Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Getting into Stats Without Letting Them Get to You

Collecting and using stats in sports can be like flossing. Doing it all the time sounds like a hassle, even though the pros keep saying how useful it is. Getting started can be a bit painful and intimidating. It can be hard to see the benefit until you've made it a habit. But once you make it a habit, it won't let you down.

Incorporating stats into our practices and competitions can seem daunting if we think that using them means using all of them. We should find what level of analysis is useful for our particular level of play. Usually simple, descriptive stats are the best place to start. Simple stats are typically those that only tell us about a single action rather than either multiple actions or one action's effect on another. (An assist is a bit of a gray area here since it depends on the outcome of the next action in order to define it. Nonetheless, it is still fairly easy to keep but it illustrates the point.) Descriptive stats are those that describe the actions that have occurred, contrasted with predictive stats that are designed to predict what is likely to happen next. While we can consider descriptive stats to give us an idea of future performance, they still ultimately only describe what happened in the past.

Once we have decided on a few stats to keep, we should decide who will record them and how they will be collected. Where possible, I like having players keep simple stats but there are several different stats that I have kept track of personally while coaching. It is important to me that any stats that I or my assistants keep be unobtrusive so that they are informing what we are doing as coaches rather than being all we are doing as coaches. The same is fairly true of the stats that I have players keep. I want the stats to keep players engaged in what is happening in practice or competition but not so much that they prevent the players from still being a functional part of the team. I have created several different stat sheets that players can use easily during practice or competition. Players can easily pass them off when they need to enter a game or drill so that they can still be athletes and team members and don't become de facto statisticians.

A word about having players keep stats: if we teach them what we are looking for and why it matters, they will do a good job. I think that this makes keeping stats just like any other skill we train. I have had eleven and twelve year-olds keep reliable stats because they were taught how and why. It is important that we spend time working together so that they understand what they are looking for and how to accurately record that information. Teaching them why it matters leads to the crux of using stats.

Stats are evaluations of our performance so they are often feared. I'll use the words of Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen to explain a bit more.
Evaluations are always in some respect comparisons, implicitly or explicitly, against others or against a particular set of standards...And some evaluations contain judgements that go beyond the assessment itself...And it is the bullwhip of negative judgement - from ourselves or others - that produces much of our anxiety around feedback. (Thanks for the Feedback, 2014)
If we are to get our athletes to buy in to how we are using stats then we must use them in ways that minimize the negative judgements. This is the crucial part of incorporating stats, how we use them once we have them. I believe that there are two parts to showing the value of stats.
  • Players need to see that the stats are used to help them improve as individuals
  • Players need to see that the stats are used to improve competitive understanding and performance
If all we do with stats is use them to say that one athlete or performance is good and another is bad, we are unlikely to get the buy in we want. We need to connect the evaluation to coaching. If a performance was inadequate, what caused it to be that way and how do we change that process? Is it something technical? Is it incorrect understanding or implementation of necessary tactics? Does decision-making need to improve? How can coaching bring about those changes? It is much easier to move on from judgement if we see a clear path for improvement.

In addition to evaluating individuals on a team, stats evaluate the team as well. To prevent allowing our athletes to assume that we think poorly of our team, we need to show them another clear path. We should talk about the stats as means to an end rather than ends in themselves. If we know that executing a skill at a certain level correlates strongly with winning, then we can tell the team that we need to get better at that skill so we can put ourselves in better position to win more often. We can frame our talk so that we are talking about making winning easier instead of allowing thoughts that we are losers.

Stats are so much more than a way to give praise or fix blame. Stats are ultimately tools that we should use to inform our coaching and training. If we treat them that way then our athletes will too.

The book quoted above is one of my favorites and a book that strongly influences how I coach and how I interact with people. I mentioned it in my coaching framework and it makes continuous appearances in my posts about interacting with others. I highly recommend it. If you don't read it, I will be forced to read it yet again to make up for your loss.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Confidence is a Feeling (and Self-Efficacy is a Thought)

What is confidence? Is it coolly sinking the go-ahead basket as time expires? Is it calling your shot before hitting a home run? Confidence is a feeling. In the space between thought and action, confidence is our bridge between what we think and what we prove.
There are three people in a rock climbing gym, one climber and two spotters. The one in red is climbing, not flying.

In my post "Proactively Thinking Like a Pro", I laid out the proactive thought cycle of "think, feel, do" as a way to put us in control of our internal environments. It's time that we look at the role of one particular feeling, confidence, and its role in this thought cycle. In light of this thought cycle, what does it mean to be confident? Confidence is a feeling. It doesn't matter if we are thinking proactively or reactively, feelings sit between thoughts and feelings.

If our feelings follow actions and drive thoughts, then we are being reactive. In the case of confidence, that would mean that we look to what we just did to decide if we should feel confident about what just occurred. Rather than confidence, this is better thought of as competence. We often mistake confidence for competence but they aren't the same thing. Competence is best demonstrated by action but confidence is usually demonstrated by thought. Success is a judgement we make on an action after the fact and competence comes when we have demonstrated success. I am not arguing that competence is bad, but rather that it is different than confidence. We can use competence to contribute to our future confidence but it is important to realize that it doesn't have to precede confidence.

Confidence is an emotional expression of thoughts of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy means thinking that you can do something, that's all. It is a thought that you are capable. If you think that you can, that's enough to feel confident and to then act on that feeling. So in our proactive thought cycle, we begin by recognizing that we are capable, which sets us up for feelings of confidence as we see ourselves performing a skill successfully. These thoughts and feelings put us in the best position to go out and perform at our best, all because we thought and believed that we could. This process doesn't have to begin with any proof, just a thought. This is what lies at the center of Albert Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory, that we believe that we can do something because we have seen it done by others. According to Bandura, people with high self-efficacy are more likely to see difficult tasks as worth engaging in rather than as worth avoiding.

That's where we get into the stereotypes of misplaced confidence or overconfidence. While we can overdo our feelings of self-efficacy, we can also believe that the ability lies within us without getting carried away and assuming that we are going to be great at it when we first try it. This is where many young athletes get lost. They tend to see confidence not as self-efficacy but as either competence or overconfidence. They expect that either they must have already done a thing to feel confident about doing it or they expect that they are being overconfident if they are acting like they can do something that they aren't really sure of. This second idea is at the root of the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality. I see this mentality as telling ourselves (or others) that we can do something without the self-efficacy. Self-efficacy isn't a thought of guaranteed success, only a thought of possibility.

So what is confidence? It is a feeling of possibility. Whether we have the proof yet or not, we believe in our ability to do.

The above comic is used with permission of the excellent rock climbing comic betamonkeys.
Please check it out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

It's Not You, It's Me - The Real Work in Recruiting

This post is a reflection on conversations I regularly have with parents, club coaches, and college coaches. It was inspired by attending an annual national tournament in my home town that leads to having those conversations again every year.

When we say "it's not you, it's me", it's usually code for "no, it's you". What we don't pay attention to is that to say such things, we still have to know what we want in order to know if "it's me" or if "it's you". If we want to sincerely know the answer to that, we have real work to do. In recruiting, we have to figure out who we are and what it is we are looking for before we can know what the right fit for us is. It is up to us to find the right fit. That process has two parts, figuring out who we are and what we want as well as finding and contacting the places that we think could fit best.

How do we figure out who we are and what we want? I recommend thinking about the types of settings and places that are attractive and interesting to us. What is it about certain settings that appeals to us? What types of people do we enjoy the company of? There's plenty of things to think about before we even begin to consider the aspects of a sports program (and that's as it should be, in my opinion).

How do we go about finding and contacting the places where we think we'd fit? We've got two great resources, high school guidance counselors and the internet. Guidance counselors are especially helpful because they specialize in knowing more about colleges than we do. Take advantage of that knowledge. Once we have a better handle on where to look, finding out who to contact and how is much easier.

We shouldn't wait for someone to do that work for us because they aren't us. We are the best people to discover what works best for us. Yes, there are recruiting services out there and they can serve an important role in recruiting. But if we think that they act as a personal shopper/genie in a bottle without input from us, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. (We'll then likely blame the service for what amounts to not reading our minds successfully.) Even with the benefit of a recruiting service, we still need to give them information about us so that they can do their jobs better. 

But why should we do all that work? Wasn't it enough to just get good at our sport and then show up to competitions and wait to be discovered? Jack London wrote, "don't loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club." There are thousands of athletes just like us out there so it's up to us to not only distinguish ourselves athletically and academically but to figure out what we are offering to schools as well. We expect schools and programs to show us why we would fit in well with them. Why don't we do the same? Why do we think that just being an above-average athlete is enough? While we are familiar with ways that we can separate ourselves from those thousands of other athletes, what are we doing to figure out what separates one school from another? More importantly, once we know what separates them, do we know if those differences mean anything to us?

Just being good players with great background music in our recruiting videos isn't enough. Programs want the right players and we want the right program. We still need to identify what works for us just like they have identified what works for them. When I ask a coach, "what are you looking for in a (insert a position here)?", they can tell me characteristics of that player that will fit into their program best. If we ask ourselves what we are looking for in a school, can we give me the same level of detail? If we can't, then we have work to do before we get carried away contacting schools. Programs don't contact us until after they've learned about we. Do we do the same? They aren't looking for just any player, they are looking for the right player for their program. If we are to do the same, then we must engage in the process to know what fits best.

Just as there are many players out there like us, there are many schools and programs out there that are similar to one another. If we want to know what makes them different from one another, we need to figure out what makes us different, we need to know what we are searching for first. That's when we've discovered the meaning of "it's not you, it's me."

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Proactively Thinking Like a Pro

The video above comes from a 2010 Allstate commercial that features Guillermo Ochoa, then the goalkeeper for the Mexican National Soccer Team. This is my favorite representation of what the proactive thought cycle looks like. We see the Ochoa's different moves in response to certain possibilities and we see the positive feelings as he saves each one, enforcing the feeling that he can do it. Then we see the actual challenge where he "does" make the move to save the penalty kick. Read on to learn more about how we can build this skill.

Our default setting as humans is to go along with life until something happens that demands that we take action. But is this the way to achieve your potential? How would life unfold if we moved through it more deliberately? How could we create that for ourselves? It begins with understanding what it means to be reactive and what it means to be proactive.
Reactive is defined as "acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it". In sport, we can argue that we can neither create nor control the situations we are in. This is a major reason why sport is so attractive to us, because we are continually confronted with new problems to solve rather than following a script to a known conclusion. We are constantly challenged to adapt in response to changing conditions, strategies, and opponents. Those who can do it the best are the winners.

I previously defined proactive as "creating situations that move towards goals and anticipate future needs and changes". So if sport is about constantly responding to dynamic situations, then how can we create our own situations? The answer lies in where we create the situations. We hear it said that it isn't what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens that matters most. This gets at the primacy of our internal environments over our external ones. Being proactive means creating an internal environment that will best prepare us for the ever-changing external environments that exist in sport.

There are three phases in our thought cycles: thinking, feeling, and doing. These three phases are consistent between proactive and reactive cycles and what separates the two is the order in which the phases occur. These three phases correspond to the three stages of processing: mental, emotional, and skill/craft, discussed in my post "Failing Faster". Reactive thought cycles run through those stages in reverse order. First, we "do", we go out and execute a skill. Then we "feel", we have an emotional response to the skill we just performed. Last, we "think", we have a mental response in which we analyze our action and our emotion. This thought cycle tends to reinforce a fixed mindset because we see ourselves in light of our outcomes rather than our processes. What we went through to arrive at that outcome is discounted, even if the outcome was out of our control (like a bad call from an official) and we wrap ourselves up in the results. We are no longer in control of our internal environment because we allow it to be determined by our outcomes. We allow ourselves to become victims of our circumstances when we don't have to be.

When we run our thought cycles in a different direction, we put ourselves in control of our internal environments. We are proactive when we start our thought cycle with "think". Before executing a skill, we think our way through it by seeing ourselves executing the skill. If there is a specific part of the skill that we think is important then we can focus on that as we see the entire action unfold in our minds. In"feeling" we can use two different senses of the word. We can prompt positive feelings (emotions) like, "I can do this". We can also incorporate a modeling of the skill we want to execute (physical), reminding our bodies of what is to come. (Remember that the origin of "incorporate" is the Latin word meaning "form into a body".) Having prepared ourselves for what is to come, we then execute. As best as we can, we "do".

During and after skill execution, we can apply our mindfulness training to be present and observe our execution. This gives us a bridge back to the beginning of the cycle because we take our observations and turn them into comparative and evaluative (as opposed to judgemental) thoughts that then inform our next execution ("bring my foot more forward next time"). We are in control of the process in every phase and we keep ourselves in a place where we are free to perform because we are free from out-of-control judgement and emotion.

As with mindfulness, creating this thought cycle takes work, often guided practice. Thinking proactively is a skill so we should understand that we can improve it but that improvement takes time and attention. We should plan to incorporate work on this thought cycle as part of other skill training. So as the athletes are practicing a physical skill, we as coaches are giving feedback about the mental skill rather than the physical one. We empower our athletes as they become proficient at managing their thoughts and, by extension, themselves. We help them see themselves as vital actors instead of helpless victims in the unfolding of the dynamic situations that they find themselves in.

The above image is from a practice in which I introduced a team to proactive thinking cycles. The "feel" and "think" examples were supplied by the athletes when I prompted them during our discussion. Thanks to Tim Engels for introducing me to this concept.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Mind Your Mindfulness - Applying Gallwey's "Relaxed Concentration" in Sport Training

W. Timothy Gallwey shares a personally important coaching epiphany in chapter 1 of his book, The Inner Game of Tennis:
I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results
We have all felt these at some point in our coaching career and we have likely continued on our way without changing our coaching methods too much. But Gallwey didn't. He integrated ideas from D.T. Suzuki (ego-mind), Abraham Maslow (peak experiences), and (presciently) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (flow) to create his idea of "relaxed concentration". He draws attention to how judgemental we tend to be of ourselves as we perform and goes on to point out the effects that this judgement tends to have on our performance as well as our self image. To move out of this judgemental frame, he encourages us to experience our performance as it is. We do this by allowing the performance to happen without interrupting it with thoughts of what should be or what didn't happen. We may better recognize Gallwey's "relaxed concentration" today as "mindfulness". Mindfulness practices revolve around noticing rather than directing our thinking. If we want to make any changes, don't we first need to fully understand what is currently happening? If our athletes don't know what their bodies are currently doing, how can we expect them to make changes?

A typical coach's response to this is to say that they are telling them what their bodies are doing and my reply is that we are substituting our observations for the athlete's. We are saving them the effort of noticing (and thinking) for themselves and dis-empowering them by doing so. This, whether we intend it or not, is how learned helplessness is learned. In contrast to helpless athletes, autonomous athletes can problem-solve more effectively and can collaborate with us as coaches to find solutions that they couldn't find alone. So let us do the work to empower our athletes and see what they are capable of.

We should ask our athletes to notice what their bodies or specific parts of their bodies are doing. They'll need some guidance from us at first to get the hang of it. They'll ask us to do the noticing for them, to which I usually reply, "it's your body, you tell me what it did." We should get them to notice by asking them questions as opposed to telling them what just happened. Generally, I ask questions like, "can you show me what your body looked like at contact." As they get better at recreating that, I can make the questions more specific like, "where was the ball relative to your hips?" This empowers them as they learn to trust their own senses and their kinesthetic awareness. As they're learning, they'll tend to use evaluative terms like good and bad rather than descriptive terms that demonstrate an awareness of positioning, timing, etcetera. Rather than tell them that they're describing it wrong, I will re-frame their words by asking, "what did you feel that makes you say it was good/bad?" This gets them thinking more in terms of what is rather than what they think should be.

As they get better at noticing and describing what their bodies are doing, then we can build in a mechanism for creating changes. We can take a specific aspect of an action and ask the athlete to vary it in some way, like asking them to drop their hips lower and notice how the feeling differs from previous reps. I like to ask athletes to picture the change they want to make or model the change without actually executing the skill, such as, "show me where you want your hand to be at contact." By creating an image and a physical model of the skill we wish to perform, we can then execute the skill, notice what we actually did, and compare that to our image/model. At this point, it is tempting to use more judgemental terms than descriptive ones when comparing. We will hear that the most recent rep was better or worse instead of higher or lower. As before, I will re-frame these into questions that move us back to descriptive terms, like "what did you notice that made that one feel better?" Then I can go back to having them show me what they felt like at contact, etcetera. To save time in the feedback loop we are creating between coach and athlete, I like to set up different numbers that describe different states or relationships like "one means you contacted the ball in front of your body, two means you contacted it even with your body and three means you contacted it behind your body." Then the athlete can give a number after each rep instead of giving a more complete description of the rep thereby increasing the number of reps that they can get in a short period.

We can also introduce our athletes to new skills by having them observe the skills in others. We can show them a few reps of a new skill and then ask them to repeat what they saw. We then take advantage of their now-developed skill in noticing their own actions and comparing those actions to the ones they observed. As coaches, we will notice differences between the athlete's version and ours. We can then draw attention to those specific parts in the same way discussed above. We may need to model a few more contacts and ask the athlete to watch that specific part of the movement to help them create an image to apply.

So far this describes how we use mindfulness in training but how do we transfer that to competition? The answer is that we remind them that they have the power to decide what to notice about their performance as well as the power to decide how to interpret what they notice. We can encourage them to be proactive about picturing and feeling the next skill that they will perform. When we see them reacting to their last touch, we can help them to re-frame by asking them what they noticed about the touch. We are reinforcing the same mental skills that we built in practice, which helps them recognize the value of those skills. We are also creating an effective way for the athletes to move through stressful situations (see my post about failing faster) by creating a framework for their thoughts.

Incorporating mindfulness into our coaching style and into our athletes requires a shift in how we interact with our athletes as well as a shift in how they think. This shift will require time in the practice environment so that the extra processing can take place. As we and the athletes become more proficient with mindfulness, the process of giving, receiving, and assimilating feedback will become faster. As the athletes learn to picture and feel what they want to do, the coach's act of reminding them to see/feel the thing they want to create replaces the coach's modeling of behavior during competition. The end products are athletes that are more empowered and engaged in their own actions.

Road Trips (and Development) Aren't All About the Destination

Let's say you and I lived in Omaha, Nebraska and one day I woke up and wanted to go on a road trip. "Let's go west!" I cry...