Practice the REALLY Hard Stuff

I was working with a group of high school athletes, teaching them the competitive advantage of emotional intelligence. They were learning that if you know what triggers your emotions, that awareness may help you keep from being emotionally hijacked. In the middle of the explanation, a player held up his hand. He wanted help. A kid on another team really knows this young man’s buttons. The two, on opposing teams, meet regularly during the season. The other kid uses derogatory comments as a weapon against his opponents – it’s a clever form of bullying. I suspect he’s learned that he can catch his opponents off guard, subtly question their ability and get them emotionally off balance.

I asked my athlete for an example. He said in one game, he came close to making a goal. It was a great effort that Cat lion couragebarely missed the upright. And the other kid said, “too bad you missed that one, a little more practice and you might be good enough to play in this league.” A couple of barely audible comments like that and my young athlete is completely hooked. He gets angry in his effort to prove his opponent wrong. Because of the emotional hijack, he experiences the full affect of the fight/flight/freeze response. It compromises his ability to think clearly, control his shots, and to even stick with the game plan. His anger invites desperation – the fear that maybe he CAN’T play the game.

Mission accomplished for the young provocateur on the other team. He has psyched out his biggest threat.

So what is our young athlete to do? One proven answer is simple – practice the skill of de-triggering. It’s a learnable skill. Think of it as unhooking the emotion. With practice, he can learn to diffuse his emotional trigger before his opponent sets foot on the field.

What I suggested was that he get a partner – someone he trusts, like a coach or a parent – to practice the language that triggers him. If he practices experiencing the bullying in a controlled setting, he can get to the point that there is no longer an emotional sting to the insults. For the next few minutes we practiced how to practice. I threw my best bullying insults his way (I’m really awful at this) from “your mother wears army boots” to “so’s your old man!” I looked and sounded about as threatening as his grandmother and we laughed – which was perfect. Being insulted didn’t hurt and he found he could be in complete control.

Then I asked that we do it one more time. This time I repeated the words of his opponent while he tried to imagine his face rather than mine. The more we worked, the more he was able to chuckle – realizing the choices he had. I watched as the emotions that had been in control when he first told his story became diffused and powerless as he learned resilience. He left our session with a new practice in hand.  His opponent had trained our athlete get triggered.  Now he was practicing – and learning to be impervious to that trigger. Sweet.


Control When It Counts

I am sitting in my office saddened by the behavior of young athletes during this bowl season. The latest casualty of “stupid college student behavior” is a young man who had a bright future in professional sports. Perhaps he still does, but he has tarnished his reputation and could have cost his team a bowl win by his immature behavior.  He certainly ended his college football career prematurely.

It started in a bar – that was just the first place emotional self-control could have helped.  It escalated into shoving bar employees around.  It Controlended as friends were trying to drag the belligerent athlete back to his hotel. The police arrived and our erstwhile QB was totally out of control.  He was throwing punches and one landed in the direction of a police officer.

I always get a sick feeling when I think of the ways incidents like this could have been avoided.  That’s the real reason I am dedicated to teaching emotional intelligence – the brain science and the social science – to young athletes and their coaches.  I teach to give them a competitive advantage in their sport and to give them skills to avoid events like this. Understanding our behaviors so we can avoid emotional hijacks is critical to any success – on the football field, in the boardroom, or in a bar before an important game.

Emotional intelligence happens over time, not overnight. If you want to create a team culture (sports or otherwise) that understands its triggers and can choose self-control, the time to start is now – well before the championship games, the starting gun, or the beginning of the season. It’s a great New Year’s resolution – to teach people the art and science of self-understanding and self-control. It’s our responsibility.

Because when the pressure’s on, being in control is critical.


Hard Not Harsh

I was privileged to watch a college basketball practice recently.  The team is close to the beginning of their season and their practice was ragged.  It happens.  The energy was uneven – swinging from under-energetic to desperately urgent. I watched as the coaching staff abandoned their original practice plan to focus on the team’s concentration, stamina, and heart.

These are the moments I get so glad to have the opportunity to witness.  This was a time the coaches had to be nimble to meet the players where they were – to get the most out of a practice that was going a little south, diagnose underlying problems, and address them with helpful learning.

It can be a tough assignment because the leaders are in the middle of their own preseason stresses.  They gave me a perfect opportunity to watch for self-awareness and self-control from the coaches.

*I would like to acknowledge Coach Raegan Pebley, Women’s Basketball Head Coach, TCU, Fort Worth. Thanks for letting me watch, even when it was a challenging time. You are the type of leader people want to follow!
*I would like to acknowledge Coach Raegan Pebley, Women’s Basketball Head Coach, TCU, Fort Worth. Thanks for letting me watch, even when it was a challenging time. You are the type of leader people want to follow!

The head coach was a rock star.  She seemed disappointed in what she saw, but she never belittled the players as she pushed them to work harder.  In fact, she explained to them the need for stamina and conditioning – reminded them of the challenges they would face when they began the combination of traveling, playing and going to classes.

She made the purpose of the challenging practice very clear.  And then she stayed.  Some of the players had more running than others at the very end – it’s the cost of not thoroughly completing some of the required exercises.  The coach stayed.

She was hard…the point was well made.  But she wasn’t harsh. She didn’t get angry, frustrated, or disgusted with the players.  When the last player finished the extra rounds, she too was congratulated and encouraged –  with the same sincerity given the others.

Here’s the lesson.  The head coach didn’t give into her own frustrations – frustrations are emotional traps that can make a leader defensive and cruel.  Frustration can lead a good person to fly off the handle, insult, and bully others.  This coach held the balance between the hard work that needed to be done and the humanity of her players.   She was hard, but not harsh.  It was elegant leadership.

Don’t Let It Get To You

It could be the play that you’ve run a dozen times in practice that falls apart during a game.  It could be the referee who seems to favor the other team of the kid who knows better but still takes a cheap shot on the field or says something out of line.  And all of a sudden, you are ready to explode.

That’s when you battle to NOT do or say something that will get you thrown out of the game.  And you haven’t even gotten to the interviews after it’s over!blog anger

What’s happened to you is a full-blown amygdala hijack.  That’s when the emotional control center of the brain unleashes a chemical response to tension or threat.  In an effort to keep you safe from perceived danger, the amygdala floods your body with cortisol.  When that happens, your field of vision narrows, your ability to think clearly is impaired, you have a knot in your gut, and your mouth can have a hair-trigger.  Anger floods your consciousness and self-management is at an all time low.

Oh great, exactly what you don’t need.  So, what can you do?

Actually, it’s simple – as soon as you feel the symptoms of anger or frustration begin, take a deep breath.   That’s it.  Breathe deeply.  The anecdote to the chemical flood is to re-oxygenate your brain and engage the logical part of your brain.  That allows you to override what’s happening with your emotions.  Yes, you can. It is simple but not necessarily easy.  Emotional self-control takes practice.  Over time you can choose it over an emotional meltdown.  And the control you model to your team becomes a skill you teach them.  That’s when emotional control becomes a competitive advantage.

Don’t let emotions get to you. In fact, make them work to your advantage!


Photo credit: Thanks to Disney Movies for this personification of ANGER from their delightful movie,  Inside Out

Questions are NOT Created Equal


I teach coaches to ask great questions of their student athletes.  It allows the players to grow into world-class athletes and mature adults.  The first lesson is that not all questions are created equal.   The meaning of questions can be found in 3 places: in the words, the intent of the question, and tone.  Imagine with me – your athlete (or employee) comes off the field, court, or out of a meeting having just made a mistake.  There is a big difference between, “Did you see what you just did?” And “what did you notice?”

It’s not much of a stretch to hear disappointment – maybe anger – in the first question. Depending on the coach’s tone, it could feel pretty threatening.  Now, on top of dealing with his mistake, the player now feels attacked by the coach – the person who is supposed to be on his side.  It creates what is called in emotional intelligence, an “amygdala hijack.”  That’s when a question is perceived as an attack and the body is triggered in to a full ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.

When that happens, the logic part of the brain gives way to the brain’s emotional control center.  Thinking is impaired. What that means is that at the very time you want a kid to listen to you and remember what they’ve been taught, they are paralyzed by stress.  My guess is the “did you see what you just did?” question is intended to help and in fact, quite often has the opposite affect.

Let’s replace the stress-inducing question with a different one – “What did you notice?” If you read it out loud, you’ll feel its simplicity and power.  It is open-ended, short enough that there aren’t any embedded assumptions, and it’s curious. Asking, “what do you notice” is like standing shoulder to shoulder with your athlete to look at their performance and help them discover what there is to learn.  No amygdala hijack, no accusations, just the opportunity for them to uncover what was going on so you can get on with the job of teaching and developing them.


Pace = Control

Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed that the world seems to run at high speed? It’s like you are chasing reality and it’s hard to catch up! Now let’s turn that around. If you ever noticed that when you are operating in your zone – that place where you are in control and everything’s working that it’s easy? In fact, perception might even slow down so that you feel like you’re in charge.

Here’s something to try the next time your world is running out of control. Take a deep breath. Then take another. Re-oxygenate your brain so you can think clearly and then intentionally slow the pace. The two cornerstones to emotional intelligence are self-awareness and self-management.  First you notice the stress (your emotional trigger) and then you choose to pause, take a deep breath and slow down the pace so you can respond rather than react.

This is personal – I want ABUNDANCE

Hey, after all, I am a coach – I am all about helping people change. It’s what I do and I’m good at it. I’ve found it’s different when it’s about me. Here’s the story. I work a lot with emotional intelligence. I know all about triggers and how to spot them. I know about self management and how to point people to good practices – deep breathing when you notice tension building or the surge of emotions. Why is it so hard to do in my sandbox! I guess it’s the blessing/curse of being human. It is why I work with a coach – diligently. When it’s personal, it gets harder.

My business is changing. I’ve probably mentioned that before. Here’s the deal. I’ve wanted it to change. I’ve hungered to do more of what I want and less of other’s people’s work (being a subcontractor). I want to work with companies with humane leaders – I’ve worked for some jerks and don’t want to need income so badly that I fall back into having to do that.

I want two things. FIrst is to source abundance and the second it to manage the voices of desperation in my head. Those are the late-at-night, shadow-in-the-corner voices of doom. Those two wants are tied tightly together. If I source abundance…that means finding the positive view, no matter what, then my attention is aimed at what’s possible and the voice of doom doesn’t get air time. When I expect the very best to show up, then it does. Here’s the deal. When I source what is possible, I have to let go of know what or planning what mights show up. I have to live with ambiguity…no knowing. And if I let the default voice of doom have a say, it kills abundance.

WOW that’s a little harsh. The voices of doom KILL the energy of abundance. But isn’t it true? It is for me – because the energy of “what if it doesn’t work” would have me hedge my bets. You know the hedge –a little abundance but tempered with “practical, down to earth” contingency planning. It sounds reasonable but I am here to take a stand that “practical, down to earth” will keep me from experiencing all that is possible. Jim Collins in the beginning of Good to Great says it well. “Good is the enemy of great.” Scarcity is the enemy of abundance. I am ready to take a stand for not knowing and having faith. What a life that will be!