Category Archives: sport psychology

New Report on the Dangers of Early Sport Specialization

Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes; ©2016 by American Academy of Pediatrics
Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes; ©2016 by American Academy of Pediatrics

I am a long time advocate of late specialization-early diversification in youth sport, and this research report by the American Academy of Pediatrics “Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes” in the September 2016 issue of Pediatrics hits the mark and provides concrete evidence that early specialization in NOT the optimal pathway to either elite performance or health and well being.

The AAP report along with the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, I “hope” will begin to shift the discussion and beliefs about youth sport participation and structure 180 degrees away from winning/performance to fun and enjoyment and development.  In January 2015, the Aspen Institute released “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game,” a 48-page report that offers a new model for youth sports in America, with eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children.

The cultural shift has to start with sport parent and coach education.

 

Access free educational materials for espnW Nine for IX films

I recently had the opportunity to work in collaboration with espnW to develop discussion guides for the Emmy-nominated Nine for IX film series.

Nine for IX premiered June 18, 2013, as part of ESPN’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Inspired by the 40th anniversary of Title IX, ESPN Films and espnW produced nine documentary films about women in sports, told through the lens of female filmmakers. Nine for IX Films are a collection of remarkable stories that offer teachable moments and powerful lessons in the history of sports. .

The Nine for IX Knowledge Center is a free resource available to institutions, organizations, administrators, professors, coaches, and students who want to lead thoughtful and engaging discussions around key themes in the films. The Knowledge Center provides discussion guides for each film, film posters, and a sign-up form to receive the Nine for IX DVD set, all free of charge. The Knowledge Center is a tool that goes beyond the entertainment value of the films and leverages the rich educational content of the embedded lessons and messages within the films.

The discussion guides generate thought-provoking discussion topics around key themes and issues present in the films such as gender equality, intersectionality, identity politics, sport and politics, social class, racism, and sexism, along with issues related to sport psychology, sports media coverage, sports marketing, and sports as a vehicle for developing role models. Each unique guide contains Key Concepts, Discussion Questions, Additional Readings and Additional Activities.

I wrote a specific guide for coaches for The 99ers, a film about the 1999 Women’s World Cup Championship team, that coaches can use as a team building activity and to discuss what it takes to develop performance excellence and a positive team culture.
To access the free materials, including obtaining a free DVD box set of the Nine for IX film series, discussion guides, and posters visit the espnW Nine for IX Knowledge Center.

Gender Differences in Coaching

Good coaching is good coaching, regardless of athlete gender.

Male and female athletes are much more similar than they are different. There is just as much variability within females and within males, than between males and females. Despite the popular Mars/Venus perspective that females and males are vastly and inherently different, psychological research has not proven this true (see APA keynote from Janet Hyde titled “The Gender Similarity Hypothesis”).  Similarly, despite widespread opinions, anecdotes, quotes from famous coaches (i.e. Anson Dorrance), and popular press “coaching girls” books that are not evidence-based, research in coaching science and sport psychology does not support the idea that coaching males and females is different.

The only statistically significant difference, but has a very small effect size, is that female athletes prefer more democratic leadership styles from their coaches.

The Self Determination Theory states ALL human beings have 3 inherent needs-belongingness, competence and autonomy (I call them The 3C’s = care, competence and choice). Similarity.

Here are some common stereotypes I hear about coaching girls: more emotional, take criticism personally, too sensitive, hold grudges, need to talk and socialize, value relationships more, less competitive, need a cohesive team, lack killer instinct, and are better listeners. I would argue, yes this is true for SOME girls, but it is also true for SOME boys.

A Mars/Venus “difference” approach to coaching exaggerates, promotes, and reinforces outdated and dangerous gender stereotypes that are potentially harmful to BOTH males and females.

For example, if a coach believes or uncritically accepts that boys are inherently more aggressive and competitive, the coach may have different expectations and ways of structuring practices, interacting, communicating, motivating and leading girls. Similarly, if coaches believe boys don’t value connections and friendships, this too erases boys’ need for feeling a sense of belongingness. Coaching based on opinions, beliefs and popular press coaching books of inherent difference is dangerous and can limit the experiences of athletes, regardless of gender.

Coaching science researchers have demonstrated that good coaching is good coaching.

NOTE: If you would like to read a more in depth critique of this topic, please consult: LaVoi, N.M., Becker, E., & Maxwell, H.D. (2007). “Coaching Girls”: A content analysis of best-selling popular press books. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, 15(4), 8-20.

Push-ups for Punishment in Youth Sport = Bad Idea

At an American Development Model USA Hockey Symposium I recently attended, Bob Mancini (ADM Regional Manager) said:

“Push-ups for missing the net is the worst thing we’ve ever done for hockey”

I have written previously on why punishment in youth sport is a terrible idea based on sport psychology evidence. Two of the reasons included were punishing kids for not completing a skill correctly can make them fear failure and the punishment doesn’t help them learn improve the skill they are being punished for misexecution.

Making mistakes is how we learn. No one executes a skill perfectly every time. We make attempts, hopefully get constructive feedback, learn from errors, make adjustments and try again.

When Bob made his statement, I agreed with him. I asked him why he felt that way and he replied because kids today don’t know how to shoot because many coaches use the “push-ups for punishment” for not shooting on net. Instead of aiming for  holes or upper corners (more difficult and likely to result in a shot high or wide and not putting the puck on net, but more likely to result in a goal!), kids will shoot the puck safely  “on net” right at the goalie to avoid push-ups.  The result is “successful” shots on net but no long term shooting skill development….and probably  less goal scoring during competition.

Many coaches reproduce this practice without thinking about why.  In coach education workshops I ask coaches to think about “the why” in everything they do. Does this help my kids develop the skills they need to 1. optimally perform, 2. develop skills, or 3. have fun and enjoy their sport? If the answer is “NO” to all three things, then it shouldn’t be done.

When I suggest coaches not use physical activities for punishment I often get push-back (pun intended). The question is: What do I do instead? In the case we are talking about here, instead of push-ups for shots not on net I would simply pull the kid aside, give him/her constructive feedback to help them get the shot on net in the future, and let them get back in the drill to make another attempt.

Last point on physical activity as punishment: If we want kids to value and enjoy physical activity for a lifetime, we shouldn’t teach them that physical activity is a punishment.

Is it all in the headband for Diggins?

In my last blog I wrote about Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, mental toughness and “the headband” from a sport psychology perspective. I argued, among other things, that taking her head band off during the game signals to the opponent, her team, and fans that she isn’t playing well and therefore telegraphs weakness and vulnerability. I suggested she either start with the headband off, or regardless of her level of play she leave it on.

Last night Notre Dame faced Maryland for a berth into the Final Four. The game was anticipated to be close and contested. It wasn’t. Notre Dame dominated the game, controlled the pace of play for the entire game and earned their second consecutive trip to the Final Four with a score of 80-49.

More specifically, Diggins dominated the game and earned her first triple-double in her career by scoring 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and five steals. Coach Muffet McGraw stated it was the best game she played all season. Diggins looked focused, had on her game face, her swagger was back, and she was running the floor and leading the offense. She looked like she was on a mission. ESPN color commentator Rebecca Lobo kept remarking that Diggins “came to play tonight.” Maryland All-American Alyssa Thomas stated, “She went off on us tonight and we really didn’t have an answer.”

Diggins started the game with the headband, and it never came off. This was the first time all season on televised games that the headband stayed on the whole game. Best game of the year. Triple Double. Dominating Play. Headband on. Coincidence?

I’m not suggesting Diggins read my blog or took my advice to heart, but what I am pointing out is that for Diggins the headband appears to be symbolic of playing well. Mentally tough athletes focus on what they can control and regardless of the situation or how they are playing, they figure out how to compete, persevere in the face of adversity, and give their best effort. In past games, if she wasn’t playing well, she took off the headband. Maybe taking it off was an easy out instead of bearing down, figuring it out and fighting.

Last night she didn’t and played consistently well and never looked back as her team punched their ticket to the Final Four in Denver.

Skylar Diggins’ Headband: A Sport Psychology Perspective

I love March Madness. Normally I write a blog to critique sport media in terms of TV coverage amount and quality of between the men and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. This year I am happy to report the ESPN coverage of the women’s games includes all rounds, full game coverage of all Sweet 16 games, great production quality, highly talented color and in studio commentators, all games in HD, cross brand promotion of espnW, and coverage that looks and feels nearly the same as coverage for the men. YAY.

Diggins sans headband
Diggins' with headband

In the absence of critiquing sport media, I want to discuss “the headband” of University of Notre Dame junior hoop star Skylar Diggins (@SkyDigg4) from a sport psychology perspective.

I’ve watched Notre Dame play on TV 6-8 times this season and have heard “the headband” discussed in every game by commentators. It is also the source of many fan tweets. At the start of the game, Diggins wears a wide white Adidas headband. If she is happy with her play, it stays on. If she is unhappy with her play, she takes it off. Usually it comes off at halftime, but recently she has taken it off as early as the 5th minute. As a fan of Notre Dame, when I see her take off the headband I groan. As someone trained in sport psychology I find it an interesting case study. Here is my analysis of “the headband” ritual using sport psychology research.(note: I have not talked directly to Diggins, about how and why she uses this ritual, nor have a talked to her coaches or teammates about how they perceive her ritual).

Having a competitive ritual helps increase the likelihood of optimal performance in many ways: Athlete’s who have developed and practice detailed. consistent, and controllable competitive rituals are more likely to optimally perform on command regardless of the situation.

THE GOOD: Doing the same thing in the same way helps reduce uncertainty which can lead to less anxiety, provides control for the athlete, focuses attention, focuses emotion, and focuses energy. Diggins has discussed her headband ritual with the public, therefore her opponents likely know of the practice, so it signals to the opponent that she is refocused and coming at them. It also tells her teammates and the public that she isn’t happy with her play, and she can do better.  It might help her teammates feel confident (“We know when Diggins takes off the headband, she means business). From reading tweets, it seems that a majority of fans believe she gets more focused, serious and competitive when the head band comes off.

THE NOT SO GOOD: The problem with this competitive ritual is she is not consistent about WHEN the head band comes off.  Her subjective assessment and mood state dictate when/if it comes off. A good competitive ritual is done the same way at the same time. (For example a free throw ritual, wearing the same socks, tapping your racket on the ground before returning a serve, addressing a golf ball). The downside of this ritual is that she is telegraphing to her opponent and teammates that she isn’t feeling confident and isn’t happy with her play. Taking off the headband may undermine her teammates’ confidence (“Diggins took off the headband, she isn’t feeling it. Here we go again. I better play well now”).

The second downside is she is spending energy with the headband that she could be using to focus on what she needs to do to play better. If starting the game WITH the headband gives her confidence, but it quickly dissipates and results in whipping it off whenever she can during play or at a whistle, I might advise her to rethink “the headband”. If it is her signature but she can’t keep it on the whole game, then maybe she should start the game without it. Just leave it off. Then if she is playing poorly, her teammates and opponents don’t have the benefit of knowing she is vulnerable. She would look the same regardless of how she is playing, and that gives her and her team the advantage. If I were a coach, I’d tell my team when they see Diggins take off the headband to go right at her and to feel confident that we have her rattled. She shouldn’t be giving her opponent so much information that can be used against she and her team.

Mentally tough athletes and those that perform consistently at the upper range of their competitive talent, use positive emotion, feel challenged by equally matched opponents/teams, and see competition as a fun and enjoyable opportunity. “The Headband” appears to be linked to negative emotion such as anger at herself and her play, and this is not a facilitative competitive ritual. Again, I don’t know what is going through her head, but I can see her body language at the times she takes it off and she appears irritated, angry, flustered, frustrated, and not confident. Often it shows in her play. If an athlete is mad at herself, then she is mad at the one person she NEEDS to compete well and is wasting energy. VERY FEW athletes can use anger effectively as a competitive ritual and tool.

Lastly, in all sports, some days competing and playing seems effortless and easy. All your shots drop, your legs feel lively, the hoop seems very large, you see plays unfold, and time seems to slow down. Other days it doesn’t. This cannot be controlled, it just is. What can be controlled is how an athlete reacts to this phenomenon. Athletes that start a game feeling they HAVE to or SHOULD play perfectly all the time, or at a certain level, are setting themselves up for frustration. Instead athletes should focus on what they can control-effort, mental focus (i.e., sticking with the game plan, taking the right shots), sportsmanship, emotion and behaviors.

When Diggins has her swagger going, she looks confident, her body language and facial expressions are very different, she takes control of the floor and leads her team. The Irish are much stronger as a team when she is in this mental frame. The team is good enough to compensate for Diggins when she isn’t, but to win a national championship the Irish need Diggins to play with confidence for the entire game, and I feel that is more possible if she leaves the headband in the locker room. When she takes the headband off, for her it signals she is playing poorly…which could also be a self-fulfilling prophecy and focus her attention on the fact she is playing poorly, rather than focusing on what she can do to play well.

However, at this point in the season it is probably unwise for her to start a new ritual but for her senior year, it may be worth reconsidering “the headband”.

Regardless of this analysis, Diggins is an amazing athlete. I have used “the headband” as an interesting case study to help illustrate how competitive rituals can be facilitative or not of optimal performance.

Words of Wisdom by Wilk

Today I drove down to my alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College, with one of my doctoral students to talk with Steve “Wilk” Wilkinson, the pioneering and Hall of Fame (now retired) men’s tennis coach. I’ve written previously about Wilk, as I think he is one of the wisest people I know, embodies a wonderful philosophy, and is an amazing coach. We discussed many things related to a mutual project (stay tuned!), but here are my three take-aways that I can share.

1. Do not ascribe evil intent to your opponent.

2. “Faith is the courage to Be”-Wilk citing religious philosopher Paul Tillich

3. No one loses on purpose if they are a competitor.

There are MANY lessons and avenues for reflection embedded in these three nuggets. I’ll leave you to ponder them.

Reasons for Bad Sportsmanship in Adult Recreational Leagues?

I have been a competitive athlete my entire life. I have seen my fair share of bad sportsmanship in all the sports I’ve played and coached. I am hoping that you, the readers, can help explain why adult women playing in recreational leagues demonstrate some of the worst sportsmanship I have encountered (I’m sure it happens in men’s leagues as well, but I can’t speak to that).

Over the weekend I played in the Stick It To Cancer hockey tournament up at the National Sports Center Center in Blaine, MN. I have played in this tournament for a number of years as it is for a good cause and you get to play some fun, relaxed hockey. This weekend however, two of the three teams we played has such bad sportsmanship that it took all the fun out of it. It was so bad I wanted to just skate the bench and not play the rest of the game for fear of being injured. Examples of what I saw and heard:

1. multiple cross checking penalties (which in my opinion are the worst, because you can really get injured)

2. hits after the whistle

3. trash talking such as “Get up you wimp” after a player had been clipped from behind and landed awkwardly on her shoulder

4. hits in open ice away from the puck

Why do people behave this way in a recreational tournament that is FOR CHARITY? We weren’t playing in league play. We weren’t trying out for the Olympics. We were playing for anything but a place in a charity tournament. In fact the WORST behavior I witnessed was in the game my team played for who would be 7th and 8th place out of 8 teams (yes, the toilet bowl game….we lost BTW).  We played hard, but no one really cared if we won or lost. IT WAS FOR FUN. Well that is what I thought anyway.

Possible reasons why this type of behavior persists:

  • people take themselves too seriously
  • the person is just obnoxious on a everyday basis, on and off the ice
  • the person enjoys trying to injure others on purpose
  • the person wants to win at the expense of acting like a gracious and sportsmanlike human being
  • the person’s identity is tied up with the sport, and therefore winning and losing is perceived to be a reflection of themselves
  • Immaturity

Do you have other explanations for this type of behavior? Has this been your experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What everyone should be striving for is more of the attitude of Team Orange, an idea created by a woman I got to play with this weekend Lora Wilkinson. As she writes on the team website, Team Orange is a state of mind. It’s as simple as that. It’s about being a good team player, having a good attitude, supporting others whether they are “on your team” or not. Assuming the best out of folks, being encouraging, positive and constructive. Being benevolent. It is a good intention. It is kindness. Human kindness. Being human, being kind. It’s a life motto.”

Some of the women we played AGAINST this weekend, could learn a lot from the philosophy behind Team Orange. Anyone can be on Team Orange….just adopt the state of mind.