Avoiding Burnout

This blog is based on the article entitled “Perfectionism and Junior Athlete Burnout: The Mediating Role of Autonomous and Controlled Motivation” by Jowett, Hill, Hall, and Curran.

Everyone has different things that cause them to feel passionate. Teachers feel passionate about reaching that struggling student. Song writers feel passionate about creating a song that is worded perfectly and resonates with others. Parents feel passionate about raising their children the right way. Athletes feel passionate about winning championships. LeBron James’ performance against the Pacers is a good example of passion.
He hit the game winner in game one.

He scored 16 points in the 3rd quarter in game five to carry his team to a win.

More importantly, he is proving that his ability coupled with his passion can carry a team. He has two superstars for teammates in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. However they are struggling and James took it upon himself to bear the responsibility of the current success of the Miami Heat. Passion can elevate performance to its highest point.

But what happens when that all-consuming desire fades and does not return? Burnout sets in. Burnout is different from a momentary decline in motivation. Burnout is when you reach that point when you want give up. Here are some of the common symptoms of burnout:
1. Decreased perception of accomplishment
2. Perceived emotional and physical exhaustion
3. Devaluation and reduction of participation
4. Psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal
5. Burnout often brings about feelings of depression and anxiety

Perfectionism plays a vital role in the onset of burnout. Perfectionism typically involves two parts.
1. Striving for exceedingly high standards
2. Harsh self-criticism

The research shows that burnout is more likely when certain aspects of perfectionism are present. Below are those aspects of perfectionism followed possible corresponding thoughts in quotes.

1. Placing irrational importance on goals: “I have to score four goals today or I’ll get cut
2. Preoccupation with mistakes: “I suck because I let in one goal this half” (Repeat this self- statement over and over again)
3. Chronic doubt about inadequacies: “I’m no good, I’m too slow, I’m not skillful enough, I’m not fit…”
4. The necessity for precision and order: “I need to make sure every touch on the ball is perfect”

What can be done to avoid burnout? The first and most important step is to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that contribute to both increased and decreased motivation. A lot of these thoughts happen automatically and out of one’s awareness because they are habitual. Once this awareness is established you can determine whether the thoughts are realistic and whether they are causing you to feel more or less motivated. For example, thoughts of how others view us is a key factor in motivation. When we think others see us in a positive light, our motivation goes up. Whereas, when we think others see us unfavorably, our motivation plummets. The point is, how we think other people are thinking about us plays a vital role in our motivation to perform.

For those of you with children who are athletes, artists, musicians, and students, please keep in mind that the pressure you put on them can be overwhelming. The research shows that a child’s perceived parental pressure is often greater than the actual pressure. So when a parent thinks they are putting a little pressure on their child, then child probably thinks the pressure is greater. In the end, children who are kicking a ball, picking up a trumpet, or molding clay are more likely to be highly motivated and less likely to experience burnout when the pressure is manageable and not overwhelming.

Personality Similarities in Life and Sports

Over the years I have recognized that the personalities and tendencies of athletes on the field often coincide with their personality off the field. This seems obvious, but it is rarely discussed and it can be a useful tool for coaches and players. For example, the soccer player who is quiet, calm, and understated in games is likely to say very little when the team is watching game film and developing strategies. The outspoken and flashy wide receiver will probably do things both on the field and at a party to draw attention to himself. The runner who is very structured and even robotic in their training regimen could be prone to prepare and study for class in the same fashion. I’ve been lucky to see firsthand how the players at Swarthmore College approach soccer is often the same as how they approach their academics and social life.

The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire or 16PF offers some information regarding your personality. Please keep in mind that this is one test. In order to gain a true depiction of one’s personality, an extensive and thorough psychological battery and evaluation is necessary.

Check out the quick online personality test to see if this accurately describes your personal, professional, and/or athletic life.
http://similarminds.com/cattell-16-factor.html

Wikipedia offers the following explanation.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16PF_Questionnaire

Edit 5/29/13
I would like to clarify the purpose of this blog. Although not true 100% of the time, I’ve stated that athletes maintain the same personality on and off the field. This information can assist coaches in their evaluations of players. What you see off the field is probably what you will get on the field. When I recruit and see players at a tournament or a camp, I don’t just scrutinize their on the field performance. I look to see how they treat their parents, friends, and camp employees. This information gives me some insight about how they might behave on the field and how they are going to treat teammates and coaches, plus it is an indication what kind of person they are in general. This is important because I want to be associated with players who are good people while they attend Swarthmore College.

The other reason for writing this blog is geared more toward athletes. I’ve worked with players who struggle with changing certain aspects of their game. The most common example I’d like to share pertains to how verbal a player is on the field, more specifically the quiet, calm, and understated player. Being quiet on the field is a negative quality because it makes the game a little more difficult for the team. Soccer is a team sport and teams/groups need to effectively communicate to be successful. Players who try to become more verbal on the field do so by stepping out of their comfort zone in the limited time during practices and games. They try to demand the ball more, organize team shape, and encourage teammates. The problem is they are trying to change a strong, habitual personality characteristic during a limited window of time. This would be the equivalent of a smoker trying to quit by resisting urges for two hours a day. It’s not going to work. I would encourage the quiet player to try to be a little more verbal throughout the day, such as in class, at parties, and in the cafeteria.

Memorial Day Motivation, Increased Effort, and Social Loafing

This weekend, weather permitting, will provide the setting for back yard bar-b-ques, parades in the center of town, and cold beverages. Have you ever thought about your role in the preparation of these activities? Are you the type of person who does the bare minimum for these social gatherings, while working very hard to keep your yard perfect or your home spotless?  If so you are not alone. Social loafing is the tendency to put forth less effort during group tasks. It is believed that it is easier for us to shirk responsibility and “fly under the radar” when in a crowd. Apply this concept to your job. When you have a deadline for a project that rests squarely on your shoulders, the spotlight shines bright, and therefore you try your best. On the other hand, when you are part of a team, less effort will cut it.

Two other similar concepts are social compensation and the Köhler effect. Social compensation occurs when superior group members try harder to make up for the short comings of others. Conversely, the Köhler Effect suggests that the inferior group members will increase effort to prove their worth and overcome their limitations, especially during group tasks as opposed to individual tasks. All of these concepts tie in with my post regarding social comparison, which indicates we try harder when in groups and subsequently perform better.

So the next time you feel more or less motivated during group task, now you might have a better understanding why. This information may be helpful for those on the playing field, conference room, classroom, or on stage. Scrutinizing and understanding thoughts that contribute to more or less motivation may help you during those times when motivation is very low. This is why athletes imagine themselves in a big game when training during the off-season. This is why lawyers imagine themselves in front of a jury when staying up late to prepare for a high profile case. This is why business people imagine themselves in front of the board of directors when preparing a sales pitch. This is why musicians imagine themselves on stage when practicing a song. We can muster up extra motivation in those times of procrastination by mentally putting ourselves in the social situation we are preparing for.

Body Language: What Are You Saying On The Field?

Body language, facial expressions, and nonverbal communication are under-explored on the playing field. I think about times, as a coach, when I’ve told my players to attack a particular opponent because I recognized something in his nonverbal language indicated the opponent was struggling and therefore revealed psychological weakness worth exploiting. I think basic attention to nonverbal communication can shed light on the reality that Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, Steven Gerard, and Kevin Durant as superior leaders. But I’m stating the obvious. However, I must mention that nonverbal communication is not always accurate. Let me explain. I dislike Eli Manning as a quarterback, partially because he plays for the Giants, but more so because of his body language. He typically casts an image on the field with his mouth partially open, shoulders slumped, and when he makes a mistake, his body and face often seem to be saying, “Aw shucks.” I’ve had to admit, albeit painful, he is a great quarterback. But I feel he could be even better if he just worked of his nonverbal communication. Imagine the energy his teammates would feed upon if he exuded confidence, much like his brother? Another player in the NFL that falls in the category of leaderless body language is Jay Cutler, the Quarterback for the Chicago Bears. I recently read on a survey conducted by Comcast.net that Cutler was number 4 in a list of the most disliked athletes. He was topped by Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, and Tiger Woods, all of who have made poor decisions warranting their placement on this list. How unappealing is your nonverbal communication and general demeanor in order get lumped in with one of the biggest cheaters in cycling and sports history, one of the most gullible athletes ever, and an adulterer?

I also think Donovan McNabb could have had more success had he developed better nonverbal communication. Two examples come to mind. First, he always seemed to be smiling, even when he made a mistake. Yes, it is important to have fun on the field. You are more likely to play your best when you’re having fun. But as the leader and someone whose passion for the team’s success should trump all, it is important to show that you are pissed off from time to time when things go poorly. I believe McNabb’s perpetual smile sent a message to his teammates and the unforgiving Philly fans that he did not care deep down about the failed passes on third down that fell to the ankles of a target. A momentary slap of the hands or a pointing finger to his chest would go a long way to indicate that he assumes blame and is not ok with these types of mistakes. The reality is that McNabb probably was very passionate about his performance. However, a shift in body language may have solidified his place in Philly sport history as the best QB ever, rather than someone that a lot of fans were happy to see leave. The other example is an isolated incident, but it really screamed volumes as to why McNabb was never fully embraced by the critical fans of this city (See the youtube clip below.)
In a 2009 wild card game between the Eagles and Cowboys in a brand new stadium in Dallas, McNabb performed a very bizarre air guitar solo followed by a two hand slap of the plexi-glass that separates players from fans. The whole sequence was strange and not what you would expect from the leader of your team. Was it was planned? If so, what was the motivation and expected outcome? Was it an impulsive act to counter some internal anxiety? Unfortunately, this was the first step in a series of blunders that led to a 34-14 Eagles loss. One might expect stoic focus from the team leader in this pressure-filled situation. I struggle with visualizing Joe Montana behaving in this manner.

To conclude this series of blog posts, I hope you pay closer attention to the nonverbal language of athletes in future games. It will be interesting to see if Flacco’s transformation to a more confident personality, as described by the analysts, carries over into next year or if he will revert back to that player with all of the potential who is lacking the last piece of a true leader. I also wonder if Kaepernick’s explosive start to his career is an anomaly or if he is the real deal? Finally, will Griffin be able to recover from a devastating injury and become the player that was briefly on display this past year?

Joe Flacco Being Comfortable With Himself: The Metamorphosis

Joe Flacco, Superbowl MVP. Why did it take until his 5th season for him to show he is the leader and physical specimen that was predicted when he was a senior coming out of the University of Delaware? He showed so much potential in his rookie year with the Ravens by becoming the first rookie QB to win two playoff games. But, despite making the playoffs every year since, he never made it to the Super Bowl. That is until this year when he marched the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in near perfect fashion. In the playoffs he threw for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns (tied for the highest total with Montana and Warner), and ZERO interceptions. He finished with a QB rating of 117, very impressive.

The thing that interests me came from the mouths of the analysts. Many of the experts who had the opportunity interview Flacco in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl commented on his personality. They said he appeared more relaxed, more comfortable, more willing to show his “true self.” I hypothesize that this shift in public demeanor was due to Flacco’s confidence. Athletes who are comfortable in their cleats on the field are often comfortable in their own skin while being interviewed. Take a post-game press conference for example. Compare a player who has just won a big game versus a player who has just lost a big game. The winning player often has their chin up, elevated shoulders, puffed out chest, makes eye contact with the reporters, and seems to revel in the spot light. Whereas, the losing player might be covering their eyes with a hat or sunglasses, makes limited eye contact, has slumped shoulders, and provides short answers that scream, “Get me out of here!” Both of these visual images are on opposite ends of the confidence spectrum.

It would have been interesting to have shadowed Flacco throughout his five year career to determine what contributed to this metamorphosis. Did Flacco always project an uncomfortable public demeanor with less confidence? Did he need to make a determined shift to portray more confidence and comfort when being interviewed or did it happen naturally? One thing we will be able to find out is whether this shift is permanent or temporary with the upcoming season. And for those who are interested in this kind of thing, watch your teammates, business partners, coaches, classmates, or friends to determine their level confidence and how it correlates with success.

Mental Toughness and Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick provided football fans across the country with an amazing story. Kaepernick had a successful college career at the University of Nevada where he is the only Division I FBS player to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in one season. He was selected in the second round (45th overall) by the 49ers in the 2011 NFL draft. In 2011 Kaepernick was Alex Smith’s back up, which continued until week 10 of the past season. He led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Ravens.

The thing I find most fascinating about this young player is his ability to persevere in the face of adversity and failure.  This is one of the few mental attributes that separates the superstars from average athletes. The tendency to move on from mistakes was apparent when he proved his worth as a backup filling in for a starter. Some players have difficulty showing their utmost potential in these pressure filled situations because one mistake leads to a downward spiral of negative thinking. The game in which he came in for an injured Smith, Kaepernick struggled and the Niners tied the floundering St. Loius Rams who were 3-6 at the time. Coach Jim Harbaugh gave him another chance the following Monday night against a vaunted Chicago Bears (7-2) defense. Kaepernick went 16 for 32, passed for 246 yards, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Niners beat the Bears 32-7. That is pretty impressive for a player who is basically a rookie, or is it? Athletes, coaches, and sport analysts tend to believe that with experience comes mental toughness and the ability to handle high pressure situations. I believe this to be true, to an extent. The more exposure someone has to a specific type of situation, the more adept he/she becomes at properly dealing with it. But keep in mind, some people are naturally good at dealing with pressure: Tom Brady, Mariano Rivera, and, of course, Michael Jordan.

Kaepernick further proved he has the ability to remain focused, calm, and determined when faced with difficult odds. Despite being down twice against the Packers, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns, while running for a playoff record 181 yards as a quarterback. In a microcosm of his ability to work through adversity, he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on the Niners’ first offensive possession. Undeterred, Kapernick led his team to the NFC Championship game on the road against Atlanta, which provided the backdrop for him to further prove his mental toughness and ability to not let mistakes bring him down. To start the game, the Niners went down by a score of 17-0, but Kaepernick eventually prevailed. Finally, in the Super Bowl, the ultimate platform for pressure, Kaepernick, once again displayed his resiliency. The Niners were down 28-6 in the third quarter, came back on the arm of Kaepernick, but unfortunately they fell short when they lost 34-31.

Yes, football is a team sport and the whole Niner team, along with the coaching staff contributed to these incredible comebacks. But it is the quarterback that stands in the brightest and most critical spotlight. They tend to bear the burden of pressure, while reaping most of the glory when things end in their favor. Kaepernick seems to have the right mindset for someone who encounters a lot of pressure. He demonstrated the ability to learn from and not dwell on past mistakes. He seems to be the type of athlete who has that advantageous “short term” memory that can make or break a career. I compare him to the forward in a soccer game who manages to score a hat trick after missing two breakaways or the goal keeper who makes three saves in a shootout after letting in two easy goals during regulation. Dwelling on past mistakes crushes confidence, lowers drive and motivation, takes the fun out of the game, and eventually hurts overall performance.  I’m not proclaiming that athletes should ignore mistakes; I’m saying they should learn from mistakes and move on. Athletes tend to be perfectionists who struggle with accepting failure, but as I’ve repeated over and over again, the failures in sports are often far greater than the successes. Kaepernick seems to have the understanding that dwelling on mistakes lead to more mistakes. As athletes we try to trick ourselves into believing that if we dwell on a mistake, we will come up with a better solution and the mistake is less likely to happen again. However dwelling on past mistakes during a game is often a big enough distraction and more mistakes are sure to pile up. It would be fascinating to sit down with Kaepernick and explore the thoughts and emotions he experienced shortly after he threw the interception returned for a touchdown by Sam Shields of the Green Bay Packers or when his team was trailing by 22 to the Ravens.  Mental toughness may be something that comes naturally to Kapernick or maybe he worked with a professional to develop this attribute. Either way, is it fun to watch unfold. We will have to wait to see if he is going to become a Montana-like winner or a flash in the pan.

Being Sensible When Players Get Injured

This first post regarding the 2013 NFL playoffs is a lengthy one and it will address Robert Griffin III and the decisions that were made regarding his knee injury. The Washington Redskins lost in an exciting wildcard game to the visiting Seattle Seahawks by a score of 24-14. Washington, led by rookie Robert Griffin III (RG3), began the game on fire. They built a 14 point first quarter lead, only to watch it collapse much like RG3’s knee. I’m pretty certain the psychological dilemma of whether to play an injured Griffin still weighs on the mind of Washington coach Mike Shanahan. First, we must consider the events leading up to this game because they are relevant to Shanahan’s decision. RG3 was drafted by the Redskins who traded away their first round pick, along with two future first round and a future second round pick to the St. Louis Rams. Basically, they put all of their eggs in the RG3 basket. Fortunately for the Redskins, the gamble seemed to pay off when Griffin became the powerful leader this team has lacked for ages and subsequently marched them to the playoffs. Second, it’s important to keep in mind that RG3 tore his ACL in 2009 while in college and he injured the same knee in a regular season game against the Ravens in early December. The poor state of the turf at FedEx field is another factor because it increased the probability of injury to an unstable knee. The last factor worth considering is Shanahan’s history. Before joining the Redskins he coached the Broncos to two Superbowl victories with hall of fame QB John Elway at the helm. Elway, known for his physical and mental toughness, was not known for missing many games due to injury. Interestingly enough, Elway, unlike Griffin, played without his ACL in one of his knees because of a high school injury and a lack of medical advancements at the time. All of this information is very important, because it both positively and negatively influenced the decision against the Seahawks.

Now onto the psychological spin related to RG3’s injury. Did Shanahan make the right call by keeping an obviously hobbled Griffin in the game? As a coach who has dealt with this issue at the collegiate level, part of me empathizes with Shanahan. I kind of feel bad for Shanahan as analysts and fans across the country crucify him for making what seemed to be the wrong decision. Others have said Shanahan should have put in rookie backup, Kirk Cousins. The same Cousins who contributed to an overtime loss in week five to the Falcons while throwing two interceptions late in the game. The same Cousins who threw a game winning touchdown against the Ravens in overtime in the game that Griffin initially hurt his knee. The same Cousins that led the Redskins to a win the following week against the Browns. I highlight Cousin’s ups and downs because they too had to factor into Shanahan’s decision that night. The question for Shanahan is simple: Do I play an injured Griffin who is struggling both with the run and passing game or do I put in Cousins? The question is simple; the answer is complex and contains multiple layers of decision making thoughts and feelings. The thoughts are more tangible and have been mulled over by anyone who has an interest in the situation. For example, people may assume Shanahan pondered, “I think an injured Griffin gives the team a better chance over a healthy Cousins” or “Griffin said on the sideline that he was healthy enough to help the team win; he was medically cleared from a team doctor during the game; and I should therefore leave him in the game.” These are just a small fraction of the thoughts that Shanahan has at his disposal. The feelings are something that cannot be accurately analyzed by the sport experts. Maybe Shanahan had a gut feeling that Griffin was going to be ok and triumphantly carry the team on this wounded knee. Maybe Shanahan had feelings spurred by visions of Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons scoring 25 third quarter points on a sprained ankle in the 1988 NBA Finals against the Lakers. Maybe Shanahan forgot that the Pistons lost that game. The point is that everyone, regardless of the decision, uses a combination of thoughts and feelings when making a choice. This past season at Swarthmore College, I was on the winning end of a similar decision. I suggested we put one of our starting forwards into an early season game at the onset of overtime despite his poor performance throughout regulation. I trusted my gut feeling that he has the potential to score at any moment. As a result we won the game because of a goal he scored. Gut instinct is influenced by the multitude of past experiences. I felt that this proven goal scorer needed just one opportunity to win the game. I felt this because of my previous observations and interactions with him. Shanahan’s decision was different. I believe he was probably influenced by Griffin’s sideline comments that his knee was ok. I speculate that Shanahan’s decision was influenced by Griffin’s passion, the roar of the crowd, and the possible future emotions associated with potential playoff loss had he decided to bench Griffin.

As a coach or parent it is important to attempt to manage the in-the-moment emotion and make clear headed decisions that are right for the players and the team when injuries arise. Griffin has been spending the off season rehabbing injuries to his ACL and LCL. It is very easy as a coach or a parent who needs to be level headed in the decision making process to become influenced and overwhelmed by the lure of winning. It is easy to turn a blind eye to injuries that have potentially far reaching consequences. The recent buzz associated with concussions illustrates this point. Players and coaches are often caught in a catch-22. If a player admits that the injury is bad enough to require a benching, he/she runs the risk of being labeled “soft” and possibly losing a starting position, or losing the respect of teammates. If a coach demonstrates cautious discretion and sits a player who insists they are fine, the coach runs the risk of dealing with an irate player on the sideline, nasty phone calls from parents, and/or the entire team questioning his/her desire to win “at all costs.” My sophomore year at Millersville University created this exact situation. While playing Slippery Rock University in an important conference game, I collided heads with an opposing player. I never lost consciousness, but the vision in my right eye went blurry. After meeting with the trainer, she concluded I should not go back in the game. Shortly thereafter, my vision returned to normal and I was permitted to finish the game. Keep in mind this was in the mid 90’s when less was known about concussions and traumatic brain injuries. I was fortunate and avoided any permanent or long term consequences. But the whole experience was difficult. Being a younger player, I was still trying to prove my physical toughness and overall worth to the team. I would have lied about my vision had it not returned to normal. I would have lied because, like many athletes, I was egocentric and consumed with winning. I put too much stock into my reputation, the thought that I was hurting my chances to keep my starting position, and the possibility that being benched would hurt my team’s chances of winning. NFL players are no different. They compete with other alpha males who will do anything improve their standing on the team. Plus, they have the enormous pressure of their livelihoods and millions of dollars being on the line.

Shanahan risked the future of a player who was well on his way to becoming an elite QB in the NFL. Shanahan risked the future of the organization because of the massive investment made on this one player. But hindsight is always 20/20. Had the scenario unfolded differently and a wounded Griffin helped his team win, we might be praising Shanahan for his brilliant coaching decisions much as we did when he was coaching Elway to those Super Bowl victories. It is an interesting scenario for sports fans, analysis, coaches, and athletes to deliberate. I only scratched the surface in the preceding paragraphs. It is apparent there was a lot more that went into the finals decision to keep Griffin in the game. But I feel it is important for parents and coaches to work on the skills required to become a clear headed decision maker when it comes to sitting players with serious injuries.