Very few athletes reach the pinnacle of their sport. Years of hard work, sacrifice and conditioning can and do pay off for some. On top of their game, they sail through, confident and seemingly unbeatable. Until the day comes that they start to notice a little slip here or there. A match that was a little more difficult to win. A lost step or two. Physical or mental mistakes that never happened before. It's a strange feeling for these athletes. They are often ill-equipped to respond. Their focus becomes to battle back to the top, to grasp whatever they can to keep from slipping. The joy they felt when playing may be slipping as well.
Consider tennis elite Roger Federer, 32, who after a stellar career has been stumbling a bit of late. After enjoying so many years of success and intimidating opponents with his mere presence on the court, he has found himself slipping in the ranks, losing matches to lower-ranked players. Struggling to find a way to give his play a boost, he even tried a bigger racket, something his game had never required before. It didn't work. It may have actually caused his mental game to suffer as well. Often tossing a new element into the mix can cause chaos. Suddenly his play was not as automatic. He needed to essentially start over and reestablish his routine, develop motor skills and coordination to deal with the new racket. (He has since gone back to "old faithful.") He was grasping, trying to find what was wrong. He went for a physical change first, when maybe it was his mental game that could have used the tweaking. A full assessment of both his mental and physical game could yield appropriate areas that may need adjustment to help him get back to form. But all he knew was that something had to change to avoid the trajectory he was on.
It's hard to see or admit when the years start to catch up. But clear focus and attention is necessary. If you are still passionate about the game no matter the outcome, keep playing. If losing your status is important, however, consider hanging up your competition hat. Long before his retirement at age 30, Andy Roddick, for example, decided that he would retire the moment his ranking fell to below a certain point. While he likely felt the same anxiety upon realizing he was falling, he at least had thought it all through. He had a plan. This is a good lesson for any athlete. While it is very hard to even consider retirement while riding the peak of athletic success, it will be so helpful in the long run when--yes, when--that time arrives.
Federer is a strong competitor, and seems to now be formulating such a plan. "Every match gives me more information to tell me if I'm on the right path or not," he says. "I'm a strong believer that I am on the right path now. I just need to make sure that mentally I stay cool about it." He needs to find a way to stay confident and to keep believing in himself, in a sport where the mental game can make the difference between a win and a loss. When an opponent steps on the court and sees that you know how good you are, senses that you feel invincible, unbeatable, you have the edge immediately. I think Federer can pull this off. As long as he can show he still feels he can dominate, he'll be fine. He will definitely benefit from having a clear, objective plan for his tennis future, which will reduce his anxiety and his panicked attempt to grasp onto things that may do more harm than good to his game.
The time will come when he can comfortably pull away from the competitive arena, knowing he gave his all, made his mark, and bowed out with dignity.
I recently started a profile on LinkedIn. I hadn't done it earlier because I guess I didn't quite get it. You make all of these "connections," hoping for--what? It's not like Facebook where these people are your friends and you post pictures of your adorable kid's latest exploits or your vacation to the Grand Canyon. It's really more of an online resume crossed with an opportunity to proudly display work accomplishments and subtly put feelers out for future employment opportunities. It's our "other" persona, beyond family life. It's that identity that most of us use to define ourselves. Go to any Happy Hour and you will hear over and over, "So what do you do?" Who we are and what we do are often one and the same in our minds.
I was hesitant for a long time to put myself out there on LinkedIn. Probably because before Personal Best Sports, I couldn't really define who I was--at least not through a particular profession. But now, I'm in. And it's actually been fun and exciting. Who accepted my invitation today? My network grows, people all over the world view my profile and find me interesting or worthy of potential assistance enough to "Accept."
It got me thinking about the power of connection. And it is a powerful thing. Humans are social creatures. We thrive with company. We like to interact and share. We are boosted when we receive praise, as well as when we give it.
Sports enables us to have connections. We are fans who celebrate together the thrill of victory, or join in suffering the agony of defeat. We are teammates who share the struggles of vigorous practice drills and swell with pride holding the trophies. It's all better when we do it together.
For any endeavor to be successful, a key component is connection. Take starting a fitness or diet program, for example. Numerous studies have shown the people who enjoy the most success have someone to work out with, or to be accountable to. Knowing someone is counting on us makes us more determined to continue. "Going public" by sharing our goals with someone almost guarantees adherence to the plan.
Connections can also breed healthy competition. LinkedIn is a constant reminder of what great accomplishments my network has achieved. It makes me determined to keep up my end of the bargain. I will not let my network down. I will let them know I am contributing to our collective strength as well. Strength in numbers, right? Silly? Maybe, but think about it. Have you ever felt any motivation to produce for others? Colleagues, bosses, teammates, coaches? Where did that come from? Your singular desire to do your best? Or maybe in some small way you wanted to prove something to others?
So what is my take-home message? First, consider your personal "profile." Who are you now? What are your skills, abilities, accomplishments? Go beyond work. Get personal. Raised three healthy kids? Organized a family reunion? Built a tree house? Lost 50 pounds? Who helped you get there? Can you pay it forward somehow? Where do you want to be? What do you want to be able to add to your profile in the future?
Second, get linked in. Not capital "L" linked, necessarily. Just make connections that can help you achieve the goals you desire. Connections can be professionals who would be a source of information or assistance for you. Family or friends with whom you share your goals and who keep you accountable. Or friends, colleagues, teammates, who are willing to actually get in the trenches with you.
Anything you put your mind to is possible. Remember that. And more minds can make the journey to possible that much easier. Invite connection. Accept invitations to connect. You'll be amazed by what you can accomplish.
I was invited by Huffington Post Live to be on a panel of experts for a chat about the challenges faced by female athletes during and after pregnancy. There was much more I wanted to add! Will do on a future blog or article...
Watch the video chat--click here!
"Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."
Personal Best Sports
The sports world is filled with stories of perseverance, failure and success, personal struggles and public triumph. Each story provides insight into the mental side of sport and activity.