Rising above

In 2008, Katie Hoff was given the nickname the “Female Phelps” at age 19. She won five events at the Olympic trials and was expected to do great things at the Beijing Olympics. However, she came home with one silver and two bronze medals – no gold medal in sight. Hoff saw this as a disappointment and the media ultimately called her a failure. But did she really fail?

Even with the pressure of the media, and the expectations she had on herself, Katie Hoff set a personal best in the 400 IM. As an athlete, competing at your best is always the ultimate goal. But even after swimming her best, she took home the bronze in that race. “After the 400 IM, I got my best time in the Olympics and a bronze medal and fail,” Hoff stated. For four years she was ashamed to show anyone her medals from the 2008 Beijing Olympics stating, “Oh sorry, I didn’t win gold.” Only until recently was she proud to show them off.

The pressure from the media, parents and coaches can be harsh, as well as the pressure on yourself. However, the way the media or other outside sources define you is not who you are as an athlete. Doing your best and being your best is what defines you, and as long as you’re happy with that then no one else’s opinion should matter. Hoff was called a “disappointment” by many commentators, but many others saw these comments as nothing more than foolish.

After all of the criticism she received, Hoff decided to come back and start training with her old coach again in order to rise above all of the negativity. The ups and downs of her career helped her to define who she really is. She found that it is not the achievements of being an athlete that define you, but the perseverance through the downfalls: “I had four years of doing well and, in that moment, you don’t learn very much about yourself. As much as losing and not doing well sucks, that’s how you learn.”


Turning criticism into a challenge

“In order to excel, you must be completely dedicated to your chosen sport. You must also be prepared to work hard and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Without one-hundred percent dedication, you won’t be able to do this.”Willie Mays

“I can’t believe my team went soft. S-O-F-T. I’m disappointed. I never thought it would happen.” This is what Larry Byrd bluntly said about his Indiana Pacers after their pivotal game 5 loss to the Miami heat by a staggering 32 points. What Larry Byrd was trying to get across to his team was that they did not play with the mental toughness and sense of urgency and intensity needed when playing a 2-2 series tie-breaking game.

The Pacers understood that Byrd’s criticism was more of a challenge to the Pacers to play with more intensity and heart. They realized that Byrd was only trying to add fuel to the fire so that they would come in to game 6 ready to fight back. “I agree with his assessment,” said Pacers Danny Granger, “We didn’t play with the playoff intensity that we needed to win. However, despite their best efforts with a late surge led by point guard George Hill, the Pacers ended their championship run loosing to the Heat 105-93.

No matter what sport you play you can expect to get criticized for mistakes and losses by coaches, teammates, fans, or even your general manager. What is important is seeing the criticism as a challenge to motivate you to play with the utmost intensity the next time you walk out onto the field, court, etc.

It is easy to let criticism wear you down, accepting what other people say about you. It takes dedication and practice towards mental toughness to see past the initial hurtful, blunt words and realize that they are only trying to challenge you to do your best next time you perform. A great player is not defined by what others say about him or her; it is how he or she responds to the challenge that defines who he or she is as an athlete.

“Criticism is a misconception: we must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves.”
Emile M. Cioran

Controlling how you react

“We can be physical and do all that but certain things got to stop, are you out here to play basketball or are you out here to be a tough guy?”Dwayne Wade

Athletic trainers and bandages played a critical role in Game 5 of the playoff series between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. Three flagrant fouls were called, including two in less than a minute, which left those involved bloodied and bruised. Players from both sides seemed to be attempting to hurt their opponents. Knowing how to control your emotions and how use them to your (legal) advantage are important aspects of any sport.

It is not uncommon to feel frustrated with an opponent, but it is never acceptable to intentionally harm them. You have to control your reactions to your feelings and then use them in a constructive way. Keep these emotions on the inside; don’t let anyone know that you are getting upset. Use these emotions as fuel to push you to play even better. Think of emotions like gas for your car; you can’t drive without it. You start out with a certain amount of gas and as the game goes on your tank begins to empty. When you get angry or upset, put that feeling in your tank to add fuel to keep you driving. Use them as motivators to beat your opponent in the game and not to beat them up. Instead of getting even with them, rise above them.

This can be a difficult process, but it is one that comes with practice. When you start to get these emotions take a second and breathe and then put it in the tank. Consciously practice this during training sessions or at school so you get better. Imagine the word going into your tank and feel it energizing you. Use this method in school or at home, it works just the same. Control your reactions to your emotions, so they don’t control you.

I’ll Have Another

“He just keeps proving people wrong.”Mario Gutierrez, Jockey of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I’ll Have Another

Out of nowhere I’ll Have Another has run onto the horseracing scene winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The only race standing between him and immortality is the 1½ mile Belmont Stakes. I’ll Have Another is trying to become just the 12th Triple Crown horse, first since 1978, a surprise few saw coming. I’ll Have Another has yet to be favored in any of his seven races and still keeps on winning. Even though he is a horse, athletes face doubters everyday. You have to be ready for criticism and decide what to do with it.

When it comes to criticism you have to be willing to let it go. Think of it like a water repellant jacket, water hits it and slides off. It sits on the coat for a short period of time and then falls off. It’s the same concept with criticism; it sits for a moment and then slides on by. In that moment, you have to decide if it is worth keeping; is it going to help or hurt? Constructive feedback is helpful in developing new skills and learning what areas need improvement. Destructive criticism is meant to tear you down and make you question your abilities. Don’t let this happen; be the water repellant jacket and let it slide off of you.

Trust in your abilities and not what other people think. Focusing too much on what others say distracts from what you need to do to be successful. Worry about what you think. You are the one who decides if you had a good game or not. You dictate your successes and failures, no one else. Be water repellant and let the criticism slide. You’ll be much drier and happy if you do.

Going out on top

“I have arrived at my physical limit and I can’t play at the maximum level. I couldn’t have had a better send-off than this.”Ruud van Nistelrooy

A time comes in every athlete’s career where they have to make a tough decision: whether or not to retire. For some, like van Nistelrooy the 35 year-old Dutch striker, it is an easy choice. Your body can no longer preform at maximum levels and you realize it is better to not play than to play poorly. He is one of the lucky ones; he got to decide when to end his career. Others suffer injuries or are simply not wanted by a team. Still others, like Michael Phelps, the 14-time gold medal winning American swimmer, are just tired. Phelps admits he is “so sick of the water.” And why shouldn’t he be after spending nearly half his life in the pool training?

You have to decide what is best for you. Some, like Phelps, just want out; beat down from the years of training. You get the choice of walking away on your terms rather than somebody else’s. Others would do anything to continue playing at their highest level, but have realized they no longer can. At this point you have two choices. One, like van Nistelrooy, walk away before it’s too late. Leave your fans and admirers with an image of you preforming at your best. Or, the second choice, keep playing anyways. Some athletes can only see themselves as athletes. They cannot imagine a life without their sport. These are the athletes that keep coming back; in and out of retirement to try for that one last moment of glory.

When the time comes it is up to you to make the decision. For some it will happen earlier than others, but at one point every athlete has to deal with not playing anymore. Choose which way you want to go out. Don’t let others dictate your career.

Optimism: Don’t stop believing

“Miracles do happen in Manchester but on this side of the road this time.”Vincent Kompany

There isn’t a better way to describe what happened Sunday at Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, but simply a miracle. Down 2-1 in injury time, Manchester City somehow escaped with a 3-2 victory to win its first EPL title since 1968. Doing so ended 44 years of waiting and displaced their crosstown rivals as the best team in England. Without optimism, believing that they could accomplish something, Man City would undoubtedly have lost that game and the Premier League trophy.

Being optimistic is having self-belief and knowing that you are able to do what you need to do. Optimistic players have confidence in their own and their teammates abilities. You know that the only way to get the best outcome is to rely on what you do best, your strengths. Having optimism means you never doubt that a goal can be accomplished. You face the challenge head-on because you have faith that you can do it. You never go into a game expecting failure; instead you anticipate success. You demand the best from your teammates without talking negatively to them.

Just like Rocky or the 1980 US Hockey team or Man City on Sunday, anything can happen at any given time. No one would play if they knew they were going to lose. Be ready for anything and be optimistic that you have a chance. No matter how good you think they might be or how late in the game you may be losing, you always have a chance. Vincent Kompany, Man City captain, understands optimism saying after the win: “I never stopped believing. There was no reason not to believe.”

Improving team cohesion

Sometimes when it comes to sports it is easier to point out negatives than positives. More time should be spent on praising teams and athletes for what they do right rather than criticizing them for what they do wrong.

On a recent road trip, the Harvard University baseball team decided to pass time in the bus in a rather unique way: doing a group cover of a popular song called “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepson. When doing this cover, the team didn’t simply sing together, they choreographed each movement throughout the song. Put together it formed a harmonious, and fun, rendition of the song and a great way to pass time and work together as a team.

In many team sports it can be hard to balance the needs of the team with your own needs as a player. However, team cohesion is one of the biggest factors that can influence how a team will play. If the team isn’t playing well, it’s likely that you’re not playing well either. There are many ways to improve team cohesion. Sure, you can have fun with your teammates and make a similar video if you would like, but you can also take time in the locker rooms before practice or games to just talk to each other; catch up on how things are going. This is especially true if you’re joining a new team or have new teammates as this can help them feel welcome. If you’re on the way to a game as was the case for the Harvard baseball team, take the time to talk to your teammates instead of listening to music or staying quiet the whole trip. Socializing is a good way to get to know each other better and feel more comfortable with each other. Similarly, you can socialize with your teammates outside of your respective sport. Get together once in a while and spend time as friends doing an activity other than sports.

There are many ways to improve team cohesion. The important thing to remember is that the more comfortable you are with your teammates, the more likely you are to perform better when it’s game time. What better way to improve comfort levels than just have fun?