Monday, April 30

Why Your Athlete Really Fails on Game Day

In sports there is a super fine line between success and failure on game day. In a long tournament weekend sometimes that line becomes blurred and as parents or coaches we struggle with why our athlete and team don't play consistently and seem to reach such highs one week then such lows the next.

From a recent experience with my own team I believe I have discovered why so many elite, or travel level athletes and teams fail to achieve their true potential on game day.

If you study, as I do, athletic competition at every level you will find that an athlete's or team's "mentality" before, during and after the game is the X Factor that determines winners and losers.  From professional to elite Olympic, amateur and college athletes alike how you think is truly how you will play. With most teams and athletes at the highest levels of competition being fairly equal in ability it becomes the mental preparation and mental response to game day adversity that becomes the deciding factor.

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However, I have discovered for younger athletes the dynamics on the mental side of game day success are far more complex and far more troubling.

Keep in mind that my assessment is a generalization; that your athlete or team may not suffer from these dynamics. I do, however, highly encourage you to look honestly at your athlete and team to see if you can chalk up game day failure to what I'm about to say:

1. We place our kids in a highly competitive sports environment where the bar for achievement and game day performance is high. They may really want to do this or just follow along because friends do it or parent say to do it, or that's just what everybody does.

Poor baby...only went 3 for 4?
2. We invest $100s or $1,000s into our athlete's game in an effort to keep up with the other kids and, presumably, give our athlete the best possible chance to succeed and play at the next level.

3. We tell them where to play, when to play, and how to play.

4. We drive them to kingdom come and game for practice, games, private lessons.

5. We drag the entire family to far flung places for games, packing coolers with goodies for our athletes between games and the reward of  "drive thru" on the way home.

6. During games we cheer loudly and after games either soothe our athlete's tender egos and feelings or quickly critique and criticize their efforts because we have a right to expect a perfect performance for the money and time we're investing.

7. Because of skyrocketed expectations from parents, coaches, peers and self the athletes are easily impacted emotionally when game day adversity hits...with heads down, tears and diminished attitude and effort.

In short the younger athlete has become a "robot," incapable of making decisions; incapable of producing the fire in the belly necessary to see adversity as opportunity; quick to pout and emote after adversity. 

Instead parents coddle these athletes, leading to mental softness instead of mental toughness. Some bizarre form of ADD takes root in these athletes as they appear to listen intently at practice, yet are incapable of applying what they have been taught on game day...making the same mental mistakes over and over again.

To the modern youth athlete as long as things are going well on game day they smile and play close to their potential. But at the slightest mistake or criticism from coach or parent they crumble emotionally, are quick to make excuses, or just finish out the game in a mental tailspin.

In my opinion many of these kids are cursed with an entitlement mentality, unaware or unwilling to do what it takes physically and mentally to be the best; to see competition as a challenge.

As a parent or coach my suggestion is to sit your athlete(s) down and clarify their motivation and desire for playing the game. Why do they play the game? What do you and them hope to get out of their playing the game at such a competitive level? Do they enjoy playing? Do they enjoy the competition, the challenge? Do they love the game?

To me, the bottom line is how bad your athlete and their team wants success. As I often say success is not an accident; it is an orchestrated effort of clearly defined physical and mental preparation. But more than that it is a burning desire to succeed, to play your best, to meet the challenge that playing sports at an ultra competitive level offers.

As former UCLA softball Head Coach, and winner of 11 National Championships, Sue Enquist told me, "The team that stops competing first will lose." It's just that simple. Unfortunately today many kids and their teams never start competing on game day! They go through the motions...robotic.

Playing youth sports at the highest levels has never been more competitive. It requires no less than everything a young athlete has to give both physically and mentally. I didn't make the rules...that's just how it is today.

Remember, mental toughness, effort and attitude are always a choice. As such game day success is also choice; but so is game day failure.

If your athlete is a robot maybe it's time to pull the plug and see if there truly is any fire in their belly to play the game at this level. If not, maybe chess is the answer?

Let me know what you think?

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Wednesday, April 18

What Drives Success?

As parents and coaches we all want success for our kids and those we coach. Of course some days are better than others, aren't they? It is easy to marvel at and celebrate a player's or team's success after the fact but what is behind the success? In other words...what drives success on game day? 

Last weekend my 14u team captured our tournament bracket to come home with medals and trophy. Like all successful tournaments Sunday's are long and generally stressful with many close games. Our Sunday was no different as we came from behind to win three straight games, including a 2-1 thriller in the final.

As happens so often a team gets on a roll and their level of play elevates. Look at most any tournament bracket and the deeper into the bracket you go the closer the games get. All of this would seem contrary to common sense as players battle fatigue with each additional game they play, often in less than ideal weather conditions.



So what drives success?

Focus

As I write about often the successful player on game day is one who can exert a high level of focus and energy in the present moment, whether as a hitter, fielder, pitcher or base runner. This mental focus is a product of an athlete's being in a relaxed state, confident...in the zone.

Typically, as I witnessed on my team last Sunday, players step up with the big hits and big plays because they expect to. At the point of impact they have turned off their mind from negative, doubtful or over-analyzing thoughts and replaced them with a "can do," ultra focused mindset.

In the most critical moments of the biggest games the most successful athletes are able to block out all external and internal distractions and simply do what they have been trained to do.

Preparation

Success is also driven by great preparation. The reason an athlete can exert laser focus in the most pivotal moments of the game is because they feel extraordinarily confident that they are ready for battle...ready to be the difference maker. Competition, big at bats, big pitches becomes a challenge they expect to win, rather than moments to be feared.

Superior mental and physical preparation is necessary for game day success. There simply are no short cuts to greatness. Game day success requires high intensity, focus and energy during every practice to build competence as well as confidence.

Desire

Success is, perhaps, foremost driven by desire. On my team last weekend I witnessed so many of my players displaying so much desire -- an attitude of "refuse to lose" -- on elimination Sunday, proving once again that success is a choice. In a game where only one team can emerge as champion desire, effort, passion, energy all take center stage in determining the outcome.

The will to succeed is an amazing human trait to watch in action. I saw it time and again from 13 and 14 year old athletes who were truly driven to succeed.

Watching younger athletes driven to succeed is an incredible thing. In a world where so many take and give little these athletes give everything they have to achieve their individual and team goals. They are wired for competition, molded for success.

The next time you watch your athlete or team play marvel at their effort, their focus, their desire. Playing this game is a blessing for it teaches these athlete exactly how to succeed in the bigger game called life. If your athlete is truly driven to succeed celebrate it! Maybe you can learn a thing or two yourself along the way!

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Monday, April 9

The Confidence Cycle in Sports

For most younger athletes their game day success, particularly during the most pivotal moments of the game, all comes down to their belief in their ability to succeed or fail. In other words do they have adequate self-confidence on the field or court or not?

As I prepare in the coming weeks to launch what I believe will be a groundbreaking online mental performance course for athletes, parents and coaches, The Game Day Domination Course, my research on the subject of self-confidence for younger athletes (along with my own experiences as a game coach, mental performance expert and former collegiate athlete) has convinced me that self-confidence is not an accident. In fact I have concluded that self-confidence for any athlete is the product of a clearly defined "cause and effect" cycle that is quite predictable. Moreover this confidence cycle is a clear predictor of game day performance as well.

For your athlete to achieve and maintain a high level of self-confidence, and thus a high level of game day performance they will need to be mindful of their own "confidence cycle."

So what is the "confidence cycle" that ultimately propels or sabotages game day performance?

It all starts with how your athlete processes his or her performance. In other words what are the thoughts swirling around in their head before, during and after his or her games?

If those thoughts are expansive, positive, and "can do" they have laid a great foundation for their confidence cycle and game day success.

However, if their mental reaction to their game day performance is highly critical, negative, limiting and "can't do" he or she has created a rocky foundation for their confidence cycle and game day performance.

Below is a flow chart illustrating the cycle between the most important components that make up self-confidence:

The Confidence Cycle

 The cause and effect relationship between the components in the "confidence cycle" can be explained like this:

1. Your athlete holds certain beliefs about themselves and their game. These beliefs in themselves can be expansive or limiting (for example, they may believe they are competent in certain aspects of their game, but not others).

2. How your athlete reacts, via their thoughts, to a game event (in part based on their beliefs) will trigger specific thoughts (positive or negative; motivating or deflating; "can do" or "can't do") that will have an enormous impact on their emotional state.

3. Your athlete's emotional state will either allow him or her body to be relaxed or anxious; able to laser focus on the task at hand (play) or be unable to focus.

4. Your athlete's emotional state, triggered by their thoughts, will dictate in any given moment the level of self-confidence he or she will experience.

5. This confidence level will dictate their game day performance, particularly in the most pivotal moments of the game.

To summarize the "confidence cycle," when your athlete believes they can succeed in the execution of a future game event they likely will. Strong beliefs in future success come from: 

1. Previous game day successes.

2. A belief that the athlete has adequately trained or prepared themselves physically for game day success.

3. A supportive environment (coaches, parents, teammates).

4. Use of proper mental performance training to use mental imagery and other mental cues to prepare themselves mentally for game day success. 


An athlete who consistently dominates on game day is an athlete with:


1. Strong beliefs and expectancy for their game day success.

2. Positive, "can do" thoughts that sees every game as an exciting challenge.

3. A clearly defined "pre-game" and "in-game" plan or strategy to heighten both relaxation and mental focus that will allow them to optimally approach each game day situation proactively and by design.

4. Rock solid self-confidence is built from beliefs, thoughts and feelings of success, as well as a calm, relaxed and focused mind and body.


So be aware of the "confidence cycle" with your athlete and whether his or her "confidence cycle" is setting them up for game day success or failure.


Remember game day success is not an accident; it is cultivated and maintained by design and by choice. Supreme confidence is the key to sustained peak performance on game day.


Game day domination requires that your athlete be ultra prepared both physically and mentally. One without the other will never yield consistent game day performances. Find out how to improve your athlete's game day performance here.


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