Athletes and athletics lend themselves to black and white thinking: you either have it or you don’t; you are either mentally tough or mentally weak; you are a good person and your opponent is a bad person; referees and umpires are either good or terrible; coaches either have a product focus or a process focus. It might be the case that all of these dichotomies stem from the queen of them all: you either win or you lose. But such zero-sum mindsets, so embedded in our culture, aren’t effective for athletes and their support systems. They corrode longevity in sport, one of the biggest problems in youth sport. And so, as in many of my pieces in this blog, I am turning to DBT1 to find an answer to this entrenched problem, that of finding a middle path between two extremes, threading the needle between the black and the white, finding the grey. To provide an example of the power of this principle, I thought I would lay out some of an athlete’s main dialectical dilemmas:
Process v. Product: Every athlete will tell you that a major shift in their outlook, performance, and enjoyment of their sport was this shift toward process and away from winning as the primary motivation. While, it’s important to have goals, even big ones (“I want to make the varsity.” “I want to play #1 for my team.” “I want to win the Nationals”), and winning is also very important and fun, it’s more important to set intermediate goals tracing from where things currently are and getting invested in the process of moving step by step toward those bigger goals. Have a process for everything (practice, preparation, competition). Even a process for processing the product in after-action reviews. Everyone in the athlete’s system needs to be practicing process, and those who aren’t—particularly parents—will bias the process toward product.
Talent v. Grit: This dialectic is such a common one that people don’t even notice it when it’s in play. When athletes perceive a competitor as better, they think there’s something inherently better in that player than in them. Players often panic when they see the draw and look at their first-round match in dread. And obviously, athletes competing at a high level are invested with a great amount of natural ability, perhaps nature’s most unfair luck of the draw. But, it’s been shown that the people who believe their raw talent is all they need, less motivated to work less hard, expecting good results to fall into their laps. Prodigious talent paired with a grueling work ethic was the “magic” of Tiger Woods, who was both a flashy front-runner and a gritty journeyman. The proof here is that very few golfers were as good at scrambling, as good at making the cut when he was near the cut line. True confidence—the ace up the sleeve of any successful athlete—is the birthchild of hard work. The primary resource for these two dialectics is Carol Dweck’s work on growth versus fixed mindsets2, which is essentially explicates this dialectic I’m naming. She outlines quite well how detrimental to performance, satisfaction, and longevity a “fixed mindset” is to athletic and academic success.
Drilling v. Freewheeling: Every athlete knows the need for hours of rote practice before skills take hold and before they can be brought to bear in competitive situations. But, drilling can be inert and cold. An athlete also needs to practice freewheeling, improvisation, and flare. Follow your gut, try shots and strategies that emphasis virtuosity over function, shots you’ve seen your favorite athlete execute. Be bold, be spontaneous. Be you. In offsetting rote practice, it will reconnect you to the joy of playing your sport, you will get out of your head and into your body, and it will feel euphoric when you bring it out in competition. And it will completely catch your opponent by surprise, give him/her an emotional concussion, a distraction that you can capitalize on for the next few points. But, again, it can’t be your bread and butter. If you notice, some players are really good at one side of this dialectic, but everyone needs both. It takes discipline to practice something that is new, and might even oppose your natural inclination. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
The take-away here is obvious. Every athlete faces these dialectical dilemmas and every athlete is oriented more towards one end of them than the other. But, athletes need to identify which side of the dialectic they skew towards, and exercise new muscles on the other side of the dialectic in the service of finding the middle ground. While it sounds middling, it is actually the key to success, the path toward greater freedom, and thus, toward a more full-throated passion for their sport. Surpassing these dialectics allows access to transcendence and joy, for which there is no middle ground.
1: Linehan, M. 1993. Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder.
2: Dweck, C. 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
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