Friday, March 21

The Confidence-Performance Connection: 6 Pivotal Strategies

I imagine since the days of the early Olympics in ancient Greece athletes, coaches, families and fans have contemplated the impact self-confidence has on athletic performance.

More recently behavioral psychologists have proven a correlation between how game performance impacts self-confidence.
In other words sports confidence and sports performance are attached at the hip for EVERY athlete. One drives the other in an inescapable "cause and effect" relationship.

It is undeniable, then, that self-confidence is the single most consistent factor and predictor of the level of success any athlete will achieve.

Adding to the degree of difficulty for any younger athlete is the reality that sports confidence can be strong one minute and fragile the next; leading to the inconsistent play we know all too well as coaches and sports parents!

Confidence Definitions

Here are some of my favorite definitions of confidence for you to ponder:
  • A feeling or belief that you can do something well.
  • Sure of oneself; having no uncertainty about one's abilities.
  • The state or quality of being certain.
And, as always, more hitting or pitching lessons often isn't the answer to building stronger confidence and elevated individual and team game performance; that answer usually lies between the ears and takes the powerful form of thoughts and emotions. As humans we all have over 50,000 unique thoughts every day that create countless emotional states we can slip in and out of quickly or be stuck with for days.

So with that...let's move on to the strategies!

6 Pivotal Strategies

Here are 6 pivotal strategies for parents, coaches and players to both understand and maximize the confidence-performance connection:
    1. "Trait" vs. "state" confidenceThis refers to macro ("trait") and micro ("state") conditions of confidence; meaning does your athlete have an overall self-confident mindset as a person? Does she possess a high level of overall self-esteem? Does she see herself, overall, as a good and competent softball player?
    In the "state" condition of confidence does she have self-confidence in the moment; immediately after adversity strikes on the field? Can she summon a high level of sports confidence with the game on the line? This is "state" confidence.

    As parent or coach it is essential to recognize the difference between "trait" and "state" confidence in an athlete. As coach you may not be aware of home or childhood issues that could be a foundational cause for low self-esteem or self-confidence levels. Trying to focus on her "state" confidence may prove less than successful if her dominant "trait" confidence levels are low.

    Likewise she may have extremely high levels of "trait" confidence yet still get overly anxious before or during a game or pivotal moment. Her high levels of "trait" confidence may allow you to push different buttons to activate her "state" confidence on the field.
      2. The role thoughts and emotions play - The ultimate cause and effect relationship exists for every athlete with how she thinks and feels before, during and after a practice or game. Thoughts give birth to emotions, and emotions propel thought patterns.

      Simply stated limiting/negative/"can't do"/resistant thoughts lead to the elevated emotional states of frustration/anger/sadness/embarrassment/fear/anxiety (all of which tear away at confidence and performance levels).

      While expansive/flowing/"can do"/positive thought patterns lead to the steady emotional states of joy/happiness/excitement/anticipation/calmness/focus (all of which propel confidence and performance levels).

      The thoughts and ensuing emotions/feelings are a constant battle for younger athletes; particularly female athletes in my 12 years of coaching experience.

      As parent or coach you have the opportunity and responsibility to help your athlete(s) to recognize that they control their thinking and have the power to "manage" (not CONTROL) their emotional states. There are many techniques to shift thought patterns, including proper breathing, positive trigger statements and the use of mental imagery among many others.
        3. Physical/mental mastery - Confidence and performance will absolutely improve with the proper physical and mental preparation. The more competent a younger athlete is the more confident she will feel and play. In a sport as difficult as fastpitch softball every athlete must become proficient, then ultimately master both the physical and mental skills necessary to succeed.

        Physical and mental mastery of their sport allows an athlete to extend their sense of "certainty" and belief that she can and will succeed on the diamond. This underpinning of physical/mental mastery is a huge predictor of game day sports confidence and performance.

        As parent or coach the monotony of practice reps in softball can wear on a young athlete, yet it is the slow and steady mastery of these skills and the mental IQ of the game that ultimately builds the rock solid sports confidence every coach and parent seeks for their daughter and team. If she has successfully executed a game task or skill hundreds of times on the field (and in her head) she will play with confidence, void of the hesitation and doubt that kills game performance.
          4. Environmental comfort zones - For any athlete her environment plays a huge role in the stability of her sports confidence. A stressful environment full of elevated performance expectations from parents or coaches can leave an athlete with a very fragile "trait" confidence condition; making her game "state" confidence equally shaky.

          And yet growth can only occur for a younger athlete when she is willing to risk leaving the security of her comfort zone for a new unknown environment (new team, new coaches, new age level, new competition level). It is a vexing paradox for sure.

          As parent or coach your role in growing your athlete(s) sports confidence is to be mindful and sensitive to her environmental comfort zones. This can include changing routines; changing positions on the field or even her spot in the batting order. The key here is ALWAYS good communication; giving the athlete as much advance notice as possible of any planned changes in her comfort zone so that she can mentally prepare herself without puncturing her sports confidence balloon and with it tanking her game performance.
            5. The Impact of Coach or Parent - Strictly within the context of confidence and performance any adult role model or authority figure will have an enormous impact on any younger athlete.

            As a coach your players, particularly teen girls, will be constantly evaluating your leadership skills. Are you fair in how you treat each player? Do you possess the tactical and strategic skills to put each player and team in an optimal competitive position on game day? Are you a good communicator? Can you motivate and stick by the team through thick or thin, or do you give up on a player or the team when things on the diamond start going ugly? Whether or not your players respect and have confidence in you as a coach goes a long way to build or undermine their sports confidence; particularly after adversity strikes a player or team.

            For parent your unconditional support of her on the diamond will go a long way towards building her sports confidence and elevating her game performance. Unreasonable expectations, constant judgment and criticism of her performance will absolutely serve to systematically destroy what ever sports confidence she has and will likely also do damage to her self-esteem as well.

            Younger athletes, by definition, want to please the adults around them in order to be accepted. Show praise, support, respect and appreciation for the hard work, effort and sacrifices your athlete gives to her sport. Simple praise over criticism can do wonders to build both "trait" and "state" confidence in any younger athlete. It's your choice, so do the right thing!
              6. Accomplishments - In a sport with so much failure inherent within it fastpitch softball can tear into an athlete's sports confidence and submarine her game performance in a nano-second. I teach my athletes to remember every little success they have achieved on the diamond (both in games and in practice); to pat themselves on the back as much as possible. Certainly not to get a swelled head of "over-confidence"...but, rather, to acknowledge and feel good about the progress they are making.

              If all the athlete focuses her thoughts and energy on is how she "failed" or on her mistakes she will have no shot at cultivating a healthy dose of sports confidence and, thus, her game performance will always fall woefully short of her potential. Fixating on results only will never be a recipe for elevating confidence and performance...NEVER!

              As parent or coach help your athlete(s) to focus her thinking on the process of getting better. Remember, the road to softball mastery is a journey that will not be accomplished over night! She and you should be solely concerned with those factors she has 100% control of as an athlete...her effort and her attitude, not the outcome of one at bat or one game. In the big picture of developing as an athlete and woman are the results of a single game really that important; especially if the athletes involved are 10, 11, 12 or 13?

              Hopefully you can embrace the exactitude of the confidence-performance connection and will commit to applying the strategies and suggestions I have made in this post.

              Sports confidence is a fickle thing. It requires nurturing, patience and understanding. It also requires that the parent or coach take a pro-active role in his or her player's well being; her self-confidence, her self-esteem and her joy for playing the game.

              Unfortunately there is no magic pill you can give an athlete to miraculously transform her sports confidence and game performance levels. It is a long process of growing up as it was for the athletes in Greece in 776 B.C.
                I have developed 12 pivotal strategies for building rock solid sports confidence and optimal game performance in both players and teams that will be covered in detail at my upcoming FREE webinar: The Mental Game Playbook Series: 12 Pivotal Strategies to Skyrocket Sports Confidence and Game Performance!  Sign up for the FREE webinar here.

                Thanks for reading!
                John Michael Kelly

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                Friday, March 7

                10 "Must Do" Game Strategies to Insure Softball Success

                Today I want to share some critically important game strategies your athlete and team must employ to play their best on game day.

                As we all know fastpitch softball is a difficult game. It is often a roller coaster ride of emotions yielding successes and failures happening in rapid succession. Two steps forward and one step back is often the road to softball mastery.

                However, the smarter your athlete and team can play the shorter will be their learning curve, and the more consistently they will play to their potential. I'm a big fan of stacking the odds in my players' favor!

                Here are the 10 "must do" game strategies to insure softball success:  

                For Pitchers:

                1. There are 3 critical keys to increasing the odds of success each time a pitcher is in the circle: throw your best pitch (which is always strike one), always strive to get the first out of every inning (as hitters who lead off an inning reaching base score about 65% of the time), and pitch from ahead (work hard to get the count in your favor so the hitter must hit a "pitcher's pitch" instead of a "hitter's pitch."

                2. Learn how to "set up" batters. Work both sides of the plate (east-west) with curves and screws as well as up and down (north-south) with rises and drops. So you might throw in, in, away, away, away, then slip the inside fastball or drop by the hitter. Or you may pound the ball in with a screw twice, go way out with a curve, come back with a screw or inside rise, then back out with the curve for strike three! Notice the batter's feet. Does she start moving away from the plate after a few inside pitches? Does she crowd the plate after a few outside pitches? Find the hitter's weakness, work the count to your favor (even allow a few foul ball swings), then drop the hammer with your best pitch in whichever location the hitter is weakest!

                3. Pitch "to contact" to certain batters and in certain game situations (it saves time and pitches). This is a really important strategy. Many coaches try to get too fine in calling the corners for all hitters. In reality batters in the 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10 spots aren't usually going to beat you (yes, there are exceptions), so why not throw more "hittable" pitches early in the count to induce a grounder or pop up (in other words...let those hitters get themselves out)? Also, if you are leading 5-0 in the last inning why nit-pick on the corners? Go after the hitters. There is little more frustrating than walking hitters with a big lead. Trust your stuff and know when to challenge the hitter.

                For Hitters:

                1. Have a plan each at bat. Know what your primary and secondary job is while on deck. Be prepared and laser focus in on doing your job well. Get excited about laying down a great sac bunt or moving the runner(s) over!

                2. Guess location on the first pitch (in or away). The great Ted Williams hit this way. Give yourself an edge; particularly if you have noticed (by paying attention!) where the pitcher or coach likes to call the first pitch. If you guess wrong, worst case, you are 0-1. If you guess right it could be a laser shot over the fence!

                3. Pay attention to the umpire's strike zone and coach's pitch sequence. If the ump is calling a very wide strike zone don't be surprised. Make an adjustment to move on or off the plate. Be willing to adjust your swing to foul off a borderline pitch in order to crush your pitch! If the coach or catcher is consistently calling a change on every 0-2 pitch...LOOK FOR IT.

                4. Stop thinking once you are in the batter's box. See it and hit it. You need to focus all your attention in the present moment and trust yourself! Coaches or parents who incessantly chirp at a batter with "advice" while she is in the box invariably HURT the batter. The time for working on mechanics is during practice, not while in the box. The time to work on strategy is while on deck or during a timeout, not while in the box. All a hitter needs to think about in the box is a simple mantra (positive trigger statement) she can say inside her head over and over (like "I've got this."). The mind can only focus on a single thought at a time, so why not choose the thought in advance and make it a positive one!

                For Base Runners:

                1. Be aggressive. You can't win if you don't score, so on the bases always be looking for any way to advance 60 feet! Learn how to get great leads. Know the strength of each outfielder's arm; know the defense's weakness. Always push the defense to make mistakes. Be fearless on the bases!

                For Defenders:

                1. Anticipate and expect the ball being hit to you each pitch and know your 1st, 2nd and 3rd options (always know the outs and where the runners are). Know how fast every runner is and "sense" how much time you have to make a play. Give maximum focus for 3 seconds prior to each pitch. Get dirty...ALWAYS (110% effort); Be a difference maker on defense!

                For Catchers:

                1. Talk to the umpire. Try to find out his/her strike zone early in the game. Test the limits of the strike zone with where you set up your glove. Frame the pitch first before you pop up to look a runner back or make a back pick throw (don't lose the strike!). Be a leader on the field by being vocal. Take charge! Support your pitcher verbally all game, every pitch. Give a good target to your pitcher...It helps!

                Now many of these strategies may sound like common sense to you. However, I can tell you as a game coach that far, far too few players ever think or act as these strategies suggest on a consistent basis. That's just fact!

                I guarantee you if your athlete/team focuses on implementing these 10 strategies they will instantly become better players/teams and experience a lot more joy while playing the game!

                Another great way to skyrocket game performance is by building a rock solid foundation of self-confidence for your athlete or team. My Sports Confidence Blueprint program will help your athlete to build that foundation! It contains over 6 audio hours of easy to understand and easy to implement concepts and strategies, plus the Sports Confidence Blueprint Manual! Get more info here.

                Friday, February 28

                Softball Success: Here is Where You Will Find It

                Years ago I heard a mentor of mine utter a single phrase about personal success that hit me like a ton of bricks. I was young, ambitious and looking for any edge I could get to accelerate my success in the competitive industry I was in at the time, and this sage wisdom made so much sense I couldn't wait to see if it would work for me.

                Years later I still remember that simple phrase, try to live by it, and now pass it on to the athletes I coach and others who follow my message, adapting its usage from business to sports.

                The simple, yet powerful phrase?

                "Success lies at the intersection of preparation and opportunity."

                I encourage you to let these words sink in for a moment or two to see just how they resonate with you.

                Now with full disclosure...the original phrase used the word "luck" instead of "success." My mentor explained it this way, "People always assume someone who achieves a great measure of success is somehow 'lucky,' when in fact that luck is really the by-product of a lot of hard work (preparation) coupled with the courage and wisdom to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way."

                He went on to say that "since opportunity is always present the only variable in determining how successful someone will become is how well prepared they are."

                So what can you as parent, coach or player take away from this wisdom?

                Here is how I teach it:
                1. I often hear parents and coaches complain that their athlete doesn't work hard enough or seem motivated; that she has so much potential, but doesn't seem to be achieving it. This could be symptom of burnout or more likely the lack of a clear "plan." As a parent or coach it is your responsibility to "connect the dots" for a younger athlete. I often refer to my players as being robots because they are programmed to do what we tell them to do, but are often unable to replicate these tasks on their own.  Sometimes it is as simple as having a discussion about "why" she plays the game, what her dreams and goals are for her sport (maybe softball isn't her favorite sport?). Develop a clear physical and mental game plan to get her from where so is to where she/you want her to be in a few years. Again, it's all about preparation!                                                                         
                2. From the player's perspective I also see far too much a young athlete give up on herself after a mistake, poor at bat or rough inning in the circle. Her thinking slides into the "red zone" and her performance only gets worse over time. She has lost sight that as difficult as the game of softball can be it will always offer every player another opportunity for success; another at bat, another ball hit to you, another inning in the circle, another game. As long as the athlete (and the adults) can frame "failure" as but a learning opportunity to make necessary adjustments for the next opportunity consistent success is inevitable!
                3. Ask your athlete or team this question: How good do you want to be? After they answer the question then ask her/them: How hard are to willing to work to be that good? As my mentor said, to the outside world a person/player's success looks easy. The truth is that every great athlete has put in countless hours of orchestrated physical and mental preparation in advance of their success. They success by design, not by accident!
                So softball success does have an address after all. It lies at the intersection of preparation and opportunity! The great news is that your athlete and her team have TOTAL CONTROL over their effort and their their attitude.

                Get your athlete excited about her softball future by connecting the dots for her. Help her to design a clear path/plan of preparation each week to get better at the game and you will begin to see a definable transformation to her game. Once she buys into the "big picture" success is sure to follow!

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                Thursday, February 6

                College Softball Scholarships...6 Crucial Tips to Stay Ahead of the Curve

                So you are looking for your darling daughter ("DD") to get an athletic scholarship to play softball in college? Great. Who can blame you? With the cost of college continuing to spiral out of control why not leverage a game your DD loves and is pretty good at into $$ for tuition and room/board.

                Depending on where your DD is on her softball path you, as a sports parent, need desperately to develop a solid game plan for how you (and family) and your DD will traverse the rocky ledges of the college softball scholarship maze.

                It's a game that has big winners and big losers, and a game with a lot of misinformation and lack of clear information. Most softball parents I know always seem frantic, like they are going to miss out on an exposure opportunity for their DD. They have no strategic plan, so they bounce around like a pinball going from camp to clinic to showcase to colleges.

                Let's put it this way, as a sports parent what you need is a Facebook-type "timeline" to follow for your DD so that you are prepared physically, emotionally and monetarily for the travel softball to softball scholarship journey.

                National Collegiate Athletic Association
                As I am nearing the completion of my newest book, College Softball Scholarships: The A to Z Guide, I'm going to share with you 6 Crucial Tips for staying ahead of the curve on the college softball scholarship timeline.

                These should help you to at least start an effective game plan of the process, some "do s" and "don't s," and solid strategies for moving forward. So enjoy this food for thought.

                So, here we go with the 6 Crucial Tips to stay ahead of the softball scholarship curve:

                Tip #1 - Start the process earlier than you ever thought necessary. As more and more colleges ramp up their softball programs the competition among colleges for athletes is intensifying! Many colleges are now actively recruiting 8th and 9th graders. Yes, it's even college coaches tell me, but those are the recruiting rules of the game in 2014. This means you really need to develop your recruiting plan NOW. Top pitchers are committing earlier than ever before, and athletic money is drying up at many top colleges earlier as well as they commit their senior, junior and sophomore (in high school) recruits early on, leaving them with the 9th and 8th graders to target.

                What this really means is doing all you can to put your DD in an optimal position to be seen by her target schools. It all starts with communication. The NCAA has very clearly defined rules for contact between a college coach and potential recruits which you should become intimately familiar with. Here's a good place to start, the NCAA Eligibility Center. As well you'll need to put together a good skills video and post it on YouTube so college coaches can readily view it via a link you include in your DD's email to the coach. You may want to check out other softball players' skills videos on YouTube to get some ideas.

                Be proactive in contacting your target colleges. Remember, start NOW with all of the things mentioned in this article. Delay at your DD's own peril!

                Tip #2 - Developing a "target list" of schools. Don't let Tip #1 scare you. As a softball parent you are still and always remain "in control" of the recruiting process for your DD. The best way to avoid making a ton of mistakes along the way is to sit down with your DD and start having a serious discussion about the factors that should help you and her to narrow down the colleges you think might be a good fit. Having such a list will help reduce the frenetic mindset that can lead to poor decisions and potentially cost you and your family a lot of scholarship $$.

                Keep an open mind to colleges that express interest in your DD that are not on your list. After all there are over 1,400 colleges that have softball programs across America. Often some "sleeper" colleges end up providing student athletes with the best combination of academic and athletic experiences.

                Tip #3 - Grades...Grades...Grades! Make the college coach's job easier and your potential for more overall $$ and the possibility of getting your DD into a better academic school by hammering home to your DD the vital importance of her getting GREAT grades and board scores. The simple truth is that the higher your DD's grades/scores are the more ACADEMIC money the college coach can help you get and, in the process, the farther he or she can stretch their ATHLETIC scholarships.

                The NCAA regulates the number of athletic scholarships each sport can allot and further many conferences limit that number even more. At the Division 1 level the maximum "full" scholarships any softball program can allocate is 11.7, and many smaller D1 program may only award the equivalent of 6-9 full scholarships.

                What this means is that smarter kids give the coach more flexibility. If your DD has a 3.8 and a 2000 SAT score she may be able to get a 50% academic grant/scholarship allowing the coach to only have to allocate 50% of a full athletic scholarship to her. This allows the coach to stretch their 11.7 scholarships to cover more kids on the roster.

                As one college softball coach once told me on this subject, "I've never had a parent care where the money came from (athletic or academic)!"

                 Tip #4 - Reality Check time! Combining Tips #2 and #3 it's highly advisable to do a reality check on a number of critical factors, including:
                •  How good a player is your DD? Don't target, contact and go to Stanford camps if your DD does not legitimately possess the athletic talent to play ball at the Pac 12 level.
                • How good a student is your DD? Could she get into Stanford or is she a better fit at "State?" Does she want to get a degree, let's say, in nursing? If so what schools might have a good nursing program that will also let her play softball (because many of the bigger programs will not)?
                • Where is a good fit for your DD geographically? I've coached girls here in sunny SoCal that end up playing softball at a Midwest or northeastern college and are utterly shocked at the weather. Would your DD rather play close to home so you can watch her play? If so don't target schools or be lured into interest or offers from schools far away.
                • A big reality check is how much does your DD really want to play in college? At the D1 level student athletes will spend 20 hours or more EACH WEEK, even in the fall, on softball related activities of conditioning, team and individual position workouts plus mandatory study halls. As one former player of mine told me recently she leaves her dorm at 6am and returns after softball and classes at 10pm. If your DD doesn't want softball to be a job in college she might want to look at a smaller D2 or D3 school.

                Tip #5 - Choosing the best travel/club team. This is a big part of the drive for a college softball scholarship for sure. Again, back to Tip good is your DD? If she is 6.5 or better on a scale of 10 she needs to be playing for a team/organization that will:
                • Give her exposure at the right showcases, including being on a team that is playing on the main fields (where most of the college coaches end up scouting).
                • Have solid college coaching contacts with the ability to pick up the phone and call a coach at a college your DD might be a good fit for or on her target list.
                • Have enough clout to be able to get your DD nominated for top showcase all star games or into prestigious "invite only" exposure camps like On Deck
                As a softball parent you need to distinguish between your DD's "developmental" years and "showcase" years. Meaning your DD might benefit more by being on "Team A" when she is 12-14 with coaches that might be great a teaching the game but benefit more by moving to "Team B" when she hits high school age to be with a coach or coaches that have the experience to maximize her college exposure opportunities.

                Tip #6 - Dealing with the pressure. The college softball scholarship process can be full of incredible stress for both parents and athlete. Your DD's on the field performance becomes exceptionally scrutinized, particularly as your DD has friends or teammates who commit to their college when she has not. Thus the importance of starting the process early and developing a solid recruiting plan of action. Your DD will likely feel less pressure if she feels more in charge with the process. And she will feel more in charge and calm if Mom and Dad are calm! Remember, knowledge is power.

                Another key factor in minimizing the pressure you and your DD feel is to have a family talk early on as to the ultimate goal (the athletic scholarship), the work, effort, cost and sacrifices necessary by every member of the family to achieve it. If you can't get buy in from everyone the road will inevitably be rocky at times.

                I have seen numerous athletes crumble mentally under the weigh of game performance pressures. If your DD knows her only path to college is by getting the softball scholarship she will carry that burden around on and off the field unless you frame it all clearly and comprehensively for her EARLY ON. Often it is worse for the parents to say little or nothing because the athlete is then left to assume the expectations and thus burden she is under.

                It is sometimes incomprehensible to me how crazy elevated the process has become from high school sports to college sports in 2014. Ours is a sports fanatical society; a 24/7 orgy of any sport with fantasy teams, endless television, Internet and social media coverage of the most minute and trivial detail. Your DD is inescapably part of that world in her quest for the brass ring...a college softball scholarship.

                However, if you can heed these 6 Crucial Tips and commit to following through in developing a comprehensive recruiting plan of action your DD will end up at a great school, getting a top notch education while playing a sport she loves at little or no cost to Mom and Dad. And who might actually end up enjoying the process rather than feeling like a crazed rat in the maze!

                 COMING IN MARCH


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