Watch Them Play

Over the past 30 years, Bruce Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC have been conducting a survey of college athletes in order to better understand the experience of kids involved in sports. One of the questions Brown and Miller ask is, “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?” You might expect the answer to have something to do with a particularly painful loss or maybe grueling practices. But the main response is actually, “The ride home from games with my parents.”

The survey has revealed something that most people who have spent any time around youth sports already know: in their eagerness to see their children succeed, parents can become a source of anxiety. It’s natural to want to find a way to help children improve, but unfortunately attempts to do so are often counterproductive, distracting kids from the fun and learning of sport with worries about upsetting their parents. Even comments that may seem fairly benign–“You should have been more focused”, “You’re usually stronger in practice”, “If that other kid could do so well, so can you”–can have an adverse effect when coming from a parent.

In the same survey, athletes were asked what their parents said that made them happiest after a game. The answer: “I love watching you play.” Whether they win or lose (in fact, especially when they lose), kids are more interested in feeling accepted by their parents, than in any coaching feedback a parent might provide.

When their children don’t perform well, parents want to find a way to help. Perhaps if the parent can just say the right thing, give them that important insight, then they won’t make those same mistakes again? Though the intention is good, the approach is unlikely to work because:

Losing is a lonely feeling. Especially in an individual sport (like fencing). After a loss, parents have the power to affect how their child reacts to those negative feelings. Parents can lessen the impact by showing the child that they aren’t upset by the loss (and they shouldn’t be) or they can increase it by showing the child that the loss was a bad thing. What’s fundamental here–and a critical lesson for both parents and children to understand–is that losing is not in itself bad. Losing is a fundamental element of the learning process. It is entirely impossible to achieve anything near a high level without an enormous amount of failure first. Even when it seems that the athlete has reached a level of excellence, don’t be fooled. There’s still more losing to do. Since losing is completely unavoidable, it’s important that children learn the right attitude about it. No one can influence how a child views losing more than a parent. Research by Carol Dweck and others shows that kids who understand that losing is part of the process go on to achieve better outcomes.

Good coaching takes a lot of specific knowledge and experience. Finding the best advice to give, and the best way to give it, is not an easy task. It requires understanding the sport, the athlete, and the moment. The right thing to say changes with the circumstances, the individual, and the context in which it is said. As much as a parent might want to be able to provide the right coaching words, chances are they won’t be able to, simply due to a lack of the appropriate experience. Determining whether it will be most productive to say something about the child’s psychological performance, technical performance, or something else is very difficult. It’s best to leave coaching to a qualified coach.

It’s almost never an issue of motivation. And when it is, there is unfortunately absolutely nothing you can say to change that. Most kids really, really want to win. The idea that the winner “wanted it more” is very rarely true. Far more often, the winner was better able to handle the pressures of competition. Sport offers a wonderful opportunity to learn incredibly valuable stress management skills. The foundation of having a healthy relationship with stress is feeling that it’s safe to fail. When a parent tries to motivate a child to “want it” more, all he is really doing is leveraging the child’s desire not to disappoint his parent. This can create a lot of frustration and anxiety for the child and, over time, have a negative impact on the child’s relationship with the sport and with his parents.

Achieving a high level in most activities–and certainly sport–can cost incredible amounts of money. The assortment of fees connected to the travel and training of a top level athlete is not at all insignificant. Sometimes, particularly in light of those financial pressures, it can be easy to get frustrated when a child doesn’t perform as well as hoped. Parents can feel like they’re not getting a return on their investment. This, while not uncommon, is the wrong way to frame the money spent on a child’s development. It’s only possible to invest in experiences, not medals. The primary purpose of children’s sport is to give them an opportunity to learn and grow. Over time, this can result in competitive success–but it must be remembered that this is an effect of the goal, not the goal itself. If a child goes to a competition and doesn’t end with a high ranking, but can learn from the experience (and the learning is not limited to the sport specifics; emotional control, socialization, exposure to a different competitive environment, the opportunity to see someplace new, are all aspects of competition that a child gains from), it is far from a wasted effort. It is, in fact, the whole point.

Children can easily recognize how parents interpret their losses. Feeling like he’s letting his family down, making a parent angry, or wasting his family’s money will quickly start to work against a child’s ability to compete at his best in the future. It can also cause the child to learn the wrong lessons–lessons that undermine his belief in his capacity for growing and improving.

Watching children fail can be very frustrating for parents (and coaches). We want to help them. We want to spare them from failure. But we can’t. It’s their journey. We mostly just get to watch.

Marshmallow Men

When it comes to that magical place where science intersects deliciousness, there may not be a series of studies that have gotten more media attention than the “marshmallow studies”. As the results are often presented, preschool children who demonstrate the ability to put off eating one marshmallow now in order to receive two later, go on to do better in school, score higher on the SATs, have better health, and do better according to all sorts of other criteria we associate with success. These studies, the first of which dates back to the 1960s, have become very popular as evidence that self-discipline is the best predictor–and most important factor–of future success. And a failure to achieve means a lack of self-discipline.

As is often the case, however, the narrative that gets the most attention doesn’t really line up with the science.

The initial marshmallow research [pdf] was led by Walter Mischel of Stanford University. Mischel and his team were not actually looking at whether certain children could refrain from eating a treat–nor were they studying whether kids who obstained from eating a marshmallow right away would go on to have better life outcomes. In fact, what they were studying was what conditions and strategies led to kids being able to wait for the treat. What they discovered was that certain situations–such as giving kids a toy to play with, or even just telling them to think about fun things–resulted in most of the kids being able to wait for two marshmallows, while other conditions–such as telling the kids to think about marshmallows–led to most kids failing to wait. The difference, in other words, wasn’t a matter of which 3 year old had a steel will and which didn’t, but rather came down to the environmental factors present and the strategies the kids utilized.

Later research–some of which Mischel was involved in [pdf]–has shown a correlation between kids demonstrating the ability to delay gratification with future success, but there isn’t much to suggest that the relationship is causal. Mischel and others note that both may be the result of factors in a child’s home-life. Some recent studies [pdf] also note how a child’s beliefs in the reliability of his environment can significantly influence whether he waits for two marshmallows or eats the first one immediately.

Studies by Roy Baumeister at Florida State have demonstrated how one’s “willpower” and decision-making abilities are like a muscle that will both fail if over-exerted and get stronger over time with exercise–and are even affected by blood glucose levels.*

So if we’re concerned about a child’s ability to delay gratification (which, it should be noted, isn’t necessarily the best choice in every situation) or whether he has the qualities necessary to be successful in school, in sport, or in life, we should be focused on what environmental conditions we’re presenting him with and what strategies we’re teaching him.

It’s not uncommon to hear coaches, for example, complain that none of their students have the discipline they need to excel in sport, placing the responsibility for success entirely on the students. Framing a weak program in this way means that, while the coach may have protected himself to some degree from the anxieties of self-doubt, he has no reason to reevaluate the structure of his program and make improvements to his training. If the difference between successful and unsuccessful athletes is just a matter of their “self-discipline”, then the only thing the coach should be doing is waiting for the “right” students to walk in.

The alternative is to reconsider what’s going on in training and how it might be affecting the students’ ability to focus, learn, and perform. Institutionalized boredom has a long history in both academic and athletic education. It’s entirely common–maybe even expected–to find students given exercises in classrooms and gyms that do little to engage them mentally, but demand their passive obedience. Children are expected to suffer through these dull and miserable conditions. Their ability to do so is lauded as “self-discipline”, while failure is seen as a sign of weakness.

We can all relate to this experience: whether in the context of doing schoolwork that did little to improve our understanding of (and possibly soured us on) the subject matter, or engaging in sports training that consisted of hours of mindless “drills”. As a result, it can be hard as teachers and coaches to envision a different approach. What is school if it’s not hours of boring busywork? What is sports training if it’s not hours of dull, mindless repetition? Answering these questions is necessary if we wish to improve both the children’s experience and their performance.

Built into the celebration of “self-discipline” is an acceptance of the idea that the work necessary for success must be unpleasant. No one thinks in terms of “self-discipline” when it comes to enjoyable tasks. “I can’t believe Timmy has the self-discipline to play all of those video games” sounds a little weird. However, there is no shortage of examples–especially in sport–where the key to success wasn’t the strength to persevere through misery but rather a love of the activity.

So instead of lamenting his lack of self-disciplined students, a coach looking for more success should be considering ways to make his training more exciting, more engaging, and more fun. Not only will the students start learning more, but–as we see from Walter Mischel’s first experiment–they will be better at coping with delayed gratification (such as having to deal with not winning immediately) because they will have those enjoyable things present (those “fun things” to think about) to keep them focused on the moment.

Instead of expecting children to arrive pre-made for success, coaching needs to focus on creating a training environment that makes becoming a success enjoyable and more likely. After all, a coach with a fun and exciting program can eat as many marshmallows as he likes.

*See Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Baumeister and John Tierney.

The Russia-Mexico Border

At the 2013 Junior World Fencing Championships in Porec, Croatia, perennial favorite Russia found itself with an unusually low seed at the start of the Team Women’s Sabre event, due to surprisingly poor performances in the individual competition several days earlier by two of its members. This meant that Russia would have to first fence the extremely young and fairly unaccomplished Mexican team before they could challenge the higher seeded nations. It was assumed that the Russia-Mexico match would be so uninteresting–that Russia would so easily and quickly blow Mexico out–that it was almost entirely ignored by everyone in the venue. The broadcast cameras wouldn’t ever be turned toward it, preferring to instead capture the anticipated excitement of Ukraine vs China or Italy vs Poland. What the cameras missed, however, was amazing.

Mexico’s Junior Women’s Sabre team was composed of a group of young girls, most of whom were still Cadets. Mexico has no history of fencing results. It has no tradition of training top coaches. Unlike Russia, which has been one of the most successful fencing countries in the world for decades, Mexico is not, in any sense, a fencing power. The Mexican team would have, of course, known that they were an extreme underdog in that match and that, in spite of its low seed, the Russian team was considered one of the strongest in the competition. They knew the match would be difficult and that they weren’t expected to win.

The most amazing part of this story, then, is what happened when the two teams actually met.

The first thing that anyone who happened to look at the match would have noticed about the Mexican team is that they were excited. Really excited. They were hopping with energy. This was not a group of girls that appeared anxious or pessimistic. They seemed thrilled. This was a team with two athletes that had made the top-8 in the Cadet event several days earlier–a completely unprecedented result for Mexico–and, even more amazing, one of those same girls finish 11th in the individual Junior event. For the Mexicans, the week had been filled with breakthroughs. They had gotten results that were, for them, unheard of–and they were jubilant.

The Russians looked anything but excited. They seemed low-energy and unengaged. The Russian team, of course, had also had success that week–one of its members had won bronze in the individual Junior event–but after a very strong season, the individual performances of the rest of the team (all of whom were ranked in the top-10 in the world in Juniors) had been below expectations, with one of the girls going out in the 32 and the other in the 64.

The team competition could have been an opportunity for redemption for Team Russia; a chance to prove their excellence in spite of some earlier setbacks. However, the match, as it progressed, quickly turned into a massacre–one of the biggest upsets at Worlds. The Mexican team, so obviously delighted at the chance to test themselves against one of the world’s dominant fencing powers, fenced with such intensity and excitement, that the Russian team–who seemed to lack any enthusiasm at all–was quickly trailing in points, as Mexico’s lead steadily grew.

The Mexican girls fenced every touch with passion and commitment. The Russians, conversely, even seemed unhappy when they were winning touches. A pairing that was expected to be so uneven, ended up being lopsided in the other direction. At the end, the score was Mexico 45:29, a spectacular defeat for the Russians.

So how does a team of such young and inexperienced fencers so completely dominate a group of far more seasoned and notable competitors? In this case, a likely factor–possibly the most important factor–was in the differing ways the two teams responded to the stresses and challenges of competition.

It is regularly noted in sports psychology how similar excitement and anxiety are; how the physiological response (increased heart-rate, butterflies in the stomach, the change in breathing, etc.) is the same for both*. Our bodies are readying for action. However, the distinction is in how we respond emotionally to the situation and those changes. Whether we respond positively or negatively to the feelings of stress that accompany competition will have a significant impact on our performance. Top performers can recognize those feelings as signs of their excitement and readiness rather than retract in fear.

The Mexican Women’s Sabre team went into their match against Russia with nothing to lose. No matter how they fared, they could feel proud of the results they’d already achieved that week. And, as they’d already found reward in fencing fearlessly against higher ranked opponents in the individual events, they would have reason to feel emboldened and even eager to face a strong opponent.

The Russian team, on the other hand, was surely feeling a lot of disappointment over their individual performances. It would not be surprising if their coaches were also unhappy, and adding onto the pressure the team already felt to perform well in the team event (while simultaneously leaving them feeling inadequate to achieve that performance)**.

So, in effect, the Mexicans were primed to react well to the competitive stress, and the Russians were primed to respond terribly.

What’s the lesson to take away from this? Everybody feels stress at competition. The top fencers in the world experience many of the same things before a competition that beginners do. However, athletes that are able to really excel, react positively to that stress. Rather than balk at the tension in your belly that comes when you realize you’ll have to go against a tough opponent–one that you can’t be sure you’ll beat or are even expected to lose against–you have to make an effort to embrace the challenge. You have to adjust your thinking and self-talk to reflect the fact that difficult competition is an opportunity to push yourself to go beyond what you’ve achieved before and become more than you were. It is only by understanding–by practicing the habit of understanding–that it is actually fun to attempt those things which you’re expected to fail at, that you’ll be able to redefine what you’re capable of and drastically reset those expectation.

Go to competitions with the intent to flip your mental switch from anxiety to excitement. Make developing that skill a priority. Make being excited a priority. Teach yourself to enjoy trying, especially in those situations where you’ll probably fail. You’ll still fail a lot. But you’ll enjoy the experience more and, in time, you’ll fail far less.

*Here’s some related research: Psychophysiological responses in the pre-competition period in elite soccer players [pdf]

**The effects of pressure to succeed from coaches versus pressure from oneself is relevant here, and perhaps interesting enough to benefit from its own detailed discussion. This paper [pdf] covers many of the applicable ideas.

Be the Change

Preparing to be a champion isn’t limited to the effort you put in at the fencing club or in a gym. While mental preparation is often touted for its value, it’s important to recognize that creating and improving a champion mindset isn’t something limited to just the time set aside for visualization, meditation, and other exercises*. Champions are not only “champion-like” when they are at a competition. That mentality extends into their entire lives.

If your goal is to be a top-performer, then take note of your psychology in all of your activities. Are you passive or timid around strangers? Do you convey weak body language when you go into a store or walk down the street? Is the self-talk you use in your every-day world pessimistic or self-defeating?

The psychology we need to be successful athletes isn’t something that gets turned on and off; it is something that must be habituated until it becomes part of who we are. It has to become our “normal”. That means that we can–we must!–be working to improve our performance psychology in everything we do. Performance psychology isn’t really about changing our sports results, that’s just an effect. Performance psychology is about changing the way we understand and interact with the world: whether we’re in school, at work, on the street, or on the strip. The skills we need to effectively communicate with other people, effectively communicate with ourselves, and effectively deal with adversity are not limited to our sports activity–and if we wish to master these skills, we can’t expect to limit their application to sports. You can’t spend your whole week engaging in negative, destructive thinking and behavior (even if those thoughts and activities are not related to sports) and then expect to be mentally prepared for competition during the weekend.

Developing the optimal mentality for success is about building the right mental habits. Every moment of the day, we are either reinforcing positive mental habits or negative ones. If we want to be stronger mentally on the fencing strip, we must relentlessly work to make ourselves mentally stronger everywhere.

Some may react to this idea by saying, “But that’s just not who I am. I can’t change who I am.” Who we are is always changing–though we often fail to recognize it. We will not be the same person tomorrow that we are today. We can choose to passively wait for that change to happen or we can actively guide it.

Champions don’t passively wait to be successful.

*There are now a lot of resources available to help improve performance psychology. The books 10-Minute Toughness, Mind Gym, and Lengthen Your Line contain exercises and insights that are easy to follow and perfect for the athlete looking to improve his mental game.

Video – Leap Frog Fencing Exercises

There are many ways to create exercises that are fun, dynamic, and engaging. The video below demonstrates how basic general fitness activities (in this case, jumping and catching) can be combined with fencing movements (here, lunging) to improve power, balance, and coordination without relying on the dull “footwork drills” that are so common in fencing training.

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As always, by keeping the exercises exciting and different, students will learn more and learn faster.