Growing an Athlete

"How do I tell my baseball obsessed 12 year old that he's been cut from travel baseball and won't be on the team in the spring? We're sick."

This is one of the toughest issues to handle as a parent of an athlete.  Preparing for losses is one thing - every competitive situation has the possibility for a win or a loss, a PR or sub par performance.  But being left behind while  peers continue on has the potential to devastate a young athlete and generate self defeating thoughts.  There is no easy way around this subject - there is going to be pain, hurt, dejection and very possibly tears.  Your athlete might talk about quitting, be slow to motivate to practice, become surly and start bashing their sport.  These are all normal signs associated with feeling rejected, embarrassed and vulnerable.  As a parent (or a coach) it's your job to balance immediate responses with big picture lessons.  The big picture lesson is the life lesson; we work hard, we put our selves out there, and sometimes it isn't enough.  What we do next with that information is the growth that comes from enduring the pain, creating a plan, and re-grouping.  The balancing act as the adult is to help your athlete get to a place where they can move forward and buy in to the big picture.  This can be a slow process based on the young athlete's history of successes and struggles in all aspects of life, not just their sport.  What experiences do they have in school, with friends, with siblings that might get in their way of shifting this painful experience into a growth experience?  Parents hold this information that coaches might not be privy to, and are therefore crucial parts of the process. 

The most important part of dealing with the pain and disappointment your athlete is experiencing is listening and validation.  It seems so easy, but is incredibly challenging when someone we love is in pain.  We are conditioned to solve the problem and releive the suffering  - and that's the last thing our child needs.  They need an adult to validate their hurt, their humiliation, their bruised ego.  Most of us can remember some moment when we had to sit with these uncomfortable emotions; it's your job to tap into that and reflect it back to your child.  It might sound something like "I'm so sorry this hurts", "I can hear how awful this is for you", "It doesn't seem fair does it?", "You were so excited for next season", "I'm wondering if you are worried what your teammates are going to say".  Nowhere did these statements encourage cheerleading tactics - move on, pick yourself up, you'll do better next time. It's not the time for that yet, your athlete needs to vent and to be heard before they can move into the next phase of healing.  Our need to rush thru this painful phase is often a result of our own fears for our chlidren - the fear that this setback will crush them or the fear that as their parent we won't be able to handle their pain.  The more validated and heard an athlete feels, the quicker they will be able to process the next step - the big picture lesson.

The big picture lesson is the real reason we want our kids playing sports.  It's not the possible scholarships or the glory, it's the ability to endure pain and hardship - and to welcome this challenge.  When your athlete is able to move on you will notice their defensiveness will have lessened; this is your opportunity to plant the seeds of growth. This is the time to encourage re-grouping and action.  What were the deficits that led to them not making a team? Help them seek out this information by directly talking to their coaches and really examining their skills.  What will it take to get to where they want to be next season? More practice? Staying late and getting up early? Accepting feedback even when it stings?   These are the strategies that all successful athletes come to after natural talent starts to wane.  These are the opportunities for growth that carry our athletes beyond athleticism and into life.  Welcome to the big leagues.

How to Get Out of Your Brain's Way

Tips to Get Out of Your Way

1.  The Drift: 

Notice when your thoughts are getting Sticky

Catch yourself – but no yelling at the Computer

Gently bring yourself back to what you were doing

2.  Choke Prevention:

If you can’t prevent it, let it go

3.  Simplify and Stay Present

Focus only on what is in front of you-the section of the course, the mile you are on, your stride, your breathing

4.  Emotional Bandage

What would you tell a teammate if they were having a tough race? Give yourself the same advice.

5. Change or let go of the goal

We have to deal with a variety of circumstances in the moment – sometimes goals have to be altered.

Reading Materials:

1.  Brain Rules, John Medina

2.  Choke, Sian Beilock

3.  Mindset, Carol Dweck

4.  This is Your Brain on Sports, David Grand and Alan Goldberg

Managing plateaus

Here's the good news and the bad news about plateaus - they are part of the process, part of the deal you signed onto when you decided to train and set goals.  it would be impossible for an athlete to move onward and upward constantly - dropping times, getting faster, placing better EVERY time they set out to race.  So a plateau is what happens in order to set up for another gain.  it means your body is maintaining while you work smarter and harder for future events.  Now that sounds so pretty and nice - but anyone who has gone thru a lengthy plateau knows how frustrating they can be. There is no set amount of time that a plateau lasts for - but for elite athletes it tends to last longer than novices since they are improving in incremental amounts as opposed to a beginner who changes in  leaps and bounds. Let's take a look at what goes into assessing a plateau to see how it can be shortened or if something else is going on.

1.  Rule out any physical causes - what's your nutrition like, how are you sleeping, have you been recovering from an injury. These are all valid reasons why your performance level might be leveling out for the moment.

2.  OVERTRAINING - this is BEND we ALL overtrain. any town where you can go nordic in the morning, bike in the afternoon and get a yoga class in before dinner is a town prone to over trainers…If you have energy and bounce when you train but are still not making the improvements in races then that's probably a positive plateau - you're body and brain are just gathering data to improve.  But if you're getting feelings of dread or lethargy when you ride hard and it feels lifeless then those are signs that you're not getting the rest you need or that you need to make adjustments to your training program.  Overtraining actually depresses an athlete's ability to prepare for those times when maximum effort is needed.  Sometimes we do the opposite of what we really need when we are plateau-ing - we up the workouts, add a run in to get stronger, find something to do on our days off - this actually sets you back.  Take a look at how you train - there's a difference between training effort and competition effort.  Training effort should include reachable times that are tough and require effort but aren't a constant strain; Competetion effort is considerably more effort - this is when you leave everything on the course  - but we save it for race day.  If you are training at competition effort you're going to have a tendency to overstrain and possibly extend that plateau.

3. Mental part - as athletes we can get mentally blocked in reaching our goal - we start to notice sticky thoughts when we race - any of these ever pop up? I'm not supposed to be this far in front,  My friend/teammate/opponent is way faster than I am - what am i doing here? I'm never here for the first lap - what's going on?, Looking at the limitations we impose on ourselves is vital when we race - what happens when you are pushing up against your self imposed limits - it creates anxiety worry and self doubt because it's new for the brain! identifying what the lingering doubts is necessary to move to the next level (and can be holding you at a plateau) - TELL THE MATT AND JEN STORY OF GOALS.  This is more of the work i do 1:1 because it is so fine tuning and individual.  and often past experiences of success and struggles come up as well - how we've dealt with them before can set pavement for how we deal with pushing limits when we race.

Now that you've identified where the plateau might be coming from, what can you do?

1.  Stop doing what you have been doing and try something else - change your events up, put the marathon away for a season and focus on some halfs, or 10k's.  This gives your brain a chance to process the information it's been flooded with.  It lets the brain relax thru another distraction.  We tend to get overloaded with sensory stimuli - all the sounds, feelings, directions and visual info that is involved in whatever our sport is gets tough after awhile.  Changing direction for awhile lets the mind purge the negative thinking and performances and push pause - it allows you to forget some of the negative habits that can occur with poor performances and sticky thoughts.

2.  Try adjusting your training volume.  The general rule is to increase or decrease your training by 10%, depending if you are subject to overtraining or not training to your full necessity for your goals.

3.  Create situations in practice to build confidence in order to get to the next break thru.  this means taking a look at your training and finding ways to increase the difficulty thru situations.  This includes doing sprints or hills at the end of practice, running at times you might not usually run (in the evening or early am), negative splitting at a track workout

Whatever you chose to do , you are looking for opportunities to shake things up for your brain and your mind, kind of like hitting a reset button.

March 14th at 7:00pm Grit Performance talk at Pine Mountain Sports

Join Melinda Halpern at Pine Mountain Sports for a talk sponsored by Bone Yard Cycling.

Topics will include:

  • how your brain works during a race
  • racing and anxiety
  • focusing styles
  • slumps and plateaus
  • using code words and visualizations for performance
  • mental strategies for race day

This talk is open to the public - but please RSVP to Pine Mountain Sports at 541-385-8080. Seats are limited to 60 - join us for the fun!

Managing Internal and External Pressures

It's important to look at some of the mental and emotional causes of panic and anxiety because they are inevitably going to hurt our performances as athletes.  There are two main categories that cause anxiety: Internal and external pressures.  Internal pressures are the pressures that an athlete puts on themselves.  These are self imposed and often correlate to personality.  An athlete who is overly effected by internal pressures tends to be intense, perfectionistic or typically hard on themselves (or others).  Internal pressures  carry high expectations for performances (not always realistic).  They are often based in a fear of failure and a fear of disappointing others.  These pressures fuel the negative (sticky) thoughts that plague competitors.  They sound like: I can't lose again, If I don't qualify I'm a failure, I'll be so embarrassed if I don't make the cut.

External pressures come from external sources - things outside of our control.  These pressures come in the form of messages from coaches, parents and teammates.  Often they are well meaning comments, but sometimes things are said that tend to feed the athlete's self doubt and increase self-defeating thoughts.  "You'll get them this time" - can equate to "But what if I don't?' or "You just have to make top 10" can feel daunting if the athlete is ranked in the lower half.

Another external pressure is money.  The cost of being an athlete or supporting one gets daunting when gas, hotels, gear, coaching and food is added up.  It's hard to find a parent or a spouse who hasn't done the financial tally sheet of money in and performance out at some point.  We don't tend to focus on this when we are feeling successful, but it's hard to not to have fleeting thoughts while enduring a slump or lengthy plateau.

Finally, a focus on outcomes is a sure sign an athlete is reacting to external pressures.  Outcome focusing is dangerous thinking because it emphasizes variables that are outside of an athlete's control: what place they finish, who wins the game, what heat the are in, who else shows up to race all increase anxiety.  Staying present and maintaining a focus on performances within their control is a key strategy to manage negative thoughts.