What do you know about sports psychology?
August 24, 2009 5:42 PM   Subscribe

What do you know about sports psychology? My 15 year old son is a competitive fencer and has a tendency to dwell on the point he just lost, which tends to cause him to lose the next point, which he then dwells on even more, etc. I can't relax on the strip for him, so I'm looking for books or resources I can point him towards to help.

To be clear, he is not a raving lunatic on the strip. He is not throwing things, screaming, or anything like that. It's all internal. He has been on the cusp of earning his first national rating for a few months and I think the pressure he is putting on himself to earn that rating is affecting him negatively. And of course, when you are 15, a single bad day is the end of the world. A lot of it is probably just his age.

Has anybody had any success applying specific techniques from a book or class or whatever? I was at best a recreational athlete growing up so I've got nothing to offer him from personal experience. There are hundreds of books at Amazon. I have no idea which ones might actually be useful.

A note to any fencers here. Yes, I know the difference between an E and unrated fencer is mostly being in the right place at the right time to finish high enough to earn a rating. Try telling that to a 15 year old.
posted by COD to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone (no, really) should read Carol Dweck's Mindset. The problem is that it's a bit dull, prose-wise, even though its conclusions are earth shattering. I certainly wouldn't have had the patience for it at 15. Whether it's helpful for you to read it and pass its wisdom along will depend on your relationship with your son. It's not a manual of specific techniques because Dweck's point, based on lots of very good research, is that a single switch in perspective (about how failure is integrated into growth, or not), rather than any techniques, is what makes all the difference. It's not specifically a sports psychology book but includes plenty of sports research and anecdotes.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:53 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

You could talk to him about the idea of flow, which, whether scientific, or real, or neither, has certainly had its day in the sunshine of popular discussion, including sports. And you could mention to him one of the hardest things that race car drivers, and football running backs have to learn to do, which is look for the hole.

In driving, the car tends to go where the driver is looking, and so, in a race, where a driver is coming up on a fast happening accident, he has to learn to ignore the accident, and look for a place where he can drive his own car, with the best chance of getting through in one piece. That's really counter-intuitive for the bulk of human experience, because we're almost wired to look at the greatest threat in our visual field. But, it's the only way to get through a NASCAR wreck at 180 mph, if you have any chance at all.

In the same way, NFL running backs have to cultivate an ability to look away from the tackler who is getting near them, to see open field into which they can run. Focusing on the biggest threat to them is almost certain to make them an easier target to tackle.

I suspect your fencer needs to do the same thing as drivers and running backs, which is to learn to look for openings, not threats.
posted by paulsc at 6:17 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is also true about baseball. Michael Lewis' Moneyball points out that an athlete has to have a gift for moving on from their failures. You immediately discard any negative feeling about them and proceed as though you were starting fresh. This is especially crucial for baseball players as the game is rife with failure.

Another good example is Tiger Woods, who owes a lot of his success to his ability to bear down and put good swings on the ball in those situations where he has gotten himself into trouble. He makes excellent shots out of the rough, out of sand traps, etc. Your son has to know that this is as important an athletic skill as his grip on the foil and his movement technique.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 6:21 PM on August 24, 2009

I can't really think of a good book, but more can just add the sense that comes with the philosophy of hitting.

Hitting in baseball is basically a lesson in the art of failure. The difference is between a guy who is great, and thus fails 70 percent of the time versus a guy who stinks and fails 75 percent of the time gives me a heck of a lot of perspective on the issue. Hitting teaches you to deal with constant failure day in and day out.

That's all. Just a little perspective nugget.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 6:31 PM on August 24, 2009

Dr. Bob Rotella has written books on this very subject. He works with pro athletes. A lot of them are golfers, but the same thing applies to any sport especially sports that require thinking, and planning rather than brute physical force.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:44 PM on August 24, 2009

David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis alot when he was alive. One piece that originally appeared in Harpers entitled "Tennis, Tornadoes, and Trigonometry" was later reprinted in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". In the piece he talks about how growing up in a small town in Illinois he was considered a crack tennis player but as he played more and more tournaments in bigger cities he realized that he wasn't really that great - that there would always be better and stronger and more talented players out there. The piece also talks about how, within his small group he was able to flourish because he was so even keeled when his opponents would rant and rave and lose their shit and meltdown on the court.

The article might be instructive for your son...if he really is serious about competing and flourishing he'll need to combine his physical talents with strong mental fortitude. Not dwelling on past mistakes will be his competitive advantage over his opponents. Possibly this article from one of the great writers of our time will resonate.
posted by vito90 at 6:46 PM on August 24, 2009

The Inner Game of Tennis is excellent reading about what to focus on when you don't need to focus on your mistakes. It's probably very close to exactly what your son needs.

I found it through reading A Soprano on her Head which approaches the same problem(s) for musicians.
posted by amtho at 7:34 PM on August 24, 2009

I fenced a bunch in high school. Made it as high as a C. A bunch of the people I trained with could regularly beat me in practice, but I'd always do better than them in tournaments. I think that's because I kept cool and relaxed and didn't beat myself up over messing stuff up, and of course I did make all kinds of errors, as I had only been at this for a few years, and I was human. So here's what worked for me:

My fencing coach was all about the attitude. We were never allowed to say the word "can't". Look back only to see if there's something you need to correct ("oops! Better keep a closer eye on distance*"), then move on, and focus on the next touch, the next bout, or the next round. And play those out (favorably) in your head - see your tip hitting valid target.

I think the other side of this is keeping a healthy level of respect for your opponent. They also worked hard and are trying their hardest too. So if they succeed, good for them! And maybe you can learn something from what they did right. Fencing people who are better than you will do you way more good than winning will.

This attitude stuff is the most important thing I took away from fencing. Moving past setbacks, and keeping focus on what you can do, what you will do - this is very powerful.

Also, not so attitude-related: It's easier to your keep cool if you're properly hydrated and your blood sugar isn't too low, so have a good breakfast beforehand, and drink plenty of water during the event. As you progress and the tournaments get longer with more people, you'll also have to eat regularly through the day.

* that's a common one; when you're getting hit before you know what happens, try opening up the distance a bit.
posted by aubilenon at 8:35 PM on August 24, 2009

I fenced competitively for about 6 years (maintained my D, fenced for my C several times--anything below C is definitely a right place/right time thing).

I'm also a music teacher, and this sort of problem is one I see in my students all the time, and which I deal with in my own playing and practice. I tell my students about my stream metaphor a couple of times a year:

Imagine you are standing beside a beautiful, fast-moving stream. If you toss a pebble into the middle of it, you will disturb the purity and simplicity of the moving water. There will be a splash and then there will be ripples resulting from the splash. The person who is standing beside the stream watches the splash, and then the resulting chaotic aftermath of the splash (the rippling of the water).

Now imagine that you are something small--a leaf, a twig or a piece of bark--floating along on the current. Your perspective is much narrower. When the pebble hits, the splash may disturb your journey, but it is very temporary: it happens, and then it is over. The current carries you beyond the splash, and you continue on your serene journey.

Obviously, the stream and its current represent your performance/the bout/life/etc. By choosing to stand beside the stream, you force yourself to dwell on your mistakes (splashes) and their consequences just continue (ripples). You miss out on all the good things that could happen later. If, instead, you choose to ride the current, your mistakes happen, and then you move beyond them, because all you can see and experience is where you are and where you are going. These are the only two things that matter during a performance or a bout. Afterwards, you definitely want to review what your mistakes were and how you made them, but not during the bout.

Fencing is a bit different from group music performance. There are pauses in a bout when a fencer can quickly mentally regroup and adjust their strategy (he over-extends when he lunges, and he can't recover from it well, so if I cross-over backwards when I retreat on his lunge, I can get an easy parry-riposte). This is very very different from dwelling on the previous touch while fencing for the next one.

You're probably right that some of this is age; I was a lot like that when I was 15. Some of it is most likely perfectionism/overachiever-itis. I don't see this kind of problem in kids who don't care, and the kids who don't care are very good at achieving mediocrity.

There have been several good suggestions above. The Inner Game of Tennis was recommended, and it is terrific (I actually first read it in music school). There is The Inner Game of Fencing, but I've never read it, so I don't know how it compares. The author is a pretty famous fencer, so it probably has some good insights.

I hope this helps, and I have no doubt your son will get his E soon!
posted by sleepinglion at 9:03 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you would be interested in Jim Fannin. After reading this article, I bought his book and thought it was one of the better sports psychology books I'd read. He has an impressive client list and I'll admit I was sold by the fact that he started coaching Alex Rodriguez just before the season where he hit .358 and led the league in runs and total bases as a 20-21 year old.

I'll play amateur psychologist and say that (assuming he doesn't have one) your son needs a routine before each point to reset himself mentally. Nothing complicated, something simple like repeating 3 words could do the trick. Ideally it would be something that somehow prepares himself for the next point. (I think Alex Rodriguez's mantra is "I hit solid", something about 'focus' or 'quickness' seems appropriate for fencing). But even something off-topic or non-sensical could work. The goal being that when he does the routine, it clears his mind and unconsciously his body and mind automatically go into the best mode to perform - focused on the next point and not thinking about the last point. I'm not a fencer, but I've found this type of thing useful in similar pursuits.
posted by ghostmanonsecond at 9:28 PM on August 24, 2009

This is, at its heart, a great example of what cognitive behavioral therapy was created for. Basic premise: the thought that is creating the trouble is the "I screwed up, so now I'm going to screw up again and again because I suck at this" (or, you know, whatever it actually is for him) and then feeling really down, losing confidence, losing focus, and then becoming too anxious or upset to perform well. One way to try to deal with it is to actively challenge the thought--What is the evidence that I suck at fencing as a whole? What is the evidence that I will certainly miss the next point? Has there ever been a time when I missed once and then did very well for the next series of points? What is the worst possible consequence of missing a point, and how likely is it that that possible consequence WILL happen? Practicing this sort of "testing it against the real evidence" process while not directly in the moment often works well for sort of training it to be easier to do IN the moment.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:56 PM on August 24, 2009

Has he asked you specifically for help? If so, great. If not--as someone who been in a similar position to your son--the best thing you can do as his parent is reinforce the idea that he has value outside of his performance, and that hard work is its own reward.

Success, if it's viewed as the only desirable outcome of an activity, can really psych people out and make them unwilling to take risks.
posted by kathrineg at 10:45 PM on August 24, 2009

One other thing we have to remember about adolescent athletes is that their brains are still not fully developed, and their bodies are still growing. Coordination is just harder for them, much of the time, than it would be for adults. More of their cognitive processes are going into body control than an adult, and the balance of neural function left over in a fast sport like fencing, may not be enough to handle strategy on the fly. Training and practice are essential, to make up for this, but reflexes and balance may only come with increasing physical maturity. If you think about it that way, it may be easier to understand the frustration and anger that a lot of kids develop, when their competitive performance doesn't seem to measure up to the effort and time they are putting into a sport.

The main goal for adolescent athletes should be to learn a sport while growing into a healthy body, and to find, through exploration, various physical activities that they can enjoy for a lifetime. If they can also learn perseverance and patience, and perhaps teamwork and self-control, while doing a sport or two, so much the better.
posted by paulsc at 10:57 PM on August 24, 2009

I wish I could give that first response about Mindset 10 favorites. I have been asking myself a lot of questions about myself lately that while ostensibly unrelated come down to the same base. I got this book a few hours ago and after reading the first 1/4 or so I can say the lesson the author is teaching in this book is huge. I really think for people who aren't prone to the "growth mindset" actively working on changing their mindset could be revolutionary.
posted by zennoshinjou at 9:22 AM on August 25, 2009

Thanks for all the nifty answers. Lots of food for thought here. I posted this from fencing practice last night and after practice had a chat with his coach., His coach recommended One Touch at a Time, so I'm going to start with that and see what happens.
posted by COD at 11:18 AM on August 25, 2009

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