Sport can be important for adolescent well-being for many reasons. It is an effective and exciting way to build optimism and resilience, and through managing pressure, disappointment and team dynamics, athletes can learn important lessons, which they can translate into other areas of their lives.
Many of our coaches at St Andrew’s College recently attended a well-being and sport presentation delivered by Head of Guidance, Tom Matthews. As a school, we know it is important that our well-being strategy is embraced by our sports coaches, as they are in a privileged position to be able to inspire our young people in ways that influence their thinking and actions.
This blog post provides a summary of Tom’s presentation, which delves into how the human brain works, and has some great ideas for motivating and supporting our athletes, while helping them to cultivate resilience, self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
Humans have evolved to have a natural negativity bias and it can be easy for teachers, athletes and coaches to focus on weaknesses, errors and what needs fixed.
The interesting thing is that our experiences, thoughts and feelings only reflect what we choose to focus on, not necessarily the reality of a situation. When humans think a thought (real or not) it triggers an emotional response in our body and our brain. And this emotional state influences whether we can learn and focus. If our athletes are in a state of fear or doubt, then the limbic brain hijacks the pre-frontal cortex, so no learning or optimal performance can happen.
The All Blacks are an excellent example of a team who have prioritised developing their athlete's emotional intelligence and self-awareness. With the help of Rhodes scholar Ceri Evans, they devised a plan for helping athletes control their attention under the stress of pressure and expectation.
You may have heard of ‘red head’ and ‘blue head’ in relation to the All Blacks, the latter being the ideal state of mind in pressurised rugby circumstances.
A red head is characterised by feelings of anxiety and doubt, the sensation of being overwhelmed and desperate, when focus on the task at hand is slipping away and the possible outcome is causing inhibition. Blue head, in contrast, sees the athlete clearly concentrating on the process – calm, clear, certain of their job, and living in the moment. Athletes are taught to recognise when their attention is diverted and to develop their own strategy to move their attention back from red to blue.
The focus on mental and emotional skills assisted the All Blacks to become more resilient athletes. When we understand how our brains work, we too can cultivate resilience, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and encourage this in our young athletes.
Matthew Scholes is a leading academic and sports coach who has developed an evidence-based way of coaching, based on research from the field of Positive Psychology. The Positive Coaching Model explains a process of coaching built around the science of optimism, process-based feedback and strength-based leadership. The focus of this model is developing optimistic, motivated and resilient athletes (rather than a focus on winning). Using this framework coaches still focus on weaknesses but give feedback in a more balanced and appreciative way.
Following are three tools from the Positive Coaching Model that make a difference:
Coaches should start any conversation by focusing on the athlete’s strengths and what has gone well (even when very little has gone well). This puts athletes in a calm emotional state where they can register the feedback that the coach needs to give (The VIA (Values in Action) Character Strength Framework provides 24 strengths that coaches could focus on). Athletes easily interpret the body language and tone of voice of their coaches, so it is also important that coaches can regulate emotions and stay calm before they address weaknesses and next steps.
It is important that coaches focus athletes on the process, not just the outcome. A process focus emphasises what the athletes need to do in the moment to perform at their best. It is about preparation, technique or tactics. The focus is entirely on what is in the athlete’s focus or control. An outcome focus, on the other hand, focuses on results, rankings and beating others – all things that are outside the athlete’s control.
When athletes focus on the process, they stay in the moment and become absorbed at the task at hand. Csikszentmihalyi called this process ‘flow’. When any sportsman talks about a time when they performed their absolute best, they will often recall experiencing a state of flow and being in the moment.
Great coaches give feedback on and celebrate the process, not the outcome. This motivates the athletes and gives them a sense of agency and confidence moving forward.
Some research shows a correlation between optimism and performance. It is suggested that those who are optimistic have the resilience, willpower and determination to overcome obstacles. They see opportunity in difficulty.
Coaches can promote optimism in their athletes by asking optimistic questions and role modelling an optimistic mindset. It is also critical to focus athletes on what is controllable so they feel agency and seek opportunity moving into the future. Hope is cultivated when athletes take action and have a clear plan to reach their goals.
In the end, it is important that our athletes are motivated, resilient and have agency moving forward. What coaching techniques have worked for you to inspire and motivate your athletes? Do you agree that a more balanced and appreciative approach works with young people?
Kerry Larby, Head of Well-being and Positive Education