Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Olympic Games Risk and Commitment: Lessons in Motivation

Athletes at the London Games have provided a wonderful example of deliberate practice, sustained training and elite performance through adversity over short and long periods of time. An outstanding representative of this point is Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic. This Games winner of the 400m hurdles was the gold medalist at the '04 Athens Games. Over the past eight years, he has persisted in his pursuit of being the world's best although repeatedly facing career interrupting injuries. Eight years since his last Olympic triumph, and weeks away from age 35, Sanchez was able to win the 400m hurdles for a second time.

Another track athlete, LoLo Jones returned to the Olympics competing in the 100m hurdles. Her '08 performance in Beijing, expected to be a gold medal, was dashed when she smashed into the 9th of 10 hurdles while leading and finished 7th in the final. She, like Sanchez didn't let massive and/or repeated adversity lead to giving up their competitve pursuits. Although Jones finished 4th in the London 100m hurdles, her taking the risk to try and return to the Olympic medal stand is a lesson in commitment and determination.

Allyson Feix won the women's 200 meters final in London,  defeating her nemesis Shelly-Ann Fraser Price of Jamaica.  Felix was quoted as saying "I thought back to the disappointment in Beijing," she had been the silver medalist in '08 Beijing and '04 Athens. She further said, "It's been a long road, I never wanted to give up. It's been a journey -- never easy, but you can't lose sight of your dream. ... I've wanted it for so long." Singular focus, commitment and risk were never more well described.

A slightly different twist, and involving a shorter period of time, is the journey Jordyn Weiber has taken during the London Games. The reigning World Champion was expected to be a leading contender for the women's gymnastics all-around gold medal. Her performance was not strong enough in the preliminaries which left her unable to qualify for the all-around competition. It was a heart breaking and stunning disappointment for Weiber. However, she is part of a gymnastics "Team" who had to compete the following day in the team competition and Weiber was an integral part of the Team. She rallied, bouyed by her teammates and family, and put in an excellent performance contributing to the women's team winning the gold. Her commitment to her teammates and the resilience to fight back, in the face of a devastating setback, lead to her strong team performance.

Lastly, Scott Gault rowed in the men's quad at the Beijing Games. The quad had a terrific qualifying heat leading them directly into the final. There, the quad had a less then stellar race finishing out of the medals. The high expectations were dashed in six minutes leaving Gault to struggle with his career going forward. Taking the risk to stay with the US team and train for London was not a guarantee he would make another Olympic boat. Commitment, taking a risk and sustaining his focus on the goal of making another Olympic team lead Gault to stroke the men's four (not the quad this time which is a sculling event) and won the bronze medal.

These five athletes allowed their confidence, optimism, motivation, and focus to blend with obvious support from family, friends and teammates to help them sustain optimal perfomance in the face of enormous adversity and emotional challenges. Life is about taking risks and having adventures which these four athletes and many more at the London Games.
(Scott Gault is on the right with bronze medal men's four teammates)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Olympic Truths: "All that Glitters is not Gold":

I thought it would be an interesting to share the article, linked below (insert link in your browser), about the lack of glory and financial hardship in pursuit of Olympic participation. The sacrifices made by aspiring Olympians is an interesting psychological study. I have been questioned many times about how exciting it must be to be involved with the Olympic Team. Once the brief period passes in which one habituates to the uniqueness of elite athletics, the daily grind and monotony becomes apparent as well as the enormous commitment and sacrifices of the athletes. Personally, I find it as rewarding to work with scholastic, recreational or competitive amateurs as I do with elite amateurs or professional athletes. As any of you who have worked with "celebrities or famous" individuals or the "exceptionally achieving/crazy rich" person can attest, once you get to know them the glamour, celebrity, or trappings of wealth far recedes into the background of your work with them. Over the past month, I have worked with several athletes who have trained 6 days/wk 5-7 hrs a day for years, some decades and missed making the London Olympic team. No matter how much you advocate "it's the journey, not the destination" or "it's the process not the outcome", the athletes dream and goal is to be an Olympian or medalist. Trying to prepare single-mindedly in daily practices, week after week, month after month in pursuit of an Olympic berth can be a crushing loss if unattained. Especially for those who expected to make the team. The athletes motivation for achievement or sustained exercise/training is not homogeneous. The range spans from childhood dreams of being on the podium and a deeply rooted identification with being declared "the best", to those who seem to have an innate drive of achievement motivation and hunger for competition to yet others who seem to use the isolating, separate-from-the-real-world lifestyle of constant training as a good place to hide. In this latter example, the athletes combination of talent and endless practice defends against developmental challenges. My colleague Judy Van Raalte at Springfield College has made the distinction between athletes (those whose identity is more then their athletic participation) and jocks (those whose sole identity and self-esteem rests on being an athlete). Regardless of motivation and eventually accomplishments, the road to the Olympics might be best characterized as "all that glitters is not gold". I will be posting during the Olympics and sharing reactions and observations. Best Regards, Marshall

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Andrew Sweat Concussion makes Sweet Decision

Andrew Sweat graduated from Ohio State with a degree in finance, was a three-time Academic All-Big Ten Conference selection, a four-time OSU Scholar-Athlete, and interned at Merrill Lynch. This acadmeically achieving bright athlete made a thoughtful and I'm sure challenging decision. He played football at the highest collegiate level, yet understood the dire consequences posed by continued concussions. In the CNN article , there were some tweated reactions which questioned the sense of Sweats decision. Those who question Sweats decision have little regard for the long term consequences of TBI( aka concussions). They also would seem to have an exaggerated valuing of chasing the "almighty buck" and the percieved glamour of pro ball at the expense of one's health, happiness, and future family experiences. Have a great life and law career Andrew Sweat, you made the "Sweet Choice".

Concussions: What makes protecting our Brains so hard?

It seems confusing that so many concussed athletes have sought to continue playing despite the risk of disabling or deadly brain damage. It seems that this behavior, like so many, does not have a simplistic or singular factor providing an answer. My experience with athletes ignoring the short and long term consequences of significant injury indicates they do so due to a lack of information and for self-esteem regulation. It is only within the recent past that scholastic, collegiate and professional athlete sport organizations are making the "concussion problem" an urgent matter. Unfortunately, this dovetails with the fact that it has only been in recent years that neurologists and neuropsychologists have come to realize the long term effects of singular and multiple concussions (more accurately labeled Traumatic Brain Injury:TBI). Now that more is known, and educational campaigns are quickly being created, more athletes can protect themselves or request medical attention. However, an athlete's desire to continue playing and/or practicing despite a TBI can result in high risk behavior leading to degenerative brain damage. This narcissistic and potentially self-destructive action serves as a defense against other intolerable emotional responses. These may include feelings of loss on many fronts. Loss of the joy in sport participation, loss of self-esteem if much of one's worth comes from the sport participation (jock vs athlete phenomenon), loss of social experiences from team or competition activity, and the loss body integrity arising from one's brain not functioning "normally". Other intolerable emotions resulting from a career halting or ending TBI could be a "fear of being viewed as soft" by other athlete's and/or coaches, exposure of social and avocational deficits, and the frustration of not attaining long held performance achievement goals. Overall, protecting oneself in the face of the potentially harsh consequences of post concussion syndrome is more challenging then one might anticipate. Marshall Mintz, Psy.D. Clinical and Sport Psychologist

Monday, April 2, 2012

Becoming an All American Athlete

This Winter collegiate athletic season is finished, and I had the pleasure to work with two athletes who achieved All-American status. Either through a selection process or NCAA tournament finish, these athletes attained a most impressive athletic designation. They were able to separate themselves, along with a small number of other competitors, as exceptional among thousands of others in their sport. So what qualities did these individuals possess which lead to their great achievement. Was it some terrific application of mental skills which were developed, reveiwed and practiced endlessly a la the deliberate practice paradigm? Did they have exceptional genetic physical abilities which allowed them to surpass their competitors? Was the coaching they recieved at a different level and quality which allowed them to out perform others? Was the quality of their team and its communication and esprit d'corp unusually good? Was there approach to practice, training and competition somehow more consistent,effortful and productive? I'd have to say all the above were true. It is frequently a human desire to become reductionistic and apply occaam's razor wherever possible. The factors leading to an athletes designation as outstanding among their comparable talent group is multi-determined. At an intuitive level, my first reaction when describing these athletes is to highlight the level of their "drive to achieve". The dimension of "drive to achieve" is not a unitary dimension and encompasses many factors. Futhermore, it is likely different from athlete to athelte. Drive is analogous to such terms as self-esteem, toughness, and resilience. They are comprised of multiple psychological elements and can differ from person to person in the levels of each factor. A lower level on one factor in one athlete can be countered by another factor with a different athlete leading to both having relatively equal levels of "drive". Whether athlete, coach or sport psychologist the means by which one attempts to increase the "drive to achieve" requires a thorough understanding of the athlete across dimensions of self-image, self-esteem, motivations for achievement, capacity to maintain focus and concentration, genetics, life cycle and developmental factors, problem-solving abilites and more. So remember, increasing one's "drive to achieve" is not done through a simple acquisition of a skill or enhancement of one aspect of our psychological functioning. It is multi-determined and unique to each athlete.