Athletic Sustainability: Self-Awareness and Adaptability

This post is part of a series on athletic coaching lessons and can also be found on the author’s Athletic Coaching Lessons website at this link here.

Sports and life have many similarities and many of the same lessons. This has been covered in other posts. As in any task in your every day life, one of the keys to success (covered here) is to have self-awareness. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know how to best utilize them in any given situation, whether that be working as a lead on a project or on the field of play in athletics. To be truly successful performing your task at hand, you must also know how to perform the other side of the equation of self-awareness: Adaptability.

It is great to know your strengths and how to best use them. But how do you best use your weaknesses? While it is sometimes as simple as not letting your weaknesses come into play, there is another strategy that is more meaningful and one that is more sustainable. Turn your weakness into a neutral or a strength.

Look at it this way: you have the ability to be the best version of yourself in the current moment. What do I mean by this? I have written before about having a winning mentality – that on any given day, a team can be better than the next. For this example, I quote a speech that Hall of Fame college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant gave to an incoming Freshmen class of football players as Head Coach of the University of Alabama. In this brief speech, Coach Bryant mentions how you can win, individually and as a team, if you believe that you can be the best that you are. The example he gives is that suppose that you have a 70/100 rating and your opponent has an 80/100 rating. Now, say that your opponent doesn’t play well or doesn’t prepare well enough. They are not an 80 anymore. They are a 70. Now, say that you prepare properly and that you are willing to go above and beyond what is required. You are now at an 80 level. Now, you have the upper-hand to win.

The example above holds true in competition and I believe it holds true when your opponent is yourself. Let’s use that 100 scale again. Say that you are a 75/100 at your current standing, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. You have a bad day, you can fall to 65. You have a good, self-aware day, you go up to 85. But your base remains at 75. How do you improve that base ranking? By adapting. By making a weakness neutral or a strength, you can become an 80/100 player or worker. This is why coaches are always teaching fundamentals in practice. The attitude and the willingness to adapt – that has to come from the player.

In sports, how many times have you seen this scenario play out? A new player comes in and starts to do well right away. Opponents don’t know how to neutralize that player, thus making that player an asset for their team. However, after playing against that player for a while – a few games, a season, etc. – opponents start to find the player’s weakness and strengths. They play away from the strength and to the weakness. Now the ball is in the new player’s court. They know what they are good at and are not good at. Do they keep doing what they did before? Many times, this does not work. It may work to an extent, but it is not sustainable. The successful players are the ones who know their strengths and weaknesses and have the ability to adapt. Once a player adapts to the adaption that opponents have made on him or her, they may experience success again. Thus, is the cat and mouse game of sports.

So, what does this look like? Sometimes, it isn’t an opponent who finds your weakness – it is something you notice on your own. Let’s look at quick case study of this process in action.

Batting Stance
A sport that I have played a lot of is baseball. I worked in college baseball as a Student Manager and was part of the scouting and recruitment efforts among my other duties. This led me to look at myself as a player. Now, I never had much talent. I had to rely on fundamentals. Technically speaking, my batting stance – the most basic element of hitting a baseball – was not great. I am a right-handed hitter primarily, so I dig in with my right foot and line my stance up in a perfect line to the pitcher. I tend to have a “see ball, hit ball” mentality and let the mechanics that I have practiced take over in the form of muscle memory.

I have one problem. I tend to “step in the bucket”, meaning my stride (which can be a small step or static with my left foot) tends to drift away from the plate. This reduces my plate coverage while allowing my hips to flare open away from the plate. As I am trying to stay in line to the pitcher’s mound, I am prone to locking my hips, altering my ability to rotate my hips to the ball and make solid contact. I am also taking away the outside part of the plate from my power zone where the ball hits the bat flush.

This is a weakness. I am taking away from my prime swing and now following the optimal bat path for solid connection as Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams dictates in his book The Science of Hitting. What do I do? I need to adapt. Ok, I have trouble correcting my step. How can I turn this around? If I shift my stance so that I am angling my body in – a closed stance – where my back foot moves slightly back and my front foot moves slightly forward, I am still facing the pitcher but at an angle.

Now, when I swing, I am swinging for an opposite field base hit if I keep my body aligned (unless the pitch is inside, where I am prone to being jammed. If you have strong wrists, you can still get the bat head around to square the ball up). If I step a little outside, I am still prone to bad mechanics and flaring/locking my hips, but if I allow my hips to open – as I am now back to my neutral stance line with the pitcher – I now have a swing that can cover the entire plate and make solid connection with the ball. Is this perfect? No. There is still risk in the mechanics. However, I have improved my situation and turned a weakness into a neutral or strength. Pitch selection, location and strategy are other variables that can impact this scenario. But I adapted to improve a situation that I was self-aware of as a weakness.

Below is a quick sketch diagram of what I am talking about. For a legend, we have home plate with a bat and bath path sketched over it, based on the situation. The ovals next to the plate are my feet, as a batter, and the direction I want to go in along with the direction my load and stride take me in.

Stance

Conclusion
The point of all of this being, if you can be self-aware and adapt, you are putting yourself in a position to be successful. It is not guaranteed, but you are improving your odds and your baseline. If you do that successfully, enough times, you will succeed. This is true and applicable in sports as well as in life in many different job settings.

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