Positive Attributions

February 13, 2016 Jon Roy

Attributions and Reflections

Using language to your advantage in your appraisal of “what just happened”

Juniors playing - 980x400

Our core programs have been evolving nicely through these winter months, and we are beginning to see a shift in the tone of our training to more and more sport psychology themes.  So after three months of deliberate skill development in our technical and physical pillars, we are seeing many of the players shift their focus towards the concepts of creating ideal states for performance and execution.  It’s so nice to be able to get so many hours of the hard work on technique and physique done in the quiet months of the winter where nobody needs to worry about big events and double bogeys.  And now we can start to talk about topics that are critical for optimizing performance but that aren’t focused on the classic “is my swing good?”

We’ve also been reading some cool books lately, and one in particular has been most interesting in terms of our training sessions: “Bring Your A Game – a young athlete’s guide to mental toughness” by Jennifer Etnier, who is a professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.   In this book, her aim is to provide a useful study of core themes in sport psychology and present them in a way that speaks to young athletes.  But coaches and parents can also derive some very useful advice from the work, and our view has always been that athletes, coaches and parents must all work from the same page in order to have the best support for our athletes.

“After a good performance you should use language and attributions that will contribute to your confidence in your ability to play well and that will suggest that future successes are likely and in your control”  Jennifer Etnier

The book covers lots of material, and does so in a way which offers templates and worksheets for an athlete (or coach) to process as they get through the material.   Moving from theme to theme, Etnier layers the information nicely – in ways which can easily be digested by the reader.  It reads like a workbook of key mental game skills and presents compelling arguments for the need to train mental game skills with at the least the same attention we give to the other pillars.  What is nice is that it not only makes the case for training the mental skills, but also provides useful worksheets and advice on how to “take action”.

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One section in particular has been keeping our minds going here at GPC headquarters, and this is in chapter 9, where Etnier presents the concept of “Attributions” – a term sport psychologists use to describe how an athlete describes the outcome of a given event.  Anyone who has stood near a leaderboard or scoring tent at a junior competitive event can attest that the majority of attributions we hear from a young athlete’s mouth is largely negative and self deprecating – a series of “I can’t believe I three putted X times”, or “I totally choked the last holes”, and so on…When young athletes tend to describe how the event went they tend to use very negative language.

Negative attributions are a problem because if you use them with regularity you can’t help but deflate your self-confidence.  The way in which we reflect on the round or practice that just happened will have an impact on all of your successive rounds or practices – and so you must be careful with the type of language and the tone you use when reflecting on a performance or outcome.  And this is great advice not only for athletes, but for the coaches, peers, and parents to whom most of these words will be directed.  As we support an athlete, we can help them by steering their reflections towards more positive and productive language.

Etnier’s book runs parallel to the oft-quoted work of Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor whose work entitled “Mindset” caused quite a stir in the performance world by dividing types of people into either “fixed” or “growth” mindsets.  The fixed mindsets see themselves as finite and complete – destined to be who they are forever (i.e “I’m just a bad chipper“).  The growth mindsets are open to the fact that they are constantly evolving and developing.  In Dweck’s work, the conclusion is that as parents and coaches we are best served to frame feedback in a way which nurtures a growth mindset and should avoid saying things that would contribute to a fixed mindset.    For example, it would be better to say something like “wow,  I’m proud of how you really worked hard today” rather than saying something like “wow you are so good“.  The reason is that the former statement gives the athlete confidence about a process (working hard) that if they repeat will help them grow and develop.  The latter statement, however, is a dangerous piece of feedback which may set an athlete up for difficulties because if ever they aren’t playing well they will feel the added pressure of not being “so good”.  In many cases, athletes who are fixed will avoid situations where they may be exposed for not being “so good”…

But back to Etnier and attributions: 

The key action that an athlete can take is to make more positive attributions when performance is solid or excellent.  An athlete must acknowledge and take credit for the skills that they have performed well.  It nice to be humble, but if you play well and perform well its important to take credit as this will really help to inflate your self-confidence.   In this humbling sport we all love, we haven’t met many young players that wouldn’t benefit from increasing their confidence and self-belief.  So the message is that by using attributions that take credit for a good performance and to relate them to a good process (“I worked really hard to prepare for this“) as opposed to calling it luck or chance, we set ourselves up with more confidence and a belief that future performances will go well too.

And then as you reflect on what may be a poor performance, the key is to speak about the facts and controllable processes that may have failed,  – you might say “my stroke was off on shorter putts” or “I wasn’t able to focus when I needed to“.  You try to speak in ways which acknowledge the negative results, but in constructive ways – ways that can be acted upon.  You acknowledge the errors you made in such a way that offers a way to be better next time.  The opposite is to use negative attributions –  terms like “I’m such a choker“, or “I just can’t chip“.   When we phrase our reactions in this way we set ourselves up for bruised confidence and we start to believe that the errors might in some way be permanent – some demon or flaw that will repeat itself forever.  The epitome of a fixed mindset.

“It is critically important that you protect your self-confidence by attributing losses to things that you can improve on and to things that are not part of you, and by attributing successes to things that you can control and that are part of yo
u” Jennifer Etnier

It’s always cool how a good read inevitably provides a kernel of thought that expands in the mind of the reader and then subsequently is transmitted to his or her circle of influence.  In our case, we continue to be fascinated with the study of how performance and emotional state interact, and particularly how we speak and reflect on our practice and performance.  And this has become a touchstone topic in our winter coaching programs.   We encourage athletes, parents and peers to help each other to optimize performance by choosing words and reactions more carefully the next time you reflect on a practice session or a performance.  If nothing else it will help us all to become more growth oriented and will help to inflate our self-belief.

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