The Greatest Mistake We Make Motivating Others – Especially Our Kids

Skateboard Mr. Page was short, built like a brick house and sported a tightly groomed black mustache that put a signature on his authoritative presence. He was that special kind of teacher you both feared and loved. A favorite of mine because he cared about improving his students and made that clear by how he treated us on an individual basis.

As my 4th grade year came to an end, Mr. Page challenged me to complete exercises in a math workbook over the summer and offered me a nice financial reward if I finished them before the next school year began. As I drove home with my mom that day, dollar signs were in my eyes and I imagined myself inside the local sport shop purchasing a brand new Powell-Peralta skateboard.

So, I didn’t do a single math problem that summer and the skateboard I wanted so badly mocked me from the storefront window as I walked by the shop in the months before school started up again. What happened?

We’re all in the business of motivating other people whether we’re in the workforce, on the home front raising kids, coaching or single looking for love. The process of moving people in the direction we want them to go or provide us what we need is an art form, though most of us don’t put enough thought into how we go about it.

From author Daniel Pink’s book Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, to clinical research performed by renowned human performance psychologist, Carol Dweck, Ph.D, the data is conclusive about personal motivation – we’ve misunderstood it for eons.

Daniel Pink’s research discovered that work for reward, such as good grades for an Ipod, is actually de-motivating because at that point it’s not their dream, not their goal, but just effort for reward. Sounds like a lame job, right? Looking at the issue in this light, the de-motivation factor makes plenty of sense. Dangling carrots just doesn’t work like we thought.

Mr. Page, entirely well intentioned, if not overly generous, offered me a job that summer – math for money – and the prospect of working during the summer crushed my motivation.

As parents, teachers and coaches, I think you’d agree that we are foremost looking to improve and advance the young people in our lives. Pushing their progress with a work for reward model is outdated; a relic of the Industrial Age. Leading social scientists and researchers are helping us move beyond old paradigms of motivation and their findings are important to note. Even the way we express encourage to kids hasn’t been as helpful as we thought.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., discovered through her clinical studies of human behavior that praising talent leads to a decline in performance, but praising effort increases it. Ms. Dweck further explains, “Telling someone they’re smart will lead them to want to preserve that positive label at all costs, so they will shy away from challenge for the chance it could reveal weakness or imperfection.” Whereas those praised for their effort are happy to continue to struggle to improve and take on increasing challenges; they feel good about their effort and ability to get better when applying it.

We’ve covered a lot of important information quickly, so I’ve summarized the two key takeaways below:

  1. Motivating others with rewards has shown to be de-motivating. Providing opportunities for autonomy and ownership of goals empowers kids to take action with a sense that they are directing their lives. This is powerful.
  1. The journey remains more important than the destination, which means growth is more important than the temporary summits marked by academic or athletic accolades. Compliments are nice, but encouraging effort will keep youngsters moving forward and improving in the face of their challenges.

Moving others into action and motivating performance is really about developing and shifting their mindset. There is an incredible amount of good you can do by teaching a growth mindset to a young person. Excelling in any domain whether academic, athletic, or the arts takes intense effort and a continuous personal challenge to stretch abilities again and again. Success is more about effort than it is about talent.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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The Best Way to Improve Your Child’s Sports Performance

Football huddleIn college, every practice is filmed and not a single drill escapes the video camera lens. This leads to some embarrassing and even hilarious moments in the meeting rooms where players and coaches go through the practice video together. However, these film sessions offer an important time for personal evaluation, where you can quietly observe yourself performing and take mental notes.

A couple of years into my college playing experience, I grew tired of watching practice film and seeing my body look stiff as I ran around in drills. I admitted to myself that I was more of a weight room athlete who has was strong as an ox in the gym with a 440 pound bench press and a 685 pound squat, but not very flexible or fluid on the field. I wanted to improve my performance and get more playing time, and it was clear that I had to address this deficiency to get there.

I decided to get unconventional with my training that summer to improve my flexibility and agility. A star teammate of mine, Mike Davis, achieved a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at local dojo called Secrease’s Tae Kwon Do. Mike would do the splits on the field during stretches, and I knew it was his martial arts training that enabled his body to do that. I called Secrease’s as soon as my spring semester ended and signed up for eight weeks of summer classes.

Oh man, the pain. At the start of my classes that summer, the instructors would stretch me for nearly 45 minutes. Some of the work they did to me, like seating me into an archaic wooden machine that cranked my legs into near splits, felt like torture. My body was soaked in sweat before I even performed any kicks, blocks or punches. The results turned out to be incredible.

When I entered fall training camp at the close of summer, the eight weeks of martial arts changed the way I moved on the field of play. My coach affirmed as much after the first film session at camp, saying to me after the meeting closed, “You look smooth, what happened to you this summer?”

I broke into the regular playing rotation for the first time that season.

All these years later, a lot of young athletes are still training conventionally like I initially did in college, which is predominantly one-dimensional weight lifting focused on bench press, squats and sprints. I call this work one-dimensional because the body is only moving and getting stronger in one fixed direction and that is not how the body actually moves in sport. This kind of training is also one-dimensional in that it doesn’t address flexibility, coordination, balance, or integrate the overall human movement system made up of a myriad of smaller muscles that span from the core outward.

Greg Roskopf, MS, a biomechanics consultant who has worked with athletes from the Denver Broncos, the Denver Nuggets, and the Utah Jazz explains, “Conventional weight training isolates muscle groups, but it doesn’t teach the muscle groups you’re isolating to work with others.” Human athletic performance requires a completely integrated and balanced muscular system.

If you think I’m going to encourage your child to sign up for martial arts in order to take their sports performance to the next level, well, I’m not. I’m encouraging parents and their young athletes to enroll in:

Yoga classes.

I didn’t need any of the self-defense moves I learned in Tae Kwon Do and I honestly can’t imagine how I would successfully land a flying roundhouse kick in a street fight. Yoga provides all of the flexibility benefits plus builds integrated body and core (abdominal) strength.

The core conditioning of an athlete is fundamental to athletic performance. As an example, athletes in one study who underwent 9 weeks of core training program improved their vertical take off velocity and vertical jump. Typically, you would expect this result from 9 weeks of leg strength training.

Yoga is a somatic mind body experience. So, as a training tool, it goes beyond the realm of stressing the body to improve strength and muscle size and into the following significant benefits for athletes:

  1. Improves flexibility by 35% in only 8 weeks. (WebMD)
  2. Develops the ability to center and control emotional responses.
  3. Builds awesome core strength.
  4. Improves focus.
  5. Reduces stress levels.

From Lebron James, to Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers to Ryan Giggs of Manchester United, many elite performing athletes incorporate a dedicated yoga practice into their yearly training regimen. It is cheap to try out a class and Yoga studios are not hard to find. This kind of workout is likely going to be a welcome break from the regular sport specific training your child engages in each week. Try a class with them in the next week and let me know how it goes.

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Are You Exhausting Your Kids and Crushing Their Potential?

PerformanceI can remember sneaking out of my third grade class during a math lesson and into the library where I ducked between rows of bookshelves to hide myself. As I settled into the privacy I sought, I finally released the flood of tears I’d held back and felt them stream down my cheeks.

No matter how much tutoring was provided to me that year, I just could not solve fractions. Feeling stupid is painful, but believing it as a child is dangerous because kids tend to perform right in sync with how they feel about themselves and the personal labels they accept. It’s too easy for a child to give up and stop putting in the effort when they don’t view themselves as capable.

When I cried behind those bookshelves as a third grader, I had no idea that I would eventually excel academically and take math classes all the way through my senior year in college. However, as a kid with no clue of what the future may hold, I felt shame and sadness as I digested the “proof” I was stupid. This was the same story for me in youth football in which I initially found myself way behind the performance levels of my teammates.

I am grateful to the coaches and teachers who taught me that competencies and skills improve over a long period of time, and that I may not exhibit ability as fast as my peers, but would get there with a determined effort. As parents and coaches, we need to help children successfully cross that extremely uncomfortable gap between struggling and performing. Their abilities will grow over time, but only if they remain persistent.

However, persistence can be tough to maintain in the face of combined childhood psychological stresses stemming from body image issues, peer-pressure, social acceptance and performance in school and/or sport. If we’re going to help them move forward and improve any aspect of their lives, we need to also give them space to decompress.

  • Schedule unstructured time. Too many kids are stuffed into relentless schedules during the week and all through the weekend. They must deal with school, homework, sports practice, music lessons, tutors, camps, clinics, travel teams and so on. I appreciate parents that look to give their children every advantage possible, however, this can backfire. As psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., co-author of The Overscheduled Child notes, ”Many overscheduled kids are anxious, angry and burned out.” Parents certainly feel the effects of the frenzied schedules too. Carve out a couple of times a week for free time so kids can unwind. Ideally, this time could be used for reading or outdoor time that provides a level stillness.
  • Have a family dinner. Even the busiest family can make one-night-per-week a family dinner night. The dinner table offers a unique time to commune with kids. Again, there’s stress, emotions and events at school being processed that are helpful for them to share and good for you to know about. In the busy modern family with both parents working, kids don’t always get time to talk about their day and what’s happening at school. They are just swept into the rush of the evening to get fed, do homework and go to sleep.
  • Create a tech timeout in the evenings. Larry Rosen, Ph.D., author of iDisorder, uncovers an immense amount of research in his book indicating “a link between Internet use, instant messaging, emailing, chatting, and depression among adolescents.” The over stimulation of the brain caused by near constant interaction with smart phones and the Internet is cause for concern. Creating a time in the evening where all devices are shut down will allow the brain to settle down and prepare itself for sleep.  

As a high performance coach, I train adolescent athletes to go beyond what they think is possible for themselves. I know how to carefully push them to the edge and manage the fear of reaching beyond perceived limits.. And this is why I wrote this post. None of what I do or my athletes accomplish is possible without structured downtime and moments of complete stillness during the week that refreshes the mind and maintains emotional balance.

We are a nation of people who are overworked, over scheduled and constantly connected through our phones and tablets.  The lives of so many kids are just as harried as their parents. Seriously, where are we all running to? What’s the destination?

Try one of the ideas I’ve shared in the next week and send me an message to let me know how it goes.

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4 Steps to Help Your Children Achieve Their Goals

Goals PicMy family moved from Massachusetts to Palo Alto, California the summer before I began first grade. There were a lot of cool new things to enjoy after the move, like the beach and the three crazy older boys who lived around the corner, but Stanford University, which was a mile from our house, became my greatest discovery.

Just after I started elementary school that Fall, my dad took me to a Stanford football game. It was the first time I had ever been to a stadium and I remember clinging to his belt as we shuffled along with scores of fans through the entry gates. When we settled into our seats, the players began to take the field for warm ups and I was mesmerized right away. As the teams played, the crowd’s thundering chorus rewarded the on-field heroics and the sounds shook my rib cage, which left me thrilled.

I thought to myself, “this is it, this is what I want to be and where I want to play one day.” Even though I didn’t understand the concept at that moment, a goal was set and, subsequently, my adolescent years were spent striving to achieve it.

If you’ve read any kind of self-development material, you’ve no doubt heard the acronym SMART, as in goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound.  This is a very sensible guideline, but when discussing goals with children, these steps are a bit too corporate. Was it realistic or achievable for me as a 6-year-old to set the goal of playing Division I college football at a school like Stanford? No one could possibly have known the answer to that.

Kids between the ages of 6-years-old and 12-years-old tend to dream big, but naturally lack goal setting skills necessary to chase down those visions. The elementary school years are an excellent time to start showing children how to set goals and take steps to achieve them. By the time kids become teens, goal setting ability can begin to impact results that shape their future options for advanced education and job opportunities down the line.

I’m going to share four coaching steps that help adolescents set effective goals, but before I breakdown those down for you, the following two principles are important to bear in mind.

Principle #1: The journey is always worth it. Please try not to worry about a monumental let down in their future, if they don’t achieve the goal. What youngsters learn along the way about themselves and their internal resources is priceless. Goals teach qualities such as commitment, grit, work ethic, and courage. They also engender a sense of control of the future and create purpose, which is a huge boost to self-confidence.

Principle #2: Slow starts are common. I wanted to be a collegiate football player and when I finally had a chance to play full contact football in the sixth grade, I stunk. My coached benched me for poor play during my first game. No one has to be a star right away, though our culture believes you do. All competencies and skills are subject to vast improvement over time, whether they are intellectual, musical, athletic, artistic, etc.

I often hear parents and coaches say, “make that a goal,” after a child shares something they want to achieve. But so often it’s left as a directive with no guidance. Goals are a process to teach and guide over time as described the following four steps.

Coaching steps for kids setting goals:

  1. Have them write the goals down. This simple process moves children from dreaming to intention. Post the goal on the inside of their bedroom door –this keeps it top of mind.
  2. Help create steps to take. Kids need help determining what steps to take on their way to reaching a goal. Remember, it takes a whole bunch of small steps to realize a big goal. Break those down, make your child a part of the process and map out a path with them.
  3. Teach and reinforce good habits. A goal is nothing without the habits to support it and kids will need plenty of coaching in this area. My dad gave me biographies of the athletes he knew were my heroes, such as NFL superstars Walter Payton and Herschel Walker, to help influence my habits. Their personal stories shared details about daily routines and the work they put into reaching their achievements. Proper sleep, healthy eating, a nightly study period, and intense physical conditioning were some of the habits Walter and Herschel discussed that I adopted on my way to playing football in college and there is no way I could have achieved that goal without them.
  4. Prepare for obstacles. There will be roadblocks and failures. Please don’t protect your kids from those hardships, just help them rebound, explore options and continue to move forward. Resilience is the “secret” to most of the success stories you hear about.

Goals take work and nothing happens without consistent action and the occasional bold move. Kids are certainly susceptible to stress and most will feel a bit exposed when reaching for achievement of any kind. They will need help managing their emotions and fear throughout the journey. The development of internal resources that empower them move past those trying moments is what makes this process so incredibly valuable.

Choose a step to implement in the next week and tell me about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.

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Is Your Youth Athlete Killing Their Sports Career?

Popwarner PicYouth baseball player, Mo’ne Davis, created a media blizzard during this year’s Little League Word Series, which brought her story to my attention even though I didn’t tune in to watch a single game. A 13 year-old girl pitching a fierce, 70mph fastball while becoming the first girl to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history is an amazing story on several different levels.

I jumped on Youtube to see her in action. Beautiful pitching mechanics aside, she is ice on the mound – cool and focused. Mo’ne appears to be a cute, unassuming teenage girl, but there’s an assassin behind that veil. Before she pitched the shut out in the World Series game, she did the same to the opposition in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship. She’s a relentless yet poised competitor.

From my vantage point as a high performance coach, her backstory as an athlete is the most important story to tell America – a country that has lost its compass when it comes to youth athletic development due to sports specialization. The prevailing belief is that an adolescent has to choose one sport and play it all year long if they hope to excel and perhaps have a chance to earn a college scholarship down the line. Parents and youth coaches are both drinking this Kool-Aid and it is a damn shame.  I have included a few key points to help explain why I feel this way:

  • In a study of 1,200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictor of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
  • A 2013 American Medical Society of Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of the college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child. This is evidence that multi-sport athletes typically have longer athletic careers and gain greater athletic proficiency through the play of different sports throughout the year.
  • Children specializing in a single sport face far greater risk of stress, loss of social opportunities, burnout, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment from sport specialization.

Mo’ne is a three-sport athlete excelling in soccer, basketball and baseball. Well, then she must be “phenom” or a “natural” to achieve what she has in baseball, right?  In an interview with her basketball coach, Steve Bandura, he said, “she is not the greatest athlete, but a good athlete.” Huh? If that’s your response to coach Bandura’s comment, I understand, but it is not surprising to me.

Mo’ne greatest assets are her character, mindset and the kinesthetic intelligence (control of one’s body/coordination) that she developed by playing three different sports. She has challenged her athleticism in dynamic ways by jumping, sprinting, back pedaling, shuffling side-to-side, pitching, and dribbling with her hands (basketball) and with her feet (soccer).  Yes, Mo’ne is athletically inclined, but she gained advanced coordination and control of her body through the practice of the broad physical movements required by the three sports she plays competitively.

Beyond improving her hand-eye coordination, balance, agility, speed and quickness through multi-sport participation, she is greatly reducing her chance of an overuse injury by moving in a variety of athletic ways throughout the year. Doing the same mechanical body movements continuously year-round is problematic for the human body. Competitive long distance runners, as an example, are a high-risk population for suffering overuse injuries to their knees and feet. To address this risk, these athletes cross train by incorporating cycling, swimming, rowing and strength training within their workout programs.

The advantages of multi-sport participation are clear and highly supported by the best minds in sports medicine and sports psychology. I think as parents and coaches (well, most of us anyway) we want to build the best person and not just the best athlete – remember that. Studies have shown that multi-sport youth athletes perform better academically than their specialized counter parts, have better attendance records and even better leadership skills.

I’ve included some benchmarks below to help you understand the recommended progression for kids who want to specialize in one sport.

  • Prior to age 12 – kids should spend 80% of their time outside of their chosen sport.
  • Age 13-15 – split time between their chosen sport and other sports 50/50.
  • Age 16 and up – can safely spend 80% of their time in the chosen sport.

Michael Jordan played baseball and golf. He wasn’t the greatest baseball player or golfer, but he remains arguably the best basketball player to ever play the game.  Let’s do the right thing by our kids and encourage them to experience a variety of sports as we help to mold them into complete athletes and highly performing young people who excel socially and academically.

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