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.


Sportsmanship vs Gamesmanship

kid cheating golfAs we enter into this time of end-of-year, end-of-season pressures, it’s critical to remember – there is a difference between Gamesmanship and Sportsmanship.

Gamesmanship is where the rules are bent – if you’re not caught,  it can feel like you are not actually breaking the rules.

Sportsmanship is doing this right thing because it’s the right thing…knowing the game will be won on the merits of the players.

One of the biggest differences between the two is what we choose to model to those who look up to us.  Is it all right to bend the rules to win if we plan to explain it (or ignore it) later?  Or is important to always model honesty and integrity?  Always.

It’s a tough question in sports and in business.   It’s the difference between being like John Wooden and Bill Belichick.  Or if you are in business, between being IBM or being Enron.

I guess a key question remains:  who do you want to be in this world?

Even When No One Is Watching

The mark of dedication and commitment is to do the hard stuff – even when no one is watching.

Through the line
Photo credit: Players engage in endurance running drills during a San Diego All-Stars Club basketball practice at Miramar College. Sandy Huffaker

I was watching basketball drills (and realized it’s the same as baseball and softball) – one of the drills was to run and run and run because that’s what’s required to build up stamina for a season. The drill is called running through the line.  The player is asked to run a series of sprints across the court or field.  The trick is to run THROUGH the line, not just TO the line.  It’s good exercise and is a measure of thoroughness, commitment…you get the idea.

It’s a place where many athletes cheat…just a little bit.   Wait – it’s not really cheating, is it? After all, who cares if I run through the line or just touch it or maybe just come close?  What does it matter?

It matters.  In fact, it’s a matter of integrity.  Consider athletes getting ready for their seasons, or customer service reps who are responsible for the satisfaction of the person on the other end of the phone. I think of all of those moments when a supervisor, a boss or a parent is not watching. Why is there an inclination to slack off just a little bit because no one will notice?

If it’s worth doing well, isn’t it always worth doing well simply because it’s worth doing?

Does quality in your organization – or in your life require supervision? Or is it a matter of self-management and pride?  Always remember to run through the line.

The effect of “competition”

I’m talking about “competition” as the drive to be successful in yathletes shaking handsour game. When we look at the energy of competition in athletics, it comes primarily from two directions. The first is to execute and play the game well to win. The second is to beat the other athlete or team to win the game.

Let’s try on the two prospectives and see what we learn.

If my primary motivation is to beat the other, then I’ll do things outside the realm of just the game to be victorious – because the point is to win, no matter what. If I can take out the other team’s best players, then I beat them. In this energy, there is one goal – winning – and that can be a scary, powerful justification.  Like organized bullying.

On the other hand, if I want to execute and play my best game to win, then I respect the other team and the challenge they offer. My focus is on the intricacies of the game and how I can win through intellect and expertise.

Simplistic? Maybe. I’d be happy to hear if I’ve missed something.  The point is, in most games teams, athletes are amateurs…it’s the place we teach young people to be disciplined, healthy and competitive. Our real job is to build a capable, responsible generation of people… as well as win games.

#Superbowl2015 #CoachtoCoach