IN THIS ISSUE:
“The PARADOX of WINNING and LOSING“ – Webster’s dictionary defines the word “paradox” as a “statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd, but that may be actually true in fact.” In the field of Sports Performance Enhancement, there is no more important paradox that you must learn than the paradox of winning and losing. What is it? Is winning important to you? Do you truly, desperately need to win? The more a winning outcome is important to you, then the further winning must be from your consciousness and focus of concentration when it’s competition time. Want to beat that perennially tough rival of yours? Then, the further thoughts of him/her must be from your mind as the competition begins. When you think about or concentrate on winning, that is, when you keep winning close to you, the reality of it ever happening goes further and further away from you. Paradoxically concentrating on winning makes it more likely that you’ll lose. Similarly, when you dwell on beating that opponent of yours, you significantly increase the chances that he/she will beat you. Far too many athletes, coaches and parents do NOT understand how the paradox of winning works. If you fail to grasp its significance, then you will continue to choke under pressure and consistently steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory. In this very late issue (I apologize) of The Mental Toughness Newsletter we will address this all-important “paradox of winning.”
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Winning will always take care of itself!”
PARENT’S CORNER – “It’s a copout to not focus on winning. Why else compete?”
COACH’S OFFICE – “To scout or not to scout. That is the question”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES “It’s not what you don’t know that brings you down. It’s what you do know!”
“Winning will always take care of itself”
The two most common and costly mental mistakes that I see committed by you and your teammates, and by athletes at EVERY level across EVERY sport, EVERY day are very basic and, believe it or not, easily corrected. These two mistakes result in more heartache, disappointment, frustration, choking and poor performances than any I know of. Both mistakes fit nicely into the serious athlete’s naturally competitive nature. Correct these mistakes and you’ll be well on your way to mental toughness and performing to your potential when the heat of competition is turned way up. Continue to make these mistakes, and I can guarantee that you’ll continue to “cluck with the turkeys” rather than soar with the eagles.
Both of these mistakes are directly related to concentrating on the outcome of the contest. The first involves focusing too much on your opponent, specifically beating him or her. The second involves concentrating too much on winning, getting a certain time, scoring “x” number of points, going 3 for 3, or any of those outcome concerns. How do these mistakes fit into the serious athlete’s naturally competitive nature? Simple! If you are anything like me on the tennis court, then you probably hate losing with a passion. Most serious athletes do! Most likely you have certain opponents that you’d really like to beat. It’s your competitiveness and sometime desperate need to win/come out on top of your opponent where the problem lies!
Too many athletes make winning so important that this is predominantly what they think about and focus on going into and during the contest. Similarly, many athletes want so badly to beat a particular opponent that they end up focusing far too much on this individual or team instead of on what they themselves are doing. Both of these concentration mistakes set you as an athlete up for failure. How?
Let’s take your opponent first. How your opponent performs, her skills, talent, strength, reputation, what she ate for breakfast, etc. is a HUGE UNCONTROLLABLE. What does this mean? You have absolutely no DIRECT control over her. Concentrating on needing to beat this opponent before or during the game, match or race will only serve to distract your focus from the important task at hand, get you physically and mentally uptight, undermine your confidence, and insure that you’ll perform with two left feet! In fact, it is this over focus on the opponent that leads athletes into getting psyched out and intimidated.
The paradox here is critically important for you to understand. Remember the definition of a paradox: “a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd, but that may be actually true in fact.” If you truly want to beat someone else, if you truly want to kick his/her overconfident, annoying, little butt, regardless of whether this person is an opponent, a teammate, or a pesky archrival, then you need to be sure that you focus on YOU! That’s right! TO BEAT SOMEONE ELSE YOU MUST CONCENTRATE ON YOU. The more you focus on THEM, the less chance you will have of playing to your capabilities and actually beating them.
The same paradox holds true for the competition’s outcome. Is that championship truly important to you? Do you really want to break that school record, get the State cut or qualify for your area’s Super Bowl? If you do, then the thought of winning and achieving those goals must be the farthest thing from your mind right before and during the contest. The closer those goals are to your consciousness on game day, the farther away they will move from your grasp! Making a competition’s outcome too importance will set you up to perform tight and tentative.
I worked with a Division I college striker who was in the midst of a terrible scoring slump. He was the team’s top scorer and one of the primary reasons that this squad was achieving so much success this particular season. However, several games went by without him scoring any goals and he began to get preoccupied with his lack of production. Before games he’d dwell on his slump and his need to score. Out on the field he’d continue to think that he needed to score. The more he focused on scoring, the worse he played and the fewer scoring opportunities emerged. The times he did have shots on goal, he was uncharacteristically way off. Want to know something interesting about this guy who is now starting for an MLS team? Whenever he played well and scored, he NEVER, EVER thought of scoring either before or during the games!
In this most recent Winter Olympics, skating great Michele Kwan was in a solid first place going into the long program. Her goal? To win gold. She wanted to avenge her loss in the previous Olympics. She went out onto the ice thinking about winning. The result? She skated a terrible program and ruined her chances of winning gold. And what about the eventual gold medal winner, Sarah Hughes? She went into the long program in a virtually impossible-to-win-gold 4th place. She went onto the ice without any thoughts of winning and, as a result, skated relaxed and brilliantly to win the gold medal. Want to win? Then you must put winning completely out of your mind when it’s competition time.
Remember my favorite quote:
WHEN THE ARCHER SHOOTS WITH LOVE AND PASSION FOR THE SHOOTING HE HAS ALL HIS SKILLS AND HITS THE BULLSEYE AGAIN AND AGAIN……….WHEN HE SHOOTS FOR THE GOLD, (center of the target) HE GOES BLIND!
At game time forget winning. Forget your opponent. Instead, FOCUS ON WHAT YOU ARE DOING IN THE MOMENT. If you concentrate on yourself and playing your own game in the NOW, winning and besting your opponent will take care of itself.
“It’s a cop out to not focus on winning. Why else compete?”
A 13-year-old girl was referred to me by her coach last year. As a swimmer this little girl had had a significant amount of success when she was younger. She dominated her age group as a 10 and 11 year old, winning everything she entered and attracting a ton of national attention. As she got better and better, her mother took more of an active interest in her swimming. She began staying for many of her daughter’s two hour practices, (if you don’t already know it, it’s unbelievably exciting and interesting to watch swimmers go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, ZZZZZZZzzzzzz). Soon Mom started a practice and performance logbook for the girl and memorized all her event times and precisely how far they were off the national records. It wasn’t long before Mom became more involved in the technique that her daughter’s coach was teaching her. After meets, Mom would sit down with her daughter and go over what she had done wrong and what she could correct for the next race. Gee, it’s nice that Mom was being so “helpful!” Too bad that what Mom was doing was EXACTLY WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T BE DOING if you want your child to become a champion!
The shift was so subtle that dear old Mom never even saw it coming. Maybe Mom was just too distracted by the Olympic theme blaring loudly in her head. Maybe it was the planning of all those future endorsement deals and talk show appearances that distracted her. Perhaps Mom was just too busy being helpful and doing everything in her power to make sure that her daughter became a champion. After all, everyone had been talking about how talented the girl was and that someday….well who knows how far her talent might take her? Mom shouldn’t let all that talent go to waste now should she?
In any case, Mom didn’t notice her daughter’s steadily growing unhappiness. She didn’t pick up on the girl’s suddenly not wanting to go to certain practices. She mistakenly thought that the problem was that now several other teammates were going just as fast. The fact that the girl was suddenly being challenged by her teammates for the very first time in her life might be a problem. Maybe it was that she was starting to lose races. I know Mom certainly had a hard time with this.
The change started just around puberty when the other girls her age began to physically catch up to her. This little girl didn’t grow as much as her teammates did. The worse the girl performed the unhappier Mom got. She couldn’t understand why her daughter was suddenly not being “numero uno.” (This is called the real world, Mom. It is unrealistic to expect your child to win everything, all the time. In fact, it’s downright unhealthy. Not to mention the fact that losing and failure are necessary and valuable lessons for future success. Without failure and setbacks, an athlete can NEVER get stronger and become a champion).
Mom “shared” her unhappiness with the coach. Truth be told she complained to the coach about her daughter’s “failings.” Actually the girl wasn’t really failing. She was still swimming faster than she had before. The issue was she wasn’t winning everything in sight. Therefore Mom naturally assumed that something was wrong and that the girl was failing. Unable to recognize her daughter’s success, Mom made her dissatisfaction known to the girl. Soon she began swimming slower in meets and her own frustration began to grow. Soon her frustration and unhappiness turned to tears, as she would leave her meets miserable. The slower her daughter went, the more Mom complained. She began to question the coach’s technique and strategies. After all, if her little Olympian was getting it done, it must be the coach’s fault.
It was at this point that the girl was referred to me. Mom was desperate for some answers and appeared more than willing to get help. Once I had figured out that the main cause of the girl’s unhappiness was Mom’s obsession with her daughter’s times and the race’s outcome I made a “special” call to her. I asked her if she really, truly wanted her daughter to excel in this sport. I asked her if she wanted her daughter to stay in the sport for the long haul. I even asked her if she wanted her daughter to be happy. Of course, Mom gave me the predictable, “YES!” answers. Then I explained to her:
“If you truly want your child to get as good as possible in this sport, if you truly want your child to obtain that college scholarship, if you truly want them to be happy and stay in the sport as long as possible, then there are some things that you MUST do as a parent to insure that this happens. First off, you must STOP focusing your child on outcome. The absolute worst thing for you as a parent to do with your young athlete is get them focused on winning, records, qualifying times, batting averages, MVP awards, Making the National Team, etc. When parents distract their child-athlete with this outcome focus it has the exact opposite effect that they intend. The more you focus an athlete on outcome, the less likely they will reach that outcome!”
“Second, you must stop comparing your child to her teammates and her opponents. Peak performance happens when you as an athlete focus on YOU and no one else! Concentrating on what others are doing will distract you from the task at hand, tighten your little muscles up and insure that your performance consistently reeks! Instead you should encourage your child to focus on her goals, her times, her performance and NO ONE ELSE! Remember the paradoxical nature of sport. Want your child to beat someone else? Want them to outplay and crush that real annoying parent’s kid? Well, if you do, you had better do everything in your power to get your child to focus on what he/she is doing and NOT on the opponent!”
I must admit that while I was having this conversation with Mom, I had some serious doubts as to whether she would really believe me. I’m ashamed to admit that my insecurity about this caused me to provide Mom with some of my credentials. After all, if an expert is saying all this stuff, it must be so, right? So I told her I have worked at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I have worked with World Class and Olympic athletes. I even through in the fact that I have worked with any number of professional athletes across a number of different sports. I should have known better!
One week after my conversation she emailed me to complain about another bad meet and more bad results. Two weeks later she emailed me again and pointed out that her daughter’s times were still abysmally slow and that she had lost every one of her races. Three weeks later she “fired” me telling me, “IT’S A COP OUT TO NOT FOCUS ON OUTCOME/WINNING. WHY ELSE WOULD YOU COMPETE?”
I was glad that she had listened so carefully to what I had to say and that she had changed her behaviors so well. Ahh, what do I know anyway? I’m just an ex – spurt!
p.s. Mom’s little girl is no longer in the sport. Another victim of “mother/father knows best and don’t tell me how to raise my child!”
“To scout or not to scout. That is the question”
As a coach there’s a fine line that you must learn to walk between getting your team adequately prepared for their upcoming contest against this tough opponent, and completely psyching them out. How well you walk this line will determine whether your coaching efforts pay huge dividends or end up as a big bust. So let’s start with a very basic question:
How important is it for you to scout your opponent?
Is it really necessary to determine your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and take them back to your team? The answers to this question vary across coaches and sports. Some of your colleagues believe that scouting is a totally unnecessary waste of time. These coaches argue that the most important thing is to play your own game and if you do that, the outcome will take care of itself. Other coaches feel that it is completely foolhardy NOT to scout your opponent. These coaches argue that going into a game being unprepared in this way is irresponsible and a total set up for failure. What do you believe?
Last year I met with a very talented college team who was in the process of running up a string of very impressive upsets. Unfortunately for them, these guys were at the wrong end of these upsets. This squad had developed the nasty habit of stealing defeat from the closing jaws of victory against seemingly weaker opponents. What was the problem? One thing the players consistently complained about was a lack of confidence.
Interesting enough, when they played well and dominated the game, they had no problem with their confidence. It was only an issue when the games got close and their opponents stepped up the intensity of the game. When this happened, cracks began to appear in the team’s confidence. As a result they began to play tight and tentatively. Of course, the minute the opposing team got a whiff of this, their own confidence increased and so did their level of play. Instead of being able to withstand and match their opponent’s intensity, this team appeared to crumble under the onslaught.
To the outside observer, this made no sense. The individual athletes on this team were quite experienced, very talented players. The team itself had had some decent success in past years in their Conference as well as in the NCAA tournament. Why, then, did they continue to wilt under pressure to essentially less skilled, weaker teams? The answer came out in this athletes only team meeting.
One of the captains began bitterly complaining about the coach. Before I share with you what he said, let me be frank here. Most teams, when given half a chance, will complain about you. Most of the time when I hear these complaints I don’t take them very seriously. As a coach you are often in a no-win position with your athletes. No matter what decisions you make, one or more of your athletes are going to be unhappy with you. That’s just life on the team and life being the coach. However, I try to remind athletes that as much as they may not like you and your methods, their job as a member of your team is to play the game to the best of their ability, NOT to evaluate your coaching. However, having said that, it sometimes pays for you to listen very carefully to your athletes’ complaints before dismissing them as just “athletes being athletes.” So the captain began, “I don’t know, but the way I see the problem is coach is always telling us before our games how good these guys are, and how if we’re not careful they’re going to kick our butts. I mean, even when they suck he says this and after a while you start believing him. We spend too much damn time thinking about our opponents and how f’en wonderful they’re supposed to be. He never tells us how good we are. He never builds us up. All he seems to do is beat us down. You know, ‘if we don’t watch out, they’ll beat us.’ I have to be honest here. I’m a senior on this team and some of these games I’ve gone into feeling completely intimidated, like I was a bloody freshman!”
When he was finished speaking a number of his teammates loudly agreed with him.
Herein lies the biggest problem with spending too much time and energy on your opponent during your scouting/planning sessions. If you do it the wrong way you risk completely psyching out and distracting your own team. Why?
Focusing too much on your opponent takes your concentration as an athlete away from YOU and your on-field job where it belongs. If your opponent’s skills, strengths and reputation are your primary focus going into and during a game, then you will go into that contest physically and mentally tight. Since being loose and relaxed are necessary prerequisites for peak performance, you will greatly increase the chances that you’ll choke and under perform.
Furthermore, let’s not forget the basic paradox of beating an opponent. IF YOU TRULY WANT TO COME OUT ON TOP, THEN THOUGHTS ABOUT YOUR OPPONENT MUST BE THE FARTHEST THING FROM YOUR MIND ON GAME DAY.
Now I know a lot of football coaches would not agree with me on this one. They spend all week viewing films and preparing and effective defense and offense to shut down and overrun the competition. However, I’ve worked with enough football players in every position over the years to know that what I’m saying is true. If you make the outcome of this game too important, if you make beating this opponent too important, if you spend too much time building up your opponent’s strengths, then you actually decrease the chances that your team will be successful.
The “Wizard of Westwood,” legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was at the other extreme of this argument. He was said to have NEVER scouted UCLA’s opponents. His attitude was very simple. He believed that if his team executed the way that they had been trained, it wouldn’t really matter what the opposing team did. In this way the focus always stayed on the players and their job, not on the opponent. Given UCLA’s 10 national championships, a lot can be said for Wooden’s strategy.
I’m not so sure that there are many coaches today who would go into a game completely “unprepared” like Coach Wooden. However, when you do present information on strengths and weaknesses to your athletes, it is imperative that you remember not to overdo it. Keep the information concise and simple. Spend more time focusing your players on their jobs. Emphasize your team’s strengths and abilities. Communicate your belief in their ability to effectively execute against this opponent. Go easy on how great the other guys are. The fact of the matter is that if you build the opposition up too much, your athletes’ fears and negative expectations will run away with them and when that happens you can kiss a good performance “goodbye.”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
“It’s not what you don’t know that brings you down, but what you do know”
There is such a funny relationship between how much you know and how well you perform. Sometimes, not knowing or being blissfully ignorant can be the best mental preparation you can have in order to perform to your potential. Simply put, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, but what you do know. A story:
Ben was a high school sophomore and solid point scorer for his team’s varsity wrestling program. He was looking forward to a successful second year season on the varsity when he got the really bad news. His dad’s company was transferring him from California to some small town in New Jersey, somewhere on the other side of the world as far as Ban was concerned. The season had already started and Ben had even won his first three matches! How could this be happening to him? He begged and pleaded with his family to postpone the move until after the season was over, all to no avail. The family would be moving as a family and that was the end of the story. Ben was unbelievably ticked!
His Dad, trying to make peace with his son, added, that if it would make Ben feel any better, his new high school had a pretty decent wrestling program themselves, and had even won the State Championship a few years back. This did very little to improve Ben’s attitude. In fact, he got more and more depressed as the time for the move approached. It didn’t help matters that he would be missing a huge dual match against their perennial archrivals!
For reasons that had nothing to do with the town or school, Ben instantly hated his new home. He was still so very angry with his father that he could barely speak to him. He got a chance to meet his new coaches and at least they seemed OK. His new teammates seemed like decent guys too. He began training with them and instantly his mood improved. The team was strong and the wrestlers on it were dedicated and hard working, if not fairly talented. Ben was excited for his very first match on this new squad.
The team was going against a really tough conference rival but being new, Ben didn’t have a clue. In fact, Ben didn’t even know that the guy he had to wrestle against, a senior was the defending State Champion in his weight class. It seems that the coaches and athletes came to an understanding that they were not going to tell Ben who he was wrestling against. The head coach, in fact had given every one of his athletes very strict instructions that they were to say absolutely nothing to Ben about this opponent. As a consequence, Ben approached the match without any expectations. He knew nothing about his opponent and therefore went into the match focusing on himself and what he needed to do to perform his best. Usually when Ben did this he stayed loose and wrestled well.
The match was intense and hard fought and despite being down most of the match, Ben managed to pin his opponent to pull off the upset. Except, Ben didn’t know that this was an upset. Ben didn’t know anything except that he had just had a great match. When he looked up towards his new coaches and teammates he saw them engaged in a wild celebration. In his mind, their jubilation seemed a bit too wild. He became puzzled. Yes, he had wrestled well. Yes he had won. OK so maybe they were really trying to welcome him to the new team. Perhaps his win probably helped his team a bit with the overall score. But there were plenty more matches left to go so his match certainly couldn’t have made the difference between winning and losing. What was going on?
When his coaches and teammates congratulated him with back slaps and high fives he thought he heard one of the captain say, “Ben, way to go bud! You just beat the defending State Champion.” Ben was confused and dumbfounded. He had to have been hearing things. All he could say was, “What.” The captain repeated himself joined by several other of his new teammates, “Yeah Ben, that guy won the State Championships last year as a junior. You just beat the State Champion! That’s when it dawned on Ben what was really going on. They were playing with him. This was his initiation onto the team. They were going to try to get him to believe all this garbage and then he’d feel like a gullible idiot for buying into what they were saying.
“NO WAY!” He responded. “You guys are just putting me on. That was no State Champion. Give me a break!” Now, several more of his teammates enthusiastically chimed in, “Come on Ben, no kidding. You just beat the defending State Champion. This guy went undefeated last year. This is the first match he has lost in over two years! Way to go!” Ben would not give in. He was too dumbfounded. “I know you guys are just putting me on. I cane feel it.”
The coach had been watching this interaction with quiet amusement. He whispered something to his assistant and continued to chuckle to himself watching his team trying to convince this new kid that his win was a big one. A few minutes later the assistant came back with several newspaper clippings. The coach then walked into the center of his wrestlers and said, “Hey Ben, I’ve got something I’d like you to look at.” He then handed the newspaper clippings to his new athlete. Ben’s jaw dropped as he read the headlines from last year’s local coverage of the State Championships. Sure enough, his recent opponent had indeed won States!
Suddenly a surge of energy flooded through Ben. He started feeling hyper. His mind started racing. He couldn’t believe that he had just beaten a State Champion, and a senior to boot! He began chattering a mile a minute to his new teammates. He was in complete awe of his victory. As he looked across the mat at his defeated opponent, he had a different view of him. Despite his victory, this wrestler seemed larger, stronger and more formidable than he had just a few minutes before. Ben now knew too much! In fact, we can almost predict what would have happened to Ben if he had had this information before the match. What if his new coach wanted to adequately prepare Ben for this opponent? What if Ben was “prepared” for this State Champion’s strengths? My guess: Ben would have psyched himself completely out of the match!
Sometimes it’s better NOT to know. Often times it’s better to go into your competitions without any preconceived notions, Some times what gets you into trouble is what you do know. Why? All too often athletes take what they do know about their opponents and they use it to set limits on themselves and what they think is possible. Remember as far as performance goes, sometimes ignorance is bliss!
If you have a performance difficulty or you’re consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help.