For Coach Porter, Belief and Short-Term Memory Are Key

No matter how important it is for players to believe in themselves when they play, a coach’s belief in his or her players can go a long way. In his first year as a head coach at the professional level in 2013, Caleb Porter enjoyed an introduction to the pro ranks that most managers dream of, yet typically never see. He led the Portland Timbers on a remarkable turnaround. The team that finished with the third worst record in all of Major League Soccer in 2012, jumped to the top of the Western Conference in his first year at the helm, and earned an appearance in the Conference Finals. Despite his initial success, Porter hasn’t enjoyed much of the same in the start of 2014, as the Timbers sit winless after three games – the most recent of which was a difficult 2-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids. While recognizing that the most recent game and this stretch have been “tough to swallow,” Porter firmly clarified his belief in his players: “I believe in them, they believe in themselves and we’ll figure it out…We’re going to get back to work, we’re not going to dwell too long, and will move on quickly. This is one where you want to have a pretty short-term memory.”

Coaches can help players keep their confidence high and develop the resiliency to cope with adversity in order to compete at high levels. First, in the locker room during halftime or immediately following a game, it is important to provide players with specific, clear feedback and instructions on how they can play more effectively the next time they step back out onto the field. Rather than spending a lot of time discussing a player’s mistakes and what went wrong, focus instead on what he or she can do differently to be more successful. This can help keep players’ confidence high and help them learn how to bounce back from setbacks. In addition, like Porter, place an emphasis on the effectiveness of “short-term memory” – the ability to learn from mistakes and then let them go and move on. To help players improve this skill, create a training environment in which mistakes are acceptable; send the message that mistakes are part of the learning process by encouraging players to take risks, be creative, and be prepared to get back up after they make mistakes. This kind of training environment could make it easier for players to recover from mistakes and keep their confidence high during competition. Also, before games or during halftime, remind players of all of the hard work and training that they’ve put in, as well as their past successes as a team. This, too, can boost confidence and help players be more resilient when faced with obstacles. Finally, tell your players that you believe in them and what they can accomplish as a team. Showing your players that you believe in them can go a long way in helping them believe in themselves, and develop the resiliency to battle through adversity.

Managing Your Frustration With Officials

In all sports, decisions by officials, referees, umpires, or judges may have a significant impact on the outcome of the competition. When their calls change a game, the focus is often directed away from player performance and toward the influence of the referees. This past weekend, two great soccer performances were overshadowed by how the games were officiated. On Saturday, Chelsea shut out Arsenal, 6-0, in Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game as Arsenal manager. During the first half, officials mistook Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs for Arsenal forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who put out his hand to block a shot on goal. Despite Oxlade-Chamberlain admitting to the handball, officials proceeded to issue Gibbs a red card, causing controversy and outrage from Wenger and the Arsenal players. The following day, there was more talk about the referees’ decisions during El Clasico, between Real Madrid and Barcelona. After Barcelona won 4-3 to remain in the running for the La Liga title, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo commented on the outcome of the game, “It’s a feeling of sadness after being 3-2 up and controlling the game. The referee made some unbelievable decisions, but you have to carry on.

When it comes to referees, you may be pleased or frustrated with their decisions. As a player, however, a referee’s calls are out of your control, and as Ronaldo says, ‘you have to carry on’. In the heat of competition, we may forget that referees are human; they are bound to make mistakes during a game just like the players are. However, as a player this does not mean you can blame the referees’ calls for your loss. During competition, when you don’t approve of a referee’s decision, turn your focus toward what you can control – such as your attitude, your effort, and your communication with teammates and coaches. After a game has ended, rather than complaining about the referee’s influence, objectively evaluate your individual and team performance. Did you play your best? Are you proud of your performance? What could you or your teammates have done better? If you are disappointed with your individual and team performance, determine what you should improve upon in training leading up to your next game, rather than shifting responsibility to the referee. Above all, it is important to manage your attitude and behavior following these competitions. Once the final whistle blows, the game is over, and you cannot change the outcome. Exemplifying good sportsmanship and shaking the hands of your opponents and the officials at the end of competition are signs of a true competitor. Acknowledge the effort and performance of your opponents and congratulate them on winning, rather than turning your focus toward any impact the referees may have had. Referees’ decisions are one of the many factors during competition that are out of your control as a player. Thus, focus on your performance, prepare for your next competition, and ‘carry on’.

Manchester United Perseveres in Response to Disappointment

In stunning yet characteristic fashion on Wednesday night, Manchester United clinched one of the remaining spots in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, with a 3-0 win over Olympiacos. The Red Devils overturned a 2-0 deficit after the first leg into a 3-2 aggregate win, with a hat trick from striker Robin van Persie. Amidst the club’s worst season in over two decades, it was a night of celebration, filled with relief and nostalgia for United fans, who have watched their team usher in the era of newly appointed manager David Moyes in dismal fashion. The misery of this season reached its peak in Sunday’s 3-0 loss to league rival Liverpool, and many felt that United, the defending Premier League champions, now sitting 7th in the Premier League table, would end the year without a trophy. Van Persie, United’s leading scorer from last year, has struggled in form and health thus far this year, before his mesmerizing display on Wednesday night. The well-rounded performance and victory brought some light into an otherwise forgettable campaign, and Moyes praised his players’ ability to overcome the disappointment thus far this season: “I told the players on Monday morning we have to win 3-0 [in the Champions League] to give the fans something back…We needed to bounce back and we did it with style and played very well…[Robin van Persie] was great tonight; not many people score a hat-trick in the Champions League.”

In any competitive context, athletes will inevitably encounter times of disappointment and frustration. The athletes and teams who develop the perseverance and determination to cope with such disappointment are often the ones who ultimately learn from those disappointing experiences and stay committed to training in the face of such setbacks. Perseverance is developed through a commitment to not give in to adversity – no matter how late in a game, or how poorly a season may be going. As an athlete, you can build your perseverance. In the face of failure, poor performances, or a “slump”, view disappointment as an opportunity for learning and development. After a tough loss or a poor season, identify what you did well and what you want to improve. Train and compete with a determined focus on the things that you can control, like your effort and attitude, and focus on what you want to improve. In any context, and especially high stakes environments where teams like Manchester United are always expected to win, it can help to reframe disappointment as a challenge for moving forward. Moyes posed such a challenge to his players following their weekend loss to Liverpool, and the individual and collective response was admirable. The importance of maintaining a positive attitude during times of disappointment also should not be underestimated. Athletes and teams who continue to train and compete each and every day with consistently high intensity and a commitment to persevere in the face of adversity often find that difficult times are opportunities to challenge themselves to be stronger players, both physically and mentally.

March Madness: Time to Compete

March Madness has arrived. The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament will begin on March 18th with the 68 best teams in the country battling it out for the national championship. Every team has been working the entire year trying to earn their chance to compete in this tournament. With a single-elimination format in the postseason, teams must bring their best or go home. As University of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, “You can look at it in a lot of ways but at the end of the day you have to play games, everybody is a good team or they wouldn’t be in. You have got to win games.” So, what does it take to perform well in such a high-pressure situation? Among other things, it takes the desire and ability to compete in every game. Good competitors take pride in their effort and are not deterred by setbacks or adversity during a game and can bounce back.

True competitors are relentless in their effort and never give up, no matter what the score is or how much time is left in the game. They look forward to challenges and take them on willingly. They are the players who want to have the ball in their hands for the last-second shot. Competitors also demand a great deal from themselves and their teammates. They put in quality preparation, and they set a high standard in every training session and competition by demonstrating hard work and encouraging it in their teammates. As a result, they are often leaders and are able to raise the level of play for everyone on the team. When a team is able to commit themselves fully and make their opponents earn every point and every rebound, that team will be difficult to beat, no matter who the opponent is on any given day.

In order to improve your competitiveness, there are two skills you can work on: commitment and confidence. To improve your commitment to your sport, make your training and preparation a priority. This means knowing what you want to work on and working hard to achieve it. When you are fully committed to your sport, you will take great pride in your performance, which could motivate you to go the extra mile and compete with intensity in training and games. In order to be a good competitor you also need to have a steady level of confidence. To keep your confidence up, before you play, acknowledge your strengths, picture yourself succeeding, and recognize the time and effort you have put into your training and preparation. Consistently bringing confidence and intensity into every training session and game will help you to become the type of competitor who doesn’t back down from adversity, and through example, lifts the competitive edge of those playing around you.

Helping kids cope with pressure

Participation in youth sports has increased over the years, as has a trend for kids to specialize in a single sport at a young age. While participation in sports has a great deal of positive outcomes, such as learning discipline, teamwork, and perseverance, it can also result in young athletes feeling pressured and overwhelmed by rigorous training schedules and the perceived pressure to perform. Sometimes young athletes feel so much pressure that they lose their enjoyment of the sport and feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.

There are some things that parents can do to minimize the amount of pressure put on their young athletes of all levels. Parents should remain a source of unconditional support. It is typical for parents to take great pride in their children’s athletic achievements and also to grieve along with them when things don’t go well. It is important, however, that parents don’t let their behaviors put unintentional pressure on young athletes by placing too much importance on winning. For example, if parents praise their children for effort and attitude, it is more likely that the young athlete will think of success as being defined by the process of their development, rather than the outcome. Try to take a somewhat neutral stance so you can be a sounding board for your child to come to you with their feelings. For example, let your child talk first after a game and ask questions about how they are feeling rather than expressing your own feelings. Listen without judgment and let them know you value them as a whole person, regardless of wins or losses.

It is also important to help young athletes maintain balance in their lives. Admittedly, this can be very difficult with the demanding athletic schedules, particularly of elite level athletes. Try to encourage your children to maintain a social life outside of the team and, if possible, to participate in other hobbies, as well. Continue to affirm them for their efforts in activities outside of sport such as academics, family responsibilities, and other activities such as music or art. It is important that their identities not be limited to being only an athlete. This will help them maintain perspective and cope with the disappointments and setbacks that they will inevitably encounter. Help your children view these setbacks as a way to gain skills such as perseverance and resilience that will help them succeed in sport and in all aspects of life.

Getting better starts with knowing what needs work

Athletes who continue to challenge themselves to push their limits and improve in their sport are often the ones who achieve greatest success. But, challenging yourself to improve means that you have to have an awareness of your current skill level; you can’t improve if you don’t know what needs work. If you are an athlete who wants to develop and improve, work on developing your self-awareness.

Self-awareness helps athletes recognize both their strengths and weaknesses. It helps them recall their best and worst performances and identify the differences between the two to try to discover their ideal preparation that leads to their best performances. Self-awareness can also help athletes enjoy their sport more because even after particularly grueling training sessions or competitions, they are able to identify what they learned and how it might help them improve.

To be a more self-aware player, start with being more attentive as you approach training sessions. As you arrive to a session, pay attention to how you prepare yourself, physically and mentally, to perform. Do you like to be focused on what is expected of you that day? Do you like to talk and laugh with teammates to keep yourself loose? Once you start playing, pay attention to instances when you perform very well and times when you lose your cool. Can you think of any circumstances that led up to that? When the session ends, objectively evaluate how you played. What did you do well and what needs improvement? To make sure you keep up with this, consider creating a training log where you write these observations down before and after sessions. That way, you can track your progress, but you can also remind yourself to pay attention and work on your self-awareness. The more you pay attention to these things, the more self-aware you become as a player. The more self-aware you are as a player, the more you will be able to identify goals to work on and challenge yourself to achieve them.

Eddie Johnson Finds a Second Chance in Resilience and Social Support

After a death in his family, U.S. National Team striker Eddie Johnson stepped away from his career, lost touch with his agent, and largely fell off the soccer map – he was without a club for six months. Upon making the decision to return to the game, and with very few teams showing interest, Johnson was faced with an uphill battle. “I started to hit the panic button…[the media were] saying I’m out of shape, no one [wanted] to take a chance on me…I started second-guessing my own abilities.” With encouragement from friends – Johnson resumed training with other members of the National Team and was approached by the Seattle Sounders, who ultimately gave him an MLS contract and a second chance. While he has since been traded to DC United, Johnson’s battle through adversity saw him score 23 goals for the Sounders over two seasons. His resilience and support from friends through a difficult time served to reinvigorate his commitment to the game and catapult him into contention for a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster.

Resilience is an individual’s ability to bounce back from obstacles or difficult experiences. It is a skill that individuals can develop over time as they overcome adversity and view those hard times as opportunities to learn and grow. Your capacity to overcome adversity is largely dependent on the extent to which you can maintain confidence in your ability despite obstacles. Specifically, this can involve returning to the basics of your game and focusing on what you can control: your simple training habits and the fundamentals of your daily preparation. Johnson noted that, early on in his return, he contacted his sport psychologist, and began “doing all the extra stuff [he] used to do” when he was at the top of his game. This demonstrates that being a committed, resilient player requires attention to both the physical and mental parts of your training – identifying what you need to focus on, and any step you need to take to get your body and mind back to their optimal performance levels.

Resilience is often enhanced through the positive network of support you build around yourself. In the face of obstacles, outside distractions and criticism can negatively affect your performance if you are not able to effectively manage thoughts or emotions that emerge as a result of such criticism. In his interview, Johnson mentioned that he focused on surrounding himself with “positive people”. When faced with adversity, it is important to first identify those around you who can offer support. This helps you recognize the support network that you can reach out to and rely on when you need an added boost. These sources of support can have an important influence on your attitude and self-confidence when facing adversity, and can often give you that extra motivation you need to be resilient and overcome obstacles. Johnson’s ability to recommit himself to training, to recover his confidence, and to trust and rely on those who believe in him has earned him a second chance, and an awareness that “through a difficult time, if you stay true to yourself and you believe in your own ability, you know that the sky is the limit.