Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Away From the Field

In these uncertain times, many voids fill our day. Like store shelves, emptiness is a reminder of what was there only a moment ago. We can live without sports and without competition. But that is not the point. In the void we can see all the things we take for granted, all the actions and choices that bring richness and fullness to life.

First and foremost, distance is a great teacher. Insight, hindsight, foresight and empathy all require distance in time and space. Without time and space and the reflection it offers, our perceptions would remain the same. So, in this separation from the playing field, make a pact that you will have a ritual to remind yourself of the blessing of play and the vehicle to grow.

Second, make a sincere and honest inventory of where you have come from and where you are going, who you are traveling with–and why.

Finally, notice we cannot make the journey alone. Appreciate those who help you, push you, and cooperate so that we can develop a sense of competence—the very source of competition. We need connection and we need to grow. Without these developmental processes we feel the emptiness that cannot be filled by any substance. For nothing replaces love, community, and passion.

 

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: Max DiCapua, Francisco Gonzalez, Marvin Ronsdorf, Huy Phan (unspash.com)

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.

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photo credits: Kelly Sikkema (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.

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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)

 

 

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

When Data Helps Sports Performance

Years ago, I performed the duties of Head Pro and Sports Director at a very large club. The facility featured racquet sports, handball, volleyball, and basketball, but the area that stood out to me from a performance perspective was the dance studio. Long before teams collected data and film on every aspect of the game, dancers had a simple effective form of feedback: mirrors. Over 40% of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to visual processing and equally important a dancer learning a performance could get the sense of the whole: how a move looked and felt from position to transition to position…

In a different vein, baseball crowned a new champion and data was as much a player as the athletes on the field. The broadcast was chock full of statistics, real-time measurements, and analysis. On a side note, I miss the days of “The Scooter,” Hall of Fame shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, who was the New York Yankees color analyst for years after he hung up his spikes. Rizzuto often talked about meals he had at different New York restaurants for innings at time. Spaghetti and meatballs flavored the broadcast. Today, conversation has been replaced by esoteric stats and games take nearly twice as long.

ballet dancer

Dancers, data, and plates of spaghetti all go together on some level. And that is the point. Data and stats are important, but not as much as the intuition developed by athletes and performers at the highest level. And sometimes the best coaching takes place over a meal.

More and more the mind is being managed from a laminated sheet beyond the playing field. Junior-varsity catchers wear armbands with codes so they can decipher the pitch called by the coach in the dugout. Sport is evolving and pushing down the technology and information-gathering to athletes yet to experience puberty. Perhaps we should take heed of other aspects of society, such as education, to see where data collection and pushing expectations down to those not yet developmentally ready has gotten us.

Data matters and it’s nice to know that the number four hitter in the lineup eats fastballs middle in. But it’s not the endpoint. It’s an intermediary in a larger context. Performance, whether team or individual, is equally (if not more) influenced by what cannot be measured. We can’t build a whole by putting parts together. Athletes aren’t cars or toasters. The whole, whether team or individual is always more and of a different quality than the sum of its parts. Many times have we heard, “That team looks good on paper” only to experience the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.

Fifty years ago, a team transformed from hapless to miraculous. The “Amazing Mets” changed my life and Tom Seaver became my hero. Data offered that Tom Terrific threw 150 pitches in a ten-inning, game four, World Series win. Data couldn’t measure his heart, his desire, his commitment, nor could it measure that elusive team intangible: chemistry.

I think of that dance studio every time I teach and coach. Performance is helped by data. But ultimately, it’s about relationships: with yourself, with teammates, with coaches. The mirror is ever-present in reflection whether it’s staring back or in your mind’s eye. It doesn’t lie for you see your execution. You see the many dancers or athletes you admired and showed you the way. You see the intuitive genius possessing immeasurable bits of the data of process and experience, creativity, failure and success. You see the shaping of performance. You see, even if symbolically, what you think and feel, which according to many a sage, is what you become.

 

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: freepik.com)