The sport psychology of failure
“I know what my problem is: I try too hard, I think too much. I need to slow down my mind,” said Cleveland Indian Shin-Soo Choo, citing that his recent DUI and arrest has psychologically crippled his play. ESPN reported yesterday that Choo isn’t focusing on his legal affairs stemming from his drink-and-drive debacle, but is more worried about his double fan base that stretches from the U.S. to South Korea.
Choo was arrested on May 2 (with a Blood Alcohol Content of .201), and since then his game has slumped dramatically. He has batted 4 for 23, and has not hit a home run, and has posted a .242 average. In contrast, his last two seasons saw an average of .300+, 22 home runs, and 88 RBIs.
To make things worse, Choo recently lost the coveted No. 3 hitting hole, which will statistically be a drawback. From ESPN:
Manager Manny Acta pointed out Saturday that Choo had never had an off-field incident before or since and that the outfielder is learning to deal with the scrutiny that comes with a misstep. To help ease the pressure, Acta dropped Choo three spots in the order on Sunday to No. 6.
It may seem obvious to some, but negative emotions can impact sport performance in dramatic fashion. We need to look no further than Tiger Woods and his giant fall from the top of the golfing community. Although we’ve been kept appraised of his demise via every media outlet known to man, the stats do even more talking. According to the PGA Tour official information, the comparisonof the 2009 Tiger Woods and the post-drama 2010 Tiger Woods is amazingly different: In 2009, Woods made 16 cuts, finished in the top 10 on 14 occasions, scored an average of 68.84, earned over $10 million, and was stood first in the FedExCup standings. In 2010, Woods made 11 cuts, finished in the top 10 on only two occasions, scored an average over 72, earned $1.2 million, and stood 112th in the FedExCup standings. It certainly seems that the negativity was a hindrance to both Woods and Choo, as well as countless numbers of athletes throughout the ranks of all sports.
But negative emotion can allow us to flourish, according to sport psychologist, former Olympian, and author Amy Baltzell (Living in the Sweet Spot, Preparing for Performance in Sport and Life, FiT, 2011). Baltzell brings to our attention that there is current research that suggests that we need negative emotion to thrive – we just need to keep a ratio of negative to positive emotion at somewhere around 1:3 to 1:5. If negative emotional thoughts or experiences supercedes this “magical” ratio, then we put ourselves at risk of harming ourselves with negativity.
Baltzell also offers three steps to reigning in negative emotion:
1) Recognizing real problems and acting on them
Baltzell says that the most important thing to do is to listen to the negative emotions so that you can figure out how to change the situation, since negative emotions are ways that the body is telling you that you need to make a change. From Living in the Sweet Spot:
When we are emotionally uncomfortable, the right answer is not always to leave the situation. Yet, we must be able to entertain the possibility of quitting, leaving, or changing where we train and with whom … Negative emotions can also be a signal to work harder or to back off of training. It is quite typical when preparing for performance to push too hard for too long. At some point, performers will feel uninspired and feel a sense of not caring, exhuastion, or a loss of interest. These signs are invaluable.
2) Shifting a negative emotion
Baltzell notes that some of the negative emotions that performers feel during times of competitive pressure are frustrating, because the performers might feel safe, but are heavily distracted by the negative thoughts. In these instances, she says it’s a good policy to shift the emotions:
Can we really shift from one emotion to another? When caught in the throes of anger, jealousy, frustration, or indignation, is it possible to shift to an equally authentic, more effective emotion? The answer is yes. And, yes, it is difficult to get ourselves to shift to a constructive, authentic mindset in such instances. Living in the sweet spot can be tough at times. And purposefully changing how we assess a situation when we are deep into a negative, destructive emotional reaction may be the hardest part of staying in our sweet spot. It is not a matter of just faking it and trying to experience something that we don’t authentically feel. The answer to shifting out of a destructive, disempowering emotion lies within our ability to think about the challenge differently.
3) Accepting the negative emotional state
When the first steps don’t help, consider Baltzell’s third option. She notes that at times the negative thoughts are simply too pervasive. It’s hard to put ourselves into Choo’s shoes, or even Tiger’s for that matter, but it’s not hard to imagine that with the massive media scrutiny they face, as well as the immense professional-grade pressure that they’re under to perform, they are going to be inundated with negativity. The acceptance, or tolerance, of negativity might be the their best option. It must be noted that the negative signals are not “danger” signals, and that the body is truly in a safe state. Choo must realize that even if he doesn’t get a hit in a losing game (like in the Indians’ 0-4 series against the Texas Rangers recently), he is ultimately safe and not in danger.
Baltzell offers the analogy of how we listen with compassion and kindness when a teammate might tell us about his or her problems. We don’t treat them with disdain, so why should we treat ourselves in such a manner?
Think about the next time you feel badly - hurt, anxious, or angry – and there is nothing to do to solve it. Imagine a time when you just can’t shake the intense negativity. To minimize the impact of such negativity, sometimes the best that we can do is to notice that it is happening and to accept it. The task is to accept the powerful negative emotion with kindness and interest. This idea is not a new one. Being able to accept with kindness one’s own negative emotions is discussed by leaders in the field of mindfulness, including giants in the field such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Shin-Soo Choo seems to be admonishing himself for his actions, as he has expressed great regret and guilt to the media, and personally to each teammate. It certainly seems that he deserves to give himself a little self-compassion. It would be an interesting experiment to see if he does this, and whether or not his game gets him, and his No. 1 team, back into the spotlight.
[Amy Baltzell, EdD, directs the sport psychology program and is a professor in the School of Education at Boston University. As a licensed psychologist specializing in sport and performance, Baltzell works with professional, elite, collegiate, and high school athletes and professional musicians. She is the author of Living in the Sweet Spot: Preparing for Performance in Sport and Life, a guide of how to get ready for big performances, and for performing your best when it counts.]