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.

 

You Don’t Have to Love It

Have you ever been asked if you have passion for your sport or your work – and when you look inside it felt a little parched? No love to be found – just the feeling that it’s hard.

It’s OK. It happens. It’s human. When you are heads down, working diligently on a long-term goal, there will be times when you look for the energy that passion provides and it’s just not there. There are days…and sometimes those days can become weeks…when it’s just hard.climber-984380_640

So what’s a person to do? Rather than languishing, start by asking a critical question – “what do I want?” Sound too simple? The truth is, it’s a question we probably don’t ask enough. So if it feels a little uncomfortable – maybe out of place – don’t be concerned, it is natural to hit an uninspired stretch when we are working toward a big goal. By knowing, ‘what I want’ I can find energy even when inspiration is in short supply. If “what do I want” feels like a big question, good, you are looking in the right place. I’m pointing you toward understanding your bigger game – what you are hungry for in your life.

I worked with an athlete who told me he realized he no longer loved the game. Practice had become hard and he felt like a fraud – surrounded by teammates who were passionate about practice and learning when it just felt like work to him. We focused on what he wanted for his life. He saw that the game would provide the scholarship that would provide the funding to get the education to pursue his dream. He discovered what he wanted. He also realized that he wouldn’t keep his scholarship if he didn’t continue to develop his natural talent and bring value to the team. By understanding himself a little better, he reframed his relationship with the game. He realized he didn’t have to love it. He did have to work hard because it was the path to what he wanted.

I invite you to allow “what do you want?” to be a big question – to take you beyond goals of making quota, winning games, or getting the position. You may find that great questions lead to even more valuable questions for you. What impact do I want to have? Where do I want this investment to take me? Where am I in this picture? Where do I want to be? These are the questions that help you find your direction – your purpose. From those answers emerges commitment.

You can re-calibrate and decide if the mundane work (that in itself may not be inspiring) gets you where you want to go. If the answer is yes, let that be your passion when it gets boring or hard or tedious. Knowing what you want – really want – in life can provide clarity, patience, and commitment.

You Can Be Wrong – It Doesn’t Hurt

One of the great myths in coaching/leadership is that being wrong is a sign of weakness.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  The challenge is, in a world where competition is so powerful, it’s almost natural to see things strictly through the lenses of win or lose; strength or weakness.  If that were the only option, it would follow that if I’m wrong, I’m weak.  Pretty harsh, so let’s not buy into it yet.Sometimes being wrong is the only way we can learn

Let’s look at a story of how being wrong led to success.  Gary Patterson, head coach at TCU, used to have a deliberate approach to running an offense.  It worked well for years.  In fact, TCU made it to the Rose Bowl in 2011 and won.

That win paved the way a couple of years later for TCU to make the leap to the Big 12 to play with the big boys.  Coach P’s deliberate approach to offense that had worked so well in the past was a disaster in the new era. The team went 2-7 in their conference debut.  What had been right in the past became really wrong.

Let’s pause the story for a minute and consider – if I see life as a competition, what is my response to being wrong?  I’m likely to experience denial, rationalization and often disbelief (must be some mistake, I’ll just try again.)  I may begin to act as though my identity, my character is tied to being wrong.  It becomes personal.  Think of a time when someone told you – “you’re doing it wrong.”  Was your first response to be curious or was your response like mine – justify my actions, blame some outside influence and make excuses?  Getting hooked by “I can’t be the one who’s wrong!” is a gargantuan waste of time and energy.

GP didn’t get wrapped up in the right and wrongness.  He got curious, assessed the situation, hired new fast-paced-offense coaches and handed offensive responsibility over to them – a coaching act of faith.  TCU went 12 – 1 (8-1) the next year.

Let’s go back to the myth:  being wrong is a sign of weakness.  If I worry about how I am seen, that in itself becomes the problem.  I waste time focusing on looking good instead of addressing what is not working.  Tip of the hat to Gary Patterson.  He didn’t go there.

The lesson is to choose curiosity over defensiveness and judgment. Being wrong is not a failing – it’s a failure and our job is to recover.

 

 

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