the same good time as this one. “My quality of life is the priority. I wanted to have fun here, to enjoy the Olympic experience, not be holed up in a closet and not ever leave your room.” Then in an apparent counterattack on all his critics he said, “The expectations (to win medals) were other people’s. I’m comfortable with what I’ve accomplished, including here at this Olympics. I came here to race as hard as I could. That was my obligation to myself and I did that.” He went on to say, “Fame is a poison. I couldn’t care less about it. In fact, I lived better when I was a nobody.”

Here’s an athlete speaking to the intense scrutiny and feelings of expectations that he must endure whenever he puts his skis on to compete. In fact, Miller speculated that it’s because of all this pressure to win that athletes revert to cheating in some sports. “Sport is born clean and it would stay that way if it was the athletes who ran it for the pleasure of taking part, but then the fans and the media intervene and finish up by corrupting it with the intense pressure that they exercise.”

Does all this intense pressure to win excuse Miller’s going into the Games unprepared and out of shape the way some coaches have alleged? Does it excuse his carefree, “I’m here to have fun and everyone and everything else be dammed” attitude and behavior that many of his competitors reported observing in him over these past two weeks? Two-time Olympic medalist and skiing commentator, Peekaboo Street, who retired after the 2002 Games thinks not. “I think Bode Miller is setting a horrible example for our next generation, and I hope he stops getting attention. And I think he hopes he stops getting attention. If he resets his motivation, he has five more good years. As for whether he wants that, your guess is as good as mine right now. He probably doesn't even know. He just needs to grow up. What's really sad is that the majority of the team has been training hard and acting professionally, but the media has been focusing on those few who aren't.”

Personally, I’d have to agree with Street’s assessment. As an Olympian, you have the responsibility to your team, coaches and especially to the USOC who has footed the bill in training you to give it your best shot and represent your country to the very best of your ability. You have a responsibility to conduct yourself as professionally as possible. Let’s face it. Pressure does go with the Olympics. It’s part of the territory and there is no escaping that. However, in my humble opinion, this does NOT mean that you can’t also have the time of your life in the process.

In fact, if there’s anything to be learned from this Olympics that can make you a more successful coach, athlete or parent of a competitive athlete, it’s just this: Keep the sport in perspective. Keep the outcome out of the equation when it’s nitty-gritty time. Keep the performance FUN! The biggest problem that I had with watching these past two weeks is that I didn’t see very many American athletes who really understood that FUN is an essential prerequisite to success. Simply put, you can’t get to GOLD, Silver or Bronze unless you go through FUN first.

When I talk about fun, please do NOT immediately assume that out here on the Olympic stage I’m suggesting that it’s OK to approach this, the biggest competition of your life with a cavalier attitude, lousy work ethic and mediocre performance as long as you “party hardy” and have fun. The fun that I’m referring to has nothing to do with being a goof ball! The FUN that I’m talking about should come straight out of your sheer love for the sport. It’s what speed skater Apollo Ono so clearly demonstrated during and after his quarterfinal heat in the 500 Meter short track race. When asked by a sportscaster what he was smiling so much about, Ono replied, “I was just having fun out there. You know it was like I was little again.” A few days later in the finals Ono then went on to do the unexpected and upset the South Koreans to win Gold.

We tend to get so caught up in how important our game is that we totally forget about why we began participating in the sport to begin with. Most athletes were attracted to and played their sport as a kid because it was a blast. They participated in their sport for the sheer love of it. Oftentimes younger athletes seem better able to hang onto this love and are somehow more oblivious to outside expectations and pressure than their older, more experienced counterparts. For the younger athlete, the joy is still very much present when they practice and compete. It’s only later, when coaches and parents notice that the young athlete has “great potential” that things change and the fun turns into hard work and the joy turns into “too serious.”

Don’t get me wrong here, serious should be there when you train, when you go to the gym or weight room, when you leave it all out there on the road doing distance work. Serious should be there in your commitment to excellence and your dedication to pursue your goals regardless of how many times you fall down. Serious should be there as you hone the proper technique and work on your weaknesses, over and over and over again in practice. Serious should be there in your try-hard, never-say-die, refuse-to-quit attitude. But underlying this serious approach, dedication and commitment has to be a solid base of fun with, and love of the sport, the kind that you had when you were just a kid.

And most important, once your training has been completed and the big competition is right around the corner, it’s then time for you to put that serious, work-hard approach aside and pick up a “competition mentality,” the headset that it’s now “party time,” as multiple gold medal winning swimmer, Janet Evans once put it right before her three gold medal performance at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Even as a 16 year old, Evans understood the value of fun and that FUN has to be there in order for you to be successful.

Let’s keep this FUN thing in perspective. As I said, you want to approach your sport with dedication and a seriousness of purpose. Without that kind of attitude and approach you’ll never reach your dreams. However, this does not then mean that you then want to carry that seriousness over into the competition. If you do, then you are actually making a “serious” mental mistake. In other words, the more emphasis you put on the importance of the competition, your need to win or fear of losing, the more you focus on outcome, then the greater your chance is to get too nervous, tighten up and totally choke away a good performance.

It is exactly here where far too many coaches, athletes and their parents completely mess up. They think that focusing on beating a particular opponent or winning the game, match or race will actually help you be successful. In fact, the exact opposite is true! Focusing on how good your competition is and needing to win will most often increase your level of nervousness, tighten your muscles, distract you from the task at hand and make it impossible to execute in a relaxed and smooth manner. Maintaining an outcome focus going into your competition will almost always tighten your muscles and totally sabotage your performance.

Interesting enough, American snow boarders seem to understand this better than most other winter sports teams that we fielded. Led by American Shaun White, a.k.a. the flying tomato, the American snow boarding contingent dominated the Games. White almost didn’t make the finals of the half-pipe because of a bad first qualifying run where he got hung up on the lip of the half-pipe in very un-flying tomato-like fashion. Why? He had gotten too serious as he was about to start that run. “As I was about to drop in, it just hit me” claimed White, “I thought, ‘we’re at the Olympics.’ I was standing there looking at the crowd and didn’t even look at the half-pipe walls. I wasn’t thinking straight.” White’s ‘I got all Olympicy’ moment distracted his concentration, tightened him up and touched off a mediocre run that pushed him back to 7th in the standings, thus forcing a second qualifying run. The rest, of course is history. He settled himself down, relaxed and refocused himself and then went back to what he does best, having fun.

Interesting enough, the snow boarders have been accused of not being serious or mature enough. Well let’s listen in on what one of those immature goofballs had to say to the media after winning a bronze medal. “If somehow by winning this medal I can change the life of one little fifth grade girl in Girdwood, Alaska, to make her see that dreams can come true, that would be perfect for me, ” said Girdwood native, Rosey Fletcher. The argument against the boarders continues claiming that they’re just too laid back and more concerned with “stylin” than the more serious business of winning. And why shouldn’t they be more focused on style? After all, the sport is all about style, flair and having fun. I suppose this is why so many people had trouble with Lindsey Jacobellis’ jaw-dropping performance in the finals of snowboardcross.

Jacobellis’ infamously demonstrated how to steal silver from the closing mouth of gold as she lost her race in absolutely astonishing fashion. With an insurmountable lead and on the second to last jump, Jacobellis pulled off what some called was a flamboyant and totally unnecessary showboating move, a “backside method grab.” She crashed on it, allowing an equally stunned yet delighted Swiss boarder, Tanja Friedan to pass her for the win. Jacobellis’ explanation for the gaff? “I was having fun. Snowboarding is fun. I was ahead. I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the crowd. I messed up. Oh well, it happens!”

Jacobellis was heavily criticized by the media for her gaff and the gist of their complaints was summed up quite nicely by Rick Morrisey, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “It probably would be a good thing if somebody explained to the snowboarders that once they decided to sit at the adults’ table, they made the tacit agreement to play to win. They made the decision to act like Olympians, which now means to act professional.” Fact: if it weren’t for the snowboarders medals, the US total medal count would have been way down!

Mr. Morrisey is making the assumption that Jacobellis’ premature celebration was somehow un-Olympian, immature and unprofessional. The fact of the matter is that her bust was none of those three. I have no doubt that every one of those snowboarders is probably just as competitive and dedicated as speed skater, Chad Hedrick. Was Hedrick’s obsession with winning five gold medals and his very public, petty feud with teammate Shani Davis somehow more “professional” or “Olympic” in nature? I think NOT!

The bottom line is that Jacobellis did what far too many athletes at every level, including professionals, have done over the years. She lost her focus of concentration. She allowed herself to mentally drift to the future, to the cheering, admiring crowd and winning the race. She got ahead of herself and began celebrating prematurely. It’s happened before and it will happen again. This has nothing to do with immaturity as a person or being unprofessional. She made an all-too-common mental mistake. Nothing more, nothing less.

Jacobellis learned a tough and no doubt painful lesson and one that I’m sure she’ll forever remember: It’s never over until it’s over. However, when all was said and done, her attitude and perspective reflected that of a mature professional. When asked if she’d ever watch her monumental gaff on video she replied, “Of course I’ll watch it. It’s something that happened, and part of my history. It’s not the worst thing in the world. I still came out with a medal.” Not bad for a kid who’s unprofessional and immature!

So let’s sum up this multi-level Olympic lesson for athletes, their parents and the coaches:

ATHLETES: First, understand that you want to have clearly defined goals that you work towards. It’s fine for these goals to involve outcomes. You want to have the goals and dreams that you pursue because it’s your dreams that will motivate and push you through the inevitable hard times of training that everyone has to face. Your goals will be there to help you pick yourself up after falling. In fact, having important goals will give you a reason to get back up after a failure. Having a certain outcome that excites you will also channel your energies and fuel your efforts in training. Whether your goal is to make the varsity, crack the starting line-up, earn a college scholarship, qualify for States or Regionals, win Nationals, make the Olympic team or even medal at the Olympics doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you know where you want to go, that you have some specific direction to your training. Goals provide you with this direction.

And, most important, like an invaluable piece of equipment, you want to bring your goals with you into practice on a daily basis and use them to help keep yourself motivated and moving in the right direction. Your goals and dreams should not be something that you discuss once with the coach at the beginning of the season, write down on a piece of paper and then tuck away in a drawer somewhere to gather dust. Instead they should be utilized as an important training tool to be used almost every time that you workout. Your goals should be used to keep you working consistently hard and on task. This will happen if you can go into practice and periodically ask yourself the question, “How is what I’m doing today and right now going to help me to get to my goal?” When you regularly ask yourself this question, your training will most always be highly productive. This question will help you avoid just going through the motions and counting the minutes until practice is over. It will give a special meaning to your efforts and therefore make you a stronger, more skilled athlete.

At the same time you must keep in mind that your goals should NEVER be used in practice to overly pressure yourself or as a stick to emotionally beat yourself up with. i.e., “Last year I did so much better. If I don’t start winning more now or performing better, then I’ll never make the team.” It’s this kind of negative outcome pressure even in practice that will most often get you trying too hard and feeling too stressed to perform at your best. Your goals should be used as the “carrot” to entice you forward because you want to, not the “stick” to beat yourself forward because you have to. In sum, your goals and desired outcomes should always be used as a positive, motivational tool. They should be utilized to encourage rather than discourage you, to build, rather than tear down your self-confidence.

Having said this, you must then remember to leave your goals, expectations and dreams at home whenever you have an important performance or it’s time to compete. Do NOT bring your goals with you onto the court, floor, field or track when it’s crunch time. Good mental technique requires that your focus be totally in the moment, in the NOW of the action on what you are doing for you to perform to your potential. Remember your goals and expectations are NOT in the action or the NOW. They are in the future. In fact, when you’re actually playing, your goals serve as a tremendous distraction from the action.

Good mental technique also requires that you stay mentally relaxed and physically loose going into and during your performances. If you carry your outcome goals or expectations with you into the contest, staying loose and relaxed will be virtually impossible. Write this down and post it on your wall: THE BIGGEST SECRET to consistently performing your best when it counts the most is to keep yourself loose and relaxed. The bigger the game, the more you need to make staying loose and relaxed your TOP PRIORITY!

Second, regardless of the level that you compete on, whether it’s Olympic, professional, Division I college, high school, club or just recreational, you must learn to take FUN into the performance with you. The more important the performance, the more fun you want to have. Just like it’s bad mental technique to be physically and mentally tight going into any competition, it’s good mental technique to go into a competition with a sense of positive anticipation and the expectancy of having fun. I don’t care how big the game is, how important the race, or whether there’s an Olympic medal at stake, you must have fun FIRST if you want to have any chance of performing the way that you’re capable.

Don’t make the mistake that far too many athletes make of thinking that you need to get really SERIOUS right before a big game in order to be prepared and play well. The only thing that getting serious will do for you is get you seriously nervous. And if you get seriously nervous, you can be sure that you will seriously mess up your performance. Save your seriousness for the approach that you take to your sport in training on a daily basis. Don’t goof around, cut corners or be lackadaisical. Be committed and dedicated. Work your butt off. However, when you get dressed for the game, leave the seriousness behind. Instead you want to put on your “game face,” the one with a smile on it that says “I absolutely love playing this game because it’s such a blast!”

PARENTS: For you, the message from this Olympics is quite clear and simple. Keep your children’s sport in perspective for both them and YOU, regardless of how high a level that they may compete at. What this means is that winning and the outcome is NOT the “only thing” and it sure as heck is NOT the most important thing. Simply put, you want to help your children grow through their sports. You want to help insure that their experiences on the field, ice, track, court or in the pool are positive ones that enhance rather than diminish their self-esteem and self-image. You want to monitor and orchestrate their sports experience so that it remains a healthy one.

You do this by understanding exactly what THE MOST IMPORTANT thing is: Your child’s emotional and physical health, as well as their happiness. These are far more important than whether they start or what position they play. They are vastly more important than whether they score 15 or more points or go 4 for 4. They are even more critical than whether your child makes the travel team, the “B” team or earns a college scholarship to a big time D-I program. In other words your child’s emotional needs as a person come first and foremost, way before his/her athletic performances, accomplishments or failures. It may be stating the obvious to say this, but your children should not be playing sports to stoke your ego. They should NOT be playing sports to make you proud. They should not be competing so you can say, “Hey, That’s MY son/daughter out there!” Your pride in your child should be a natural by-product of who he/she is as a person, NOT as an athlete or performer.

You also monitor their sports experience by keeping close tabs on the kind and quality of coaching that they are exposed to over the years. A “great” coach with a reputation for “developing champions” who is also reported to be quite emotionally abusive in the process is NOT a great coach. Turning out winning teams at the cost of destroying a child’s self-esteem and self-image does not make a coach either a winner or successful. It makes him flat out abusive, plain and simple! Just because your child has an opportunity to learn “wonderful things” from such a famous coach and greatly improve his/her skills as an athlete does not mean that you should sacrifice his/her emotional well-being to the god of winning. Don’t EVER turn your child over to a coach like this. If you do so, then with your neglect and lack of protection, you’re inevitably making a deal with the devil. Sooner or later this choice of yours will come back to haunt you in your child’s future unhappiness and emotional problems.

You also keep your child’s participation in sport healthy for them by allowing them to have ownership of their sport. What does this ownership mean? Let the child “call the shots” when it comes to the sport. For example, if he desires it, then you may help your son get extra training and/or private instruction. If she’s constantly asking, then you may spend tons of time with your daughter catching her pitches or shagging her rebounds while she shoots hoops. You may spend what feels like half of your life taxiing your child around to practices, scrimmages games and tournaments. If they want to and are having fun doing it, then GO FOR IT! Drive away! If your child doesn’t want to put in the extra time or practice, if she’d rather be playing with her friends or doing something else, if he’s not interested in doing the extra conditioning that you’re suggesting, then give him/her the room to do or not do whatever they want. Don’t ever get in the dynamic where you end up having to force your child to practice. Don’t use guilt whenever they refuse to practice or haven’t performed to your expectations. Don’t show your child your outward displeasure at his/her practice or game effort. Giving your child ownership of the sport means that while you may support them, you are truly allowing them to determine “how much” and “how often.”

In the process of your child’s participation in the sport, it may also cost you an arm and a leg financially. However, it is important for you to keep in mind that despite all of your “investments” of time, energy and money, you are NOT entitled to any more “return” than that your child be happy. Even with all your help, you must remember that it’s still your child’s sport and not yours. Loving parents provide their children with these kinds of opportunities because they are loving parents. That’s your job as a parent. This is not a high level business arrangement of “if I do this for you, then I expect this much in return from you.” You are not and should NOT function as your child’s agent or high level coach. If you go into your child’s sports with these kinds of attitudes and expectations, then both you and your child will have a very unhappy time of it. In the end, not only will your child eventually come to hate the sport and possibly quit prematurely, but when all is said and done, he/she will be left with some very powerful negative feelings towards you that can last a lifetime.

Remember, when we talk about what’s important here in relation to your child’s sport it’s the parent-child relationship that really matters, not the points scored, tournaments and medals won or home runs hit. Your relationship with your child is the real GOLD. It’s precious and sacred, should last you a lifetime and is not worth screwing up over some stupid, insignificant children’s game. Please keep your perspective. You are the adult here. Your child is depending upon you to keep it together, especially if his/her coach isn’t healthy enough to.

Finally, keeping sports in perspective means that you don’t ever want to treat your child like our sports media treats our Olympians. “How’d ja’ do?” And if you didn’t do so hot, then “what happened to you out there? Why didn’t you win? Don’t you know that you’ve let our country down?” Remember the basics. Your child is a feeling, thinking, breathing, sensitive, living organism, not a feelingless, pre-programmed automaton that is trained to consistently throw a ball through a hoop or race at a certain pace for a specific distance. It’s important that you try not to let your child’s athletic “potential” blind you into acting foolishly and forgetting your parenting role. Just because your child may have exceptional talent doesn’t mean that you want to suddenly stop being a loving, caring and protective parent to him/her. Your child depends upon your unconditional love and trust to keep him/her happy and emotionally healthy. Do NOT EVER link your love to how well that he/she may have performed in the athletic arena.

The litmus test for you and your family comes down to a very simple question: “How much FUN are all of you having in relation to the sport?” Are you enjoying yourself as you watch your child play? Does he/she generally look forward to participating? In general, is he/she happy before and after practices or games? Does he/she love having you at the games? As long as you do whatever you can to keep the FUN in the sport for your child, everything will work out fine and your child’s overall experience will be a beneficial one. It’s only when the fun disappears that you as a parent should start to be concerned.

COACHES: What can you learn from the Olympics that will make you a better coach? The following are some coaching Do’s & Don’ts for getting the best out of your athletes when it counts the most:

#1) COACH THE PROCESS, NOT THE OUTCOME – To be successful with your players and to train them to stay calm under pressure, an essential prerequisite for peak performance, you must get out of the habit of coaching outcome and instead get into the habit of coaching the process. Coaching the outcome is all about focusing your players on the importance of the game, match or race and on winning/avoiding losing. “This is a big game guys, a MUST WIN for us this season. I think we’re better than South and I know we can win.” Or, “these guys have nobody good on their squad and we should easily beat them by 20 plus points.” When you coach in this manner you unnecessarily pressure your players and distract them from the task at hand. Your outcome focus will physically tighten them up, distract them from the actual game and therefore make them more vulnerable to choking and a bad performance. Athletes always play their best when they have nothing to lose, when they have no expectations. In your pre-game talk you want to purposely direct their focus away from the outcome. What’s a “process focus?” It’s when you get your athletes focusing on executing the little things within the performance that insure that they play well. Specifically, when an athlete has a “process focus” he concentrates on his job, in the moment and nothing else. The soccer player focuses on the play as it develops, going hard for every 50:50 ball, having focused and solid restarts, defending well, etc. A process focus is always about one play at a time, one basket at a time, one at-bat at a time, one point at a time in the NOW. Interesting enough, when you coach the process, you will most often find that the outcome that you desire will take care of itself.

#2) KEEP YOUR ATHLETES LOOSE AND RELAXED PRE-GAME FOR PEAK PERFORMANCE - As I’ve mentioned numerous times, one of the biggest secrets to coaching success is being able to keep your athletes loose and relaxed under pressure. Overly nervous athletes will never perform to their potential for you, regardless of how well they’ve been coached. Quite the contrary! Tense athletes will miss assignments, make silly mistakes and consistently be off, timing-wise. What this means for you is that your pre-game approach to your players must be one that aims at keeping them calm, composed and relaxed. How you do this is up to you, but two things you need to keep in mind: First and foremost, YOU need to be relaxed and composed going into the competition. If you are uptight and anxious about the game, then very soon you will transfer this tension and anxiety to your athletes. If you stay cool, calm and collected, then it will be far easier for your players to follow suit. Second, one of the best strategies, concentration-wise to help your athletes stay relaxed under pressure is to keep them focused on only the things that they can directly control. When you get athletes thinking about or focusing on the “uncontrollables” like the game’s outcome, the size, strength or prowess of the opponent, the field and weather conditions, the officiating, the fans, the consequences of losing, etc, you will send their nervousness up to the ceiling, undermine their confidence and, as a result, inadvertently get them performing badly. Do your best to keep them away from these “UC’s,” concentrating on the things that are in their direct control.

#3) KEEP THE PERFORMANCE FUN – You can be a high powered coach. You can take the game very seriously, want to win and hate losing with a passion. You can be a tremendous hard-ass on your athletes in practice, continuously demanding excellence from them and refusing to settle for much less. You can be going into the most important game of the season, perhaps of your career. Regardless of all this, when it’s show time, your serious, “I-will-whup-your-butt-big-time-if-you-screw-up” attitude will get your athletes and team into hot water, performance-wise. When it’s game time you want your kids loose as a goose and the very best way to accomplish this is for you to keep the game fun for them. Use humor. Take the pressure off of them. Make them laugh. If you demand absolute silence on the bus ride over to the game, i.e. no goofing around, no music, no talking because you want your players mentally prepared and ready, then you will most often find that when the game finally starts, your talented athletes will no longer be recognizable. They will be too uptight to perform their best. This should not be larger than life. Smile. Relax. Keep the game enjoyable.

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Dr. Goldberg is a noted sports psychology expert Read more about Dr. G