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 In The Loop Issue #20 Extended Articles


March 1, 2015

The Secret Sauce for Competition Confidence Has Many Ingredients
Coaches and Skaters Who Have Mastered the Art©2014

by: Merry Neitlich, Director of the Coach’s Edge


This four-part article was based on interviews with seven elite figure skating coaches Kori Ade, Marina Zoueva, Tom Zakrajsek, Phillip Mills, Jim Peterson, Audrey Weisiger, and Yuka Sato; an elite competitor and Olympian, Paul Wylie; and two prominent and highly successful sports psychologists Dave Diggle and David Benzel. In our fourth and final installment we look at the secret ingredients for competition success from Olympian Paul Wylie and our two sports psychologists Dave Diggle and David Benzel.


One Skater’s Vantage Point

Paul Wylie’s 1992 Olympic JourneyAudrey Weisiger Continues to Amuse and Amaze
Paul Wylie is a skater of rare accomplishment and one that many of us look up to and respect. While teaching with him at the PSA Nationals Seminars in 2012 we had the chance to discuss how he learned to calm his nerves and focus on the task at hand in competition – especially for the Olympics. He laughed saying, “I was the poster child for head cases!”

Along the way Paul learned he needed a stronger plan to approach the competition season to be ready for each day of his events. He learned that building a higher and more complete level of consistency was the first thing he and his coaches needed to attack. Paul knew his learning style was very kinesthetic so he needed to repeat elements many times to get them to become automatic. This became a primary focus while training for the Albertville 1992 Olympic Winter Games.

As he prepped that season Paul also worked with a sports psychologist who helped him master the art of lowering his heart rate while under pressure. He was instructed, after placing third in the short program in Albertville, to go into his room and concentrate for 30 minutes and think of blue skies and what life would be like if he won an Olympic medal.

Paul shared lightheartedly that he spent the entire week walking around the Olympic village lowering his heart rate. During the 5-minute warm-up for his long program Paul missed both of his triple axel attempts. Evy and Mary Scotvold were with him at the boards. Evy reminded Paul, “This has happened to you in the past and you pulled it off in your program. Pass your free leg closer to your knee and do it. Let’s lower your heart rate.”

According to Paul, he had learned to master the ’arousal zone’ where a skater needs to be. For him it was a combination of noticing the adrenaline, lowering his heart rate and using that adrenaline to activate positive energy. While prepping during the week, Mary was skilled at listening to Paul talk about how he felt with absolutely no judgment. This helped lower his stress levels as the week progressed.

Paul’s ultimate success in the 1992 Olympics earned him a Silver medal which he attributes to a combination of tactics which led to one of his best performances. 

Olympian Sarah Hughes won Gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Todd Sand, along with partner Jenny Meno, won three World medals, was a three-time U.S. national champion and skated in two Olympic Games (1994, 1998).  Sarah and Todd both share the belief that their best ally to combat competition nerves was to feel completely prepared. They stockpiled many clean programs creating muscle memory and confidence to compete cleanly and strongly.


Sports Psychology Coaching Is Part of the Sauce

Dave Diggle From the Smart Mind Institute

With more than 25 years’ experience as a coach to athletes across the globe and in many athletic disciplines, Dave wishes he had known then what he knows now about pushing the right buttons – his buttons - at the right time.
As a young athlete he was completely consumed with doing more: more hours in the gym, more technical research, more conditioning - simply doing more than anyone else. And, all this “more” was an attempt to achieve his Olympic goals and beat more talented competitors to the top. Yes, he was focused, but he reports that he was also narrow-minded and, if he were to be completely honest, a little obsessed.

As his coach told him, and he grew to believe, just training harder and longer would give him the best chance of success as an athlete. And even though he did achieve many of his goals, including becoming an Olympic gymnast, he did so at an extreme physical cost.

Dave didn’t realize until he became an elite coach himself that by buying into the myth of ‘more physical equals more rewards’ he was missing the mental toughness aspect of his training which might have catapulted his success to an even higher level. Living and training with this myth as his guide merely resulted in him physically burning out and breaking down from overtraining and not learning how to manage his emotional state.

“There is unpredictability in training and competing that surfaces randomly at times of duress – namely competitions - rendering competitions as something to be feared. What I gleaned from my rollercoaster career was there had to be a smarter way of creating replicable performance success. I learned that our emotions can be our best friend or they can be our arch nemesis. So we best learn to get along with them,” Dave reports.

Dave states, “Everything we do is a combination of cognitive patterns and triggers, with the right pattern and wrong trigger we can become unstable and unable to perform. However, with the right pattern and right trigger combination we can replicate a performance anywhere, anytime – the holy grail of every competitive athlete.

“The crux of what I learned was that the smartest way, as a coach, to achieve this reliability in performance is to first understand the athlete on a mental and emotional level as well as on a personal level. Learn to recognize what makes each competitor tick. Once a coach truly understands the athlete he/she can build the athlete’s performance pattern around them personally – uncovering the right pattern and right trigger combination.”

Dave believes that part of this process is about building familiarity in performance, bringing the competition environment into the training environment in a controlled and supportive format. Dave says, “This allows coaches and their students to see competitions just like another training session and training just like another competition. We train the way we want to compete and compete the way we train.

“I believe competition shouldn’t be a highly emotional situation that either makes or breaks an athlete; it should be just part of the journey.” Dave continues, “When we think of what makes us confident it is knowing we have control over our outcomes, knowing that we have been there before. This feeling of familiarity to the environment helps create the emotion of confidence that tells us to relax, that we have this. Confidence is merely a recognized history of success.”

Dave, along with the underlying principles of the Smart Mind Institute (http://www.smartmind.com.au/), teaches the beliefs that an athlete can achieve this level of controlled confidence by:

  • Taking the time to recognize and acknowledge what is working and what they have achieved,
  • Having a reliable tailored process,
  • Creating a balance between the off time and on time, and 
  • Having perspective.

“We can become consumed by ‘skills’ and never really own our performance, however, if we understand how to trigger the right sequence of behaviors we can truly own our performance,” Dave explains. 

David Benzel

David Benzel Adds in the Parents’ Piece of Performance

David Benzel, of Growing Champions for Life (www.growingchampionsforlife.com), was a big hit when he spoke at the 2012 and 2013 PSA Conferences. His clear advice and deep knowledge of how athletes become and stay self-motivated provided PSA coaches with ready-to-use take-home knowledge. David shared great information about motivation telling us that it is an inside job for the athlete to create. During my conversation with him, David shared strategies and tips to maximize the coach/parent relationship.

David suggests that no one ever performs consistently at a level higher than what they believe is true about them.  He expounds that this is true of doctors, lawyers, janitors, lovers, and especially athletes.  David said, “What we believe about ourselves is the final filter through which all performances pass before they can become reality.  It can be the reason talented athletes underperform and less talented athletes over-perform.  For this reason the credible adults in a young skater’s life have a responsibility to help him or her improve what is believed to be true about one’s self.”

Through David’s many years of research and practical coaching he tells us that the primary influencers in this quest for confidence are coaches and parents, and while they all have honorable intentions, the skills for doing so vary greatly.  He feels that more than anyone, parents have available to them the most potent opportunities for stimulating the growth of self-confidence in a child as a fundamental character strength.  He says, “The occasions for leveraging their parental credibility in a positive way are unmatched simply because of who they are and the time spent with their children in the early years of development.  Parents hold a special place in a child’s ‘quality world’ because no one else on the planet can ever meet the true biological criteria of being Mom or Dad.  They are unique relationally and therefore extremely powerful influencers in a child’s view of themselves.  A parent’s opinion matters on the deepest emotional level.  Coaches, on the other hand, are plentiful, often focused on one area of life (skating), and most importantly they arrive on the scene part way through an unfolding story.

“In spite of their apparent advantage, most parents face the greater challenge when it comes to instilling confidence in their own children.  As ironic as it sounds, today’s performance-obsessed parents are inadvertently undermining the self-confidence of their children.  This is happening in spite of their sincere intentions to help their young athletes reach their full potential.  This may be the greatest paradox in parenting.  As parents witness the rewards of athletic success in others – Olympic fame, financial prosperity, social recognition, etc. – it becomes more and more tempting to focus on today’s outcomes.  ‘What elements have been learned?’ ‘What scores are being received?’ ‘What trophies have been won?’ ” 
David tells us that as parents become more focused on results, and less focused on the process of joyful skating for its own sake, the tendency to convey the following messages increases:

  • Concern about progress being inadequate
  • Criticalness about effort or time not being sufficient
  • Analysis of what could and should have happened
  • Disappointment in today’s results

“If it’s true that the opinion that matters most to a child is what they think their parents think of them, it’s no wonder that these subtle messages of dissatisfaction from parents gradually chip away at the very fabric of self-confidence.  The deepest essence of confidence in one’s self comes from the absolute certainty that unconditional love and total acceptance exists regardless of performance levels or accomplishments on any given day,” David rejoins. 

“What can coaches do when they suspect that their own efforts of building self-confidence on and off the ice are being subtly countered – even sabotaged -- by well-meaning and loving parents who want success for their children?  For starters, here’s what doesn’t work: ignoring the parents!  They are too powerful to ignore if you truly care about your athlete,” said David.
David believes that the answer lies in building a trusting relationship with parents to whatever degree they will participate.  Coaches who recognize that they are also in the parent education business will reap huge benefits from their efforts to get parents on the same philosophical page with them.  David believes that this requires coaches to be three things:

  • A CREDIBLE example of high moral character:  Are you the kind of person a parent wants their child to admire and one day emulate to others?  Can parents sense that you sincerely care about their child and that you can be trusted?
  • A CLEAR communicator of good information and a valuable resource:  Can parents count on you to communicate clearly and empathically about their child’s skating journey?  Are you enthusiastically optimistic about their child’s learning process and their physical, emotional and intellectual growth under your guidance?
  • A CREATIVE problem solver capable of customizing solutions to fit each skating family’s needs:  To what degree are you effective at identifying the individual needs of a young athlete and the corresponding family dynamics so that you can help parents understand the best way for them to create a positive skating family environment?

Coaches who strive to be the three things above behave differently.  They walk their talk and live by their values…all the time.  They welcome conversations with parents, although they may set boundaries about the appropriate time and place to have those conversations.  They don’t assume that every question from a parent is challenging their knowledge or authority.  They understand that a parent has a right to know what’s going on with their child.  Lastly, due to the trust they have established with parents, they are able to compassionately, but directly, advise parents of more effective ways for parents to interact with their child over skating issues in an effort to lessen a child’s anxiety or pressure.
David tells us, “The ideal tapestry of genuine confidence for any athlete will be the sum total of coordinated and cooperative efforts of coaches, parents and the athlete toward the goal.  The cornerstone for that confidence will be an athlete’s deep belief that they are worthy, and that the most important people in their life believe in them, no matter what…so they can too.”

Conclusion by Jimmie Santee
As a final word on “The Secret Sauce for Competition Confidence”, it really comes down to determination and the total preparation of the “team”, with team meaning skater, coach, and supporting professionals. In order for the skater to feel confident, the coach must nurture both the physical and emotional needs. One common thread throughout this series is that these successful coaches are extremely good understanding each individual skater’s current and future needs. As the model goes, it’s athlete centered, coach driven. A second common thread is training as you would compete to compete like you train.  There are no shortcuts. To achieve and sustain competitive excellence it takes constant focus, effort, and desire by all involved.


This four-part article about competition confidence was written by Merry Neitlich, Director of the Coach’s




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