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Effort Counts Twice

“Coach thinks I suck,” she states as she kicks some sand around.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I use to be the top athlete on the team, coach use to always look to me. Now I haven’t gotten better and he thinks I suck compared to everyone else. That’s why he doesn’t put me on varsity,” She lowers her head and kicks some more sand.

I look at her for a moment, considering what she just said. I think back to the practices so far that year.  During the drills, there are other athletes who are taking it more seriously to improve their skills. She tends to be off to the side, striking up side conversations and not putting in the same time and effort as the other athletes.

“Coach doesn’t think you suck,” I tell her, “He knows you are capable of performing at a greater level, we all do. Your ability isn’t in question, I think maybe you just need to show everyone that you care to get better.”

“Really?” She asks sounding surprise, “Maybe…”

As a coach, what matters more isn’t the natural ability or skill an athlete has, it’s the effort that they put in and out of practice. I would rather play my less skilled, but more hard-working athlete than a more skilled athlete who doesn’t seem to do the work to improve.

Many athletes may feel that a coach is treating them unfairly when they aren’t given enough playing time or placed on the varsity team when they feel their abilities compare to those who are given that chance. If that is the case for you, maybe it’s more than coaches opinion of your ability. Maybe you do have the same ability that the other athletes do, but what else is going on?

Pay attention to the other components that matter to a team and a coach. How is your attitude at practice? Are you upbeat, positive, and encouraging? Or do you complain and sulk around. Consider the work ethic you put into the drills as well. Do you do them halfway and put in limited work, or are you actually focusing on the drill and putting in everything that you have?

Talent doesn’t trump work ethic.

“Hard-work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.”

If you can show a coach that you care about improving, that will go much farther than simply accepting and being ok with the ability that you currently have. Other players will step up their game and eventually you will lose your spot because their improvements will outshine your stagnant abilities.

As coaches, we should also put greater importance on hard-work and improving our skills rather than focusing on those with “natural talent.” This will instill and foster a growth mindset in your athletes, which will boost their self-confidence and encourage them to work harder at honing in their craft. If you focus on natural talent, that willl only encourage a fixed-mindset, which will decrease their efforts and make them believe that they are unable to improve and grow their skills. Don’t you want a team that works hard, believes that they can improve, and strive for getting better every day rather than settling for what skills they already have?

Demonstrate this in and out of practice by praising hard-work and effort, over outcome and abilities. The athletes that keep trying to improve and put in the work to do so are the ones to focus on because they will help set the tone for the team that we don’t settle where we’re at, we always want to improve and get better.

Coaching Confessions

This year I had the opportunity to be a part of the coaching staff for a high school track and field team. I coached collegiately with sprinters and relays for a year and really enjoyed it, so this opportunity definitely piqued my interest.

However, here was the catch; due to the lack of coaches, I will need to pick up a field event. I was always a sprinter, mainly the 400-meter dash. The only field event I attempted was high jump for about two years in high school, and I attempted it rather pathetically might I add.

My options were: pole vault, high jump, throws, or long & triple jump.

This was my thinking process:

  • Throwing and sprinting does not have much relation to one another.
  • The high jump was something I at least tried, but I don’t know how to coach it.
  • Pole vault – what if I kill someone?
  • Long and triple jump, hey at least there’s sprinting involved!

I found out that one of the coaches was a high jumper so I removed that one from my list of potential options and decided to take on horizontal jumps.

I highly encourage and talk to others about the importance of getting out of your comfort zone. Well, here I was DEFINITELY out of my comfort zone being the long and triple jumps coach. In the minimal spare time I did have I found myself researching the event. I read articles about the different phases, the different styles of starting, and the landing components. Then came the drills and technique drills – wow there were so many! How was I ever going to decide what would be best?

Well, I had to look inside and reflect on what type of coach I actually wanted to be for these kids. I wanted to share the 10 pillars of my coaching philosophy that I established with you. I also wanted to share my coaching triumphs and failures along the way, because let’s be honest; coaching is not as easy as people may think.

  1. Connecting before Coaching:

Since I was still new to the long and triple jump, I cared more about trying to get to know my athletes rather than teaching them all of the skills of the jumps. The ways I reached out to connect and show them I care was getting to know their name, which for me was hard-work because I do not have the best memory with names I would also ask about how school was going, got to know their interests outside of track, and introduced myself to their parents and families at meets. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to impress them with my lack of knowledge of the jumps, so instead, my focus was on connecting with my athletes before I actually coached them.  

2. Less is more:

The jumps, especially triple jump, has so many components to it that it’s confusing as a coach to even learn. How was I going to teach all of it to my jumpers? Instead of bombarding them with a lot of information I wanted to keep it simple. I referred to the KISS method, which means Keep It Simple Stupid, for my coaching philosophy. Less is more in my mind and I wanted to target only a few key drills. If we could consistently work on only a few parts of the jumps, then the athletes could master those before learning the rest. I would rather by very strong in certain phases, rather than being mediocre in all phases. Besides, high school track is already a short season and I did not have a lot of time with them.

3. Make it fun:

If the athletes are not enjoying their event or having fun at practice and meets, then what’s the point? Constantly being criticized or yelled at is what makes athletes quit, not better. Some rules I had to keep it fun was to never yell at my athletes, always provide positive and constructive feedback, and to not take it so seriously. This is high school after all, not the Olympics. Yes, I’m a competitive person and want my athletes to succeed, but that’s not my sole focus. I’d rather have them enjoy what they’re doing and perform poorly than hate what they’re doing and perform well. Plus, the more fun that they have, the better they’ll perform in my book!

4. Mindset Matters:

My educational background includes an MA in Sport and Exercise Psychology, so mindset is huge for me. I always wanted to know what was going on inside of my athlete’s minds before, during, and after their performance. Checking in with where they are mentally was crucial and I often asked them what they’re thinking about or what self-talk they were having.  I also did a lot of goal-setting, which I think is important because it directs their motivation and helps me as a coach to understand what they wanted to achieve. The very first practice I also asked all jumpers why they wanted to jump to understand their purpose and reasoning for being a jumper. I think that this is important for me as a coach to realize because it can help me understand what can motivate them and understand them a bit more.

5. Focus on the positives:

I’m naturally a pretty positive person, and I definitely believe in the power of positivity. I wanted to drive this home with my athletes and bring it to the forefront of my coaching style. I understand that in sports everything can’t be rainbows and unicorns, but there is good in every practice and every meet. Every time I offered feedback I tried to use the sandwich approach, which means I would start with something they did well then add in the constructive feedback before ending with another positive. I also had the athletes tell me what went well at practice for each day. There were some days I forgot to bring it up before practice was over, but I attempted to do it often so that they could also try to find the positives in each day. After their performance at meets I would also make them tell me something that went well, even if they were extremely frustrated with their performance. This makes them get out of their anger to focus on what they actually did well.

6. Be honest and open:

As Brene Brown says, there is no courage without vulnerability. I also believe in being honest and open by being willing to be vulnerable with your teams. Showing vulnerability teaches your athletes that you are also a regular person who makes mistakes, messes up, and forgets things. I would often do this by telling them right off the bat that although I have a lot of experience with track and field as an athlete, I was never a long or triple jumper and am still learning. I wanted them to know that although I am unfamiliar with their event, that I am passionate about making them better and that I am learning everything I can to be the best coach I can be for them. I think showing this vulnerability to them helped them connect to me more, and it also allowed for them to teach me about their field event as well, which created leadership moments.

7. Provide autonomy:

The top 3 factors that create intrinsic motivation include competence, relatedness, and autonomy according to the self-determination theory. I highlighted autonomy by being able to give them moments in and outside of practice where they had control and a choice. I would create ownership by asking them what they wanted to work on at practice, what drills they liked, and also what they didn’t like. I wanted to create an environment that supported honest feedback so that they could add in their input and opinions. I also increased autonomy by creating the SP GRIT awards, which is an acronym of the team’s values After each week they were able to nominate and vote for an athlete who upheld the values the best.

8. Develop leaders:

Since I was stilling figuring out what I was doing as a coach, I wanted to create strong leaders within the jumps crew to help the team and myself. I also wasn’t at practice some days and I wanted to trust that certain athletes could lead practice effectively without me there. I would establish leaders by having athletes demonstrate certain drills, assign older athletes to help out and support the younger athletes, and to lead practices in my absence. It’s important as a coach to find leadership moments, no matter how small, to build strong leaders on your team. I was fortunate enough to have three amazing seniors in my jumps crew who were some of the most trustworthy, kind, welcoming, helpful, and strong leaders I’ve seen.

9. Continuous learning:

I think it’s important to always be learning, whether it’s from someone else, with each other, or teaching someone else what you know. I was constantly learning throughout the season about how to coach high schoolers, how to coach jumps, and how to connect with my athletes. I would learn from my own athletes, from other coaches, and from my colleagues and friends. I would pull helpful tips and information from others, watch many videos, read several articles, and even have other professionals come in and work with my team. I was able to connect with an awesome coach from the Milwaukee area who was willing to share his time with my team by coming to practice and teaching my athletes, and myself, drills for the long and triple jump. This also showed my team that although I didn’t know much when it came to jumps, I was willing to learn and still offer opportunities for them to learn and grow.

10) Join in with them:

I always appreciated as an athlete when the coach was physically able and willing to demonstrate the drills themselves. Even though I wasn’t a jumper, I would attempt to do what I wanted them to do in order to show them what I am looking for. Sometimes it went well, other times I humiliated myself, which also increased my connection with the athletes because we had something to laugh at. I learned a lot about jumps about doing the drills because I had a sense of what it felt like to actually do it and also helped me to figure out what I wanted to look for. If I am unwilling to try it, why should I expect them to do it? One day I was feeling athletic and courageous and joined in on one of the lactic acid workouts. It boosted my credibility, but wow did I hurt for several days afterward!

After the lactic acid workout.

Whether you’re a coach, parent, or athlete I encourage you to reflect on your philosophy for what you do and why you do it. For me, it’s the joy of seeing others improve both physically and mentally while doing something that they enjoy.

This year was a blast coaching and I look forward to continue coaching next year, and hopefully many years to come!

4 Ways to Live a Happier Life

Everyone ultimately wants to find happiness. While most people are searching for this, many people struggle to find it. However, happiness doesn’t always make us feel happy.

It is impossible to think that happiness is being happy and upbeat every moment of every day. That is unrealistic. Those who have found happiness have different answers to what makes them happy, but ultimately they followed these four steps and found a purpose in their life.

Gretchen Rubin has studied happiness and wrote numerous books on the topic. In her findings, she found four simple steps to live a happier life.

1.Think about what makes you feel good.

Everyone wants to have love, enthusiasm, build curiosity, and to have challenges to meet. Notice what things in your life support these needs. Once you find them, make sure you find the time to engage in them often to fill you up with joy more often.

2. Think about what makes you feel bad.

What makes you feel angry, guilty, or resentful? Essentially we want to feel good instead of bad. However, it is important to be aware of the signs of what makes us feel bad. These areas are important indicators for areas of change. For example; if you are feeling guilty about something maybe it’s because you know deep down it’s something you shouldn’t do that goes against your values. Notice what makes you feel bad and commit to changing in these areas.

3. Think about what makes you feel right.

This can be complicated because although it may feel right, it doesn’t necessarily always feel good. Things feel right when we choose to live up to our values, which sometimes makes us do things we may not want to do. For example, I do not like getting up early to go work out. Most mornings I struggle, but the reason I do it is not that I’m filled with joy when I roll out of my bed at 4:40 am, but it makes me feel right to complete my workout early in the morning so that I have more time later in the day. I feel right because I upheld my values.

4. Choose an atmosphere of growth.

We feel best when we are learning something or challenging ourselves. We want to push ourselves forward and help others, which fill us up with growth. It doesn’t always need to be growth in ourselves, but it also can be choosing to make growth in the world. This can be an engine of happiness that is very much in our control. Find ways to learn new skills, expand your mind, or serve others to the best of your abilities.

Keep in mind that everyone has a different definition of happiness and it’ll look different from person to person. On your road to finding happiness focus on these four steps and keep following what makes you feel good, change what makes you feel bad, continue to do what feels right, and surround yourself in an atmosphere of growth.

Read more about happiness in Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project, which is not just a book, but a movement.


“Letting It Happen” vs. “Making It Happen”

I’ve always been fascinated by clutch performances. You know, the performances where the pressure is on and an athlete rises up and dominates to secure the result they wanted? I’m talking about those performances. While everyone loves to watch these performances happen, they don’t always happen. Many times, when the pressure is on, athletes tense up and are unable to handle the pressure, which throws a wrench in their performance and they crumble.

Cluth performance has been defined as, “Any performance increment or superior performance that occurs under pressure circumstances,” (Otten, 2009, p. 584). It has been suggested that in order for a performance to be defined as clutch, the athlete must be aware of the pressure and have the capacity to experience stress, perceive the outcome as high importance, and succeed largely through intense effort, (Hibbs, 2010).

Since my consulting company is called, The Mental Clutch, I’m always reading and researching ways to enhance an athlete’s chance to experience more clutch performances. One research study in particular that I came across in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology was titled, “Psychological States Underlying Excellent Performance in Sport: Toward an Integrated Model of Flow and Clutch States.”

Now, THIS is a research study I can get excited to read! I felt like it was calling out to me.

For those who are not familiar with flow, it is a highly studied experience in sport psychology, which is defined of a harmonious and intrinsically rewarding state characterized by intense focus and absorption in a specific activity, to the exclusion of irrelevant thoughts and emotions, and a sense of everything coming together or clicking into place, even in challenging situations (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). To put it briefly, flow is a state where the challenge meets your ability and you’re able to execute what’s needed while feeling effortless and time standing still.

Sport psychology talks a lot about flow, but it isn’t that simple to achieve. As athletes and coaches, we must remember that many times in performances things don’t go our way. Instead of “letting it happen” and attempting to get into flow we may need to grind and dig down deep to “make it happen” and deliver a clutch performance.

In the study, two psychological states were discovered during the excellent performance. One was described as “letting it happen,” which corresponded with the definition and description of flow, where the other was “making it happen,” which did not correspond with flow. Making it happen was different as being described as more effortful and intense while involving a heightened sense of awareness and concentration.

The study aimed to gain a better understanding of the process through which flow and clutch performances occur in sport while providing practical guidance for applied practitioners seeking to help athletes experience performance states.

What the study found was that in flow states, athletes reported being “on autopilot,” and achieving personal bests that couldn’t have gone any better. The second state, which was clutch, was described by athletes as “grinding,” and “gritty.” It was mentioned that it was not easy or comfortable as compared to flow.

Athletes also reported using different psychological skills in order to reach each state. Athletes reported maintaining their flow state through positive distractions, which could be internal (getting lost in thought/singing a song) or external factors (thinking about the weather). Elite golfers also reported focusing their concentration away from the task at hand during flow states by talking to their caddie between shots. It is common that when we think too much about the task at hand, we become hyperfocused and make errors or mistakes so distracting your mind and trusting your body to do the work can be important. In contrast, athletes who experienced clutch performances reported using more associative strategies, such as setting micro-goals and using positive, motivating self-talk. These strategies appeared to help by mobilizing effort, focusing attention, and maintaining confidence. Therefore, it may be the case that flow and clutch states also require different styles of self-regulation skills.

It is important for athletes, coaches, and other supporting staff to consider each state and recognize that an athlete has the potential to transition between the two during the performance.

This resonated with me as I reflected on running a marathon. I remember the beginning was rough and I was extremely nervous, I had to dig down deep to keep up with the pacer in order to reach my timed goal. Reminding myself of why I chose to run a marathon and all of the painful practice runs I did leading up gave me the motivation I needed to kick my butt into gear. This beginning part was definitely a clutch state. About halfway in I remember feeling like running was natural and easy and the miles were flying by. I was able to distract myself from the task at hand by striking up conversations with runners around me, watching the faces of the fans I passed, and being mindfully in the moment with my surroundings. I was definitely flowing during this time as my confidence increased and I felt assured that I could finish this marathon. Towards the end of the last 3 miles, I began to feel the pain encroaching in my entire body. I was tired, exhausted, and desperately wanted to stop. I had to remind myself of my goals and use motivational and instructional self-talk to fight through the last grueling miles. This is where my mantras worked wonders. I wrote three powerful I Am statements on my hand in case I needed them. For several miles, I repeated to myself, “I am strong, I am competitive, I am supported.” This was definitely a clutch state yet again. I was able to finish, but it was a very painful experience and required a lot of effort.

I found this study to be refreshing and also inspiring. In the world of sports, we at times think, “you either have it or you don’t.” We preach the importance of finding flow in order to reach our top performances. What this study demonstrated is that we do not NEED flow in order to achieve our goals. Yes, flow is a great state to be in, however, it is challenging to get to because the more we try to get in flow the further away from it we become. If flow is not an option there is still another way to finish our performance as intended. This is when a clutch performance is the best option. It’ll take a lot of effort, it may be grueling and painful, but the end result will definitely be worth it!

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Hibbs, D. (2010). A conceptual analysis of clutch performances in competitive sports. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 37, 47-59.

Otten, M. (2009). Choking vs. clutch performance: A study of sport performance under pressure. Journal of Applied Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31(5), 583-601.

Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella A. S., Allen, S. M., and Keegan, R. (2017). Psychological states underlying excellent performance in sport: Toward an integrated model of slow and clutch states. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29, 375-401.

Deliberate Practice vs. Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Anders Ericsson are both prominent psychologists who have devoted their careers studying experts. Essentially they studied how they became experts, how they practice, and what they experience. They both may have similar research interests, however, their accounts for how these experts came to be couldn’t be more different.

Ericsson, as mentioned in a former blog, discovered the 10,000 hour rule of practice. He suggests that it isn’t just the amount of hours you spend practicing that makes the difference, but it’s also how your practice. This is where the deliberate part comes in. Experts are very purposeful and focused within the thousands of hours they practice. This deliberate practice spans over 10 years, which is what leads to mastery according to Ericsson.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests a different approach. He has found that mastery happens when one experiences flow. Flow is described as a state of complete concentration that leads to a feeling of spontaneity. It has been described as feeling “effortless,” “relaxing,” “in control,” “time standing still,” and “you don’t have to think about it, you’re just doing it,” while delivering an exceptional performance.

Angela Duckworth in her book GRIT compares and contrast these two different approaches. Where Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow is an enjoyable experience, Ericsson doesn’t believe deliberate practice to feel the same. Also, where flow is described as spontaneous, deliberate practice is described as carefully planned. Deliberate practice requires working where challenge exceeds skill, and flow is experienced when challenge and skill are balanced. Furthermore, deliberate practice is exceptionally effortful, where flow is described as effortless.

As the book GRIT asks, who is right?

To find the answer to this question Angela Duckworth sent questionnaires regarding flow to those who already completed her Grit Scale. She found that grit and flow actually go hand in hand. Those who scored high on the Grit Scale also experienced flow more than the less gritty participants.

Her conclusion became: Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow.

As she says, deliberate practice is a behavior and flow is an experience. Ericsson studied what experts do to become experts, while Csikszentmihalyi studied how experts feel when performing.

From what I’ve studied about flow and deliberate practice I have to agree with her conclusion. Flow and deliberate practice are NOT the same thing. It doesn’t have to be either or. In order to reach mastery, deliberate practice is essential, however, flow is not. In order to experience a top-notch performance, experiencing flow can help make that happen, but it is not a requirement.

Practice is also not the enjoyable part, but performing is. This is why deliberate practice requires challenges exceeding skill where in a performance the challenge and skill are matched. You put in increased amounts of effort during practice so that you can shut off your mind and let your body flow when it comes time to perform. The intensity that you put into practice is not needed during the performance. This is when you should trust your abilities from all of the hours of deliberate practice you put in and allow flow to take over.

Although flow is a huge part in experiencing mastery in your performance, I still believe that it is not essential. Flow doesn’t happen every time. How else, even with deliberate practice, can you put on the performance you need when you aren’t in flow?

It is still possible. Learn how in my next blog.

Stay tuned. 🙂

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