Coaching, leadership, Sports Psychology

Coaching Young Children

Recently I started coaching a middle-schooler who was new to the game of tennis. I did my usual assessment of skills and was pleasantly surprised given his lack of on-court experience. He’d taken a few lessons at another club and about halfway into the lesson he started sharing some of the negativity that came his way during that time. These were global comments on his ability based on what seemed to be a small sample size.

Criticizing other coaches is not helpful. But this boy was simply doing something very human—dealing with the confusion of experiences. In this case, his venting helped clear the space for a fresh start which is important to the learning process. You can’t have two competing self-concepts (“I am not very good” and “I am learning and improving”) in mind and expect to be present.

I have enjoyed coaching him and, interestingly, what started as a “just a couple of lessons” turned into a “We’d like to continue.” I offer this piece of information because it speaks to his parent’s tentativeness based on the previous experience. No different than any other relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever answered more questions prior to a first lesson. It felt like an interview for a defense department security clearance. And for good reason!

Because everyone is someone’s son or daughter.

And making that connection helps you to make some space between your plan, your needs, and to see that you are responsible for someone’s child.

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Notice that the title of this piece is “Coaching Young Children” and when we use this term we often think of little ones— four, five, six, seven-year-olds… But the point is we all share the same emotions and express the same feelings. They are child-like and nearly entirely nonverbal. Sure, the expressions may seem more mature as we age, and the context may be more complex. But there is a good reason why the emotional areas of the brain develop first and before we can even use words. Because it all comes down to meaning, something we feel and something very hard to explain. Every experience has meaning even if we deem it to be meaningless.

Coaching a young child, a middle-schooler or an adult may look different on the surface, but at the core it’s pretty much the same. It’s an experience based on understanding and connection. You can’t learn, grow or develop without meaning. In other words, changing anything whether it is wiring muscle memory or rewiring the idea you have of your potential as a tennis player, is expensive. It’s costly in terms of effort and time, and it’s fueled by motivation—the core of which is emotion in motion. Notice that motivation, emotion, motion, and motive all share the same root. The source is the same and nothing happens unless emotion fuels the process. We like to think that logic dictates. But the hard challenges we take on don’t often make sense from the outside. And it’s because the motivation will always be a unique fire and a singular experience for the individual.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Kelly Sikkema (unspash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

What Makes it Tick?

In past posts I have talked about the concepts of process and product, and quantity and quality in relation to performance. I want to look a bit deeper at the reasons why we tend to “think” or focus on one or the other, and many times one more than the other. While process and product are related, they are not a continuum. In terms of attention, they are perspectives, and one (product) has gained far more attention over time—at a cost.

And attention is the key. You can find a lot of information about setting goals (SMART goals, etc.) and most plans point to something specific and measurable in the future. What is concrete and quantifiable, or what you can get a handle on is a product. This is a good start, but a small part of a broader picture. This approach focuses on the “What.” The diet industry offers an example of this approach selling the product of weight loss—a measurable outcome in the future. Billions are spent yet 90+% of individuals regain the weight they lost (and often more). Could there be something to this process?

The focus on product is outside-in, if-then, and is a mindset that has thrived with the advances of science and technology. Reduce something vast to something measurable and find out what makes it tick. Clockwork, predictable. Do this, get this. When in doubt, chunk it smaller and more tangible. Sounds good?

Maybe…

To use a few examples to further explain, consider the technical aspects of producing a swing in baseball, golf or tennis. Ultimately the tool (bat, club, racquet) reaches the target (ball) and produces an outcome. Video analysis allows a look at static points along the swing path and these data are drawn from the whole. But the snapshot says nothing about the how, the embodied feel of the swing. It says nothing of the transition from point to point or momentum—in other words, the process. This is no different than hearing a musical note in isolation and pretending it’s a song.

All these movements have timing in common. And rhythm is the feel of flow in time. When we confuse time with individual ticks, we reduce something that cannot be reduced because it must be felt in motion. And nothing kills motion, rhythm, and fluidity more than trying to feel or control the ticks—the very source of stress. Rather than isolating a point, performance is the art of feeling motion and when change occurs—feeling the angular momentum of the path, the acceleration of the barrel, club head or racquet as it moves along the path. And this is pure process.

Elite athletes feel and sense a good shot in the process—well before they witness the outcome. But sometimes the outcome doesn’t match the process. You make a smooth and rhythmic swing and the product is a fly out, a drive just in the rough or a serve an inch out. High quality in highly dynamic circumstances with little room for error sometimes turn out that way. This is the essence of trusting the process…

But something different happens when you judge the process solely by the outcome. Sometimes the process is not of the highest quality, yet the outcome works–at least for a moment or a short while. Despite flaws in the process, the drive ends up in the fairway; the baseball finds a hole in the defense; the serve hits the line. Feedback in this manner can lead an athlete down a dark alley without a compass. If you do not understand or sense the process—good luck trying to make adjustments based on the outcome. Where would you even start? It’s like trying to accelerate to the speed limit without noticing your car has a flat tire.

We circle back to the understanding that product consumes our attention because we have something to grasp. Something we can see and manipulate. We have a greater sense of control with outcomes because they can be captured. We feel we have something and can hold people accountable. This is much different when we consider that in process what we have is just feel—what we sense. Science and technology are not fans of intangibles for this reason. In process, the control lies in the motion and negotiation of space in time. It can be felt but not captured (and is very hard to describe) which is why when you change attention and catch yourself thinking you are playing in the zone there is a good chance you are about to lose that sense. It does not like to be placed in a box or considered a tick in time. The zone is flow. It is space not a point.

The mental side of performance requires an ever-increasing awareness, and this is an intimate learning process. And high-quality performance on the elite levels requires an ever-increasing desire to become more aware. And that is the point—both the driver and restrainer of the developmental process. A point not mentioned or discussed much in many realms because of the focus on outcomes and quantities. But it matters. We are always paying attention. But to what or how or why? The answers will lead you to back to process or product. Both matter—but performance and execution dwell in the realm of process—an athlete being an athlete in time and space and becoming more aware of the dynamic, more attuned to the flow of performing.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Eduardo Balderos, Zoe Reeve, David Goldsbury (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Dark Side of Coaching

In this post I would like to take a wide lens to coaching and some embedded assumptions about power, systems, and leadership. While it is not mentioned much or part of the dialogue of sports talk shows, people, players, and coaches are at different developmental levels. This is reflected in beliefs, styles, relationships and theories about team and player development. Sometimes it is explained away as “personality.”

Years ago, a controversy surrounding a legendary basketball coach (and personality) brought these different perspectives and beliefs in full view. Presented in many forms of media as if for a jury, both sides of the argument received attention regarding the coach’s questionable behavior. One had to take a leap to discern the coach’s motivation as the situation was offered “objectively.” Some former players saw the coach as a flat-out bully. Others saw his hard-nosed, win at all cost, profane and degrading treatment of players as “that’s just coach.” No big deal.

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Can both be true? Absolutely, just as it is easily justified in a certain light—or darkness. That is the wide frame of developmental levels. And over the years we witness similar stories—sometimes with not-so famous coaches, GM’s or team doctors, but it’s simply a variation on a theme. Most recently a chapter is being written in the National Hockey League, one that is quite disturbing when leadership is considered. But with a wider lens, one that accounts for principles of growth and stewardship, something different than the “that’s what I know, that’s the way it is, the way it’s always been” emerges.

There is a certain authoritarian approach that looks at players as pawns to be manipulated. The conditions include an imbalance of power and negation of the player as a complete human being. The player is their number, uniform, role, skill-set. “It’s a business.” This approach does not back away from fear and humiliation. It comes from a place of demanding respect… But…

At a certain level, respect can’t be demanded. It must be earned in a reciprocal manner—in a relationship. The principal behind the different levels of being is that you can’t give what you haven’t received. So, coaches who were coached in a fear-driven and belittling manner bring this forward to their new role. And players who were brought up in authoritarian homes in fear of punishment find it matter of course for coaches to punish, degrade, and direct from fear.

What this approach misses is the reality of how difficult it is to do anything complex and precise from a place of fear (hence the term “choke”). It is difficult to build chemistry when players are pitted against each other. Vision and purpose are blurred by intimidation and chaos. Motivation from fight or flight is short-lived, draining, and meant to engage a serious and imminent threat to life. Athletes in most sports do not fair well in such a state of stress, arousal and tunnel-vision. Even athletes (such as boxers and MMA fighters) where impairment or even death loom maintain a centered alertness that allows them to process and adapt.

All emotions come from a personal source and require awareness and insight. While these emotions exist in relationship to the greater surround, on a deep level they are very personal. Anger, the most powerful and volatile, requires a good deal of up-front work. Its message is private: I don’t like what is happening. The internal feeling is not a passport to violate, destroy, humiliate, intimidate or deceive because things are not going the way you wish. This is immaturity in adult clothes though its wrath is far from childlike.

While this may seem preachy or judgmental, the truth is we, in the name of safety, are always sizing things up. Just as the athlete you coach is seeing if you are for real. If you are going to facilitate growth, teamwork, and the conditions that must be present before you can even start to contemplate success in any form—the first things are personal and principled in nature. You have to be worthy and trustworthy before you can build trust and worth.

In your heart, what would you want for your son? Your daughter? Demanding, yes. Abusive, no. While the John Woodens and Tony Dungys are few and far between, we should stop making excuses and finally commit to what brings out the best in all. Because it matters.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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(photo credit: Carolina Pimenta, unsplash.com)

 

 

Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

The Practice-Performance Connection: Putting it All Together

There is never a simple way to become more complex—as an athlete or a person. It takes imagination, time, and intentional effort. But at each level complexity becomes a simplified, automated process in order to reach the next level of complexity. And that is the spiral of development in any sport. Oddly, you have to keep each step simple in order to build a complex structure because of the nature of learning. Symphonies, hip-hop, jazz, and rock all start with the same 12 tones. The greatest works of literature or a mindless social media post are born of the same 26 letters. But what you can create, even with the simplest of building blocks, is infinite…

Here are some effective ways to enhance the practice-performance connection:

Follow success. In every sport there are models of excellence for every part of development. We are gifted with the opportunity to learn from others’ experiences. Watching others do something at the level we are trying to reach is a powerful source of learning. Pick an area that needs work and find someone in your field that does it at a superior level. Then follow success with your unique touch. In other words, follow the principles (form and function) not the personality.

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Make practice a place for research development. Taking from leading edge businesses, resources are dedicated to the future in R&D. Our resources include time, effort, aptitude, and creativity. This bracket of time within practice (but outside the box) can be fun, adventurous, and truly playful. Ask: “What if?” And enjoy what flows…

Consider your maps. At each level of progress, the maps of performance differ. Maybe you need to recognize and respond quicker or differently to a situation. Or your technique needs smoothing out. Regardless of the physical or psychological nature, we have mental maps (schemas) that we have previously constructed that dictate our motions, emotions, movements, and responses. Ask: “Are they still working?” and “What isn’t working?” Then, edit, polish or discard.

Work on the mental game. Notice your language, expectations, and assumptions. Notice how you process experience and use it to inform you, and for continuous improvement. These all provide leverage for the next level. A journal or coach (or both) can help you with these important internal dialogues.

Start whole and master the parts. Working from a wider perspective can help create a more focused developmental plan for practice. Knowing what the end-product looks like, you can better isolate the areas to attend to. Another benefit of taking this route is how it primes and feeds motivation.

Reframe frustration. A first response to frustration may be avoidance or to soothe the feeling. But frustration’s value is the energy it gives to the change process. It is the fuel of disequilibrium and lives at the edge of growth and new skills. A major change is embracing the frustration as a normal part of growth— and pushing yourself to that tipping point of change.

Hire a Mental Game Coach. Acknowledging the need to focus on regulating states of mind, increasing awareness, and developing more complex mental maps during practice are key factors in the practice-performance connection. Reflecting with and learning from a coach adept in the mental side of the game can be the pathway to new levels of performance.

Putting it all together, the practice-performance connection is the pathway to improvement and goes above and beyond the edges of your current level. Seeing this opportunity makes practice a place not of rote repetition, but of vision and intentional development.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credit: Austin Chan (unsplash.com)

 

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

King of Clay

Tennis great, Rafa Nadal, made it an even dozen championships this June at the French Open. He has won this major event in his teens, twenties, and thirties. Although the accomplishment inspires awe in the present, the true magnitude of the feat will grow over time. History needs to lend perspective to present unfolding of the accomplishment—and it’s very possible the undisputed “King of Clay” can add to his trophy case in the years to come.

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What can we take away from this truly remarkable story?  Here are just a few…

Vision: Rafa is right-handed. Early on his first coach, Uncle Toni Nadal, envisioned the advantages of playing left-handed. Unlike baseball, you must hit from both sides in tennis—and at the highest level both sides must be strong. In Rafa’s case his natural right side became one of the greatest backhands of all time. For many the backhand side prevents players from the upper echelons of achievement. For Rafa on this side he could go toe-to-toe with a righthander’s forehand.

Adaptation: The saying “Nothing fails like success” speaks to the mindset of extinction. In competition, there is always someone preparing to dethrone the champion, there is always someone about to make a break-through. Adapting represents a break-with what is familiar—and this is particularly hard for the body and the mind. Equilibrium is favored, but excellence requires comfort with pushing limits and limiting beliefs. Rafa has improved all areas of his game and continues to add new wrinkles along the way. Where he was once was average at the net, now Rafa is excellent coming forward. He’s added power and versatility to his serve. Recently, he’s worked hard on angling groundstrokes rather than always hitting through the court. His evolution continues…bad news for his youthful peers, but a path they would do well to follow.

 Effort: The one thing we can always control is effort. We can’t control the weather, our opponent, the crowd and a million other factors. But deep inside we are the only ones who know if we have given our best. While Rafa is his only true judge and jury, from the outside and from the observations of his opponents, he has always given his all. One thing appears consistent throughout Rafa’s career, is that in terms of effort he plays each point the same: full throttle.

Humility: Rafa is a graceful champion. He has the utmost respect for the game, his team, his opponents, and the venues he plays. While confidence is important to the mental game, humility lends a perspective beyond competing and winning. Many factors beyond the athlete’s control have to all fall in place for an individual to have a long and prosperous career—let alone the chance to try. Rarely said or admitted, there are individuals out there who have the heart and the talent to compete, but never the opportunity. On some level, spoken or not, I believe Rafa knows this and understands this. And on some level, spoken or not, those who understand this truth play with the humility and the grace of having such an opportunity not afforded others. Rafa represents the opportunity very well.

Long live the King… Vamos!

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Evolution of Coaching

The relationship of coach to player or team is one that has evolved thanks to many leaders in the field drawing on information from other disciplines, such as psychology and leadership. For example, the concept of transactional and transformational coaching draws from the literature on leadership—and for good reason. The role and power differential between players and coaches is obvious, but often secondary in nature except for in the hearts and private thoughts of those within the relationship.

While coaches assume many roles at the core of these various responsibilities is teaching. Within and underlying this broad term of “teaching” are many layers of skills, knowledge, and qualities, yet the driving force of coaching and teaching is understanding: To understand oneself, players, systems, and the integration within the process of moving towards a vision.

Self-awareness is the primary source for this understanding for it makes us conscious of what we know as well as revealing the edges of our ignorance. Research in Emotional Intelligence as well as wisdom literature (“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu) points to self-awareness as the core competency.

But what is this “self” that we are aware of?

This awareness of self is the place of greatest leverage and the space where we meet different coaching philosophies. One can hear and see the philosophical differences of legendary coaches John Wooden and Bobby Knight—both Hall of Famers with very different deliveries. We sense the differing points of view right down to little league or junior tennis and the continuum of yellers and screamers versus quiet discipleship.

Evolution in the role of coaching is a process and it offers evidence of its stages—no different than any identity theory for the progression is a private one—one of the self.

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In an article written for Tennis Pro in 2016 (The Development of Self in Coaching) I outlined developmental stages related to the current level of a coach’s awareness. For simplicity, these four stages of adult development can be described as (from least to most complex):

  1. Self-centered
  2. Culture-Centered
  3. Value-centered
  4. Principle-Centered

While this is a complex topic, it helps to understand how the “self” evolves for it is the center from which we teach and coach. How you make meaning and how you make sense of experience is a construction, it is the self, and this process is the lens you “see” through each moment.

This developmental process is rarely considered, nor is there an intentional structure in place for helping coaches evolve. Much like continuing education in any profession, knowledge and skills are offered with the hope of helping coaches become better at their craft. On some level, this is like the carpenter stopping at Ace hardware for a new hammer. And as Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

This type of development is horizontal, one of breadth but lacking depth which is an introspective process. Also, learning new skills or capturing more tools does not necessarily lead to development.

On the surface, the four coaches above presented above can look and sound the same. They can all be good people and have a solid knowledge of their sport. They can all have a winning record. But the lens they look through is very different. And this difference influences the quality of the relationship with players, teams, the sport…and self.

Next time we look at each of these coaches and their way of knowing and making sense of experience.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Photo credit: Angelina Litven (unsplash.com)

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Back-Up Plans

What if Plan A doesn’t work? That’s a good question, and it applies to much of daily living. But there are a few spaces that require all the creative power we have in order to keep moving and to persist–and to resist resorting to Plan B. The value in the moment of devotion to Plan A is often lost in the challenge, obstacles, discomfort—and sometimes pain.

Einstein is credited for saying that we can’t solve problems with the same of level of thinking that we created them. Here is the space above the field of play that pulls us to creativity, capability, and movement. In other words, when faced with a challenge or obstacle, there is a developmental path that evolves from simplicity to complexity and back to simplicity—and we can become something more.

Consider the skills, habits, and knowledge required to play your sport. There is a wide gap between novice and expert, and this is the arc of growth and development. Each cycle you become something more—sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in leaps and bounds.

back up plan

Again, there are just a few spaces where a Plan B is not a good idea nor should it be a part of consciousness. Having an “out” taints the awareness required to grow, be resilient, and figure it out. This applies in the moment when things are not working and you want to retire, quit, or default. And it applies in the greater arcs on the path to your long-term goals.

If we look deeply, those spaces mentioned are ones with deep connections and meaning. You would wouldn’t enter any vital role in life with a Plan B

“Well, if this fatherhood thing doesn’t work out…”

“If this marriage doesn’t work out…”

In the moment you can’t have one foot in and one out literally or symbolically. Commitment is required and passion wanes without vision.

The true benefit of seeing a plan through to its natural end is the deepening of character and competence on a level you would never attain while having a back-up plan. You may or may not reach your long-term goals, but that is only part of the picture. The commitment and devotion to worthy goals changes us to the core. And these qualities spread into every aspect of life.

At Wit’s End, there is the lure of Plan B—but the option is only to ease the pain. Truthfully, Wit’s End is simply a crossroads, a turning point to a higher level and greater capacity…

And, as Albert implied, new levels of thinking and doing.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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