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Keeping the Game in Check

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As we role into the Word Series of D1 NCAA softball there’s plenty of opportunity to watch elite athlete’s succeed and fail in the face of pressure. It’s make it or break it time; it’s win or go home. Athletes are facing some of the most difficult situations of their careers, everything is on the line, and they can taste that world series championship.

An Article was recently published with the title: “How butterflies and TED talks boosted Georgia’s Alyssa DiCarol”. The article sheds lights on the pressures faced by successful athletes and how they effectively keep them at bay.  (Read it here: 2019 NCAA softball tournament: How butterflies and TED Talks boosted Georgia’s Alyssa DiCarlo)

Alex Scarborough quotes DiCarol’s experience growing up, “Earlier in her career, she sometimes let nerves get the best of her. She had devoted everything to the sport — “It’s my life,” she said. “I didn’t go to prom, didn’t go to homecoming. I didn’t do anything but softball” — and the idea of not living up to expectations made her timid on the diamond.” As she points out, athletes who reach the collegiate level often miss out on other social opportunities along the way. Due to this their evaluation of their self is purely based in sport. When they fail in sport they feel like a failure overall. Sports are their entire life, so they when fail in sport they feel as though they are failing as a person. They aren’t just failing on the field, it’s much bigger than that to them. For this reason it’s crucial to give our young athletes a healthy sport-life balance. Especially when they are young, they need the opportunity to grow all aspects of who they are. They need room to discover their talents in music, school, friendships, and hobbies. They need to feel that they have value in a variety of atmospheres so when they fail in one they have other confidences to fall back on. If kids had these opportunities throughout their athletic careers the pressure to perform would be far less. (I wrote a blog recounting my experience in having a healthy sport-life balance a while back, you can read it here: Keep a Sport-Life Balance)

In the article DiCarol is also quoted with commenting on how her mental game has helped her succeed; “Being mentally tough,” she said, “keeping your emotions at bay is something I’ve had to work on a lot.” The mental game is often over looked, especially by coaches of youth athletes. They don’t have the training or the experience to teach young athletes how to use their mind to excel. Even more important than excelling, having an effective mental game can help athletes of all ages experience more joy while playing the game. Having the tools to deal with the high pressure demands that come with being an athlete keeps the negative emotions at bay and allows more room for the positive ones to flourish.

Teaching athletes mental game strategies and giving them the room to explore their other talents can help to keep the game in check. Keeping the game in check has the potential to give athletes the best opportunity to fully develop into themselves, both as a an athlete and a person.

But He Didn’t Get a Hit…

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I wanted to write a follow up article to my original “My kid is in a slump, what I do do” post. If you haven’t checked out that post yet, you can read it here: My kid is in a slump, what can I do?

I had a parent come back to me after reading this blog and discussing it with me. She described her son’s latest plate performance. ” He got two at bats. He was hit by a pitch and walked. He didn’t swing one time! He’s so timid up there and lacking confidence!”

I went to the checklist:

Did he have a positive mindset? No. She reported that her son was worried about getting a hit. Did he have strong body language? A little yes and a little no. Did he swing at the correct pitches? He didn’t swing at any of them! My next question was, how many of those pitches were strikes? The mom explained that the pitcher was young and just learning so the umpire gave him a very large strike zone. The strikes that were called against her son weren’t technically strikes. Did he swing well? N/A.photo-1490326149782-dd42fa59bd9f.jpeg

I took into account that her son is 7 and gave her a different perspective.

Her son did exactly what he was supposed to do at the plate. He was patient and demonstrated self control. He didn’t swing at pitches that were balls and got on base because of it! He reached first twice! That’s productive for his team! (As this athlete progresses, yes, they must learn to adjust their strike zone a little bit to match the umpires) At 7 years old, this at bat was a total success!

This is an at bat that can be used to boost his confidence. He helped out his team by demonstrating self control at the plate and having a good eye. He was productive! He added two base runners to the game! Using this out look consistently will naturally help him to have a more positive mindset and stronger body language because he will feel successful more often.

I decided to not address his lack of mental and physical confidence at the plate because he is currently feeling very defeated in his baseball performances. This wasn’t the right time to “coach him up” so to speak. At this stage in the game, I suggested that she simply work with him to have a positive mindset and a strong presence at the plate in their next practice session. Reflecting on this past performance and making him aware that he didn’t have either of those things won’t be helpful in this moment.

Being successful at the plate doesn’t always translate into getting a hit. The younger the athlete is the harder it is for them to understand this. Keep using this checklist with them and watch their confidence grow as they begin to realize how tangible success is!

My kid is in a slump, what can I do?

Slumps are tough for kids. They begin to feel like no matter what they do they are never going to get a hit.IMG_3948 It tends to snowball into more of a mental hang up than a physical one. As parents and coaches we know dips and peaks in performance are normal, especially for our young athletes. So what can you do to help them get out of their funk before the negative mindset tarnishes their confidence? In order to help them regain confidence in their athletic abilities it is helpful if you reframe their definition of success at the plate by focusing on what they can control.

The goal shouldn’t be to get a hit because technically you aren’t in control of that. There are too many factors at play – umpires, pitchers, fielders, score keepers etc. The goal should be to have a good or productive at bat.

What does having a good at bat look like?

1. Productive mindset. This is a HUGE idea with so many ways to instill it but I’ll try to keep it simple. Explain that their thoughts need to help them succeed. They can’t just have random thoughts that wonder through their mind at the plate, nor can they have negative thoughts that hinder their performance at the plate. They need to have thoughts that will help them produce the outcome they want. Think of three things they can say to themselves in the on deck circle and in the box that will lead them to success. Have a mix of confidence boosters and mechanical cues. (Examples – 1. I’m a powerful hitter. 2. keep my hands high 3. Keep my weight back. Or 1. Step early. 2. I’m a great baseball player 3. See it and crush it.) Make sure these statements are phrased in an outcome focused manner. Have them say things they want to accomplish as opposed to things they want to avoid. (Example – Keep my hands high vs. Don’t drop my hands).

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2. Strong Body language. Strong body language is a much more tangible expectation than simply saying “Make sure you look confident at the plate”. Have your athlete practice showing strong body language and weak body language so they understand the expectation.

3. Swinging at the right pitches. Batters never get to choose which pitches they are thrown but they can choose which ones they swing at. Swinging at good pitches is imperative to having a productive at bat.

4. Swinging well at those selected pitches. They’ve chosen which pitches to swing at, now they must also swing well at those pitches. Did they use the proper hitting mechanics that their hitting coaches have been instilling in them?

Use these things as a checklist after every at bat.

Did you have a productive mindset?

Did you have strong body language?

Did you swing at the right pitches?

Did you swing well at those pitches?

You can do this with them in the backyard or at the cages to instill the habit and begin to switch their perspective on success. Practice “real” at bats with them. Before the at bat make sure to give them time to do their 3 mental statements. It may help if you do it out loud with them. Then have them step in the “box” with strong body language. After each at bat go through the checklist with thimg_3949.pngem. Use the no answers as moments to coach and improve. Use the yes answers to deliver well deserved praise!

Focusing solely on the things they can control makes success feel more tangible. When hitters, especially kids, are in a slump (on a side note, don’t use that word when speaking to them about their performance) getting a hit feels like something that happens by chance. Like all these factors have to magically align and then they can finally get a hit. They relate it more to luck than talent. By focusing on the controllable things they’ll feel more confident because they will begin to realize that they play the biggest role in their success at the plate.

WARNING. This isn’t an over night fix. Switching their definition of success takes consistency and time. I urge you to try and always use this language when talking about hitting with them. Your language will dictate the language they use in their head with themselves. By speaking this way about hitting they can use their hitless at bats as learning opportunities because there are specific things they can change/ fix. When they do get a hit (which they will because they are focusing on the process which is how hits happen) they will well up with confidence because they will know it wasn’t chance or luck. It was their deliberate hard work.

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

 

Say “Do” instead of “Don’t”

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Our minds are busy places. They are constantly on overload with all the sights and sounds that are consistently in our presence. In order for our minds to process the overwhelming number of stimulants that are present at any given moment, they must employ a simple trick. Our brains make sense of this chaotic world by picking out the most prominent things.download For instance, in the sentence, “Don’t think about a pink elephant”, Our brains immediately pick out the image of a pink elephant and begin to picture it. Even though the statement was asking us NOT to think of the pink elephant, our brains picked out the biggest subject and ran with it. The word “don’t” didnt make it into our conscious thoughts.

This is a perplexing concept to ponder when observing a youth sport competition. It seems the coaches and parents are frequently instructing the athletes by informing them of what NOT to do. “Don’t pull your head”, “Don’t drop your hands”, or “Don’t give up”. All these statements have the athletes focusing on the undesired action; pulling their head, dropping their hands, and giving up. download (1)These kids now have a prominent picture of what the coach doesn’t want them to do playing through their head.

It’s more beneficial to athletes if you explicitly tell them what you want to see. “Don’t pull your head” is better said as, “Keep your eye on the ball”. This reconstructed statement forces the athletes mind to focus on seeing the ball rather than pulling their head.
It’s a little tricky at first to reconstruct all statements from a negative focus to a positive focus, but with a little practice it can be done!

It’s common for sport coaches to ask players to eliminate “can’t” from their vocabulary and self-talk. These coaches are trying to keep athletes from engaging in negative self-talk, and hindering their performances with a negative attitude. I’m suggesting that parents, coaches, and athletes alike eliminate “don’t” from their vocabulary. Keep the instructions athletes are receiving focused on the desired action. Make sure that team goals are written out in a positive form and lack the word “Don’t”. Encourage athletes to engage in positive self-talk by keeping their minds focused on where they want to go.

Imagery is one of the most researched strategies in sport psychology. Research suggests that envisioning success leads to success. Eliminating the word “don’t” from parents’, coaches’, and athletes’ vocabularies will assist athletes in envisioning success, and will lead to more successful performances. Say “Do” instead of “Don’t”.

 

Baring it all

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One Game, One Love.

Coaching perspectives and life lessons of a Sports Psychology M.A.

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M I Initiatives

Belief in Human Potential

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