Cinderella’s Magic

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 1, 2009 by iceboxathlete

A sports performance Cinderella story for the ages…

Whenever we hear about a wonderful underdog or ‘Cinderella’ story our collective hearts and imagination are quickly captured. We embrace the awe inspiring success of the individual or the team involved, yet we also find ourselves trying to understand the reason for the success. ‘How did this wonderful thing happen?’ we ask ourselves. This past year, on one of the biggest sports stages in the world, David slew Goliath once again. In a thrilling overtime game that will no doubt quickly become a ‘March Madness Classic,’ Jim Larranaga’s scrappy underdogs – George Mason – defeated the mighty Uconn Huskies coached by the legendary Jim Calhoun, to advance to the Final Four. And as the nation embraced their new Cinderella, we once again found ourselves searching for the story within the story – What brought about this compelling victory? Without doubt, immediate credit must be given to the George Mason players whose outstanding offensive execution and gritty defense was consistent, intense and team-centric. Yet, the real story within the story is revealed when we begin to understand the reasons behind the great execution, selfless team play and intensity – solid teaching and leadership.21

Leadership has always been a popular topic of research and discussion, but today’s sports, corporate and social climate has underscored a need for effective leadership that has never been greater. As I travel around the country I am often asked “Of all the leadership traits, which do you think are the greatest?” Whenever I hear this question, I find myself making a very strong case for the following two leadership/teaching attributes – Integrity, and the Ability to Make Others Better.


A father once took his two children to the local fair. The man had a 12 year old, and a 5 year old. The sign on the ticket booth read “Adults $10, children 5 and over $5, and children 4 and under – free.” The man’s 5 year old looked young for his age, and could so easily have passed for a 4 year old infant. The children looked on in silence as the father reached for his wallet. “1 adult and 2 children,” he said as he passed a $20 bill across the counter. The women in the booth looked at him somewhat surprised, “you could have got the little one in for free and just asked for 1 adult and 1 child, and I would never have known that your youngest was over 4.” “They would have known” the man replied.

Many definitions of the word ‘integrity’ exist, but a very succinct definition is ‘an individual who does what they said they would do.’ Integrity begins with the coaching staff. Without an integrity mentor or ‘model,’ athletes sometimes have few guidelines to follow. The thing I find most interesting about integrity within the coaching staff is that sometimes we all look to avoid the ‘big’ things that would potentially damage our integrity – misappropriation of athletic funds, sexual misconduct with a player, etc. However, as damaging as these incidents are to any program, they are for the most part fairly uncommon. Most of the damage to the integrity of a coach or a program is usually caused by the smaller, much more subtle decisions. As the maxim goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The decision to allow a ‘hard and fast rule’ to slide a little or to treat our better players a little differently may not seem like a big deal at the time. In fact, in less than a day or two our actions may be a distant memory in our own minds. But like the children at the fair in the opening story, our players may remember those subtle actions for the rest of their lives. Athletes work harder and play harder for the coaches and programs they truly respect. That respect is evident in the joy and enthusiasm that the George Mason players have for the game, their coach, and their teammates. You get a sense they truly enjoy playing for coach Jim Larranaga.32

A coach who brings great integrity to a program will be able to recruit and develop athletes that also exhibit this key trait. An athlete with personal integrity will be a champion for your team rules and your team culture. This trait is critical. Integrity is an attribute that is possible to lose, and once lost, this attribute is very difficult to get back. For coaches making leadership choices (i.e., selecting team captains etc), choose carefully in this area. No matter how talented the athlete, if they do not have personal integrity then they can lead your program down paths that can poison a team and an entire season. Athletes with great personal integrity are a joy to coach. They help turn good teams into great teams and are the backbone of great team culture.

Making Others Better:

How do we define the ability to ‘make others better?’ I believe this leadership trait transcends mere knowledge and teaching ability. Many coaches have great knowledge, and many of these coaches may also be great teachers who produce highly skilled athletes, but this does not necessarily make these coaches great leaders. In a similar manner, there are many athletes whose raw athletic ability, skill and court savvy may influence a teammate to perform better, but these abilities do not necessarily make these highly skilled athletes great leaders. ‘Making others better’ has as much to do with affecting how an athlete feels about himself/ herself off-court as it does influencing an athlete’s on-court performance.

Let me illustrate this point by briefly discussing a famous anecdote involving two giant historical figures in world leadership. In the mid-19th Century, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were bitter political rivals who had tremendous influence over European and many aspects of World policy. They were known as well connected, highly intelligent and accomplished statesmen. An influential socialite during this era who often hosted elaborate parties for the rich and famous, decided to throw a party and invite both Gladstone and Disraeli with the intention of spending a few minutes to interview and learn more about each of them. After the party, one of her guests was highly curious about her meetings with her two honored guests. “Tell me” he asked, “What was Gladstone like?” “When I had finished speaking with him,” the host responded, “I was convinced he was the smartest man in Europe .” “So tell me,” the guest continued, “What was Disraeli like?” “When I had finished speaking with him,” the host answered, “I was convinced I was the smartest woman in Europe .” Great leaders find a way of bringing out the best in individuals both on and off the court, understanding that self-esteem and confidence has as much to do with on-court performance as a well executed run-and-jump defense or half-court set offense. Coach Jim Larranaga can obviously teach the game (as evidenced by the almost flawless execution of his game plan), but the story within this story is the way he has effectively developed a team of confident young men. Even though George Mason would advance no further in the tournament than the semi-finals, the lessons that coach Jim Larranaga and the 2006 NCAA Tournament imprinted on the player’s self-esteem and confidence will no doubt impact them for the rest of their lives.


Great leadership qualities within the coaching staff will help identify, recruit, and develop great leadership qualities among the players. Great leadership among the players will help the coaches to establish an all-important leadership culture that will permeate every aspect of the program and establish great player accountability that is as much player driven as it is coach driven. These are the programs that embody integrity and a culture that makes others better. These are the programs that compete to their potential, graduate their players, build a legacy, and every so often provide us with a Cinderella story for the ages.


The championship mindset

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 29, 2009 by iceboxathlete

Does your team have a Championship Mindset?

There are literally hundreds of different ways to dissect a championship team. We can look at overall speed, agility, quickness and raw athletic power, defensive ability, game time offensive and defensive execution, shooting ability, passing, rebounding, ability to perform in the clutch, and the list goes on and on. I believe in stripping things down to their most basic form, and as important as each of the aforementioned elements are in their contribution to a championship season, there is a basic question that must first be answered by each athlete individually, and by each team collectively.

1. Are you willing to emotionally commit to a championship run?

At first glance, this question appears so basic and so easy to answer as to appear almost laughable. Many coaches are much more interested in discussing the need to commit the necessary practice intensity, time, blood, sweat and tears in individual and team practice sessions to give them the right to play for a championship, but as we will discuss, this is not nearly as important or difficult as truly committing to a championship run emotionally. Well what’s the difference?

The primary goal of our mind is to preserve life. Put someone in a room that is on fire, and all of a sudden the need to eat, brush your hair, wash, play basketball, expand your knowledge through education, or anything else, becomes relatively unimportant. And so in this instance, the mind makes it a primary priority to get the heck out of that room. For the mind, a close second to life preservation, is preserving the self-esteem. Unlike the body, which can at times heal itself, the mind’s self-esteem has no such function when damaged, and damaged self-esteem left unchecked leads to depression and ultimately total dysfunction. So what’s my point? To emotionally commit to something is to put our self-esteem on the line, feeling the potential for damage and emotional pain if we do not succeed and come up short, suffering the anguish of realizing we are not all we thought we were. Many athletes will give you 100% practice and game intensity and yet you will never know that they have not emotionally committed to a goal of a championship, and this is one of the most misunderstood concepts in sports and our overall understanding of how the mediocre mind vs. the mind of a champion operates.

Many coaches will just be pleased with athletes that will physically commit close to 100%, because truth be told, just that type of commitment alone is not always common. But intensity alone does not win championships. Athletes who have decided that they TRULY care about playing for a championship will also take care of the INTANGIBLES that are critical for championships. These athletes lead better, they hold each other accountable in practice and in games vs. always relying on the coach to make corrections, they ask more questions about the offensive plays and defensive sets, they flat out care more, and they flat out find more ways to win. Do you see how different this is from just mere practice and game intensity? But here is the downside. In my years of working with countless teams and programs, many athletes find it easy to verbalize this emotional commitment vs. truly making the emotional commitment. Why? The reason relates to not wanting to risk the emotional pain of coming up short and the damage to the self-esteem – of not being all you thought you were. One of the axioms I use often is that the pain of not achieving your goals will always be greater than the pain it takes to achieve them. Forgive the poor grammar that I am about to use for emphasis, but ‘truly caring aint easy,’ yet it is critical to win a championship. How do you know your athletes have emotionally committed to the task of winning a championship, and not just verbally committed? You will see it in their eyes after every loss, you will see them with a desire to put someone in the 7th row with a legal, ethical, but extremely powerful and determined box-out in the game following that loss because it was a must have rebound. And you will see it on the practice floor, when you sneak into the gym and hideout just to observe your team practice for a few minutes without you around; and you will see a team practicing with the intensity, energy and focus of a team that wants to win a championship, treating every play like a life or death possession.

However, the thing that is truly amazing about an athlete’s self-esteem is that truly ‘putting it on the line’ emotionally, and truly caring about playing for a championship, only creates a fear and ‘façade’ of damage to the self-esteem. True, the pain of defeat (if it occurs) is real enough, but the real result of truly committing to something on this level is ultimately a heroic rise in self-respect and self-esteem that few things in life will ever equal. I tell athletes to be a ‘hero to themselves.’ And yes, they can be and will be if they ever have the courage to commit to something in life on this level. As a result, their self-respect and self-esteem can only be improved, regardless of the end result. And there are so very few things in life as sacred, pure and inspirational as emotional commitment on this level. The great Bill Russell, one of the greatest winners in the history of all sports – winning 11 NBA Championships in 13 years – once said that “the heart of a champion has to do with the depth of our Commitment.”

For the athletes who are able to give this type of emotional commitment to you, the physical follow through in practice intensity and game intensity will be a formality. These athletes will show up to EVERY practice, and their games will be a mere extension of the way they practice. They take pride in themselves, and pride in their team. It is a type of commitment and mindset that few discuss, yet it is a type of commitment and mindset that wins championships.

The 3 Key Steps to Great Pressure Performance

Posted in Mental Toughness Training, Speed Training with tags , , on April 2, 2009 by iceboxathlete

Here is a sobering thought….In the entire history of collegiate sports, from the NCAA to NAIA, on through the junior college ranks and every other collegiate affiliation, the most important individual and team championship skill is often the skill that is practiced the least…namely the ability to p13erform extremely well under pressure. Of all the sweat, effort, energy and time that is invested in strength training and conditioning, individual and team defense, offensive and defensive rebounding, team offense, individual offensive skills, and pre-game preparation; a relatively small amount of time and emphasis (if any) is placed on this all important athletic trait. Few would argue that the ability to perform under pressure is a critical skill that is often responsible for bringing all of these components together, and a skill that will be the deciding factor in so many games this season.

Many athletes and coaches approach the development of great pressure performance with the mantra ‘we’ll just continue to practice the play or skill ‘till its automatic under pressure.’ And while there is a small element of truth to this strategy, continuously practicing a skill in a ‘practice’ environment, i.e., outside of the intense heat of a championship tournament, only ensures greater proficiency of that skill in that ‘practice’ environment and only marginal to decent improvements in ‘pressure’ situations. A more direct approach takes us directly to the source – training the 3 ½ pounds of electrical energy between our ears….our mind. However, through many years of speaking, traveling and working with teams, I have come to learn that we usually only coach and teach those things that we are comfortable, confident and proficient in teaching. With that in mind, the following 3 steps outline a strong, fundamental yet simple approach to teaching pressure performance. Coaches and athletes wishing to learn more and further develop each of the components are welcome to further explore my training materials.

Step 1. Develop a Great Clutch Attitude

Developing an elite attitude in ‘clutch’ or pressure situations involves 3 resolutions that every athlete should state, repeat and believe in their own mind on a daily basis and EVERY TIME they are in a clutch or pressure situation. As an example, let’s use a situation that decides the outcome of numerous games every season – a key last second shot or freethrow. The athlete should use their own innervoice to reinforce the following beliefs, while really emphasizing the words in caps.

I WANT to take this shot, and LOVE being in these situations
I have worked HARD to be in this situation and DESERVE it
I KNOW I have the ability to make the play

There is a saying that is one of the greatest ‘truisms’ in all of sports; “YOU WILL NEVER OUTPERFORM YOUR SELF-ESTEEM.” These statements are all about creating and improving a powerful self-esteem. If an athlete never sees herself as an all-conference performer and does not TRULY believe she is an all-conference performer, she never will be. If an athlete never sees herself as a clutch performer, she will never consistently perform well in pressure situations – period.

Step 2. Know your optimal arousal level

Some athletes perform extremely well when they are on an emotional high, while others are at their best with relatively low emotions. On an emotional arousal scale of 1-10 (with a 1 equal to an almost comatose pre-game state and a 10 equal to the athlete that regularly high fives teammates so hard their hands sting for 10 minutes) and a performance scale of 1-10 (with a 1 equal to a lifetime worst performance and a 10 equal to a lifetime best performance), I have played with athletes who needed to have an emotional arousal level around 2-4 (very low) in order to consistently perform at an 8-10 (very high). I have also played with athletes who needed to have an emotional arousal level around an 8-10 in order to consistently perform at an 8-10 level. One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced coaches and players make is believing the entire team should be at the same emotional arousal level. Note that emotional arousal level has NOTHING to do with intensity. Athletes do not always have to be ‘jacked up,’ ‘hyped’ or highly emotionally aroused to perform at 100% intensity. Yet many coaches and athletes remove themselves and many of their players from their optimal arousal level, and onto a knife edge of heightened emotions, poor shooting percentages, defensive errors, and mistakes under pressure. Athletes and coaches should know their own optimal arousal level and stay at the level that brings out their very best performance.

Step 3. Practice and Prepare

It has been said that “sometimes things don’t go according to plan because that plan didn’t exist in the first place.” Consistently performing well under pressure takes practice. Coaches and athletes should develop strong practice habits with steps 1 and 2, and also develop a practice schedule that allows for some special ‘pressure’ situations in practice. For example, for clutch free throw shooting, an innovative coach would have his/her players partner shoot 90 free throws each at the end of practice (10 shots each then switch) to work on shot mechanics, then create a conference tournament or pressure environment by shooting the last 10 free throws under duress in sets of two. The coach could play taped crowd noise over the loud speakers during this short ‘pressure’ portion of the free throw practice where each player shoots two free throws immediately after a defensive drill. For every miss, the player runs an ALL OUT Sprint in between each set of two free throws. Players hear the noise of a playoff atmosphere, feel the fatigue of shooting free throws in a game situation, and feel the pressure of having ‘something on the line’ for every shot. In a pressure packed game situation, players will develop greater composure, concentration and confidence because they feel as if they have ‘been there, done that before.’ A smart coach will track the shooting percentage of the first 90 free throws, in addition to tracking the shooting percentage of the last 10 ‘pressure’ shots, in order to measure and monitor improvements.

These simple steps take work from both the players and coaching staff. Yet one last truism in sports is that the pain of not achieving your goals will always be greater than the pain it takes to achieve them. Here’s wishing you tremendous success in your pursuit of these goals!

Poise under Pressure (PART 2) – A True Test of Mental Toughness

Posted in Mental Toughness Training with tags , , on February 11, 2009 by iceboxathlete

In Part 1 of Poise under Pressure we introduced the importance of this critical skill by discussing a hypothetical season where championship tournament games and all of the regular season conference games were decided by at least a 40 point margin each and every night. In such an unrealistic hypothetical season we all know that very little ‘pressure’ would exist in the game of basketball. We discussed how dominant teams would roll into arenas full of confidence and perhaps even arrogance, expecting another blowout and the poor opposing much weaker team would play with a hope of just trying to keep it as close as possible and a hope to ‘look good’ losing. But we all know that there is no such thing as 100% certainty in sports or guaranteed blowouts. Games are more often decided by single digit deficits, and at times by just a point or two. A cursory glance at this year’s NCAA tournament brackets and the deciding score line will quickly reveal what every coach in America and every sports fan already knows; games often go down to the wire.

Part 2 of this series on pressure is more than just understanding how pressure is a common denominator in sports, it is about understanding how pressure can affect an athlete’s ability to relax, destroying good shot selection, negatively impacting assist to turnover ratios, lowering shooting percentages, and negatively affecting overall clutch performance. This discussion will also focus on a highly practical first step to excelling in pressure situations, namely a team’s ability to manage their mistakes.

One of the greatest examples of the importance of this skill in pressure situations has been demonstrated by the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and their leader, MVP candidate Lebron James. Before the 07 playoffs, Steve Kerr, certainly no stranger to playoff toughness and great clutch playoff performances, penned a Yahoo internet article that highlighted some important observations.

“In losses to the Lakers, Portland and Denver, James either missed or passed up several game-winning shot opportunities, and he misfired on several key free throws. What was disconcerting to Cavaliers fans was not missing big shots – even Kobe Bryant does that – but his reaction. James looked distraught over the thought of letting his teammates down, hanging his head and flailing his arms in disgust each time…Kobe, Reggie and Michael…when they did miss, they never showed any negative body language that could be perceived as weakness. They held their heads high and defiantly walked off the floor.”

Mentally Tough Body Language

Why did Steve Kerr pay particular attention to Lebron’s body language and behavior in these situations? This question is best answered by posing an additional question. How would most players feel if just before the end of a game on the deciding play, their coach met with the opposing coach and said “here you go coach, here is the last play of the game ….we will take the ball out on the baseline and we’ll be running a double screen from the elbow for our best shooter, and she will take a nice comfortable 12-15ft shot to seal the victory.” The players would probably ‘pitch a fit,’ and understandably so! In a similar way, it is important for athletes to understand that their facial expressions and body language are responsible for letting their opponents know exactly what is on their mind. Opponents have an advantage whenever they know we are frustrated, fatigued, or experiencing any other negative thought or feeling.

An even more important reason for maintaining great body language is the positive or negative affect body language can have on the athlete who is exhibiting the body language. As an example, try to answer the following question. What do all great actors have in common? Well, one of the things they have in common is the ability to convince us that they have become the people they are pretending to be. But even more remarkable than that, they have the ability to often convince themselves that they are playing a role. The great actors often immerse themselves in their roles to the extent that they are able to physically experience intense emotion such as courage, fear, and confidence, even to the point that they can produce tears of joy or sadness. How are they able to achieve this type of control? Great actors achieve this type of physical response through tremendous imagery and word suggestions in their mind and they also assume the body language of the emotions that they are experiencing to add to these emotions. Think about the last movie scene you saw where an actor laughed or cried and think about the body language that contributed to these different emotions.

The important lesson here begins with the understanding that even great performances will often contain some mistakes. How we physically react to these mistakes will help determine our ability to ‘bounce back,’ stay ‘tough’ and continue to maintain the 4 C’s of Peak Performance – Composure, Concentration, Confidence and Commitment. We should never allow a mistake to cause our eyes, chin or chest to drop after the mistake. We may not be able to play a totally mistake free game, every game, but we can always control our body language. The Lebron James from the 2006 season is a VERY different Lebron from the 2007 playoffs and this year’s 2008 playoffs. The transformation has not been physical, it has been all mental.

Great coaches establish a great culture of exceptional body language both on and off the court, and they do not tolerate negative body language. Watch a selection of games from this year’s Women’s NCAA tournament again and put duct tape on the bottom of the TV so that you cannot see the score. Then turn the volume off on the TV set, and you will quickly see the difference between the toughest teams in the country and everyone else. You will often know who is winning and who is losing in the space of just a couple of minutes of action, all without knowing the score or listening to the play by play. When the tough teams are down a few points, or even double digits, they NEVER show that frustration. This year, Tennessee was as good as I have seen in recent years in their ability to handle their mistakes. And for teams of this caliber, their ability to control a physical, emotional and/or verbal response to mistakes will also extend to other forms of adversity that may shake a mentally weaker team, including:

1. On-court negative response to opponent intimidation
2. On-court negative attitude when substituted
3. On-court response to questionable officiating
4. On-court negative response to a mistake
5. On-court response to an opposing team making ‘a run’

Poise under Pressure (PART 1) – A True Test of Mental Toughness

Posted in Mental Toughness Training with tags , , on February 4, 2009 by iceboxathlete

If every championship tournament game, and all of the regular season conference games were decided by a 40 point margin each and every night, very little ‘pressure’ would exist in the game of basketball. The dominant teams would roll into arenas full of confidence and perhaps even arrogance, expecting another blowout and the poor opposing much weaker team would play with a hope of just trying to keep it as close as possible and a hope to ‘look good’ losing. But we all know that there is no such thing as 100% certainty in sports. Further, games are often decided by single digit deficits, and at times by just a point or two. A cursory glance at last year’s NCAA tournament brackets and the deciding score line will quickly reveal what every coach in America and every sports fan already knows; games often go down to the wire.

So why spend a short paragraph writing about something that is already so well understood? The purpose is to provide a strong reminder of the critical link between tight games, clutch situations and pressure, a concept and a link that is not so well understood.

More than anything else, pressure affects an athlete’s ability to relax, which in turn can alter shot selection, assist to turnover ratios, shooting percentages, overall clutch performance, and the list goes on and on. Yet for many coaches, composure and the ability to relax is a double edged sword, with some coaches believing that in order to remain relaxed, intensity must be sacrificed. This is simply not true. An inverse relationship between composure and intensity does not exist. A player can maintain 100% intensity, yet still be fully composed and relaxed when she needs to be.

The dangerous approach

So how do we develop composure in our players? Lets us begin by exploring how NOT to develop the trait. Yelling, screaming or evenly quietly admonishing players to “RELAX!” during a timeout or game is certainly not the most efficient way of achieving player composure. In fact the opposite effect sometimes is unintentionally created by the coach. A command to relax that is given to a player who does not have the skills to relax and deal with the pressure, is only going to make that player increasingly anxious and nervous, making them increasingly aware of their state of anxiety in addition to their inability to deal with the nervousness, tension and lack of composure. Any coach will tell you that a team can only consistently execute a terrific flex offense if they know what the flex offense is and have practiced the flex successfully together as a team at some point. Can you imagine the look of astonishment on the faces of the assistant coaches if the head coach yells to the point, “run the flex.” “Ummm Coach,” the apprehensive assistant coach might begin, “we’ve never run the flex before….they don’t know it.” Obviously, few head coaches would call for the flex to be run under these circumstances! Yet when coaches tell players to ‘relax’ or ‘not be nervous,’ in a similar way, they may be asking for something that the players simply do not know how to execute. An additional approach which certainly can help with composure, but is often seen as the only solution to composure, is physical skills practice. Some coaches mistakenly believe that if you practice something enough, then it will become automatic under game conditions. If this were the case, then clutch free throw shooting percentages would always be as good as practice free throw percentages. As we all know, this is not always the case. Shooting 800 jump shots a day will certainly improve shooting composure in games, because being more proficient at any skill creates greater confidence levels which in turn can have a positive affect on composure levels. However, shooting 800 shots a day in a practice environment has a much greater effect on the proficiency and execution of that skill in that practice environment than it will do compared to execution in a competitive situation or harder still, a high pressure competitive situation (such as a free throw to ice the game). The key to performing consistently in high pressure conditions, is to specifically develop composure as an actual skill.

When I travel the country to work with teams on mental skills and toughness training who may be performing well, but want to increase their conference or national ranking, or work with teams that are underperforming or in a slump, one of the questions I ask as I examine the critical mental skills and toughness trait issues affecting the team is, is this issue a ‘won’t do’ or a ‘can’t do’ issue or a combination of both of these issues? If it is a ‘won’t do’ issue, then there is an attitude adjustment or a very strong sense of commitment that I will install. If it is a ‘can’t do’ issue, then there is a critical skills gap, which requires a different type of training – mental skills development in a specific area. I share this because in my experience, a lack of composure or consistent loss of composure, be it during critical on court decision making or on the free throw line, is a ‘can’t do’ issue requiring skills training. A team I worked with in the past four weeks was a strong underachieving division one program that was not nationally ranked, yet probably should have been were it not for a number of defeats by just 1-3 points, almost all of which had occurred as a result of an inability to execute in the clutch. For this particular team, their clutch performance was often a can’t do issue. The workshop on composure immediately led to a win over a top 20 ranked program.

Developing the composure skill

Contrary to popular belief, composure can be taught as well as a baseline jump hook, bounce pass, or pick and roll. After understanding what composure is and how to practice composure, the key quickly becomes composure practice consistency.

Step 1 – understanding how the mind creates stress

People are often concerned and sometimes fearful about things that they do not understand. For this reason, pressure and nervousness in sports is often a huge area of pre-game, in-game and post-game anxiety for many athletes. Worse still, discussing these thoughts and feelings is a ‘place where few athletes enjoy going’ for fear of being perceived as mentally weak, foolish, giving away a mental edge or advantage to teammates who may be competing for their playing time, or having their playing time affected by a coaching decision due to their public admission of nervousness. For these reasons, game time anxiety and nervousness remains an almost silent, unspoken pain. Smart coaches find smart ways to talk about this vs. sweeping it under the proverbial game time rug, and these smart coaches find innovative ways to broach the subject without athletes fearing they have lost face or will be seen as weak. There is a tremendous sense of bonding and togetherness among a group of athletes who begin to realize that “its ok,” “everyone is pretty much experiencing the same things,” “and we’ll get through it together.” In itself, these types of informal team meetings (some may be player lead, other meetings coach led) can be of some help to maintaining composure levels, but it is just a first step. As we will discover, the next step is to develop a team practice routine to develop the composure skills that will have a huge impact on game time performance.

Before we get to step 2 however, we must first outline the type of conversation that needs to occur in step 1. The first thing to discuss is the fact that this feeling of nervousness has been common to all athletes, from Michael Jordan to Diana Taurasi. The feeling is normal and not necessarily a negative. The key is what becomes of this feeling of nervousness. Is it transferred to excited energy, or does it become uncomfortable and debilitating muscular tension? We should next discuss, the process by which nervousness is created. On a very basic level, any area of the brain called the hypothalamus recognizes stress and activates two different response systems. Picture this like a rainstorm at the top of a mountain that results in two different rivers that flow down this mountain. The first river is the ‘sympathetic river’ which activates many of our primary organs directly (causing changes in our heart rate, perspiration, muscular tension etc), and the second river is the ‘pituitary’ river that flows through the pituitary gland (a small pea sized gland in the brain), that in turn stimulates our stress hormones, often resulting in the same traits as river #1 – increased heart rate with altered breathing patterns, the shutdown of the digestive system, an uncomfortable knotting sensation in the stomach and throat, and increased muscular tension. Collectively, these rivers are caused the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that when this energy is used to positively focus and sustain intensity, it can produce lifetime best performances, but when this energy turns into an uncomfortable level of muscular tension and nervousness, fine motor skills and intricate firing patterns of the muscles (responsible for things like free throw shooting) are altered, and smooth practice mechanics quickly become ‘brick city’ in games. In time, we will learn how to solve this. However, I cannot emphasize the following point enough…clenching our teeth and fists and wanting to win a game the most is NOT the path to a combination of great composure and intensity. There is nothing wrong with intensity and ‘wanting it the most.’ In fact it is an important trait of any championship team. However, this mindset does not guarantee clutch composure. Any accomplished coach will tell you that only Hollywood gives the win each and every time to the team that ‘wants it the most.’ In real life, the team that executes their offense and defense the best will win the game – period. And skills execution in high pressure/clutch situations takes composure. Again, even a simple, basic working knowledge of this process is somewhat comforting for athletes, especially as they arrive at the realization of how much control they truly have over a process that is set in motion by their own perceptions of the game or game specific situation.

Part 1 of this discussion has so far examined the need for greater composure training, explored some of the myths connected to clutch composure, and provided an overview of the mind-body connection of composure, important for each coach and athlete to at least have a basic understanding of. The next issue of the WBCA journal will include Part 2 of “Poise under Pressure,” and will examine more of the skills training necessary to achieve a consistent level of clutch composure. Part 2 will discuss:

1. Reducing muscular tension
2. Mistake management to increase composure
3. Finding a player’s optimal emotional arousal
4. Reducing the stress response under pressure
5. Having a championship mindset for clutch situations

Ultimate Pre-game Preparation – Part 2 – Composure, Focus and Intensity

Posted in Mental Toughness Training with tags , , on February 2, 2009 by iceboxathlete

In Part 1 of Ultimate Pre-game Preparation (published in the last issue of the WBCA Journal), we focused on pre-game preparation from the coach’s perspective, and introduced the important differences between emotional arousal and intensity. Every coach’s goal is to have each individual player and the collective team play at an optimal level of intensity from tip-off to the final whistle. However, in Part 1, we discussed the importance of separating elevated emotions from elevated intensity. We learned how some players are naturally very reserved, quiet and emotionally even keeled, yet they consistently play at a high intensity. These players are often hurt by the fiery pre-game speech and hype that pulls them out of their optimal emotional arousal level and hurts their ability to stay composed and focused. Other players need the fiery pre-game message and need a high level of pre-game emotional arousal to bring out their best level of focus and intensity. The take home message here is that smart coaches often restrict the collective team pre game speech to team strategy, individual tactical assignments and minor motivational messages, leaving the truly emotionally charged messages to one-on-one individual pre-game meetings. Phil Jackson is renowned for his ability to truly understand the connection between the emotional arousal and intensity of his players on an individual basis. He has often said that he never lets his heart rate get above 100 beats per minute and uses volume control in his voice very, very carefully. Here is a coach that knows how to motivate on an individual basis. His teams are typically highly motivated, intense, yet typically very composed and consistent.

Part 2 of Ultimate Pre-game Preparation discusses some key ways in which the athletes should prepare themselves to play at an optimal intensity level. To accomplish this, one of the first things we must develop is an understanding of why intensity, focus and motivation sometimes take a nose dive in certain games. The myriad of reasons why we play sports and relish competition lies deep within an emotional well commonly called ‘commitment,’ ‘drive,’ and ‘motivation.’ For most of us, this motivation stems from a deep passion and love we have for the sport we play. We very rarely ever fall ‘out of love’ with our sport, so why is it that our motivation levels sometime seem to dip a little or even remain very low for some games? The answer to this question is far from easy. It could relate to many different factors, including excessive stress, an excessive amount of self-imposed pressure, a negative shift in our self-perception and confidence or a combination of these things. Many different factors need to be examined including nutrition, rest levels, stress levels, and the list goes on. However, in my experience, the single biggest contributing factor that contributes to a reduction in composure, focus, intensity and commitment is excessive stress caused by excessive self-imposed pressure. Excessive self-imposed pressure from one game to the next can slowly drain the all important joy and fun components out of the game, so important for sustained motivation and intensity.

Excessive self-imposed pressure will also create fear and anxiety in the athlete; it can cause excessive and uncomfortable game time muscle tightness and nervousness, ruin touch, ruin shooting accuracy and ruin decision making ability. The sources of this pressure can relate to how the athlete feels they will be perceived by the media, the fans, their family, their teammates and themselves, should they not live up to certain expectations. The key to reducing this level of self-imposed pressure is three fold:

  • 1. Realizing that not a single solitary person in the media, fan base, family or even the team can ultimately control their level of composure, focus, intensity, commitment or confidence.
  • 2. The only expectations that matter are the expectations they have for themselves.
  • 3. The expectations they have for themselves should always focus on the controllable elements of a game (i.e. clutch focus, composure, intensity, commitment and confidence, bouncing back very well from any mistakes) vs. statistical averages.

Peak performance is rarely attained with a focus on how hard you can grit your teeth, clench your fists and how determined you are to have a 20 and 10 night to keep your chances of an all-conference selection alive and well. There is nothing wrong with setting lofty individual all-Conference, all-Region, or all-American goals, in addition to lofty statistical goals that fit within the team concept. Those goals are very important goals that should be set and need to be set during the pre-season, but they should have ZERO relevance to pre-game preparation and game-time performance. Players that focus on these ‘uncontrollable’ goals during pre-game and during the actual game create unnecessary self-imposed pressure. The athletes that use the pre-game period to focus on the correct pre-game goals (i.e. the truly controllable goals of clutch focus, composure, intensity, commitment and confidence, bouncing back very well from any mistakes, etc) remain composed and focused on game time strategy execution. These athletes are prepared to bring optimal levels of intensity onto the floor and are prepared to play with an elite level of poise, focus and confidence.

Pre-game Preparation. Part 1: Mastering the Pre-Game Speech

Posted in Mental Toughness Training with tags on February 2, 2009 by iceboxathlete

Coaches and athletes alike are well aware of the individual differences that exist in skill levels on any given team. Some players are better athletes than others, while other players are better defensively, better rebounders, or have better individual offensive skills or passing ability than others. Because of these differences, smart coaches build offenses and defenses and assign roles based on the respective skill levels of the athletes currently in their program. Yet, for as many differences as there are in physical traits within any given team, there are an equal number of extremely important mental trait differences among the players. Unlike the differences in physical traits and skill among players that are typically well understood and effectively utilized, the differences in mental traits among players are not nearly as well understood or utilized. When athletes and coaches do not pay attention to these mental trait differences, the team is often robbed of some of its potential. The result is a team which lacks consistency, often underperforms, and finishes the season with a win-loss column that does not reflect its true potential and ability. Nowhere is this lack of attention to mental trait differences more apparent than in the coaches’ pre-game speech and in each athlete’s own pre-game preparation.

Part 1 of this two part series on pre-game preparation will focus on the pre-game speech, while part 2 (to be published in the next WBCA Journal) will discuss how to maximize an athlete’s own pre-game preparation.

The difference between intensity and emotional arousal

Some athletes perform extremely well when they are on an emotional high, while others are at their best with relatively low emotions. On an emotional arousal scale of 1-10 (with a 1 equal to an almost comatose pre-game state and a 10 equal to the athlete that regularly high fives teammates so hard their hands sting for 10 minutes!) and a performance scale of 1-10 (with a 1 equal to a lifetime worst performance and a 10 equal to a lifetime best performance), I have played with athletes who needed to have an emotional arousal level around 2-4 (very low) in order to consistently perform at an 8-10 level (very high). I have also played with athletes who needed to have an emotional arousal level around an 8-10 in order to consistently perform at an 8-10 level. One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced coaches and players make is believing that the entire team should be at the same emotional arousal level. Note that emotional arousal level has NOTHING to do with intensity. Athletes do not always have to be ‘jacked up,’ ‘hyped’ or highly emotionally aroused to perform at 100% intensity. Yet many coaches and athletes remove themselves and many of their players from their optimal arousal level, and onto a knife edge of heightened emotions, poor shooting percentages, defensive errors, and mistakes under pressure. Unfortunately, Hollywood caliber sports movies have done an outstanding job of extending a traditional sports fallacy that the team that appears to ‘want it the most’ and comes out of the locker room the most fired up and ‘psyched to the gills’ will get the win. Some coaches even count their fiery emotionally laden pre-game speech abilities among their most useful skill sets. Yet, experience teaches us that while high intensity is critical for most parts of the game of basketball (rebounding and defense as an example), lower intensity is needed for certain types of offensive execution and fine motor skills coordination (try shooting a high percentage from the foul line or shooting a jump shot while ‘jacked up’ with maximum intensity…. your percentage will look like a minor league baseball batting average). This is not to say that there is not a time and place for the emotionally charged percussion of a great pre-game speech. But the great coaches and athletes understand that basketball is like a great symphony, made up of so much more than raw percussion. Varied volume control makes for great symphonic music that balances emotional percussion with the timing and skillful execution and concert of the string, wind and brass sections. A team that understands how to consistently execute a beautifully run flex offense that results in an open, soft, and perfect 12ft jump shot, and then quickly gets into an aggressive full court run and jump defense that consistently results in opponent turnovers, understands how to make this music.

Athletes and coaches should know their own optimal arousal levels and stay at the level that brings out their very best performance. This means that pre-game speeches should sometimes focus almost entirely on game strategy, while emotionally laden messages should be delivered on an as needed and more individual basis. Most athletes know how to get themselves ‘up’ for a game. Take some time to sit back and watch your players at work during your next pre-game. Some players will sit silently, some will talk, some will find distraction and deflect their nervousness with humor, while others love to let their mp3 players shape their game face. A fiery pre-game speech is just what some of your players want and need, while that same speech will just as effectively pull some of your other players right out of their game and into a poor performance (though of course most would never dare admit that to you!).

The truly great coaches and athletes understand that the purpose of a great pre-game session is to bring an optimal level of composure, concentration, confidence and commitment for each individual onto the game floor. These mental skills & toughness traits are called the 4 C’s of Peak Performance, and each athlete will need to arrive at this optimal state of mind through a slightly different route during the pre-game. The coaches that use the pre-game session and speech to accomplish this will start the game with a distinct advantage over their opponent.