Friday, February 26, 2010

Live Your Greatness - Part 3

A friend on mine wrote this about flight in sport

Flight: the instinct that rules the lives of many

How often do you here a coach say “His mind’s not in the right place right now”, “It’s a mental thing”, or “He’s got to get his head right” or ‘its between his ears’? Sometimes the coach may be right, but too often the words are just another sporting cliché to disguise the fact that the coach him/herself doesn’t know what’s wrong. If it’s not a physical problem, it must be a mental one. Almost never considered is the possibility that it’s an unconscious thing. An ancient survival instinct kicking in and causing the athlete to underperform. The mental issue is that neither coach nor athlete understand the real root of the problem or know what to do about it. In the third of our series about how survival instincts create the stress that undermines sporting (and other) performance, we look at flight.

“Want the ball”, yells the coach from the touchline, “Get in the box, attack it!”. But his striker doesn’t really want the ball and he’s afraid to attack it. As the ball comes across, the striker hesitates, just a fraction, but it’s enough for the defender to get across and put him off. The striker goes through the routine anyway. He jumps, the ball glances off his forehead and sails harmlessly away. It looks like a reasonable effort, but deep down the striker knows he bottled it. On form, there would have been no indecision. He would have lost the defender, met the ball firmly and bulleted it into the net. But that seems like a long time ago now. Of course, it’s partly a mental issue. He’s on a long goalless streak, so he’s lost confidence. He tries to tell himself that all goal scorers experience this, that even Alan Shearer had his barren spells, but he can feel the coach and fans losing patience, and the pressure building. The greater the need to score, the greater the fear of missing. Relaxation has disappeared from his play, replaced by fear. Unknown to the striker, his fear is trying to protect him by holding him back. There is an unconscious game being played out here: if I don’t quite get there, I can make a decent effort; I won’t actually miss, so it won’t look so bad. Fear is pulling him back, causing him to hide and ‘flee’ from the very situation on the pitch that is both most stressful and productive for a striker; being one on one with the goalkeeper.

Flight is about escaping from perceived/imagined danger. It pulls you back, stops you from participating and means that you aren’t ready or relaxed enough to take the opportunity when it comes. It's about being so nervous that you can’t focus clearly or react spontaneously in the moment. So we avoid, we hide, but all the time doing just enough to make it look like we really are trying. And there is no easier sport to hide in than a team game, especially one played over a largish area with a significant number of players. Quite often fans, coaches, and even fellow players don’t notice when a particular player goes ‘missing’ during a game.

Flight, like any instinctive defense mechanism, is addictive. It spills over into the striker’s whole sporting environment. It impacts his training. It encourages the ‘development’ of mysterious injuries that defy diagnosis. And, as he becomes increasingly sensitive to, and seeks to avoid, criticism, it places strain on his relationships with his coaches and teammates.

The irony, of course, is that the downward spiral caused by flight’s hold over the striker doesn’t actually protect him at all. It simply guarantees that he will not be in the right place at the right time, that his goalless run continues and, ultimately, that he experiences/suffers the equally public and greater humiliation of being dropped. If only someone had talked him through the mechanics of the unseen drama being played out within him. And taught him some of the many techniques for controlling the intrusion of flight on sporting action.

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