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Always Set the Tone

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Through out my education in sport psychology, one of the biggest lessons I brought from the classroom to the field is the importance of setting the tone. It takes time and practice for athletes to learn how to transition into game mode or practice mode. I’ve noticed on the younger teams it sometimes takes players 30-45 minutes to truly make that transition. It’s usually done slowly throughout their warm up process. I’ve learned that facilitating this transition can help to snap them into practice mode immediately at the beginning of practice. Doing this helps to improve their focus and performance.

I start my practice the same way every single time. My players arrive. They know that when the clock says it’s time, they need to lay-out ALL of their equipment. They lay out their gloves, helmets, bats, and water bottles in a fun design that they have chosen. Once everything is set out they come straight to me for a pre-practice huddle. I want to make a note here; my athlete’s didn’t naturally start doing this routine on their own, this is something I taught them to do. I want to emphasize the word taught. This was an expectation that I clearly laid out for them in the beginning of the season. We spoke about it, and we PRACTICED it. Yes, we practiced laying out our equipment at the start of practice and quickly huddling up afterwards. A routine like this needs to be taught, not simply expected.

Once we are in our huddle I ask them how their week has been. They usually tell me about how boring school is, or how much homework they have. Sometimes they mention drama between their friends, and other times I get a simple unanimous “good”. I do this because I think it’s important for my athletes to know I care about their lives outside of softball. I care about who they are as a whole, not just how they perform on the playing field.

I then go over my expectations for the practice. These expectations are basically the same every time. “When I’m out here with you, I am giving you 100% of my effort for 2 hours. This is my time that I’m giving to you. I expect the same from you. I expect 100% effort while you are out here on our field. I don’t care if you miss a ball, or swing and miss at a pitch. What I care about is how you react after that. I expect you to keep your head up and hustle after the ball you missed. I expect you to bounce back and try just as hard for the next pitch coming at you. If I think that you aren’t giving me 100% effort I am going to send you on a run to the fence. This doesn’t mean you are in trouble and it doesn’t mean that I’m mad. I’m giving you the time to re-focus your energy while you reflect on your performance. We also need to stay in shape throughout our season so a nice jog to the fence is good for you. It’s going to happen to all of you at some point, it’s no big deal so just come back and play hard. Hustle is a habit; don’t ever walk on the field. Let’s have some fun and work hard today. Get a team cheer and let’s go.

By this time in the season the girls are reiterating this speech for me. I simply ask, what am I looking for today? They spew out all the major points of my usual speech: effort, hustle, attitude, run if you don’t, have fun, improve, and you’re not in trouble.

After practice is over I like to huddle up again and discuss how they thought the practice went. We talk about what they did well and what they need to improve on. I ask them for things they want to work on next time. We also chat about life lessons. This life lessons chat is something I sometimes do in our pre-practice huddle as well. I ask my athlete’s if they have learned any life lessons they want to share with the team so we can learn too. Some of the lessons that come out of these talks are silly, and some are meaningful. I’ve shared my experiences in choosing a major in college, romantic relationship realizations, learning to drive, and awkward moments I’ve experienced trying to find my way in this world as an adult. One of my players this week shared a funny lesson; she realized the twitter symbol was a bird, and that’s why they call it tweeting. It creates a comfortable atmosphere for my athletes to share silly things and more meaningful things. They also get to see that I’m more than a coach; I’m a person with other roles and multiple aspects to my personality.

Setting the tone for your athletes is crucial. It gives them behavior guidelines and performance expectations for the practice. Assuming they know what you expect will leave you cleaning up the mess throughout practice. Start practice out on the right foot and you’ll have a better chance of having the practice you expected.

 

Selflessness

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I believe that selflessness is one of the most important characteristics for an athlete to posses when playing on a team. In order for the team to reach their full potential athlete’s need to be willing to make personal sacrifices in order to better the team. A true teammate mentality, asks what does the team need, before asking what do I need?

When I was an athlete, one of my favorite things about playing on a team, was the opportunity I had to help my teammates be successful.IMG_9849 I learned to push my skill level by keeping the mindset that the team’s success was more important than my own.
On defense, playing for teammates helped me to overcome my fears. Instead of worrying about how scary diving for a ball was, I was focused on getting the out my pitcher needed to end the inning. I knew that if I didn’t lay-out she was going to have to throw to another batter. The need to help my teammates over shadowed my fears.

As a coach, I’m noticing that this mindset is no longer the norm. I may have been simply oblivious to the selfish culture of sports as an athlete, but it seems to me the game has drastically changed. Athletes are so focused on capturing that collegiate scholarship that they’ve completely forgotten about the teammates around them. It’s me, me, me, or I, I, I. Rarely do we hear an athletes concern for “we”, “the team” or “us”. We constantly hear: “Why am I not starting at first base?” or “ I didn’t get enough fly balls at practice”. What’s even worse, is most of these complaints aren’t coming from the athlete’s themselves; they come from the parents. “My daughter only got to base run today at practice”. “My daughter sat out two games weekend.”

This culture of hyper-focusing on individual success is eroding a piece of the game I IMG_0064loved most. Creating that unique bond with your teammates is something I haven’t found in any other environment in my life. When you know that the people around you care just as much or more about your success then they do about theirs is an indescribable feeling. It’s why teams become families and create bonds that last a lifetime. With so much focus on individual success and college scholarships a lot of athletes are missing out on what it feels like to be a true teammate.

I believe that it’s imperative for coaches to create a team culture that is built around selflessness. Selflessness is the basis of teamwork. Teamwork is one of the biggest factors of success. Praise athlete’s when they display the trait of selflessness. Reward the ones who have mastered what it means to be a teammate. Create opportunities for your athlete’s to show how selfless they can be. Set team guidelines so your athletes know what you expect, and know what selflessness looks like on a team. Selflessness can teach athletes so much on and off the field. It can help them reach their true potential by learning to rely on their teammates and experience genuine teamwork.

Quote of the day:

“It’s not about what the team can do for you, it’s about what you can do for the team.”

Parenting in Youth Sports

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This week I had the pleasure of working with a team full of 8-10 year old girls. Our topic was emotional control and how it relates to the way we handle mistakes or unsuccessful outings on the softball field. As our conversation got deeper, they made it very clear to me that most of the pressure they feel to succeed comes from their parents. As a 27 year old Master’s graduate who is currently living at home, let me tell me you, I can relate!

Some of the common complaints I heard from my athletes during our discussion were; “He (her dad) just keeps repeating himself!”, “It’s annoying when my mom yells, “it’s okay, you can do it!” from the stands”, and “They (her parents) are always comparing me to my older sister”. These are all different perspectives, there are no guidlines for parents to follow so they become the perfect youth sport parent. My suggestion to all sport parents is to create a dialogue with their child about what they need after or during a poor performance. Simply ask them what they want from you when they are struggling on the field. Sometimes all athletes want is silence.

Here are some other great ways to keep your involvement in your child’s sport experience positive:

Key Phrases:  It’s helpful to let the athletes dictate the conversation surrounding their performance. You can ask, “How did it go?” instead of “Did you win?” or “Did you get a hit?” Did you win and did you get a hit imply that those aspects are the most important pieces of the game. By asking, “How did it go?” your athlete can dictate what they want to talk about. They may even bring up their poor performance before you do.  Sometimes we just don’t know what to say; here’s a great line: “ I loved watching you play”. It has no judgment and it’s completely honest every time! (Lancaster, Llosa, & Pain, 2013, p. 3; Stafford, 2013). 

Ask First: It’s hard to talk about a game when you didn’t play the way you wanted to.  “Is it okay if we talk about the games or would you rather wait until later?” is a great way to take the pressure off and have a more meaningful discussion later on. Kids want your input; they just want it at a time that works for them.

Start and focus on the good: Your athletes want to impress you so badly. When you finally do have that conversation about the game, start with the things they did well. Be sensitive when talking about the things that didn’t go well. Before the conversation is over remember to reiterate how they succeeded; there is always something positive you can point out. Think of it as a sandwich: Positive – Constructive Criticism – Positive.

Silent Acceptance: It’s hard to keep our mouths shut when our kid isn’t performing at their best. It’s not always beneficial to shout something from the stands, or lecture them on the way home. Sometimes silence is the best route to take. Athletes appreciate when coaches and parents are silent after a mistake, everyone knows it happened and athletes just want to move on, no need to bring extra attention to it.

Here’s an easy rule to remember when talking to your kids about their performance. Before you say anything ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary? (what will you achieve by criticizing?)

If you can answer yes to all three questions, go ahead and speak your mind. If not, it may be better for everyone involved if you keep it to yourself. This one isn’t just a sport lesson, it’s a life lesson. Whenever any of us open our mouths to speak, we should check ourselves and ask these three simple questions.(Lancaster, Llosa, & Pain, 2013, p. 24). 

“Kindness is a language the blind can see and the deaf can hear” – Mark Twain 

References:

Llosa, L., Lancaster, S.,Payne, S., (2013) Beyond Winning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press.

R Stafford. (2013,  November 11) 6 Words You Should Say Today. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-macy-stafford/six-words-you-should-say-today_b_3863643.html

 

Constructive Rainy Day Practices

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The rainy season is hard on teams. Practices get canceled, tournaments get rescheduled, and daylight is limited. This is the perfect time in your season to work on team chemistry. Here are a few exercises that are great to do indoors or on a black top! Some of these may sound silly, but never underestimate how much difference having a little fun as a team can do for the team cohesion progression!

What makes a good teammate?  Equipment: Paper and Pencil.  Purpose: To create a supportive, safe, team environment. Have the team gather in a circle, assign two players to make a list of characteristics each player wants in a teammate. Each player should answer and share two questions. 1) Why do you play softball? 2) What do you need in a teammate? After everyone has shared, read the list back to the group and consolidate the characteristics that make up a good teammate. Now have the players discuss examples of each characteristic (how they can show their teammates that they possess the characteristics, for ex. High fives, picking players up, no shit talking, and respectful tones).

Human Knot/Circle sit: Equipment: none. Purpose: Teamwork, communication, and leadership. Have the team stand in a small circle. Have each player reach out their RIGHT hand and grab a teammate’s hand. Make sure everyone is holding a person’s hand. Now have everyone reach out their LEFT hand and grab a DIFFERENT teammate’s hand. Make sure no one is holding two hands of the same person. You CAN NOT let go of the hands you are holding during this activity! The goal is to have them untangle themselves and end up in a large circle all holding hands. (Sometimes you’ll have two small circle intertwined, or a figure eight, that’s okay!) Have the team discuss what was helpful in reaching the goal and what wasn’t.

As a second fun activity, have athletes stand in a small circle again chest to back. The circle should be VERY tight. All at once have the athletes sit down. The goal is to sit on the persons lap behind and the circle should hold everyone up.

Team Mission Statement: Equipment: Paper and Pencil. Purpose: create a mission statement. Send the team out to a place where they feel they have privacy (center field maybe). One or two people should be designated note takers to write down thoughts as they arise in this discussion. Have each player share what their goals are for the team this season; they can talk about win/loss records, team cohesion ideals, performance improvements, anything that relates to a successful season. The team’s challenge is to combine everyone’s thoughts and goals to create a solid mission statement that can be said as a team throughout the season. Most teams use it during their pre-game cheers. Here’s an example of a team’s motto from a few years ago: “To inspire, to excel, and to take pride in one another, together we are one” – PHS 2014

2 Truths and a Lie: Equipment: Pencil and paper. Purpose: Learn more about one another. Have each person write two truths and one lie about themselves. Go around the room and have the team figure out what are the truths and the lies. With smaller teams, a point system can be used. If the team does not correctly guess which statement was a lie, the person gets a point.

 Link Tag: Equipment: none. Purpose: fun, conditioning, social cohesion. All players find a partner and link elbows with them. These pairs spread out around the playing area.
The facilitator selects one pair and within that pair selects one person to be “it” and the other person to be the “chaser”. The “it” person runs around throughout the pairs. The “it” person can, at any time, link up with any pair. If the link person joins a pair, the person on the pair who the “it” member did not link with must separate from the chain and now be “it”. The other person is then free to join a pair, causing another player to split off and be the new “it”. Game lasts until facilitator says it’s over. It can be helpful for the facilitator to watch carefully and manage potentially confusing situations, specifically when the “it” person thinks they have linked up and the “chaser” thinks they have tagged them just before linking (creating two people who think they are “it”).

Balloon Relay Race: Equipment: Balloons. Purpose: teamwork, fun, social/task cohesion. Team splits into pairs of the same gender. Team must go down, around a cone, and back, twelve times, with a different pair going each time. The two members must side-hug and hold a balloon wedged between them. They may only touch it with their hands if it drops. If it drops, the team must stay where they are until it is wedged back together.

Dizzy Bat: Equipment: bat. Purpose: fun, social cohesion. Split the group into two teams. Set a distance for the race. Give the first runner a bat. Each player must spin around ten times with their head on the top of the bat, while the top of the bat stays on the ground. Once they have completed their ten spins they must race to the designated point and back. Once they are back they must tag the hand of the next player in line. That player must do the same thing until everyone has gone!

 

Association of Applied Sport Psychology 2015

This is definitely a belated post; I forgot to share my awesome experience from the AASP 2015 conference in Indianapolis! In October (2015) I had the honor of presenting at this past years conference along side a few classmates of mine from San Jose State. It was an incredible experience to say the least! I presented my master’s project which consisted of writing a children’s picture book that teaches children how to use deep breathing in sport and life to conquer stress. I got an overwhelming positive response and was so inspired by the feedback I received! I can’t wait to see what AASP 2016 in Phoenix has in store for us!

The first Step to Improving Your Mental Game: Awareness

The first task on your athlete’s journey to strengthen their mental game is to increase the awareness of their thoughts. Instruct them to notice if their self-talk is hindering them or helping them achieve success. It’s crucial that your athletes notice when their minds are working for them and when it is working against them. Their focus is to recognize patterns of when it’s easy for them to stay motivated and focused, and when they struggle to do so.

5308196-success-failure-green-road-sign-illustration-on-a-radiant-blue-backgroundTheir goal should be to listen to their “strong” voice and ignore or smother their “weak” voice. Their strong voice is the voice that fills them with confidence, allows them to take on challenges, and helps them to stay positive when the going gets tough. This voice is the voice that talks them into sprinting their hardest even though they’ve already run 10 suicides; this is also the voice that encourages them to throw another rise ball even though the last one was just hit over the fence. Athletes need to recognize their strong voice and buy into it while simultaneously pushing out their weak voice.

How to work awareness into your coaching:

  1. When practice starts: Remind athletes to work on mentally preparing themselves for the upcoming practice. Which voice are you listening to today? Are you talking yourself into working hard at practice, or are you simply going through the motions dragging yourself along praying that practice will end soon?
  2. Watch their body language: If you see an athlete looking or performing like they are defeated, remind them to find their strong voice and smother their weak voice.
  3. During instruction: If you are working on critiquing an athletes form, make sure to include what they should be reciting to themselves in their head.
  4. When an athlete is struggling: Bring to their attention how their mind could be playing a role in their frustration. Is their weak voice taking control and beating themselves up inside or is their strong voice talking themselves into making the next play.

Role Clarification is Crucial

Role clarification is one of the best tools a coach can use to help athletes build confidence in themselves and in their teammates. A coach can improve a teams’ effectiveness by making sure each athlete understands their role and accepts it. People are willing to put forth more effort if they feel that they are an important contributor to the teams’ success. The most important part of accepting a role is to first understand it. Athletes need to know what is expected of them in their roles; behaviors, responsibilities, performances; they also need to know the consequences of their specific role.

A great way to ensure athletes know what their role is by doing this role clarification exercise.

  1. Have each athlete write down what they think their specific role is
  2. Have each athlete then name the roles they think everyone else has
  3. Have the coaching staff write down every players role

It’s important for these three things to match up. If they don’t, coaches need to sit down with their athletes and reiterate what is expected of them. Understanding and accepting a role as an athlete is crucial to confidence, success, and team cohesion. There is a sense of pride that comes with having a role on the team and knowing you are contributing. Players need to know their participation is important, and crucial to the teams’ success. Every player on a team is important. As a coach its imperative that your behaviors and words make it known that you believe every player can contribute. Empowering non-starters through role definition can enhance their satisfaction on the team and possibly improve their contribution to the team and their athletic performance.

Coach Sue Enquist from UCLA always preached the importance of focusing on non-starters. Starters put in the work and get the reward of seeing their name on the starting line up sheet; non-starters put in the same work and rarely get the reward of seeing their name on the starting line up sheet. Therefore it’s important to make it known that your non-starters still contribute in crucial ways to the team.

Role clarification is a key tactic to avoid conflict and create a positive team culture where team cohesion and confidence can thrive.

Quote of the day: 

“Your Value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth”

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