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3 Steps Back, 4 Steps Forward

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I’ve noticed a common thread among the athletes I’ve had the pleasure to coach over the past year. Most of them have this fear, or inability to slow a skill down and adjust in the midst of their mechanics. For instance, the other night I had my team running agility patterns on ladders. Some of the footwork patterns are a little tricky, a few of my girls were having a hard time finding the rhythm. Over and over, myself and assistant coach advised them to slow down, learn the pattern, don’t worry about your speed, we are looking for quality, not quantity.  Even with that instruction, all my girls sped through the ladder, missing sections, and tangling the ladder around their feet. They are so focused on the outcome, and the pace of their teammates around them. They won’t take the time to adjust and learn the skill correctly, they strive merely “keep up” with everyone else. It wasn’t until I physically stood beside them and wouldn’t let them go any faster than I did that they were willing to slow down and talk themselves through the pattern.

When I’m giving pitching lessons, my pitchers are more concerned with throwing strikes then properly executing the mechanics. When we are working on making adjustments, their focus is on the speed and accuracy of the pitch. They don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable and change their movements which may in turn, for the moment, negatively impact their performance. I’ve spoke to all of my athletes about this, and I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of what causes it, but I have a few theories which I believe all converge to create this insecurity of not being good enough.

Social Media: Social media has played a huge role in how are athlete’s view themselves. Their self confidence is built around how many likes their pictures receive or how many followers they have. They live, eat, sleep, and breathe this superficial culture everyday that is constantly reinforcing this idea that they are in competition with everyone around them all the time. They must look “good” or “pretty” in order to be accepted socially by their peers. I believe this attitude has carried over to the ball field. I asked my pitcher the other night why she was unwilling to make an adjustment and possibly let the ball go sailing over the catchers head. Her response; “There’s a lot of people watching me and I don’t want them to think that I’m not good”.

Lack of trust in the process: I believe that sometimes athletes struggle to change their swing, or mechanics, because they simply don’t believe that it will make them better in the long run. Yes, your performance my suffer for a couple pitches, or a couple days, or even a week, but if they make the adjustment it WILL make them better in the long run. The athletes I’m working with don’t seem to understand this process, they view failure as a negative all the time, even if it’s improving their mechanical game. I think it also comes down to trusting your coaches. Trusting that even if your performance suffers momentarily, your coaches adjustments will improve your performance over time.

Insecurity:  Vulnerability is something that isn’t embraced in our society. In fact, it’s shamed most of the time. It makes sense that our athletes aren’t willing to be vulnerable during practice. They aren’t willing to drop their guard and try something that may make them look “silly” or different. They want to be “on” all the time.

It’s imperative for our athletes to be comfortable trying new new things. They need to trust the process of taking 3 steps back if it means they get to leap 4 steps forward. It’s so different from when I played. I am committed to continually talking through this issue with my athletes, I know it’s the push they need to reach their full potential.

 

 

 

Love The Game

Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to write these days. I’m currently back in school full time to get my teaching credential in Special Education. I am also teaching full time as as a Special Education Specialist in my first year of teaching. In between work and school I find time to do what I love and coach my girls.

I don’t have time write a full blown blog today, however I wanted to leave this tidbit of information here because I think it’s imperative for coaches to remember. 25089_1278222429565_5434882_n

As stated by Lubbers (1998) “At the cornerstone of tennis development lies a common thread, which perhaps stands out as the most important ingredient to success.  This is the development and maintenance of a love and joy for the game (Bloom,1985 and Saviano, 2001).  Research shows that athletes who develop a deep love for a sport and are not pushed into serious and heavy competitive environments too early have the proper basis to excel later in their careers (Gibbons, 1998).”

It’s crucial to allow athletes to fall in love with the game. It’s the foundation needed to stay committed to excelling in their sport throughout their career. Without a love for the game, it’s unfair to ask athletes to dedicate the obscene amount of hours it takes to reach the elite level.

This should be our ultimate goal as coaches, especially at the younger levels; to foster our athletes love of the game.

“The game of basketball has been everything to me. My place of refuge, place I’ve always gone where I needed comfort and peace. It’s been the site of intense pain and the most intense feelings of joy and satisfaction. It’s a relationship that has evolved over time, given me the greatest respect and love for the game.”-  Michael Jordan

References: 

Bloom, B. S., Developing Talent in Young People, Balantine Books, NY, 1985.

Gibbons, T., “The Development of Excellence.  A Common Pathway to the Top in Music, Art, Academics and Sport,” Olympic Coach, 198, Vol. 8, No. 3.

Lubbers, P., A Contrast of Planning Skills Between Expert and Novice College Tennis Coaches, doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1998.

Why Sport Psychology

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I frequently get asked why I chose to pursue sport psychology as a major and as a career. The easy answer was and still is, “It makes me a better coach”. My original reasoning for getting my masters degree in sport psychology was because it would make me eligible to coach at the collegiate level. Now, it’s morphed into so much more than that. I no longer strive to coach at the collegiate level, nor do you need a masters degree to coach at the collegiate level anymore.IMG_9395

Sports have never been about the wins for me, even as an athlete, I’ve always appreciated the value in the experience despite the outcome. As a coach I’m no different; I don’t strive to be the best coach in terms of a winning record or how many athletes receive D1 scholarships. I strive to be the coach that made the biggest impact, the coach that made them love the game, the coach that my athletes will call five years down the road just to check in with. The coach my athletes will call if they ever get into a tough situation or experience a huge success in life. The coach they will look back on and say because of her I am successful.

Sport Psychology is the perfect platform for that. It allows me to seamlessly bridge the gap between sport and life skills. I get to influence my athletes in a way that will benefit them in sports, and in life. It’s a platform that allows me to talk to them about real topics: their fears, goals, motivators, communication styles and mindsets. Sport psychology gives me the opportunity to hear experiences that have impacted their lives and sports careers. Essentially, I get to find what makes them tick, why they are who they are, and how we can grow even further together. That, to me, is most enjoyable role I could possibly get to play as a coach, and that is why I chose Sport Psychology.

Fake it Until You Make it

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        Two years ago, I found myself at high school basketball game supporting a classmate of mine who was coaching. Within seconds of being there, a foul was called and a free throw shot was taken. The player shot the ball, and once she realized she was going to miss the shot she immediately hung her head and mouthed “Dang it”. IMG_2971It took her a second to gather herself before she realized she needed to be on the other end of the court for defense. I kept my eye on this player for next few minutes and noticed after every single “attempt” her body language was full of self-doubt. It was obvious she felt defeated by the physical performance she was displaying. Although I can’t speak to how well she was previously playing before I arrived, her defeated body language wasn’t aiding in current performance.

The head drop, the eye roll, the exasperated sigh; we’ve all seen it. We all know what it means; “I am unhappy with the way I’m performing”.

Fake it until you make it. We’ve heard many great coaches say this. An opponent, even a teammate, should never be able to guess at how you’re feeling on the court. A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to speak with Coach Sue Enquist from UCLA. One of the things she preaches to her players is fake it until you make it. Positive body language is such a huge factor in how you perform. If an opponent thinks you have already defeated yourself, they grow more confident in their ability to beat you.

You can usually pick the better players out by how they carry themselves. If you watch pre-shot routines, those that display more confidence usually have better technique in their shot, even if they don’t actually make the basket.  Confidence is a huge predictor to your level of play. If you don’t have it, fake your confidence! Even if you aren’t feeling confident, pretend you are! Be an actress! Keep your head up after an error even if you want to throw your fist through a wall. It can actually affect the way you feel and play. Positive body language can change the hormones in your body, and literally make you feel more confident. Yes, it’s true. It can also affect how your opponents play against you; it is harder to beat a confident team. It can also affect how your teammates play next to you. Your body language affects them just as much as it does your opponents. Always keep your head up!

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

 

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