Month: January 2015

Fixing the Don’ts

As a sport psychologist, there are times when I would consider myself a “language specialist.” A lot of times, actually, when I stop and count them all up. This is because language, how we talk to ourselves and others, has a huge impact on our lives. Language – AKA “thinking” – influences our choices, our emotions, our ability to respond to stress, really, everything. And so it is with great persistence that I help athletes become more aware of how they are thinking, how they are talking to themselves. And when it’s appropriate, we make some changes!

My favorite time to make a self-talk or language adjustment is for what I lovingly call “Don’t Statements.” You’re probably really familiar with Don’t Statements, but just never thought to categorize and call them by such a label. For instance,

There's a lot of don'ts going on in this picture.

There’s a lot of don’ts going on in this picture.

“Don’t freak out.”

“Don’t get distracted.”

“Don’t get gassed.”

Is it hard to see what the problem is with this way of talking and thinking? If you guessed “it’s negative” you’re partly there. But in full disclosure, I don’t put a lot of emphasis on someone being “positive” or less negative. There are extensive reasons why I think a constant focus on being positive may not be useful all the time. For another blog, another time. Pinkie swears.

The full answer, I believe, starts with realizing that our language is a reflection of what tends to take up the most space in our minds. And as a general rule, people are really good at focusing on what seems scary, unwanted. And paradoxically, we end up reinforcing these uncomfortable possibilities by talking and thinking about them more.

Want a super easy demonstration of this?

Don’t think about a red balloon.








Crap. What just happened? Yeah, telling yourself to not think something actually puts that thought at the forefront of your mind. So it would appear that Don’t Statements just don’t work. At least not in way that gets rid of the unwanted thought.

Additionally problematic is that these statements are often thought (or shouted at the athlete) during a time of intense practice or important competition. They don’t provide a lick of useful information. Why would you want to do that? When it really counts, you need to make use of every moment available to you. Don’t Statements are ineffective AND inefficient. When it really matters, athletes need to be thinking (and coaches need to be shouting) something that gives guidance, a helpful reminder, something to get/keep that athlete on track.

Working from the statements listed above, you could change them (and there’s lots of options, these are just a suggestion) to:

“Use the relaxation skills you’ve been practicing.”

“Focus on your task in the moment.”

“Trust yourself to make smart decisions about how you expend your energy.”

Ok, they can be a *bit* wordier. Use a cue word to shorten it up if necessary. And they force you to really think, really focus on what you want, which may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s where effort comes in.

While it isn’t complicated, it IS tricky to undo years of talking and thinking a certain way. And even when you fix your Don’t Statements, you still need to work on helping those around you change their’s. It won’t happen overnight and it will require intentional effort. But if you’re going to be thinking anyway, why not think in a way that stands to benefit you? I promise, it gets easier with practice! Plus, with all that journaling you’re doing you might be able to record some of your favorite Don’t Statements and more quickly recognize them the next time they come up. Nice!

Remember: frame your self talk in terms of what you DO want to see happen, instead of what you want to avoid.



Performance Consulting for a National Title

The Leadership coach for the the Ohio State Buckeyes, Tim Kight, is the subject of a piece by the Wall Street Journal detailing some of the work that he has done to help prepare the team for the 2014 season. (You can read more here, and even more details of how the program is applied here). With a national title on the line and several big factors in play – that’s a heck of a depth chart you have at the QB position, OSU! – it’s interesting to examine what components of their program may be influential in the outcome.

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Tim Kight drilled Ohio State’s players over the past two years and redoubled his efforts with its coaching staff this season at Meyer’s request. His message—that a successful reaction isn’t impulsive but a skill that can be taught—has hit home with the Ohio State players who have harnessed a power of positive responses to every imaginable event.”

I really liked many of the points made by all three of these stories. In determining what would make for a successful performance consulting relationship – be that person a licensed psychologist, sport psychologist, consultant, or any other sort of “coach” – there are similarities in what makes it work or (not work).

  • Being a good decision maker is a HUGE skill on and off the field. Ohio State won’t have to deal with Oregon’s Darren Carrington because of a failed drug test. Decision Making Fail – can’t imagine having to miss the national title game for something so avoidable. Kight’s emphasis on making “positive decisions” is excellent in bringing attention to the element of the equation that the athlete controls. When competing, athletes simply do not have the luxury of time to become distracted by problematic weather, their opponent being successful, a teammate making a mistake. All of this has to be taken in quickly and a response given.
  • Coach buy-in. Performance enhancement services are becoming more and more common at all levels of sport. Not surprisingly, there are no guarantees that the program a coach tries to bring in will seem relevant to all/any of the athletes. Coaches who are involved in and excited about a program often make it more likely that the athletes will at least consider what is being offered. Furthermore, coaches can almost always benefit from practicing what is being preached – coaches need mental skills, too. Coach Meyer echoes this sentiment exactly, claiming that he has “learned learned more from those leadership classes than the players.”
Coach Meyer could totally pull off that hat/overalls combination.

Coach Meyer could totally pull off that hat/overalls combination.

  • Making time for mental training. “The garden grows where you aim your water hose” and many teams, athletes, and/or coaches are guilty of not aiming that hose at mental training. Athletes can only become proficient at a skill if time is spent developing it. Ohio State clearly made leadership training a priority for their staff and athletes, and this is incredibly important. Despite the “duh” reaction this observation might create, you would be unpleasantly surprised to learn (at least from my perspective) how often this isn’t the case. Kudos to them!
  • This program has likely been useful for athletes (to some degree) because it makes sense. If a performance enhancement plan is theoretically sound but doesn’t appear applicable or practical – if it doesn’t feel relevant it’s just not going to work. And it’s not going to fly just because the head coach likes it and wants the athletes to partake. There needs to be buy-in top to bottom.
  • The program was offered for a significant period of time by a consistent consultant. It is not unusual in the sport psych world to have people work with teams for a very brief period of time. A consultant could be hired and after spending little if any time observing the team, offer a talk for the day or weekend, leave, and maybe never come back. Now, if Michael Jordan agrees to show up and do a one-hour motivational talk, I’d probably recommend saying yes. But if a team is interested in real change or the development of actual skills, they are going to need to have someone become part of the team. Mr. Kight clearly accomplishes this and I’d hazard a guess that the time spent with the team is a significant contributing factor as to why athletes bought into the program. Athletes, particularly those in the well-known sports and teams are extremely hesitant to open up to outsiders – and pretty much everyone is an outsider. The successful consultation is one that is earned through diligent time and attention given.
No, no, no. Not those kind of outsiders.

No, no, no. Not those kind of outsiders.

There were also a few points that, as they were covered by the media, felt they deserve a word of caution in case awareness of OSU’s program inspires other coaches and/or teams to seek out similar services.

  • The world of performance consulting and sport psychology is open to an array of professional disciplines and educational backgrounds. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology offers certification to those consultants who meet specific criteria (education, applied experienced supervised by a qualified person, continuing education requirements), but obviously a team is free to hire anyone to improve performance. Because working with sports teams can be a highly desired position, individuals with questionable education or applied experience may attempt to gain entrance to a team with whom they have no business working. Perhaps sometimes the net result is benign, but no coach would want to find out the hard way that they introduced a counter-productive element into their team. So I always recommend double checking a person’s background to ensure that they are qualified to offer the services they are selling. (This recommendation also applies to hiring a psychologist, that while being licensed and educated in providing therapy, may not have experiences working with sports teams and would be practicing outside of their competency).
"Tesla's telephones, I've done it! I've isolated the 'makes crappy decisions in the red zone' molecule!"  Sport psych science does it again.

“Tesla’s telephones, I’ve done it! I’ve isolated the ‘makes crappy decisions in the red zone’ molecule!”
Sport psych science does it again.

  • Evidenced-based, scientifically supported programs are best. For many years, the field of sport psychology has been working hard to provide rigorous evidence of the usefulness and benefits of mental skills training programs. The media may have neglected to include specific details about the program OSU is using from a presumption that such a detail was unimportant, the information wasn’t offered, or because the program is the creation of Mr. Kight and not an officially recognized and/or researched entity. Another HUGE recommendation from my desk to yours to ask questions regarding the nature of the program and/or skills a consultant wishes to provide. It’s certainly anyone’s right to use any type of program, be it mental skills, leadership, or otherwise focused. But inquire about data that supports these interventions. Be a smart consumer!
  • “Positivity” receives a lot of attention in pop media, self-help, etc. Athletes are frequently told to “think positive” and for reasons that deserve a whole other blogpost, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stay tuned for that one! OSU’s program seems to use word in a different manner, referring to choices that result in a proper/desired outcome and those that do not. I prefer to use the continuum of functionality – does a particular choice function or work to achieve a desired end? This wording choice comes from my background in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is very well researched and growing exponentially in popularity in sport psych applications. It may be a silly personal preference, but given the difficulties inherently tied into the concept of positivity, I am very selective about how I use it.

I hope these reflections help you, my Driven reader, think more critically about how the best performance consultation can come together. I also hope that if you are in the market for a consultant of this sort, you feel more encouraged to ask questions about supporting evidence, training and background of the consultant.

As for me, I don’t believe I have a favorite team to cheer for in the national title game. Although I grew up in southeastern Michigan, which would dictate cheering against the Buckeyes on a matter of principle, I’ve lived in Missouri long enough that I think I’m supposed to hate Kansas now. Except Kansas and Mizzou don’t play in the same conference any more, so I’m actually feeling a bit lost in Know Your Rivalry department. Honestly, it’s my hope to see both teams play spectacularly and impress all who shall spectate. And eat copious amounts of buffalo chicken dip.

Not sharing, doesn't care.  Photo credit: Closet Cooking
Not sharing, doesn’t care.
Photo credit: Closet Cooking

I’m just just that kind of girl.

CRAP for your New Year

Happy New Year to all of my Driven peeps! And welcome to 2015!!! I hope that it is an awesome year for us all 🙂


I’m a fan of the New Year brouhaha. It is a time when lots of us start wonderful initiatives. We will change! We will grow! We will dominate 2015! Woo-hoo!!! Just some playful snark over here, I’m really not too cynical about resolution making. I see the intent as positive, and I have a hard time being grouchy about an honest try even if it is statistically likely doomed. To me, it seems to be human nature to want “things” to be better and there’s nothing awful about that.

Of course athletes and the general New Year Resolutions Creating Public are very similar in this make #allthethings better mindset. Athletes, however, have many more designated occasions to “set resolutions” each and every calendar year. There’s a lot to be said on the topic of goals specifically, but since I’m already fully proficient in writing absurdly long blog posts, we’ll save that for another day.

For those athletes pursuing important resolutions or goals, at any point in the year, I make the following suggestion:


Nothing fancy. Nothing earth-shattering. The same suggestion that is made to anyone embarking on any goal – write that sucker down! A training journal or training log can also be a place to record a host of other information useful to the successful athlete. Here are some of The Why’s that I think demonstrates how a journal can be helpful.

What Google will suggest for your training log. Clearly, what I'm suggesting is much, much better. Smaller. Something.

What Google will suggest for your training log. Clearly, what I’m suggesting is much, much better. Smaller. Something. What were we talking about?

1. Athletes who are serious about their performance are constantly setting and need a place to organize new and/or old goals. It can be tricky keep tabs on what you are truly trying to accomplish without a little organizational assistance. So record the daily or weekly goals that support your aspirations for your mental training, the next 1/2 marathon, injury rehab – whatever you have on your plate. Big picture, day to day picture – have a plan for all of it!

Sounds about right.

Sounds about right.

2.  Athletes improve in the achievement of their goals when they can assess their progress with precision. If you are making progress towards your goals, you know when rewrite or create new goals. Training journals next help you objectively measure what goals or parts of goals you are reaching. This is the scientist in their lab, recording accurate and specific data. Who could use more awareness of new skills and consistent strengths? Go be your own mad scientist!

3. Figuring out what approaches do or don’t work for you can take careful analysis. Unless you’re Sheldon Cooper, you’re not going to be able to do this off the top of your head. Training logs make patterns more apparent. You can look at data from a month, a year, or more ago – things you would have otherwise easily forgotten. I’ve had more than one athlete decide to make changes to their training programs because of what they’ve seen working/not working from a training log.

4. Competing creates nervousness, and nervousness can cause a variety of not-so-helpful pre-competitive thoughts and feelings. Reviewing the hard work you’ve put into preparing for game day is an easy way to solidify your self-efficacy (the knowledge that you are skillful and trained for the opponents, course, or routine ahead). This doesn’t mean that you always feel great right before competing, but it does mean that you can access the “voice of reason” reminding you that you are ready.

5. When athletes make a point to share observations made from using a training journal (to a coach, teammate, or sport psychologist), this journal then becomes a facilitator of accountability and communication. No need to journal solo, finding at least one person with whom you will share your insights is really useful. Trust me, there is no such thing as being too good at communicating.

Being a competitive athlete is a very challenging and at times highly emotional endeavor. Intense feelings can often cause glitches in our thought patterns and or encourage problematic behaviors. Journaling as many people think of it can be a time to vent and diffuse strong emotions in a safe place. Training journals replicate that purging of feelings (like a diary), but in a way that supports athletic goals and improved performance. If you are upset after a practice or disappointing performance, it can be easy to tell yourself or others that you “did really bad.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t give you any information to work from to make improvements for next time. Without knowing exactly went off-track, how can you possibly hope to fix it? Furthermore, we know that humans are particularly lopsided when it comes to assessing situations that have a mix of positive and negative outcomes. If 20 things happen in a day and 19 of them are positive, many people still find themselves fixated on the ONE thing that stunk.

There is no place like the 7 or so inches between your ears where really crazy thoughts or over-board reactions seem utterly plausible and appropriate. Writing out (or verbally expressing) your thoughts forces you to really listen to the content of your thinking. It slows your thought process so you can better monitor what thoughts you are buying into. I even recommend hand-writing over typing/electronic journaling for this very reason – some of us can type without really considering what we are saying. “Hearing” thoughts outside your head can prompt you to reconsider or retract a thought or reaction that just moments ago seemed so very real and totally awful when it was inside your head.


For instance: several of my athletes have been able to share examples of feeling terrible disappointment about how an event had just gone BUT they sat down and recorded the details of what happened. After writing out what actually had occurred in the performance they recognized that they had actually successfully achieved an important performance goal that had been set. Oops. Glad we didn’t miss that tidbit!

Journaling for training and competition does not need to be overly in-depth. If it is too time-consuming you may be quick to lose interest or tell yourself that you’ll “do it later.” Two minutes of brief journaling done when your thoughts are fresh is probably more effective than 20 minutes a week after an event occurred. I recommend that you start with an idea of what could work for you as a training journal or log and make regular adjustments and changes as time goes on.

I think I need to buy these in bulk.

I think I need to buy these in bulk.

Considerations, Reflections, And Perspectives. A relatively sad acronym, but all the good CRAP you need to start writing about in 2015!

Consider your values and goals.

Reflect on your progress, adaptations or changes that would be beneficial to make.


Perspectives can shift depending on your thoughts and feelings at the time. Journaling helps you assess what your perspective is and determine if you should keep it around!

Like most things in life, what you get out of journaling will be reflective of what you put in. You don’t always get what you try hard for, but you pretty much never get what you didn’t try for at all!

PS: Looking for more reasons to just write for the sake of writing? This is an informative place to start!