Monday, 8 May 2017

When Practice makes Imperfect

As a client of mine sat down in my office, it was obvious that he was frustrated about something. He was a very keen amateur golfer who desperately wanted to improve his handicap but wasn’t making the progress he wanted to make. “I work so hard on my golf”, he sighed, “Every spare minute I have, I am down the driving range hitting ball after ball. Sometimes I am there for 3 or 4 hours. On a good day, I can get through about 500 balls. And yet, I just don’t get any better.” He looked at me and frowned, “In fact, if anything, I’m actually playing worse than I was when I didn’t practise so hard”.

He reminded me of a time I was working with another golfer client at the driving range of his course. A man was walking past us, with 2 full baskets of balls, towards a bay a bit further up from where we were standing, when his mobile went off. All eyes turned to him as he fumbled for his phone to answer it. He obviously wasn’t where he was supposed to be because he started saying “I’m in the car,” and then pleaded, “No, I’m not at the golf club. I’m on my way. I be back in 5 minutes.” He then hung up and looked at his phone then looked at his baskets of balls and then back to his phone again as if weighing up what to do next. He then spurred himself into action, poured all of his balls into the automatic dispenser, pulled out his driver and proceeded to whack one ball after another as quickly as he possibly could. The balls went everywhere apart from where he seemed to be aiming. He appeared to become more tense and frustrated with each swing that he made as he watched the balls hooking left, slicing right and, on one occasion somehow, after a loud clatter, actually ending up 5 yards behind him.

There is an often used saying that “practice makes perfect”, which implies that the mere process of practising will make you a better performer at any task or sport. And yet it would be hard to think that this golfer would gain anything from just spraying shots all over the place. What he probably didn’t consider, however, is that practice would undoubtedly have been making him worse. He was actually learning how to hit a ball badly. If you want to make practice effective, quality will always be better than quantity. Instead of hitting 100 balls very quickly, he would have gained far more by just hitting 5 with full concentration.

This is effectively what I told my client. I told him that next time he should get a maximum of 30 balls and for each shot he played, to play it as if it was a real shot on a course. That meant choosing a precise target, pulling the club out of the bag (each time) and going through his full pre-shot routine before playing the shot. Then I wanted him to take a break of a minute before going on to the next shot. This had the effect of getting him into the idea of quality practice. Two weeks later, he came back to see me. A broad grin appeared on his face as he described how his game had transformed and how he’d beaten his best round of golf by 3 shots only 2 days earlier. This is because he had been teaching himself how to play quality golf and it had, over the two weeks, become a habit.

The great Gary Player famously coined the phrase, “The more I practise, the luckier I get”. What he probably should have said was “The more I practise “with purpose”, the luckier I get”. 

Andy Barton
Performance Coach

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mourinho’s strength has become his weakness

When Jose Mourinho first joined Chelsea under the fanfare of the most unlikely of Champions League wins with Oporto, he would have felt fully justified in referring to himself as the “Special One”. His managerial record had been incredible up to that point, having won 6 trophies in just 2 years and very soon he was wielding the same kind of magic for Chelsea before later doing, arguably, even great things with Inter Milan, with whom he won a second Champions League in their “treble” winning season.  

His strength always seemed to be the way he handled his players. Whereas, Alex Ferguson, played the role of a father figure with his players at Manchester United, Mourinho behaved more like the cool uncle to his. He would defend his players to the death and created a loyalty that was unsurpassed by many other coaches. He saved his scorn and criticism for everyone else, using his attacks on the media, opposing coaches, referees, pundits and even UEFA, to develop a siege mentality where it was “us” against “them”. Although there would be disagreements with players, these were kept behind closed doors to maintain that team cohesion that was to inspire his teams over many years of success. Players such as Frank Lampard, John Terry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all remained loyal to Mourinho long after he had stopped managing them because of the great rapport that he had developed with them.

Then, last year, Mourinho seemed to change his winning ways. At Chelsea, the year after recapturing the Premiership, he started to become more openly critical about his players. Nemanja Matic had the humiliation of being substituted only 20 minutes after coming on as a substitute himself and then the once loyal John Terry was dropped from the team for long periods for no apparent reason. The disaffection among the team reached its peak when Mourinho openly vilified club doctor Eva Carneiro after she, quite justifiably, went to tend to the injured Eden Hazard when Chelsea were desperately trying to get a goal in the closing moments of a match against Swansea. Although not a player, Carneiro was very much part of the “team” and Mourinho’s handling of this situation and his unwillingness to back down seemed to have played a massive role in the mental approach of the team and their subsequent fall down the Premiership table.

It seemed, however, that he had learned his lesson after Chelsea with Manchester United seeming to become more positive under him. However, although they are unbeaten in 20 games, half of these games have been draws, leaving them 4 points away from the magic top four places for next year’s Champions League and the pressure is beginning to tell. As a result, we find Mourinho turning his wrath on his players again. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have all had to take some public criticism from their boss but the main censure has been saved for the young defender Luke Shaw.

Mourinho’s decision to inform the world that Shaw has no brains on the pitch and questioning his commitment is hardly going to help his already fragile confidence. To think that bullying a young player is going to make them stronger is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. Mourinho’s record of bringing on young players is appalling and this illustrates why. Rather than creating a culture of free flowing, positive football, this kind of treatment will only serve to instil a fear of failure in his young players. It’s all well and good the likes of Gary Neville saying that Shaw has to respond to this in his performances but, psychologically, it is like making a player wear a rucksack full of lead and then telling them to go out and prove themselves. Surely, Mourinho could learn from his past self and work on building bridges with his players rather than burning them down. As my father always said to me, “Respect and admiration cannot be demanded, they can only be earned”. 

Andy Barton
Mental Performance Coach

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Why wait for mental fitness?

What would you think if a top soccer club waited until their players became really unfit before they were given access to any fitness coaching? That would be madness wouldn’t it? And yet, when it comes to mental fitness this is exactly what happens in most teams, even at the highest level.

I am now writing from the NSCAA convention in Los Angeles. This is the biggest soccer convention in the world with over 10,000 coaches attending from all 5 continents. A consistent theme I am hearing even from the most forward-thinking teams is that, even though they are now providing sports psychologists and mental performance coaches to their players to deal with the enormous stresses involved with playing at the highest level, they mostly tend to be used when there is a significant problem such as a drop in confidence or a sudden loss of form. Essentially, teams are waiting for the players to develop a weakness and then dealing with it, often when it is too late to have any useful effect, rather than putting the emphasis on mental training to prevent the problems from occurring in the first place. The sad thing is that many great young soccer players fail to make the grade in this extremely competitive environment largely because of mental factors. They may lose self belief and confidence, they may develop overwhelming anxiety and fear, they may lose motivation or may just be practising ineffectively. Time and time again I hear of players who were considered the best player in their academy at the age of 13 or 14 but end up dropping out of soccer altogether only a few years after purely due to a lack of mental ability.

So why have I come to the NSCAA Convention? My aim is to work with teams to change the way they see mental performance in sport. Rather than putting the emphasis on supporting players who have specific problems, mental performance training should be coached in the same way that fitness and skills are coached so that young players are equipped with the mental strength they require to make it at the top level. Confidence, determination, self belief and effective learning strategies can be all coached. So, let’s not wait for our minds to get out of shape. Let’s start the training now.

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Olympic Mind Training

I love the Olympics. In fact, one of my earliest sporting memories is of sitting transfixed in front of my TV in 1972 watching the great Mark Spitz win an unprecedented 7 gold medals in the swimming events. Since then, I’ve added to an ever-growing list of Olympic heroes with names such as Daley Thompson, Carl Lewis, Steve Redgrave, Nadia Comaneci, Chris Hoy, Michael Phelps and Kelly Holmes. Nothing, however, could beat the experience I had of being in the Olympic Stadium 4 years ago and seeing Usain Bolt winning gold the 100 metres Final. The buzz coming from the crowd was electrifying.

So the Rio Olympics is almost with us and I can feel that excitement starting to grow as we get closer to the opening ceremony. Sadly, a lot of the headlines leading up to the games have been about the Russians’ state sponsored use of performance enhancing drugs, which presents a sad reminder of the days of the old Soviet Union where performance enhancing drugs were dished out like vitamins (in fact, this is what many of the athletes were told they were). The emphasis was on giving their athletes greater strength, speed and stamina and winning at all costs. And winning did come at a cost, as the side-effects of many of these drugs affected a large number of these athletes in a whole host of ways, from hair growth and infertility to breast and testicular cancer and heart disease.

Interestingly, research has shown that working on the mental side of sports performance can actually have as positive effect on a person’s results than taking performance enhancing drugs. It has been found that just having self-belief can improve performance by in excess of 5 per cent. In fact, it is considered that a large part of the gains from taking steroids is actually as a result of a placebo affect rather than being totally from the drugs themselves. This has caused at least one former East German athlete to complain that because he didn’t actually know he was taking steroids he didn’t even get the full benefit he would have got if he had known.

This is why mental performance coaching is becoming such a vital part of an elite sports performer’s training. They recognise that It can be used to make a significant and vital change to performance and with the bonus that it doesn’t have any nasty side-effects.

Enjoy Rio 2016!

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Daley's Christmas mind games

It is at this time of year that I often think of the athlete who was my sporting hero when I was younger; the double Olympic gold winning decathlete Daley Thompson. This was a man who could not only perform to the highest level whenever it really mattered under the most severe pressure but also could get into the heads of his main competitors. At the height of his powers, his rivals were the West German duo Jürgen Hingsen and Siggi Wentz both of whom towered over Thompson in stature and yet seemed to wilt when they were within his close proximity.

Hingsen, was his main threat. He’d held the world record 3 times but never managed to beat Thompson in a head to head in 7 years’ of competition. One reason for this was that Thompson was the king of the mind games. I particularly remember watching the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles noticing that whenever Hingsen and Wentz looked nervous or seemed to be lacking in energy, Thompson would be parading in front of them, laughing and joking as if competing for a gold medal was the easiest thing in the world. The gold medal had effectively been won before the first race, the first throw or the first jump.

The reason I am reminded of Thompson at this time is that his attitude to training over the festive period wonderfully illustrated how he constantly looked to maximise both his physical and mental superiority over the rest of the field. There would be no day off training on Christmas Day for him, as he said himself, "I train twice on Christmas Day because I know the others aren't training at all, so it gives me two extra days". Those two sessions may seem a small factor in the big scheme of things but psychologically, any opportunity to get one over the opposition would have played a huge role in improving his self-belief and motivation.

Next time you are wondering how to get the edge on your competitors, take a leaf out of Daley’s book and you won’t go far wrong.

Andy Barton
Performance coach
The Sporting Mind

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Superstitions and weird rituals: a footballer’s magic remedy

Much is often made of the strange rituals and superstitions that many footballers display either before, during or after a match. Whether it involves wearing some ‘lucky’ clothing, carrying a charm or mascot with mystical powers or performing some kind of intricate routine, we can often marvel at the weird and wonderful practices players can put themselves through to give themselves piece of mind.

As a performance coach, I am often asked about how superstition can affect a player and many people are surprised when I tell them I actively encourage a lot of superstitious rituals rather than try and help players overcome them.

Superstitions are not a recent thing either. Back in the 60s and 70s, England football captain Bobby Moore wouldn’t put his shorts on until everyone else in the team had finished dressing. His team mate Martin Peters would have fun at his expense by waiting until Moore had finally put his shorts on before Peters would proceed to take his own shorts off again. Moore then would have to take off his shorts and wait until Peters had put his back on again before repeating his ritual.

Rituals certainly have the effect of giving a player a sense of comfort and control over the extreme pressures that come about from playing at the highest level. Another effect they can have is to tap into a player’s positive emotions by providing a ‘Pavlovian’ association with the ritual where the performing of the routine itself is associated with a positive feeling. So when Javier Hernandez of Mexico drops to his knees in prayer before each match he plays, he is not only connecting with a higher being, he is also enhancing his emotional state and improving his confidence on the field.

These superstitions can also impact on a player’s self belief by creating an expectation of performing well, what is often referred to as a ‘placebo’ effect. Placebos are most often used as a control when studying new drugs and often come in the form of sugar pills or salt water injections. The amazing thing about placebos is that they very often get as good results as the pill they are being tested against. When the great Pelé went through a dip in his form, he sent a friend of his on a mission to track down one of the last shirts that he had played in when he was playing well which he had given away to a fan. Although the friend lied and pretended that the shirt Pelé had actually used in the previous match was the ‘lucky’ shirt, the belief that it was the shirt was enough to have the hoped for placebo effect and Pelé’s form quickly returned.

The only thing I stipulate with the players I work with is that any routines or rituals, however strange they may be, must be in their control and must be repeatable. If a player needs to be blessed by a one-eyed druid standing on one leg in the centre circle before kick off in order for him to play well, he may have problems replicating that before each match.

One ritual that I probably would not recommend was the one chosen by the Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea at the 1990 World Cup who decided it was good luck to urinate on the pitch before a penalty shoot out. Having been successful after performing this ritual in the quarter-finals against Yugoslavia, he decided to repeat his lucky routine in the semi-final against Italy which also went to penalties. The ritual obviously worked as Argentina won through to the final. We can only speculate as to what the outcome would have been if the ‘call of nature’ hadn’t come for Goycochea.

Andy Barton
Performance coach
The Sporting Mind

Friday, 7 August 2015

England cricket: The power of a positive approach

Yesterday many of us witnessed the most extraordinary day of cricket with England completely destroying the Australian batting line up for just 60 runs. A couple of months ago, very few (if any) would have predicted that England would have even given Australia a decent battle, let alone tear them apart in the way that they have. 

So what has changed? Apart from a small change in personnel, it seems that it is the mental approach of the team that has had the most significant impact on the team.  England have stopped playing safe and are now taking a positive, attacking approach to their game. From what I have seen this optimistic approach has benefitted the team in a number of ways. Here are a few of them.

Firstly, taking a positive approach to your game makes you focus more on what you would like to happen rather than on what you fear might happen. If you play not to get out you end up focusing on getting out. This means you end up mentally rehearsing the thing you don’t want to happen again and again and you actually prime your brain to make mistakes.  By focusing on what you do want to happen you are preparing your mind to play the shots that you want to play and bowling the balls that you want to bowl.

Secondly, the fact that new England coach Trevor Bayliss (an Australian) has stressed the importance of the players playing to their own style of play has allowed them to play to their own preferred tempo. Rather than try and hang on as long as possible, the likes of Root, Moeen, Stokes, Buttler and Broad, who all like to swing their bat are working to the principle that they’d rather make a quick 50 than a slow 30 and it is paying off.

Finally, a positive approach breeds confidence, which can have a significant effect on a player. A confident player has more energy, thinks more clearly, makes decisions more quickly, plays more unconsciously and lets go of mistakes more easily.

It's looking extremely good from an England perspective. The question is, can Australia tap into their own confidence and create a miraculous turnaround? That would have to be some turnaround! 

Andy Barton
Performance coach