Preseason Homework for Josh Hart Proves Beneficial

As Major League Baseball (MLB) teams begin preparing for the 2014 regular season in their respective spring training camps, one coach is taking the opportunity to ensure that one of his rookies receives some off-the-field education and training. On Monday night, Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter discovered that Josh Hart, a minor league outfielder recently invited to join the Orioles in spring training, didn’t know much about Hall of Fame baseball player Frank Robinson – one of the greatest players ever to play for the Orioles. In response, Showalter requested that Hart write and submit a one-page report on the renowned player. After Hart completed the assignment, his coach offered high praise for the player’s willingness to learn: “[Robinson] should be a hero of his. [It] made me feel great, not just that he agreed to [write the paper] but that he wanted to do it…[Hart] has a chance to be a really good player for us, and I think it helped him…at the end of the day, I think he’s better for it.”

Showalter’s message to Hart was, in part, meant to encourage him to expand his baseball expertise beyond merely his technical and tactical ability by learning more about legendary baseball players who came before him. An important part of any athlete’s development is a commitment to knowing, and learning about, one’s sport. Of course, knowledge of one’s sport, at a young age, begins with an understanding of the rules and how to play the game. However, as athletes grow older, knowledge of their sport becomes more nuanced and involves learning from role models and elite competitors – watching them play and using that as inspiration to try new things and be creative.

As you watch professional games and competitions, you should focus on the athletes who play your position, paying special attention to their movement, the timing of their runs, their work rate, their communication, and their attitude. It is also beneficial to watch how they react after making a mistake, and how their responses impact their subsequent performance. Searching the internet for articles and interviews about your favorite professionals can also help you get an idea of their training habits, their journey to the professional ranks, and how they approach their development on a daily basis. Finally, knowing your sport is an important part of becoming an expert in your craft. Besides knowing the physical and mental skills that help athletes succeed in your sport, an awareness of the history and culture behind your sport will help to raise your overall understanding of what it takes to succeed. As Josh Hart attempts to make the jump to the major leagues, his knowledge of a Baltimore Orioles legend and his continued commitment to learn on a daily basis will continue to fuel his development.

Sidney Crosby: The Perception of Pressure

This past weekend, the medal round of Men’s Ice Hockey served as one of the final events of the 2014 Winter Olympics. After beating the United States 1-0 on Friday, the Canadian men’s hockey team was preparing for the gold medal game against Sweden. Heading into the final game, Canadian hockey player Sidney Crosby addressed any nerves he and his teammates might have been feeling by saying, “You want to win, you want to produce, but I think you go out there and leave it all out there and trust that your game will take over individually and as a team. I think we [team Canada] always feel pressure, individually I always feel that, but that’s not a bad thing”. For some players, the pressure to perform and succeed in a game can bring about nerves or anxiety. How players handle these nerves can significantly impact their performance.

How do you perceive the pressure you feel prior to a big game? When you feel your heart racing or your palms getting clammy, do you believe your body is telling you that you are ready, or that you are unprepared? The impact of nerves or anxiety on performance is largely dependent on your interpretation of those feelings, which is influenced by the training and preparation you put in prior to competition. As you prepare to play, your body experiences activation. Players can interpret this activation, or nerves, as being helpful or hurtful to performance. For example, consider games when you might have perceived nerves to be an indication that you were not prepared to play. This could have resulted in a poor performance if you were not feeling confident or prepared. On the other hand, consider games when you interpreted nerves or anxiety as a signal that your body was gearing up to be ready to perform at your best. Interpreting this activation in your body as being helpful to performance and reminding yourself of your preparation often lead to a strong performance. So, listen to your body and be aware of the how you feel prior to competition. Try to interpret that activation as helpful to performance – your body is getting you ready to compete. Then, the next time you experience those feelings, remind yourself that they are your body’s way of saying you are ready. As Crosby explains, feeling pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on your interpretation of this pressure and the nerves that might come with it. If you have put in the necessary preparation to play at a high level, these nerves are often reassuring you that you are ready to perform, and that you can trust those feelings of activation.

Responding to Critics

Professional athletes are often subjected to negative opinions from spectators or members of the media, who are quick to criticize and deliver harsh feedback after a poor performance. Jeremy Abbott, a U.S. figure skater at this year’s Winter Olympics, has struggled through much of his time in Sochi. Following an especially poor short program, a reporter asked Abbot for his reaction to those who suggest that he has a pattern for “choking” on the big stage. In response, Abbott immediately lost his temper, and lashed out in frustration as he referenced making an obscene gesture to quiet his critics. His outburst drew a lot of negative attention to his own image as an elite athlete, while also reflecting poorly on his Olympic team, and his home country. Under similar circumstances, following a lop-sided loss to the Seattle Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was asked whether he was embarrassed about his team’s performance. In a composed response, Manning quickly dismissed the notion: “It’s not embarrassing at all…There’s a lot of professional football players in that locker room that put a lot of hard work and effort into being here and playing in this game. We played a great team…We needed to play really well in order to win, and we didn’t come anywhere close to that…The word ’embarrassing’ is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”

Can you recognize the important difference between these two reactions? In one, the athlete loses his temper, fails to manage his emotions, and lashes out. In the other, a leader calmly and objectively evaluates his team’s performance, acknowledges their opponent’s success and where he and his teammates fell short, and politely dismisses the criticism. He maintains composure and shows confidence in the face of the “insult”. When responding to critics, or negative opinions in general, many players find it difficult to manage their emotions and often feel the urge to lash out and defend themselves angrily. Some will fail to take responsibility for their performance, citing poor weather, injuries, or poor judging/officiating as the reason behind a loss or mistake. It is important to always be accountable for your performance as a player. It is your responsibility to put in the training and preparation for competition, and after putting forth your best effort in a performance, recognizing what you did well and what could be improved. This involves focusing on the things you can control, and ignoring the things you can’t, including others’ opinions of your performance.

Athletes, as human beings, will never be perfect. There will inevitably be slip-ups, failures, and disappointments. Those who acknowledge responsibility for, and objectively evaluate, their performance are ultimately the ones who most quickly rebound from a setback. Whether you are competing in the Olympics, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, or even a high school or club competition, losing or performing poorly will never be easy. However, the top competitors who are able to bounce back from these setbacks are those who take responsibility for their performance and acknowledge that they put forth their best effort, despite ultimately falling short.

Kate Hansen’s Performance Off the Ice

During pre-game coverage of sporting events, it has become common to see athletes with headphones on as they prepare for competition by listening to music. This past week, American luger Kate Hansen has been getting attention for how she listens to music. Prior to competition, she hip hop dances to a Beyoncé playlist. When asked about her dancing, Hansen explained, “It’s just a routine that I have; it’s worked out so I’ll stick with it”.

Developing and following a routine is essential to an individual’s performance. An athlete who prepares consistently, both physically and mentally, can feel comfortable heading into competition because routines provide structure and familiarity prior to performing and help alleviate unnecessary stress. While there are many aspects of competition an athlete can’t control such as weather conditions, an opponent’s performance, and referee calls, maintaining a consistent routine is an aspect of the game an athlete can control. Focusing on what you can control will allow you to feel more comfortable prior to performing. Players should determine a pre-game routine that works best for them. There is no right or wrong routine. Effective routines are personal to the player, as they help him or her get physically or mentally ready. In order to develop an effective pre-competition routine, think back to times you have performed well. What did you do prior to that performance? What were you focused on and what were you thinking? Where was your energy level? Some athletes perform at their best when they are pumped up, while others enjoy their best performance when they are relaxed. Maybe you notice you like to listen to upbeat music that pumps you up, as Kate Hansen does. Maybe you prefer to listen to mellow music and relax, or not even listen to music at all. Also, consider how you prepared your body before your best performances. Is there a specific diet you have before a game? Are there certain stretches you prefer to get loose and warmed up?

Once you have developed a routine that works, stick to it. Repeating a consistent routine helps you feel prepared and manage any pre-competition nerves you might feel. Although it is important to keep your routine consistent, it also must be flexible. It is important to avoid letting a routine become a ritual, by depending too much on any one part of it. Try to become comfortable with several different food or drink options before competition, in case the one you want is not available. Sometimes unplanned events may alter your typical preparation, such as traffic on the way to the game that causes you to have less time to warm up than usual. Thus, you should be able to adjust your routine to fit the circumstances and still prepare appropriately. You may feel that you have a unique routine, like Hansen’s, but as long as it works for you and makes you feel prepared to perform at your best, “stick with it”.

2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – Pairing Excellence With Sportsmanship

In its first week, the Winter Olympics have offered us a wonderful display – not only through the fantastic performance of elite athletes from around the world, but also through countless moments of exceptional sportsmanship and respect throughout the competition. On Tuesday, in the final stretch of the men’s cross-country skiing freestyle semifinal, Russian competitor Anton Gafarov fell and broke one of his skis. Canadian ski team coach Justin Wadsworth was on the sideline and immediately rushed out onto the course and helped Gafarov onto one of the Canadian team’s spare skis, allowing him to complete the event. In an equally admirable display of sportsmanship that day, Swiss snowboarder Iouri Podladtchikov showed his respect for his biggest rival competitor – American snowboarding legend Shaun White. After White’s final pass on the halfpipe failed to earn him a medal and ensured that Podladtchikov won gold, the Swiss athlete gripped the American in a full embrace and congratulated him on his run. On the respect he has for his top rival, Podladtchikov stated that “He’s always pushing the limits and that’s just exciting to watch. You want those kinds of people to win because they are pushing themselves more than anybody else…It just motivates me. He made me go out there and try new tricks…

As young athletes develop and advance to higher levels in sport, they could lose sight of the importance of sportsmanship, as more and more emphasis is placed on winning. However, while it is natural to focus on performing at your best and beating your opponent, it is also important to acknowledge their talents and efforts and the extent to which they help to create a competitive environment that challenges you to test your ability each day. Regardless of how intense a rivalry may become, elite competitors understand how much they rely on an opponent to motivate them and lift their game to a higher level. There are specific ways to acknowledge your opponent and treat him or her with respect throughout competition. Stopping play when they are injured or helping them back to their feet after a foul are ways of demonstrating sportsmanship and recognizing their part in helping to maintain a competitive environment. After a game, be sure to shake hands with your opponent, complimenting them on their effort and their performance. Further, this sportsmanship should not stop with athletes; coaches, like Wadsworth, who demonstrate sportsmanship before, during, and after competition, set a strong example for how younger competitors should behave. On one of the highest athletic stages in the world, displays of sportsmanship by coaches and athletes like Wadsworth and Podladtchikov demonstrate to athletes and spectators everywhere that athletes can compete with intensity at the highest level and still maintain respect for competitors and for competition itself.

Having Fun Gets Kotsenburg Gold

This past Saturday, American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg won the first gold medal for the United States and the first gold medal issued at the 2014 Winter Olympics in snowboard slopestyle. In the event, snowboarders are judged on their style as they take on pipes and ramps. For his final run, Kotsenburg landed two tricks he created and a 1620 Japan, a trick he had never attempted prior to the competition. When asked why he took such a risk, Kotsenburg responded, “I talked to Bill [Enos] the U.S. team coach and he said, ‘just go have fun, man. You know how to do the trick. If you do a 1620 I guarantee you are going to land it.’…That’s what I did. No stress, just having fun and it ended up working out.” Kotsenburg’s preparation for the Olympic Games allowed him to feel confident enough in his abilities to be creative when it mattered most. Furthermore, his coach reinforced this confidence by believing in Kotsenburg’s ability and encouraging him to enjoy the moment.

Sometimes it is difficult to ‘just have fun’ in the moment, especially if you are competing in a high-pressure environment. However, players who have prepared for performance by dedicating time and effort in training gain a sense of confidence that allows them to enjoy themselves at all levels of competition. They feel ready and thus feel confident in their ability to execute skills and perform well. On the other hand, players who are less prepared could lack confidence, especially in high-pressure situations, causing them to over think and second-guess themselves. The lack of preparation takes away from a player’s performance and their enjoyment.

As a player, how can you find enjoyment in future competitions, despite the pressure you might feel? One of the biggest factors in enjoying your sport involves putting in the training ahead of time that allows you to do so. When you train, you should be challenging yourself with game-like scenarios. For example, for some soccer players, taking a penalty kick can bring about nerves or anxiety, which can then stifle enjoyment. Thus, it is important to spend time practicing game-like penalties to minimize that anxiety on game day. Go through your typical routine, just as you would in a game, including setting the ball, positioning yourself, and deciding where you want the ball to go, all while maintaining a high level of focus in the present moment. With repetition through training, you will begin to build confidence, which will then allow you to feel more comfortable on game day, and ultimately enjoy yourself. Putting in the time and energy in preparing for competition also allows you to be creative throughout a game. Thus, if the opportunity presents itself, you may attempt a new move, such as the “Cruyff” to try and beat a defender. Finally, coaches can have an important impact on your confidence by demonstrating their own belief in your abilities and training, and encouraging you to enjoy the moment when it comes. Kotsenburg’s preparation leading up to the Olympics instilled confidence in him and allowed him to think creatively and take a big risk. He knew he had put in the training to be able to execute a new skill during competition. Rather than feeling the pressure of performing on such a high stage, Kotsenburg’s preparation allowed him to enjoy himself in the moment, perform at his best, and ultimately land a gold medal.

Klinsmann: Debut for Yedlin and Gil is Just the Beginning

On Saturday, the U.S. Men’s National team topped South Korea, 2-0, in an international friendly – another step in their preparation for this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. While the game featured several regulars in the senior national team program, it also saw two 20-year old MLS players earn their first cap for the United States. DeAndre Yedlin, second year defender for the Seattle Sounders, and Luis Gil, fourth year midfielder for Real Salt Lake, both entered the game as second half substitutes and impressed in their first international caps. Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann noted their strong performances, and his expectations for the two young players moving forward: “…it’s a special moment when you play your first cap…We need them now to push the envelope with their MLS teams.” He added that “[they should be] the first at training and the last to leave,” and that he expects Yedlin and Gil to embody a “professional lifestyle” on and off the field, assuming leadership roles within their clubs.

Upon reaching a higher level or experiencing success, it is sometimes common for athletes to become complacent with their training, resulting in a diminished level of commitment or effort. However, the players who continue to find success are those who, after big accomplishments, set new, more challenging goals to continue moving forward, rather than becoming static. As Yedlin and Gil take, perhaps, the biggest step in their careers thus far, they are charged with elevating their performance through renewed commitment and focus in training. This approach is not just important for professional players. It can also be a useful mentality if you are transitioning from high school to the college level, or moving to a higher-level club team.

There are several steps you can take as a player to raise your commitment and professionalism. To start, constantly set new, challenging goals for yourself, breaking them down into smaller tasks you want to accomplish each day at training to build toward accomplishing the goal. Also, as Klinsmann pointed out, arrive early to training and be the last player to leave, demonstrating your commitment and taking time to work on your individual game. You can also make an effort to talk with your coaches, asking for feedback on areas of your game that you could improve. Finally, learning new ways to prepare your body and mind to attain peak performance – perhaps, by monitoring your sleep and nutrition habits – can be important steps for renewing your commitment and demonstrating the ‘professional lifestyle’ on and off the field. Ultimately, after taking the time to enjoy an achievement, you can view your accomplishments as a new starting point – an opportunity to keep pushing yourself with new goals. For Yedlin and Gil, these new goals could be to make the 2014 World Cup roster, and eventually break into the starting line-up. With the MLS season starting up in a few weeks, the futures of both players will be largely determined by their willingness and determination to set the bar even higher.

Russell Wilson’s Road to Super Bowl XLVIII

On Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks dominated the Denver Broncos, in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8. Forcing four turnovers and shutting out the Bronco’s until the end of the third quarter, the Seahawks proved they deserved to be Super Bowl Champions. After the game, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson discussed his mentality going into this season, and his career thus far. “[My father] used to always tell me ‘Russ, why not you?’ And what that meant was believe in yourself, believe in the talent God has given you even though you are 5-foot-11, and you can go a long ways. That’s why I decided to play football, and I wanted to go against the odds a little bit.” Earlier this season, Wilson used his father’s words to motivate and instill confidence in his team. “We believed we would get here. At the beginning of the season I told our guys, ‘Hey, why not us?’ ”. This positive attitude likely contributed to their confidence and resilience throughout the season, which led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.

What does it take to be a champion when the odds may be stacked against you? Early in his career, Wilson was considered to be too short to be a successful quarterback, yet self-confidence and resilience helped him maintain his hard work, and ultimately helped him earn a Super Bowl ring. Despite his height, Wilson’s belief in his capability as a football player has driven him throughout his career. In order to play confidently, identify your sources of confidence. For Wilson, his sources of confidence came from his father’s support and encouragement and from his own belief in his abilities as a quarterback who does the simple things consistently well. Possible sources of confidence may also include support from coaches or teammates, or your own past performance. Reflecting on your past successes and remembering the dedication and time you have put into your training will help you feel confident in your abilities and your readiness to perform.

Still, it is inevitable that you will face obstacles, such as losses or injuries, no matter how confident you are. This is where resilience, your ability to recover and bounce back from setbacks, comes into play. When faced with adversity, players (like Wilson) who rely on the support of those who believe in them are often the most resilient. When you encounter setbacks, it can help to shift your attention to the smaller parts of your game – the simple things you know that you do well on a consistent basis (i.e., working hard, showing up early for training, preparing yourself to perform). It is also important to focus on controlling what you can control as a player, rather than things that are out of your control. For the Seahawks and Wilson, after suffering an early playoff exit last year, they focused on continuing to work hard and re-establishing their goals for the next season. This ability to bounce back was pivotal to their journey to, and victory in, the Super Bowl. It might not be an easy road trying to accomplish your goals, but athletes who remain confident in their abilities and resilient in the face of adversity are often the ones who ultimately reach those goals.