12 Key Questions for Young Athletes
Cal Botterill & Tom Patrick
1. Are you enjoying the process of sport or are you worrying about the outcomes?
Young and elite athletes who enjoy the process of sport have a big advantage over those worrying about outcomes. It's impossible to fully focus on the process of performing well, if one is worrying about outcomes. Motivation from within (intrinsic motivation) is much more suited to excellence and enjoyment than motivation for outcomes. Enjoying sport for its own sake is much more likely to produce excellence and enjoyment than extrinsic motivation. Advantages of intrinsic motivation include:
• Better focus on task
• Less tension/pressure
• Better images/thoughts
• Less fluctuation in motivation
Remember why you started sport. In all likelihood, it was because it was fun and you enjoyed the process. If you maintain this focus, you are much more likely to continue until you get good. They say it takes up to 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert.More importantly you will perform better and have more fun.The best athletes focus on the process and let the results take care of themselves. Prior to the gold medal game at the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Wayne Gretzky reminded Canada's players “to enjoy the process”. Many of the top World Cup skiers are so focused on the process that they don't even check results until they have
rehearsed an even better run in those circumstances in their mind. Now that's focusing on excellence & the process. For enjoyment & performance, adjust your motivation intrinsically.
2. Are you striving to succeed or to avoid failure?
Most of us perform far better when our orientation is want to vs. have to. If we have a game plan, we are less prone to fear of failure. Trying to avoid failure is loaded with difficulties:
• Negative images
• Less effective focus
• Possible negative fulfilling prophecy
Try golfing to avoid failure. Whatever you do, don't hit the ball in the water. We all know what is likely to happen with that outlook. Approaching success is much more effective than trying to avoid failure. Deal with your fears early by preparing your responses and game plan. Then you can enjoy the challenges of competition. A Chinese proverb suggests that CHALLENGE = OPPORTUNITY. It’s a great way to look at things to avoid
failure tendency.It will keep us busy with the process rather than becoming fearful of outcomes.
3. Does being the underdog, a contender, or the favourite make a difference?
In theory, if we stay focused on the process it shouldn't make a big difference if we are considered underdog, contender or favourite. However, because we are human, it is easy for these perceptions to start influencing our perspective. The underdog has nothing to lose, so they are less prone to fear-of-failure. Their main task is just to believe they are capable.
When one becomes a contender, it is easy to begin to feel pressure from yourself and those around you. Ironically, feelings of pressure can often increase when you experience temporary success in competition. Our fear of not being able to continue at that level can often trigger an avoid failure response (tension, too conservative, poor focus) due to outcome concerns. Being emotionally ready for temporary swings in scores can help prevent this problem.Being the favourite is the toughest. Expectations to succeed can often trigger irrational feelings of pressure. Smart performers realize that there are always process things to be working on. Speed Skaters like Catriona Lemay-Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon are always focused on improving their race plan and execution, despite usually being considered the favourite. This has helped them maintain an effective focus and keep
getting better.One of the best responses to pressure came from former NBA star Magic Johnson. His comment was “What pressure, I'm glad they are interested”. He's right - pressure is a perception - and if you have a great perspective, it doesn't have to be an issue. Enjoy sport, enjoy opportunities and challenges and it won't matter whether you are underdog,
contender, or favourite.
4. Do you rehearse strategies, execution, & feelings for every competition?
Every good performer spends some time mentally and emotionally rehearsing theirgame plan. Mental rehearsal prepares our body for action and produces a feeling ofreadiness and confidence. It's not possible to rehearse everything that will happen in competition but it's extremely valuable to rehearse the main elements of one's game plan.
It's a good idea to do your rehearsal early on competition day, so you can enjoy the countdown. Rehearsing early, while your mind is clear, often has the most powerful effect. Occasional spontaneous rehearsal often happens but 10-20 minutes of quality preparation can often help you feel ready and help you enjoy the countdown to competition.
The main part of preparation is usually going over one's strategies and execution in different situations. Focus on your performance rather than spending too much time on your opponents. Also rehearse responses to some of the feelings you may have in competition. Fear,anger,guilt,embarrassment, surprise, happiness and sadness are common emotional feelings in sport. Rehearsing a response to things that will trigger them is a form of emotional inoculation. When the feelings actually happen, you are much more ready for them and your response is better.Rehearse so you are ready for the show and enjoy it more.
5. Are you worried about how you look or enjoying what you are doing?
As human beings we are socially conscious. We often wonder or worry about how we look. If we are performing in front of friends, family, audiences, scouts, media, etc., this is often an unfortunate trap. People, who worry about how they look, seldom look good.
Ironically, those who are not self-conscious and are just fully enjoying their activity always look and perform the best. Total focus and engagement is what makes you look great. Be yourself and enjoy what you are doing.
The key to solving this self-conscious tendency is self-acceptance. If we know who we are, where our support is and how we want to live, we stop worrying so much about what others think. It frees us up to be ourselves and be what we can be. Dr. Matt Brown found these elements in interviews of Canada’s top character athletes. He believes these things contribute to a better perspective in sport and life. Working on self-acceptance and perspective in the emotional world of sport can help us realize more of our potential in life.
6. Do irrational beliefs creep in on you?
Journalist Scott Taylor once suggested “The great thing about sport is that it enables us to care passionately about something that really doesn’t matter”. It’s true. Sport enjoys an almost ridiculous status in life. In light of the importance community and global challenges, sport probably doesn't really deserve such status. However, because we do get so passionate about sport, it is a great place to learn about emotions and staying rational.
Watch out for the following irrational beliefs that can interfere with one’s enjoyment and performance in sport. Sometimes they can also interfere with our recovery and health.They happen because of the irrational status and significance often given sport.
1. My self-worth is on the line. Our self-worth in life should be about many more things than a moment in sport. Make sure there is more to you than being a jock. Family member, community member, student, friend, teammate, citizen of the world are all part of a healthy rational identity. Put sport back in perspective.
2. I must be perfect. By definition this is impossible but in sport we often start
thinking and feeling this way. The pursuit of excellence is highly commendable
but expectations of perfection are irrational and often very dysfunctional. Free yourself up to take chances and excel. Leave perfection for the
obsessive. It’s who responds best to their mistakes that usually wins.
3. I must perform for others. Guilt can be a deadly emotion. Wanting to perform for others can be a powerful motivator and focus. Perceptions of have to as discussed earlier can destroy our focus and confidence. Perform with a clear mind and an unburdened heart. Don’t let guilt (unintentional or not) develop from privileges you have been provided. Discuss this with parents, teammates and sponsors so you can do things for the right reasons.
4. The world must be fair. Unfortunately it often isn’t. Sport is a good place to begin learning how to cope with the reality that the world isn’t always fair. Certainly we should always fight for justice but an irrational belief that the world must always be fair can cause a lot of agony and heartbreak and hurt one’s coping capability.Become a leader who can focus and perform through injustice.The raison d’etre of sport is to teach us how to stay rational in an irrational world. Enjoy the challenge.
Same questions for parents
These are great questions for parents to ask. When the player is young, I think it's the responsibility of the parent to help the junior to maintain the right attitude. Realizing that I have been sending the wrong message in tournaments (caring too much about winning) and as a result caused my son to be nervous when he is the favorite, I tried hard to focus my and his attention on playing good tennis regardless of his opponent. It's hard to tell how much he has improved his tennis but he certainly enjoys even more now and I don't see the anxiety in matches anymore!