Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Pressure Of Expectations And Outcome Goals

Being a Blue Jays fan and watching them fall apart here the last month of the season makes me think about how the focus on the outcome of sport can cause us to perform poorly. I think back over the years of competing and whenever you're the #1 seed there is some form of pressure. I don't know why we focus so much on winning when that is what causes us to feel pressure and is not what we should be focusing on when we are performing.

For anyone who has not been watching the Jays collapse it is quite apparent. They are playing against teams that have nothing to lose, are loose and having fun and they are beating up on the supposedly superior Blue Jays team. The Jays know the importance of each game and when you've played over 100 baseball games where the outcome of each game is not nearly as critical, it's no wonder they begin to fall apart when they actually NEED to perform at their best. It's such a strange sport because of this. You obviously want to win every game, throw a strike every pitch and get a hit every at bat, but that just doesn't happen. You win some and hopefully you lose less. But when the standings are really tight and the ending of the season is in sight and playoffs are on the line it's interesting how the pressure to perform has gotten the better of a collective group of elite athletes. It must be super difficult to HAVE to win now when the games matter more and perhaps trying harder is the exact opposite of what they need to do.

Let's get back to squash. We've all experienced this before; you are winning and nearing the end of the game or match and all of the sudden your thoughts to drift to the imminent victory and your opponent begins to not try so hard. It's no wonder in this previous example that the player who feels they are going to lose starts to go for more shots and feel more relaxed. Meanwhile the person who was in control most of the match begins to think about the outcome and has lost focused. After the person that was winning loses a few points in a row they begin to feel some anxiety about what is happening. Sound familiar? So how did we all end up focusing so much on the outcome when that is exactly what destroys us? How do we learn to shift our focus onto more positive and controllable actions? 

I think a big problem starts when we grow up watching pro sports. We hear praise for our local teams when they succeed and curse them for underperforming. We have parades when our home team wins a championship. What kind of child doesn't grow up thinking they have those same standards when they compete? We all want a parade! We want to be better than other people and we can measure this in sports from the scoreboard. This is setting kids up for disaster because everyone is going to lose and we shouldn't feel bad and like we let someone down when we do. This is just the society we were brought up in. Somehow we are more proud of our kids if they win. That's a lot of pressure to feel when you step out on the squash court. Think about how tough this is over the course of an entire year. We aren't always going to be in tip top match form so how can we expect to win against people we believe we SHOULD beat regardless of the day? And when a child loses a tight match they end up in tears, yet the winner is all smiles and proud of their accomplishment.

First off an athlete needs to understand that there are various cycles throughout the year when you are working on different areas of your game or fitness and the outcome of a match during these heavy training or non-competitive times simply do not matter. Even during the competitive season I feel we would all benefit greatly by focusing on the process of our performances versus our results. I remember often going into a practice match with an idea to implement some new tactic to practice it, but when it wasn't working and I began losing I would quickly abandon the concept and just do whatever it took to win. This is something most of us deal with. We can only think about what we want now instead of what is best for us down the road. We have pride in our ability and an ego to feed.

Have you ever avoided hitting the right shot because we are afraid what happens if we miss it? I assume this anxiousness is because your thoughts are completely about the outcome. If we miss an opening we could lose! This is how I eventually started turning things around. I began focusing on playing the right shot and not worrying about the execution whatsoever. If you do this the shots will get better with practice and you'll be more committed to the shots you go for. In squash you have to play some shots with higher degrees of risk. You'll also focus more on what you should hit and on the tactics in general. If we can stay relaxed and enjoy our squash we will also hit better shots with less tension in our arm with added confidence in our shot selection. This is an important step for becoming the best player you can be, at least it was for me.

You may be thinking that this sounds a little soft and not competitive. I enjoy competition and hate losing as much as anyone, but I have only learned later in my career how much this narrow mindset held me back and put more pressure on my results. Winning is not completely in your control and it isn't fair to say you didn't perform well just because of a scoreboard. You could very well of played up to your standard and just didn't have the result you had hoped for. Losing is actually a great learning tool. Without a doubt I have learned the most from my losses. I didn't like those lessons, but they were very important. If you avoid competing against players you think you should beat you are probably doing this because of the pressure you feel to win and that there is nothing to gain from the match. This is a silly and a damaging mindset. You should not be avoiding competition for this reason because this is an outcome based approach and unless you are 1 of the best in the world you are still a developing player and in the learning stage of squash. Stay humble. If we focus on the process and what we're trying to do and improve upon on court there is always a reason to tie up your shoes and compete. Just be sure you go into these matches with more than simply an outcome goal. 

As a more experienced coach I don't worry about if one of my kids are winning or losing. I try and focus on what they're doing and how they can do it better. It's all about learning and becoming the best they can be. So although squash is played against an opponent there you should focus on what you can do on court. There is a lot each opponent can teach you if you're willing to pay attention. If you don't do well against someone it simply means they have exposed some areas you need to improve, which is not a bad thing! If you love squash and are dedicated to becoming the best you can be you should thank them, go and work on these areas diligently over and over again until it gets to the level you are satisfied with. You go back out and retest what you've worked on and you get a new assessment of your skill and this repeats over and over again. And if you're like me you'll just work on these areas your squash career because you'll always know that it can be better and more consistent with just a little more deliberate practice. 

I feel like the best squash the world has to see will come from a completely process oriented approach by a player. They type of player will always be looking to improve and will never be satisfied with any result because they are basically a perfectionist for a sport that can never be perfected.  If you don't focus on winning you won't feel the pressure over the course of the season or your career and you will experiment more. To become the best we could possibly ever be that means we must be willing to make a lot of mistakes, experiment and learn from them. If we avoid trying things because we may make mistakes and lose in the short term we are only hurting ourselves and lowering our ceiling of potential. I hope this makes sense to you. It seems very clear to me and I wish I hadn't won as much as a kid. Maybe I never would have quit squash and maybe I would have learned to enjoy playing more and also focus on improving my game and not focusing on the other kids and being better than them.

It's only natural to feed our egos and want to be better than other people. In squash a good player can build up quite an ego. If you really want to be the best I suggest a process based approach and a deep love for squash. Stay humble and work on becoming the best you can be. I feel like many parents and coaches are so caught up trying to make their kid better than some other kids. When really it should all be focused around fun and how to help each of those kids become the best that they can be (which is not measured simply by their result of playing one another!). If you measure this just on their performance against one another, how do you think the loser of the match it going to feel? Does that mean all that work they put in was for nothing? Why can't they both feel like winners because of how amazingly talented they are? There is a delicate balance that I feel it is being crossed by a lot of parents and coaches around the world as they push their kids to pursue their own personal agendas (not their kids goals). If this happens there is even more pressure that these kids are going to feel every time they step out on court. 

All this being said I still have no problem with a kid trying to become a national or world champion. I just believe they need to learn to focus on HOW they become the best that they can be, not just on being the best compared to other people. If you truly pursue being the best you can be you'll give yourself a great shot and you'll be able to play with less pressure and focus on the outcome. This is why I think process goals are so critical. You ask kids to set goals and 95% of the time they are only process oriented goals. How you achieve these outcome goals is what you should focus on all of the time. 

All of the above is why I am also against prioritizing tournaments for juniors. Yes some events are bigger and the competition is more fierce, but we put pressure on them if we write on their annual training plan that this is their most important even of the season of their career. We are spending lots of money to take our kid to another country so we want more value for this investment. This is junior squash and an amateur event. Of course we don't want them going to a an event unprepared and without confidence, but the stage shouldn't be too big for them either. It's just about doing what they do back home and learning from playing new players what they are doing well and what areas need to improve. It's also about learning to prepare the best you possibly can and if you do this there is now way you can ever leave a tournament as a failure regardless of the results.

Every time a kid plays a tournament they want to do well and every match matters equally; same for most adults. But really they are just measuring tools to see how we're doing and they will let us know if we need to refine our training. I think that if kids can have fun when they play at tournaments regardless of the 'specified level of importance' we give it they will generally perform better and take away a more positive experience. But I do see how this could change because we are all built differently and we all handle competition differently. Some have lots of anxiety and get really nervous while others adrenalin. Others hate competition altogether because they feel pressure to perform and don't like doing something they can't control the result of. This is because we were all brought up in a society that's praised winning and shamed losing, both in business and in professional sports.

That's enough for today. I feel like there is way more pressure on kids to achieve certain standards now compared to when I was young. Is your goal as a parent or a coach to get your kid into a top American school or to become a professional player or to love the game and play for their entire life? Do you know what the goals of your child are? Maybe that's a good place to start with because they are likely quite different and they may surprise you. They are also probably all process oriented and you may be happy hearing that they want to be a national or world champion, but the key is in the HOW not the WHAT.

I hope you guys enjoyed my banter today. If you haven't already done so please check out the new Serious Squash Store at Use the code 'SSROCKS' to receive 15% off your order! I've got lots of t-shirts, tank tops, bandanas, hats and wristbands. Serious Squash is also now a clothing sponsor which I know is a bit ironic after todays topic because the standards are based on your national ranking. But I do offer lowered tier sponsorships for kids with exceptional work ethics, are well behaved and excellent role models. I am not against competing or rankings. I just like them to reflect your process oriented goals and hard work. 

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