Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Competing in Sports: You Messed Up, You're Upset—Now What?

Inside Youth Sports - Athlete failing
At some point, every athlete gets upset at himself, his opponent, or his coach. You may be mad at yourself for making a stupid mistake. Your opponent may have said or done something that is disrespectful. Maybe you feel that your coach doesn’t recognize your ability and has low expectations about your potential to succeed.

How you handle these situations is often crucial to your success in sports.

Managing Negative Emotions

When you do get upset, your performance can either fall apart or improve—depending on how you react. You can use emotion or be used by it. Successful athletes manage their emotions to improve their play. They transform negative emotion into a positive action.

Why do some athletes play better when they are angry? It’s because these individuals have the ability to channel the energy of their emotions. This emotional energy provides these athletes with the extra force or focus they need to take their play to a higher level.

When I was growing up, a tennis player named John McEnroe was infamous for his court tantrums, regularly berating the match’s umpire and often arguing with and glaring at his opponent. Although many fans considered his behavior obnoxious, it was obvious that this man played with more energy and focus when he was mad. He would sometimes search for any opportunity to yell at someone, including himself. Meanwhile, some of his opponents, reacting emotionally to his outbursts, would subsequently fall apart, losing their concentration and focus.

How do you best handle upsetting situations? This depends on your individual nature. If you perform better by minimizing emotion or directing it inward, try using relaxation techniques (breathing, imagery, trigger words) to help you dissipate or otherwise control the emotion. If you're more like John McEnroe, then you need to harness the emotion and use it to your advantage.

TIP: Emotion can play a huge role in determining a player’s effectiveness. Some players thrive on emotion while others perform better by minimizing it. Try to understand which type of player you are.

Two Steps to Leverage Your Anger

When you do become angry, take the negative emotion and translate it to a specific positive action. Ideally, two responses should occur when you become upset.

  • First, immediately use the emotion to sharpen your concentration. Instead of losing control of your mental state, become more focused, aware, and fiercely resolute in your determination to succeed. Use the anger to fuel this mental state. Think of your anger squeezing the outer-bands of a target toward its center—compressing more and more energy into the bulls-eye.

  • Second, begin to funnel the power of your negative emotion into a positive, energy-related physical action. For example, you may be the type of player who is a perfectionist. You don't like making avoidable mistakes. While playing offense, you may become mad when you take a bad shot, make a poor pass, or commit a turnover. Instead of hanging your head in dismay or disgust, try to immediately get back and play more intense defense, letting your emotion drive your physical action to a more aggressive (but still controlled) state.

With regard to the second point above, sports such as basketball, hockey, and soccer are ones where the action is often continuous. If you miss a shot and hang your head, or otherwise act out, you take yourself out of the play. (And your coach will likely take you out of the game should you compound your original mistake with this behavior.) You must continue to play in the moment. If you miss an easy shot in basketball, pursue the rebound. When you get beat on defense, hustle to recover.

I recently talked with a young woman who is a talented point guard on her high school basketball team. On this subject she echoed the above point saying, “Whenever I make a bad mistake, I always try to make up for it by playing better defense.” She also recalled how she reacted when her coach initially suggested to her that if she worked hard she might win a Division II scholarship: “My reaction was ‘I’ll show coach. I’m going to get a Division I scholarship.’” In each case, this girl translated her anger into a positive response.

Inside Youth Sports - Leverage Emotions

TIP: Coaches recognize and appreciate mature players who both control, and use, their emotions to improve their play.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Friday, January 13, 2012

The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child's Life

Sports provide your child with many benefits including physical exercise, fun, confidence and a sense of community. And for many children, sports are the most natural and joyful way of expressing grace and excellence in their young lives.

With these benefits in mind, and hoping to provide the best opportunities for your child, you and other parents dutifully sign up your young children for the local youth program of choice. Surely this is the single best way for children to pursue their interest in sports, develop their abilities, and get the most out of the experience. But is it?

Benefits of Organized Sports

Organized sports, administered by adults, offer one path for a child to learn and appreciate sports. Skill clinics and traditional developmental youth leagues ideally enable knowledgeable coaches to teach children specific sports skills and team play along with sportsmanship and life lessons. Proper instruction, balanced with competition suited to the age group and skill level, can provide the program’s youth participants with a great experience. In addition, activities are supervised, helping to ensure the safety of your child.

Don’t make the mistake, however, of believing that organized sports by themselves will provide your child with the best overall sports experience. Organized sports are only one part of the equation.

Rich Beginnings

In my youth (and possibly yours) playing and learning sports was a multi-faceted developmental experience. It began with my Dad introducing me to sports by playing catch and providing some basic instruction. Too young to play in a youth league back then, I can also recall my Dad occasionally taking me to a local baseball field on a warm summer evening to watch a Little League baseball game. Mostly, I remember the stop afterwards for an ice cream cone. In elementary school, a gym teacher began our basic instruction in a variety of games and modified sports. Games of kickball during gym class and recesses provided a fun introduction to team sports. At seven or eight, I played in my first neighborhood pickup baseball and football games. Being one of the youngest, I only hoped to get an occasional chance to catch the ball and take some swings at the plate. I was thankful for the opportunity to play with older boys and be part of the neighborhood group. As I grew and became a more accomplished athlete, my role increased—and this success only fueled my enjoyment and interest in sports.

Learning to Become Self-Reliant

But it’s essential to understand that these neighborhood games were much more than just playing sports. They were also about learning how to interact with other children—without the help of parents or other adults. We learned how to recruit neighborhood kids, organize the game, deal with arguments, balance our individual competitive instincts against the needs of others in the group , and otherwise manage the game so that everyone wanted (or at least continued) to play. Often, it was a balancing act to keep everyone satisfied and the game going. Depending on who was playing and our mood, the games emphasized either relaxed fun or more serious competition. But most importantly, we controlled our experience—we learned to become more self-reliant.

A Complementary Role in Years Past

For us, the organized sports activities of our youth were separate, complementary experiences that helped fill our weekday evenings and Saturday mornings. In some ways, organized sports represented the formal test of our daily fun and games. We accepted that these youth leagues were run by parents, more structured, and usually more competitive. It was still an exciting, satisfying experience—run by caring coaches who balanced competition, learning and fun. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of stress, fear, and boredom—or the occasional poor coaching. In my first year of football, I was the youngest (and lightest). Trying to tackle bigger boys was a scary experience. While playing youth baseball, I also recall each year facing a pitcher who had an unbelievable fastball, but who also was very wild. We all were fearful of that pitcher, but knew that if we took enough pitches there was a good chance that he would walk us (but hopefully not hit us).

So what were the crucial elements comprising my youth sports experience? They were involved parents, gym teachers, neighborhood pickup games that provided an opportunity for unstructured, self-organized play—and organized sports. The latter was only a part of the whole.

Organized Sports Today

But it’s a new world—and some of the changes are clearly ones for the better. Title Nine, for example, has opened the world of sports to millions of young girls. Other changes include more two-paycheck families, more single parents, 24-hour news that sensitizes us to the potential dangers our children face on their own, and an expanded universe of non-sports activities available to a child. Unlike Title Nine, these changes are more mixed in their benefits and drawbacks. But one truth is certain, parents now lead lives filled to the brim with personal and family activities.

In a generation of busy parents, it’s no surprise that organized sports have now taken on a much larger role. Scheduled, highly structured, and safe, organized sports more easily fit into today’s lifestyle. Why not expect that organized sports can be the beginning and end of your child’s sports experience?

Unfortunately, placing these heavy expectations on an organized youth sports program is bound to result in failure of one kind or another. A limited number of volunteer coaches with varying degrees of expertise, multiple age groups and skill levels bunched together into single leagues, and different attitudes regarding how to balance fun and competition, all make it difficult to produce a program that fully satisfies the needs of every participant. As a result, complaints arise that traditional youth sports programs are too competitive, do not provide equal playing time, and fail to give younger beginners and less-skilled children the best opportunity to learn and have fun.

A Better, More Balanced Approach

So how do we provide the best sports experience for our youth in today’s world? I would suggest that parents embrace a principle embodied in our past—balancing participation in organized sports with the other developmental opportunities that include direct parental involvement and separate, self-directed play by the children themselves. Don’t simply outsource your child’s sports education to an organized youth sports program.

Even in a more complex changing world, you still control your choices. Spend some time playing catch with your child, place limits on “electronics” time, let go a little (take a chance like your parents did with you) and send your child outside to play with other neighborhood children. City, suburb, and rural neighborhoods all present different safety issues and potential risks. Only you can determine how much risk you are willing to assume. But ask yourself, “Is your neighborhood really any more unsafe than the one you grew up in — or has our omnipresent 24-hour news cycle simply sensitized our society to the potential dangers?”

If you are not comfortable with unsupervised play, or your work schedule keeps you and your child away from home during the day, then try to find a facility where your child can play with others in a self-directed setting. For example, it’s not unusual in the afternoon at the local YMCA to see younger children involved in either a fun two-on-two pickup basketball game or a more competitive full court game. The YMCA provides a safe, semi-supervised environment that still provides children an opportunity to do their own thing.

And finally, take an active interest in your child’s organized youth sports experience. Find the local programs that offer the best blend of fun, learning, and competition that fits your child. Be supportive. But also strive for a healthy balance between parental involvement and providing your child with the freedom to explore sports on his or her own. Don’t believe that organized youth sports programs are the entire answer or that you are a poor parent for not placing your child in every available program. You may find that everyone in the family benefits from less emphasis on organized sports.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article,
you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Use Concrete Language to Help Kids Visualize a Sports Skill

Hey, what's that GOOSE doing?!

No, this isn't a video frame from a 50's SciFi movie that includes a 50-foot rampaging, radioactive goose. It's my attempt to illustrate an important principle in teaching sports skills to children—that concrete language and images can help kids better remember how to execute a key part of a skill.

One of the phrases I learned years ago and like to use when demonstrating how to follow through on a basketball shot is “Leave your arm extended upward, hand down, like a goose neck.” (I also sometimes rephrase the ending: “… like you’re putting your hand into a cookie jar.")

In describing the initial setup of the same shot, I'll also instruct my players to hold the ball above their head, “ like you’re carrying a pizza box."

Phrases such as the ones above are figures of speech known as “similes.” They are highly effective because they provide your players with concrete, visual representations of skill techniques and are easily remembered. Especially with young beginners, use these phrases to drive home your instructional message.

From other coaches within your sport, you will undoubtedly pick up descriptive, figurative phrases that are useful in emphasizing important aspects of a skill. Here are a few examples:

  • Baseball coaches, teaching hitting technique to a beginner, can say, “Pivot on your back foot, like you’re squishing a bug.” When swinging the bat forward, a batter needs to rotate his or her back foot (up onto the toes). This rotation permits the batter’s hips to turn and generate power. Now which do you think is easier for a young player to remember—“squishing a bug” or the more abstract language used above to describe the technique?

  • Still another baseball phrase describes how a catcher should field a bunt by using their bare hand to sweep the ball into the glove “like using a broom and dustpan”.

  • In teaching young football linemen how to squat in a three-point stance, coaches sometimes tell their linemen to imagine that they are in a disgusting public bathroom. To take care of business, they need to squat, but not touch their bottom to the wet toilet seat. Yes, it's boyish bathroom humor—but also a dramatic image that quickly defines the technique. Even if you’ve never played football, I expect that you can now assume a proper squat in a lineman’s three-point stance!

My last post, Teach Like that Famous Greek Guy, discussed how you can better engage children in the learning process by asking them questions (using the Socratic method). Similarly, your young players will also benefit from instruction that incorporates concrete language and imagery.

Create pictures within your players’ minds. Tying a vivid image to a skill helps players visualize and remember a skill’s proper execution. Much like following a trail of breadcrumbs, these images will help your young players quickly find their way back to a skill’s proper technique and form.

Do you have any favorite phrases that you think are effective in teaching a sports skill?

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports

If you enjoyed this article,
you may like my book:

The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)