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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The Role of Athletics in Society

* This post is part of and originally posted to the author’s Athletic Coaching Manual Website.

When people think of athletics, they often think of overpaid professional athletes and all of the glamour that the mainstream athletics market has to offer. What is lost is where the true heart of athletics lies, in one’s hometown newspaper and on the local athletic fields. You see, professional sports is just one part of the athletic world – one role that athletics plays in society. The role of athletics in society is not so simple to define. Athletics represents many different things to many different people. The role of athletics in society is complex and has been since the days of the marathon run in Ancient Greece to the Gladiator games in Rome to the current American international professional leagues. Sports touch us all in one way or another, whether it be at a recreational level, a community level or a professional regional level. What is even greater is what sports provide to us as a whole. The true role of athletics is as a character builder/developer, an identity builder, an opportunity provider, a health and fitness tool along with being an economic factor.

Even back throughout the course of history, sports has taken on many roles. Athletics, in it’s competitiveness form, has likely been part of the human condition since our early ancestors. It evolved into a way to efficiently getting things done – ie. Running to get a message to someone – and as entertainment. This was popularized in Ancient Rome during the Gladiator games. These games, and chariot races, were the beginning of sports as we know it today and was used for entertainment purposes. However, it was at its most primitive form. These were not the days of light-hearted gatherings to watch a game. Gladiator games were fought to the death and many other “games” of the time were fought with the defeated being deceased. As time evolved, sports came to take on the characteristics that we are familiar with today and the role of athletics, as we have defined it, came to resemble itself as we know it today with blends of entertainment, recreation, character development/building, health builder, opportunity provider and economic factor.

The first role of sports that I will discuss is that of sports as a character developer/builder, identity builder and opportunity provider. Sports, at its core, is about competition. The goal is usually outperform your opponent either through intelligence, strategy or strength. Many times, it is a combination of all three of these factors. How does this play into providing opportunity and revealing character? Simply, the outcome is decided by how well you or your team performed. Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams once said, “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better.” Some people, boy and girl, are able to do that through sports. However, they have to have the right make-up, the right values. An individual can have all of the talent in the world but if they can’t function as a member of a team or take care of themselves, the athletic world will not be there to provide for them in the long run. On the contrary, if one works hard and perseveres, they have fighting chance to gain something from the world of sports. While it is true that this is not always the case as nothing is handed to us and many people have had an unrequited love with sports, it gives you a chance – and a chance is all you need if you are willing to work hard to make it worth-while.

This is how and why sports is a character builder and developer. John Wooden once said that sports don’t build character, they reveal it. This is true in the sense that sports allows us to see what our values deep within are and what we believe in. These values define how we handle situations both in life and on the playing field alike. As I said in an earlier lesson on Athletic Development in Youth, Our values define who we are and how we have been raised, taught or the situation that we were born into. Athletics provides a window to let the world know who you are and how that affects what happens on the playing field.”How we act and define ourselves in life and on the field of play, both as a collective team and as an individual, builds our identity. Our identity is something that we can either be proud of or something that we are not proud of and know that we need to improve. It can be as simple as reacting badly after a mistake during play and letting that impact the rest of your game negatively. This impacts your team in a negative manner. Likewise, the inverse is true during a positive sequence of events. As the game is about more than any one person, how the community views you and your team is defined by these moments as well. Ideally, you want everything to be positive, both your character and reputation. Hall of Fame Basketball Coach John Wooden would tell his players to “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Taking that a step further, allow your character to become your reputation. As having these both in the negative is a detrimental fact for all, strive to make it positive. That is putting yourself and those around you on the road to success as we have defined in earlier lessons of being the best that you know you are capable of becoming.

With hard work, talent/skill and perhaps a little luck mixed in, sports can provide you with a living. However, one does not need to make a professional living as an athlete for sports to provide opportunity to you. It can be as simple participating in sports and experiencing all of the positive benefits that sports can provide – such as recreation, good health and educational lessons – that let sports provide opportunity to you. Opportunity can also present itself in the manner of providing a living to you if you are able to stay in involved in athletics in a non-participant manner such as being a coach, a staffer, a broadcaster, writer, administrator, groundskeeper or any other vocation that is involved in athletics. So, in these manners, the role of athletics can be as an opportunity provider, identity builder and character builder/developer.

As sports usually require some sort of physical exertion, it can lead to a healthier lifestyle as well. When you are in shape, your body feels better and functions better. You may feel better mentally. Mentally, the work and strategy that goes into sports also is a positive impact. Therefore, athletics are a recreational and health tool – hence why health and physical education are requirements in many primary education systems. Sports can strengthen your body and your mind.

The last role that to be covered is that of economic factor. When many think of athletics and economics, they think of professional sports. While this is the most noticeable arena to those looking at athletics, it is far from being the only one. This is where coaches stress to their teams that their character is about more than how they play the game. It is about why they play the game. Hockey Coach Herb Brooks, who coached the Winter Olympics “Miracle On Ice” hockey team in 1980, once said, “You’re looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. I look for these players to play hard, to play smart and to represent their country.” You want players who play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the back. What does this mean? It means that you play for something larger than yourself. While it is crucial to focus on yourself and be self-aware so that you make yourself the best that you can possibly be in order to help the team, your ultimate goal is to do good by what you represent. For some in solitary sports, that may be yourself. Usually, there are other motives and reasons but some sports are solitary by nature. However, in team sports, you represent your team. Your team represents somethings and it is more than the company that makes it possible. You represent the region, the city that is on the front of your jersey. This is where the solitary sports have a united bond as well.  They may play for their family, their city, region and country. Why is this so important? You want players who play to make a living and play for the love of the game in order for them to help make the team the best that it can be so that the team can be successful and be a positive representation of where they are from and where the ownership is from. The Boston Red Sox do not just represent someone like John Henry; they represent Boston. This was shown strongly during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 when David Ortiz and the Red Sox became the face of perseverance in Boston. As sports teams and athletes are representations of their communities, it makes sense that in a capitalistic society as the United States is, that the business – which sports teams are professionally – are economic players.

When a team does well, positive press attracts people to that area and helps other businesses within that region. The same holds true for local sports, but without the team and athletes being a business. However, the thought remains the same that the image and identity of an area is connected to one of its most visible marketing arms – its athletic teams. In youth sports, the impact is slightly different as youth are more ingrained into the community – the shortstop might be your childhood best friend’s son, etc. – and there is a larger picture at play as sports is just one part of the youth’s life. Professionally, though, athletics is a large economic driver and, thus, plays an important role in society. This is how the role of athletics can be defined as an economic factor. These examples and reasons are why the statement about caring about the name on the front of the uniform more than the back is an important lesson for all, whether it be in life or on a playing field.

Athletics have been around for a long time. Just like many jobs, sports and recreation existed long before we were born and will still be here long after we are gone. Over course of history, the emphasis of sports has changed but the values of it have been consistent from the time of the Romans to the present day. The role that sports plays in our lives differs among each and every one of us. For some it is entertainment. For others, it is the road to making a living and making something of themselves. For others still, it is recreation, an educational tool or an economic tool. All of these perspectives show that the true role of athletics is as a character builder/developer, an identity builder, an opportunity provider, a health and fitness tool along with being an economic factor.

Athletic Coaching Lessons – An Overview and a Vessel for Learning

*This overview can be found on the Athletic Coaching website – www.mattkushicoaching.com

As many know, in addition my other writings, I maintain an athletic coaching blog/manual that was started in my time at Hadley Park and Recreation. The purpose of this article is to share the lessons behind this blog and manual.

Education. Learning. We all experience it. But how and where does it occur? Early on in our lives, we tend to gravitate towards certain activities. We may not know why, but we take an interest in certain things. Some of these interests may be fleeting. Some of them may be life altering. We learn life lessons through them. The amazing this is that we tend not to realize when the latter occurs. We all learn these lessons from different places. We all witness these lessons take place in different settings. We all have a vessel in which we learn these lessons of life.

For me, that vessel was sports – the world of athletics. For much of my early years, I tended to identify as a student-athlete. Granted, looking back, that I was more student than athlete, I nonetheless used athletics as my vessel to learning some major life lessons. I learned about teamwork. I learned about success. I learned about hard work. I learned about failure. I learned about life. Of course, my parents were the ones who really taught me all of these lessons but sports helped demonstrate these things to me in real life context. You know what the funny thing was? I didn’t realize that I was learning. I was simply taking part in activities that I loved. That’s the power of learning. That’s what a vessel does, whether it be working on a farm, learning a trade, playing sports, joining the military or any other activity/vocation. It gives you an environment to witness the lessons that you are learning.

Though my life’s journey has taken me all over the map in terms of interest, sports will always be the place that I know I witnessed the lessons in action that my parents taught me. While my path was ultimately not defined as an athlete, it is defined by education and it is defined by being a continual student. At the intersection of education and athletics is coaching. I may not know everything, but I know enough – from observing and from my experiences – that I can help teach others what athletics can do for an individual and how to best achieve your goals both off the field and on the field. As a Youth Sports Instructor for Hadley Park and Recreation, I started this Athletic Coaching Manual that turned into my Athletic Coaching website.

While the lessons are the main content of the manual and blog, I would like to share my outline and notes on what those lessons are, as that overview is important as well and can teach those with open minds something special as well.

General

Introduction – About this manual

The Keys To Success – Having a positive, self-aware, team mentality; all of these are critical

Youth and Character BuildingDevelop passion and inspiration in youth. Learn the lessons of the game. Sports teaches you life lessons that are applied to all facets of your life.

Role of AthleticsEconomic Builder, Character Builder, Identity Builder, Keeps people fit (mentally and physically)

Role Perspective and Development

History and PolicyHow were the games formed and why. Why does Integrity of the Game matter so much?

Public ImageYou are a representation of your community, team and self. Treat that with respect.

Opportunities That Athletics GiveAthletics can give you the ability to be part of a team; something larger than yourself. Gives you the ability to learn life lessons and build character. If good as an individual and as a teammate, can you give the opportunity to make a living and/or make something of yourself.

Physical Fitness and EducationGives you the ability to make an impact on yourself. Gives you a platform to make a difference in others lives (personal and raising awareness) Keeps you physically fit and well physically and mentally.

The Different Sides of Sports: Business and Fun – Fun in Sports does not end as a youth. It continues however long you are involved. However, the dynamics do change. Must understand this and that there is a business side (Capital) and a fun side. Balance these. Never forget about either.

The Importance of TeamIn most sports, no person is an island. A team can accomplish things that an individual can’t. Your team is your family and support system. Utilize them and be a good one back. Do your job and role.

Know Your CommunityYou represent more than you or your team. Your represent your community, school, town. Get to know your community and who they are so that you can proudly represent them.

Student of the Game Education never stops. You can always learn and improve. In order to maximize your effectiveness yourself and your team, learn everything, no matter how small about your trade and game.

Transferable DevelopmentUse what you have learned in other parts of your life. Being a good human is the most important asset of all.

A Successful Mentality

SuccessBelieve that you can accomplish tasks. Don’t be too arrogant but be confident. Study your trade and the game. Take care of the small things and that will lead to Success. Know that, with the proper preparation and skills, that on any given day, you or a team can be better than someone else and beat them.

EffortGive it all that you have 100% of the time. There may be times for pacing but have a purpose for it.

ConfidenceBelieve in yourself and what you are doing. It will make it easier to do your job and focus. Know that, with the proper preparation and skills, that on any given day, you or a team can be better than someone else and beat them.

CommunicationOne of the most critical components of human interaction. To function for yourself and as a team, people must know what is going on.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions No person knows everything. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from team.

Strategy and PacingKnow your limits. Make sure that you can go the distance and still give 100% effort.

Importance and Flexibility of FundamentalsKnow your trade and how to do your job. Be flexible and open-minded to adjustments. Know yourself and the needs required.

What It Takes To SucceedA winner’s attitude and dedication to the task at hand.

Self-Awareness: Know YourselfKnow what you are good at and what you are not good at. This helps with self-improvement and with your team trying accomplish a common goal.

Balance and FlexibilityBe open-minded. No one task should rule your life. Be well-balanced in life and sport.

Succeeding On The Field

Staying in ShapeAn athlete must be in shape and able to do their job if they want to help. Helps in life and in sport.

Understand Your Team and Role – Self Awareness. Know what your team needs from you. Know what you can offer. Do your job. Offer suggestions on you can enhance team effort with your skills.

Understanding Strategy and FundamentalsUnderstand the situation, the game and how to do your job.

ManagementUnderstand the strategy of the game and of the people within it. Be firm but fair with people.

Importance of Practice Practice helps train and improve athletes for when it counts. Don’t coast.

Know and Take Care of Your Equipment View your equipment as your tools. You are not much without them. Take care of them as you take care of yourself and your teammates.

Game Plan: Have A Plan Develop a strategic plan and know, how and why. Stick to it and adapt.

Know Your Tools Know your equipment and how to best use them and why.

Athletic PositionAthletic position puts you in a mechanically ready position that enhances your ability for your body to do the task at hand athletically.

TechnologyUse as a tool. Know how to use and what the balance is.

Adjustments Know how to make adjustments and why. Adjusting while staying true to yourself, team and master plan are the key to the game.

Game Tips

Game FundamentalsKnow how to play and think about the game

Game StrategyKnow how to play and think about the game. Think of different strategies.

Game TechniquesKnow how to play and think about the game. Know how to do your job.

Public Image: What You Mean and Represent Within Your Team and Community

“When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates. And the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back! Get that through your head!” This line comes from a great sports movie, Miracle, that chronicles the journey of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” Men’s Ice Hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics under the guidance of Herb Brooks. While the movie is a striking reminder that the United States was capable of fielding a team of amateur players to take on the world-renowned juggernaut Soviet team, the story of how they became a team is the most important lesson from the movie. This quote is the crux of the movie – and really in all of athletics. I will take that one step further and say that in any setting, work and life, this quote is a defining idea.

Constantly, in all of the action that defines the flow of athletics, one crucial aspect is often overlooked and taken for granted – the idea of representation. In order for success to be obtained, an individual must have the self-awareness to know their strengths and weaknesses. The individual must use this knowledge to know how to best help their team, for it is the team that has one heartbeat that will be taken to new heights. Their can be no skip and no falter in that heartbeat or the whole machine fails. In a larger sense, just as an individual is a representation and a part of a team, a team is a part of a larger community as well. Teams are organized in many different ways – by village, by school, by college, by company, by community. Just as players are representations of their teams and organizations, organizations are a representation of the community that they participate in. The same holds true for any company, organization or institution in other walks of life. This relationship is important as we rely upon the faces of the entities that we encounter to be the human personification of what they represent. In athletics, where the relationship between fans and players/teams is so ingrained within our culture along with the critical need for a player to be a functioning part of the team, realizing the importance of what you represent and how is critical. The movie Miracle does a great job in capturing this idea through a coach’s words – indeed, the name on the front of a jersey is more important than the one on the back – that team trumps individual. What one should strive for when they keep in mind that they are representing not only themselves, but their team and community as well, is that they should perform at optimal athletic level with integrity, class and skill along with being self-aware of their role so that they can effectively perform as a member of a team that represents themselves in more ways than wins and losses. This is important to remember for when a community – no matter what size – identifies with a team that is a representation of themselves, many different associations occur with that connection. This can include reputation, economic opportunities, social opportunities and community building.

Now, this may seem like a lot to ask of an athlete. In reality, however, there are a few things that an athlete can do in order to fulfill their role in helping be a good representation of themselves, their team and their larger community. Much of it has to do with trying to be a good person and following the keys to success that were laid out in another lesson writing. These lessons do not pertain only to sports, either. Rather, they are guidelines that all of us should follow. Much has been written about the need to be self-aware and know your strengths/weaknesses in order to better know and perform your role as part of a team. This is what I call a self-aware, team based mentality. That is one part of the equation. The other parts that are critical in fulfilling your role is hard work, integrity, class and skill. The first two of these that I will touch upon is skill and hard work. Some athletes naturally have more skill than others and that can reflect in performance. However, to a degree, hard work can compensate for a minor skill deficiency. That said, every individual should work hard and give all that they are capable of giving to a task. Integrity and class go hand in hand as well. Integrity defines who you are and demonstrates your character. If you work hard and do so honorably and are a good role model with class, you will win the hearts of those you represent. Hopefully the other results will follow in time.

In the end, little thought is often given to the public image of an athlete and that of the identity of the team that they represent. Sports fans often hear of team culture and identity when a team is doing well or is doing poorly. It is always an explanation of something that has occurred in the past. In reality, it is the heartbeat of a team. A team lives and dies by those who make up its many parts. Those parts represent not only the team that they play for or the organization that gave them the vessel to perform, but they represent the community that supports them as well. This is why, with integrity, class and skill, it is important for athletes – and, really, any worker in any walk of life – to remember that the name on the front really is more important than the name on the back when it comes to accomplishing an organizational goal. Individual self-satisfaction will follow.