Preseason and Change

Many athletes are making final preparations for an eagerly awaited/dreaded preseason. They will soon find out if a summer spent on the track/road, repeating in drills, lifting in the gym, and training on the field will pay off. One common mental mistake made by athletes, as well as anyone looking to change (dieting, exercising, reading more, managing problematic emotions) comes from unrealistic goals, an unsupportive environment, dwindling motivation, and limited repetition. The book “Fully Present” by Smalley and Winston addresses these needs in order to make change a reality.

1. Make steps simple 
Athletes often set goals of a championship. One problem with this goal is we cannot see the results until the end of the season, or at least until a team is eliminated from the playoffs. I do however feel this can be a helpful goal as long as small goals are included, such as making steady progress by increasing the team’s goals per game average in the first three games of the season. Another example involves dieting. A goal of losing 15 pounds in the next six weeks sets up failure because the first slip up often causes someone to give up because 15 pounds and 6 weeks now can seem impossible. Instead, Smalley and Winston offer the following suggestions for keeping diet steps simple: putting your fork down with each bite, taking breaks during a meal, and eating fruit for dessert. In the end, a series of mini-successes allow for a person to move toward a goal, work through the inevitable failures, and enjoy the journey.  

2. Being in a supportive environment
Team sports provide an unusual backdrop for the conflict between competition and support. On one hand, you are forced to compete with teammates to make the team and earn a starting position. On the other hand, successful teams tend to be very supportive of each other. No other player feels the tension of this conflict more than the rookies. They have to compete and perform at the level of established players, but they also want to fit in. It’s quite a challenge to upstage upperclassmen and gain their support as well. The burden of managing this challenge falls on the coach and trickles down to the team leaders.

3. Motivation
As athletes step on the field, approach the starting block, or walk on the court for the first time in preseason, motivation is usually at an all time. They have thought about this moment while training in the off season and if they are lucky, the have the right balance of excitement, anxiety, curiosity, and confidence to be their best. However the grueling season is the perfect stage for the rollercoaster that is motivation. In a college season, motivation tends to proceed in the following direction: Motivation will drop toward the end of preseason, pick up before the first regular season game, then pick up before the first conference game, steadily decline as academic rigors increase, hit a low around midterms, pick up a little if playoffs are on the horizon, and finally it is a motivation crap shoot when the playoffs begin. It becomes crucial for each athlete to determine what they find both intrinsically and extrinsically motivating so they can call upon these incentives when needed. One suggestion is positive self talk. It is common and very easy to say negative things to yourself when motivation drops, which causes motivation to spiral downward.

4. Repetition
Smalley and Winston say creating a new habit requires repetition. You must have the determination, persistence, grit, and vision to see any form of behavioral change through. Some behaviors are easier to change than others. It is going to be much more difficult to stick with a diet if you’ve never maintained a healthy diet. It is going to be more difficult to become a team leader if you have never been a leader before. Repetition is closely tied to motivation. Repetition becomes stale, boring, and monotonous even with things you love. If goals are realistic and attainable, if you surround yourself with support, and if you use strategies to remain motivated, then repetition is bearable and change will eventually take place. 

Good luck in preseason. Remember to take a moment to enjoy the experience, because the season is short and there will be a time when you miss it all, even the worst parts of the experience. 

What Your Daydreaming Does For Performance.

I finally signed up for a twitter account. It allows me to follow some musicians, comedians, and psychology groups. Psychology Today is one group I’ve been following. It is a magazine focused on psychological topics, and I recent read an article entitled “How and Why You Daydream.” The article explores the details and research attached to daydreaming. For example, the article states, “For men, the more frequent their daydreams, the lower their life satisfaction. For women, vividness but not frequency was related to lower life satisfaction. For both genders, people who daydreamed about their close family and friends reported higher levels of life satisfaction.”

As a psychologist who frequently works with people trying to improve performance, the article spurred some thought. In my practice I encourage athletes to:

1. Learn from mistakes, but not dwell on them. Dwelling on mistakes lowers motivation, confidence, and overall performance.
2. Dwell on successes. This increases motivation, confidence, performance, and enjoyment.

The article caused me to realize how we process, relive, and think about performance is similar to daydreaming. Athletes, artists, and business professionals spend a lot of time reliving past experiences or envisions future tasks. This is equivalent to daydreaming and it has a tremendous impact on their motivation, confidence, performance, and enjoyment.

The next time you get lost in thought, whether it is during a meeting, lecture, game, on the beach, or before you fall asleep, take a moment and try to determine what purpose the daydreaming serves.

1. Does it allow simply let you to escape boredom or is there more to it?
2. Do you think that daydreaming about the worst case scenario better prepare you for the future?
3. Do your fantasies make you feel great by providing an opportunity to relive those great moments in life like scoring the game winning goal in a championship, presenting the perfect defense in a court of law, or that breath taking musical performance in front of a large crowd?
4. Is it a combination of reasons?

Are You Still Having Fun?

Are You Still Having Fun?


There is no hiding from the reality that youth sports are becoming increasingly professionalized. Kids are expected to play one sport year round, to be on the best team, and train with the best coaches in attempts to develop into next Tiger Woods, Leo Messi, or LeBron James. One of the most unfortunate outcomes of this reality is that kids are more likely to miss out on the original feeling that enticed them play the sport in the first place. Fun. It does not matter what level in which you are playing, youth or professional, fun is essential to success. Take NBA superstar Dwight Howard for example. He recently signed with the Houston Rockets after a brief stint with the LA Lakers. Why would the league’s premier center leave the Lakers who have a legacy of hall of fame big men in Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq? A lot of the behind the scene experts say Howard’s “I want to have fun playing” mentality strongly conflicted with Kobe Bryant’s leadership style and personality. As a result, Howard spent one year with the Lakers before leaving. Is it possible that Dwight Howard was not having fun in Los Angeles?


When working with athletes who experience burnout, lose the passion for the game, and are no longer having fun there is an initial inclination to help them persist and get through the tough time. However many coaches and parents ask, “What do I do when it is more than a “tough time” and my child/player really wants to quit?” My advice is to first consider their age because younger athletes need adults to be the decision makers often than not. But if it becomes apparent that the sport is more of a chore than a fun activity and this has been going on for a while, it is important to support the decision and help the child/adolescent find another activity/hobby/sport to pursue. Coaches and parents are sometimes conflicted because they have a responsibility to motivate and cultivate a good work ethic, which is why we push our children and players when they experience adversity. But it is ok to give up on an endeavors when it is more than temporary adversity or you might suggest a less demanding and involved sport schedule. Imagine having to spend a good portion of your time participating in something you have grown to despise? I can’t imagine your performance being anything than subpar.


I think back to a former player of mine who was thinking of quitting. My first response was, “Give it two weeks, get back to me, but understand that I’ll do everything in my power get you to see it through.” After some careful deliberation, I changed my approach. I told the player that I would support whatever he decided. You see, he was old enough and therefore capable of sifting through the pros and cons of the decision. Plus, as a coach, I don’t want players whose heart is no longer in it because their performance is going to suffer. It will suffer because they are no longer having fun.

How Do Emotions Impact Group and Individual Success?

Think about the factors that contribute to success you’ve experienced as part of a team, business, organization, or even a family. Attributes such as intelligence, ability, experience, determination, or social skills tend to come to mind. You probably did not think about your emotional abilities/intelligence or the emotional climate of the group. Let me clarify.

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, express, and regulate emotions in a fashion that promotes growth. This is your ability to read situations, decide how to respond, and then show the emotions necessary to accomplish your goals.   

Emotions play a vital, yet overlooked role in groups. Emotional outbursts can motivate players or ruin programs as was the case with Mike Rice former Rutgers basketball coach. Emotional displays from parents can assist a toddler in avoiding danger when they get too close to a hot stove. Or repeated and exaggerated emotional displays from a parent can contribute to a toddlers budding anxiety. Leaders in business often act as a barometer of what level of emotionality is acceptable to show. Take another moment to now think about the various groups in which you are a member. How are emotions expressed? Are they repressed or are they expressed in an out of control manner? Do emotional expressions enable or impede the progress of the group? What happens after an emotional display? Is the person who showed the emotion praised or punished? All of these answers comprise the “emotional climate” of the group. Now think about whether the “emotional climate” helped or hurt the group. I’ve been part of different soccer teams where the emotional climate helped the team because players felt free to voice concerns, yet retain a sense that they were supported. Alternatively, I’ve been a part of teams where emotional displays were out of control, unpredictable, undermining, ongoing, and, ultimately detrimental to the goals of the team.

Leaders sometimes make the mistake of not examining how emotions impact group success; however those under the leaders (employees or players) know all too well the impact of emotions. Just about everyone can recall a time in which a coach, boss, or parent lost their temper. The impact was probably severe and long lasting. I encourage leaders, whether a coach, boss, parent teacher, or principal to explore the impact of their emotions on others. It may be possible that a change with regards to emotional expression can improve the productivity, happiness, and success of the group. Because when used properly, emotions help provide feedback, promote learning, and assist changes in future decision making.

For example:
-A reserved and soft spoken parent/coach/boss could show more emotion when their child/player/employee is breaking the rules or unmotivated.
-A loud and angry parent/coach/boss could show outbursts sparingly for serious behavior issues so it can carry the necessary weight.

Much of the information provided within this blog came from “Exploring Emotion Abilities and Regulation Strategies in Sport Organization” by Wagstaff, Fletcher, and Hanton.

The Fear That Motivates and Paralyzes

Fear is a natural emotion that people will go to great lengths to avoid when it becomes overwhelming. Excessive levels of fear can paralyze and cause people to steer clear from pursuing lofty goals and the things in which they are passionate. Think of that time in middle school in which you could not speak to nor approach that person you had a crush on.  The intense fear felt in the pit of your stomach led to silence, avoidance, or a bumbling mess of nonsense coming out of your mouth. On the opposite end of the fear spectrum is the lesser version of fear that motivates us work hard and make conscientious decisions. For example, there is a healthy fear some adolescents have when facing their parents after getting trouble. This fear, hopefully, influences the teen to steer clear of vandalism, breaking a curfew, or engaging in risky behavior. At both ends of the fear spectrum lies passion and one’s comfort with failure.

There are two types of passion: obsessive and harmonious. Obsessive passion tends to overwhelm and maximize one’s attention and identity. This is the person who is constantly focused on, talking about, and/or engaged in their passion of choice. This is the person who only talks of one aspect of life such as sports, video games, work, or parenting. These individuals tend to lack a healthy balance between their personal, social, and professional/athletic/academic life. One of the common negative side effects this person might encounter could be a great deal of anger, depression, anxiety, fear… when they experience failure associated with their passion. Obsessive athletes experience this when they play poorly, get cut from a team, or do not crack the starting line-up. They become overwhelmingly upset, angry, anxious, or sad because there is nothing else in life to distract them and give them a break from obsessively thinking about the failure. ESPN recently did a story on Jozy Altidore, starting forward for the US National Men’s Team. He is currently starting for the Dutch team AZ Alkmarr where he scored 23 goals last season. After failing to live up to high expectations in the past, Altidore attributes his current success to finding a healthy balance between soccer and his personal life, which describes the other type of passion.

Harmonious passion is describes as strong desire to freely engage in your passion. These individuals love what they do and work extremely hard to reach lofty goals. They also feel the negative effects of failure; however their identity is not wrapped so tightly around their passion and they can still enjoy other areas of life when they fail. Steven Gerrard, starting center midfielder for Liverpool explains how he is able to leave soccer on the field. This ability to compartmentalize sports from other areas of life contribute to a healthy mental perspective. Players and professionals who can “leave it on the field and in the office” allow themselves to take that valuable mental break and relax/rejuvenate so they are at their best when they must perform in the future. 


Steven Gerrard talks about having some separation from soccer.


Much of the information provided in this blog post was motivated by the article “Driven By Fear: The Effect of Success and Failure Information on Passionate Individuals’ Performance” by Belanger Lafreniere, Vallerand, and Kruglanski. (2013.)

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.

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.

Is Perfectionism Helping or Hurting?

Most of the information from this blog comes from an article called “Are Perfectionistic Strivings in Sports Adaptive? A Systematic Review of Confirmatory, Contradictory, and Mixed Evidence” by Gotwalls, Stoeber, Dunn, and Stoll.

Everyone has some perfectionistic tendencies whether related to work, school, socializing, hobbies, or sports. It’s incredibly rewarding when someone gives us an A+, a promotion, or a glowing compliment because of a job done perfectly. You probably know someone who cannot accept an outcome that falls short of perfection. Maybe that person is you. This article explores the underlying thoughts and attitudes that push us to perfection, as well as the benefits and losses of trying to be perfect.

In any type of performance there are two categories that make up perfectionism, according to the article. Perfectionistic strivings refer to a person’s drive toward being perfect and the high goals they set. I have coached players at Swarthmore College that have spoken of aspirations of scoring so many goals in a season, being named All-American, or cracking the starting line-up. These are examples of perfectionistic strivings. On the other hand, there are perfectionistic concerns which entail worries of making mistakes, fear of negative teammate/coach/parent evaluations, aversive internal reactions to an imperfect performance, and frustration which is the bad feeling when expectations do not match the outcome. The research on perfectionistic strivings and concerns, in both general psychology and sports, has yielded what I would deem “common sense results.” Studies show that perfectionistic strivings and high goal setting are helpful for athletes. Motivated drive coupled with high goals can help an athlete work hard to improve and become successful. Conversely, perfectionistic concerns tend to hurt an athlete’s performance. In a nut shell, athletes often play better when they are driven and set high goals, while eliminating negative, fearful, and anxious thinking. Here is the problem. The people who set high goals typically have a lot of those negative, fearful, and anxious thoughts. Psychologists are often faced with the task of helping people keep lofty goals while decreasing negative thinking.

Take a moment to recall a time when you were trying to reach an elevated goal. Perhaps it accompanied thoughts of failure, fantasies of criticism from others, and worries of impending mistakes? Why do we have these self-created barriers to success? People often share the following lines of thinking with me.
1. “If I think these terribly negative things, then when someone does say it about me, it will not hurt as much.” There is some truth to this, but often we never hear these negative things from another person and even when we do, it still hurts to hear. So what good does it do to say these bad things to ourselves?
2. “If I think negative things, then I’ll be more motivated to do better and avoid future failure.” Often the opposite is true. People tend to be their most motivated to work hard and improve when they feel good and less motivated when they feel poorly about the task at hand. Most athletes have some understanding of the value of confidence, so why undermine your confidence with your own negative thinking?

To better illustrate the impact of negative thinking, let’s examine a realistic example. A quarterback for a high school team engages in negative thinking. He says to himself, “I suck because I only completed 70% of my passed (which in reality is great). I missed the target 30% of the time therefore my coach is going to bench me, my teammates are going to be pissed off at me, on Monday morning people are going to laugh at me in the hall, and my girlfriend is going to dump me.” Sound silly? It’s not. In fact, this negative thinking has a tendency to go deeper. This QB might think, “Because of last night’s awful game I’m never going to be scouted, I won’t get recruited, I won’t get a scholarship, I’ll never get into the college of my choice, and therefore I’m never going to get a good job.” Again, it sounds silly to read this. But I’ve spoken with many athletes who share similar ideas. Overly critical, negative, and unrealistic thinking kills confidence and lowers motivation, which almost always results in poor performances. Hopefully, this entry provides some more evidence that specific mental training and therapy can be as useful to an athlete as physical training.

The Broad Street Run 2013 and Social Facilitation

I worried that this year’s run would be different. I worried that my time would eclipse my 1:06:22 mark in 2008. This worry stemmed from tracking miles on Nike+. I was concerned because Nike+ informed me that my average training pace was between 7:30 and 8:00 minutes per mile. Even when I pushed myself, I was lucky to maintain a 7:15 pace for an extended period of time. How is it that I finished with my best time of 1:01:30 and a pace of 6:10 per mile? Social facilitation, which is the tendency for people to better when performing simple tasks while in the presence of others, could provide the answer. I’m not saying the Broad Street Run is simple, but the task of running is, plus I had trained diligently. Thus, on Sunday, I was performing a simple and familiar task. Performing a simple task in the presence of others often causes us to do better. This would explain why my race time was so much better versus when I was training by myself. This is not only true for athletic tasks, it can occur when we are at work or doing a hobby. However, when performing a difficult and complex task, the opposite often happens. Think about the last time you had to perform an unfamiliar and complex task in front of others, whether on the field, at school, or at work. Your performance most likely suffered under the bright spotlight, whereas it probably would have been better if you were alone. So the next time you are in the center of attention while doing something unfamiliar and you mess up, cut yourself a break and practice more in the future in anticipation that you will improve over time.

Mindfulness and Effort Needed When Focusing

In a recent article (Mindfulness and Acceptance Models in Sport Psychology: A Decade of Basic and Applied Scientific Advancements by Gardner and Moore) I came across some of the underlying reasons that mindfulness can help athletes. These authors discriminate between traditional cognitive-behavioral models and mindfulness models. One difference is that cognitive-behavioral models emphasize willful attempts to control thoughts and maintain attention, whereas mindfulness is based on a more natural form of managing thoughts and attention. As a result, mindfulness requires less brain power, which is beneficial for athletes because excessive thinking can be distracting. As an athlete, think of a time you were playing in a game and you had thoughts of school, girl/boyfriends, social life, nagging parents… How did this impact your performance? Another interesting finding in the article surrounds brain activity in the right and left hemispheres of athletes. Brain imaging techniques have revealed that golfers with less left hemisphere and more right hemisphere activity performed better when putting. The two resulting hypotheses state: The first hypothesis stated the left hemisphere is responsible for verbal instruction or the things we say in our head to help us complete a task. For a soccer player taking a penalty shot they might say, “Keep the shot on the ground, don’t get under the ball, get your knee over the ball, don’t lean back…” This type of self-instruction can be distracting, which might explain why the golfers struggled with putting. The second hypothesis elite athletes require less effort of the attention centers in the left hemisphere, whereas inexperienced athletes require more effort. More simply stated, better, more experienced athletes do not need to self-instruct as much as novice athletes when performing. To bring this complex hypothesis back to mindfulness, the research demonstrates that people who practice mindfulness use their cognitive resources more efficiently. By being able to focus without making a concentrated effort, the mindful athlete can pay attention and maintain focus longer and better when playing their sport. I connected this concept to a recent experience. Yesterday I ran 17 miles. It was fairly easy for me to block out pain and fatigue for the first 13 miles because of my training with mindfulness and fitness. However for the remaining 4 miles, I really struggled with focusing on something other than the pain in my legs and the feeling of exhaustion. If I were a more experienced practitioner of mindfulness, it could have been easier for me to focus on things other than pain and fatigue.

Edit 4/30/13
My mom emailed me the following comment regarding this blog post. “So if you are not thinking, are you sleeping or dead?” I know that she was joking, but there is some truth to her question. Mindfulness is not for everyone. I’ve had players on my Swarthmore College men’s soccer team say that mindfulness does not work for them, and I recognize this. I was apprehensive when first introduced to the different ideas associated with mindfulness. One way I’ve helped people move past the initial apprehension and begin to understand the benefits mindfulness is to clear up misconceptions. One common misconception is that mindfulness will allow you to “turn off” your thoughts. This is not the case, and I definitely do not want this for my athletes. The tasks athletes perform require tremendous thought and focus and mindfulness helps you make sense of and respond to the thoughts in a way that will improve your play. Another way to make sense of this concept is mindfulness allows you to have a different relationship with your thoughts. Those negative thoughts that interfere with a three point shot, screen pass, final lap, or first touch on the soccer field are like a dark cloud in the sky. You can choose dwell on the cloud, have repeated negative thoughts of how rain is going to ruin your day and mood, stay in all day, and miss out on some valuable life experiences. Another possibility is that you can chose to recognize the cloud, plan for some possible rain, and move on with your life.