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Thursday
Jul142011

Childlike Simplicity


By Suzie Tuff ey Riewald, PhD, NSCA-CPT,*D
From: NSCA Performance Training Journal October 2007 Vol 6 No 5
Article site link: NSCA
PDF Link: Childlike Simplicity


Do the following phrases sound familiar to you?
“Race you to the light pole,”
“Whoever gets ten points first wins,”
“Coach said I get to start in the game today. I can’t wait.”
They are all things that you likely would hear come from the mouths of young athletes.

Contrast that with the following quote, “I’ve never played so poorly in my entire life. I can’t believe how nervous I was and how I collapsed under the pressure.“
This actual quote came from an athlete who had been playing and competing in her sport for years and years. It came after a poor performance in a major, international competition where she felt she had prepared herself to do well yet failed to do so.

In these competitive scenarios, there seems to be contrasting emotional experiences. In one, there is an overriding pressure or expectation to perform and in the other the athlete exhibits a joy and excitement about performing.
Which emotional reaction or perspective of competition do you think facilitates optimal performance?

There is something positive to be learned from kids and competition; have fun and treat your sport like the game it is and this attitude will translate over to great performances. In this article, we will take a look at how to bring this childlike simplicity back into your training and your approach to competition and see how it can enhance your enjoyment of your sport while also improving your performance.

Think for a minute abut your own childhood athletic experiences. What words come to mind when recalling competition? Ask a group of adults to reflect back and you will hear them use words like “fun,” “easy,” “enjoying the process of performing,” “naive,” “not too stressed.” And now ask yourself about how you perceive competition as an adult? You are likely to come up with words like “overly complex,” “stressful,” “not so much fun” and “anxiety provoking,” and that is what competition can become, if we let it.

Many elite athletes tell me, when recounting competitions as a child, that “it was so easy back then.” By easy, it seems athletes are referring to having the ability to just compete, to get up and do what they have been training for while not worrying too much about the outcome or the environment. Somewhere along the way a shift occurs where athletes worry about the outcome, worry about the environment (“Th is is the US Open” or “Th is is my first nationals”) and they then force their performances. And such thinking sure takes the fun out of competition.

While there is no one answer as to how to keep competition light and fun, I present some thoughts and ideas about how to help you bring the simplicity and ease back to competition:

Alter Your Perspective
I had an athlete once tell me that to get in an effective competition mindset he recalls when he used to race with his childhood friends. Specifically, he would remember walking home from school when someone would yell “race you to the end of the block” and all the kids would take off. Everyone would just race, there was no worrying about who was going to win. Now, in his competitions as an elite athlete, he tries to bring back this unencumbered, simplified approach. He reminds himself to “just race to the end of the block.” It can be that simple.

What, Really is the Task?
Kids do not get too caught up in the environment. It is about getting from point A to point B or hitting the ball over the net. This is true whether it is competing with friends after school or competing on a local or regional team. As adults, we sometimes let the environment complicate what needs to be done. Athletes often make the task more diffi cult by telling themselves it is the Olympics, or that a college recruiter is in the stands and that they have to be even better, faster, and more perfect. Th is is not true, the task is the same regardless of the environment. Remind yourself of this. Get back to the task stripped bare of the surrounding, getting from point A to B as fast as possible or hitting the ball over the net.

Let the Outcome Take Care of Itself
Of course, kids want to win. They want to be the fi rst to the end of the block, they want to catch the ball and they want to score a goal. But, they seem caught up in the joy of competing and trying one’s hardest. As adults, instead of directing
our energies to the process, we are consumed with the outcome. We forget that the process of performance is what influences the outcome. Acknowledge that winning, placing, running a specific time are important. Then, let it go and focus instead on what you need to do to perform well. The joy and ease of competing is sure to manifest itself with such an approach.

It is not often you are instructed to act like a child, in fact in most cases we are told to grow up or act our age. However, in this one regard, you should be like a child. Leave all your baggage at the door. Simplify things in your mind so all you are doing is really jumping as far as you can or racing your buddy across the pool. Bring this attitude to your competition and watch your performances improve.

About the Author Suzie Tuffey Riewald received her degrees in Sport Psychology/Exercise Science from the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. She has worked for USA Swimming as the Sport Psychology and Sport Science Director, and most recently as the Associate Director of Coaching with the USOC where she worked with various sport national governing bodies.


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