Embrace the Suck



SHAQUILLE O’NEAL was one of the great pro basketball players of his generation, a giant force in the middle, a powerful scorer and rebounder.

But he could barely hit half of his free throw attempts.

Greg Norman, generally regarded as the No. 1 golfer in the world in the 1980s and ’90s, had a maddening string of Sunday collapses after leading major tournaments through the first three rounds – most famously blowing a six-stroke lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters.

Jim Thorpe, a century ago acknowledged as “the world’s greatest athlete,” saw his professional baseball career scuttled by his inability to hit the curveball.

Often, these odd blips in an athlete’s performance are written off as “he just can’t . . .” Maybe the athlete himself accepts that “I’m just not good at it.” And, if the athlete is otherwise good enough at most other aspects of his game, this one particular weakness is acknowledged, almost in acceptance mode, as “well, nobody’s perfect.”

But why could Tim Duncan, another big man of similar stature to O’Neal, hit his free throws at a much higher percentage?

Why could Jack Nicklaus gobble up the fourth rounds of major tournaments when Norman so often failed?

Why could Honus Wagner, on the surface a far less athletic-looking contemporary, hit curveballs with the success that eluded Thorpe?

“The inability to perform, even among otherwise-gifted individuals, is an insidious problem,” said Dr. Vanessa Shannon, director of mental performance at Norton Sports Health. “But it’s largely misunderstood, especially by the individuals themselves.”

Norton Sports Health is a department of specialists within Norton Healthcare who are trained and certified in dealing with sports-related injuries and conditions. Shannon (who also holds the same title with the University of Louisville athletics department) has a Ph.D. in sport psychology. The athletes she works with, both at Norton and at UofL, are not dealing with fractures of bones. They’re dealing with fractures of confidence. Most athletes, she said, take exactly the wrong approach to poor performance. (The same could be said for most anyone in any walk of life.) “On a basic level, the way that we think affects the way that we feel and act,” Shannon said. “My job is to help athletes determine what things to think about, and how they need to feel in order to perform their best.” Take the case of O’Neal, so futile a free throw shooter that other teams adopted the “Hack-a-Shaq” defense to foul him before he could get his shots up. He hit his field goal attempts – when he was contested, jostled, pushed, blocked and obstructed – at better than 58 percent. But standing alone at the free throw line, taking his time with nobody’s hand in his face, he shot under 53 percent. How much bigger a force he could have been if he’d made opposing teams pay for fouling him. “A player struggling with his free throw shots – or any other aspect of his game – will start to think, ‘I’m just not good at it. I don’t do it well,’ ” said Shannon. “That’s a fixed way of thinking that will likely make him feel anxious and nervous, and therefore even less effective. “Whereas, if he were able to say to himself, ‘I’m not a great free throw shooter yet, I still need to work on my free throws,’ it will give him the perception of feeling in control, of feeling autonomous and competent.” Shannon points out that free throw shooting is not a genetic trait nor an inherent skill, it’s something you learn and develop over time. “So, I would argue that people who say they’re not good free throw shooters haven’t worked at it enough. Technique can be changed and performance can be improved.” She said that other people passing it all off as “he’s just not a good free throw shooter” allows the athlete himself to have the mindset that gets him out of an uncomfortable situation. “People play into stereotypes about themselves: ‘I’m not a good free throw shooter, I’m uncomfortable shooting them, but I’m super good at other things.’ It’s way more comfortable for people to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. “Accepting that he’s bad at it perpetuates his not working at it, which further perpetuates his bad shooting.”

Dr. Vanessa Shannon, Director of Mental Performance at UofL Athletics/Norton Sports Health.

Dr. Vanessa Shannon, Director of Mental Performance at UofL Athletics/Norton Sports Health.

Shannon’s approach is not limited to athletics. People have crises of confidence all the time, throughout their lives – in school, in the office, on the plant floor, in social situations, in family situations. For example, Greg Norman’s Sunday golf miseries may be similar to a student’s everyday test anxieties. They just become convinced in their heads not that they’ll fail, but that they’ll feel pressures that will keep them from concentrating and detract from their performances. And then the failure will reassure them that they were right to be anxious. “Many people experiencing nervousness about an upcoming test become so anxious that they don’t prepare or don’t know how to prepare,” said Shannon. “Why not study for the test, if taking the test will make you nervous? Because studying itself makes them nervous. The mere thought of the test makes them anxious, and they don’t want to feel anxious. Which, of course, makes them twice as anxious at the test.”

Dr. Vanessa Shannon, Director of Mental Performance at UofL Athletics/Norton Sports Health.

The problem with training and preparation – for athletes and, likely, for other high-performers in business, medicine, law, music and almost every other professional pursuit – “is that we’re in a talent-based society,” said Shannon, “with everyone telling the youngster how great he or she is. As a result, many high-performers don’t attribute their success to training and preparation, they attribute it to just being good at it.” Jim Thorpe, for example, probably never tried a sport he wasn’t immediately perfect at. “And when ‘perfect’ becomes the expectation, we all fear failure. It’s inevitable.” Forget, for a moment, the professional athlete. Let’s look at the weekend athlete who goes into a gym to work out, to lose some weight. “So, the person joins the gym and tries a few things, which makes him sore,” said Shannon. “He assumes he’s doing something incorrectly and quits the gym, because he doesn’t want to be bad at it – or he doesn’t know how to be good at it.” Why not ask for help? Because, she said, a foundational tenet of our mindset is not wanting to appear insufficient. “We have a tendency, called social desirability, to portray a picture of ourselves that’s desirable to others around us.” This tendency to portray a false picture of ourselves – confident, capable, self-sufficient – can be applied to every challenge in our lives. “Nobody goes to work and says, out loud, ‘I’m not real confident.’ Everybody goes to work acting confident, regardless of whether or not he or she is. The problem is, someone should have told them, ‘When I started, I wasn’t real confident, either. Confidence comes from preparation and experience, training and successes. You’re new. How could someone new have as much confidence?’

Dr. Vanessa Shannon, Director of Mental Performance at UofL Athletics/Norton Sports Health.

“Now that person,” said Shannon, “will understand that success takes time and patience. And that the boss or supervisor has patience, too. Instead, we all feel the need to act confident, so we don’t ask questions or ask for help, and that sort of guarantees that we won’t succeed.” The problem can begin early in life. Parents, probably the ones with the most early influence, have the opportunity to expect occasional failures instead of demanding immediate success. But, said Shannon, “it could also be a teacher saying ‘It’s OK that you’re struggling, this is supposed to be difficult.’ Or it could be a coach or anyone who interacts with the child. Allow for discomfort, praise the work but help the child understand the struggle, that it’s part of the process.” There’s a saying in the military, said Shannon: Embrace the suck! “It challenges soldiers to attack the work, accept the difficulty as a part of getting stronger and better at it.”

screen-shot-2017-07-05-at-9-48-07-pmBut it applies to any time in life that you’re forced to learn a new skill. Like a middle-aged person who decides on a career change. “Every time there’s an expectation to perform, we can assume some of it will be uncomfortable. And that’s not a bad thing as long as we accept that it’s part of the process. “Too often, when we get uncomfortable, we quit, because we assume something may be wrong with us.” Instead, she said, an athlete learning a new skill or an executive changing careers should know the challenge will likely lead to some discomfort, and there might be times when they doubt themselves or worry that they can’t do it. “But it’s at that point when they should say, ‘OK, I knew this was going to happen and I’m going to embrace it. I’ll be ready for the suck, I’ll embrace it, I’ll attack it, and I’ll know that the suck will be what makes me better on the other end.”



Such is the case for America’s Pastime. Long ago declared dead – or at least dying – the sport of baseball is currently undergoing an incredible renaissance (and the Louisville and Southern Indiana area are a perfect example of the new hip-ness of this American original, but more on that in a minute).

First the stats: The Sports & Fitness Industry

Association’s new report shows baseball and softball combined to rank as the most participated team sport for 2016. Not football, not basketball, not soccer – baseball and softball. In fact, baseball/softball saw growth in participation rates over one-, three- and five- year periods in a time when most sports are seeing falling numbers since 2009. “The narrative that you hear is, ‘Decline, decline, decline,’” said Tony Reagins, Major League Baseball’s senior vice-president for youth programs. “To see the numbers where they are, it’s really exciting. And we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re going to keep pushing and try to get more kids playing.” Baseball and softball showed an average annual growth of 6.5 percent over the last five years and an 18.1 percent jump from 2015 to 2016. Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, told Fox Sports recently, “If we got one year of 18 percent, we’d think, ‘There’s something weird about that. That’s odd, not in sync with other team sports.’ But when you see a three-year average that was strong and a one-year average all trending in the same way, all growing, then that’s when you analyze that something is going on here. It seems to be gaining momentum.” Gaining momentum? Baseball? It is happening. Let’s look at our local area. The Great Lakes Region of Little League Baseball includes Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Teams from Kentucky or Indiana have won the Great Lakes Region and advanced to the Little League World Series 11 times since 2001, including the famous Valley Sports team in 2002, Jeffersonville in 2008 and North Oldham in 2011. The New Albany team was awarded the title in 2014 after the Chicago team that knocked them out of the tournament was found to have fielded ineligible players. And how about softball? The Youth Softball Nationals have been held in Elizabethtown, Ky., just 45 minutes south of Louisville, the last couple of years. Teams from 40 states and five countries participated in the tournament last year. Youth softball has been strong in Kentucky and Southern Indiana for years and dozens of travel ball teams from our area are competitive nationally. The rise in youth participation is translating to high school as well. For the 2015-16 school year, the KHSAA recorded baseball as the most popular sport with 7,499 participants followed by basketball (6,716) and then track and field (7,144). On the girls’ side, softball registered 5,846 participants, trailing only volleyball (6,366) and soccer (6,016). We are seeing a rise on the collegiate level, too. The recent Super Regional between Louisville and Kentucky drew back-to-back record, capacity crowds of 6,325 fans on Friday and 6,327 fans on Saturday. In softball, both Kentucky and Louisville have been ranked in the Top 25 nationally, and UK made a Super Regional this season in softball. As more kids in the Louisville Metro area are trying and sticking with baseball, we are seeing an all-time high in local talent. Adam Duvall, from Louisville Butler High School, was a 2016 MLB All-Star for the Cincinnati Reds and participated in the 2016 Home Run Derby.

Jo Adell, from Louisville Ballard High School, was drafted No. 10 overall, the first-round pick of the Anaheim Angels in June’s MLB Draft. Drew Ellis, a Louisville Cardinal who was also on that Jeffersonville Little League team in 2008, was a collegiate All-American this season. Current MLB pros from the Louisville Metro area include Shawn Kelley, Dean Kiekhefer, Nathan Adcock, Steve Delabar, Scott Downs and Nate Jones. The new Louisville Bats logo hats are popping up all over town, and there seems to be a growing number of youth leagues who make it a habit of attending Bats games as a group. So, in both hard numbers and anecdotal evidence it is clear that baseball and softball are growing in the Louisville Metro Area and Southern Indiana.

Now the question is why? Theories abound. Baseball and softball certainly require a different kind of athletic skill necessary than say basketball or football. And size is not necessarily a hindrance for baseball and softball like it can be in basketball, football or volleyball. Perhaps the rise is due to parents looking for more summertime activities for children. Whatever the reason, local baseball and softball coaches at the high school level could see all-time highs in participation and talent level this summer as well. “This is a critical moment for baseball,” Cove said. “It’s an opportunity they haven’t seen in 10 years. If you get people touching the ball and enjoying it a little bit, then you have a better chance of capturing them.” This is an incredible turn-around considering the “How to make baseball relevant again” article was a yearly occurrence throughout the 2000s. Everything old is new again. But don’t call baseball old. Now it’s vintage.



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