Dr. Stephen Walker talks about: Turning Negatives Into a Positive


by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP

Probably the most enjoyable aspect of working with athletes, coaches, trainers and parents of emerging stars in development is the opportunity to help them – get over it.   “IT” varies from person to person.

I won’t tell you that watching a coach pitch a fit, or hearing of one’s abuses doesn’t register.  Truth be told – it can and often does rile me….and few things can trigger more of a rant. But regardless of age, circumstance, sport or situation – we ALL can benefit from changing our focus on the wounds we’ve felt in life.

Mark Twain once said, “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life….and some of them actually happened.”

I know that we get wounded.  Nobody is immune to the damage inflicted out there.  It’s just that some people hang their hats on the wounds like a badge of courage…and then they wonder why they can’t get over it.  Worse, there are folks who like to embellish the wounds, maybe even dress them up – like the makeup artist in some gruesome movie.  These folks are not only wounded – THEY STAY WOUNDED.

I find that the athletes and other folks who can find a way to be glad for their owie, appreciate the wound…and somehow find a way to turn it into a POSITIVE, are the most successful well-adjusted and happiest people all-around.

A Case in Point – Stephanie.

Today I met a very promising young athlete playing for a relatively negative, hyper-critical, emotional and mindless coach not having any fun.  Stephanie’s confidence was in the crapper, and she was beginning to take it all personally.  She was more aware of her aches and pains than ever before, and it had crossed her mind a number of times that this might be her last season because she was thinking of quitting the sport.

How bad was it you ask?  This kid was playing at the highest level possible in youth sport for her age group.  She was the number one ranked player at her position in the state, and, her team is preparing for nationals.  The kid had been playing the sport for 7 years (and had loved it until this year.)  She went out for her high school track team and had turned in some really promising times.  The track coach was more than willing to accommodate her commitment to her club team. When her club coach heard about the cross training, he pitched another fit…calling her out in front of the team…and prohibited the team from training in another sport.

So – What about the coach?

http://tbn2.google.com/images?q=tbn:AzvKpRU1FaLIGM:http://www.istockphoto.com/file_thumbview_approve/6220565/2/istockphoto_6220565_angry_coach.jpgLet’s just say the first premise in Coaching 101 is – Praise in Public….Criticize in Private.  From multiple sources it has become apparent to me that “This guy” has no sense of that.  The professional literature is replete with research articulating the concerns of burn-out amongst athletes pushed to specialize at an early age.  Assistant coaches have attempted to discuss some of these things with him – but he demeans them too.  Parents who have questioned his methods, he doesn’t speak to anymore.  So, I’m picturing the one finger salute in response to anyone questioning his authority, much less his methodology.

Problem is, its costing him and his team.  Not only is he not getting the “best” of his athletes, many have begun to resent him.   This is no formula for success.  The fact that playoffs are upon them is even more of a concern.

The “focus” for many of the athletes on this team isn’t on their preparation – but fear of what he might do next.  They are way too worried about the when and where his “flash” of anger is going to appear.  The team’s focus is scattered…. Not exactly what you want going on when your team has it’s shot at glory.

Long Term – What’s best for Stephanie?

No doubt, at the end of the season…I’ll be assigning homework for this young athlete.  Homework designed to help her turn this negative experience into a positive.  It will require thought, some catharsis, a realistic appraisal of the skills acquired and those still needing work, and a synopsis of how this season can be considered a great success…as a learning experience, that is.  Most great athletes (and coaches) do this routinely.  It’s how they review, adjust and formulate process goals for the future.

But then there are some that don’t….and they leave the season (and unfortunately all-too-often the sport) with the taste of bile in their throat.  Is it any wonder?

Just think how much stronger, more capable, positive, optimistic and focused we ALL could be if we debriefed all our major life experiences in such a way.  The residual take-away from such soul searching is always the same…we feel better about the experience…more positive and even more hopeful for what’s in store for us in the future.

In sports, think how much more impact we might get from the lessons.  This type of process alters what we take-away from the experience.  Furthermore, it sobers us as to what we might (or might not) get from our coaches in the future.  We are much more likely to assume greater responsibility for the outcomes because we (ultimately) determine how we view the outcome.  Probably the best reason is we tend to appreciate the experience and what we learned rather than loathe it.

What can Stephanie do right now?

What about the young athlete headed for the playoffs?  She still has to cope with her emotionally unbalanced coach.  What about him?

I suggested that she try to put her emotions in “neutral.”

My feeling about it is this, and I recommended as much.  If she can learn to assume an attitude or posture toward every forthcoming outburst with the same emotionality she might express or experience while emptying the dishwasher(or some other mundane task we do everyday)…she will put herself in the most functional mindset possible for managing  such a situation.

This is tricky.  And it must be determined on a case-by-case basis – because a “bad attitude” even in reaction to a childish display – only exacerbates the problem.  Hence, a “Yes sir – No sir” is required…but internally… the filtering mechanism must not let the display destroy her confidence.

The Ultimate Benefit for Stephanie

The challenge is what goes on in the 5 inches between each ear.  The best athletes will weigh the specifics of each outburst (filtering out the junk) and ask him or herself the question…”What useful feedback can I use here?”…or… “How can I improve my play from what I’m hearing.”

This is possibly the most challenging task one can ask for…when acquiring skill sets in mental conditioning.  How does one take a negative and turn it into a positive?  Mentally training oneself for such adverse situations are rarely talked about… but doing so is a necessity for long term success.

Stephanie will experience both long-term and short-term benefits if she can focus on the substantive things she actually can do to integrate the skill sets her coaches are teaching her.   Every athlete must learn to filter the negative from the useful – only personalizing those things she can use.

This process is NOT easy and usually requires someone to help REDEFINE some of the experience.  In the final analysis, if  Stephanie can reiterate in a 30-90 second sound bite all the positive things she learned during in her season – and – how she’s taking her game to the next level…thanks to the new things she’s learned – then she will have genuinely turned a negative into a positive.

And – if Stephanie (the future coach) can employ these lessons to become a more mindful, conscious mentor of developing athletes…she will have hit a home run, and virtually every athlete she works with throughout will gain from her experience.  The ability to turn disasters into gardens is a key ingredient to that often talked about, but hard to achieve, positive mental attitude (PMA.)  Good luck and go for it, Steph!

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