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.