As I approach my thirty-eighth year as a professional Sports coach, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the philosophical aspect of competitive development and coaching itself as a field of study.
Many wise coaches over the history of our profession – even back to the days of our true ancestors – the fencing masters and the sergeants at arms and gladiatorial instructors – have routinely declared that 95% of what we do is mental and that the skills that must be learned in order to participate – no matter what the level of excellence achieved – are merely tools and are in reality the entry fee that must be paid to get in to the party. What you do once you have gained entry – that is the crucial part.
This being the case, I cannot help but feel that importance attached to certain areas in the development process are not only given disproportionate quantities of attention but, in point of fact, whilst well meant, do a great deal of damage.
Let me explain.
I have a pet saying that when I look at a competitor performing, what I am seeing is a physical representation of the ideas in that competitor’s head.
Therefore if the philosophy is flawed, no matter how hard the competitor works on mechanics and skills, ultimately the competitor is doomed.
You may work as hard as you like on running a race, but you can only win if you are on the right course.
In my field of competition, the Sport of Squash, competitors become distracted by the huge volume of attention given to winning and losing, rankings and rivalries, outcomes rather than performance.
This in turn manifests itself in mistaken philosophies and assumptions that misdirect competitive development.
Not only this, but because philosophy directly contributes to mechanics, the physical execution of skills are compromised through a failure to understand ultimate priorities.
Language, as we know both to our benefit and to our cost, is a very powerful tool and so before we speak – and that includes self-talk – we must make sure that we understand the consequences of the words/advice we offer or hear.
For instance a simple example of a philosophy that has disastrous consequences in Squash, is the concept of trying to hit ‘a winner’ – ( a finishing shot).
To the unthinking or the uninitiated this may seem a harmless expression.
But let’s follow through the philosophy:
If a player is attempting to play ‘ a winner’ they are attempting to end the game.
If they are committing to ending the game, how much will they focus/work on the continuation of the game beyond the shot that they are attempting to win with?
None is the answer, because in their minds they are hoping/intending to finish.
Should the opponent retrieve or worse still counter attack against the attempted ‘winner’, the player is unprepared for the next phase of the game – having committed to the end and having made no plan for the future.
But this is not the end of the story.
When a player attempts to play ‘a winner’ it seriously affects the physical and mechanical technique employed.
When attempting to bring play to a halt, the player becomes static – focused as they are on stopping rather than continuing the play. As a result they only employ their upper body strength as in focusing on stopping – they don’t employ their legs to move into position (as they execute their shot) in order to be prepared for the opponent’s possible reply. Why should they? In their mind there isn’t going to be a reply so why move to cover?
As a consequence of not dynamically recruiting the powerful muscles of the legs and thereby creating an energy wave that will flow smoothly and uninterrupted up through their bodies, through their arms and into the ball and at the same time alleviating all stress in the arms to enable the arms , hands and fingers to precisely control the ball – the opposite occurs and the upper body becomes stiff, prevents smooth and precisely controlled weight transference and produces a tight inaccurate, emotionally charged attempt – which frequently results in an error.
I am sure that there are exactly equivalent behaviors in the competitive business world.
All this from a seemingly innocuous expression – ‘ a winner.’
The expression ‘winner’ of course is a description of an outcome that has occurred in the past, not something that should be attempted in the future.
Competitors should ‘attack’ with gusto, always remembering that highly talented opponents will almost always retrieve those ‘attacks’ and that one should therefore always assume a need have a plan in place for the continuation of the play.
If by some chance the opponent doesn’t retrieve the attack even though you expected them to, then you are in the happy position of having covered every eventuality. And of course because your philosophy was to ‘attack’ without making any prediction as to how successful your ‘attack’ would be, your body has been employed dynamically and thus has produce mechanics which have resulted in the best possible combination of power/weight transference originating in your active legs which in turn was funneled through the precision oriented, relaxed and sensitive, unstressed arms, hands and finger – all in a seamless and natural progression which facilitated both protection for your self ( the primary focus) and pain for your opponent ( an important but secondary focus).
To summarize: Competitive skills must not be developed in isolation from the philosophy of the competition.
Over concentration on ‘how’ to perform a skill rather than on ‘why’ to perform a skill will lead not only to poor strategy but poor execution.
Competitors must firmly understand their purpose in all of their behaviors otherwise they will emphasize physical and mechanical movements that are counter productive.
In general we in the Competitive world need to direct all of our activities toward putting us ahead on the timeline.
Much is spoken of staying in the moment – but this refers to the physical and mechanical execution of skills being well delivered and not distracted by concerns about possible final outcomes.
In point of fact Competitive people need to focus on remaining physically up to date ( in the present) but mentally slightly ahead ( in the future) to be successful.
Forgive me for misquoting the great Wayne Gretsky, but he is credited for ‘ not wanting to go to where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be.’
That, in a nutshell, is what Competition is about. Keeping your mind being prepared for what could happen next and making sure that whatever you are doing now puts you in the best position to strengthen your situation.
This may mean attacking, defending or both in various ratios.
Always prepare for the worst. Attack like a demon when you can, but never over commit, never become complacent. Hurt your opponent over and over again, but make no assumptions as to how effective your attack will be. A wounded opponent can be a lethal enemy, so keep your guard and your position up until nothing comes back.
Here is the sequence that I believe produces the best player development:
1. Study and understand the philosophy of the game understanding that in order to survive one must always think ahead.
2. Develop movements and skills that adhere to that philosophy.
3. Condition the mind, emotions and body to be able to execute the movements and skills that are in line with the philosophy of the game.
4. Continually review, reappraise and re-rehearse all of the above with an open mind.
With this formula I believe that both competitors and coaches can achieve their maximum potentials.
Dec 9th 2013.