Barking up the Right Tree & A Case Study on Hustle


coaches corner

Parents (myself included sometimes) and coaches often have the wrong idea about the roots of an athletes perfromance problems. I call it barking up the wrong tree. When coach’s and/or parent’s athletic expectations aren’t met, they create a narrative to explain the lack of performance. They use their own perceptions, assumptions, and biases to define the problem.

A Case Study

An elite athlete came to see me at my sport and performance psychology practice because his parents said he doesn’t “hustle.” He performs well in practice, but in the game, he comes up short repeatedly. Parents (and coaches) want to find solutions and solve problems, so they get to work assigning a narrative to explain what’s happening.

For this athlete, the parents see what they think is a lack of effort and motivation. The dad has a relationship with the concept of hustle, based on his own high-level experience in the same sport. Viola, the problem must be a lack of hustle.

I asked the athlete about the difference in performance between practice and the game. He clearly articulated that he was afraid of making mistakes and getting pulled from the game. This caused his performance to suffer because he was playing safe, pulling back and tightening up.

The problem was never hustle. It was always avoidance and timidity based on performance-based fear. No one asked the athlete what was going on. His dad perceived the problem through his own athletic experience and applied it to the athlete.

For this young man, all the work on hustle has lead to confusion, a growing belief in his system he doesn’t hustle, and degraded performance overall. All his effort, the conversations on the car ride home, and focus of work, are on the false narrative the parents assigned to the situation. There was no focus on what really needs the work. This is an example of barking up the wrong tree at its finest.

We worked through this fear and anxiety about making mistakes and being benched. He learned about mental toughness, created a repeatable routine, and resetting after every play. Hustle took care of itself.

Kind regards, Dr. J

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