Peak Performance and Overcoming Sports fears and blocks

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IN THIS ISSUE: “The wonderfully, wild, way whacked-out world of WINNING and ALL THINGS COMPETITIVE.” To start, let’s take a quick tour through our sports cliché archives: It’s always best to be the best; If you can’t be “numero uno,” then you’re nothing; Winning is everything – Winning is the only thing; A winner never quits and a quitter never wins; If you don’t come in first you might as well come in last; To win is to succeed – to lose is to fail; You win or you lose – There is no in between; And my very favorite, (drum roll please) ..... “When you come in second, you’re the first loser.” The above clichés at various times have passed through the lips of the famous and the infamous, the well-known and the hardly known, the highly experienced and the beginner. They have been uttered by coaches at every level, parents who fancy themselves as coaches, and even athletes quoting their coaches. Sometimes these sayings have inspired athletes and teams to do the impossible and breakthrough to new heights. At other times these words have been used to justify winning and much that is wrong with competitive sports. Sometimes these silly little clichés and the attitudes that they’ve spawned have poisoned the minds of young athletes and left them damaged and broken. In this very late issue of The Mental Toughness Newsletter, (My sincere apologies to my readers. I have been very distracted by the 6 month plus project of completely re-designing my website) we will explore some of the spin-off stories and behaviors that have been generated by our preoccupa tion with winning. In addition, we will cover the topic of coaching using intimidation vs. inspiration. 

ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “A cut above the rest”
PARENTS’ CORNER – “Crossing the line to protect your child”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “The real winners”
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “cut above the rest”

So just how important is winning to you? What would you do to be number one? Just how far would you go to make the starting line-up and get your chance to be the star? Years ago a study was conducted in which elite athletes were asked the following question: Would you take a pill that would guarantee that you’d win an Olympic Gold medal, but in 10 years would have the unfortunate side effect that it would kill you? Surprisingly and quite disturbing, over 50% of the respondents said, “yes!”
Why should anyone really be so astounded by these results in our winning-is-everything culture? The fact of the matter is that not only is this question not that far-fetched, but it gets covertly and not so covertly acted out on a regular basis at almost every level in sports today. In essence, this is what the whole controversy about steroids and performance enhancing drugs is all about. Steroids are a bit like that magic pill in the study. No question that steroids will indeed make you stronger, faster and a much better performer right now. And there’s definitely no question that as they do so they will wreak absolute havoc on your mind and body. They will slowly alter your personality, weaken your heart, mess with your reproductive organs and create little biological time bombs in other organ systems in your body. Some athletes naively believe that the price they might have to pay somewhere down the line in the future is worth the success of the pay-off today. Talk about a deal with the devil!

When any athlete makes this kind of arrangement with himself and, God forbid, his coach or trainer, when he gets distracted by the glitz and glory of winning, of earning a college scholarship, making the pros or winning a GOLD medal at the Olympics and is totally blinded by the lure of this success, he has truly sold his soul down the river. It’s a kind of “buy now, pay way more than you bargained for later” arrangement in which the buyer fails to carefully read the extremely fine print at the bottom of the page. What the buyer therefore totally misses are the hidden, long-term and often times irreversible sky-high costs of his “bargain.” He may have unknowingly traded away things that are, in the long run, far more meaningful and valuable to him than the winning or championship that he just sold his future for. Sacrificing your long term physical and mental health for what appears to be a little short ter m glory is flat out stupid. So is trading away your reputation, character, decency, honesty and integrity for the worthless “fool’s gold” of “winning.”

What this kind of arrangement really is, is a corruption of your humanness, character and decency. Winning in anything sports related is such a fleeting, superficial experience. We’re talking about success in a child’s game. Just how important is that to you? Sure, I know that some people make their living out of playing sports or working with people who do so (yours truly included). However, there are always far more important things in life than whether we came in first or last in that race, if we started or sat the bench or if we were ever good enough to move up to the next level. Let’s try to keep this whole thing in perspective. Sports are supposed to be for fun. If you’re a junior athlete or playing in high school these are games that you are participating in. They are not larger than life. Despite what your coaches may tell you, the fate of the free world is never hanging in the balance of your football g ame this Friday night. Heck, my feeling is that even at a Division I level in college the games should be about fun. If you as an athlete lose your connection to the fun-playing aspect of your sport, if you lose this very important perspective, then your performances will consistently suffer. Even when it’s big business, sports are just games and when we lose sight of this important fact, we get ourselves into very hot water.

Enter Mitch Cozad, a reserve punter for the University of Northern Colorado, (UNC). He’s today’s poster child for very extreme example of what happens to you when you sell your soul down the river in exchange for the hope of athletic stardom. A little background information might be helpful here.
Apparently Mr. Cozad was a long term, serious wanna-be athlete because his history of success as a kicker was completely non-existent. Before walking on to Division IAA UNC, Mitch was a kicker on the squad for Division I University of Wyoming where he had also walked on. Despite the fact that he was the only punter on the team’s spring roster, he was immediately replaced as soon as a junior college transfer was brought in. Mitch’s assessment of this slight was that it was politically motivated and had absolutely nothing to do with athletic talent and ability.

The sad fact of the matter is that Mitch wasn’t a very good punter. In fact, he had never even been on the first team in high school in the small farm town where he grew up. He missed the one and only game-winning field goal attempt of his high school career. In fact, his high school football coach remembered him as a good kid who had very little athletic talent, so little in fact that he claimed it would be “a joke” for Mitch to make even a Division II team, never mind a Division I squad. What would convince a second string kicker in high school that he could go from total obscurity on his high school team to kicking glory in college? Ah, the power of dreams, (or is it delusions?).

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m all for having dreams and pursuing them with everything that you’ve got. I’d be the first person to tell you to trust yourself, follow your heart, work your butt off and then good things will eventually happen for you. However, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit (pardon the expression). Simply put, there are always realistic limits to what you can do. Those limits are often times defined by your physical and athletic “gifts” or lack thereof. Like it or not, there will always be certain things that you just won’t ever be able to do.

No matter how hard I work or how long I try, I will never, EVER be able to dunk a basketball. I am 5’, 8”, too old, I can’t palm the ball and there’s not much spring left in my legs. Truth be told, there was never enough spring in my legs to begin with unless I was trying to dunk on the kiddie basket. It’s not like I didn’t give it the old college try, because I did. However, multiple, gross failures over time eventually convinced me that my efforts and energies would be better directed elsewhere. By all means believe in yourself. No matter what the naysayers may say to you, please pursue your dreams. Be aggressive and persistent in your efforts. However, in the long grueling process of turning your dreams into a reality please remember to keep your head on straight, keep your feet on the ground and stay in touch with reality.

Sadly, I think Mr. Cozad didn’t quite get the “keep-your-head-on-straight” and “stay in touch with reality” parts. Despite the fact that he worked his butt off as a kicker, he just didn’t have the talent to reach even a modicum of success. So how come Mitch never realized that he was tilting at windmills, that he was a 15 minute miler training to break the 4 – minute barrier? Enter Mommy dearest. Apparently Mitch had a “very supportive” mother who was said to have spent “ungodly amounts of money” sending Mitch to kicking and punting camps over the years. No criticism here from me. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with helping your son pursue his dreams. After all, isn’t that what good, loving, stable and supportive parents are supposed to do for you? Speaking of stable, his mom was rumored to have even filmed all of his kicks at all of his practices and was s aid to regularly “bad-mouth” players ahead of him on the depth chart. (Is something starting to smell really bad here?)
Why would a parent put down all of her son’s competitors, even when they were sometimes his teammates? Why would a mother routinely tell her son that he was much better than everyone else, ignoring both the reality of his ability, those skills of the other kickers and the need for a team to support each other and play together? Oh where oh where could young Mitch have ever learned to totally distort his own abilities and talent? Where could Mitch have learned that being the best was very serious, very important business, the competition be damned? I wonder who could have taught Mitch to have such a hostile view of the teammates competing for his position. Perhaps we should have sat up and taken notice when Mitch hid the kicking tee in high school after he was switched from kicker to lineman. Was he trying to tell us something ominous like, “if I can’t do it, then no one can?”
Back to Mr. Cozad and UNC’s fateful fall 2006 season. Once again Mitch found himself at the very bottom of the depth-chart barrel as the back-up kicker. But wait! Isn’t that progress? Didn’t Mitch finally work himself all the way to #2? Hold the excitement sports fans. There were only two kickers on the squad! A senior teammate, Rafael Mendoza had the starting position nailed down tight. Mitch of course was very unhappy about this situation and asked his coach what he needed to do to be able to move up. His coach said nothing more to Cozad than to “work harder” and apparently Mitch finally got it! Working hard was not really going to work for him. Not now. Not EVER. Doing it the old fashioned way and earning it fair and square was not a strategy that would ever put him on the field and get him the glory. Perhaps something critical snapped upstairs in Mitch’s brain because he then decided to take matt ers into his own hands. He used all of his mother’s implicit and explicit lessons over the years and proceeded to sell his soul down the river.

In looking back on the incident that I’m about to describe, teammates reported that Cozad had carried “an extreme hatred and jealousy” for his kicking mate Mendoza. Other players claimed that the competition between the two of them had been blown completely out of perspective in the back-up kicker’s mind. Fueled by his intense jealousy and hatred, and a little bit of psychopathology, Cozad concocted a plan to make himself the starting kicker once and for all. It was at this point that Mr. Cozad veered way off the road of reality into the breakdown lane and jumped the guardrails.  
First, Mitch spent some time quality time scouting out where his teammate lived and recording Mendoza’s comings and goings from his apartment. Then on the night of September 11th he taped over both of his custom license plates, 8-KIKR and left his car in a nearby liquor store parking lot, walking the remainder of the way to Mendoza’s apartment. Lying in wait until his teammate returned, Cozad stabbed Mendoza in the thigh of his kicking leg opening up a three inch wide and five inch deep puncture wound. He then fled back to his car, took the tape off of his plates and jumped into his car to make a clean getaway. Unfortunately for him, he was spotted by a store employee in the process. The employee then contacted the police with the license plate who later traced the car back to Cozad’s mother. Poor Mitch was then arrested shortly after and held on $30,000.00 bail until Mommy dearest came to get him and bring him home. The criminal outcome and charges are still pending.

Mitch’s little Tonya Harding-esque plan was about as well thought out and exquisitely executed as that whole bizarre Nancy Kerrigan incident a few years back during the US Skating Nationals. And like that whole wacky episode, the perpetrators in each assault weren’t at all troubled by deep waves of thought. The point here is this recent incident takes the quest to be the best to a whole new level of absurdity. There were two victims in this particular knife assault. Thankfully the first, Mr. Mendoza was not seriously hurt and recovered quickly from his stab wound. Unfortunately the same can not be said about our second victim, dear Mr. Cozad. My guess is that he will not recover anytime soon from his “wounds.” He is suffering from a seriously dislocated character and an out-of-control competitiveness that has poisoned his entire being with jealousy. That jealousy and competitiveness got so out of hand that Mitch lost touch with reality and the boundaries between what’s just a game and what’s real life. In the process he threw away his reputation, integrity, sensibility and morality just so he could be number one. Is there something very wrong with this picture?

Here’s what I think. Mr. Mitch and his bizarre case is a terribly extreme one. However, despite the extreme nature of it, there are still some sobering lessons that you as an athlete can take away with you. Understand that the seeds that sent Mitch Cozad over the edge lie dormant within us all. Whether they take root and grow into a “wicked stupid, wicked twisted” tree depends upon the parents that you grow up with, your self-esteem and who you are as a person. Part of the problem is society-wide. Sports in our present day culture just mean too much. There is far too much emphasis placed on being “the star” and winning. Many of the leagues that you play in and the coaches you play for are too competitive for their own and your good. As a result, you are often under intense pressure to produce and win.

Out of this competitive environment, and as a very normal part of being human, certain ugly feelings may often arise within you as you participate in your sport. How often have you felt jealousy, envy or intense resentment of a teammate? How often have you felt the urge to lash out and get back at this teammate because he/she seems to be the main cause of your unhappiness? Perhaps he/she seems to have the coach’s attention. Maybe he/she is regularly beating you, has gotten the skills that you can’t yet do or he/she is starting while you’re sitting the bench.

The situation with your coach and team may be fair or unfair. However, the more important issue here is exactly what are you doing with those uncomfortable feelings that are inside of you? How are you dealing with your anger, jealousy and unhappiness? A 9-year old swimmer gets beat by her closest friend in her best event for the very first time. She doesn’t know how to handle the resultant bad feelings. What does she do? She begins to ACT OUT her unhappiness. She stops talking to and hanging out with her best friend! In fact, even her parents stop being nice to this little girl, all because their daughter was beaten in this stupid race!

Now I would expect a 9 year old to have some trouble handling these very strong feelings. However, as you get older your job is to gradually learn to keep the feelings inside and to deal with them in a more mature, classier way. You don’t have to like the situation that you find yourself in, you don’t have to enjoy being beaten out for the starting position, but acting out your jealousy and resentment at your teammate’s expense is unacceptable in my book and not what real winners do! Do NOT ever let competition blind you and cause you to abandon all the things that really matter, your honesty, integrity and reputation as a decent human being. Trust me, winning is never THAT important!


“Crossing the line to protect your child”    

There’s no question that watching your child compete in his/her youth sports games can be a very emotionally evocative experience. While your son or daughter may be out there having fun swinging the bat, serving the ball or dribbling up court, you could be simultaneously going though your own personal agony of hanging on to every move they make, hoping against hope that they get a hit, win the match or sink the shot. From our perch in the bleachers we may go up and down with our kids’ performances like we’re on a roller coaster, flying high when they do something well and then crashing hard when they mess up. Why is it that we sometimes care too much about all their little successes and failures out there? It’s as if somehow we’ve been emotionally transported back in time and it’s really us out there performing.

To a degree, this is exactly what happens for a lot of parents. They watch their child compete and suddenly they are instantly shunted back to 3rd grade when they were cut from the team, were always last to be picked or were the superstar for the county champions. It’s not that unusual for our old emotional baggage, all those distant slights, hurts and even triumphs from our childhood to get dredged up as we sit there as an adult “enjoying” our child’s game. As a consequence, our perceptions of what is actually going on in the present get badly muddled. When these kinds of old emotions bubble up from the depths of time and take us over, we become quite vulnerable to episodes of intense stupidity where our minds are not at all troubled by deep waves of thought. In fact, sometimes these ancient feelings that get unconsciously churned up from the deep, dark past can be so powerful that it takes all of ou r maturity and self-restraint just to keep our butt in our seat and our mouth shut.

When parents are not able to do this and instead get completely overwhelmed by these old feelings, they end up saying and doing some rather unfortunate and embarrassing things. The annals of youth sports are filled with stories of out of control parents who verbally assault the refs, loudly challenge the coach, pick a fight with other parents on the sidelines and who, in general, totally corrupt the game, embarrassing themselves and their kids in the process. The end result: We spoil our children’s experience. A heart warming example:

A United States Swimming certified meet official had identical twin 11 year old daughters. One was quite fast and talented while the other sister was much slower. In an insignificant dual meet over which their father just happened to be “objectively” presiding, the outcome of the entire meet came down to one final relay. His daughters’ team was competing against a cross town rival and the winner of this relay race would walk away with the win and the meaningless bragging rights associated with it. It just so happened that dad’s slower daughter, let’s call her Molly, was scheduled to swim anchor for this meet-deciding relay. Before the race began, however, daddy insisted that his twins pull the old “switcheroo” and that Molly sit out while Mary, the faster twin, who wasn’t scheduled to race, swim in her ste ad. After all, think of what was at stake here! And who was the naïve, misguided do-gooder who ever said that winning isn’t important?

Postscript: Dad’s duplicity was eventually discovered, the meet results were overturned and the misunderstood man was totally stripped of his US swimming officiating duties. What are we really trying to teach our kids about life, competition, fair play, honesty, sportsmanship, winning and who you are as a person in relation to them?

A lot of parents lose sight of this very critical question. You can’t, NOT teach your children life lessons. The fact of the matter is that no matter what is going on or what they’re doing, when your kids interact with and watch you, they are always learning things. Do you have an awareness of this? Are you conscious of the life lessons that you’re teaching them? Do you know what kind of modeling you’re providing for them? If you are totally unaware of the fact that your children are virtual sponges and are continuously learning things from you and your spouse, then you may be teaching them things that you really don’t want to.       

Speaking of awful lessons, let us add another sad chapter to our favorite soap, As The Youth Sports Insanity Turns.      

In a recent Pop Warner youth football game between the Stockton California Bears and the Riverbank Redskins, the Redskins were leading the contest 16 to 6 with just under a minute left in regulation. A second after a running play was whistled dead, a much larger Bears’ player blindsided and knocked to the ground a Redskins player with a late hit. Is this unusual? Far from it! This is just part of the game of football. These kinds of things happen at every level that the game is played on from the pros right on down to midget football. It’s not clear if a penalty was called on that late hit or not because the game was suddenly interrupted by an emotionally out-of-control and totally out of line parent. This parent was smack in the middle of unconsciously teaching his son some awful lessons about sports and sportsmanship. 

The recipient of the late hit’s father, assistant Redskins coach Corey Petero came sprinting onto the field from the sidelines and, on a dead run, leveled the offending Bears’ player from his blind side with a strong right forearm, knocking the kid to the ground. Way to go dad! How to stick up for and protect your son! We’ll have no bullies beating up on the Petero boys under the guise of playing football. Mr. Petero’s blind-sided hit on the boy was some macho payback for the offender’s bully-like transgression. Score one for all the oppressed everywhere!

And so a new sports game is born which is a fine integration of both young athletes and their parents simultaneously playing together on the same team. But this isn’t any mamby-pamby parent-kids game just for fun. No way! This is the real thing! This is serious, winner take all competition! Finally! No longer do you as a parent simply have to sit back and helplessly watch your kids struggle on the court, field or track. Now you can get down and dirty, right smack into the middle of the action, side to side and shoulder to shoulder with your kids. Now you can really make sure that the game is played right and that your kids will be both protected and successful. You see that wide receiver who just made that spectacular catch over your little Johnny? Not only did he totally embarrass your son, but he gave your boy a straight arm and knocked him flat on his butt. And now he’s getting away, sprinting down the sidelines for a sure score. You can’t let that happen! What will the neighbors think? Well now you can finally do something to help little Johnny, you and your fine family name save face. Get out there and play your position! Stop that little sucker in his tracks. Tackle him real hard, a la infamous Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, (who once stepped out onto the field during the action to slug an opposing player who was sprinting down the sidelines and ready to score). Go ahead dad! Force a fumble and then you can lateral it off to little Johnny and he can be the hero! Now we’re talking some football!

Needless to say that after Mr. Petero’s fine hit all hell broke loose on both sides of the ball as fans from both teams stormed onto the field and began to trade punches. Of course Mr. Petero, having courageously played his enforcer role quite well, knew when it was time to leave. Without breaking stride he very quickly made his getaway by hopping a tall fence and sprinting off. Give the guy credit though. After his hormones settled down and he was assaulted by moment of reflection and rational thinking, he decided to turn himself in to the police. He was then booked on one count of felony child abuse. What?!! No MVP trophy? FOUL! BAD CALL! What is this world coming to?

So some might argue that coach Petero was simply sticking up for his poor son, protecting the boy from getting seriously hurt. Isn’t that a father’s job? I mean, why give the man a hard time for just doing what any self-respecting, protective dad would do? Unfortunately, those individuals who might take this line of argument, like Mr. Petero, might have some impulse control problems.

Yes, it’s a parent’s job to keep your kids safe. For sure you NEVER want to allow your child to remain in any situation where he/she may be subject to physical and/or emotional abuse. By all means, an important part of a good parent’s role is to protect his/her children. However, when your child plays a contact sport and is hit hard or physically fouled in one way or another, it is NOT your job to allow your testosterone to run rampant and take control of what you say and do. Allowing strong emotions to dictate your behaviors is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. When you as an adult get emotional, you then lose direct access to your brain cells and intelligence. Speak or act when you’re angry or upset and I can promise you that when all is said and done, you’ll be left with massive regrets and embarrassment.

Instead, as a parent you need to be able to keep the bigger picture in mind. You need to have the ability to keep things in perspective. You have to understand that your child is participating in a children’s game. Most often times there are rules and regulations that have been instituted to insure that your son or daughter stay safe. There are other adults out there on the field whose sole job it is to insure that the game remains relatively fair and safe. If you honestly feel that this is not happening, if you sincerely believe that you child is at risk, then pull your child from that activity. Take them to another program. Have them play another sport. However, don’t ever allow yourself to get so emotionally entangled in the game that you lose your perspective and do something both dangerous and stupid.

Remember that youth sports are supposed to be for the youth, not us older folk. It’s sad but true, but our childhood has “left the building” so-to-speak. Like it or not, we are now the adults, the parents, coaches and officials. It is our job to act like adults on the outside, even when we don’t quite feel that way on the inside. It is our job to stay in control, to keep things in perspective and to be a good, solid role model for our children. It is up to us to help them have an educational, enriching, enjoyable, gratifying and memorable experience with sports. This is the only ball that we’re allowed to carry as far as our kids’ games go.  


As a coach do you prefer the carrot or the stick? Do you motivate by inspiring your athletes to go beyond their limits or do you try to get the very best out of them by using a healthy dose of fear and intimidation? Which tool do you keep sharpened in your coaching toolbox?

Every year I talk to literally hundreds of athletes one-on-one. The vast majority of these individuals struggle with one form or another of repetitive performance problems. This one lacks self-confidence. That one always chokes under big game pressure. This guy has been in a slump for well over 6 months. That young woman is totally immobilized by fear when it comes to executing certain skills on beam. Another athlete always seems to do better in practice than he does in competition. And yet another one is just plain flat underachieving for no apparent reason and has got her coach and parents scratching their heads in confusion.  Add to all of these individual athletes, the vast number that I see as part of my on-going work with teams and you have a rather large sampling of competitors across a wide variety of sports at almost every level that the games are played on. It’s from this experienc e that I offer the following comments. My remarks have been educated by each and every one of these athletes that I’ve come in contact with and by what I know about peak and problematic performances.

It seems that every year, far too many times a year, I hear the same complaints about coaches. Some of these complaints I take with a large grain of salt because many athletes tend to whine about their coaches and all the “awful things”, (like hard work, tough conditioning, having to follow the rules, needing to be accountable, etc.) that these so called “sadists” make them do. However, there are also those complaints that I hear as legitimate, the ones that I believe reflect serious coaching mistakes.

“My coach is always screaming at us. When we mess up, he goes psycho ballistic. Just looking at him when he’s like that totally freaks me out! Before our last game he told us that if we didn’t win he’d make us come to practice the next morning at 6:00 am and run for an hour and a half, non-stop before school. We all played like crap in that game because we were so afraid that we’d lose and have to deal with his anger and the running. I have no idea how we even won. We flat out stank! We were totally lucky. And the thing that really gets me when we make mistakes is that he treats us like we did them on purpose. Why would coach think that? I just don’t get it. And one other thing that bugs me is he never says anything positive. EVER! It’s always about what we did wrong or what we suck at. You know it wouldn’t hurt him to make us feel good once in a while.”

Call it “tough love,” being a “hard ass,” helping your athletes to become mentally stronger, asserting your brand of “discipline” on the team or doing what you think is necessary to train winners, this style of coaching relies heavily on the use of absolute power and intimidation. The coach has total control over the athlete and makes this power differential quite clear to his/her players in every interaction. Intimidation most often utilizes the “it’s my way or the highway” power stance. Intimidation discourages feedback and complaints from the players, even when this kind of feedback could possibly make the team, the athlete and even the coach more successful. Interesting enough, a great many coaches gravitate towards this brand of coaching regardless of what level they’re coaching at or wh ether they’re working with males or females.

The role of coach is inherently intimidating to most athletes. After all, the coach is supposed to be the expert. He/she is supposed to have all the answers. He/she is supposed to know what is best. The fact of the matter is that this is not always the case. There are those times when the coach may not know what he/she is doing. There are times when the coach may indeed know the sport, but have absolutely no clue about how to communicate this knowledge to young athletes. There are also those times when the coach lacks the maturity and basic sensitivity to be an effective teacher. It is most often in these situations that the coach heavily relies upon intimidation, rigid control, threats and fear as his/her primary teaching techniques.   

Intimidation as a coaching/teaching tool works on the basis of fear. The intimidator threatens the “intimidatee” with harsh consequences should he/she fail to do what is required. These consequences usually entail some form of physical and/or emotional punishment and as a result, instill fear within the recipient athletes. The physical punishments most often include extra, intense training sessions where conditioning is used as “the stick” to beat the athletes up and to get them performing better. This “technique” has always baffled me over the years because superb conditioning is a prerequisite of athletic success. You don’t become a champion without having a tremendous training base. If this is so, then why would you or any coach ever want to train your athletes to view and respond to physical conditioning as a punishment and therefore something to b e avoided at all costs?

The emotional punishments involved in intimidation can range from embarrassment to outright humiliation of the athlete in front of his/her peers or spectators. Coaches who deliberately embarrass their athletes after mistakes, failures or losses have a powerfully intimidating effect on their players. Similarly, threatening athletes with a loss of playing time, benching them for extended periods of time or kicking them out of practice are significant punishments that carry a heavy dose of fear with them. Emotional punishments also include consciously ignoring the athlete or remaining obviously angry with him/her for extended periods of time.       

Here’s the problem that I see with regularly utilizing intimidation as your primary coaching tool. Despite the fact that fear can be a very powerful motivator, it almost always entails adverse results over the long run. Just because your athletes are afraid of you and your power, doesn’t mean that they like or, more important, respect you. Consistently instilling fear in your players will NEVER buy you lasting respect. EVER! If you want respect, that’s something that you have to earn “the old fashion way,” one athlete at a time. And should you think for a moment that needing your athletes’ respect is unimportant and totally irrelevant to your coaching success, let me reassure you that you are badly mistaken.

Your ability to effectively motivate others depends in a large part upon the relationship that you create with them. Your ability to effectively teach others is also dependent upon this. Furthermore, your relationship with and how you treat your athletes either builds up or tears down their self-esteem. Who you are as a person and the quality of your relationship with your players determines whether they will trust you and feel safe in your presence. Safety and high self-esteem are necessary ingredients for learning athletic skills and for performance success under pressure. You will not consistently generate winners by continuously knocking your athletes down and feeding their personal insecurity. What you will do instead is alienate your players, kill their love of the game and contribute to their dislike of and lack of respect for you. In my humble opinion, intimidation is a coaching model that’s more fitting to prehistoric da ys when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Here’s another factor to consider when you decide to use fear and intimidation as your primary coaching tool. Every time that you do so, you are unconsciously communicating a performance-eroding message to your players. You are unconsciously telling them in your intimidating behavior that you don’t really believe that they are capable, by themselves, of successfully pulling off this performance. If you truly believed in their abilities, then you wouldn’t need to go out of your way to bully and threaten them. If you have a sincere commitment to excellence and a desire to produce winners, then this isn’t exactly a great message to be sending your athletes.  

So what can you do instead? Well, you could put down the stick, put away the fear and threats and start to use inspiration as your primary coaching tool. Inspiration involves the exact opposite of intimidation. While intimidation is a “subtraction” technique which threatens to take away things from the athlete, (playing time, the coach’s good favor, personal security, etc.) inspiration is a technique of “addition.” It ultimately enhances the athlete. Intimidation makes athletes less than they can be and contributes to their underachieving while inspiration inspires them to become more than, to overachieve. Inspiration communicates a very simple, but exceptionally powerful message to the athlete: “You CAN do this and I, as your coach, TRULY BELIEVE in YOU. Knowing that the coach believes in you is a potent source of motivation for the individual and the team. Having the belief that the coach is behind you builds your self-esteem as an athlete and fosters a belief in yourself.                              

With inspiration, you as the coach kindle the athlete’s already existing internal desire for success and the pursuit of excellence. You fan the internal flames of their athletic dreams and desires and create a powerful source of motivation that the athlete then carries into practice and competitions with him/her. Inspiration gets the athlete to regularly push beyond his/her self-imposed limits. It fills the athlete up with wonderful possibilities rather then diminishes him/her with the specter of negative consequences. Those who inspire automatically garner their athletes’ respect. They’ve learned that they don’t have to yell, scream, threaten or pull a power trip just to get their athletes to respond and perform at an optimal level.

So what’s it going to be coach? The carrot or the stick? Inspiration or intimidation? 


 “The real winners”    
One of the most powerful images to emerge from the pool at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney Australia was that of Eric Moussambani, a 22 year old beginner swimmer from Equatorial Guinea in Africa. Moussambani found himself standing on the blocks all alone for his heat of the 100-meter freestyle after his only other two competitors were both disqualified at the beginning of the race for false-starting. The Equatorial Guinea native then went out an made Olympic history so-to-speak. He completed the 100 meter distance over one minute slower than eventual gold medalist, Pieter Van Den Hoogenband and 7 seconds slower than Van Den Hoogenband swam the 200!

Many of those watching the 22 year old African “race” probably would have been able to easily out swim the Olympian. Why? That’s because Eric Moussambani had only been swimming a mere 6 months before the start of the Games! During this time Eric trained in a 20 meter pool with no lane markers. So what’s a rank beginner doing at the Olympics? FINA, the international governing body of swimming had issued several wild-card invitations to the Olympics as a way of spreading the sport and Eric’s tiny west coast of Africa nation had accepted one of those invitations.  

As the race began, it became quite clear to everyone watching that this wasn’t any ordinary Olympic heat. Besides Moussambani’s two opponents false starting, Eric’s start was more of an awkward flop than anything else and as he came out of the water to begin his freestyle, his arms and legs seemed to be flailing away at the water.

Throughout the swim, Moussambani never once put his head under the water and at times it looked like he had all he could do just to stay afloat and keep himself from sinking to the pool’s bottom. At first the crowd reacted to this unusual Olympian with disbelief, titters and then outright laughter. Clearly this was a joke of Olympian proportions. However, as the West African “turned” into the second 50 something dramatic began to shift in all those who were watching. After the turn Moussambani looked totally spent and completely exhausted, as if there was no way that he’d ever be able to complete a second lap. This was because after his turn, he had moved into totally uncharted waters for him: He had never before swum any distance greater than 50 meters!
As he struggled mightily to keep his head above the water and to continue moving forward, the crowd stopped laughing and started cheering. As Moussambani huffed and puffed into the second 50 and the middle of the pool, the cheering grew even louder. Some spectators stood and began yelling, “Come on, you can do it!,” “GO, GO, GO” and “Keep going. You’ve got it!” Their cheers rose in intensity as the exhausted 22 year-old painfully and slowly made his way across the pool and towards the far wall. When he finally touched to “win” his opponent-less heat, the crowd went absolutely bonkers! Listening to the spectators’ reaction, you might have thought that this beginning swimmer who had just established an Olympic record for slowness had won a gold medal.

In a pool famous for fast times and record-breaking achievements, Moussambani set a landmark all his own - by actually managing to complete the distance! Despite the fact that he had recorded what was probably the slowest time ever in Olympic swimming history, Moussambani had courageously flailed his way into the winner’s circle and the viewers’ hearts. He had proved himself to be a real winner. He had demonstrated what it was like to have the heart of a champion. 

Being a winner isn’t always about winning. Being a champion doesn’t always mean that you have to finish first. The eventual “winner” can be the biggest loser out there in the same way that the guy who finishes dead last can be the real champion. There are far more important things that transcend the competition’s outcome which more accurately determine whether you truly have what it takes to become a champion. Are you really going for it and not holding yourself back? Are you a good sport with a healthy concern for the rules and fair play? Are you pushing yourself beyond your limits? Are you going towards and not away from your fears? Are you challenging yourself? Can you keep your ego out of your performances? Are you doing the very best that YOU can do? Can you celebrate your competitors’ successes? Do you consistently make your teammates better?  Keep in mind that TRUE winning is about effort, character, honesty, sportsmanship, heart and integrity much more than it is about the competition’s outcome and the often times shallow distinction of being number one. Case in point:

There was just enough time left on the clock for the Steamrollers youth football team to run off one more play in this championship game. The Rollers were down by 4 points, on their opponent’s 40 yard line and needed a touchdown here to win the game and walk away with the championship trophy. Josh lined up as always on the right side of the Steamroller’s offensive line at tight end and when the ball was snapped he took off sprinting to make it look like he was going long. The ploy had the desired effect and Josh’s coverage took off too. It was at that point that he stopped suddenly, cut to his left and caught the short pass exactly as the play had been drawn up. He then broke a tackle and bolted down the right sideline as the Roller fans went nuts. After he faked out another defender, there was just one player between him and being a hero.

This particular kid had been battling Josh all game long and it seemed like this final confrontation was going to decide who walked away from this game with the bragging rights. As his defender lunged at him at the 10 yard line to make the tackle, Josh veered quickly to the right in an attempt to avoid him. As he did so, several things happened simultaneously. First, several people in the crowd who were standing along the sidelines inadvertently moved in front of the ref’s line of sight in order to get a better view of this game-deciding play. Second, Josh’s right foot stepped on the sidelines as he slipped by his defender’s outstretched arms and headed free and clear towards the end zone. While the frustrated defender tried to get the ref’s attention to point out that Josh had stepped out of bounds, the Roller fans went crazy.

There was no question to almost everyone watching that the Steamrollers were going to win the game and that Josh was going to be the big hero. The ref had indeed missed the call and so, technically, that meant that the play was official. Josh, however hadn’t missed the call. When he side-stepped his opponent he had glanced down and noticed his foot touching the line. Josh and his defender, as well as a few others watching knew the real story: The game was over and Josh’s team should have been the loser. But that was not how this one was going to play out.

Then a totally unexpected thing happened. Before reaching the end zone Josh slowed down and then inexplicably stopped at the one yard line. He then put one knee down, ending the play and the game. There was stunned silence on the field until the opposing team exploded in surprised but delirious celebration. The guy that Josh had just beaten came up to him, looked him in square in the eyes and then patted him on his helmet before jogging away and joining his happy teammates.

Josh started to walk back to his teammates when he was accosted by his very large and very angry coach who was screaming at him at the top of his lungs. “What the Hell were you thinking out there boy? We were going to win this game. You just blew it for us! You’re the reason we lost!” When Josh protested, “But coach, I stepped on the line!” the Roller coach angrily responded, “I don’t care about that! The ref missed the call and this was our championship and you gave it away!” When Josh tried to tell the coach that this was “dishonest,” the man looked like he was going to have a seizure right there on the field. With his face red and veins popping out on his forehead, he stuck his finger in the boy’s chest and began yelling, “Boy, you will never, EVER play for me again! You hear? You are an embarrassment to me and your teammates. You….”

But the coach’s angry tirade was cut short by another man who was a good foot shorter than the coach, but solidly built. This man got between the angry adult and the boy and said, “Excuse me, coach! Would you mind shutting your mouth for a second?” The coach was so taken aback by this interruption that he fell silent. “You know, you’re absolutely right about Josh never playing for you again. Trust me on this one. He will NEVER play for you again! The fact of the matter is my boy has much too much class to play for you! You, my friend should be ashamed of yourself. You are a poor excuse for an adult and a worse excuse for an educator! You want my son to lie and cheat so that you can win this game and the championship? Is th at what you’re telling me? What you want to teach my son and his friends is that lying and cheating are fine as long as you win? I think NOT! My son is too much of a winner to play for a loser like you!” And with that, Josh’s dad put his arm around his son and as they walked away he said to him, “Son, I couldn’t have been more proud of you today with what you just did. In my mind you distinguished yourself as a real champion!”