SBJ/March 17-23, 2014/Opinion

Preparation vital to high performance, on the field or in the office

Dear Coaches and Sports Executives,

It appears that stress is all the rage.

Bigger, faster, stronger: the current landscape of sports. How big, how fast, and how strong should we expect to be? It’s a lot to handle, and I’m not sure we are prepared. It’s no longer just the athletes I am talking about. It’s the
coaches, athletic directors, university presidents and other sports executives who are reaching their boiling point.

It’s not that we should be blind to the pressures of these roles, but given recent health scares, perhaps we’d be wise to heed the warning.

Many professional football teams provide their head coaches with “executive physicals.” While well-intended, for many they often serve as the green light to “hold on tight and let ’er rip.” What about one’s social, emotional and psychological well-being?

It’s time to be proactive and address both the physical and psychological health of our sports leaders. We have to go beyond reminding them to slow down and take it easy. If they knew how to relax, they would. Teaching our leaders self-management skills is essential for leadership effectiveness. They simply have to take care of themselves in order to be available and effective with others.

With success, distraction and loss of control, high-achieving type A’s are overheating.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
They are pulled in so many directions that it’s a wonder that they do as well as we do. The more success they have, the greater the distractions. Efforts to control all these variables can be overwhelming. It’s no wonder high-achieving, goal-oriented, type A’s are overheating at a seemingly record pace.

For many coaches, their season becomes about survival. Not so much in terms of wins and losses, but survival of one’s self. And what if they want to go beyond just “survival” and getting the job done, to performing up to their potential? What can they do to stay in the game for the long run?

This requires learning some new skills — mind skills — like the ability to focus. How do they get better at sorting through all the stimuli that bombard them day to day, moment to moment? Selective attention serves them well. It helps them stay on task. The down side is they could miss some very important things. They can be so focused on the task at hand that they become limited in their situational awareness.

Bud Grant, the hall of fame football coach of the Minnesota Vikings, once told me that he disliked the use of charts and clipboards on the sidelines. He went on to tell me that while his coaches have their focus on the charts, they are not able to notice the facial expression of the opposing player grimacing with pain indicating a weakness. Those subtle cues would help him in the play-calling of the game.

Most coaches and leaders have a high bar regarding their own performance expectations. They are hard drivers and demand perfection of themselves and others. Attention to detail is usually seen as a sign of strength. It’s also about control.

Most coaches could tell you what they will be doing at 4:10 p.m. six months from today. For many, this kind of high functioning is seen as something that demonstrates preparedness or “quality leadership” versus some kind of obsessive or dysfunctional behavior.

Good leadership is about creating an environment that promotes best efforts. Some of the latest research in neuroscience suggests that for high performance to occur, leaders need to create an optimal learning environment. We now know that anxiety and high emotions, positive or negative, can inhibit decision-making. It’s also not good for health.

Being too analytic and self-critical is another recipe for disaster. It can also create a cognitive mess. Instead of relying on the repetitions of practice, people begin to fear mistakes. They think too much, and suddenly something quite natural becomes unnatural. For an athlete, the result means being late on a 95 mph fastball or getting beat deep due to being a step too slow. For a coach or sports executive, it means thinking versus being, a kind of “double-think,” questioning of knowledge and experiences that have accumulated throughout one’s career.

High performance is all about preparation. Attention is about energy and information flow. Our mind helps us regulate and modify that energy flow.

The more we practice, the more automatic the response. Our efforts become almost subconscious. Behavior resembles something like auto-pilot; it exists below one’s awareness. The result is we actually pay less attention. The goal should be a quiet mind, a kind of effortless attention. The word “play” comes to mind.

Why should all this be so difficult for coaches and leaders to achieve? Can you imagine embracing these concepts on the big stage of collegiate and professional sports? Self-care, empathy, play, a quiet mind — the reality is that these are the topics that often bring fear and anxiety to those in the world of competitive sports. No one wants to shed their defenses and actually appear soft, or, worse yet, vulnerable or even human. Yet it is precisely that, our humanness, that allows for not only great leadership, but great followership as well.

It takes courage to challenge popular yet outdated norms. Perhaps we should bring to light a new form of mental toughness. Creating a culture of high performance will benefit not only the leaders of our industry but performance on the field, as well.

One last example of how we might get in our own way: the notion that more is better. In most football offices, ballparks or C-level suites, nobody wants to be the last to arrive or the first to go home. Being the first car in and last car out is often mistakenly seen as a sign of caring and dedication. Even Seinfield’s George Costanza had that figured out.

Rick Aberman (aberm001@umn.edu), Ph.D., is on the medical staff of the Minnesota Twins and serves as the director of peak performance. He also provides executive coaching and consults with the University of Minnesota football, baseball and tennis teams.

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