Struggle Well!

Many of us struggle with controlling our emotions until we can come to a more rational understanding of how we handle unsuccessful situations. Once in a while, this process leads to a discovery that can shape our lives.

Recently, I had a young player come off the field noticeably disappointed in his play. As he approached the bench, everyone on the sideline could see the emotion on his face and in his body language. As he got closer to the bench he yelled, “I suck. I can’t believe how awful I am playing.”

It immediately reminded me of a time in college when I came off a shift in a hockey game where I failed to make a play that I expected to make. I distinctly remember saying, “I suck” loud enough for my coach and teammates to hear. Perhaps I remember it so well because of my coach’s immediate reaction which caused me to pause.

Coach Bill Greer said sharply, “Phil, don’t make a habit of saying that. I get it, you didn’t make the play, but it is damaging to say that to yourself, find a better way to get through it, we are counting on you”.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was probably the first time a coach ever helped me work through a mental challenge. I half-smiled reflecting on what I would have expected to hear from my former coaches. (“I agree, that did suck. Get your sh** together.” or something along those lines”)

But hearing Coach Greer’s unique approach caused me to reflect on why we say we suck in the first place.

Here are 3 reasons I believe we say “I suck”:

1. We care and have expectations for how we play and that emotion is the first one to come out.
2. We want our teammates to see that we are aware of the letdown and that we are holding ourselves accountable.
3. We are essentially apologizing and hoping our teammates can forgive the mistake.

More than anything I think we are saying I am hard on myself so you don’t have to be.

In order to say something negative about your play, you have to first believe the opposite to be true. If we didn’t believe that we were capable, then making a failing play would just be the norm. Since we know we have the ability, we often make negative comments about ourselves as motivation to focus and make the next play. Coach Greer, understood that and was telling me to find a better way to get through it.

When my player reached the sideline, I quickly decided the strategy I would use to help him through his emotion.

“I get it, take a second to calm down. Let’s take a 10-foot walk down and back. On the way down, I want you to tell me everything that you’re feeling and what is causing you to say “I suck”.

His emotion about his physical play came out like this:

I am having a terrible game. I keep dropping the ball and every time I dodge the defender takes the ball away. I suck today and it is embarrassing.

At the end of the 10 feet I said okay I understand that however, consider this:

As far as I can tell you own the “I suck” story already. So if you get in the car right now that’s what you’ll have to work through by yourself. I suggest you work to change the story while there is still time left in the game and you have your teammates to support you.

We are going to walk back now. This time I want you to tell me what it is like when you are having the game of your life.

He smiled and preceded to tell me that he is dodging and beating his man and getting shots on goal.

He is running down the defense on the clears and he is making great passes offensively.

He is making a difference in the game.

I couldn’t help but smile.

“ I like that, It sounds to me like you have a plan for the second half and I know your team would love to see you play like that.”

Before I put him back on the field, I asked him a final question.

If I was your teammate and I made some plays that I wasn’t happy with, perhaps I dropped a couple passes and didn’t beat my man, would you tell me I suck?

“Of course not”, he said. “It wouldn’t be helpful and we are a team.”

“That’s right”, I shot back, “good teammates trust each other. Consider treating yourself with the same respect you would offer the rest of us. Now get back out there – we are counting on you.”

He went out in the second half and scored 3 goals. Before he left the field I asked him how he liked his story now?

“I like it a lot better”, he said with a huge grin.

I nodded my head.

“So did we. You struggled well!

This is a case of de-motivating oneself with negative self-talk which is more common for younger athletes. I often refer to that as clicking your own button “off”. All I did was show him a way to click it back “on”. (More to come on that in my next blog)

A Better Way

The best apologies come with an action plan. If you have worked hard all season, given everything to the team, and inspired others to do the same, you will rightfully earn the trust of your teammates. That trust is a safety net that allows us to try new things and stretch our abilities without the fear of crashing. So, if you make a mistake while giving your best to the team, brush it off and show them you are committed to making the right play next time.

If you see a teammate struggling, be someone they can count on to help them through the struggle so they can quickly move on to the next play.

As coaches and parents, I think we can make major strides in helping our players and children work through challenges and disappointment. These are huge learning opportunities for them but we often miss them. We tend to focus on trying to eliminate those situations so they can avoid the emotion of them. I believe we can have more of a lasting impact by letting them struggle and by helping them create better strategies to work through their emotion.

Struggle Well.

Phil McCarthy

36 thoughts on “Struggle Well!”

  1. Phil, excellent, real world example of the impact of positive coaching can have on the development of an athlete albeit a youth hockey player or even college player. And certainly a reaction that many of us experienced ourselves way too many years ago.

    Curious of the opposite situation when the athlete is struggling, but blames his teammates. Recently, I watched a youth basketball game where the point guard blamed his teammates for playing badly and not passing to him – because he was always open, of course. His coach/father knows he can be a poor teammate, but attributes it to him being too competitive. Unfortunately the bad behavior is rewarded by continuing to start him. Any suggestions on how a coach should deal with this type of struggle?

    1. Dave, Thank you for reading this and trusting me with your question. Let me attempt to approach this from his father/coach’s perspective.
      First, It is not easy to coach your own kid. Not because of the bias of playing time, we should be able to navigate through that quickly, but because we represent something different to our kids. They want/expect our unconditional love, respect, and admiration as a parent and that is something that is earned in a player- coach relationship. So, his dad knows better. He wants both short and long-term rewards for his son but he is not allowing his son to struggle. If he can identify that his needs work being a better teammate than he should use the sport to teach that. I just read an article that I want you to share with him. When you are done reading it you will agree that he is “widening the plate for his son.” He is changing the rules or the set of values that set the standard for his team. He could allow his son to feel the disappointment of not starting and let him struggle with that. When his son is ready he will ask why he didn’t start and his dad can teach him the value of team and self-awareness.

      I hope that helps.


    1. Sanny, thank you! I appreciate it. I am working on a couple of new ones now. Please give me your feedback if you read them.

      I am grateful that you shared that.


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    1. Thank you for reading this. And thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I apopreciate that.

      Stay Positive. Stay Motivated. Stay Learning. Stay in the Moment looking forward.

      Phil McCarthy

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