Burnout tends to happen as a result of long-term stress in a situation or job that, for whatever reason, you’re highly committed to. So the more you care about your work, the more likely you are to experience burnout.
Burnout has three major characteristics: emotional and physical exhaustion, a cynical attitude towards people and relationships at work, and a feeling that you are no longer accomplishing anything worthwhile. Sound familiar?
Just before England began their EURO 2016 campaign, England midfielder, James Milner, said that it was vital for his team to avoid losing their first match against Russia if they were to do well in the tournament. You might take from this that the team would be focused on doing well in their opening game.
Makes sense. But did Milner’s statement actually reveal an underlying attitude that could really hinder a team as they progress (or don’t) through major competitions.
“It’s just like any other game!” – How many times have you heard someone say that?
Maybe you’re a coach who’s said it to players before an important match. Maybe you’re an athlete who’s heard it from teammates or coaches who are trying to make things as normal as possible in the build up to a big competition. “If we do what we normally do, we’ll be alright.” And you know what, in certain circumstances, yup, that works fine.
You may or may not have come across the concept of Mindfulness before. You might have heard about sports coaches encouraging their athletes to adopt mindfulness practices, or maybe you’ve heard about athletes learning and practicing meditation as part of their training. But what exactly is this thing called Mindfulness, and can it really improve sporting performance?
Everyone loves a bit of mental toughness. Coaches will often tell you they only want athletes who are mentally TOUGH. Athletes strive to develop their mental STRENGTH. Sports journalists write and debate about which athletes are mentally TOUGHER than others.
In fact, mental toughness has become one of the most commonly used phrases in sports. I should point out here that I have no evidence whatsoever to support that last statement, but it seems like it’s probably true. Just search twitter for mental toughness or mental strength and you’ll see what I mean.
Russell, Wilt, Jerry, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, and, most recently, LeBron James. There are others that could arguably be in the conversation, but despite what they all brought to the game of basketball, Michael Jordan is and always will be the greatest basketball player of all time. And here’s why…
In the 2015 NBA Conference Finals, both the Cavaliers and the Warriors had commanding 3-0 leads over the Hawks and the Rockets.
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series, with only 3 teams managing to force a Game 7.
In 1951, the New York Kicks forced a Game 7 against the Rochester Royals in the Finals, then in 19… hold on… this isn’t even remotely interesting. However, I did uncover this little gem of trivia via that there Twitter.
— Martin Wenzl NBA (@WenzlNBA) May 25, 2015
The Cavs did their part and trounced the Hawks in Game 4, but we were denied the double sweep as the Warriors completely forgot how to play basketball in Game 4 of their series with the Rockets. James Harden annoyingly managed to annoy his way to 45 annoying points forcing an annoying game 5, but then the Warriors remembered that they were actually quite good at basketball.
The Story of The Conference Finals
So what was the story of the round? If Round 1 was about the weight of expectation, and Round 2 was about developing a last shot mentality, two individual performers caught my attention in the Conference Finals, and they had two things in common: Intensity and Effort.
Most of the headlines went to Matthew Dellavedova of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Game 2 he dove for a loose ball and rolled into Hawks’ sharpshooter, Kyle Korver, who suffered an ankle sprain in the collision.
This wasn’t seen as a big deal until the next game, when Dellavedova got tangled up with Hawks’ big man, Al Horford, falling into his knees. Horford retaliated… sort of… and was ejected from the game. Was Dellavedova guilty of playing dirty, setting out to injure the opposition by deliberately targeting knees and ankles?
Honestly, I don’t think so. I think he was just playing with intensity, sacrificing his body and going for the ball. Was it sometimes a little reckless? Absolutely. When playing a sport like basketball, you have to have some degree of awareness of what you’re doing, and how you might injure other players, but you cannot fault Dellavedova’s intensity and effort during the series.
“What do intensity and effort have in common? They’re both things that you can control.”
The Big Man on The Boards
The other standout performance for me, was Tristan Thompson. If I were picking teams, I’d pick Tristan Thompson first (edit: I have revised this opinion since I first wrote this post!). Seriously. He is the epitome of hard work. Thompson is a player who will bring intensity and effort every night, and he dominated the boards against Atlanta.
Thompson models himself on Dennis Rodman, another player who knew his skills were limited, but is a student of the game, and boy does he work. His efforts in the Atlanta series certainly got him some attention and a big contract offer (edit: the less said about how this turned out the better!).
So we’ve got two players here. Both players who normally come off the bench. Both players who know they aren’t the most skilled, the fastest, the strongest, or the best shooters. But they both know and understand their roles and what they can bring to the team, and they both bring intensity and effort on every single possession that they’re involved in. What do intensity and effort have in common? They’re both things that you can control.
If you’re shot isn’t falling, what can you control? If you’ve committed a couple of turnovers, what can you control? If you’re not feeling great, what can you control? You can control effort and you can control intensity. And whatever else you bring to the game, if you bring those things, just like Dellavedova and Thompson, you’ll get noticed.
If the first round of the 2015 NBA PLayoffs was all about dealing with the weight of expectation, for me, the Conference Semi-Finals were about pressure moments. During this round we saw several examples of individual players stepping up to the mark and delivering in the face of extreme pressure.
Michael Jordan did it to win his 6th NBA Championship. Damian Lillard won a series with one in last the 2014 playoffs. Robert Horry made it an art-form during his career. I’m talking, of course, about the game-winner, the buzzer-beater, the last second shot.
The last second shot.
In the 2015 Conference Semi-Finals, we saw no less than four game winning shots and Paul Pierce was a tenth of a second from hitting a huge shot in Game 6 of the Wizard’s series against the Hawks. Everyone who’s ever played sports has imagined themselves winning the game for their team in the dying moments, rising up as the clock winds down to sink a last second game-winner.
In other sports too, a footballer might think about soaring above the defender to head home a winner in the 93rd minute, or an athlete might dream of coming from behind down the home straight to beat their opponent on the line.
We’ve all imagined it, but when it comes down to it, how many of us actively seek out that pressure, and take those challenges head on? Are you the type of athlete who will demand to be front and centre in that situation?
In Game 4 of the Cavs/Bulls series, Lebron James made a series of mistakes in the final quarter, but with the game tied and only 1.5 seconds left, he changed the play that coach David Blatt had drawn up (a play which had James inbounding the ball), got open and hit a jumpshot to win the game. Now I’m not advocating changing plays that your coach draws up, but this was a great example of a player willing to put his own neck on the line, to make a play for his team.
Achieving Success or Avoiding Failure
There are a couple of theories of motivation that might be important in explaining why some people seek out challenges (like taking last second shots in basketball games) and why some people might prefer to sit back and let someone else to take the shot. Let’s ignore skill level for the moment (obviously if you’re a terrible shooter, you might have reasons to want someone else to take the shot!) and focus purely on behaviour.
Need Achievement Theory¹ suggests, quite simply, that everyone wants to achieve success and everyone wants to avoid failure. But the balance of these two motives isn’t the same in everyone. Pretty obviously those with high motivation to achieve success and low motivation to avoid failure, tend to be high achievers. Athletes who are more concerned with avoiding failure than achieving success are much less likely to be high achievers.
There are also situational factors that might play a role here. According to Need Achievement Theory, we also consider the probability of success in any situation and the value of success. If you’re facing an easy opponent, the probability of being successful is high, but the value of success is quite low.
For an extremely difficult challenge, the opposite is true (low probability/high value). So for optimal challenges (difficult but attainable), high achievers tend to step up because they see the potential for success, whereas low achievers shy away because they see the potential for criticism if they fail.
Is it all about personality?
I don’t think it would be too controversial to suggest that Paul Pierce, Derrick Rose, and LeBron James are high achievers. There are several other theories of motivation that contribute to our understanding of achievement behaviour that I won’t go into in this post, but essentially, high achievers are those who seek out challenges, perform well when being evaluated (e.g., in front of an audience), believe that success is a result of stable and controllable factors (rather than luck), tend to focus more on task than outcome goals, and focus on the pride of success rather than the shame of failure. But knowing this, it’s certainly possible to work with athletes to help them develop these tendencies.
Developing a last-shot mentality
- 1. Understand your own motivation. Or if you’re a coach reading this, understand that your athletes all have different motivations. Research suggests that at the age of around 4 or 5, children move on from being completely self-focused and start comparing themselves to those around them. As people grow older still, some develop more of an awareness of when comparison with others is useful and when it isn’t, but that can happen at any age, or not at all. Knowing yourself/your athletes is the first step to developing a last-shot mentality.
- 2. Think about your goals carefully. Are your goals about outcomes (winning) or about how you’re going to win? It’s easy to focus on winning as a goal, but make sure that the process or task goals are emphasised. Read this post on why goal setting often fails for more tips.
- 3. Think about the feedback you give your athletes/yourself. When you succeed, make sure you acknowledge the hard work, effort, and skill that has contributed to that success. When things go wrong, make sure feedback is instructional and acknowledge outside influences that might be a cause. It’s really important to be realistic here though. There’s no use blaming failure on those external, uncontrollable factors, if it really was down to lack of effort!
- 4. Do you approach challenges, or do you pick tasks that are easy? Make sure you train under conditions that are difficult, but also where success is possible. Setting up tasks that are too easy might give you/your athletes opportunities to achieve success, but there’s little, if any, value attached to that success. Similarly, it’s easy to reduce effort or give up on tasks that are obviously too difficult. Find the balance.
So there you have it. Are you motivated to achieve success or are you more concerned with avoiding failure? What subtle changes could you make to the ways you think about training and competition, about success and failure, in order to develop a last-shot mentality? Oh and remember, it helps if you can actually shoot well enough to back it up.
¹Atkinson, J.W. (1974). The mainstream of achievement-oriented activity. In J.W. Atkinson & J.O. Raynor (Eds.), Motivation and achievement (pp.13-41). New York: Halstead.
I love the NBA and, for me, the first round of the playoffs is all about expectations. Some teams have high expectations for themselves, while other teams have expectations placed upon them. Either way, these expectations can weigh heavy upon teams, and sometimes, on individual players. Some were able to shed this weight of expectation and perform to the best of their ability. Others felt the full weight of expectation upon them and their performances suffered as a result. So how do we deal with the weight of expectation?
Expectation vs Confidence
How do expectations affect performance? Well an expectation is just ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case’. Having strong beliefs that we’re going to perform well in our sport sounds a lot like having confidence. And having confidence is a good thing right?
Well yeah, of course having confidence in your own performance is great. But there are a couple of differences between confidence and high expectations.
The biggest difference is that expectations are generally results or outcome driven. At a team level, expectations might be about having to win the first two games of a series at home, or maybe sweeping a series against a poor opponent. At an individual level, players, might have expectations about being perfect from the free throw line, having no turnovers, or scoring 40 points.
So what’s the problem?
The first problem with having really high expectations is that they can be so demanding that it’s almost impossible to reach them. Scoring 40 points in a game doesn’t actually happen that often, so if that’s our expectation and we’re not reaching it, then we can feel like we’re failing, which has a negative impact on our confidence and motivation. We get anxious about making mistakes, get down on ourselves when we do, and then find it difficult to relax and enjoy the competition.
The second problem is that really high expectations take our focus away from the processes. If we have such high expectations about winning, we’re not concentrating on making the right passes, getting to the right spots, playing good defence, and taking good shots. If we focus on those things, the outcome will take care of itself.
It’s also important to consider where these expectations come from. Are they your own, or do they come from elsewhere? Fans? Coaches? Parents? Media? But whether they’re your own or whether they’ve been put upon you, these expectations can weigh you down and stop you from performing at your best. So how do you shed the weight of expectation?
So should I lower my expectations?
No, not at all! Rather than lowering your expectations, it’s more a case of thinking about where your expectations lie. Are they about performance, or are they about effort, intensity, attitude? Here are three ways to perform without the weight of expectation dragging you down.
1. Play with no expectations about the outcome – We don’t know what’s going to happen in a game. We can’t control the opposition, or the officials. So instead of having expectations about winning, have high expectations about your efforts and the attitude you bring to performing.
2. Allow yourself to make mistakes – Perfection is not really possible. Yeah, you might make all your shots in the first quarter, even in the half. But over a whole game, it’s just not gonna happen. So don’t beat yourself up over a mistake. The best of the best of the best three-point shooters miss more than half of their shots! Use mistakes as opportunities to get better.
3. Reframe the expectations of others – If you feel your coaches, parents, fans have high expectations of you, it’s likely those expectations come from a good place. Your coaches and teammates probably don’t want you to feel like you’d be letting them down by not playing well. They want you to do well and are supporting you in your efforts, so use this support as a positive source of motivation and confidence.
There’ll always be expectations, whether you create them yourself, or whether you feel them from outside sources, but it’s how you manage those expectations that’s going to make the biggest difference.
Have high expectations ever affected your performance? Maybe you’re a coach or parent that has high expectations for your athletes or kids. What are your experiences and how do you deal with the weight of expectation? Leave a comment below.