This page shares my thoughts on topics like learning, motivation, fitness, talent development and more.
I believe in using a science-based approach to solve practical problems, so you’ll see I reference a lot of the latest research here. I also love stories, so you’ll also find a few of those here, too.
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Athlete Development tips based on proven scientific research
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3 questions about challenge
The day of school cross country has arrived. At home over breakfast, your 12 year old son is not his usual bubbly self. Instead, he’s sitting quietly sipping his cup of milo with a glazed look in his eyes.
What is he thinking?
Three questions get asked internally prior to any challenge that shape an athlete’s mindset.
Question #1: Is this important to me?
How much joy does running hold for your son? How much success has he had in the past? What does running mean to you, his parents? What’s really at stake? The more meaning a challenge holds, the more we care about it.
Question #2: What happens if I lose?
Meaning and success usually align. In other words, if cross country means a lot to your son, it’s likely he’ll want a positive outcome. He may have even decided on a specific goal for the race. Therefore, the big question inside your son’s head will be about loss. Uncertainty in the outcome carries two possible emotions – excitement associated with the chase and anxiety associated with loss. Which emotion dominates how your son feels will depend on how he answers the final question.
Question #3: Is what I have right now enough?
Alongside evaluating the importance of the challenge, your son will also appraise his ability to conquer it. He will ask himself whether or not his current level of skill is enough. The outcome he wants doesn’t have to be a certainty, but he does need to feel like he’s got a shot.
What role do you play in the answers to these 3 questions?
OCTOBER 10, 2023
The Master Bricklayer
There are many different kinds of bricks. Burnt clay bricks. Concrete bricks. Sand lime bricks. Fly ash bricks. Engineering bricks. And firebricks.
The kind used by the bricklayer depends on the goal of the masonry project. If the wall being built must resist heat and fire, for example, then firebricks are the best material. Picking the right type of brick requires a deep curiosity and knowledge of bricks. Building the wall, on the other hand, requires smooth hands, some maths, a creative attitude and dedication.
The game on Saturday is a little like building a wall made of bricks. Depending on the goal, which changes week by week and moment to moment depending on the circumstances, the athlete must first choose the right kind of brick. They must then know how to lay the bricks to solve the problem they face in front of them.
Sport education, therefore, must be twofold; provide opportunities to develop a diverse knowledge of bricks and design environments rich for problem solving.
OCTOBER 9, 2023
How does this help me?
The adolescent brain asks; how does this help me progress? It’s a biological response based on the evolutionary drive to survive.
In youth sport, however, it’s a different question. A pervasive focus on comparison and results means the young athlete brain now asks; how does this help me win?
It’s a slight but significant change.
Of course, it’s not the question itself that’s the problem, but how it affects behaviour.
A focus on winning means specialise early. Train more rather than train better. Instruct incessantly from the sideline. Push through pain and injury. Spent time taking instead of giving.
When progression is the focus, thinking is expanded rather than restricted. Diversification is understood and designed for. Letting kids play and make mistakes is prioritised. Helping others is seen as an important part of development. And rest and recovery is valued.
The questions we ask are powerful. They change the way we think, and thus act.
There’s nothing wrong with wining. But how we get there should be the focus.
OCTOBER 4, 2023
When Maile O’Keefe scored a perfect 10 on beam to clinch the NCAA gymnastics all-around title, her working space was just 10 centimetres wide. That’s smaller than an iPhone turned to landscape mode.
It’s a scary thing landing a backward summersault on such a small platform 125 centimetres above the ground, no matter how experienced you are.
For Maile to stick her routine successfully, avoiding the ‘what ifs’ was critical. What if I fall? What if I hurt myself? What if I let the team down? They’re the same what ifs felt by every athlete, regardless of age and playing level.
The way to stay focused and avoid negative thinking is through process. One step in front of the other, as clear and concise as possible. What are you paying attention to? What are the words you are saying to yourself? What does it feel like in your body?
In turns out that focusing on the process doesn’t just happen. It takes forethought, practice, and refinement.
The good thing is, anyone can do it.
OCTOBER 3, 2023
I’ve been playing a game called Tumbling Monkeys with my kids recently. In it, skewer shaped sticks are interwoven through a plastic shaped palm tree before you drop a handful of monkeys in the top. You win the game by removing sticks without letting the monkeys fall to the bottom of the tree.
At least, that’s how it says to play on the box.
The thing is, my four year old loves the excitement of watching monkeys fall. He much prefers the idea of collecting monkeys rather than the alternative. And so we changed the game. Tumbling monkeys became the objective.
There’s uncertainty in every game. It’s what makes it exciting. You can either face up to the uncertainty by looking for the opportunity to create. By taking a calculated risk, exploring what’s possible, and going after the monkeys. Or you can go on the defensive, play it safe, and always look for the skewer without any monkeys on it.
What game are you playing?
SEPTEMBER 29, 2023
When Harrison Butker walked out to the middle of State Farm Stadium with just a few seconds remaining in Super Bowl LVI, his intention was clear; kick the field goal and secure the win for his team.
A few moments earlier, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes also had a clear intention; get Butker close enough to make the kick a formality.
Setting an intention helps you focus on what’s important and avoid getting distracted by the occasion. It creates purpose and is more likely to result in the outcome you’re after.
The thing is, clear intentions are not just for the superstars of sport earning millions of dollars. They’re also important when supporting your 11-year-old from the sideline.
The simple question “what’s my intention?” is easy to ask and can have powerful implications.
If you’re interested in helping your child (and others) learn and develop, what will your focus be on the sideline? How will you react when something goes wrong? What about when something goes right? How will the words you direct at the players, the opposition, or the ref affect your child’s experience? And how will your intention change from during the game to after it?
Macronutrient #3 - Speed
Macronutrient #2 - Endurance
3 Essential Nutrients of Movement
The Movement Library
Literacy starts with knowing your alphabet. In movement, rather than letters, we have positions. The goal is to build an expansive movement library by experiencing a wide range of body positions over time.
Health = Performance
With the start of the woman’s world cup and such an inspiring result for New Zealand, it’s hard not to get drawn in by all the excitement. There’s not doubt young girls all around the country are going to want get involved. Girls already playing in their school teams are also likely to be spurred on. Both fantastic results for the game.
As I watch on, my mind goes to health. Recent articles in The New York Times and Time spotlight what is being called a knee injury epidemic. In particular, ruptures of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) are occurring at alarming rates, the consequences of which are months out of the game in rehabilitation and a 50 precent chance of osteoarthritis in later life.
The thing is, ACL tears are not just a problem in elite level football. More and more young players are also suffering them. At high school age, girls tear their ACLs at two to three times the rate of boys.
It’s important that as we continue to increase accessibility and opportunity in youth sport, we also consider how best to support the experience of our kids. After more than a decade helping young athletes prepare their bodies for sport, I’m learning that the most important thing to keep kids engaged in sport, as well as give them the best chance of performing at their best, is health.
Do They Trust You?
At 6 am every morning, Kenny McFadden walked through the doors at the ASB Sport Centre in Kilbirnie, Wellington, picked up a bag of balls and a whistle, and went to work. His ultimate goal? To get the next Kiwi kid to the NBA.
Kenny was born in Lansing, Michigan, just outside of Detroit in the US. Detroit in the 70’s was a tough place to grow up. Gangs, drugs, few positive role models. Trouble was easily found, and at the tender age of 12 years, Kenny found himself with an important decision to make. His coach at the time gave him an ultimatum: pick up your grades or get kicked off the team. Kenny loved basketball. But more important, he loved the guys he played with. They were his brothers. His tribe. When life got tough, Kenny turned to basketball. It gave him purpose. Kenny went on to a successful playing career with Washington State University. Then in 1982, after falling just short of a professional contract in the NBA and the realisation he needed a change, Kenny boarded an Air New Zealand flight bound for Wellington. Over the next 15 years, he won four championship titles with the Wellington Saints and decided to make New Zealand his home.
Basketball taught Kenny a lot. He learned the importance of hard work, perseverance and the safety sport can provide when the world around you is a struggle. But perhaps most importantly, Kenny learned the significant impact a coach can have on a young player. It’s why, once retired from playing ball, Kenny turned his attention to the kids. “When my time is up, Kenny said, I want a list of accomplishments, not for myself but for others.”
In 2007 Kenny got his big chance. A young man by the name of Steven Adams entered the Winter Show buildings in Newton, Wellington; Kenny’s home court. The place, which housed two full-size basketball courts with bleachers at either end, smelt like a mix between body odour and wet wood. In the winter, the roof leaked and the players spent the first 10 minutes of practice on their hands and knees wiping the courts dry. Warren, Steven’s big brother, walked him over to where Kenny sat on the side of the court coaching. Kenny’s style was different. He spoke with a calm demeanour and clear instruction. No yelling. It was unlike anything Steven had seen before and he immediately liked it. As Steven so eloquently put it, ‘Kenny had swag’.
There were no restrictions to Kenny’s sessions. Any age. Any ability. If you were motivated enough to show up and do the work, you were welcome. Kenny offered Adams a place to train, which he accepted immediately. Kenny would pick Steve up at 545 am every morning, drive to the gym and start training. In summer, when it was light outside and you needed little more than shorts and a singlet, the gym would be packed, especially in the weeks leading up to a school tournament or national championships. But on particularly grim Wellington days, when the rain blew in and the mornings were dark and cold, training numbers would dwindle, often down to just two. Kenny. And Steve. This went on for 4 and a half years. Adams never missed a session. While it was Kenny’s swag that first captured Steven’s attention, it was something else that kept it.
When Adams was young, the only thing that mattered to him in a friend was whether or not they’d have his back when trouble started. This was no more apparent when he started at Scot’s College in Wellington and was assigned one of guys from the basketball team to show him around. His name was Pat Fraser. On the very first day, Adams tested Pat by punching him in his stomach. Without hesitation, Pat turned and caught him square on the upper lip with a mean uppercut. Pat showed Steven that he has his back and they have been best friends ever since. In simple terms, Pat had earned Adam’s unwavering trust. And in a different way, so did Kenny.
Trust is an expectation the other person will have your back, irrespective of your ability to control their actions. It requires a willingness to show vulnerability. What’s more, research shows it is the backbone of a close and meaningful relationship.
But what exactly is trust made up of? Here are four principles worth considering:
- Respect – Do you listen? Do you reply with empathy? Do you treat young athletes in a way that makes them feel cared for and important? Do you recognise and celebrate all athletes irrespective of their accomplishments
- Integrity – Are you honest? Do you keep your word? Do you have clear values that guide your decisions, particularly when under pressure
- Consistency – Do you show up in a way that is predicable? Can you be counted on? Do you make fair and transparent decisions?
- Competence – Do you know what you’re talking about? Do you live each day as an opportunity to improve and get better? And do you help others to do the same?
Growing up, Adams’ life was full of uncertainty. But when he stepped inside the four walls of the Winter Show Buildings in Wellington, he knew exactly what he was going to get.
Where Stress Comes From
Yesterday while coaching a young athlete through some strength training, I noticed things weren’t quite right. What she could usually do without too much effort looked like a struggle. A quick conversation revealed it’d been a tough week for her with heaps of internals due at school and a dog that wasn’t doing well. Possible cancer.
Stress can show up in many ways. Some more unexpected than others. In this instance, the psychological stress from a busy academic schedule and a sick dog was having an affect on the way this athlete moved. Her body looked disjointed. Clunky. Restricted.
For the developing athlete, there are four types of stress worth considering.
- Psychological stress – an adolescent athlete is developing their self-identity, meaning they face many daily decisions that require cognitive effort. They’re also experiencing what psychology refers to as egocentrism; a developmental stage during which kids become hyper-focused on themselves and their self-expression.
- Social stress – juxtaposed with the desire to stand out is the desire to fit in. The need for social connection peaks during adolescence and drives behaviour specifically targeted at answering the questions; where do I belong? what do I bring to the group?
- Physical stress – adolescent boys experience a significant rise in testosterone drives increases in lean muscle mass and an athlete’s ability to generate force. While this can be advantageous in sport (i.e., bigger, faster, stronger bodies), high amounts of force going through a rapidly growing skeleton is stressful. While girls also gain in strength and muscle mass (although to a lesser extent), they accrue greater fat mass and greater anthropometric variability (e.g., hip growth, torso shape and breast development). Together, these changes increase the physical stress a developing female athlete experiences in sport.
- Environmental – the environment causes stress in numerous ways. A few to look out for include training load (duration X intensity), training type (technical, tactical, strength, fitness, etc.), expectation (a belief that certain outcomes should be achieved), control (the amount of force applied to direct decisions or behaviour), academic load, and family obligations.
Regardless of where it comes from, stress always has an effect.
The movement inefficiencies experienced by my athlete, if continued over time, could have led to body inflammation, pain and eventually, injury. It’s why dealing with stress the moment you notice it is an immediate priority.
Preparation is Power
In the first episode of National Geographic’s “Edge of the Unknown”, film director Jimmy Chin shines a light on the audacious feats of adventure rock climber, Alex Honnold. Jimmy takes you up close and personal with the world famous alpinist as he climbs some of the biggest cliffs in the world without a rope! Watching Alex in action is mind blowing. Some would even say reckless. But as with all masters of craft, there is so much we don’t see. The invisible practice. The work that has go in away from of what is organised.
How Alex prepares to do the impossible is worth considering. Because while the scale of a challenge can change, the way to manage fear remains the same. It happens one small step at a time, building skill and confidence as you go. A little today, and then a little more tomorrow. The right assistance is also critical. Just enough of a “boost” to achieve the task. Alex chose his good friend, Tommy Caldwell, to prepare with. They climbed together for days, pushing what was scary just a little at a time until Alex felt he was ready.
Preparation is power. Unfortunately, environments designed for learning and the opportunity to dance with fear are becoming rare in youth sport. Instead, outcome-based narratives are taking over. The desire to short-cut learning is rife. The gap between what a young athlete knows she can do and what everyone expects her to do is blowing out. Kids grow from challenge. The need to learn how to do hard things. What’s crucial, however, is that we don’t scare them off in the process.
To be responsible is to perform a particular task assigned to you by someone else, or created by one’s own promise. Without responsibility, teams fall down at critical moments and individuals come up short of their potential.
I believe 3 things must be in place before we can expect responsibility to be taken.
The first is a sense of belonging. Humans are social creatures. When we feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves, we are more likely to take responsibility for its betterment.
The second is a clearly defined reason. Knowing ‘why’ you should take responsibility for something, and what is likely to happen when you do, is powerful. An athlete who understands effects of good sleep and nutrition on their performance will be more likely to take responsibility for their recovery.
And the third is permission to fail. Failing at something can be a great catalyst for change, but it’s scary to take responsibility when you’re afraid of what getting it wrong might mean. As coaches, teachers and parents, we must encourage our kids to take responsibility for their choices without imposing a negative consequence on a mistake or unwanted outcome.
3 Types of Goals
In a world of increasing distraction, comparison and expectation, the ability to choose what you pay attention to is crucial. A skill focus gives an athlete a sense of control.
There is a process involved in both acquiring and performing a skill. For example, how you organise your fingers to hit the right piano keys at the right time is the process of playing a piece of music. You start simple, one finger at a time, and add complexity over time. This is called practice. This process is clear.
Success requires a present state of mind devoid of distraction. It becomes much harder to worry about what someone watching might think when you have a deep focus on the positioning of your fingers.
The Power of Goals
Goals give direction, provide a sense of control amongst uncertainty, and a way to assess the effectiveness of a learning experience. There are 3 types of goals; outcomes, performances and skills.
Outcomes: Outcome goals focus on the end-point of a game, event or competition. For example, winning a netball game or championship. Team selection is another example of an outcome goal. Achieving these goals depends not only on an athlete or team’s own efforts but also on the ability of their opponent or another person’s viewpoint.
Performances: Performance goals relate to the end products of individual or team performance. They are typically measured using a numerical value and expressed relative to your own past performance. For example, increasing shooting percentage from 80-85% or reducing the number of intercepts during a game. While still influenced by external factors, such as the quality of defence, performance goals give the athlete or team more control.
Skills: Skill goals concern the specific thoughts, feelings and actions that make up performance. For example, the position of the hands as a players shoots the ball, or the way an athlete responds to a mistake. A focus on developing skill gives an athlete total control.
All three types of goals can serve a purpose. The key is knowing the difference.
(p.s., stay tuned for more on goals soon)
Optimising Your Instruction
In 2012, a colleague of mine at AUT University, Associate Professor Simon Walters, conducted a research study to capture the nature of coaches’ comments during netball, rugby, soccer and touch games in New Zealand of children aged 6-12 years old. Comments were broken into three categories; encouragement (e.g., “well done, go, go, go!”), criticism (e.g., ”you need to shoot earlier”) and instruction (e.g., “move into space Sam.”). In total, 10,699 comments were recorded, of which 22% were critical and 35% were encouraging. The remaining 43% of comments were instructive.
Because our culture places so much importance on outcomes, we use instruction to short-cut the process. If I tell you what to do, I’m more likely to see a direct change in your behaviour. But learning isn’t memorisation or regurgitation. Instead, it happens when we think we know how to solve a problem, it fails, and so we are forced to try again. Following instruction ignores this process. In other words, it is devoid of thinking.
During a game, looking up to take instruction from a coach or parent on the sideline pulls an athlete out of the moment and robs them of the opportunity to assess the situation and make a decision. Always being instructed can also create a negative perception of failure. It can shape the belief that, ‘mistakes are bad and I must avoid them at all costs’. This is not what we want. Without mistakes, learning doesn’t happen.
Yeh but surely instruction plays a role? Kids don’t know what they don’t know. Absolutely, in some situations it is an effective option.
Thinking skills develop with time
Cognition is the mental aspect of thinking. Its main job is to help you figure things out, and includes abilities such as comparing, assuming, questioning and evaluating. The ability to compare effectively, for example, requires a child to take information in and make sense of it based on what they already know. Cognitive skills develops with time and experience, as well as hormonal and neurochemical changes in the brain, typically taking place during the transition from late childhood to early adolescence. Prior to maturation of these skills, kids rely on parents, teachers, coaches and older children to help them make sense of their experiences. This is where instruction comes in.
Acquiring new skills and abilities is complex. Kids sometimes benefit from being given information directly to increase their level of basic understanding. For example, you notice that your 10 year old son is eating cornflakes for breakfast every Saturday morning and then running out of energy half the way through his soccer game. You know that porridge will provide better sustenance and so instruct him to make the switch.
In this scenario, your efforts will likely result in one of three outcomes; 1) resistance, 2) compliance or 3) engagement. Resistance, as your would expect, is unhelpful, leading to no change and two frustrated individuals. But it turns out, compliance is no better. Making a change without knowing why, despite a short-term performance gain (i.e., more energy), curtails learning and future action. Engagement is the preferred option as it expands thinking and creates the right conditions for learning.
To get your athlete engaged, three elements must accompany your instruction:
- Attention – it is important to talk with your athlete, not at them. Rather than starting with the instruction, start with the context in which it will be applied
- Significance – align your instruction to something your athlete finds meaningful
- Understanding – seek evidence from your athlete that they have made sense of your instruction
The Problem with Tests
- The fastest way to develop a dislike for something is to do it repeatedly without reward. What’s more, when there’s external expectation attached to a goal you know you’re not going to meet, social comparison that reinforces your inferiority, or little personal interest in the task, the experience is certain to cause distress. The way the we currently test our athletes exemplifies this problem. I’ll explain why in a moment, but a little neuroscience is important first.
- Our brain runs on a system of threat vs. reward that heavily influences our thoughts and behaviours. Things that we perceive as threats are disengaging. Our natural instinct is to remove the threat as fast as possible by avoiding or eliminating it. This “flight, fight or freeze response” is an automatic response, and it’s pervasive. It dates back to our caveman days when, for example, if a lion jumped out of the bush in front of you, your only options were to stay and win the fight or turn and win the race to safety. When threat mode is activated, crucial brain processing space otherwise used for high-level thinking stuff is occupied, and important skills like being creative, making good decisions and learning get crowded out. Threat mode also triggers survival emotions like fear and anger. On the other hand, physical and emotional experiences that are purposeful and appropriately challenged engage our reward system. They make us feel good, motivate us to do more and, crucially, give the brain the space it needs to operate at its best. Reward state experiences ultimately create a much more positive frame of mind and a brain that is set up to learn faster and perform better.
Assessment is a crucial part of an athlete’s development. When designed well, tests reward an athlete for their hard work and effort. They also provide the motivation to persevere when things get tough. But when done poorly, tests drive an athlete away from the things required for their success. For example, why do so many athletes hate fitness training? Sure, pushing yourself to an intensity that stimulates adaptation of the cardiovascular system is uncomfortable. But too often, rather than a lack of effort, it is fear of the negative consequences attached with testing fitness holding an athlete back. Every season, and often across multiple teams, athletes are tested on their fitness. Then six weeks later, they’re tested again. High performance sport has been testing this way for years and it has filtered down into youth sport. The results of these tests are used to select teams and make decisions about when and where a young athlete plays.
The problem lies not in testing per see but in the generalised approach to how it’s being carried out. When every athlete does the same test, purpose suffers. Athlete’s quickly lose a sense for how the test relates to them. They lose sight of the chance for personal improvement and instead focus on how they compare to others. And when an athlete is motivated by the status the comes from beating a teammate and the comparison goes away, they give up or turn their attention somewhere else. The answer is not to remove social comparison. It’s the essence of sport and the competitive challenge this provides can provide a an environment for growth when designed properly. Instead, we need to place the focus firmly on the task itself. Assessment is a chance to identify progression and reward hard work, rather than to control behaviour.
There are many ways you can change the testing environment to make it more rewarding for your athletes. Here are 5 to consider:
- Test less. Don’t default to testing as something that always has to be done. Ask yourself: why are we testing? And how is it going to be perceived by my athletes? If you’re testing for selfish reasons, think again.
- Make your testing relevant. Work with your athletes to identify exactly what will take their development to the next level and asses that. This process requires a considerate conversation with your athletes. What do they really want to get better at?
- Let your athletes share in the decision on how and when to test. The more autonomy you can give your athletes, the more likely they will be to engage in the process. How would they like to monitor their development?
- Prescribe training that gives your athletes suitable opportunity to improve. For example, if you test fitness, consider how your training is going to reflect its development.
- Don’t test at all. Particularly for your younger athlete. Young athletes are sponges, meaning their capacity for improvement is huge. So spend less time checking that your programme is working and more time empowering your athletes to lead it for themselves. But
Deal to Emotions First
Effective communication is measured less by what you say and more by what is heard. As a parent or coach, it is your responsibility to communicate with your athletes in a way that is accepted and useful for their development. I recently worked with father struggling to communicate effectively with his son. Sam was getting frustrated with his son’s lack of attention after a poor result. As far as he was concerned, he had information that could help his son get better.
Say Less, Listen More
To react is the default human response. To quickly take away the pain, fix the problem, or make the road traveled by your kids less fraught with struggle. Yet when you do react, you miss the opportunity to understand the real problem, and thus be of greater help and guidance. This is because a reactive response is typically based on what is true to you at the time resulting from previous experiences. But this approach is limiting. And in reality, targeted more at making you feel better than helping your child.
In my example above, Sam desperately wanted to help his son achieve success. He knew he had it in him to do well and could easily see where his son was going wrong. As a result, Sam met his son’s disappointment with direct instruction to fix the problem. But it wasn’t working.
Deal to Emotions First
There are two broad categories of personal support. Knowing which to deploy at the right time is critical to ensuring you help your athletes grow and develop optimally. These categories are:
- Emotional – where you offer support to help regulate feelings
- Cognitive – where you offer support to improve thinking
After a lost or significant mistake, young athletes often experiences feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration and even embarrassment. When this happens, emotional support helps to regulate an athlete’s emotions so that they can navigate to a more positive state of mind.
Emotive support is about helping a young athlete make sense of their feelings so that they are less disruptive to performance. The minute you neglect how an athlete feels, communication breaks down and the chance to make a positive impact is lost. Rushing to cognitive support without attending to the emotions of your athlete will most often be met with resistance.
3 Steps to help regulate emotions
- Create space for yourself – after your athlete makes a mistake or a disappointing result, take the first few moments to observe your own emotions. What are you feeling? Why might you be feeling it? Sport is a an emotionally volatile landscape. It’s easy to get caught up your own disappointment or frustration and pass it on to you child. This is not helpful. So pause. Take a breath. Slow down the moment between trigger and response.
- Help your child notice and name what they feel – a crucial skill for a young athlete to learn is the ability to become aware of different emotions. You may see a particular behaviour or facial expression and jump to naming a certain emotion yourself. Try to resist this. Feelings and behaviours don’t necessarily line up. You also rob your child of a powerful learning opportunity. Instead, acknowledge the reality of the situation and then ask your child to fill in the emotional gaps. For example, “I see you made a few mistakes out there today, how did it make you feel”, or “wow, it looked tough out there today, how are you feeling now?” From emotional turmoil to making sense of a situation, great emotional support guides an athlete to awareness.
- Help you child to accept emotions – one of the most powerful things I have ever seen happened during a mental skills workshop I ran with a group of 12 year old basketball players and their parents. Early in the workshop, I asked the boys to describe what they were like when struggling on court. The vulnerability they showed in revealing their feelings to their teammates was not only surprising but incredibly powerful. For the first time, the boys realised that they were not alone. For the first time, the boys realised it was normal to feel frustrated, angry and embarrassed after making a mistake or when something negative was said about their play from the sideline. Negative emotions are a normal and natural part of how we respond to situations. Helping a young athlete to understand that their emotional reactions are valid, is a crucial step in emotional regulation. Whenever you get the chance, speak to your own emotions in front of your child or the athletes you coach.
Strong emotions can derail a young athlete. As adults, it is important to notice what our kids are feeling and then offer the right kind of support to increase awareness and emotional regulation.
Structure without Control
To provide structure is to give some organisation to something. You find it in nature, meaningful relationships, and an enriched learning environment.
Kids need structure. It provides boundaries for exploration, teaches shrewdness and salutary decision making, and catalyses creativity. It also avoids confusion.
Control, on the other hand, is about forcing a particular course of action. Directing behaviour, or the course of events, closes down the options. It encourages assumption, breeds compliance, and constrains possibility.
The goal, therefore, should be structure without control.
My son, Issac, and I often take walks around the neighbour to walk our dog. The other day as we headed out the back gate and along the walkway towards the park, a bird darted out of a tree in front of us. Without skipping a beat, Isaac identified it as a silvereye and was sparked into conversation. “Dad, did you know that a silvereye’s nest is a little cup shape? They’re so amazing! They make their nests out of small sticks and moss high up in a totara tree. Can I show you!?”
Isaac is a bird enthusiast. He spends hours reading books, researching facts online and putting new found knowledge into practice in the outdoors. On road trips around New Zealand he’ll give you a full run down of the birds that live in the area, where they nest, and the predators they need to watch our for. “Yeh, of course” I replied, ‘Let’s see it!” We picked up our pace and headed to a line of tress on the opposite side of the park. “I think there’ll be chicks in the nest up in that tree, Isaac said as he began climbing. “I saw some in a nest just down there the other day.” The anticipation of what he might find inside had Isaac captured.
Children are deeply curious beings – a character strength that arises from our psychological need to learn and develop. Early theories of curiosity proposed its main purpose was to reduce uncertainty. In the 1970’s, George Loewenstein, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, described curiosity as “a cognitive induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge and understanding.” Research has shown that children structure their play to construct knowledge of the world in a way that reduces uncertainty. In 2011, Bonawitz and colleagues ran an experiment in which two groups of kids were given a novel toy to play with. The first group were given the toy with no information about how it worked. Another group was told exactly how to use it. The findings showed that the children played for a significantly longer amount of time and discovered more of the toys’ functions when no prior instructions were given.
Curiosity that acts to reduce uncertainty can also be seen in sport. A basketball player, for instance, captured by nerves before a big game may spend hours shooting hoops in the week leading up to it. Action focused on reducing the gap between what an athlete can do and what they would like to do reduces internal tension. It gives the athlete more confidence that the results they are trying to achieve will eventuate. This type of curiosity leads to an increase in effort, perseverance and problem-solving ability. However, it also comes with a distinct emotional tone. Rather than excitement, feelings of worry and frustration dominate. Athletes who express this type of curiosity are less interested in the processes of learning and more interested in getting to the outcome as quickly as possible.
But curiosity not only serves to reduce uncertainty. Kids also seek novel experiences to test themselves and elicit feelings of joy. They climb trees just to see if they can get to the top, they jump in puddles to make the biggest splash, they play video games to level up with their mates and, if you let them, spend entire afternoons exploring the local forest with no adult it sight. Edward Deci, a motivational theorist at the University of Rochester, described this type of curiosity as an intrinsic drive “to seek out novelty and challenge, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.” Todd Kashdan, a Professor of Psychology at George Mason University in the US, calls this type of curiosity ‘joyous exploration’. Isaac’s interest in birds has developed over time, fuelled by the potential that exists for learning and the joy that comes from discovering it. Joyous exploration is abundant in the favelas of Brazil, the streets of New York City, in every skatepark across the world, and, with the right intent, our own training and home environments.
With interesting problems to solve and the freedom to explore them, kids become deliciously curious. In my hallway at home, I have a monkey bar hanging from the celling and climbing holds scattering the walls. Keen to test their skills, my kids throw themselves into it. Instead of walking to their bedroom, they will often take the aerial approach. When I feel the timing is right, I add additional obstacles, like a set of gymnastics rings, to increase the possibility for challenge. Daniel Berlyne’s research in the 1960’s predicted that learners show an inverted U-shaped pattern of preference for challenge complexity (figure below). In other words, with the freedom to choose, learners will select a challenge with an appropriate level of complexity for their ability level – i.e., one that is neither overly simple (already coded into her memory) nor overly complex (too disparate from exisiting representations already coded into her memory).
A curious mind asks more questions of their parents and coaches, engages in self-directed learning outside of structured training sessions, takes more risks, and persists for longer on challenging tasks. How then, do we foster one? The first step is to decide what type of curiosity you would like to see in your athletes – a search for certainty or joyous exploration? In reality, both types of curiosity show up to some extent in every experience. However, it is easier to design effective environments by focusing on one or the other.
- The search for certainty – these environments highlight the gap between what an athlete knows or can do and what they would like to know or do. Rather than making this explicit through words (no one likes be told what to do), consider how you can evoke an athlete’s curiosity by exposing them to exciting and surprising information relevant to achieving their current goals and aspirations.
- Joyous exploration – there are two parts to this. First, design environments that hold interesting problems for athletes to solve at multiple levels of complexity. The level of challenge to opt in at is best decided by them, not you. Second, ensure the environment provides freedom for exploration and problem-solving without a definite path to the outcome.
I teach more about designing curious environments in my Skatepark Learning Workshop. If you’d like to hear more about it, send me a message here.
The Movement Library
Maintaining intensity during the dying moments of a sports game relies on a high level of aerobic fitness. An athlete can develop this physical capacity by progressively overloading their cardiovascular system in training (I’ll talk about how to do this age-appropriately in another post).
But there’s another component of the physical game often overlooked that is foundational to an athlete’s development.
The Importance of Movement Skill
Movement skill is the ability to organise yourself in and out of different body positions. It’s what allows an athlete to move in a smooth and fluid way in response to the demands of the game or event. Moreover, a skilled mover can safely transfer force from their body to the outside world, and vice versa, to defend against injury.
For example, to side step her opponent, rise into the air and make a shot, a basketball player must recognise the space she has available, slow her body down, rapidly changes body angles, speed her body back up by projecting force into the ground, and then explode into the air. This all happens in a matter of milliseconds.
The Movement Library
Science shows that skilled movers typically draw from a wider range of movement experiences. In other words, they have a bigger “movement library.”
Kids used to build their movement library growing up in the backyard climbing trees, jumping fences and wresting their siblings to the ground. They also did it playing a lot of informal pick-up games and activities.
But times have changed. For many kids the backyard has gone and more specialised, structured environments have become the norm. As a result, young athletes have fewer ‘books’ to draw on to meet the movement demands of their sport in a safe and effective way.
Building the Library
The good news is that building a movement library is easy and super fun. Examine your athlete’s week – is there opportunity to explore some of the following movements:
- Jumping and landing
- Hanging and swinging
- Pushing and pulling
- Sprinting and changing direction
You can help your athlete build their movement library by including a few different movements into a warm up, recommending they add an activity like parkour or bouldering to their schedule, or encouraging them to try a little movement snacking.
The most important thing is the intention to increase movement variability rather than reduce it.
Do you have an athlete struggling with injury? Send me a message NOW and let’s talk about building their movement library.
Beneath the Surface
When your vegetable garden struggles to grow no matter how much attending, pruning and fertilising you do, it might be time to look beneath the surface. Because it turns out, growing lush, delicious vegetables is all about the soil.
Developing skilled young athletes is no different.
A 14-year-old footballer I worked with recently was battling with her game. She would start out enthusiastically but fade away as time went on. When we talked about what was holding her back, she believed a lack of aerobic fitness to be the offender. A fair solution, therefore, would be to introduce more running into her week.
However, things aren’t often that simple. When we dug a little deeper, it turned out that her physiology wasn’t the culprit.
Instead, it was her mental game holding her back, damaged by a long history of negative experiences. More specifically, the story this young athlete was telling herself about her fitness, compounded by the threatening way it was being assessed, needed attention.
As a result, the intervention had little to do with training fitness and everything to do with building confidence.
Do you have an athlete struggling with confidence? Send me a message NOW and let’s talk.
The Spaces Between
The park across the road from home is a hive of activity. It’s a place kids come to move their bodies, explore the environment, and connect with other children.
Left alone, kids adopt an intermittent approach to their activity. Periods of playful action are followed by periods of rest and contemplation. I like to think about these quieter times as the “spaces between”. Short moments devoid of action when self-reflection and refinement can take place.
Learning isn’t following instruction. That’s called regurgitation. Nor is it repeating an action seen a few minutes prior. That’s called memorisation. Both require processes in the brain that work on a short-term basis. Instead, learning requires a longer-term process where we experiment with different strategies to solve interesting problems over time.
Crowding a child’s spaces between removes the opportunity for experimentation and, thus, disrupts learning.
The major culprit is instruction. A child being told what to do next is no longer thinking like a scientist.
Another offender is excessive praise. When a child’s decision to act is based on imminent praise from a parent or coach, they look for short-cuts to the learning process. They seek the fastest way to complete the skill or activity rather than working out how to get there on their own.
Learning that sticks and can be adapted by an athlete to perform in stressful performance environments requires spaces between during practice.
Time for an athlete to self-reflect and refine their problem solving strategy within a process of experimentation is crucial.
The Evolution of Fun
Childhood fun means making roads and driving diggers in the sandpit, perfecting your manu off the side of the school pool, and laughing at your brother’s farts. It’s the simple, entertaining kind of stuff you do on your own or with the people you love.
But as an athlete transitions into adolescence and starts to make decisions about their future, the meaning of fun evolves.
Instead of light-hearted amusement alone, what an athlete finds “fun” aligns to personal growth and meaning.
Consider Angela Duckworth’s research examining character development. The University of Pennsylvania Professor organises character into three dimensions – strengths of heart, strengths of mind, and strengths of will – which can be a useful framework to deepen your understanding of fun.
Here are three examples where what is fun relates to the development of an athlete’s character:
- Social intelligence (strength of heart). Learning to communicate effectively with teammates provides the opportunity to deepen the skills of social connection.
- Creativity (strength of mind). Receiving the autonomy and encouragement to try new things without negative consequences sparks a creative mind.
- Grit (strength of will). Working hard towards a meaningful long-term goal fosters a gritty mindset.
If the goal is to design sporting experiences that develop people, we should think less about what is fun and more about what is personally meaningful.
In beach volleyball, the goal is to not let the ball touch the ground on your side of the net.
How you achieve this goal requires solving problems.
But here’s the thing.
No one problem ever remains the same. The problems change depending on the conditions of the environment. For instant, when the serve approaches you more quickly, when the opposition puts up a bigger block, or when a strong wind turns up.
It’s why to play at your best, you need to be skilled at solving problems.
So, what makes a great problem solver?
They are interested in the problem
Interest is the feeling of wanting to know or learn about something. When an athlete judges a new skill or ability as useful to learn, or decides that it’s needed to achieve a goal, they become curious to know more. And here’s the beautiful thing. It turns out that an athlete with a curious mind is more inclined to seek out new information, take positive risks and frame mistakes not as failure but as learning.
Here are 3 techniques for developing interest:
- Storytelling – highlight the skill or ability in stories from game scenarios or great players
- Role modelling – provide opportunities for athletes to see the problem in action
- Influence – get athletes talking with people they know, like and trust about the important problems of the game
They diagnose the problem correctly
Before you can solve a problem, it’s important to know what’s causing it. A clear diagnosis of the problem is crucial. Diagnosis fails when an athlete doesn’t know what to change to solve a problem. An athlete who answers the question “what do you need to do to improve your jump serve” with “I don’t know” lacks a clear diagnosis.
Triggering interest and diagnosing problems are too often owned by the grow-ups in sport rather than helping developing athletes figure it out for themselves.
They run experiments to find the best solution
Great problems solvers are scientists at heart. They take a diagnosis and run small experiments to find a solution.
Here are 3 techniques of experimentation
- Exploration – trying new things in search of discovery
- Trial & error – encouraging repeated, varied attempts to solve a problem which are continued until success
- Enquiry – posing purposeful questions, problems or scenarios to investigate
They appraise their results
Appraisal gathers insight from your time spent experimenting to determine the best course of action to take next.
Here are 3 techniques for appraisal
- Describing – a detailed account in words from an athlete to their coach, parent or teammate of an experience
- Questioning – helping an athlete to make sense of their experiences by asking well-crafted questions
- Self-reflection – encouraging athletes to evaluate their own cognitive, emotional, and behavioural processes
Ultimately, the process of appraisal develops more interest, updates the diagnosis and, as a result, identifies the next problem to solve.
Experience or Theory
There are two ways to guide our parenting (and coaching) encounters. The first is by personal experience. What you do tomorrow is informed by what you did today. Or last week. Or when you were a kid. It’s an approach dominated by doing, and carries little deliberate intention.
The other way is more calculated. Based on theory. You read some research, listen to a podcast, or talk to a wise friend or mentor. You make decisions based on how the world actually is, rather than how you think it is.
Both approaches are worth considering.
Personal experience provides first-hand evidence of what works. You’re busy. And time available to learn and grow your perspective is minimal. But the risk is, what you’re used to doesn’t work for the next young athlete standing in front of you. And with novel problems, you struggle to find a solution.
On the other hand, using theory gives you more perspective. It expands your thinking and protects you from the inherent biases associated with your own reality. But it also requires more time and patience. At the start, you’re confused and uncomfortable. And it feels like your problem solving gets worse before it gets better.
It’s likely the best place to sit is not one or the other. Personal experience or theory. But somewhere in middle.
Comfort in Certainty
You know exactly what to expect at your favourite cafe. The coffee. The food. The people.
You enter and confidently walk to the back counter, where Charlie, who you know well, is waiting to take your order. “Long black?” she asks, before you get the chance to speak (it’s what you always have). You smile and reply with a nod, then turn and take a seat next to the window (it’s where your always sit) and wait patiently for your morning expresso.
Ever since the pandemic changed the way we work, you set up in your local coffee shop three mornings a week. It’s your creative time. You pull your laptop out, switch off your phone, and get into the important work. Free from distraction to think deeply, get into a flow, and be at your best.
Without realising it, an hour hasa passed. You look up and are greeted by Charlie with a fresh cup. You exchange a smile, take a sip, and get back to the work.
The certainty is comforting. There’s no concern about where to go, how to behave, or what happens next. You’re completely relaxed.
The funny thing about certainty is that it’s the foundation on which the uncertain can happen. Creativity rises out of a calm state of mind, predictability in the environments we spend time in, and trust in the people we share them with
Excited and Surprised
In June 1997, a young mother loaded up her Citroën and took her daughter, who was just 8 at the time, along to Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, England. They sat in the mud and watched Radiohead and The Prodigy play on the main stage with 200,000 others.
But this was not the girls’ first musical experience. A week before her fourth birthday she was hidden inside a trench coat and smuggled into the Brixton Academy in South London to watch one of her mum’s favourite bands – The Beautiful South – play in concert. It was one of her fondest memories as a kid.
The girl’s name is Adele.
Many factors shape the path of a child. Some we have control over, others we don’t.
Sharing a love of music with her daughter by no means guaranteed what has become one of best known voices in the world. (Just like sharing a love for football with your son will not assure a professional contract).
But it did evoke feelings of excitement and surprise, and began to foster what eventually became Adele’s ‘love for the game’.
Regardless of the desired outcome – be it fun with friends, fulfilling sporting potential, or playing at the highest level – a love for the game and the curiosity that comes with it is an essential ingredient.
Free to choose
The Hadza people of Tanzania are one of the last cultures in the world to live in the hunter-gatherer tradition. They depend on wild game, vegetation and other natural nutrients to eat, and rely of their ability to constantly adapt to their environment.
The tribe are selective and opportunistic foragers, adjusting their diet to season and circumstance. The men usually forage alone, bringing back food for those who can not find it on their own. They carry axes, bows, arrows and knives, and are highly skilled at using them. The women forage in small groups with knives and a yam stick – a wooden implement used to dig up food from under the ground. When food is plentiful, like during berry season, groups join forces for greater success.
Hunting for meat, which increases in the dry season when game hangs out around water, is typically performed by men. To stay quick and agile, they track prey in pairs, working together for hours before a kill is made with a bow and arrow laced with poison.
The Power of Agency
The Hadza are egalitarian, meaning there are little status differences between individuals. The elderly are acknowledged for their wisdom, the youth for their physical prowess, but no governing hierarchy exists. Instead, decisions are made by reaching agreement through discussion. Tribespeople get to choose where and how to hunt and gather, leveraging the power of agency.
Agency is ubiquitous in environments where adaptability it sought. When an individual can make use of their skills to reach meaningful goals, they feel like they are in charge, and thus are much more likely to continue. Our job working with athletes is to develop agency over time. Education is the strategy. Redundancy is the ultimate objective.
No One Does It Alone
While individual agency within the Hadza tribe is important, working together and adapting to achieve the goals of the group is central to their survival.
The same idea holds true for our athletes. The environments we create need to advance the skills and characteristics of the individual without sacrificing the group. In a world driving us towards a more individualistic way of being, we need to appreciate that on one can do it alone. The psychological safety and strong sense of belonging a group can provide create the foundations from which individuals thrive.
Adaptable cultures focus on individual choice and agency but never at the expense of the group.
3 Ways to help your athletes handle stress
The other day I stood on the side of a river watching a group of kids launch themselves off a jumping rock into the bubbling water below. Kids came and went, some on their own and others in groups.
One young girl, in particular, caught my eye. I noticed her arrive downstream of the bombing spot with an older boy. While he got straight into it, the girl just watched. Taking in the environment and the information she needed to decide her next move. A few minutes later she walked to the bottom of the jumping rock and threw herself into the river. I guessed she just wanted to test the water first. She popped up wearing a smile from ear to ear, floated to the side and then followed the other kids to the top.
But she never jumped, choosing instead to revert back down the wall to another spot a couple of meters below. For 15 minutes she climbed to the same spot and jumped in. Her technique changed – the pin drop, the staple, this funny twisty thing, and even a dive – but not once did she attempt the higher jump.
The girl’s name was Liv. She’s 11.
The thing is, her dad, Mac, was standing next to me the whole time and what he said as Liv borked at jumping from the highest spot was intriguing. “That’s weird”, he said, “I know she can do it, she jumps from that height all of the time with me.”
Mac was clearly frustrated. Perhaps he thought Liv had just taken a backwards step in her development. Maybe he really wanted to feel proud at seeing his daughter succeed. He possibly even felt inadequate as a dad. All perfectively normal experiences for a parent to have.
The Social Environment Changes Everything
There are three emotions that significantly affect learning; excitement, surprise and fear.
It’s possible that Liv felt all three of these emotions during the rock jump. Excited to try a new challenge, surprised to see kids of all ages doing it and, perhaps, afraid of what the other kids might say or think if she got it wrong.
As grown-ups, we must realise that by just looking on, we don’t know how Liv is feeling. The only way to know for sure, is to ask her.
We also need to appreciate that as environments change, so do the emotions of the individuals within them. Social factors, for example, have an incredibly strong influence on a young athlete’s ability to perform a skill. A task performed competently in the backyard with parents, or at practice with teammates, may be a completely new challenge in front of strangers.
So how can we help Liv ‘make the jump’?
- Check-in with our own emotions first. To provide the best support, we need to have a clear head and avoid being swayed by how we may feel in the moment.
- Be curious. Liv can learn a lot from reflecting on her experience. Using good questions, we can help Liv identify her feelings and the affect they had on her behaviour. The best time to have this conversation is after the event when Liv is ready to talk.
- Show patience. We must be ok with Liv not making the jump. Regardless of the outcome, the experience would have taught Liv a lot even if it’s not obvious to us. We need to trust this process, then when she’s ready, support Liv to give the jump another shot.
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