Tag: stress

Managing burnout: Lessons from elite sport coaches.

burnout_syndrom

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?

Whatever you do, don’t screw up! Why avoiding failure is ultimately damaging.

James_Milner_-_Patrice_Evra_20120611

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.

The Last Second Shot: Psychology of the 2015 NBA Playoffs – Round 2

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“I called GAME!”

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.

Tristan Thompson was so pleased with Lebron, that he tried to take his head clean off.

Tristan Thompson was so pleased with Lebron, that he tried to take his head clean off.

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.

Game Winner!

Game Winner!

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.

References

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.

‘Banter’ is a poison

Banter.

Banter.

Where to start?

In August, 2014, ex-Cardiff City FC manager, Malky Mackay was been in the news for allegedly engaging in racist, sexist, and homophobic text message conversations with former Sporting Director at Crystal Palace, Iain Moody. I won’t link to the articles describing the alleged texts; you can find them easily enough with a quick google search!

Kick it Out, football’s equality and inclusion organisation, released a statement on the matter, which you can read here, but for me, the important part was right at the end:

“This familiar scenario acts as a challenge to the leadership of football that cannot be shirked again. The governing bodies and the clubs must denounce such attitudes prevalent in the game, and take the appropriate action.”

However, rather than denouncing such attitudes, the League Manager’s Association (LMA) released a statement which seems to dismiss entirely unacceptable behaviour as ‘banter’. We have been here before… several times in fact. And this culture of using ‘banter’ as an excuse for being an absolute arsehole has to come to an end.

Here’s the LMA statement in full, with some thoughts as to why I feel it’s entirely insufficient, ill-conceived, and damaging.

“In the course of a search by the Club in early 2014 of 10,000 private text messages sent to and from another member of staff during Mr Mackay’s employment at Cardiff…”

Presumably the fact that they were “private” somehow diminishes the fact that the content was terrifically racist. As long as we’re racist behind closed doors, it’s ok?

“…in relation to other matters, it emerged that Malky had, it seems, sent a couple of one line texts that were, with the benefit of hindsight, very regrettable and disrespectful of other cultures.”

The fact that they’re referred to as “a couple of one line texts” is again entirely dismissive of the issue. It was only a couple of texts. They were only one liners. What’s the problem? But do you really need hindsight to see that what you’re typing is racist? Do you need a few weeks to realise that writing about “Fkn chinkys” might be a tad bit controversial? I guess it’s not obvious at the time, right?

“These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter.”

I don’t even know where to start with this. First, I’ve done a fair bit of work in the area of stress and pressure. I’ve written a few papers on coaches who work in extremely high-pressured environments, and their responses to stress have never included making racial slurs via text. Malky was under pressure, so the racist (and allegedly homophobic and misogynistic) texts were justified? Second, it was just some “friendly text message banter.”

This is, I think, where I have the biggest problem. The culture of ‘banter’ is a sickening poison, and those who use ‘banter’ as an excuse, are essentially saying “whatever you’re upset about, you shouldn’t be, because it’s only a couple of blokes (and yes it is usually men) having a laugh. Stop being offended and get over it.”

More banter.

More banter.

“That said, Malky believes he could and should have conducted himself better on these two isolated occasions. The precise details need to remain private for the time being until any FA process is complete. 

“The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents produced over a long period of time it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees, like Malky, working under great pressure in highly charged situations.

“If Malky has caused any offence by these two isolated matters he would, however, wish to sincerely apologise.”

Seriously? Out of 10,000 texts, it’s hardly surprising that a few of them are racist? You’ve genuinely written and published that as an official statement? That’s what you’re going with? Really? Well, I suppose when you’re under pressure, you just can’t help being racist. It’s only banter though. You know, letting off some steam.

“Malky finds it strange that these matters were only raised with the FA and in the media now, eight months after his employment ended and the day before he was reported as being offered the opportunity to become manager of Crystal Palace FC. Malky is also very concerned about seriously inaccurate and misleading reports of his alleged involvement in these matters in the media.

“It has never been alleged that he wrote any homophobic or sexist messages and he has confirmed that he did not do so. Further, there are incorrect and damaging suggestions that he sent a whole host of offensive and unpleasant messages that are simply not true and which give a grossly distorted and unfair view of Malky’s involvement in this matter.”

Is the amount of racism really the appropriate focus here? Plus, if we’re passing off racist remarks as ‘banter’, I’m not sure we’re in the best position to say what constitutes sexist or homophobic content, now are we?

“Malky looks forward to matters being put straight in due course, following any investigation of this matter. Malky cannot of course comment on the nature of any conduct or communications alleged to have been made by others. Malky has said that he will be fully co-operating with any FA investigation and that he looks forward to putting the record straight thereafter.”

So that’s it. That’s the LMA’s official statement on the matter. The “it’s just banter” excuse – and that’s exactly what it is, a tired excuse – is not tackling discrimination, it’s ignoring it. And that’s just not good enough.

Were you satisfied with the LMA’s statement? Do you think it missed the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so leave a comment below if you like.

UPDATE:

Shortly after this post was first published, the LMA has issued another statement, apologising for their previous statement (Monty Python anyone?). Anyway, here’s their apology:

“The LMA apologises for some of its wording, in its release yesterday, which was inappropriate and has been perceived to trivialise matters of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature. That was certainly not our intention. It is beyond argument that any comments that are discriminatory, even used in private, are totally unacceptable. The LMA remains absolutely aware of our responsibility to the game and to promote and uphold the highest standards of behaviour.”

While this apology is a step in the right direction, I just wonder why you would write a statement if you think that the wording was inappropriate and could be perceived to trivialise some of the issues involved. Maybe they could only see that with the benefit of hindsight. Maybe they were under a lot of pressure. Maybe it was just banter.

Burnout in youth sport: Part 3 – Prevention is better than cure

How do we keep all of our young matches lit? ... That doesn't really work as a metaphor.

How do we keep all of our young matches lit? … That doesn’t really work as a metaphor.

In part one of this series of three blog posts, we looked at the characteristics of burnout. In part two, we explored various explanations for burnout, including stress, feeling trapped, lack of motivation, and the culture of performance sport. Here in part three, we’ll think about what we can do to reduce the chances of our young athletes burning out and maybe leaving sport behind.

Burnout in youth sport: Part 2 – Here comes the science part.

Quitting sport isn't the same as burnout, but it's a potential consequence!

Quitting sport isn’t the same as burnout, but it’s a potential consequence!

In part one of this three-part post on burnout in youth sport, we talked about what exactly burnout is. Essentially, long lasting feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion, sport devaluation (not getting anything out it anymore) and reduced personal accomplishment (no sense of achievement). Here in part two, we’ll explore briefly explain some of the theories as to how and why burnout occurs.

Burnout in youth sport: Part 1 – What is burnout?

We’ve all had times when we’re feeling a bit tired and lacking motivation, when we don’t really feel like practicing or training, or when something we usually enjoy doing seems like a bit of a chore. More often than not, once we remind ourselves that we actually love what we do, or even take a few days off, we can get on with it and get back to enjoying our sport.

burnout_syndrom

What exactly is burnout? …Is this picture even relevant? …So many questions.

But sometimes that feeling can last a bit longer and feel that little bit more intense. I’m sure the coaches reading this can think of young athletes that display those characteristics. Maybe you’re the parent of a kid who’s lost interest in sport. Perhaps they’re experiencing burnout, but what exactly is burnout? What causes it? And what can we do to stop our young athletes from burning out and quitting before they’ve even got going?

This three-part post is going to address those questions. I’ll try to answer the first one here, and then see about the others in part two and part three.

“Put me back in, Coach!” – Psychological responses to sports injury

If you’re a basketball fan like me, you’ll be eagerly awaiting the return of the Chicago Bulls’ explosive point guard, Derrick Rose.  Rose missed the whole of the 2012-13 NBA season after suffering a torn ACL the previous year, and a few months ago, I wrote a piece about him and some of the psychological factors that should be taken into account during an athlete’s return to play following injury. You can read it here if you like. It’s not bad.

There are psychological as well as physical consequences of sports injuries.

There are psychological as well as physical consequences of sports injuries.

But one thing that I glossed over was the psychological impact that injuries can have on athletes, and the ways in which they attempt to cope with these often stressful, sometimes traumatic, events. So in this post, I’m going to try to summarise some of the ways that athletes respond to injury

Coaching under Pressure: Part Three – How Can Sport Psych Help?

It is well established that coaching can be a stressful occupation and that coaches should really be considered as performers in their own right. In part one, of this blog post, I questioned the availability and accessibility of coaching/psychology research for the coaches that could benefit from it. I also discussed what stress actually is and how the stress process works.

Part two looked at some of  my research into elite coaches’ experiences of stress, the kinds of environmental demands they encounter, the sometimes significant impact that stressors can have on coaches, and the sorts of things that coaches do (or don’t do) to cope with stress. Here in part three, I’ll be summarising some of the ways that sport psychology might help coaches to coach more effectively when the pressure is on.

Coaching under Pressure: Part Two – Stress in Elite Sports Coaching

Coaching can be stressful. While coaching manuals often talk about the different roles that coaches take on, this doesn’t really cover the complexity of the coaching role. At the end of the day, coaches are performers1.

They perform in very different ways to their athletes, but they still have to prepare meticulously for training and competition, execute plans in pressurised competition settings, and handle pressure from the media, often with funding, and the future of their sports programmes (i.e., their jobs) on the line. So yes, coaching can be stressful.

In part one, I wondered how many coaches read the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology on the off-chance that there might be a useful article on coaching psychology in there?

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