Lest We Miss The Forest…

Sometimes we need to stay present and positive, lest we miss the forest for the trees.

First, I managed to do something to tweak by distal biceps tendon in my right arm.

While warming up for deadlifts.

It’s one thing to get hurt, but to get hurt with 315lbs on the bar, when you haven’t even gotten to work sets yet, is just infuriating. I spent a week with no pulling exercises and a multitude of rehab drills, trying to stay positive.

Next, during a practical massage class where I was being used as a demo model, the instructor noted that my 5th metatarsal was out of place and popped it back in. This was a good thing, in that this one adjustment seemed to alleviate most of the hip, back pain I have been keeping at bay for years with mobility drills and corrective exercise. However, I had to almost “regroove” my entire squat pattern due to the fact that I was moving completely differently (which tends to happen when a leg length discrepancy vanishes, basically, overnight).

This meant less weight. This meant frustration. This mean more negativity creeping in.

Sadly, I almost managed to miss the forest for the trees, which is something I constantly remind my clients NOT to do.

Too many times we get caught up in the negative details of life and training: we focus on the missed lift attempts, the acute injuries and issues, and the workouts that just got the best of us. In the process, we tend to overlook many small victories – successes that can generate momentum and keep us moving forward.

In the process of being frustrated with my biceps and foot, I almost overlooked the following things:

  • I have been dieting now for 2 months with 100% compliance. I have been within 5% of Macros each day…consistently…this has never happened this long for me. (You can read about this in my blog at CHP)
  • 5.5″ is gone from my waist.
  • So is 23lbs of (mostly) fat.
  • During this diet I have still maintained strength enough to bench 335lbs relatively easily.
  • By adding Front Squats to my workout, a movement that I had ALWAYS avoided, I am managing to set a PR every time I touch the bar. Yes, I’m starting from basically nothing, but a PR is a PR, and I feel the excitement that a new trainee feels when the improvements come each workout. 250lbs x 3?! Yep, the weight is light, but it has been YEARS since I have experienced linear progression in a movement, and I am taking advantage of this.
  • Throughout this period I have also managed to juggle EIGHT classes, and excel in all of them.
Jonny Deadlifting 455
Also, incidentally, the biceps is feeling better!

There is a lesson to be learned here, and my training in Sport Psychology doesn’t exempt me from this: Don’t Miss The Forest For The Trees!

This ties into the reason that I preach about embracing the journey and learning to focus on Process Goals. Look, I still have a competitive nature – I’m a driven human being with an Ego and a desire to perform. However, if I choose to not stay vigilant, it can be very easy for me to get caught up in numbers and performance and miss all of the other little (and sometimes big) things that I have accomplished throughout the process. All of these things add up to really big successes, and the successes contribute to making me a better person, both in the gym and out of the gym.

As much as I want to be the best at things, my primary goal is to make sure that I end each day a big better than I was when I woke up that morning. During many dark times in my life, I have missed the forest for the trees and found myself feeling like a failure when I was simply neglecting to see all of the progress I had made in other areas that are equally as important.

If I’m at all good as a coach, it is because I have made so many mistakes that I can work to ensure my clients don’t do the same things.

My advice here: don’t let a few rotten or fallen trees ruin the landscape that is your forest…there are plenty of beautiful leaves and branches you are walking by.

Pay attention to them.

Take them in.

That’s Mastery.

I’m Here Because of You

Hopefully I’m not misconstrued, here. But then again, I always am, so I should be used to this.

I’m here because of you.

I’ve stayed my own execution more times than you could possibly believe. Since I was around 13 or 14, I’ve always just considered the possibility of getting on with it. Perhaps the greatest irony of my continued existence: I couldn’t care less about myself, but others always seem to stop me in my tracks.

I always have unfinished business with you.

When my Naval career, marriage, finances, and everything else were crashing down around me, a few years back, I saw the writing on the wall. My timing was shit, and I knew I was about to be very broke, very soon, with no place to go.

My thought was to drive my BMW Z4 into the mountains of Chula Vista, California. That area was always so beautiful to me, and I took a certain amount of joy in whipping the roadster around those curves, feeling the wind in my hair, and forgetting about life for a while while I ‘heel-toed’ the throttle and brakes.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford the car much longer, so I figured I would tear up those mountains one last time, watch a sunset, and take care of business with my custom SIG P226 .40 pistol.

What stopped me?

Sailor Evaluations. I can’t even make this shit up. I was still active duty, and I was still the Chief…and I needed to finish writing Evals for my Sailors. Who else was going to do it? Who was going to lead them, for that matter? What about the ranking boards – who was going to fight for them?

I’m here because of you.

Please don’t misconstrue me here. This isn’t a cry for help, but rather a glimpse into my head, and a glimpse into the person I became, in spite of all the bullshit. In my research into Mental Toughness, it is evident that past life events play a significant role in the development of resiliency (one of the reasons I am so passionate about coaching kids correctly).

Me? I continually put off my demise, only to find more pain waiting for me.

But I didn’t let it break me. If anything, I learned to sit with it, to come to agreements with it, and to understand it – and myself – a little more. Mastery, if you will.

My quest to be the best at something (anything!) was, I found, often the result of me simply trying to to find a small bit of silence from the cacophony of noise in my brain.

When I began distance running, as a teenager, the excessive miles weren’t an excuse to hurt myself in a masochistic way, but rather a reprieve from all of the agony. Really, it was the only time my head was actually quiet. Later on, I found the same solace in lifting. Sometimes I analyze videos of clients’ pre-lift behavior. I see it all: self-talk manifested as fidgeting, outwardly express internal dialogue – complete and total storms of thoughts and decisions.

For me, it is nothing like this.

I think in pictures; in scenes. I obsess over details and second-guess myself and drive colleagues nuts (Sorry, Annie). I have a highlight reel playing in my head 24/7, revisiting and replaying moments, events, regrets. If it sounds maddening, it is, and sometimes I want to pull my hair out because nothing shuts up and it never stops…

Until I’m standing over that bar.

Then: silence. Breath. Focus. They can’t fuck with me here, there is no soundtrack no voices screaming:

“You’re a fraud.”

“You’re a failure.”

“You’ll never be good enough.”

Much like I found peace from myself in running and lifting, I found peace when working with you.

Really. Truly. I’m here because of you.

If I coach you, I think of you more than you realize. I’m horrible at caring for myself, but, man, can I give. I’ve been told it’s a tragic flaw, but those moments when we are training together, or on the phone, or even emailing.

Peace.

Coaching you brings me validation. It quiets the my head so I can think about what really matters.

  • I think about how your family is.
  • I think if I am pushing you too hard.
  • I think about the efficacy of my programming.
  • I think about your injuries and how they are making you feel.
  • I think about your new job.
  • I think about your break-up and hope you are well.
  • I think of YOU.

More than anything else, I want so badly to be there for you and not fail you, because the trust you have placed in me is something I take very seriously. Yet, at the same time, the fact that you have given me this trust gives me purpose, makes me realize that maybe – just maybe – my head is full of shit and I have a real purpose here.

I’m here because of you.

 

 

What You Say You Are…

You are what you say you are…

I’ve quoted Vonnegut before, here. I had deja vu when penning this post and had to go back through the archives to be sure. I had this feeling that I had broached the topic of us being “What We Say We Are”, and used Vonnegut’s quote. There it was:

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
― Kurt Vonnegut

You are what you say you are

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So much truth there, and applicable to so many distinct contexts.

Recently, Alex Viada, my boss over at Complete Human Performance wrote an excellent post on the topic of training as an “Old Man”. The post really resonated with me, because Alex and I are very close in age, but it also struck a chord because it got me thinking about the mental attitudes associated with aging.

And, particularly, the attitudes associated getting injured while aging.

If you follow me on social media, you might know me as the “guy with the messed up hip”. I say this because, looking back at it, I talked about this a lot. I’m not going to put it out there and say that I never had compression issues with my right hip, nor am I going to say that associated adductor issues never happened, or that my right sacroiliac joint wasn’t giving me hell. This all happened, but the real issue with me, as I have recently figured out, is one of attitude and mindset.

You see, what also happened, through the course of recovery, was that I began to allow myself to identify as the “injured guy in his mid-thirties”.

Of course, injuries did happen (and aches and pains are part of the game of growing older), but after the acute and sub-acute phases of injury, what was my excuse?

Pain science is a complicated thing, and is far beyond the scope of this article. However, there was a point when the rehab was done, the mobility work was being done, and there was really no good reason to be in pain…other than the fact that I had identified with it. You are what you say you are, and I was telling the world I was an injured has-been. I was down in an ass-to-grass squat position with great lumbar positioning, yet telling myself: “You’re old and hurt your hip, man, you can’t lift heavy anymore.”

And so I couldn’t.

In analyzing myself, I have determined that I have a history of Ego Oriented thinking, as well as failure avoidance behavior. I’ve been fairly open about my past and if you flip through enough articles here, you can read all about it. In many ways, the length of my decreased performance can be directly linked to the fact that, on some levels, I wanted to be the hurt dude.

This may sound absurd, but it fits within the confines of what I have historically gravitated to. By being injured, it gave me an excuse to perform at a standard lower than I was accustomed to. It gave me an excuse to suck without having to accept the fact that I was growing older; my recovery was getting slower; my output was getting less…

I wasn’t fucking invincible anymore.

Being the hurt guy gave me the excuse to stop working hard when the same type of training I had done for almost a decade simply stopped working.

It was an easy way out.

I wish I could say that I had some epiphany or spiritual moment whereupon I realized the error of my ways and moved forward, but the truth is far simpler: I got tired of feeling sorry for myself.

As Alex mentioned in his article, one of the GREAT things about growing old is the wisdom you accumulate throughout the PROCESS of training.

This ties into the reasons why I preach so adamantly about adopting a mindset of mastery, and learning to embrace all of the elements of the process: the good, the bad, and the “oh-shit-this-hurtsUGLY. Progress – hell – life, itself, is cyclical. Peaks and valleys are part of the game, and all of the mountains and meadows and spaces between hold lessons that only contribute to the never-ending process of growth.

Can I train as hard and as frequently as the 23-year olds can? Probably not, I’m 35 now and I simply couldn’t sustain that – even with the wonders of modern performance enhancement. But here’s the thing:

I don’t need to.

I can train SMARTER.

Sure, I might not always have a ton of weight on the bar, but this is all part of the process of learning what training is the best. The young bucks may average more weight on a given day, while my aging ass floats around the lower ranges of Prilepin, but rest assured when it is time for me to lift at 95% – 97.5% – or MAX, those young bucks are paying attention.

That’s mastery.

Remember what I always say: there is a power in the way we talk to ourselves. In a very literal way, you are what you say you are. So be nice to yourself, dammit! The best is probably yet to come, age is only a number, and I wouldn’t trade all the brute strength in the world for the wisdom I have accumulated on this crazy journey of mine.

Think about it.

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Dear Bonnie

Dear Bonnie,

I have this picture that your brother gave to me. I think this was taken about 12 years ago, if I’m not mistaken, and I was being my typical drunken self. You, however, are looking amazing.

 

Bonnie and Jonny

You always did.

Along my path, I have learned to see the balance of things and I understand that there truly are infinite levels to the grey areas of our lives. For you, though, I am making an exception:

I am going to leave this picture in color.

It’s going to be the only picture on this site that I leave in color, because shades of grey cannot fully illustrate the sheer amount of vibrancy and laughter that you splashed into the life of everyone who’s path you crossed.

The irony is that I spend so much time trying to forget things and this is a moment I want to lock away. If I recall it too much the details will get muddled and I don’t want the image of this time we had together distorted by the malleability of the human memory. I want to remember you just like this, and save the moment for those rough times when I need a smile.

Or when I can’t come to grips with “why”?

For the life of me, I have never figured out what made your brother befriend me. Cross Country, to be honest, was a sport I got into by default: I just sucked at everything else. At the time, I really wanted to play basketball, but my relationship with food caused me to become too chubby to effectively make it up and down the court. I figured I could run to lose weight. That’s all. I never thought it would amount to a huge part of my life, or connect me with so many amazing people.

Russ was the track-star and you were the cheerleader and you guys were two of the most popular people in High School. As a group, it worked, though. Looking back at it, there were so many unique people in our circle of friends that we managed to find a place for everyone to fit in and be accepted. For a very long time, the group of us were inseparable, and regardless of what shenanigans I was into, you accepted me. Even when I left Rhode Island behind.

The entire High School experience wasn’t kind to me, but you were always a light to me. We’d run into each other in the hall and you chat with me and give me a hug and I would think: “Is she really talking to me?!” Considering the way I was treated by a lot of people, I can’t begin to tell you how much that meant to me. You were athletic and beautiful and popular…but you were also kind hearted and for the first time in my life I realized that popular girls didn’t always have to be mean. You were the first beautiful girl that didn’t treat me like I was a complete weirdo.

I loved being around you. You were mischievous…you were a complete goofball with an amazing smile and the way the freckled ridge of your nose would crinkle when you laughed would completely melt me to the floor…and I swear you were always laughing.  Always. Your eyes had this twinkle. We all noticed it.

You were so full of life.

As with any girl like you, there no shortage of suitors. I tolerated some of them, but most of them would make me angry: they weren’t good to you. Sometimes I felt as though they were just trying to claim a piece of your energy and spirit for themselves. People can be so selfish, and you gave it so freely, but in my head I wanted for you to have someone who would care for you and treat you like the treasure you were. I remember escaping into my head and wishing that I could be that guy…

Because I was completely in love with you.

Yes, it’s true.

What was I going to do, tell you that?! I was this awkward kid with a penchant for dyed hair and a hopeless “grunge” way of dressing. I would have been crazy to just come out and say that. My life was full of problems and I hated myself. I had been rejected so often that I didn’t want to risk it again. And I didn’t want to lose you as a friend, either…you meant too much to me.

It is part of who we are, as humans, to evolve and change as we move through life. We grew apart.

I left.

There was a part of me that had this hunch that if I didn’t get out of Rhode Island and get away from it all, I wouldn’t get out of there alive. The Navy was good to me. It allowed me to see the world, learn to lead, and grow as a person. However, in this process I lost balance and there were people that I allowed to slip away from me for large lengths of time. You were one of them, and I am sorry I disappeared. It’s been over a decade since I had last seen you and it breaks my heart to realize that we don’t know each other anymore.

I’m am so sorry if I let you down. What saddens me is that my path has ultimately led me to a place when I dedicate my life to helping other people, yet I feel as though I have failed many people close to me. Such is life. There is a lesson to be learned here, and it is not lost on me.

The last time I remember hanging out with you was about 11 or 12 years ago. At the time, I was on military leave and we were sitting at the bar at Manhattan’s, on Mineral Spring Avenue in Rhode Island. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure where everyone else was. It was one of those rare moments when we were alone, having a beer, eating cheap bar food and simply talking. Out of nowhere you turned to me and said:

“Kiss me.”

And that is where our paths separated. You were dating someone and I was going back to Virginia Beach to deploy. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to you, or your family…so I didn’t do it.

But I should have. I should have kissed you and pulled you close to me and told you that I loved you because, even if nothing became of it, at least you would have gone through your life knowing that. I should have protected you.

I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner, but I needed to say it now.

Rest in peace, Bonnie. You are loved and missed.

Always,

Jonny

 

 

Being Present and Mindful

So Much Depends on Being Present

I’ve been testing out a number of Meditation and Mindfulness apps in order to find one I can recommend to clients. Mindfulness and relaxation are a big part of what I do when working with clients, so my hope was to find one that my clients could use as a foundation, which would free me up from having to create scripts, which would allow us to work on more pertinent things together. This got me thinking about the concepts of mindfulness and being present.

So much of what we do as coaches AND athletes revolves around our ability to be fully in the moment. Of all the fundamental skills that seem to be glanced over, these are the most critical.

When working on my undergrad, one of the more challenging courses I took was a Counseling Techniques course. The premise of this course was simple: we would spend time learning a technique (i.e. Reflecting or Challenging) and we would use it in a live role play where we were acting as a counselor. These sessions were taped and we were critiqued by the professor and peers. The class was brutal.

I simply didn’t realize how awful I was, initially, at listening.

I would find myself either:

a) Waiting for my turn to talk,

b) Formulating my response to their statements in my head and rehearsing them mentally, or

c) Just completely zoning out and letting my mind wander all over the place.

I made a conscious effort to improve my professional interactions and, thankfully, I found that I got much better at it.

What I found was surprising.

You see, the irony about not being present and listening is that, when you do actually make an effort to listen, you start to realize that the people around you are telling you exactly what they need.

This is true for clients, as well. I often talk to coaches that are having difficulty with clients – adherence, progression, you name it. During these conversations, I am quick to point out that just about every client I have worked with has had the answer to their problems already…they simply needed to talk it out. Of course, solutions will need to be honed and guidance will be needed (that’s what I get paid for, after all), but most people have the basic solutions with them.

Even more interesting: we also have our own solutions.

We just suck at being present and mindful within our own heads. Don’t believe me? Download Headspace and complete the 10-day free trial. Once you begin to get out of the way of your own mind, shoot me an email and let me know if things are making more sense to you.

Let me know if you know yourself a bit better.

I have found that some of us are better at this in some areas of our lives, while other areas of our lives require a lot of improvement.

For me, my strength is in dealing with clients or others in my charge. This didn’t come naturally, but rather with a whole ton of work, coupled with years of practical experience. I’ve made it a habit to clear my mind and listen. Of course, this doesn’t mean it is easy all the time. In fact, it often requires a great deal of control to stay on task.

Unfortunately, my personal life seems to be an area where I have a problem with this. I know that I often piss my girlfriend off by constantly being on the phone: e-mailing, posting statuses, updating the blog. Truly I have a problem being present at all times around her.

So I work on this, too.

Because it is important and I owe her more than that.

Oftentimes, successfully reaching our goals is a matter of deep introspection, which can be quite painful. Seriously, who wants to take a deep look and admit that there are things that they really suck at. In a roundabout way, this is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to stay present and reflect:

Being present means there is nothing between us and our thoughts…or someone else’s

*GASPTHE HORROR!

Yes, it is scary. Yet, regardless of if you are a coach, athlete, executive, or just an average Joe/Jane – having the ability to be mindful and focused is a sure fire way to enrich your life and the lives of those around you. So learn to listen…to yourself and to those you are interacting with.

And not bullshit listening.

Seriously. Really listen. You’d be surprised what you hear.

 

Youth Sports: The Importance of Effective Coaching

Youth sports coaching is a sensitive topic for me and I don’t write about it enough.

Reading through enough of my blog posts, it is evident that I have had to struggle with self worth due to having ridiculous expectations placed on me. Though this was aimed, for me, at academics, the subsequent attitudes I developed concerning success and failure bled through to all aspects of my life. This included sports, and should serve as a cautionary tale about the power of stressing winning and dominance rather than improvement and mastery.

If you leave this article with nothing else, let it be this:

Be very aware of how you interact with children you are coaching. It is that important! I think we can all recall at least one really bad experience we had with a coach when we were a child…don’t be that coach.

I vividly remember a horrible experience during a little league game. I was batting and I made contact with the ball (which was rare, in and of itself), sending a ground ball toward the shortstop. After a brief moment of shock at having actually hit the ball, I began to sprint towards first base. In my peripheral, I saw the shortstop field the ball and make the throw to first. I was short of the bag, so I did the smartest thing I could think of…

I slid. Feet first.

I sent up this huge plume of dirt and dust and time halted as everyone watching the game waited for the cloud to dissipate. When it did, I was laying in the dirt, about two feet short of the base.

My coach, incredulous, blurted out: “What are you, an idiot!?!?”

I didn’t play Little League much longer after that. I stuck around for the season, but I would often claim to be hurt, or not feeling well in order to not play. When I did play, the sliding incident led to my coach becoming extremely Pygmalion prone with me. Translated in English: he expected me to mess up everything that I did, treated me as such, and created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The coach meant well. Truly, he had the best intentions. He was a loving father that wanted to help out the town and spend more time with his son, who was also on the team. When you look at collegiate coaches at the Division I level, a degree in some kind of Sport Psych or leadership/coaching (often a Masters) is required. Most recreational league youth sports, municipal budgets simply do not allot for hiring coaches and must rely on the good nature of volunteers to ensure that the league is coached and supervised. You can’t blame this on a parent just trying to help out; they aren’t trained in this type of leadership and don’t know any better.

The irony here is that these developmental years are of critical importance to children and can have ripple effects that reverberate well into adult years. In a very real way, the quality of interaction that children receive is magnitudes more important than interaction at the collegiate level.

Some sort of training for coaches needs to be conducted. I have spoken of Coach Effectiveness Training (CET) before. CET was introduced in the 1970’s by Frank Smoll and Ronald Smith as a way to train volunteer coaches on the appropriate ways to administer practices and coach games. They noted that most youth coaches simply relied on skills they had gathered from their youth coaches, with no actual formal training. Using techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Smith and Smoll developed a system of coaches training that taught youth coaches how to interact with children positively, how to determine how children are perceiving their actions, and how to correctly provide constructive feedback. As well, the training shifted the focus of youth sport away from winning and encouraged coaches to stress skill improvement, giving one’s best effort, and having fun (Smith, Smoll, & Curtis, 1979).

One of the more interesting aspects of CET is the marked increase in overall happiness and enjoyment of youth sports participants, relative to the amount of time required to train coaches, which was around two hours total. In fact, where normal sports would see an average of 35% of athletes quit between each season, CET trained teams saw an average of 5% of athletes quit between seasons. Yes, that is not a typo: a 30% reduction in sport attrition resulting from one 2 hour training session (Barnett, Smoll, & Smith, 1992). Clearly, educating coaches on the psychology of leading children is highly effective.

The Power of Fun

“Having fun” was one of the areas Smith and Smoll stressed heavily for coaches of youth sports.

Ordinarily, I avoid the use of the term “fun”, as it is nebulous and subjective. It is, however, an important concept, particularly for youth sports. Within the context of a motivational theory such as Self Determination Theory, “fun” doesn’t exactly qualify as something that bolsters intrinsic motivation, yet fun activities keep people coming back. More specifically, when an individual views something as “fun” or enjoyable, they are more likely to proactively choose that event for future engagement. Autonomy is an extremely potent booster of intrinsic motivation.

When we look at sport, it is actual an evolution of an activity that begins early in life: play. Play is what young children do. Watch them sometime, it is amazing to watch: there is no extrinsic motivation to play, it is unstructured, imaginative, and has no rules or constraints (Hurd, 2011).

Play evolves into ‘games’. Games can still be imaginative, however now we are moving into applying more structure to the activity. Games differ from play in that the usually have a definitive beginning and end. Additionally, games are not as free-form as play and will have a set of codified rules and some kind of scoring system.

Games have a winner, clearly. This becomes very interesting when you are observing a group of children at the playground. Quite often, arguments and disagreements result from older children (or, at least, developmentally ‘older’ children). Playing ‘games’ with younger children who are unable to cognitively understand the concept.

Sport, essentially, is derived from both play and games. Admittedly, I need to dig a bit more into evolutionary psychology to fully understand the reasons behind this evolution from play to games, but in all cultures, in all locations, and in all eras, there have been sports and competitions of some form. When viewing the lessons that can be learned during competition, and their crossover into life, I would postulate that sport is a very component of the human condition

Being derived from play, it could be argued that the basis of sport is fun. Yes, this is overly simplistic, but it is an avenue worth exploring, particularly when we look as statistics for youth sport engagement and examine the most commonly given reasons for discontinuing participation in sport.

The most common answer given here, in children under 11, both boys and girls is “Not having fun”. By and large the most commonly cited reasons that children quit playing sports is because they aren’t having fun anymore. We are still in a place where 70% of athletes will quit sports before they are teenagers (O’Sullivan, 2015). We can do better. We must.

Interestingly, poor relationships with coaches also make a perennial appearance on the statistics. The dynamics of coach/athlete relationships can be complex, but there is definitely a relationship between the way the coach choose to interact and whether or not the evolution remains fun and enjoyable.

What this means is that a coach, possibly even more than parents, is in control of more variables that affect the way youth athletes view sport and whether or not they continue to play.

This isn’t, of course, 100% true in all cases. Using myself as an example, even if I had the most effective coaches in the world, that still would not have cancelled out the Ego oriented home climate that I had. In these cases, the Master Approach to Parenting in Sports, described below, could prove invaluble.

Training Programs and Practical Coaching Considerations for Youth Sports

For coaches or parents looking for CET, this type of training has since evolved and is available through the Youth Enrichment in Sports website as the Mastery Approach to Coaching (MAC). Also, for parents looking to know how to deal with their own youth athletes, the Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports (MAPS) series is also available. All evidence based and proven in the field.

Also, the following practical tips may prove helpful:

  • Design practice sessions that are challenging, and enjoyable for all levels of athlete.

Children’s skill levels for sport will vary wildly in recreational leagues, so create different groups of drills that are progression based and allow each athlete to perform within their optimal range. This prevents outliers from being bored or having anxiety and keeps things exciting at all player levels.

  • Make skill acquisition and improvement the focal point, rather than “winning at all costs”.

Athletes, regardless of age, want to feel the thrill of winning. The key, with youth athletes, is to foster a mastery orientation by stressing improvement and attaining new skills, rather than just winning. This will reduce ego orientation tendencies and lead to less attrition and better sportsmanship.

  • Reward hard work and outstanding effort.

Similar to above: Make a point to enthusiastically praise hard work and children who are giving their best possible effort.

  •  Work with athletes to create both individual and team process goals.

Give the athletes an active role in the process of goal setting. Even as children, we still have the need for autonomy. Set the tone by giving them a sense of ownership for their goals. Avoid setting goals for youth athletes based on what you, the adult, think their goals should be. Another one of the most commonly stated reasons children provide for quitting sports in a lack of ownership and control of their own athletic pursuits (O’Sullivan, 2015), so be mindful about giving youth athletes a role in goal setting and be sure to not try to claim their success as yours.

  • Spend equal time with ALL players, regardless of skill level or amount of playing minutes they receive.

Children are not dumb. If you spend more time with the players with more advanced skill sets, this will be noticed. This also fosters an ego oriented climate and reduces athlete’s self-worth by making them feel as though they are not important if they are not one of the top players on the team. Be aware of this and ensure all children feel like they are a necessary part of the team.

  • Every. Child. Plays.

If you are not giving every child playing time in a youth league, you are not effectively coaching. This creates an ego oriented climate where children learn that they only play of they if they are exceptionally good and that only winning matters. As well, many children learn at a slower rate or are “late bloomers”. The child you are benching could have the potential to be a superstar if played and developed, but could quit sport because you didn’t give them a chance. Think about it.

  • Do not punish youth athletes for mistakes.

Rather than creating an environment of resentment and fear by punishing mistakes during practice or competition, teach athletes to view mistakes as a part of a larger process of mastery.

  • Be aware of Pygmalion tendencies. Avoid prejudging players outside of a sport specific assessment.

It is very easy for us to become biased based on a child’s past performances or behaviors, or prejudge a child based on a multitude of factors. No one is immune to this and awareness is key. Be mindful of your attitude towards your youth athletes.

  • Encourage social activities with the team outside of the field of play.

Pool parties, pizza parties, attending each other’s birthdays, etc. Use social events as a way for team members to get to know each other and bond. Feeling like a part of the group is important for all teams, but critically so for children’s teams.

Wrapping it Up

Being a youth sports coach can be one of the most rewarding endeavors imaginable, but it is also a great responsibility. How children are coached can have lasting effects in many other domains of their lives, and, as such, interaction at the coaching level should not be taken lightly. To be the most effective coach you can be and ensure you lay the foundation for a lifelong mastery orientation, use the resources discussed in this article, along with a healthy dose of self-awareness and common sense.

These children are, quite literally, our future. We owe it to them to give them the best set of life skills that we can, and participation in sports is a critical component of that.

References

Barnett, N. P., Smoll, F. L., & Smith, R. E. (1992). Effects of enhancing coach-athlete relationships on youth sport attrition. The Sport Psychologist, 6, 2, 111-127.

Hurd, A. R., & Anderson, D. M. (2011). The park and recreation professional’s handbook. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

O’Sullivan, J. (2015, May 5). Why kids quit sports. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://changingthegameproject.com/why-kids-quit-sports/

Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., & Curtis, B. (1979). Coach effectiveness training: A cognitive behavioral approach to enhancing relationship skills in youth sport coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 59-75.

 

I’m Not Sure Why I’m Telling You This…

A Therapist once old me that just you don’t need to be physically struck in order to be abused… We will come back to that, later.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you this.

I remember being at my parents house for the holidays when I was Active Duty Navy and finding an old ‘school yearbook’ from my 5th Grade Elementary School class. It was nothing serious, but rather an art project that we did and was later copied and bound by parents as a memento. Each child in my class had a picture with a brief biography, which was written by their parents.

Some of the content looked like this:

“Jessie lives at home with his mom and dad. He has a little sister and they play on the swingset together.”

“Sammy has two pugs that he loves to run around with in the yard.”

“Sarah enjoys math class and hopes to be an astronaut one day.”

Except for mine. Mine was different. It was two paragraphs long and detailed all how smart I was. I don’t remember specifics, but there was a detailed account of my plans to attend Harvard or Yale and study medicine or law. It may have even mentioned Magna Cum Laude…or Summa.

I was nine years old. Nine.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you this.

When I was a kid, everything was about academics.

We were encouraged to participate in sports, but this was always an afterthought and came secondary to school work. It was all about getting an ‘A’, and, for me, it was about being the most dominant student in the class. From a Sport Psychology perspective, the Ego Orientation seed was planted very early on. If I wasn’t the best at something, I was a failure. I internalized that and it became a part of me.

I had “friends”, but I’m not sure how to classify them. How can you truly forge friendships when you look around a classroom and see only opponents in a game of who can get the highest grade? When being accepted by your parents hinges on the ability to be the best, can you really have positive interactions with people who are, in a very real way, standing in the way of you being loved?

As I got older to middle school, I shied away from sports more. I loved books, and still do, but my obsession with books at that time was a way to escape and disappear into other worlds and times. I would often daydream that I was someone else: an athletic star, a mercenary or soldier, a superhero. This was a way for me to take everything I wanted to be and create it in my mind. I hated who I was because being the best was mandatory and I was just on the cusp of the realization that it is impossible to be the best at everything and, more often than not, impossible to be the best at one thing. That is, if your definition of “the best” includes comparisons relative to other people.

Other kids would relentlessly bully me and I would often eat alone or blend in with another group of misfits, just sitting there. Looking back at this, I find myself pondering if they were really bullies, or was I just so cocky and arrogant and pretentious about my intellectual abilities that they felt that maybe I needed to be knocked around a bit. Maybe, in a very real way, I was bullying them academically and they were simply defending themselves the only way they knew how. If you are the most intellectually dominant person in the room and you rub other people’s noses in it like a puppy that missed a piddle-pad, would you expect them to just put up with it?

I started to become like my mother: Negative and full of Fear

Instead of speaking positively about people and seeking to grow with them, I would look for vulnerabilities. I would mentally tear people down to make myself look better, instead of seeking personal mastery. The problem, of course, is that even the smartest people in the world, though well read, have specialties. As such, you become older and branch out into different domains, and realize there are some areas where you simply aren’t as good. This realization was like a bomb being dropped on me. I couldn’t cope with the implications of this.

I became depressed and suicidal.

I would scare myself because I knew where my father kept all of his guns.

I would cut myself.

I became obsessed with the thought that I would never be the best at anything and would never amount to much.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you this.

Because of my Ego Orientation, I would shy away from anything that I didn’t have the potential to be the best at. This was the only way of shielding my self-esteem in the event that I didn’t emerge as #1 in a particular discipline. I have spend a great deal of time working on myself and exploring my motivations, and many of my issues stem from these formative years.

  • I was an expert self-handicapper
  • I would set goals that were too easy for me, in order to dominate.
  • Conversely, I would choose goals that were absurd and overly difficult so that I had an excuse for not being the best.

But, perhaps most tragically:

I would always tend to avoid attempting things, particularly new endeavors in which I was not sure how successful I will be relative to others.

This was my existence until I rebelled against my parents.

Having done a lot of introspection, I think my father meant well. There are no instruction manuals that come with children and you simply want them to do better than you did. My mother, however, is another story. Years of therapy and 4 Psychologists later, I have come to grips with the fact that my mother had serious issues of her own that she refused to face and accept. As such, she used guilt and shame as a tool to manipulate situations and fear as a way to control. In order to fill holes in her life she used my sister and I.

I don’t speak to my mother or my father, and I don’t feel bad.

I’m tired of lying about that and hiding it to friends and family. this is part of my process of moving on and bettering myself.

I have no children of my own, and my sister doesn’t either. When I take time to analyze this, I speculate that this isn’t because we are disinterested in kids (my current girlfriend has two), but rather because we were afraid that we would default to treating our own kids the way that we were treated. The apple doesn’t fall far, and this is not a new phenomenon. We default to the behavior that we have been exposed to, particularly in moments of high stress.

Instead, I chose to pour my heart into developing my leadership and coaching skills. I didn’t join the military for adventure or honor. I joined the military to get away from my mother, but the lessons and skills I have learned there have translated into so many domains which allow me to help people, athletes and otherwise, understand that life is about mastery and your self-worth isn’t determined by the number in the ‘W’ column, the number on a scale, or the number on an exam.

In helping other people, I have, in ways that many clients and acquaintances do not even realize, learned to help and heal myself. There is a long way to go, but I have learned to accept wins and losses in the context of mastery. I have grown. I am happy with the man I have become.

 

Self-Efficacy: Mastery Experiences and Strength

Self-efficacy is an important concept in sport.

The term is often used interchangeably with “confidence”, but there are key differences. “Confidence” is more of a loose term that indicates a belief in oneself without specificity. “Self-efficacy” is a more precise term that concerns one’s belief that they can be effective at a certain task. According to Albert Bandura, these are more than minor semantic differences, as self-efficacy is a descriptive term that fits within a theoretical framework. (Bandura, 1997). In this case, the framework is Social Cognitive Theory (SCT).

So, let’s stick with Self-Efficacy for precision’s sake.

Albert Bandura is the father of this stuff. Incidentally, Bandura is also the mind behind Social Learning Theory, and the “Bobo Doll” experiments (this is worth a Google search), and is the 4th most cited Psychologist of all time…but I digress.

Within the framework of SCT, Bandura (1977) outlined four ways in which self-efficacy can be developed. In order of effectiveness:

  1. Mastery Experiences
  2. Vicarious Experiences
  3. Verbal Persuasion
  4. Somatic and Physiological State

NOTE: How this fits into the context of Social Cognitive Theory will become a bit more transparent when we discuss vicarious experiences in the next article.

Self-efficacy and the Deadlift

Mastery Experiences are the most critical and and also the most sketchy with regards to maximum strength efforts, so we are going to start there.

Mastery experiences are the single most powerful way to boost self-efficacy. Simply put, if you have succeeded in an endeavor before, you will have a strong tendency to expect to succeed in future instances of the task.

Hit a home run in the major league? You will have more self-efficacy with regards to home run ability.

Hit an NBA 3-pointer? More 3-point self-efficacy… Hit the game winning shot? Major boost!

Unfortunately, things aren’t so cut and dry in max effort sports such as powerlifting. In the case of a Personal Record (PR), how can one have a mastery experience if the weight is uncharted territory for them? Does this make the concept of mastery experiences useless for powerlifters or other max effort strength athletes?

These are things I ponder.

Ordinarily, one would assume to simply move down the line to vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and arousal states. However, there are some ways to leverage mastery experiences in the case of a PR, and I want to outline some further detail and practical application.

Performance Aspects of Mastery Experiences

There are three of them:

  1. Consistency – Not just in training, but also with regards to the pattern of sustained experiences of success. It is important to note that we are not talking a couple of victories in a sea of losses, we are talking about a pattern of wins, even small ones, that can generate momentum.
  2. Recency – Succeeding yesterday holds more weight than succeeding ten years ago. I could write an entire article about what I used to squat before I screwed my hip/groin up, but I won’t bore you with my woes. Suffice it to say that what I used to squat four years ago has no bearing on my feelings of self-efficacy for squatting the same weight under my current program.
  3. Quality – Is the success happening on easy task, or challenging ones? The higher the quality of success, in terms of difficulty, the better the self-efficacy. Worth noting: this also works inversely. Succeeding in easy tasks provides less of a boost and failing at any tasks, regardless of  difficulty, damages self-efficacy.(Burton & Raedeke, 2008)
    Practical Application for Strength Athletes

Now, here are some practical, actionable tips for getting the most out of mastery experiences:

Goal-Setting

I could argue that this is a “chicken or the egg” type of conundrum. That is: do effective goal-setting techniques lead to enhanced self-efficacy, or does self-efficacy lead to a more effective approach to goals? I wrote an entire guide for this that goes into depth about effective goal setting (sign-up for my email list and I’ll send it to you), but here are the highlights.

  • Be realistic with what you want to attain, yet don’t shy away from an appropriate challenge. Generally, a good rule of thumb is 10% higher than your current capabilities, but take this with a grain of salt. If you are already an elite squatter, for example, lifting 10% more than that might be a bit outrageous for a short/mid term goal (or even a long term goal, depending on where you are).
  • Set up midterm goals that have clear performance milestones.
  • Don’t forget about process goals for the short term goals. We are looking to develop goals that stress consistency, effort, and technical mastery. These goals will give us a pattern of success that will provide momentum to our performance goals and eventual PR.

Remember, by nature, a PR is uncharted territory, so we need to psychologically experience as much success in skills and habits that have transferability!

Training and Programming

Here are a few thoughts:

  • When looking to set percentages for programming, be honest with yourself and calculate them using a recent 1RM (or another applicable RM). This sounds like common sense, but many people, myself included, will pick an “all-time-best-ever-lift” to calculate their training ranges. What you lifted 15 years ago, as a college sophomore, isn’t applicable. Sorry.
  • Training to failure should be avoided. There are caveats to this, but from the standpoint of strength sports, there should be an effort made to succeed as much as possible. Strength sports will concern performance and outcome goals, so the chance of failure is unavoidable, but contingencies should be in place to reduce this.

Remember, setting up a pattern of success is critical!

Wrapping it up

Even in the context of performance markers that are out of the realm of what we have ever achieved, we can still leverage the power of mastery experiences to boost our self-efficacy. I calculated effort to pack a training/meet preparation cycle with as many success experiences as possible will go a long way to raising our confidence when it is time to compete. Combining these master experiences with vicarious experiences, persuasion, and arousal control will provide a potent boost in mental performance.

Stay tuned for more on self-efficacy techniques.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Motivational Climate: Weathering the Storm

I’ve spoken a lot about Ego vs. Task Orientations as they pertain to the individual, as well as society.

This is the way in which we approach things: we do it for our mastery of the task, we do it to compare ourselves to others…or some combination of the two. Motivational Climate is something a bit different. Rather than the way we approach something, it is the way in which our environment encourages us to approach something.

Important questions to ask ourselves:
  • How did I get my current orientation?
  • What sort of motivational climate did I grow up in?
  • What motivational climate am I in now, in terms of work, sport, and life?
Our experiences with out motivational climate can have serious consequences.

One interesting finding is that task orientation is positively associated with a belief that one may be able to improve their physical abilities with practice (Sarrazin, Biddle, Famose, Cury, Fox & Durand, 1996). Task oriented people tend to have more of a “growth” oriented mindset, as opposed to a “fixed” mindset – that is, they believe that they have control over their destiny, as opposed to being locked into whatever gifts they were born with.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck goes into detail about the importance of fostering growth mindsets as a way to bolster intrinsic motivation in sport, academics, and business (Check out her TED talk, it is quite illuminating). This makes perfect sense – with a fixed mindset, any “failure” or  mistake digs directly into a person’s self-worth. If one fails and believes that they are inherently unable to grow and improve, why would they bother continuing to exert themselves as a particular task?

The answer: They wouldn’t. They would have no real motivation to.

Looking at the process, on the other hand, sets people up to believe that they can continue to grow and achieve. This causes us to dream and choose goals of appropriate difficulty in order to challenge ourselves.

The Ego Climate does the opposite. It creates a fixed mindset within us that is detrimental to motivation. By constantly obsessing about being the best, and comparing ourselves to others, we have a tendency to fixate on the next test/contest/performance review. Worse yet, as Dweck points out, people with a fix mindset will often avoid challenges, cheat, or look for competition that is far below their skillset – all as a means to not look incompetent.

Practical Application: Creating a Task Oriented Climate (or: How to know if you are currently in one)

Duda and Treasure (2014), offer the following strategies. NOTE: this list is far from all inclusive:

  • Assist athletes in goal setting. That is, do not do it for them.
  • Give the athlete a role in decision-making.
  • Encourage self-evaluation
  • Get athletes to take responsibility for their development
  • Spend equal time with all athletes
  • Be consistent, especially with evaluations
  • Emphasize improvement, effort, and persistence toward goals.

One key theme: Task/Mastery Climate is best maintained when athletes are given ample autonomy and introspection. When we couple this with a strong emphasis on effort and mastery, vice only winning, we set the stage for consistent growth, motivation, and improvement.

References:

Duda, J. L., & Treasure, D. C. (2014). The motivational climate, athlete motivation, and implications for the quality of sport engagement. In J. M. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 57-77). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Sarrazin, P., Biddle, S. J. H., Famose J. P., Cury, F., Fox, K. R., & Durand, M.  (1996). Goal orientations and conceptions of sport ability: A social cognitive approach. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 399-414.

 

The World’s Ego Orientation Obsession and Tia Toomey

When the only measure of success is winning…

Considering I had mapped out my week to complete a few articles on Ego Orientation vs. Task Orientation, an article making the social media rounds was a fitting reminder of the way the world (at least, the Westernized world) views athletics. As someone who’s prime concern is fostering the motivation of the people around me, I’d be remiss in failing to acknowledge the forces that work against me.

Recently, the Australian outlet Canberra Times published a piece on Tia Toomey, an Aussie who placed second at the CrossFit Games and went on to compete in Weightlifting at the Olympic Games in Rio – and placed 14th overall. The article, entitled World CrossFit Games Runner-up Tia Toomey finds Rio 2016 a different Beast, written by Roy Masters, created a bit of an uproar on social media.

Look, I try to take most Olympic oped pieces with a grain of salt, as the journalists oftentimes are clueless about the sports, as Masters clearly is. Additionally, Masters also appears clueless about specificity, skill transfer, energy systems, and a whole rash of other stuff.

But this article isn’t about that.

This article is about a glaring issue in the Western world with regards to motivational climate. When the smoke cleared, Toomey, at only 23 years old, place 14th in the single biggest international competition in the world. Additionally, she finished second at the CrossFit games. From a perspective of Task (Mastery) Orientation, the amount of milestones she had to reach in order to attain this degree of proficiency in multiple athletic disciplines is staggering. This speaks volumes about her work ethic, tenacity, perseverance, and dedication.

Yet Masters dismissed all of this in the article. Bottom line: she was “only” 14th.

Masters does more harm with this thinking than he could possible imagine.

The seeds of Ego Orientation…

Whether or not we become Task Oriented or Ego Oriented is largely based on environmental and social factors. When we are children, we learn this from our family, teachers, and peers. When being better than others becomes more important than trying to be better than ourselves, the seeds of the Ego Orientation are planted.

In coaching, creating a motivational climate that focuses on mastery, as opposed to ego, is an important concern. This is especially true in youth coaching, where experiences that children have on the athletic field can have reverberations that echo for their entire lives and leak into other domains. This is why it’s ironic that most youth sport “coaches” are volunteers with no training. Granted, these are parents, and they mean well, but meaning well and doing well are two different things.

This brings to mind the work of Psychologists Ronald Smith and Frank Smoll. In 1979, Smith and Smoll observed the behaviors of Little League coaches and devised a program called Coach Effectiveness Training (CET). CET focused on training coaches how to interact with their athletes through self awareness, fostering skill improvement, eliminating a “winning is the only thing” attitude, and using extrinsic rewards properly. The result was that the children of CET trained coaches had less anxiety and aggression, and improved self-esteem and confidence. Teams with CET trained coaches also won more than non-CET trained teams (Smith & Smoll, 1979).

Oh, by the way, CET training sessions lasted a whopping 2 hours! Yes, that is not a typo. TWO HOURS!

And when the kids get home from the game…

As effective as CET is, that still doesn’t change the motivational climate at a child’s home. I can remember seeing my father after athletic events that he could not attend due to work obligations. His first question:

“Did you win?”

Problem: what is the overall climate like at home?

What good is CET and other types of training (for teachers, for example), if we are pounding our kids with the idea that winning and being number one

I’ll expound on this in future articles, but at best we are training kids to be completely non-functional when adversity strikes – and it will. At worst, we are creating a group of non-adaptive kids who use failure avoidance techniques and self-handicapping, or simply set easy goals in life so that they never “lose”. I know, because I was this kid.

This article brings up yet another problem:

What does one do when society, as a whole, only equates success with the person who finished #1?

If our teachers are versed in motivational methods, our coaches are trained via CET, and parents are setting the example with Task Oriented climates at home…

What about society as a whole?

What does it say about us when journalists shame an athlete for “only” being 14th best at weightlifting? (IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!) Where are our priorities when someone has a myriad of incredible athletic accomplishments, but the focus gets placed on her no being on a podium in Rio, or “only” being second at the CrossFit Games? Do we really care about good sportsmanship, positive attitudes, and level of effort when we dismiss anyone who isn’t awarded a gold medal? How did we get that Ego Orientation as a society?

It would be nice if I had peer-reviewed sources to give me an answer here. I don’t.

I wish I had a magic way of showing society that downplaying a person’s efforts and dedication to mastery, regardless of placing, is counterproductive and asinine. Or, perhaps, a way of explaining to everyone, simultaneously, that Ego Orientation isn’t necessarily a bad thing…in the presence of a strong Task/Mastery climate.

But I don’t.

Tia Toomey, you are amazing.

Reference:

Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., & Curtis, B. (1979). Coach effectiveness training: A cognitive behavioral approach to enhancing relationship skills in youth sport coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 59-75