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.

kelly-sikkema-WRByZhruW6o-unsplash girl with racket

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.

cover shot

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.

cover shot

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

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Aligning Development for Players and Programs

(Note: A version of this article appeared in the November/December publication of Tennis Pro)

Whether you’re a player, a coach or you direct a major program, there is a simple method to assess alignment—to see if all the parts are heading in the same direction. The method is simple in theory, but hard in practice. Hard because it requires an enormous amount of honesty, vision, commitment to quality, and a willingness to adapt. Over the years I have often observed that individuals in certain settings, programs or teams do not improve despite having clear goals. Sometimes, as is the case in high school and college teams, entire teams do not improve during the season. On a larger scale, some programs fail to evolve despite the investment of effort and resources. Why is this so?

There are many factors underlying the stunted development of a player, team or program, but most of these reasons follow a common theme: misalignment. While a systems or program analysis is costly in time, energy, and resources, a simple and informative way of examining alignment is to consider three major factors: people, process, and product. How a system functions, whether it is a single player, a team or program of hundred players, reveals the value and investment in each of these factors. More importantly, how these three factors relate to each other reveals beliefs and expectations of what truly matters—the motivation for choices and actions over time.

Looking at people, process and product within a system, either a horizontal or vertical picture emerges:

process alignment graphic

Figure 1. Horizontal: People, process and product heading in the same direction, integrated and valued.

hierarchy in system graphic

 

Figure 2. Vertical: One part of the system may be valued more; system is not integrated.

Most misaligned programs or systems appear in the horizontal form (Figure 2). A hierarchy exists that is implicit beneath the explicit vision, mission, and core values. The outward message or motto may be “All in” but the meta-message is something different. As a player or coach, if you step back and reflect on experience, on some level you understand where you are in the hierarchy. Again, this scrutiny requires a great helping of honesty to admit there may be a misalignment between beliefs and actions.

The misaligned program typically puts the product or outcome above all else—because it is measurable. That outcome may be the number of college players produced. Or there might be a secondary outcome beneath the advertised goal, such as income and profit or recruiting. None of these outcomes are inherently bad and they do matter. But if the product comes without regard for the process and the people, then trouble is on the horizon.

What might this type of misalignment look like? Here is a sample tennis program (and can represent any organized system):

  • A few players receive the most coaching and attention on the “top” courts, while the rest of the players flounder on the outer courts.
  • Players receive the same instruction without emphasis on their unique talents and abilities.
  • Personal player goals (if they are even created and documented) are slanted towards outcome with little or no emphasis on process.
  • Little regard is given to the process of practice. Players do the same training or some variation every practice (The what is the same but the how and why are not emphasized).
  • Lesson plans are either missing, minimal, or general and without differentiation for individuals.
  • The focus is more on recruiting top players to the program then developing the ones already present.
  • The 80/20 principle (more like 95/5) applies and the lack of progress of majority who do not produce is explained away by competition or personal deficits.
  • Programmatically there is an emphasis on managing rather than leading.

Notice that Figure 1 has an arrow that aligns people, process, and product towards a specific vision. No such arrow is possible in misalignment (Figure 2.). Instead, the product is the arrow and the measure.

A system is designed to achieve the results it gets—intentional or not. So, how can misalignment be addressed?

  • Players can make an honest assessment of their goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. Are there process and outcome goals in place to address all these aspects? Ask if the environment supports this plan. Take a step back and notice if there is misalignment, if product is the center of attention. Consider If process matters, if people matter. Can you describe how you improved in a practice session (intentional practice) or do you just describe what you did in the practice session?
  • Coaches can make an honest assessment of goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. What type of relationship do you have with the players you coach? Are you aware and encouraging of their personal plans? Do you stress process and quality? Do you have a way of measuring and focusing on intentional practice? Do you consider, above all, the value of getting a little better each day (process)?
  • Directors can make an honest assessment of the people, process, and products of the program. Where is the emphasis focused? Is one of these factors valued more? Is there a process in place to evaluate quality and the standards of the program? Do individuals meet their personal goals? Is there a process in place to help players develop in all realms? Do players and coaches enjoy coming to work?

Putting it all together, each of the factors relate to each other and this informs the alignment process. First, people (players) matter and inform programmatic goals for without them you have nothing. A player’s basic motivation comes from a sense of freedom, connection, and competence. In an aligned program (for individuals, teams, and programs) these boxes are all checked.

Second, process produces product. Poor processes lead to a lack of desired results. Process pays attention not only to what’s important, but also the how and why of choices and actions. Product is an outcome (in the future) and process is everything else (how we invest time and effort the present). If individuals, teams, or programs are not improving, they are going backwards in context for nothing stands still. Process is the place to look for misalignment and the source of greatest leverage.

Finally, this is not a one-shot deal. The image below is a model for development and the arrow is pointing somewhere into the future.

process alignment graphic

That point in time can be as near or as far as you choose, but movement and change will happen. Development brings new challenges and new opportunities. And it’s much easier manage these when the most important factors are aligned to a specific vision.

 

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.

cover shot

 

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Three Practice Myths

The heart and soul of improvement is practice. But just having practice time scheduled and showing up is not enough. Often practice and performance are far apart, particularly when learning a new skill or strategy. We may be able to do things in practice that we are unable to execute in a match, game or performance. But the quality of effort, attitude, and motivation in practice needs to parallel our state on game day. Here are three practice myths that hinder the arc of development:

  1. Putting in the time. While hours of practice certainly matter, the quality of the practice matters more. Two hours of purposeful practice will produce more benefit than drilling without purpose for countless hours.
  2. Putting in the repetitions. Once again, quality matters more than quality. Repetition without a clear developmental plan, reflection, and feedback misses the opportunity to groove the neural nets of efficient response. The process of myelination—the biological foundation for muscle memory—requires clear mental representations, getting out of your comfort zone, and reflective feedback. Otherwise reps are truly just going through the motions.
  3. Giving the effort. Without intention effort is directionless. There are many athletes who have given 100% and not improved, and not reached their goals. I’m reminded of the analogy of climbing a tall ladder only to find out it is set against the wrong wall. Nothing is more devastating to an athlete’s sense of self knowing he/she gave all and failed—not knowing the major reason was the lack, in some shape or form, of high-quality information.

matthew-lejune-ouIvFopvLpc-unsplash

What you can do:

  • Relate your practice goals to your outcome goals, breaking them down into relevant chunks. Then plan for practice and how to measure progress during that session. Simply put, when you leave the practice session you should know if you improved.
  • Intentional progress takes you out of your comfort zone. Expect and accept the challenge. Discomfort and frustration are a part of the change process. Importantly, allow time to recharge once you’ve hit a limit. The re-engage the process.
  • Have exceptional models of what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Use mental imagery to create blueprints of skills and performance.
  • Schedule time for reflection and feedback.
  • Get one-on-one coaching with someone who understands the process of purposeful practice.

 

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.

cover shot

photo credit: Matthew Lejune (unsplash.com)

 

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Evolution of Coaching (Part 3)

The concept of levels is rarely discussed openly, but we experience it often. In the physical domain, the recreational player would experience levels competing with Roger Federer or Tiger Woods; the middle school track star racing Usain Bolt over 100 meters.

In these situations, it is easy to see the difference in levels. But it is not only physical. People perceive, think, and use language at different levels. The lower level cannot hear what the higher level is saying, because of the difference in complexity. And when we look at this gap, we witness the arc of vertical growth.

stephan-henning-740267-unsplash

Coaching is no different. Adding skills and knowledge is horizontal growth. Developing the self is a vertical task, one that increasingly changes and clarifies the relationship between the individual and the environment. By growing and knowing more deeply we see ourselves more clearly—but also with this wider lens we see others and the environment more clearly. In horizontal development, content increases. In vertical growth the context widens and deepens.

Importantly, each stage (see previous posts) brings new capacities. The Self-Centered Coach who evolves to the level of Culture-Centered for the first time sees the two-way street of reciprocity as well as another’s point of view. This means in coaching one can truly treat others as they want to be treated. There is a give and take based in mutual understanding, and the relationship is felt internally not just as something “out there.”

Evolving from Culture-Centered to Value-Centered, coaches can differentiate themselves from the group culture and what is held as tradition or the “right way” to do things. Value-Centered Coaches self-author, meaning they have a connection to the culture but do not hold it as the ultimate identity (being part of the group). They can hold the institution (sports and business culture) as just a part of what they have learned and how they coach. Value-centered coaches have their own point of view of how things work and can use a variety of sources to make coaching decisions.

A new capacity arises in vertical growth from Value-Centered to Principle-Centered, as now coaches can transform their sense of self as part of a system of systems. Coaches at this stage can hold identity, ideology and sense of self as adaptable and flexible based on underlying principles. Self-awareness has heightened to a level of being which allows one to witness the parts and the whole—and the relationships between. Integration is a key principle at this stage and a widened lens allows for greater vision and innovation.

The fundamental capacity of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. As coaches play an enormous role in the growth of others, self-awareness and the integration of developmental abilities (context, process, wisdom) are vital to the success in the role. As coaches see themselves more clearly, they have a greater ability to serve the growth and actualization of the potential of those in their charge.

 

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.

cover shot

 

 

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.

cover shot

 

 

 

leadership, Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

Does Playing Sports Develop Character (Part Two)

Looking at the other side of the equation—playing sports may not be a vehicle for self-development. Why? There are many reasons, but I will speak to a few common ones:

  1. The player(s) never truly owns the experience
  2. The end is more important than the means
  3. A fixed mindset

In the first case, the driving need is one of approval. The individual lacks the autonomy to make their own decisions and the biggest payoff, most likely, is being in the good standing of another. The spectrum of how much freedom the individual surrenders is related to the power possessed by the one who actually calls the shots. While we may witness some success in such an authoritarian dynamic, the player does not own enough of themselves and their experience to develop an integrated and differentiated sense of self—the very stuff of character.

In the second case, the product or end-goal is the only thing that matters. Win at all costs, it’s a dog eat dog world, nice guys finish last, only the fittest survive… This is a very black and white perspective and it is hard to develop a sense of character when you see everyone as someone who can take something from you. As we have said many times in this venue, in competition you have nothing at the start and earn everything as you go. In any league or competition, only one gets the first-place trophy. While the ultimate prize is one of the goals, there must be other compelling reasons to play—the greatest being the opportunity and enjoyment of improving at what you love to do.

tournament brackets

The final case has to do with identity. One with a fixed mindset identifies with static qualities. This is the opposite of character which is developed over time and features many mistakes and re-aligning along the way.  According to Carol Dweck, a competitor with a fixed mindset avoids challenges, ignores negative feedback, sees talent as static and effort as fruitless, gives up easily, and is threatened by the success of others. This person identifies with a very rigid sense of success and does not seize the opportunity afforded in the process of overcoming challenges.

While there are different perspectives, one that focuses solely on competence and accomplishment and ignores the development of character seems limiting. After all, who you are at the core will be who you are in all your other roles. And there is no conflict between fierce competitiveness and fairness, intensity and sportsmanship, toughness and respect. Interestingly, those who look to be the best understand they need the best of others to help them get there. This goes back to the true meaning of the word compete: to strive together. For everything, at some level exists in a relationship. And you can’t develop competence without the consistent challenge provided by the best efforts in others.

 

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.

cover shot