(Simone Biles looks on nervously after a wobbly and underwhelming beam routine, 2016.)
Some coaches and instructors try to “psych” their athletes up, regardless of the sport. Phrases like this are meant to help put the athletes “in the zone”:
“This is the last meet of the season”
“This is it, it’s do or die. This is the only shot we’ll ever get”
“Perfection, no mistakes!”
“We wanna end with a bang”
“Play it carefully”
It is an attempt to transmit a sense of urgency onto the pupil, in an effort to get their student to outperform herself. As human beings, we cannot help but say things like this, especially when it’s important to us. Even parents accidentally put lots of pressure onto their own children with similar types of phrases:
“Make sure you smile at the interview”
“You need to eat a full breakfast before the exam”
“Call me. I want to know exactly how the meeting went ASAP!”
I call this mentally, the Last Chance mentality. And everyone has this mentality to a certain degree from time to time. What we must try to do, is start to navigate away from this type of behavior and type of reasoning, especially when we are in a leadership role. A leader never truly believes that this is the last chance ever, on the contrary, a good leader always believes that “tomorrow is another day” and teaches their pupil or child as such. We must teach our children that winners find a way to win tomorrow, even as they are losing today. If we impart this Last Chance belief onto our children, they will have a difficult time dealing with failure when it inevitably arrives. Furthermore, I strongly believe that this type of high-pressure actually causes students to under-perform due to performance anxiety. Their biological system will be taxed further with the extra stress and demand that their coaches have now placed upon them. For example, consider the stress of driving a car through heavy traffic on a typical commute. Now, place a crying baby in the backseat of the vehicle, and you’ve just taxed the entire system in a more negative manner. The baby adds no strategic value to the task, but instead now you are also worried about the baby, trying to figure out if it’s hungry, or why it’s crying so much….on top of trying to figure out how to get through traffic safely. You can see in this example, that the baby is the coach. Understand that the words and pressure used by some coaches ADD NO VALUE to that particular situation. Choose your words carefully, as they must have value. Specific details and instructions are usually better than vague words of encouragement. Say things like: “Remember to land with your arms down”, or “stay loose and keep stretching until your name is called”. Be specific and concise; refrain from saying too much.
So what other guidance should we offer to the athlete or pupil? The coach or teacher should be trying to take the the athlete in the opposite direction from what our normal inclination is. Coaches should be telling athletes: “this is just like practice”, “Ignore the people, the lights, the arena….it’s just there for the show”, “I don’t want you to try to do any better than you do in training, just keep it the same”, etc. The time to coach the pupil was during the training sessions and practice sessions, after that, the actually performance or competition is just repetition of what the athlete already knows how to do. No better or worse than he/she normally does at practice in the gym. And remember, no matter what any one tells you, in sport and in life: THERE IS ALWAYS TOMORROW.