“The Process” Part 2

Monsters Under The Bed

Remember when you were a little kid and you were put to bed at night only to get up because you were convinced there was a monster under your bed? Well ok, maybe not you but I sure do. I was so convinced of it that I would sneak out of bed nightly, crawl down the hall where my parents were watching television and be promptly put back into bed. My parents nor anyone else could convince me that there wasn’t a monster under my bed even though my mom and I peered under the box spring regularly to make sure. I made up for a lack of bravery with a great imagination.

My “flight” response during competition was no different than crawling down that hall worried about that monster. Only the monster during competition was the fear of failure and a disproportionate sense of importance I placed on winning and losing. What I didn’t realize at the time was I would be the same person regardless of the outcome. Being so heavily entrenched in the sport and striving to achieve some very difficult long-term goals I placed an unreasonable amount of self-worth on whether I won or lost. There would have been a benefit in understanding who I was, was not dependent on what I achieved or didn’t achieve on a wrestling mat. Even to this day some of my losses haunt me in that way.
This is where “The Process” comes in and how the range of personalities can benefit from a culture where getting better each day trumps outcome. Even the most seasoned athlete or the athlete that appears to have it all figured out may have developed coping skills that only mask what is going on in their head. Eventually, most athletes who compete long enough develop coping skills to mask these debilitating emotions. Coping with “competition anxiety” and actually changing one’s mental approach to a positive non-judgmental, process oriented outlook are vastly different. My son who I always thought had a relatively healthy approach to competition would definitely be considered in the “fight” category when dealing with anxiety. The bigger the tournament the more this manifested itself in his behavior. At Junior Nationals his junior year in high school it seemed like he literally wanted to fight everyone in the Fargo Dome. I didn’t totally realize it at the time but this was his physiological reaction to what he deemed in his brain as a stressful situation. This was illuminated for me after his final college match. After he lost in the finals of the National Tournament I was distraught.
He said to me, “What are you so sad about, I’m happy.”
I replied not really knowing why I was so sad, “I feel bad you didn’t achieve your goal and I’m sad it’s over.”

He put his arm around me (when I should have been putting my arm around him) and said, “Dad I’m so relieved it’s over and there is no more pressure. I’m happy it’s finished.”
It had never occurred to me that he felt so much pressure and anxiety. He could be brash and over-confident even to the point of talking trash. Maybe, I was too close to the situation to realize that he dreaded competition just as much as I did. The difference was how we mentally dealt with it. He wanted to fight and I wanted to be home on the couch watching cartoons. Ironically, I could not remove myself enough to look at him from a coaches perspective (subject for another blog post) to truly understand where he was because I was, first and foremost his dad.
So, how, as coaches do we go about dealing with all the personalities and the emotions that come with them? Before we even broach the subject of “competition anxiety” with the athlete we need to get to know them and create a solid relationship. There is a level of trust that athletes must have in their coaches to really open up to them. Integral to the relationship is providing an environment (culture) that is built around focusing on the process, competing without judgement and using outcome as a learning tool not a punishment. If there is an awareness of the constant journey and a focus on all the intricacies that take place for both the individual and his/her team than the outcome is just a small piece of a greater and much more rewarding journey. Wrestling, with the intense individual hours of self-awareness and indulgence can create and magnify this feeling of determining self-worth by outcome. This is no different for the beginner or the guy trying to win an Olympic gold. There are those who release all their success and situation to a higher power or to their coaches or to their teammates. I believe when we release responsibility and judgement to someone or something else it is a way of removing that judgement or removing ourselves from the responsibility of outcome. Accepting outcome as an essential part of the process, in my opinion, is a more healthy way to approach competition.
As coaches, teammates and even parents, building a culture that focuses on “the process” is an ongoing challenge. If one of the three participants in this journey go overboard on the winning and losing stuff it will be difficult to convince the athlete what really matters. But, if there can be an ongoing conversation about focusing on the journey the athlete has a better chance at approaching competition with a positive, healthy attitude. A couple reminders I tell my athletes before a match or tournament is to have a mental mantra. This is self-talk or reminders of what should be their focus. It may be as simple as, “move my feet, hard hands, angles, move on the whistle, no judgement.” A mantra keys in on the actual physical and intellectual attributes that lead you to success. An athletes self-talk during competition should avoid self-criticism, making judgements about performance or an ongoing personal critique. If our minds are in a constant state of analysis, rather than “being in the moment” or what some people refer to as, “the zone” than our performance will suffer. It is ok to be critical of your performance but hold off until after the competition is completed. Another tool athletes need to take into competition with them is the ability to “right the ship” or get back to what I call “homeostasis.” Competition is emotional and passionate and at times athletes can lose that clear-cut state where they compete at their highest level. In their pre-match preparation, while visualizing or relaxing athletes should identify a point in the arena (could be a sign, an area of the stands, a part of the mat, something easily identifiable) that when they look at it and take a deep breath it helps return them to center and refocus on the process. As a coach you may a verbal que for your athlete that you say to them during competition that assists them in returning to homeostasis.
Winning and losing is a mirage that we create in our own minds. Anything not happening in the present is a thought. When we realize there are no monsters we can compete with the relaxed confidence of a true champion. 

#coaching #wrestling #theprocess #sportspsyche

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“The Process” my first post.

It is only appropriate I start this blog about an area of coaching that I believe is essential in producing mind healthy athletes a nd a positive culture within your program. The other day I posted on my facebook page a simple blurb about the book The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. Sterner hits at the heart of the mental obstacles facing anyone in pursuit of optimum performance.

As a nervous athlete myself and someone who many times focused on all the wrong things the mental game of sports has been a lifelong study. Ironically, when I was about twelve years old my mom gave me the book, The Inner Game of Tennis by Tomothy Gallowey. At the time my mother and I spent many summer days playing tennis and this was her answer to improving my game (thanks mom). Little did I know this book had many of the answers to my mental obstacles I would face later in my athletic career. Unfortunately, at the time I was too young to understand the content and apply it to my psyche.

Many sentinel moments in my wrestling career were marred by incredibly debilitating anxiety. I can vividly recount waiting to take the mat for my state finals match my senior year in high school and thinking how great it would be to be lying on my couch at home rather than focusing on the upcoming match. I won the match only because I physically out gunned my opponent not because I was mentally on the that fine line.

This misguided mental focus followed me all the way through my college wrestling career and for the most part made my competitive life mostly miserable. As a junior at Oklahoma State I can reflect back to a match against Iowa for what was considered the National Dual Championship and how worried about losing I was. Not only was I worried about losing and letting my teammates down I also was worried about how tired I was going to get against returning NCAA Champion Jim Zelesky. It was physically and emotionally paralyzing to carry the weight of the world into the circle that night with such a distorted focus. In retrospect, I realize now I lacked a couple of basic elements to a successful competitive mindset. First, and foremost was perspective.  My mind was so focused on the negative (outcome) and a warped sense of reality that I could not get out of my own way to perform at my optimum level. It was a self fulfilling prophecy to worry about losing and than creating a self realization of that thought. Now, I don’t know if I would have been anymore successful against Zelesky that night but if I had the correct mindset and focused on “the process” rather than the outcome, not only would I have performed better but I would have enjoyed the activity a hell of a lot more.

We hear a lot coaches talk about process these days. People have realized the power of living in the moment and having a filter on the negative unproductive thoughts that can creep in and take over our brains. Developing these skills as an athlete can be difficult if the program culture does not have the right kind of tenants. Having been the nervous athlete I quickly could identify with my athletes I coached who suffer from the same mental obstacles.  I started to study the mental edge of sports which brought me back to Gallowey’s book my mom had given me years ago. This created the beginning of an ongoing conversation about focusing on the process, being present in the moment and creating self-talk or what I like to call a personal mantra to success (the voice in our heads that keeps us on the nuts and bolts of the task at hand). It wasn’t enough to just have the conversation, I needed to change the entire culture in the program and how we as members of the team (athletes, wrestlers, parents) approached the sport in a holistic process driven manner. It started with our vocabulary and body language. We needed to send the message that winning was not the goal – getting better each day was. This is an easy thing to say but very hard to achieve. As the head coach I had to filter out those statements that created unnecessary anxiety that focused on winning rather than on the actual tasks that lead to success (effort, technique, mindset, strategy). We had to scourge the urge to relate skills, work ethic and technique to winning and instead focus our language on pursuit of mastery. This has not been easy and sometimes we as coaches will catch ourselves reverting back to what I call, “The Biggest Game of Your Life” mentality.  We also learned that body language can speak louder than words and how you deal with your athletes losses and even wins sends a very strong message to them on what your true values are. If we truly address the sport from a “process” oriented approach than throwing chairs after a tough loss and screaming at the kid is probably not going to cut it. If both athlete and coach are focused on the right things than a constructive and collected conversation about what went well, what needs to be improved on and where we go from here can take place in the teachable moment. If emotions get the better of one of the two people involved that moment for improvement can be lost. I am not saying we are robots and act like Spock after a tough loss. What I am talking about is having “perspective” and as Sterner so eloquently points out a “Beginners Mind.”

It is my belief that the more we can get kids in this day and age of smart phones and screen time to focus on the “here and now” the better it will be for them and the more productive we will all be as a culture. As a coach when we are in the heat of practice working on a specific detail like head position and lines of defense and a kid walks up to me and asks, “what time does the bus leave tomorrow and do we have to make scratch weight” I know I have lost him. On the other hand, if I look up during instruction and have eyes intently open and kids asking specific well thought out questions regarding the task at hand I know our culture is on the right path.