Your Brain and Your Game
|By Dr. Alan Goldberg|
March – April 2006 Volume 7 #’s 3 & 4
by Dr. Alan Goldberg
SPECIAL ISSUE: YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR GAME – Brain functioning and athletic performance for dummies
Tony had been dogged and harassed by an overly physical defender almost the entire match. This kid had been elbowing him, pulling at his jersey, kicking him, talking trash and doing just about everything he could whenever the refs weren’t looking to knock Tony off his game and get inside his head. Apparently his slightly underhanded efforts had been paying off. Tony’s play was indeed way off. He was rushing, forcing things, turning the ball over and clearly distracted by his opponent. Tony had gotten progressively more frustrated and angry throughout the course of the game and his simmering feelings finally boiled over on one play when he was tackled hard by this kid and the refs let the game continue. The “no-call” made Tony that much more furious and the next time he got the ball back, he immediately and a bit too obviously knocked this same opponent hard to the grou nd as he went past him. Unfortunately the refs caught him retaliating and gave him a yellow card along with a stern verbal warning. The fact that he had been caught this one time while his opponent had been getting away with much worse the entire game made Tony that much angrier.
He couldn’t stop his mind from racing. His normally relaxed and even style of play had vanished and been replaced by an anxious, pressured sense of urgency. His mind kept reviewing all the “facts.” This was a must-win game for his team if they had any hopes of making the post season tournament. If they lost, the season would be over and he didn’t want to end his high school career on this sour note. Tony was his team’s leading scorer and one of their better players, yet he’d been virtually handcuffed the entire game, getting off only one shot and even that one hadn’t been a very good one. He’d been playing badly and he couldn’t stop his mind from reviewing all his blown chances and “bonehead” plays. It was up to him to score and score quickly if he was to keep his team in the game. The internal pressure to make something happen just seemed to build up inside of him as the minutes ticked away.
This was not the first time that Tony had struggled in these kinds of high pressured situations. There had been a few really important tryouts and big games where Tony’s mind had gotten the best of him and, as a result his game had quickly gone south. He had gotten too nervous in each of these situations because he couldn’t seem to stop his thoughts from racing over all of the wrong things. As a consequence, he’d ended up playing poorly and even choking. I guess maybe that’s what had been happening in this match. Even before his opponent had started harassing him he’d gone into the game with a flood of thoughts and experiencing too much pressure. He felt like he had to have a great game for his team to have a decent chance at qualifying for the conference tourney. In Tony’s mind, if they lost, then it would be completely his fault, plain and simple! Perhaps his over-thinking and the resultant tightness could explain why Tony had been so vulnerable to his opponent’s overly aggressive and harassing style of defense.
With less than two minutes left in regulation and his team down one – nil, Tony finally forced his way past this defender near the top of the box. He now had that one opportunity he’d been waiting for all game, a clean shot. If he could just score here, this would tie the game and send it into overtime. Then the momentum would be with his team and they could come out in the sudden-death period and get the job done. Just as Tony went for the shot, he was tackled hard from behind by another defender who had moved up in an attempt to double team him. It wasn’t a clean tackle. The ref signaled a foul and free kick. FINALLY they got one right!!! This was it! He had the game tying goal on his boot and he was going to make it count. YESSSSS!!!
However, as Tony set up to take this very make-able kick, all was not right in his head. Despite the fact that he told himself he wanted to be in this situation, he was suddenly feeling a bit too nervous and shaky. He couldn’t slow himself down enough to properly focus as his mind began racing through all the potential consequences of this kick. “I could tie the game and then we could then win in OT and get into the tournament…or I could choke. Oh, My God! What if I miss it? If I blow it, how will I ever live this down? What
will the coach say? I know my teammates will be totally let down if I miss. That would be so embarrassing.” The more he tried to reassure himself that he was confident and could make the kick, the faster his mind raced and the more nervous he got. Suddenly past situations of failure and embarrassment rolled though his head like a negative highlight reel crowding out his initial excitement and the last shreds of confidence that he had felt just seconds before. He wished he didn’t have to take the kick and someone else could step in and bail him out. He wanted to just escape. His arms and legs felt like lead. He had no feeling whatsoever in his feet. Tony knew that he was in serious trouble, but he felt totally helpless to be able to do anything to change it.
This was his worst nightmare. Here he was in front of all these people who were depending upon him and he was about to completely humiliate himself. He was so nervous it made it hard for him to catch his breath. He was a little too positive that he was going to miss this kick. The goal might as well have been at the complete far side of the field given how he was feeling. He desperately tried to pull himself together by slowing his breathing down but his chest felt tight and constricted. He started coaching himself to calm down and focus. Then he tried to add instructions on the mechanics of a good strike, how to approach the ball, how to shift his weight, what angle to hit the ball from and most important, where he needed that ball to go. He thought about the keeper’s tendencies and tried to guess which side he might go to. The goal mouth seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. There was just far too much noise going on in his head. As he got ready to strike the ball he noticed that he had been holding his breath and that he suddenly had a bad headache. The instant his foot struck the ball he knew that the shot was way off base and his fears had come to pass. He had completely distracted himself with his over thinking and as a result, his foot got under the ball too much and sent it sailing harmlessly over the cross bar. He was a failure. He had blown it. He was beside himself. He threw himself down on the ground and started to sob. He couldn’t control himself. As the final seconds of the game ticked away Tony was inconsolable. He kept asking himself over and over again, “Why did this have to happen? Why does this crap always happen to me?” “What’s wrong with me?” “I’m too good a player to stink this badly. Or maybe I’m not!”
Let’s briefly look at Tony’s mental meltdown and see if we can shed some light on these kinds of puzzling repetitive performance problems. Is there something valuable that you can possibly learn from this athlete’s psychological collapse that may help you the next time you’re under pressure and needing to come through in the clutch?
Why is it that on some days you can go out and perform absolutely brilliantly while on other days and for no apparent reason your game does a major disappearing act? One performance you feel “on” and soar with the eagles and the next one you’re totally “off” and gobbling with the turkeys. And why is it that sometimes and for no apparent reason you seem to slip into one of those major performance slumps that just won’t quit? Days, weeks and even months will go by and you just can’t seem to get yourself back on track. Or maybe you’re plagued by an annoying and repetitive performance problem that’s been driving you absolutely bananas and totally messing up that which was once so routine and effortless for you to do. Maybe you can’t putt anymore without your wrists badly breaking. Or you can’t make a simple and routine throw back t o the pitcher or to first base. At one time you were able to do a back tuck in your sleep and now you can’t even get your body to go for them anymore. Perhaps you always seem to be holding back and tentative when it counts the most. Or maybe, like Tony, you tend to over-think under pressure. So what’s really causing all of this performance havoc? Could it be the weather? Perhaps it’s the alignment of the sun, moon and stars? Might these dramatic performance changes be due to the thinning of the ozone layer or global warming?
Let’s simplify a relatively complex problem here. The reasons that your game may come and go as if it had a will and a mind of its’ own can be explained by carefully examining that vast and uncharted territory between your ears. That’s right! The major difference between your best and worst outings, between being totally “on” and “way, way off” is most often directly related to what’s going on in your head both before and during these particular performances. What do I mean by this? The part of your brain that you’re using when the competition starts will ultimately determine if your performance ends up in the penthouse or the outhouse. Let’s examine all of this with a very simple lesson in brain functioning.
As depicted in figure #1, there are three major parts of the human brain: From left to right they are the Front Brain, the Mid-Brain and the Hind Brain. Each part of the brain is responsible for controlling different functions in our lives. The Front Brain handles conscious THINKING. The Mid-Brain handles our EMOTIONS. The Hind Brain is responsible for “KNOWING.” The “knowing” that I’m referring to here has nothing to do with intellectual or book knowledge. Instead it refers to the knowing that comes from experience. You know how to “read” because you’ve learned through experience. You know how to walk and this ability has also been honed by years of experience. Your ability to talk, ride a bicycle, throw a baseball, hit a serve in tennis, ski, ride a horse or perform any athletic movement are things that you learned through years of experience and thus all these behaviors are controlled by your hind brain.
For the purposes of our present discussion, we will only concern ourselves with the Front and Hind Brains. Let’s briefly look at how each of these parts of the brain process information and the impact that this processing has on the quality of your athletic performance.
The Front Brain processes information consciously using words and logic. That is, you are fully aware when this kind of processing is going on because you can hear yourself thinking. In fact it’s your Front Brain that you hear from before those big competitions. It’s the part of your brain that may focus you on the outcome, tell you that you need to win or entertain the “what if’s” (“What if you choke?” “What if you fail to qualify?” “What if you lose?”), right before or even during that big performance. It’s also the part of your brain that helps you plan your pre-game strategy. When you sit down and think about your strengths and weaknesses, your opponent’s tendencies and what tactics you need to use in order to increase your chances of a successful outcome you are using your Front Brain.
However, if your Front Brain were active in the middle of a particular performance, then you’d be aware of a running commentary going on in your head while you were playing. Front Brain processing is also analytical. That is, this part of your brain tends to break things down into their component parts, examining each in great detail. For example, if you pulled up for a jump shot at the top of the key, the Front Brain might attempt to provide you with real time information on how many seconds were left on the shot and game clocks, the position of the defenders around you as well as where your teammates were on the court and whether they were open, what the proper positioning should be in your body for good shot execution, what your forearm, elbow, wrist and fingers of your shooting arm need to be doing in order to get off a good shot, whether you were squared up or not, the kind of foll ow through that was necessary to sink this shot, what may have happened the last 5 shots you took, what the consequences would be for missing this shot, how your coach may react to you if you miss, what the fans may think about you, along with any number of other related or unrelated thoughts.
In addition, Front Brain processing is also judgmental. That is, while you’re performing, this part of your brain is offering an on-going, potentially critical evaluation on how you’re doing. What you as an athlete may actually hear inside your cranium are things like, “Well, that was wicked stupid Einstein!” or “That was great, keep it up!” or “I can’t believe you just missed that! What’s wrong with you!?” “You’ve got to be more aggressive…and you’ve got to move your feet more! Come on! You’re not playing as well as you should be! Step it up!” Etc. Because the Front Brain processes information consciously, using words and logic in an analytical and critical fashion, the time that it takes to process information directly related to the performance situation is relatively long. Plus, because of the slowness of this processing modality, the Front Brain is significantly limited in terms of the complexity and amount of information that it can handle at any given time. That is, the Front Brain can only manage very small amounts of simple information in a linear, one-thing-after-another fashion.
In the way that it processes information, your Front Brain is like having a coach directly inside your head. This “inner coach” is continually chattering away, providing you with on-going instructions, warnings, tips on technique and strategy, statistics from past performances, judgments about your opponents and teammates and on-going evaluations about how you’re doing. While some of this information may actually be useful way before and after you perform, the vast majority of the time your “inner coach” has terrible timing and presents all this conscious data when you really can’t effectively use it, immediately before or during your actual performance.
The Hind Brain, on the other hand processes information unconsciously. That is, while your brain is processing things you are totally unaware that this is happening. For example, while you’re walking down the street totally absorbed in a conversation with your best friend, your Hind Brain is safely negotiating the walking for you, insuring that you don’t trip in a pothole, stumble off a curb or walk into a car. While all this processing is taking place, the only thing that you’re aware of is the humorous and engaging story that your friend is relating to you.
Hind Brain processing utilizes images and feelings rather than words. The processing makes use of internal pictures and kinesthetic or muscle feelings (muscle memory). Unlike the Front Brain, the Hind Brain does not break the information that it’s processing into component parts. Instead it processes the whole of the experience. In addition, Hind Brain processing is nonjudgmental. The athlete does not evaluate him/herself during the performance when processing from this part of the brain regardless of what happens in the performance. Because the Hind Brain processes information unconsciously using images and kinesthetic feelings that encompass the entire gestalt (whole) of the performance, processing time is instantaneous. In fact, The Hind Brain is capable of processing large amounts of very complex information both simultaneously and instantaneously.
Let’s examine our basketball example from a Hind Brain perspective. As you drove to the top of the key to pull up for that jump shot as time ticked down, your Hind Brain would unconsciously and instantaneously process everything that you needed to know and do in order to get a good shot off. The timing, location of defenders, body positioning and proper technique would all be unconsciously taken care of by this part of your brain. In fact, consciously you would not be thinking about what your body was or should be doing. Instead, your Hind Brain would simply insure that you were doing it effortlessly. Furthermore, your conscious mind would not be cluttered with internal chatter about past shots, the consequences for missing this shot, or the coach’s or crowd’s potential reactions. With the Hind Brain in charge, your conscious mind or Front Brain would be in an observing role and therefore relatively quiet.
When you compare and contrast these two parts of your brain it becomes readily obvious which one should be running the show while you’re performing: The Hind Brain. Keep in mind, your Front Brain’s conscious, analytical processing can not even begin to keep up with the complexity and speed of even the most simple of athletic movements. The fact of the matter is your Front Brain is just much too slow during performance to be useful. When you allow your Front Brain with its’ conscious thinking to steer your performance ship, you will always end up in pieces on the rocks! Plain and simple, it is impossible to instinctively respond effectively and with perfect timing and execution in a performance situation when you are thinking. Thinking is just flat out hazardous to your performance health.
This is not to say that your Front Brain doesn’t have any constructive purposes. On the contrary! Front Brain processing is critically important for pre-performance planning. Your conscious, analytical mind is very helpful to you during the days and hours leading up to a big competition. It helps you adequately prepare and effectively strategize for the upcoming performance. It helps you break down your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses in devising an effective plan of attack for the match or game. The Front Brain is also quite useful in helping you review a performance afterwards. It enables you to break down your performance into small pieces and take a closer look at what you did well and where you may have fallen short. This information is invaluable feedback that is absolutely necessary for you to then correct your mistakes for future competitions. In fact, without this kin d of important post-competition analysis, you will never really be able to highlight your weaknesses and then take your game to the next level.
The key point that I want to keep hammering home here is very simple. During your very best performances your Front Brain’s job is one of quiet observation. Occasionally this part of your brain may offer a very brief tidbit or two of information for fine-tuning of the performance, but only occasionally and only when absolutely necessary. Instead, the majority of the time when you play to your potential your Front Brain is just quietly observing what is going on while the back of your brain runs the show. Trouble will always arise when you allow this part of your brain to become more active and take over during the performance. The athlete who is in a slump, consistently chokes under pressure, or who struggles with a repetitive performance problem most often does so because she allows her conscious mind to have too active a part during the performance.
Here’s a very simple way for you to understand the relationship between your Front and Hind Brains during performance: Think of your Front Brain or conscious mind as a very bad, totally uncoordinated and unskilled athlete, the kind of athlete who is typically said to have “two left feet.” His timing is always off, her technique is stiff and awkward and he/she can never get the job done when it counts. In this way, your Front Brain is like a rank beginner who really knows almost nothing about the game that you may play so well. Watching your Front Brain guide your performance is like trying to sit through a really terrible movie. It won’t be fun and it will definitely be very ugly! Remember, one of the main reasons that athletes struggle with slumps and repetitive performance problems is because they allow their Front Brain to “guide” them before and during their performances.
So the question readily arises. Why would any athlete in his/her right mind take guidance and coaching from someone who was totally incompetent and had absolutely no understanding or knowledge of your sport? Well the answer is obvious. If you were in your right mind, you wouldn’t!
Your Hind Brain, on the other hand is a talented, seasoned professional. He/she is a highly skilled, graceful and powerful athlete with tons of experience. With exquisite timing and smooth technique, this part of you always come through in the clutch. Watching your Hind Brain run the show is a sight to behold and is immensely enjoyable. With its’ perfect guidance, vast experience and wisdom, your Hind Brain could help you take your game to the next level if you allow it to. Is there any good reason why you wouldn’t let this pro be your full-time coach?
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ATHLETES
So now you know that you want to “hire” your Hind Brain to run your performance show and your Front Brain to serve as both a pre-performance consultant to help you plan and strategize long before the competition and an after-match analyst to help you review your performance and ferret out your strengths and weaknesses. You’ve also been told that your conscious-thinking Front Brain needs to be a quiet observer during your performances in order for you to play to your potential. Does all of this sound good? You Betcha!! But exactly how are you supposed to make all of this happen? What can you do to be able to convince your conscious mind to shut down during the competition so that you can perform in relative peace and quiet? The following list of “DO’S & DON’TS” may help! These strategies will assist you to more c onsistently perform from the back of your brain and appropriately harness your Front Brain so that it does its’ rightful job. To really make these mental tactics work for you, you need to spend time regularly practicing them.
KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FRONT & HIND BRAIN FUNCTIONING
– In order to be able to consistently play from the back of your brain, you need to develop an awareness of how both your Front and Hind brains process information. This awareness will form your first line of defense by helping you notice when you’re in the wrong part of your brain. Without an awareness of the conscious signs of Front Brain processing (i.e. thinking, instructing, criticizing, worrying, breaking your performance into small pieces-analyzing during the performance) you will always be doomed to continue functioning from this part of your brain. Awareness gives you the beginnings of control because it lets you know that you need to switch from Front to Hind Brain functioning.
DON’T COACH/INSTRUCT YOURSELF DURING THE PERFORMANCE
– You will always play your very best when you’re not thinking. If you are coaching yourself while your game, match or race is going on, then chances are pretty good that you’ll mess yourself up. Keep in mind that your conscious instructions are far too slow in relation to the speed of the action to be of any real value to you during the competition. Instead, your “inner coaching” will distract you from the task at hand and throw you way off your game. Save the conscious coaching for practice. It has no useful place in competition. Instead, try to keep your focus of concentration on what you’re doing in the moment.
DON’T EVALUATE YOURSELF DURING THE PERFORMANCE
- Keep in mind that the time for you to review your performance and evaluate how you did is after the competition is over. The very worst time for you to be feeding yourself criticism about your play is while the game or contest is still going on. An internal discussion about your mistakes, screw-ups or failures should NEVER be going on while you perform. Like during-game coaching, these inner judgments will only serve to make you nervous, distract you from the flow of the game and undermine your self-confidence. If you hear the inner criticism starting to flow, quickly change channels and bring yourself back to the action.
KEEP THINGS SIMPLE
– Remember, the more quiet your conscious mind is, the better you’ll perform. If you are going to consciously remind yourself of important strategy or mechanical considerations just prior to your performance be sure to keep these reminders short and sweet, as well as few and far between. Reminding yourself of one or two performance cues is fine. However, trying to cram in a lot of strategy or technique instructions into your cranium will simply overload your system, backfire on you and get you performing poorly. Remember this rule of thumb: LESS IS MORE!
TRUST YOUR TRAINING
– All the work that you’ve been doing all season long has helped program your muscle memory and your Hind Brain. When it’s competition time, you want to remind yourself that it’s all in there! You’ve paid your physical dues and, as a result, your body knows exactly what to do. Your reflexes have been properly trained. This means that you want to trust your muscle memory, relax and just let the performance come out. Regardless of how big the competition or how important the performance, your job is to relax, give your conscious mind a “vacation” and let the game come to you.
FOCUS ON FEEL, NOT ON THINKING
– The language of the Hind Brain is feel or muscle memory. The language of the Front Brain is thinking. When it counts the most, you want your focus of concentration on the feel of what you’re doing, not on your thoughts about it. If you’re a swimmer this might mean that you focus on your rhythm or finish. If you’re a runner you might concentrate on your tempo and the feel of your arm swing. If you’re a tennis player you might concentrate on the feel of the ball on your strings. If you’re an equestrian you might focus on the feel of your torso in the proper position on the horse, your inner thighs and legs gripping her, your hands loose and relaxed on the reins and the feel of the animal under you.
STAY IN THE NOW
– One way that you keep your focus on feel is by concentrating on the NOW or what is happening right in the moment. When you perform from your back brain you do this automatically. When you think, you tend to mentally “time travel” back and forth between the past and the future. You can only play your best when your concentration is in the “now,” focused on one thing at a time as it develops. Athletes who struggle with repetitive performance problems are serious mental “time travelers,” continually allowing their focus to slip back to the past and to jump ahead to the future. Try to keep your focus of attention in the NOW on what you’re doing and every time that you become aware of losing that focus, of time traveling back to the past or ahead to the future, quickly return your focus to the NOW.
DON’T ENGAGE THE CONSCIOUS THINKING THAT MAY RUN THROUGH YOUR MIND
– Sometimes your conscious mind will be very active during a performance despite your best efforts in quieting it down. In these situations your job is to effortlessly allow these conscious thoughts to pass through your mind without actively engaging them. When negative, critical thoughts or otherwise intrusive thoughts come up you don’t want to fight with them or even try to change them into positives. Instead, you want to calmly and quickly refocus your attention in the moment a way from the thinking to the task at hand. Practice allowing these thoughts to harmlessly pass through your mind and soon you’ll find that they will have less and less of a negative impact on you.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR PARENTS
Probably the most important information that you can take with you our simple lesson in brain functioning is directly related to your pre-game and during game behavior as well as what you say to your child-athlete before, during and after his/her competitions. Before we get into this, let me first pretend that I’m a mind reader and make an assumption about you as a parent. Because you are taking the time to read this material, chances are pretty good that you have a significant investment in doing the right thing by your child-athlete. You care about his/her well-being and happiness and would like him/her to reach his/her potential as an athlete. So you’re well-meaning and your heart is in the right place. This is a very important start towards helping your child have a healthy and happy youth sports experience. To make sure this good start continues and goes even further, you hav e to be certain that you play the right role on the athlete-coach-parent team.
What’s the right role? You should always be your child’s “best fan.” You should try to be unconditionally supportive and loving. That is, your love and support should never, ever be tied to the quality of your child’s performance, i.e. loving them more when they win than when they lose. Equally as important as this support role which you have on the team is a critical non-role that you must “play,” and play well. What is this non-role? Simple! You do NOT want to function as a coach to your child. (Assuming that your child is on a team that already has a different coach than you). You do NOT want to push your child to train the way a coach would. You do NOT want to make your child do extra conditioning the way a coach would. You do NOT want to criticize your child’s efforts or technique during or after a game the way a coach would. You do NOT wan t to provide your child with pre-game strategy the way a coach would. You do NOT want to offer on-going and during-game technique suggestions, criticism for bad plays or let your frustration show at bonehead plays the way a coach would. In sum, YOU DO NOT WANT TO COACH!!!! As long as you have an investment in your child being happy, learning quickly and performing to his/her potential then you will NOT coach.
Taking on this coaching role because you want to be “helpful” is where the vast majority of really good parents go really bad! In doing so, these parents inadvertently put a tremendous amount of pressure on their child and end up contributing to that child’s slowly growing dislike of the sport and later, his/her potential premature dropout.
Let’s take little closer look at why your “helpful” pre-game advice and during-game comments actively contribute to your child’s poor performances. Let’s refer to our discussion on Front and Hind Brain functioning to better understand how all of this works.
When a father yells coaching instructions at his child from the sidelines during a game he is engaging that child’s Front Brain and conscious thinking. Instructions like, “Dribble more. Go around him to the left, not the right. Go left and then shoot! C’mon son, use your off-foot” activate that child’s conscious mind and get the athlete thinking about what the father is saying and what he then needs to do in order to try to utilize dad’s comments. Unfortunately, because the child is now thinking, and breaking his movements down into small technique pieces based on dad’s instructions, he is no longer paying attention to the right cues that are happening in the moment, in the game on the field. As a result, not only will this player remain a step or two behind the action, but his conscious thinking will interfere with his smooth execution and critical d ecision making. The end result of all of this is that the athlete will then be taken further out of the game mentally and this will show in his physical play.
When a mother yells criticism at her daughter during a gymnastics meet and embellishes these critical remarks with facial expressions, postures and voice tones that let her child-athlete know that mom is indeed very unhappy with her performance, the girl’s judgmental Front Brain gets further activated. She then begins to consciously evaluate her own performance and worry about the outcome. If she has another event immediately coming up, the gymnast will most likely be overly preoccupied with how well she’ll do and whether mom will approve or not. This kind of Front Brain processing will then stress out the young gymnast, tighten her muscles, distract her from the proper focus and make a good performance impossible.
So what am I saying here? During game coaching or technique instructions and constructive criticism, no matter how well intentioned or valid it may be, will immediately push your child-athlete into Front Brain functioning and, as a result, set him/her up for failure. As I’ve said before, athletes who think while they perform are athletes who always perform far below their potential. I’m quite sure that as a parent you would never intentionally say or do anything that had this kind of negative effect. Therefore it is imperative that you understand what you should say and do on the sidelines.
Your guidance should always be this. Do not say or do anything that will cause your child’s conscious attention to shift away from the performance to you, your words or behaviors. Don’t yell at or criticize your child’s teammates or opponents before, during or after the competition. Don’t criticize the coach. Don’t yell at the refs just because you think they made a bad call. Remember, peak performance can only happen when the athlete is completely absorbed in the action, focused on what he/she is doing in the moment. It’s only when the athlete is totally focused in this way, quiet inside and completely relaxed that his/her Hind Brain gets activated.
Instead, watch the contest. Cheer for good plays and great effort from both sides. Let your cheering and presence be part of the background. Enjoy being supportive and present for your child in this way. Remember, what you have to say and how you act while your child performs should NEVER be in the foreground during a game. The game is not about you. Fair or not, good or bad, both you and I have already had our chances in this youth sport thing. Whether we did well or not is now totally irrelevant. Now it’s your child’s turn and his/her performance needs to be completely separate from you.
On a similar vein, your child should NEVER be performing for you. He/she should not be playing to make you happy or proud. Your child’s sport should be very simply all about your child. It should serve as a vehicle for him/her to have fun and learn new skills in a competitive arena. Your child should be primarily participating because it brings a smile to his/her face and makes him/her feel good inside. Your job is to help your son or daughter keep this distinction clean and give him/her permission to enjoy the sport for themselves without the confusion of your over-involvement.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR COACHES
Why is it vitally important that you as a coach have a basic understanding of how the human brain works in relation to performance? For the same reason that it’s vitally important that you know which coaching interventions of yours work to get your athletes performing well and which ones backfire and sabotage your athletes’ efforts. If you have a basic awareness of those things that work and those that don’t, it will simply make you that much smarter and more effective as a coach.
Years ago when I first started coaching tennis, one mistake I consistently made was to overload my athletes with too much technical information about what they were doing wrong. In my enthusiasm to get them playing better, I inadvertently contributed to them playing worse by pushing them into their Front Brains too close to competitions. The really funny thing at the time was that everything I was telling them was technically correct and represented changes that they ultimately needed to make in order to take their game to the next level. The problem was that my coaching was far too cerebral and lacked the important understanding that as an athlete prepares for and goes into a performance he/she needs to be in a completely different part of his/her brain where analytical, conscious thinking is at a minimum. I was erroneously operating from the school of coaching that the more information you provide your athletes and team with as they go into a performance the better prepared they’ll be. As we’ve been discussing, there’s a fine line between the right amount of conscious information and too much. This is especially true during the game, at halftime and during timeouts or whenever there’s a break in the action. If you as a coach don’t know how and where to draw this line, then you’ll end up undermining all of your hard work and unknowingly setting your athletes up to fail.
To maximize your coaching effectiveness and increase the chances that your athletes will come through in the clutch follow these basic guidelines directly related to Front and Hind Brain functioning:
DON’T INTRODUCE NEW MECHANICAL, TECHNICAL OR EVEN STRATEGIC CHANGES TOO CLOSE TO AN IMPORTANT PERFORMANCE – Remember, the last thing you want your athletes doing when it counts the most is thinking. Therefore, when they go into an important competition, you want them on automatic, responding the way that they’ve been training their muscle memory to do over and over again in practice. New skills or strategy immediately introduced right before big games will not have had ample enough time to become part of the Hind Brain’s KNOWING. The Hind Brain “knows” through repetition and experience. Therefore new tactics or skills that have not yet been integrated will trigger your athletes into their Front Brains, thinking too much about what they are doing. If you do decide to try to teach new things right before a performance, then make it very clear to your athletes that you do NOT care at all about the outcome and instead want them to concentrate on trying to execute the new skills/tactics.
RIGHT BEFORE AND DURING GAMES ALWAYS KEEP YOUR INSTRUCTIONS SIMPLE – In peak performance the athlete’s conscious thinking Front Brain is in a quiet, observer’s role. As a coach you have to be very careful that you don’t overload your athletes with too much technical or tactical information. Therefore, what you do say to your team and athletes pre-game should be very simple and minimal. Use the “less is more” philosophy. The time to provide a lot of conscious information is in practice the weeks and days leading up to a big game, but NEVER right before and during that big game. So just pick out one or two things that you want your athletes to have in the back of their mind and then just let them play. It’s critically important to keep this in mind during the game, at half-time and during time outs. Your time-outs should be used to first calm your playe rs down and then focus them on one or two simple things and no more.
KEEP DURING GAME CRITICISMS TO A MINIMUM – Remember, judgments and evaluation are part of the language that your Front Brain speaks. If you are continually criticizing your players during a contest, pointing out each and every mistake that they make and everything that they need to do to correct them, then you will risk not only overloading them with too much conscious information, but triggering their own Front Brain judgments of themselves. When a player screws up quickly help her understand what she did wrong and what she needs to do to correct it, but even more quickly, help her get her focus back in the action of the game. Do NOT keep returning to the mistake with her or her teammates unless you would like your athletes to commit more errors. The time to work on game mistakes is in the next practice. Then you can harp on the mistakes as much as you’d like. In practice it̵ 7;s perfectly fine to engage your athlete’s Front Brain functioning of breaking down the performance and skills and figuring out everything that went wrong. Just don’t do that same thing when it counts the most.
DURING GAMES, FOCUS YOUR PLAYERS ON WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO DO, NOT ON WHAT YOU DON’T WANT THEM TO DO – Hind Brain processing makes use of images and muscle memory. By focusing your athletes on what you want them to do, you are properly programming their Hind Brains and you are far more likely to see the results that you desire. By telling them what you don’t want them to do, you are inadvertently kicking them into their Front Brains and getting them thinking about what you really just said and meant. For example, when you tell a team, “Don’t foul”, there is no corresponding image to this other than fouling. Your athletes are momentarily confused about what you really want and as a result, begin to think too much about it. Instead you should be telling them, “Play clean” or “Play good defense.”
COACH THE PROCESS, NOT THE OUTCOME – When athletes get too caught up in the outcome of an athletic event they are much more likely to over-think. When you emphasize the importance of winning this game or qualifying for finals, etc. then you will mostly be successful in getting your athletes into the wrong part of their brain and, as a result, tightening them up both physically and mentally, and shutting them down performance-wise. Instead you want to keep them focused on the process, on doing their job in the moment, on executing the little things that lead to success with passion and to the best of their ability. When you keep your athletes in the NOW in this way, focused on what they can control, they’ll be less inclined to think and more likely to get themselves on automatic and performing well. You can talk about the importance of a competition in practice during the weeks lea ding up to it. However, as you get close to this big game, you want your players’ focus on doing their jobs, on doing the little things to the best of their ability in the NOW.
KEEP YOUR ATHLETES LOOSE AND RELAXED BEFORE AND DURING PERFORMANCES – The more relaxed your athletes are going into a performance, the more likely they’ll be to execute exactly the way that you’ve been training them. Pre-game relaxation and during game looseness are two critical prerequisites for peak performance. When athletes are too nervous and physically tight going into a game, it is impossible for them to play to their potential. Excessive tension and stress kicks athletes into their Front Brain and stimulates their over-thinking. Staying calm and loose pre-competition is much more likely to trigger a performance from their Hind Brain. What this means for you is simple: You need to make keeping your athletes loose and relaxed pre-game a CRITICAL PRIORITY. The bigger the game and the more important a win is, then the more you need to do everything in your power both bef ore and during the contest to keep your athletes feeling and playing loosey-goosey. Model composure and relaxation yourself. Keep the challenge of the competition fun. Get rid of the seriousness and urgency. That kind of stuff usually backfires on coaches anyway when they take it out and use it with their athletes.