Monday, 29 February 2016

Powerful Weekend Up North

This weekend Fred Grannum, a coaching colleague of mine, and I were invited up to Timmins, Ontario to a First Nations Tournament that was put on by the Aboriginal Sport & Wellness Council of Ontario. Fred and I were invited to do a skills clinic for the athletes and coaches during the tournament to help show the participants some new concepts and help to improve the skills of those who were interested in further development.  It was an a very well run tournament with boys and girls teams participating in the event from all over Northern Ontario.  Over the course of the weekend we watched many teams play in quite a few games some of which were very close and intense competitions. 

Fred Grannum is an Assistant Coach with the Men’s U17 Provincial Team and he made an excellent point.  He identified very quickly how keen the players were to learn, even though they were a bit shy at first, and also how little politics there were with the coaches that were willing to have us work with their players.  Some coaches in our area can get very proprietary about their athletes.  The athletes that came to the clinic were very open to learning and had a very keen focus on getting better.  There were even a couple of coaches from Thunder Bay who participated in the clinic itself which added to the enjoyment of the session as they kept up with the group.    

One of the things I picked up on was how much passion the teams played with. You could really see that every player was trying their best and also I quickly noticed that there was a very positive atmosphere in the gym.  Sometimes in the Toronto area when you are watching games you can hear parents complaining about the calls the refs have made or getting upset with other things they see.  I didn’t hear any parents treating the refs poorly throughout the whole weekend. I didn't witness any other complaining going on either.  They were so encouraging and happy with being involved in the event.   

Being from a small town myself I really enjoyed the experience of travelling up and experiencing Timmins as a whole.  It definitely brought back memories of playing with former First Nations teammates as well as being in a town where people are so friendly and open to visitors.  The tournament organizers from the Aboriginal Sport & Wellness Council of Ontario were such gracious hosts and really provided such a positive atmosphere for everyone involved to enjoy.

The level of dedication everyone showed to the sport is unparalleled to what I have seen to date.  I know that teams from all over Canada have their fair share of travelling to get to games.  Even further south in some Ontario teams travel a few hours to get to better competition.  However, at this tournament one team traveled for 10 hours one way just to be part of the event.  Another group of athletes travelled on ice roads which are made in the winter after the temperatures dip low enough for the water to freeze so that they can pack the snow and ice in order to drive their vehicles across the water. Waiting for this ice to form for the season is the only way some of these people can travel to events like this. Even the organizers themselves travelled many hours to get up for the event too.  It was incredible!    

During the clinic, the athletes were a bit timid at first to be coached by two people they didn’t know just yet but they quickly warmed up to us.  It wasn’t too long before we could see them smiling and having fun.  When we got into the games portion of the clinic we could see they were really trying to put the items into practice that they had just learned in previous drills.  It was a true bright spot to be involved with such amazing people this weekend.  It really put into practice one of my favourite Phil Jackson quotes where he said “Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.” This sentiment sums it up perfectly for me. What a great weekend!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Channeling Energy for Performance

Some players get rattled easily.  This can happen when a referee calls a bad call, the crowd gets negative or an opponent hands out a cheap shot.   It can also happen when a team loses a game they feel they should have won or really wanted to win.  Athletes that don’t have the skills to handle these situations have a tough time competing in high pressure circumstances. They also may have a tough time moving to the next level because at the next stage of development dealing with pressure is critical in order to be successful.  

Learn to Exercise Restraint 
Learn to not react or take it personal when an event like the ones listed above happen. Be in the moment and work on letting things pass right by.  Sometimes it helps to view it as an outside event that is happening to someone else. By reacting you are giving the power away to the other team and wasting it when it could be used towards solving the problem at hand. Things happen quickly and at higher levels of play one small lapse can lead to the opponent taking advantage and winning.  Control is a very important and so it should be practiced in advance.  

Rise to the Challenge 
Sometimes when you are a good player opponents are going to foul and push you around just to get a rise out of you.  If you react at everything they do it is easy to see that it will result in your implosion. View their physicality as a positive almost like they are giving you a compliment by being tough on you.  Don’t rely on the refs or anybody else to make the calls that put you in the best situation to succeed.  Learn to work in the worst conditions like a hot gym, the wrong shoes, a ball with not enough air in it or a rim that isn’t perfect. This way when tough things come at you as a player you are used to it.  Simply digging in on defence to get stops and converting those stops into points on the score board is an excellent way to rise to the challenge.  This is the very best way to silence the crowd, your opponents and your inner critic.   

This is the part where it is critical to get in the mental condition that is ideal for you to compete in.  If you get too intense the pressure is too much and it can cause you to not be able to measure up.  Not intense enough and you could be a step behind on everything.  Especially when channeling energy it is a good idea to work on getting in your optimal state in practice so that when you are in a game it becomes easy to just block everything out and play.  The game then becomes about putting the ball in the basket instead of about the people trying to interfere with that by any other distraction they are setting up in front of you.  I heard a football player use the example of pretending the player across from him said something terrible about his mom even though he didn’t.  This was what he used to get himself into a situation of just bringing his highest level of intensity.  Figure out what yours is and use it.  

Use the Feeling Later 

Sometimes losing can be devastating and people make comments like “it’s just a game!”  in order to help you feel better.  One of the things I felt most successful was taking that feeling and bottling it up.  I knew everything about how it felt and where to access it.  This way when I was having a bad training day or didn’t feel like doing something to get better I would reach in and grab that feeling to give myself an extra boost.  This particularly helps in the offseason or when there is a lot of time in between games.  It helps to make offseason productive in terms of improving and digging deep to reach your goals.  

Monday, 15 February 2016

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

There is no question that being uncomfortable doesn’t feel good to many people.  Athletes, coaches and parents might work very hard to keep conditions as comfortable as possible for their athletes over the course of their career. They might trick themselves into thinking the easy way is the right way.  However, it is critical for the sake of growth to learn how to deal with discomfort as well as difficult circumstances especially when the lessons are hard and painful.  This helps to make athletes better by forcing them outside of their boundaries. When they get comfortable with being uncomfortable it moves athletes, as well as the team as a whole, to find a new threshold that they are looking to achieve. 

The most successful people learn to push themselves into challenges when they don’t feel like it and especially when they feel uncertain or even scared.  In order to achieve excellence this needs to be done.  Nothing great gets accomplished by just staying comfortable and safe. Many times it is the pain of rejection or the failure of a challenge that pushes people to achieve what they are trying to. When looking back successful people often list those challenges as their most significant reason for success. They can also recount the lessons they learned when they were in pain as the most important part of their journey and ultimately their success.  The faster you can bounce back from the obstacles life throws out the better it is.  

When pushing the limits of your own boundaries it is critical to expect more of yourself than others may expect of you. In some cases it even becomes a habit and so much so that over the years it might get to a point when staying comfortable feels strange.  Steve Nash has been quoted as saying “I’m uncomfortable being comfortable.” This is what happens when excellence becomes the norm.  It is also critical to be strong in your own belief system to guard against people that might try to take down your aspirations.  

Every failure is an opportunity for growth. There can be times when the discomfort or challenge can threaten to nearly break your will to succeed if you let it.  However, by doing small things incrementally on the road to success it can really help to make daunting goals become a reality.  Here are some examples of things you can do to get out of your boundaries and on to a track of taking risks.  Do something that scares you every day.  Set big goals and break them down into small pieces.  Work on those pieces on a consistent basis.  Be around people that challenge themselves so when you do it doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary.  Be real with yourself and push yourself in your boundaries.  Take a course in something that might be out of your comfort zone like public speaking, travel somewhere you haven't been before or maybe try something artistic. Play in atmospheres and in games where the noise and pressure of the situation is intense in order to get used to it. March to the beat of your own drummer and don’t worry as much about “fitting in” in every way.  Be free to be an individual and see the world through your own perspective.     

It is important to also learn to feel fear but learn to do it anyways. Courage has never been about the lack of fear it is often explained as feeling those feelings but being able to push through them.  Fear is a necessary survival instinct and it should be taken into consideration to be able to evaluate the risks but it should not be solely relied upon for accurate information.  It should heighten the senses but shouldn’t stop the progress.  These are all ways to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Good luck in the journey of challenging yourself!  

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Playing Your Best - Mindfulness in Action

After reading an interesting article on peak performance in Mindful magazine I thought I would write an article about what I learned.  It was about a mediation teacher and mindfulness expert George Mumford.  George helps people find their “masterpiece” within by helping navigate their thoughts and emotions. He has helped athletes, business leaders and prisoners even though he got into mediation while overcoming a personal struggle with drug addiction.  

Meditation was the outlet that helped Mumford through overcoming his addiction and he found the practice shortly after coming out of detox.  As a child growing up he was incredibly sensitive and would often feel sad for weeks when finding that a neighbourhood family was moving away.  He always felt many emotions but didn’t quite know what to do about them. Once he discovered meditation he learned how to hold difficult emotions in his heart instead of reaching for other substances to self medicate as a way to feel better.  

George has now learned to use his mind to accept things instead of always having to have all of the answers.  He transitioned from having to do things  “his” way and began to learn about being in the flow of things.  He is now more interested in learning how the universe works and aligning with the way things are instead of the way he may want them to be.  

The lessons George has taught have impacted Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill as he has worked very closely with Phil Jackson for years.  He is now helping with the New York Knicks to implement this practice.  One of George’s colleagues was doing a workshop with regards to the successful work George was involved in with prison inmates and teaching them meditation.  As luck would have it Phil’s then-wife June was attending that same seminar.  When she told Phil about the work George was doing he was very intrigued and ended up bringing him in to work with the Chicago Bulls.    

Phil had been working with meditation for a long time as he was trying to help his players cope with the high pressure of their lives in basketball.  There was no doubt that George brought that teaching to a new level for the Bulls team.  Since he also had a basketball background from playing at UMass and was also Dr. J’s roommate in college he made quick inroads with the players.  George really helped the players connect with a deeper part of themselves and Phil started noticing the focus and the energy improving.  Phil said of George “He opens the doors for players to have ah-ha moments.” He also went on to mention “A lot of guys in the NBA have been taught about emotional control, but they’ve never been taught about why thoughts arise and where they get sucked into them.  George helps them to understand that they are not their thoughts.  They can get into that space where they’re just watching their thoughts and allowing them to happen without acting on them.”  

George helped the Bulls with their second three-peat championship, which included the 1996-97 record setting 72-10 season.  He also helped the Lakers to win their three-peat series as well.  Here are the three main lessons that George likes to focus on: 

1- Be Still and Know 

“When the mind is still” George says “You have an inner knowing when and how to strike.  It’s playing the game on a spiritual level. You may not know what you’re going to do next, but in that moment you have the ability to see and act simultaneously.” Athletes refer to this as being in the zone which is a state where time is altered and everything is done effortlessly.  It is a time when there is no feeling of mine, me, I in terms of getting things done.  The best way to be in the zone is to not try to get there.  The harder you try to be in that space the further away it gets.  

When an athlete is in the zone it is a unique mix of being in a high state of arousal and also being present in the moment.  Most players are able to do this when they have gotten to a state of being comfortable when they are uncomfortable.  It is likened to being in the eye of the hurricane in that there is chaos all around but not only is the athlete calm in the pressure of that moment they are also performing at their highest level.  

2 - Forget Yourself, Find Yourself 

Mumford helps players to work on the paradox of forget yourself, find yourself.  Instead of focusing on how you are doing they are to focus on what they are doing.  He said it helps people to see it isn’t about getting the credit because the results are much more valuable in terms of belonging to something more valuable than yourself when you are part of a team.  

George was working with Michael Jordan during the time when he gave up baseball and came back to the Bulls part way through the season.  Jordan credited George with making him a better leader because he helped the superstar to related to each of his teammates as individual people.   It really helped to communicate and get clear about what each teammate was and what they wanted to be in the dynamic of the group.  It is that interconnectedness that goes such a long way to bonding teams together instead of holding them to high standards they are uninterested in reaching.  

3 - Mindfulness Alone Isn’t Enough 

George says “Mindfulness alone isn’t enough. It has to be supported by steadiness of mind, right effort, and wisdom.  It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You have to have all of the pieces and then you can start fitting them together.”

Coming to the experience with the right outlook is important.  If the intention is to humiliate or dominate then that is very different from seeing how much you can grow, improve and compete at your personal best.  If you come out saying it doesn’t matter who the opponent is the intention is to perform at your personal best.  Athletes that do this and hold themselves to this standard prove that there was always another level to reach for themselves.

When you force things to happen it is very different than letting them happen and seeing things evolve.  It comes from a place of ease where you let things happen and pick up the vibe of what needs to come next.  Everyone can experience different teachings because we have our own unique experiences to go through.  George’s methods show that meditation isn’t about sitting in a quiet room breathing in and out it is really about living life in that flow and using it on a continual basis as a baseline for being.