The great Bill Russell, one of the greatest winners in the history of all sports - winning 11 NBA Championships in 13 years - once said that “the heart of a champion has to do with the depth of our Commitment.”
Without doubt, our level of commitment, often called drive or intensity, is the number #1 predictor of how far any athlete will take their sport – from Grade School to State, National, and World Championships, Olympic Gold, or the Hall of Fame. Commitment and intensity predicts the lengths we will go to improve and excel – both physically (skills, athleticism and conditioning) and mentally (mental skills and mental toughness). We could be the most skilled athlete in the world, with the most gifted athleticism, possessing the most natural peak performance composure, concentration, and confidence; and yet, without intensity and commitment, all of this means very little. The talent will eventually be wasted and our full potential unrealized.
However, any discussion about game time commitment and intensity levels should always involve two levels of responsibility - one level for coaches, and one for the athletes. As we have already discussed, some coaches are world renowned for their ability to deliver the ultimate ‘pre-game talk,’ and enjoy watching their teams lock down opponents with four quarters of awe-inspiring intensity. However, the problem that many coaches face is consistency. That same set of ‘magic words’ that worked so well for one game, often will not work for another, and during a very important game every coach has at times asked themselves, “where in the world is the intensity? I thought we prepared so well!” In previous articles, we have discussed ways to master the pre-game message and ultimate game time ‘psyching’ in relation to how a coach can get a team fully prepared for the big game. In this discussion we will take a closer look at the mind of the athlete, and how athletes can increase their commitment and intensity for the all important playoff run!
The following tips will help any coach or athlete maintain a fierce level of intensity and high motivation level regardless of whether the setting is a 6am practice, or the biggest game of the year.
Know that confidence levels can affect intensity:
Few things increase intensity better than a sharp increase in confidence. When teams and players are unsure of themselves and lack confidence, they typically play tentatively and often play ‘not to lose’ instead of playing to win. The result is usually a dip in both performance and intensity. So the question then becomes ‘how do you increase confidence?’ A full answer to that question involves multiple factors. In fact, if we were fully addressing the subject of confidence, this WBCA journal could be filled from the first page to the last page with training tips and techniques to build confidence. These techniques include the teaching style of the coach, pre-game visualization, self-talk, correct practice habits, mistake management, changing a player’s ‘attribution style,’ examining a player’s ‘task orientation,’ and the list goes on. In previous articles I discussed how to teach athletes correct visualization, self-talk and mistake management/performance consistency. The next part of this discussion will focus on the teaching style of the coach, and changing a player’s attribution style, two seldom discussed areas of mental skills that are extremely important and deserve attention.
Teaching style of the coach
As is often said of many athletes and their relationship to their coach…. “if they fear you in your presence, they will hate you in your absence.” No player ever gave 100% intensity in every game of the season to a coach they really disliked. Coaches can always find creative ways to inject some fun into a practice or game without sacrificing intensity. The great coaches are masters of this unique skill. Creativity and fun in practice also has an amazing way of counteracting pressure. Pressure begins and ends in the mind of any athlete, and the physiological reaction to pressure that the body feels through muscle tension, short/shallow breathing patterns and general nervousness are nothing more than the brain’s perceptions affecting the body. Fun can reenergize an athlete, and counteract stress and the body’s physical reaction to stress in remarkable ways. When used in the right way, it can also increase intensity and commitment levels. There is one other point about coaching styles that is also important to understand – the ‘positive/negative balance.’ All coaches fall on a continuum of styles that has a 100% percent ‘positive’ coach on one end of the spectrum, and a 100% negative coach on the other end. Very few coaches I have ever met sit completely on one end or the other. Most coaches fall somewhere in between the two poles, and most coaches usually move up and down the scale/continuum depending on the situation and the athlete.
The great coaches understand how to communicate a message while still staying as far as possible on the positive side of the scale. The great Phil Jackson is a classic example. In his first year of tenure with the Chicago Bulls, Coach Jackson admitted he was really struggling with player motivation and intensity and for a few practices found himself participating in a courageous self-examination. At the other end of his examination, Coach Jackson admitted to himself that his criticism to compliment ratio was about 5:1, and this, coupled with his incessant screaming, was becoming an emotional drain on the team. He spent the remaining part of the year attempting to turn around the ratio, in addition to using the volume in his voice VERY selectively. The results speak for themselves…players that liked being around a coach who knew how to make a correction in such a way that built a player’s confidence vs. breaking a player’s confidence (and yes you are right, it DID help that Jackson also had the greatest player on the planet playing for him at the time!). While consistently remaining on the upper end of the positive scale, we are not talking about ‘babying’ athletes – far from it. We are talking about the type of coach who players love because they can look forward to a practice or game of teaching/learning and confidence building vs. a practice or game which is consistently an emotional drain on morale and self-efficacy. Great coaches grab the loyalty and heart of their athletes, because the athletes GIVE them their loyalty and heart. As the great essayist Fontaine wrote, “When you capture the heart, impossibilities vanish.” The heart is something that is given, not taken, and the best way to win it is by building an athlete’s self-efficacy and confidence. Most of the coaches reading this article may already have a great handle on this balance. If you feel you do not, try a similar period of self-reflection and approach to that of Phil Jackson. Your players will notice an immediate difference, the mood of the practice and team will shift, and you will LOVE the positive effect on morale and intensity (including your own morale!).
Changing a player’s ‘Attribution Style’
Compare the following two athletes playing on the same team that just pulled out a huge upset victory in the first round of the playoffs (for this example it is important to know that the opposing team missed a free throw in the dying seconds that could have sent the game into overtime). In the locker room after the game, player #1 reflects on the game; the following is an excerpt from her internal thoughts: “Wow, that game was AWESOME… we got pretty lucky on that one….normally that opponent would not have missed that free throw because she is usually pretty awesome. I had a great game tonight, and I think one of the main reasons is because of how good my new shoes felt. I felt like I could stop, pivot and pull-up on a dime…and also because I am riding a shooting hot streak. I wonder when this hot streak will end…” And now player #2’s post game reflections: “Wow, that game was AWESOME, we hustled our butts off and really deserved that one. We had all of our opponents rattled and nervous with our full court D, and I am not surprised their best player missed that clutch free throw. Man, I played great tonight and I deserve it. All of my extra shooting practice outside of team practice is beginning to pay off. I’ll be even better the next game.”
It is hard to imagine that both players play on the same team, but such is the make up of so many different athletes on so many teams, and the reason often comes down to each athlete’s attribution style. Attribution styles typically relate to what factors each player attributes to a certain performance. Note that attributes are perceptions that can be both rational and valid, and also highly irrational. Great players who have consistent confidence have attribution styles that are largely internal and controllable vs. external and uncontrollable (ie perceptions of the player’s own practice habits causing the great play and the win vs. perceptions of getting lucky because the opponent missed a clutch free throw), and stable vs. unstable (i.e. the level of hustle can be controlled and is stable, while ‘how the shoes feel’ is sometimes unstable/inconsistent). You can bet your bottom dollar that athlete #2 is generally a more confident athlete than athlete #1, largely because the second athlete has an attribution style that is mostly internal, controllable and stable. So how do you teach the correct attribution style? While changing an attribution style is a process, something all coaches can immediately do is to take the team through a post game analysis the day after a game, and have each athlete record their top 5 reasons for their individual performance, and top 5 reasons for the team performance. You should list as many possible reasons for the performance (both rational and irrational) on a white board for them to choose from. These reasons may include the pre-game meal, previous practice(s), hot streak, extra practice, good mood, off court social life is going well/poorly, classes are going well/poorly, poise, focus, and any other reasons they can come up with by themselves etc. A team discussion can follow in which you discuss some of your player’s written answers and encourage them to focus on those things that are internal, controllable and stable – the attributions that research has connected to the most confident and consistently intense athletes. The take home message here is to get your players to only focus on those things they can control and to help them begin to shape their own attribution styles.
As all coaches are aware, consistent intensity is based on multiple factors that span the existing team culture, player leadership, conditioning, pre-game preparation and individual/team confidence. This discussion has focused on two very practical ways to increase confidence that we had not previously discussed. In the next issue of the WBCA journal, I will focus on a player’s task orientation and how this deep rooted inner drive is connected to intensity, competitive fire and the pursuit of excellence vs. a lack of mental toughness, choking and ‘self-sabotage.’