Sport Psych Lessons from the World of Sports Marketing

 

What message is this shirt really sending?

I was recently browsing through a mall when I came upon a shirt with a curious logo. The shirt in question was produced by Under Armour, and it bore the phrase “I can’t I won’t Lose [sic].” In looking at that phrase, I was struck by several things. First, was how much of a departure this is from the usual language that is often found on such clothing. In the past, I have been used to the positive (if somewhat ambiguous) language of other companies. Nike’s “Just Do It” being the most famous and longstanding, but also Adidas’ “Live for Sport” and others have maintained the common thread. Second, punctuation (which this phrase lacked completely) matters. The phrase “I can’t, I won’t lose” is FAR different than “I can’t. I won’t. Lose.” The former implies a sense of determination, the latter, abject hopelessness.

Third, and most importantly from my own perspective, is that it got me thinking about the importance of positivity in language, specifically, that language we use with ourselves (aka: self-talk). One of the most misunderstood aspects of sport psychology is on the use of “Positivity.” When sport psychologists talk about being positive, we don’t mean it in a cheery, optimistic way (though that can sometimes help). Rather, we use the word “positive” to denote cueing yourself into actions that you want to perform, rather than cautioning against actions you want to avoid.

The classic contrast between “hit the ball” vs. “Don’t miss the ball” is a perfect example of this. Saying to yourself “hit the ball” clearly directs your attention towards an action that you want to perform (a positive action or cue, if you will), and that will help you achieve other goals (e.g., getting on base, scoring a run). The latter phrase does exactly the opposite – it cues your attention towards an action that you want to avoid (a negative action or cue). In effect, by saying to yourself “don’t miss” you’re directing your attention towards failure, rather than success.

This example can be extended to all manner of situations: Golf (Good swing, hit the green vs. don’t put it in the water/bunker/trees/parking lot), basketball (make the shot vs. don’t miss), diving (clean moves vs. don’t get messy), running (hit your split times vs. don’t go slow). Marketing agencies have started to take notice of this as well. Up until a few years ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) used the slogan “Arrive Alive, don’t Drink and Drive.” Catchy, but based on what I just discussed, this sends the wrong message. Recently, they seem to have clued in to this fact though, as I’ve now started seeing the same placards, but with slightly modified slogans that now read “Arrive Alive, Drive Sober.” The same message underlies both phrases, but the latter is much clearer, and directs one’s attention much more clearly towards a desired action.

Often times breaking yourself of this habit can be a tricky thing, but with a little effort, it can be done. Here’s a little thought experiment in positivity for you to try: If you catch yourself saying “don’t do [insert action here]” either to yourself or someone else, try to catch yourself and rephrase it in a way that directs attention towards a positive action. For example, if a child is approaching an object that you’d prefer they stayed away from, try asking them to “leave that alone” rather than saying “don’t touch that.” Better yet, giving them an action for them to perform instead (e.g., come here, please) is even better.

So how SHOULD that shirt read? You’ve probably figured it out by now: I can I will Win

Looks Like it’s Time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to “Come to Jesus”

 

The time has come for Ron Wilson to get the Leafs back on track for the home stretch of the regular season.

With the NHL’s trade deadline come and gone this past Monday, upper management of the Toronto Maple Leafs has strongly indicated that they believe the talent pool in the locker room is good enough to make the playoffs. With their recent play seeming to indicate the opposite though (see also: Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to conference rivals, The Florida Panthers), it may be time for a more abrupt message. Now is the time for what is often known as the “Come to Jesus” speech. Not to be confused with a sudden influx of religious fervour, a CTJ speech or moment is one that some teams or individuals may require in order to try get back on track when they seem to have lost their way. It is usually a moment in which an honest appraisal of what has been happening takes place, and one tries to plot a course for the future that will help lead to better results.

A CTJ speech doesn’t necessarily mean that one needs to change everything about how to play the game. In many instances, it’s not about WHAT athletes are doing, so much as HOW they are doing it. Effort, intensity, and approach can all have a huge effect on eventual outcomes. If anyone (let alone, more than one) of these factors is lacking, results can be disastrous.

So what would I say? The first place I would start would be with the mindset of the team. With a record of 1-8-1 over the last 10 games, you have the makings of a team that is frustrated, lacks confidence, and is beginning to get desperate as the playoffs loom and they currently find themselves on the outside looking in.  Additionally, the dynamic starting to shape up in Toronto is very much an “Us vs. Them” situation. The team is being assaulted on all sides. Their opponents want them to not make the playoffs for obvious reasons; The fans are frustrated, booing during games, and calling for the head coach to be fired; The media continue to pour on the pressure with their constant second guessing and armchair quarterbacking. It’s an easy dynamic to fall into, so why not go for it? Think of the pennant run sequence at the end of the movie “Major League.” An overly dramatic example, sure, but the basic premise is there. Everyone either thinks you can’t, won’t, or don’t want to make the playoffs. Prove ‘em wrong.

Once the mindset of the team is taken care of, I’d get down to the nuts and bolts of how to go about finishing the season strong. Namely, I’d point out that now is the time to set some short-term goals and narrow the focus of the team. The season isn’t 82 games anymore – it’s 19. Shortening the focus of the athletes to view the remaining games as a sprint to the finish can also have a large effect on the intensity they bring to each game. It’s not about being 3 points out of the playoffs. It’s not about needing your opponents to do badly. It IS about making the most of the 19 games left before the playoffs begin. Focus on those things that you can control and forget the rest.  A reasonable goal at this point is winning at LEAST 10 of those games. A better goal would be winning 14. One of the keys in goal setting is to make sure to set difficult, yet not impossible goals. Another key, especially in this case, is to set goals that, even if they aren’t reached, put you in a much better spot than you were previously. Winning 10 of the next 19 games would be a big lift for the Leafs. It would definitely put them in contention, but what happens if they get to that 10th win with 6 or 7 games to go? The last thing you want at that stage is to take the foot off the accelerator once the goal has been reached. With a 14 game goal, The Leafs may not achieve their goal, but they may win 11 or 12 in the process, which would almost assure them a playoff spot. Additionally, since they didn’t achieve their initial goal, it gives them somewhere else to go once they’ve reached the playoffs, rather than simply saying “hey, we made it!” and losing in the first round.

Finally, I’d point out that times like this are about going back to the basics. The players know the systems at this point in the season – they know what they need to do in order to succeed. Shorter, higher intensity practices should be all they need to maintain their focus and stay energized for the last push to the finish. The key isn’t to try and do anything fancy, over the top, or drastically different in terms of actual gameplay. Rather, they need to focus on an earnest, intense effort for the next 30 days of the regular season. The Leafs have systems in place that work. One need only look at the month of January in which they went an entire calendar month without giving up a goal on the penalty kill for proof of that. The key is sticking with that approach every shift of every game. The team’s leadership, especially head coach Ron Wilson and Captain Dion Phaneuf, need to press that point home. Amen.

The Psychology of The Loser

Despite the loss, Tom Brady will continue to be a top competitor in the NFL.

With the Super Bowl recently concluded, there has been a lot of talk about the game, and the endless comparisons that inevitably follow. Does the Giants’ win mean Eli is a better QB than Tom Brady? Than Peyton? Do the Giants have what it takes to maintain their high level of competition? Is Tom Coughlin really a better coach than Belichick, or did he simply figure out the Patriots on this occasion?

One of the things that has always fascinated me though is the psychology of the “loser.” Whenever I watch a championship game I can’t help but feel for the coach of the losing team who is invariably put in the spotlight and asked “what went wrong?” That said, focusing on the psychology of such a loss, and more importantly, how to recover and move on from such an (often traumatic) event is key for any athlete or high performer to understand.

Time heals all. This may sound trite and clichéd, but in this case it also happens to be true. In the moment immediately following a loss at a big event such as a world championship or Olympic Games, athletes can often be inconsolable. Everything they have worked so hard for – all the training, careful diet planning, travel, and sacrifice – seems to be for naught. Feelings of failure are commonplace at one’s failing to achieve an ultimate goal. That said, taking some time afterwards to decompress is always a good idea. In order to properly evaluate what went wrong (and learning how to correct things in the future), you need to have a clear head. Taking a few days (or weeks if possible) to achieve this is a much better plan than trying to watch game film the next day while the wounds are still fresh.

Not all goals are created equal. One the things that I preach to my clients the most is the importance of setting goals based on one’s personal performance, rather than simply on outcomes. If this is a new concept, allow me to explain. Performance goals are those goals in which the measure of success is a previously established personal performance. The amount of time it took you to complete a run. The number of consecutive free-throws you can hit. Basically, something in which you are competing against yourself, and the standards of performance that you maintain. With outcome goals, the focus of competition is completely external. Winning a race, beating an opponent, any type of situation in which the focus of competition is interpersonal. The key distinction between these two types of goals really comes down to one thing: control. When sitting down and evaluating things after a big loss, it’s really important to focus on improving those things that are directly under your control. Trying to win a big game is important, but there are so many factors involved, that at the end of the day, you need to focus on those things that you can control, and leave the rest to play out as it will.

Looking to the future. Immediately after a big loss, its tough not to dwell on what could have been. Second guessing is an all too common occurrence that affects both professionals and amateurs alike. That said, its important to remember that, despite the loss this time, there are other events in the future which have yet to crown a victor. Shifting focus from the past to the future can be a good way to gain some perspective, reassess, and recommit to one’s goals. Its important to remember the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them, but keeping one’s focus and attention towards the future is the best way to continue progressing towards one’s ultimate goals.

The Hangover of Champions, Part 2

 

In the field of sport psychology, we are always trying to help clients understand what distractions exist within their worlds, and how best to manage them. In many cases, the “hangover of champions” can result simply from an overload of distractions, much to the detriment of the athlete(s) performance. The following addresses some of the issues brought up in the last post, along with some ideas on how to mitigate the effects of the champion’s hangover. Consider the following to be “a Bloody Mary and 2 advil” for your mind.

Culture: With regards to the “types” of champions discussed earlier, the focus here should really be put on the first type (i.e., the champions who, for however short a period of time, relax). Any time that you are successful at reaching your goals, you should always take time to enjoy it. That being said, its important to know when to draw the line between celebrating the past, and preparing for the future. In most sports, there is a specific time period built in to enjoy this: The Offseason. In others, such as golf, one has only a week before another tournament begins. The key is to make a conscious choice once training resumes to leave the championship behind. Prior accomplishments are nice, but the world of sports is notorious for the “what have you done for me lately” attitude that seems to prevail at the highest levels of competition. Once training for a new season or event commences, it’s important to commit to that training entirely. Taking time off or continuing to be self-congratulatory will only make your job harder.

Overconfidence: Yes, you’re a champion. And no, that can never be taken away from you. But what is in the past is done with. Confidence is a fickle thing. Often, having too much can be just as detrimental as not having enough. In a way, a champion must distance themselves from the crowds and congratulations that so often can lead to an inflated sense of confidence. That’s not to say they have to be distant or unappreciative of the attention. But it must be taken with a grain of salt. Think of a champion like Wayne Gretzky. For much of his career, Gretzky was referred to as “The Great One” yet he was always humble, and worked just as hard (if not harder) at practice as anyone else on his team. As a result of this combination of his humility and work ethic, he was able to live up to the name the media and fans had given him. Ultimately it comes down to a daily commitment to applying oneself to the task at hand the best of your abilities.

Routines: Upon winning, especially for the first time, maintaining one’s routines becomes even more important than ever before. In some cases, routines may need to be adjusted, but establishing and maintaining one’s routines – before, during, and after a competition – is extremely important in making sure that one is always in the right mindset to compete. Perhaps you need to make some extra time for the media based on the increased visibility you have, perhaps a rearrangement of your training schedule is needed. Whatever the modifications to your routines that need to be made, they should be made on your own terms, and should ALWAYS be structured such that your preparation for competition the first priority.

Visibility: As mentioned earlier, now that you’re a champion, you also have a target on your back. However, the worst thing you can do is start playing as though you now have something to lose. Not that there are ever any “easy wins” at the highest levels of competition, but it’s important to remember that your competition knows exactly who you are and what you’re capable of. As such, its important to enter each competition expecting the best performance from your competition, so that you can make a conscious effort to give your best that day as well, and ultimately give yourself the best chance at a victory.

In the end, the champion’s hangover usually resolves itself, since every competitor inevitably comes back to wanting to win again, rather than resting on his/her laurels. Hopefully some of the info above provided insight on how to alleviate the symptoms of the “Champion’s Hangover.”

The Hangover of Champions, Part 1

 

The Defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins are off to a rough start this year.

There’s been a lot of talk about the “champion’s hangover” this fall, especially as it relates to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Now, I’m not referring to what it must have been like for the Bruins the morning after they incurred their $156,000 bar tab at Foxwoods Casino after winning The Cup in June. Rather, I’m referring to the phenomenon that sometimes happens within sports when champions undergo a period of underperformance immediately after winning a big event or championship. While the Bruins may be the latest in the world of athletics to suffer this malady, they are hardly the first. The world of golf is littered with first time major winners, who, after capturing their first Major, have finished out their seasons in relative mediocrity (See also: Zack Johnson, Trevor Immelman). And the phenomenon extends to other sports, too.

Now, I’m not so much interested in the “what” of this phenomenon so much as the “why.” Going forward, the scientist in me thinks it’s important to point out that all of what I’m about to say is pure conjecture. I have neither researched the scholarly work on this (if it even exists), nor have I conducted any research myself. That said, the following are my initial impressions of what may contribute to this phenomenon, and how one might avoid it moving forward. In the interest of time, I’ll split my comments into 2 parts. The first being my impressions of what causes the hangover, and the second by my impressions of how to alleviate some of the effects.

Culture: In looking at this problem from a cultural point of view, there seem to be two main types as it relates to the “hangover.” First, there are those who strive for success and then, having achieved it, relax. They look around, enjoy the air on the top of the mountain and revel in their newfound success. And why not? Isn’t the whole point of what they’ve been doing to reach this very moment? At the same time, there are those who, having achieved the summit, yearn immediately for more. They enjoy the achievement, sure, but take less time to enjoy it, since they are already focused on their next conquest. Efforts are redoubled, and the success is simply more fuel to the competitive fire. Either one of the above traits can be attributed to both individuals and organizations, but this difference may contribute to the length and severity of a hangover insofar as one stays content with what one has done. I think in the end, all champions come around to wanting to taste more victory, but, especially for first time winners, this may take a while before the post-victory glow wears off and the drive to climb the mountain begins once again. 

Overconfidence: Having spent the immediate aftermath of a championship being lauded as heroes both at home and abroad and (rightfully) being hailed as “the best (team/individual) in (insert sport here)”, its hard not to get a big head. Work ethic may stay the same, but there’s the possibility that a change to one’s approach to competition, however subtle, can have a large effect on the ultimate outcomes. Perhaps a golfer gets too cavalier about a difficult course. A hockey team might underestimate a retooled opponent from last year. A tennis player may take a bit too much time signing autographs or giving interviews, rather than warming up. All of these things can lead to problems when the rubber hits the road. 

Routines: As humans, we are creatures of habit. We like to do things a certain way, and any disruption to that can be very unsettling, whether we are conscious of it or not. Especially in the case of first time champions, but more generally in the case of all champions, reaching the apex of one’s sport necessarily involves a great deal more attention than one may have ever gotten before becoming a champion. Parades, talk show appearances, guest spots on SNL, while fun, can often have the effect of distracting one from the job at hand – that is, winning again. Not only that, but the increased attention and commitments necessarily leave less time for training, travelling, and relaxing. 

Visibility: No longer just another player on the field, a championship also brings a certain level of visibility (and notoriety) among one’s competition. All of a sudden you are the one to beat. And your competition will do everything they can at every turn to do just that. Champions are no longer a team to play or an individual to face; they become circled dates on calendars, marquis match-ups, and “games of the week.” The champion’s attitude may not change, but you can bet the competition wants to make a name for themselves as “the one who beat the champ.” 

Now having said all that, the really important question is – if you’re an aspiring champion (or a current one), how do you keep your foot on the accelerator after you win, rather than falling into the many traps that have just been laid out? More on that in Part 2. Stay tuned!!

Mental Strength and Conditioning: For Sport. For Business. For Life.