Brain Training with Connor Hartley: Soccer and Thankful Thinking

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My name is Connor Hartley. I’m a mental performance consultant from Tacoma, Washington. I teach mental skills to athletes, musicians, students, and other types of performers, including elite athletes in soccer, basketball and golf. I have a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a focus in sport psychology from Boston University, and a bachelor’s in psychology from Loyola Marymount University. I’m a former player at Norpoint FC and Washington Premier FC, and stay involved in the game through coaching and adult leagues. You can reach me on Facebook on my page, Hartley Performance, or through email at chartley@bu.edu.

Thankful Thinking

by Connor Hartley (Read other column entries here.)

It’s the holiday season, and the topic on the tip of everyone’s tongue – aside from turkey, the NFL, and who you are and aren’t excited to talk to at Thanksgiving – is gratitude. Generally, people share their gratitude toward their family, their friends, their mentors, their life situation, their environment, their opportunities, or their sources of joy. All of these are wonderful things to be grateful for, but how does gratitude fit into a soccer blog? Isn’t that a completely different concept, something more related to happiness than performance?

Gratitude is often considered a trait that floats around the sidelines of soccer, something you might notice (or not notice) inside yourself, but not something that influences performance. I’d be willing to bet, in fact, that most players believe their own level of gratitude doesn’t affect their performance. Grateful or not, once you step out on the field, you perform. The happiest players aren’t necessarily the best ones, right? The worst players aren’t always the malcontents. Therefore, most might conclude, gratitude is nice, but unrelated to peak performance.

Most players, in this case, would be wrong.

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No, gratitude alone will not a great player make. Instead, it acts as a motivating force that helps players maintain their effort and reach their full potential more regularly. Further, it creates a more positive, productive, team atmosphere. Being grateful for your teammates, your relationships, your ability to play soccer will help you stay engaged and be the best player you can be. Your performance actually can change based on your gratitude! Even if you’re an excellent player, gratitude can help you live up to your potential, and while being grateful won’t magically give you a majestic first touch, it will set you on the right path for improving it.

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To the first point, players will work harder when they feel grateful regarding their situation. When a player takes for granted their starting spot, their supportive coaches, the ability of their teammates, they have less motivation to work hard and improve themselves. On the other hand, a grateful player is a motivated player, continually working to make the most of their lucky situation. For example, imagine two girls make the same JV team; going into the tryout, however, one expected to make varsity, and the other expected to get cut. Who do you think will get better over the course of the season? Now, obviously the outcome here depends on the personalities of the players, but if the player expecting a varsity letter is ungrateful, she likely won’t put in her best effort for the JV team, figuring her fate is sealed and lamenting her placement. On the other hand, the player who didn’t expect to make a team at all will likely be estatic, and excited to attend practice and learn at every opportunity. The ungrateful player risks stunting her growth with her attitude, while the grateful players gives herself the chance to continue rising with hers.

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Gratitude also assists in bringing out the best in players by reducing distress, increasing feelings of sport satisfaction, and increasing perceived feelings of support in players. In a study of 51 college athletes, Dr. Nicole Gabana found a gratitude intervention helped athletes in all of these categories, and more (2017). Simply put, athletes who feel better will perform better than athletes who feel worse. Distress, like fear, anxiety, frustration or anger, causes an athlete to focus on the wrong things. Sport satisfaction, on the other hand, creates a platform for an athlete to focus on the task at hand, like completing passes or communicating clearly with teammates. When a player feels ungrateful, because they hate playing in the rain, or they’re so angry over not starting that they can’t focus in on proving the coach wrong, or they feel frustrated about a teammate’s performance, they spend so much time in their own head that they forget to play their game. This is why I love gratitude exercises when my team is losing at halftime. I remind myself how lucky I am to even play soccer, and my nerves/frustrations disappear. How can I possibly feel bad over the score when I’m happy to play at all? In these situations, I often play a better second half than first half.

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Finally, an entire team culture can transform through gratitude. Ungratefulness is a disease that can spread quickly, even between two brooding boys both baffled by a coach’s decision to start them on the sidelines (this can easily happen with parents, as well). Thankfully, gratitude is just as infectious, and being openly grateful for opportunities can improve a teammate’s demeanor. Being grateful isn’t always about being positive, either; often, it just means noticing the positive already around you. Thus, encouraging your players or teammates to be grateful, or simply modeling gratitude for them, can improve the performance of the entire team. By this way, this also goes for coaches. Your players can tell when you’re ungrateful, and will follow your behavior. Worse, if you never show gratitude for the effort your players put in, they will eventually quit on you. Why should they work hard if you don’t, or if you don’t seem to care how hard they work? Inversely, modeling gratitude (through your situation or for the effort of your players) will bring the gratitude out in them, as well.

thanksgiving-turkey-soccer-thumb_cropApplication for players: Sit down somewhere quiet for a few minutes, and think about the ways soccer creates a positive experience in your life. Think in terms of relationships, structure, health, positive moments, and intangible skills (like leadership, communication, effort) that you’ve learned through soccer. Then, when you’re going through a hard time, recall the those positives. Even in the worst moments, soccer has given much to you.

thanksgiving-turkey-soccer-thumb_cropApplication for coaches: After practice, stand in a circle with the players and have each say something they appreciated in practice that day, either a teammate, the weather, a drill, or something else. Taking this activity to the next level, bringing a card or poster for each player and allowing the players to write what they appreciate about each other on the cards/posters can also be powerful, but works best as a rare activity (once in a season).

thanksgiving-turkey-soccer-thumb_cropApplication for parents: As a family, try the “three good things” activity. At the end of the day (or in the morning, whenever you have time with your kids), either write down or share three good things that happened that day (if you do this in the morning, you can do three good things from the day before or three things to look forward to that day). This brings awareness to moments you can be grateful for, and if you participate, as well, you can model gratitude. Based on the age of your player, you and your child can share as much or as little as you’d like.

Sounders Academy photos by Quinn Width.

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