This is Your Brain on Sports – book review

Brain on sport psychology

“We’ve spent the preceding chapters trying to make the case that there are rational underpinnings for all the supposed craziness and unusual behavior that sports seem to trigger. That is, that “your brain on sports” is really just your regular brain acting as it does in other contexts.”

Sound interesting?  This is how Wertheim and Sommers sum up their latest book, This is Your Brain on Sports. From a sport psychology perspective, it’s a great book in the same vein as classics like “Freakonomics” or “Outliers.”   The authors take common ideas and phenomena in sports and put them under the sociological and psychological research microscope to explain certain peculiar behaviors and that are common not only in sports, but in life in general.

Each chapter explores a unique idea from sports, examines the research, and relates it to real life.  Beginning by promising answers to Why questions: “Why Hockey Goons Would Rather Fight at Home” to “Why We Need Rivals” to “Why Our Moral Compass is More Flexible than an Olympic Gymnast” these chapters offer excellent insights into how the mind works, how people relate to each other through the prism of sports, and uncovers why things that seem bizarre are actually quite common..  The conclusion is that sports isn’t so much different than life.  Although, they do go on to explain:  “…sports and athletic competition are fertile ground for scientists across disciplines to test their hypotheses about basic aspects of human nature.”

There’s a lot in here to relate to sport psychology and the mental game.  For instance, popular theory says that sport psychology was founded in 1898 by Norman Triplett, who noticed that he rode his bicycle faster when he was with other people.  In the chapter “Why We Need Rivals,” the authors explain how Triplett created a “competition machine” to test in a lab setting if people did in fact ride faster against someone else as opposed to against the clock. His theory proved to be true, and was used in further studies by other psychologists on how athletes compete against rivals – something that seems to make sense, but now backed by research.

One of my favorites was the chapter that was in essence about goal setting.  “Why Running on a Treadmill is Like Running a Business.”  In it the authors talk about “the power of the finish line” and how very important to performance setting milestones is.  In my experience at SPINw, one of the reasons goal setting fails is that there are not enough measurable milestones on the way to a long term goal.  There is some compelling anecdotes and evidence here explaining why this is the case.  This chapter, like many others, should prove to be a powerful tool for athletes and especially coaches, to use goal setting for motivation and increased effort.

Overall, there is something for everyone in this book, whether you are an athlete, a coach, a sports fan, or even someone who is just interested in psychology and how the mind works.

Click here to check it out on Amazon.

 

What does US Soccer’s new mandates mean for you?

The implementation of US Soccer’s 2015 Player Development initiatives is right around the corner.  There has been lots of discussion on the topic, but few concrete answers, which is leaving many involved in youth soccer a bit confused and unsettled about what these changes will mean for players.  These initiatives are changing the youth soccer landscape completely, so there are a lot of unknowns for parents, coaches and players alike. The bottom line is, what’s best for the kids? Do these mandates help or hurt?

Here in Oregon, youth tryouts for club soccer are taking place May 9-14.  In this article we will take a closer look at the changes coming up, give our take on them, and what they will mean for the youth soccer community.

{SPINw is hosting Tryout Prep Mental Game Workshops to help players go into tryouts focused & confident}  -Click on the link below for more information and to register-

SPINw Soccer Tryout Prep Workshop 2016

First off, why all the changes?  Why now?

Click here for a video explanation from US Soccer

According to US Soccer, here’s the reasoning behind the changes:

Despite the increased popularity of soccer and the success of our national teams, the youth soccer landscape at the entry level needs to be improved.
Our soccer culture at the youth level focuses on winning and results rather than focusing on developing the skills of individual players.
The concept of a team outweighs the importance of players having fun and developing to the best of their abilities.
As a country, we need coaches and parents to spend less time caring about wins and loses, and more time devoted to teaching individual skills.
Part of this initiative is to educate and empower coaches and parents to change the way we look at the sport.
One example of this is U.S. Soccer’s new online F License, which is designed for coaches working with players ages 6-8.

Our take:  Hard to disagree with the reasoning behind it. Player development over winning titles, especially at the younger ages, is common sense (although sadly, not so common, which is why some changes are needed!) In sport psychology, we strive to have athletes focus on the process, improving skills, and growing as a player over results. So this logic fits from a development perspective. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win, and learning to compete, but it should not be more important than technical and tactical player development.

First initiative – Small-Sided Standards

standards_chart
Basically, the size of the field and the number of players on the field start smaller and progress as players get older (see chart above). Here’s the why according to US Soccer:

Fewer players on the field means more touches on the ball and more involvement in the game, which helps develop more individual skill.
Players who are more skilled may become more confident and comfortable when in possession of the ball.
The ratio of players to field size is designed to assist players with making the right kind of decisions and improving their awareness.
As players get older, and numbers increase on bigger fields, this approach builds on itself.
And as players get older, the building block approach also allows them to better integrate into a team model where they develop partnerships with other players that make up the team.
Overall, the standards provide for an age appropriate environment where players can achieve these objectives.

Our take:  Love this one, no problems here.  For player development it’s great, and should have been done long ago!

Bonus part of this initiative:  The Build Out line.  This one hasn’t been talked about as much as the others, but we love it.  Basically, the build out line forces teams to play out of the back. The keeper is not allowed to punt the ball, and defenders must give a little space and time for the defense to start the play.  This will be in effect through the U10 age group (7 v 7).

url

Second initiative – Birth Year Registration

2015 Player Development Initiatives 21

This is the one that’s caused the most ruckus. Here’s why, according to US Soccer:

Not only will this change align our players with the international standard, but it will allow us to be better informed to combat relative age effect when making teams for youth players.

According to wikipedia, the relative age effect is:

“The term relative age effect (RAE) is used to describe a bias, evident in the upper echelons of youth sport[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][1] and academia,[2][3] where participation is higher amongst those born early in the relevant selection period (and correspondingly lower amongst those born late in the selection period) than would be expected from the normalised distribution of live births. The selection period is usually the calendar year, the academic year or the sporting season.

Our take: This is pretty ill-conceived, and the cons outweigh the stated benefits. The relative age effect doesn’t magically go away by making this change. It just shifts to a new birthday.  In the best-seller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the relative age effect in hockey where a majority of high level older players are born in January, February and March.  Is this change really going to help the US produce the next Lionel Messi or win a World Cup?  It seems highly doubtful.  This mandate flies in the face of the stated objectives. The real objective behind this is to prepare players to become national team caliber players, meaning a fraction of a percent of players will see any benefit from it.

The negatives – There are several, but here are the top three as we see them:
1) Teams that have been together for years will be dismantled –
2) Teams will not be primarily based on school grade level – for recreational teams especially,  this mandate doesn’t make sense. A big part of the fun of playing soccer is playing with your friends and classmates, and this basically takes that part of youth soccer and makes it more difficult.
3) Rising 8th graders and high school seniors may have limited options for a team or worse, left without a team.

Our overall take:  So there are some clear cut plusses and minuses with the new changes.  And some major uncertainty.  But don’t fear, our take is this – The next 6 months or so will be rough and chaotic, but after that we will forget it ever happened. Sports is like life, in that change is the only constant.  We want our young athletes to learn, grow, become resilient, be problem-solvers, and be able to handle adversity.  That’s how to build confidence.  So if you look at it that way, it’s not that big a deal in the long run.  It’s up to the adults to keep that in mind as we head toward this unknown territory in youth soccer.

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How Can Coaches help players out of a slump?

I do a regular interview with Michael Austin from Basketball Coach Weekly. Coaches often ask me about team motivation techniques, and what sport psychology skills they can use with their athletes.  In this most recent interview, (which I particularly enjoyed) I address the answer to those questions in terms of how coaches can spot and help correct a player who is in a slump.  Check it out!

Sport Psychology Portland Basketball weekly positive

What to do about abusive coaches

Coaches are teachers, motivators, amateur sport psychologists, and parental figures. A great coach can teach life lessons that go on well beyond the playing field, while a bad coach can make a young athlete hate sports and quit playing altogether. I was like many young athletes, figuring that the leap from a high school level to the collegiate level would mean not only higher competition, but better coaching, and wow, was I wrong about that.  A recent Sports Illustrated article details some disturbing stats about how collegiate athletes are treated by their coaches. (This podcast echos the article and is worth the listen).  In one study cited in the article:

“39% of women’s basketball players strongly agreed that “my head coach can be trusted.” 61% of these athletes do not trust the person who is suposed to be their biggest ally and advocate?  The article also goes on to say:

“Even more alarming, athletes have never been more psychologically vulnerable, reflecting a trend among all college students. The ACHA assessment found that 41% of athletes had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” and 52% had “felt overwhelming anxiety,” with the figures for women jumping to 45% and 59%, respectively. Further, 14% of athletes said they had “seriously considered suicide,” with 6% having attempted it.”

A similar article was written 5 years ago, but it doesn’t seem like much has changed, despite the assertion that:  “That shift has forced coaches to adjust. Abuse simply won’t be tolerated.”  But it still happens.  Within those 5 years we’ve seen Illinois football coach fired, video of Rutgers basketball coach throwing balls at a player while berating him, Florida football coach Jim McElwain curse out a player on national tv, and a high school football coach order his players to assault a referee during a game.

Florida

What is going on here? Have times changed? Are the athletes of today simply a product of the self-esteem generation, where everyone gets a trophy and helicopter parents control their lives?  I think there may be some truth to that, but it’s on a case by case basis.  In the Jim McElwain case, he apologized and publicly stated that his 94-year old mother admonished him on the phone, while the player on the receiving end of the outburst, Kelvin Taylor, said: “I understand exactly what Coach Mac was doing,” Taylor said this week. “He was just in the moment. He was fed up. He’s just trying to discipline us. That’s what the whole team needed. That’s going to make the team better.”

But many other cases are very real, and coaches take the negative motivational tactics too far. College coaches are playing for their jobs, and under tons of stress.  Many of them are simply coaching the way they were coached back in their day as athletes.  And some are just power hungry people who like to use their position to intimidate and get their way. In consulting with athletes over the years, I’ve had multiple collegiate female athletes tell me their coach called them “fat” in a very derogatory manner, in a pathetic attempt to motivate them – how they think this is going to be effective, I’m not sure. I have had more youth athletes than I care to count come into my office where the coaching or the overall team environment is so bad that they don’t even want to go to practice.  The very activity that is supposed to be an escape from the stressors of life, where you can lose yourself in the moment, work out and be physically healthy, bond with teammates, and learn valuable life lessons, can become stressful and overwhelming obligations.

So, what can be done about these abusive coaches?  There is a fine line between tough love coaching and abuse. And whereas in the past, that line was determined by the coach, more recently that line is being defined by the athletes, for better or worse. While there can be some debate about what is abuse, there is no debate that things need to get better.  No matter what position you are in, there is a role for you to enact change.  SPINw can help your school or program make sure that coaching abuse doesn’t happen for your athletes. Here are some ideas:

Athletic Directors – ADs and administrators can help by making sure their program has a clearly defined culture, complete with a Vision Statement, Mission Statement, and Core Values.  Provide continuing education for coaches a couple times a year – after all, the best coaches are striving to learn, grow and improve,  just like they expect their players to.  Finally, consider having a sport psychology consultant or mental game coach on staff, or at the very least develop a relationship so that your athletes have access to this service.

Coaches – Follow your program’s aforementioned Vision, Mission, and Core Values – that is the “process” to follow in order to achieve the results you want. When the goal is winning, you can motivate your players just as well through positive tactics as negative ones. Set clearly defined goals, standards and expectations for your players, and include rewards/punishments for adhering to them or not.  And finally, communicate, communicate, communicate with your athletes!

sport psychology portland oregon lacrosse

Parents – As your athletes grow, make sure to empower them in their relationships with their coaches. Don’t jump in and save them at any sign of trouble, but be there to support and problem-solve. There are sure to be ups and downs in sports, and the best parents help their kids to understand that they aren’t entitled to much in life, and earning something is the best way to build confidence, character, and self-esteem. As athletes begin to get older, it’s also fair to let them know that the potential exists for overbearing coaches, but they have some control over the situation.  Finally, consider having your athlete work with a sport psychology consultant to bolster their mental game.

Linus 1 Linus

Athletes – Athletes can work on recognizing the difference between tough love coaching, criticism, and negativity vs. out right abuse.  In working with athletes I teach them to listen from a different perspective, to be able to handle criticism to help make changes and improve performance, not to take everything personally. For example, a young athlete may feel like the coach is singling them out for negative attention. But on further examination, that coach treats most athletes the same way, that’s just his or her style, which they have been doing for years.  In this case, the coach isn’t going to change, but how you choose to listen and take the information is in your control, and therefore changeable.

Interested in having an athlete work with a sport psychology professional?

The mental game is just as important to success as the tactical, technical and physical elements.  But ask most athletes and they will tell you they put the least amount of work into the confidence, focus, and emotional control.  To work on technique, put in extra time with a coach or supplement training with private lessons.  For tactics, you can read books, watch game film, and ask coaches. Physically athletes can train with a strength and conditioning coach or see a nutritionist.  But how do athletes, coaches and teams go about deliberately improving the mental game?  That’s where sport psychology comes in.  It’s not just a reactive measure for athletes who are struggling, either.  See the spectrum below.

SPINw Mental Game Performance Spectrum

 

 

Mental side of Coaching

by Glen Coblens, MA

Most coaches agree that sports are more mental than physical. Yet most athletes focus more on their physical skills. Coaching is the same. In addition to working on game strategy and skill development, coaches should focus more on proper breathing techniques, communication, preparation and goal setting. How do successful coaches stay in the moment, be calm during tense competitions, make strategic decisions and clearly communicate to their teams? The time and effort they put in way before working with their athletes will provide them with a strong base to rely on.

  1. Just like athletes, learning proper breathing techniques can help coaches. Circle breathing, where you take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth can lower your heart rate, help you think clearly and focus on the task at hand.
  2. How coaches communicate with their athletes is just as important as what they communicate. Athletes want to feel validated in their thoughts and feelings. The goal is for each athlete to reach his/her potential and if it is a team sport for the team to reach its full potential. Coaches who make the effort to value athlete’s comments and provide clear and constructive instructions in return have greater success in achieving this goal. In addition, coaching is about developing relationships and helping athletes grow and develop as people. When an athlete feels validated, they are more likely to increase their effort, “buy into the game-plan,” feel better about themselves and perform at a higher level.
  3. Sports provides lessons for life and preparation is the key to anything in life. Successful coaches are good at focusing on what is needed and preparing a plan to accomplish it. Plans can include a slogan such as “Win the Day” (former University of Oregon and current Philadelphia Eagles football coach Chip Kelly) to motivate athletes and teams. Knowing your athlete’s strengths and weaknesses is vital to preparing a successful game-plan. “Work on your weaknesses but play to your strengths” is a saying that may help coaches improve their preparation.
  4. How does your physical body know what your mind expects from it if you do not set a goal? We instruct athletes to set goals all the time, but coaches need goals as well. Whether it is a season, practice, competition, individual athlete or overall team goal; document your goals, read them aloud and refer back to them often. Use trigger words to remind you of your goals and help you stay relaxed and focused throughout the season, practice or competition.

Mental training is not just for athletes. For the same reasons why athletes benefit from mental strength, coaches will benefit as well. If you want to help athletes improve, have more success in competitions, improve your self-esteem and self-confidence take time to practice the skills outlined above. After all, coaches are developing tomorrow’s leaders. The better we lead today, the better they can lead tomorrow.

SPINw consultants work with coaches individually and in groups. Contact us for more information.
Additionally,  check out our Psychology of Coaching Workshop coming on May 4th, 2014.