No mat­ter where you scull, win­ning does not require the stroke of a genius

Sports are an essen­tial part of my life, and I think they can be a fun and reward­ing activ­ity for any­one. Since my early child­hood, sports and other phys­i­cal recre­ation have been an almost daily part of my rou­tine, and this con­tin­ues through today. I played three var­sity sports in high school, one in col­lege, and have won com­pet­i­tive tour­na­ments in all three. I have been coached by pro­fes­sion­als, includ­ing the coach of a pre­vi­ous top 5 ten­nis player. I have per­son­ally coached in three sports, ten­nis, vol­ley­ball and hockey, and con­tinue to coach vol­ley­ball today. I truly believe that any­one can be suc­cess­ful at any sport; that’s not to say you can be a pro­fes­sional, but that you can learn a sport, play it well and reap the ben­e­fits, includ­ing the eustress might want to add a wiki or news arti­cle link here — not every­body knows what this is of a com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment, the cama­raderie of team­mates and other like-minded indi­vid­u­als, and win or lose, the sat­is­fac­tion from know­ing you played to your max­i­mum potential.

Pick a Sport or Activity

Base­ball was the first com­pet­i­tive sport my par­ents had me try, and let me say I was ter­ri­ble. I was afraid of pitches, spent most of my time pluck­ing dan­de­lions in the out­field, and didn’t enjoy myself at all. No one is expected to be great at any sport, but why do some­thing vol­un­tar­ily if you are not enjoy­ing your­self? It may take a few tries, but find some­thing you can truly love.

If you are an adult, it may make more sense to choose a “life­time” sport. Con­tact foot­ball is not some­thing you can play into your golden years, but swim­ming, ten­nis and golf cer­tainly are. This process may take a few tries, and may require going out­side your usual sus­pects. Some peo­ple find them­selves immersed in hik­ing, rock climb­ing, and other out­door activ­i­ties not con­ven­tion­ally called sports. These still offer all the same rewards, and should there­fore be treated with the same regard.

Dur­ing my base­ball years I found myself play­ing roller hockey over the sum­mers and really enjoy­ing myself, set­ting goals (learn­ing to skate back­wards over a sum­mer), and learn­ing the game. I finally got involved with ice hockey in fifth grade, which is con­sid­ered rather late for hockey. But because of my love for the game, I quickly learned the sport and how to excel.

What ath­letic activ­i­ties do you find your­self drawn to? With this ques­tion in mind, observe your habits and thoughts for a few weeks, and the answer will quickly become obvious.

Obsess About the Fundamentals

A new sport is best learned sur­rounded by top coaches who can teach the basics.  In sports such as ten­nis, there really are only a few strokes you must learn to be suc­cess­ful. But if you begin play­ing with­out the proper fun­da­men­tals, and it can take years to re-learn how to do some­thing correctly.

What­ever your age it is easy to find good train­ing, though the num­ber of sports in which good lessons can be found for adults is more lim­ited than for the under-18 crowd. Before choos­ing an orga­ni­za­tion with which to take lessons, you should go to a les­son just to watch, and per­haps ask other play­ers about their experiences.

Things to look for with an orga­ni­za­tion include:

  • Coaches who have excel­lent train­ing, includ­ing being cer­ti­fied by a national pro­gram.  Qual­ity lessons, espe­cially for begin­ners, need not to be taught by some­one with exten­sive high-level play­ing expe­ri­ence. Although many pro­fes­sional coaches are for­mer play­ers, some peo­ple achieve great coach­ing suc­cess with­out hav­ing been a great player themselves.
  • Expe­ri­ence coach­ing begin­ners.  Many coaches may be great with expe­ri­enced play­ers, but not able to con­vey the fun­da­men­tals to play­ers who are new to the sport. Expe­ri­ence also helps a coach rec­og­nize com­mon begin­ner errors, and know which ones are okay to keep, and which motions must be imme­di­ately corrected.
  • A coach that knows how to make prac­tice fun. When start­ing any­thing, one has the best chance of con­tin­u­ing if he doing it! To learn about this, you could ask the coach them­selves, but its prob­a­bly best to ask a par­tic­i­pant. Ask play­ers how long they’ve been play­ing, how long they’ve done the lessons, and if they are look­ing for­ward to going each time.

Once you cho­sen whom to take lessons through, its time to get to work, and immerse your­self in all you can learn about the sport!

Delib­er­ate Practice

Much research has been done as of late on why super-athletes like Tiger Woods are more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers. The results show that yes, these peo­ple do have the gift of above aver­age ath­letic per­for­mance, but so does every other pro­fes­sional ath­lete. It turns out that excel­lent ath­letes are able to prac­tice more often, for longer peri­ods of time, but most impor­tantly are able to more effec­tively use that time. The term used is “delib­er­ate prac­tice”. This means every prac­tice ses­sion is per­formed with the high­est men­tal and phys­i­cal effort. Rep­e­ti­tion turns not into lack­adaisi­cal “going through the motions”, but each swing, throw or stride per­formed is turned tighter and tighter. All prac­tice can be effec­tive to some extent, but only delib­er­ate prac­tice can lead to supe­rior results.

Every­one can try the ele­ments of delib­er­ate prac­tice to improve their game:

  • Quan­tity — the more you prac­tice, the bet­ter you get. Period
  • Con­sis­tency — try and prac­tice as many days as pos­si­ble per week, and aim to prac­tice for the same amount of time each day
  • Mind­set — You must strive to increase your focus and con­cen­tra­tion the longer you prac­tice. If you start to fade, stop, take a deep breath, and re-align your thoughts. The longer you can hold a focused mind­set, even not while play­ing dur­ing prac­tice, the bet­ter you will be.
  • Feed­back — Find some­one who knows the sport who can help out at least part of the time, and take their com­ments seri­ously. Remem­ber the high­est level of sports often have the high­est ratio of coaches.

Learn the Men­tal Game

Base­ball great Yogi Berra once said “Base­ball is ninety per­cent men­tal and the other half is phys­i­cal.” No mat­ter the actual mental/physical ration, all experts agree the “men­tal game”, is essen­tial to any sport. I recently read a book enti­tled Mind Gym, which is about the uni­ver­sal men­tal train­ing any­one needs to reach their high­est level of per­for­mance in any sport. There are numer­ous hints and tips, but they are eas­ily summarized:

  1. Actual game-play is the best practice.
  2. Visu­al­ize your suc­cess in every shot, pass, goal, and every other action per­formed in the sport.
  3. Learn to har­ness the pos­i­tives from every game, and learn to keep con­fi­dence through any event.

Books like Mind Gym spell every­thing out, and I think are worth a read (it cer­tainly helped me). Just real­ize if you aren’t men­tally tough, all the prac­tice in the world can’t help you in true com­pet­i­tive events or tournaments.

Get Com­pet­i­tive!

As men­tioned in the book Mind Gym, there is no sub­sti­tute for actual com­pet­i­tive play. Many coaches encour­age “game-like” activ­i­ties for prac­tice, as these apply pres­sure sim­i­lar to what you expe­ri­ence dur­ing a game. How­ever, there is no sub­sti­tute for the crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion when all the pres­sure to per­form is on your shoul­ders. How can prac­tice pre­pare you for such a sit­u­a­tion? It can’t. You can be con­fi­dent in your skills, but highs and lows of actual com­pe­ti­tion are sec­ond to none. The only way to improve is to keep plac­ing your­self in com­pet­i­tive situations.

The first few times you par­tic­i­pate in a tour­na­ment you may feel ner­vous or afraid. But the more you expe­ri­ence it, the eas­ier match-play will become. Jimmy Con­nors, a hall of fame ten­nis player once said “Ten­nis was never work for me, ten­nis was fun. And the tougher the bat­tle and the longer the match, the more fun I had”. Every­one can improve their han­dling of game-time stress:

  • Take a deep breath. It increases oxy­gen flow and men­tal aware­ness. Golf great Tom Wat­son is quotes “I didn’t learn how to play golf under pres­sure until I learned how to con­trol my breath­ing, which in turn con­trolled my heart rate.”
  • Remem­ber that every­one deals with the same stress. Watch the end of any sport­ing event (prefer­ably in per­son) and see that at some point some­one cracks. If you can remem­ber that your oppo­nent is deal­ing with the same stress you have, it’s much eas­ier to keep every­thing in perspective.
  • Have fun! Even in the heat of bat­tle, remem­ber you are play­ing sports for the fun of the game. You won’t lose a sign­ing bonus because you lost, but you will have valu­able insight on how to improve for the next round.

Han­dle that stress well, mas­ter the basics, and prac­tice delib­er­ate prac­tice, and you can be suc­cess­ful at any sport!


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