Location: Durham, North Carolina.
Date: Late November/Early December, 1994
Event: worst game of my collegiate career.
There are only two details I remember about this match. That I played the absolute worst match of my collegiate career and the epic tantrum I threw in the locker room after.
Now, if you want details of said tantrum, you’ll have to ask my former coaches and/or teammates, because, honestly, I try not to beat myself up over things I did when I was twenty.
Over the past couple of weeks, the high school beach volleyball team I coach was playing in our state championship tournament. We had a really great season and headed into the state finals with a 13-0 record. A lot of really good work, consistent practices and managing of schedules had already taken place for us to be here, which was remarkable in and of itself, a state championship was the icing to a well-fought season.
The team we played also had a winning record, so, on paper this should have been a close match. Despite a great win by one our 5’s pairs, we lost the dual 4-1. In high school beach volleyball, five pairs player each other (5’s play 5’s, 4’s play 4’s and so on and so forth until the 1’s) and the best of those five pair matches wins the dual. It’s similar to the pairs tennis format in high school and college. After our loss, the girls were rightfully disappointed, but what I noticed in some of the athletes was more than disappointment.
Trust me, I’ve been there. Far too many times for way more reasons than just losing a game.
See, when a seasoned athlete loses a match or does not perform to their best ability, their brains have to make quick sense of the experience. If you understand your sport or your athletic journey is a process, then your brain takes any unfavorable performance (or any favorable one, for that matter) and says “here’s what I did well, here’s where I can improve, I’m not happy about this, but I’m going to find 1% more on my next effort.” Whether that’s in their nutrition, mindset, strength training or conditioning, sleep, recovery or whatever – this athlete will press forward and find ways to improve at every effort.
I call that CHICKEN AND BROCCOLI thinking.
Let me explain.
One night my son was balking at having to eat broccoli and chicken instead of the crackers and chips or whatever else he was wanting. I told him “every time you put chicken and broccoli in your body, you are filling it with good nutrients and things that will help your body grow and function properly. Every time you put in crackers and chips or something easy, you just fill yourself up and lose that opportunity to nourish yourself.” Of course, he did not love my example, but he understood at a basic level that you can fill your body with fast food or the quick and easy or you can fill it with nutrients and promote growth and performance.
The same can be said with our automatic thoughts after a poorly executed game strategy or a performance you thought was not your best.
Listen, if you do not understand your sport or athletic journey as a process (and if you are young, you probably don’t see the big picture yet), you may say something like this to yourself: “I played terribly. I SHOULD have won. I COULD have done more. It was my fault. I played bad, I should never play bad. I’m better than that.”
This kind of thinking is not CHICKEN AND BROCCOLI thinking. This is crackers and chips. This mindset is fast and easy and it doesn’t nourish our brains to make sense of the experience whether we lose or whether we win.
This kind of thinking keeps us stuck.
This kind of thinking creates entitlement and blame.
This kind of thinking is not sustainable.
Let me repeat that.
This kind of thinking is not sustainable.
After my monster tantrum in the locker room at Duke in which they sent my assistant coach and my best roomie in to check on me, I proceeded to beat myself up mentally.
I didn’t just beat myself up over that match or that night, I continued to feed my brain chips and crackers for years and found ways to blame myself and others for more than just volleyball matches.
I spent years minimizing the good things about my four years of college sports instead of seeing the bigger picture – lifelong friends, a college degree and a chance to play internationally after graduation.
See, we will get good at what we practice whether that’s passing and setting volleyballs or destructive self-talk.
We have to practice being kind to our mind and that doesn’t mean lying to ourselves and puffing ourselves up. It means plugging into the process and finding improvements where we can in the midst of disappointment – and, like, that’s hard.
So, do this for me. Commit to improving your post-match and post-practice thoughts.
Ask yourself questions instead of polarizing the experience of good or bad. Ask yourself “what did I do well today, where can I improve next time? What would I like to see/do next time I’m on the court?”
Then go out and do it.
Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury, The CrossFit Games and OPEX Fitness. She was an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, NCAA statistical leader, SEC Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played on the US National Team and enjoyed a bit of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She is married with two children and currently coaches high school beach and indoor volleyball. While mindset is certainly a passion of hers, she still believes in good old-fashioned hard work, strength and conditioning and laying it all out on the line when you get your opportunity.
For more information on CHICKEN AND BROCCOLI thinking, see:
Mindset, Carol Dweck; Capacity, Chris Johnson & Matt Johnson; Integrity, Henry Cloud