For an athlete to reach his/her peak, they have to learn how to deal with pressure, and how to flourish, in spite of it. In this week's edition of "Coach's Corner", UL co-head softball coach Michael Lotief talks about pressure, and how to deal with it, with his "Getting Rid Of Weeds & Dealing With Butterflies" blog. View this week's segment, below.

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Getting Rid of Weeds & Dealing with Butterflies:

Part of taking risks entails dealing with pressure; the greater the risks then the greater the pressures.  But IMO, the deeper experiences in life are found where risks and pressures are significantly involved.

My yard is a wooded lot.  I’ve tried everything to get the “good stuff” (St. Augustine grass) to grow.  And likewise, I’ve tried everything, to get rid of the “bad stuff” (those pesky weeds) that tends to overtake the lawn.  Isn't it amazing how you never have to water your weeds or nurture them and they still grow like crazy?  In fact, you try everything to get rid of the weeds – mowing them, weed eater, spraying them with “weed be gone” or round up, and pulling them out from the roots.  No matter what, it seems like the weeds continue to spread and are invasive of the good stuff.  One of my favorite things to do when weeding the garden is watching the BUTTERFLIES – I love their majestic colors and how artistically and effortlessly they move.  While doing my butterfly watching and weeding, I have a problem trying to distinguish the weeds from the plants – IOW, the good from the bad; all too often, I just pull everything out.  Working in the garden is just like ATHLETICS – you have to continuously get rid of the “bad stuff” (weeds or the negative feelings); you have to work really hard to develop the talents of your team just like getting the “good grass” to grow – water it consistently, fertilize it, mow it regularly, and continue to plant “PLUGS” so it can spread, and after years invested in getting better, you still have to work at it; and lastly, being able to distinguish between what is a weed (bad, negative emotion) and what is the “good stuff” (butterflies).

We all have weeds in our life. These weeds can be self-limiting beliefs, negative thoughts and emotions, whining (self-pity), focusing on our problems rather than searching for solutions, blaming others, being apathetic, listening to the naysayers, etc.  I want to specifically address PRESSURE (butterflies) and PERFORMANCE ANXIIETY.  Just like weeds in the garden, it is hard to tell the difference between pressure and performance anxiety.  Which one is a weed that needs to be pulled and which one needs to be nurtured and left in the garden to grow?  PRESSURE IS ALL ABOUT PERCEPTION.  BAD performance anxiety or BAD pressure is when we are worried about the outcome.  We are afraid to fail (fear of failure) or we do not want to look bad in front of others or we are overly concerned about what others think (shame in your performance) or we do not want to disappoint someone other than ourselves, i.e. our teammates or parents (lack of acceptance).  GOOD pressure or performance anxiety (BUTTERFLIES) is that feeling of anticipation; you are ready to go; you have prepared and you know that your performance MATTERS and the event is significant and you want to do you very best and your emotions are AROUSED TO AN OPTIMAL LEVEL SO YOU FEEL THE BUTTERFLIES. Good pressure is an adrenaline rush, an extra source of energy, and an emotion that fully engages you in the moment and keeps you sharp and focused.  So, I guess when it comes down to it: PRESSURE is not really the problem itself, BUT it is OUR INTERPRETATION OF IT.  PRESSURE IS ALL ABOUT OUR PERCEPTIONS.  Do we interpret and perceive pressure as exhilarating energy or is it a debilitating stress?  Do you think pressure is an emotion that can be used to support your performance or do you interpret it as a sign of fear?  We can either use the pressure of the situation to energize us and make us feel completely alive or we can worry that the feelings of pressure will make us choke.

The challenge is NOT to get rid of the feelings of pressure but to THINK about “IT” or perceive IT in a positive way.  One example of proper thinking and perception would be to get the athlete to focus their minds on their preparation instead of spending a lot of time worrying about the opponent.  Another example would be to ask the athletes to apply themselves to the task at hand versus spending too much emotional or mental energy thinking about the outcomes and results and consequences.  Lastly, the athlete should be the one who determines whether their performances are successful or not.  Do not worry about what somebody else thinks of you or your performance.  Your effort and attitude are what you control and should be the measure of your performance versus the box score or your stat line or your record or your batting average or what somebody says about you in a fan forum or blog.  

Worries, fears, imperatives (“I have to”, “or else”, “must win”,” this is a big game”) are negative pressures that should be avoided.  “If we don’t win this game, we are through”.  “We need a sense of urgency to get this turned around”.  “This is the biggest game of the year”.  These are dangerous pressures that should be avoided and weeds that need to be pulled.  Avoid making distinctions between one event and another.  Athletes should not plan to TRY harder because this game “really matters”.  The athlete’s approach should be consistent – continue to prepare and perform day by day.  Do not entertain a win-or-else approach.  Having a sense of urgency by giving special meaning to an upcoming game is usually counterproductive.  The athlete is better served by staying focused on her preparation and continuing to do what is appropriate to accomplish the task at hand– let the outside world and the naysayers “talk up” the upcoming BIG game.  Every game should matter; the goal is to always focus with intensity on this moment.

PRESSURE IS A PERCEPTION.  One athlete can perceive a situation as THREATENING (fear of failure, worried about a bad perfomance and what other people will think) and the other athlete can perceive the SAME environment and circumstance as an exciting CHALLENGE (an opportunity to have a great at bat or an opportunity to throw an amazing riseball or an chance to prove that you can still perform at a high level).  It’s the perception of the athlete that causes the reaction; it’s the interpretation of the mind that invokes the body’s response.  An athlete’s reality is what SHE BELIEVES IT TO BE.

I will never forget my first JURY TRIAL.  I was sooooo prepared – I had memorized my opening statement to the jury, I had even practiced when I was going to take off my glasses and when I was going to pace; my exhibits were awesome; I bought a brand new suit and tie; I was so ready.  Perry Mason look out!  And then, the moment came.  My palms became sweaty, what little saliva I had in my mouth was gone, my leg began to shake and I felt a tingling down my leg that felt so real that I had to look down to see if I had wet my pants.  There was a knot in my stomach.  My heart began to race and my breathing became shallow.  I kept telling myself, “RELAX.  You are ready”.  But the truth was, I was SCARED TO DEATH.  At the moment of truth, my thoughts were:  FEAR and WORRY and WHAT IF and DON’T LET YOUR CLIENT DOWN.  I remember the Judge saying,  “Mr. Lotief, you may proceed”.  As I stood up, I said, “May it please the Court.  My name is ------- (long pause).  My name is – uh, uh.  My name is ---“.  I had forgotten my name.  Thankfully, the Judge intervened and asked, “Counselor, we are going to take a 5 minute recess”.  I was thinking more like a 5 hour recess, but I smiled and shook my head, yes.  I was stuck in the “weeds” and I had 5 minutes to find my way out!

Those 5 minutes were a life-saver.  I got to REFLECT and ASK WHY?  Why is your stomach in knots?  Why don’t you believe in yourself?  Why do you feel intimidated?  Why is your opponent in your grill?  Then, I flipped the questions, why should you be confident?  Are you prepared?  Do you believe you will get it done in the CLUTCH?  Why do you deserve to be here at this KEY MOMENT?  Now, YOU DECIDE what you want your thoughts to be.  Control the CONTROLLABLES – focus on just MY WORDS AND MY PRESENTATION (one sentence at a time) or sit there like a dork with my leg shaking worrying about stupid stuff I had no control over.   

After the recess, I was able to compose myself and present my opening statement.  COURAGE is not the absence of FEAR, but the ability to carry on in spite of it (Mark Twain).  It went perfectly, just as I had practiced it.  After the trial, one of the jurors told me that she could tell that “my heart was into it” and that I “genuinely cared” about my client, and maybe that is why they awarded the verdict in my client’s favor.  Through my weakness, I connected to her.

I learned from that first trial, and went on to try over 30 more trials and eventually argue a case before the 5th Circuit.  The SAME PRESSURE I felt in that very first trial was there for every one of them thereafter; and I would hope that if I ever try another one, that I would feel those same butterflies (just maybe not the feeling of wetting my pants though).  The difference from the 1st trial to the next was that I was able to interpret and perceive the pressure in a positive way, and eventually learn to use the emotion to aid in my performance.  The choice is ours:  see the PRESSURE as a friendly butterfly (energy that can boost your performance); OR perceive it as invasive weed (debilitating stress).    

We all are on a continuous journey to develop the mental skills to be able to control our emotions – whether you are a trial lawyer or an athlete or a small business owner or a coach or whatever.  We all labor daily to develop the mental skills to be confident.  We all are tying to get better at the ability to focus on just the task at hand.  We all continue to search for ways to calm our fears. To combat negative thinking.  To solidify our confidence so we can be at our best during clutch moments.

What happens when you feel the enormity of the moment and your “thoughts” are that your SELF-WORTH depend on your performance (it’s ALL ON ME).  If you put all the pressure on you; and perceive the pressure as being outcome based, your are setting yourself up for failure.  When in an unfamiliar environment or when accepting a new challenge for the FIRST time, you become nervous and fearful about the unexpected (WHAT IF), you probably will choke (McIIroy at the Masters last week).  If you criticize yourself for not having enough power to be confident and trust in your preparation, you will feel weak and powerless.  To reduce pressure on yourself, “control the controllables” and focus on the task at hand ONLY!

Winning, looking good to others, having a peak performance, and being confident are lovely desires, but they are NOT necessary (needs) for us to accept ourselves and are not the important measures of our success.  If we could control winning, then guess what – I guarantee you, we would always win. If you could control your performance, you would always be on your ‘A’ game. If you could control your feelings, you’d always feel confident, happy, and optimistic.  When you realize you don’t need any of these things to accept yourself, you can relax and then focus on the things that really matter.

As long as you criticize your fear of failure or you let others’ reaction to the results of your performance affect your self-acceptance, you will NOT get to your good feelings of confidence.  Telling yourself, “I can’t be anxious today” or chastising yourself for being afraid or worried before a game is criticizing yourself for having normal emotions.  Ask yourself, “Is the tension inside of you created by your performance anxiety (worried about an outcome)?”  Then it is a WEED.  Is the tension created by your self-criticism of yourself over your anxiety?  WEED.  Or is the feeling in your gut just making sure you are mentally ready to go?  A BUTTERFLY checking out your garden.  It’s always a good thing in pressure situations to be able to reflect rationally and ASK WHY and figure out the source of emotion? 

When you tell yourself you are a great athlete, this is self-praise. When you tell yourself you are mentally ready, this is self-praise. When you tell yourself that you have worked hard and you are prepared, that is self-praise.  When you can articulate why you deserve to be in this KEY moment and the KEY time, then you are ready.  If, on the other hand, you are busy telling yourself that your mental state is wrong, how do you imagine you will be able to start praising yourself?  It’s impossible. Self-praise cannot start until self-criticism ends. 

Fear, self-doubt, and performance anxiety are normal and do not have to be a problem.  Become aware of your self-criticism (weed) and then try to quiet the inner critic as you continue to invest in your own growth and the beautification of your garden.  Welcome the negative thoughts because they are there for everybody and will pop up at anytime – so we need to learn how to deal with it.  No matter how hard any of us try, we cannot eliminate that demon voice inside our heads – it’s there.  At the worst possible moment, you get the feeling of “I’m nervous” or your demon voice says, “You are going to lose”.  Recognize it and detect when your self-talk is negative or tentative.  Admit it.  Then OVERCOME IT by a deep breathe; bring in feelings of solid preparation and memories of successful performances in the past; have positive, inner voice AFFIRMATIONS to repeat to yourself; replace the negative thoughts with expressions of gratitude (you cannot be stressed and thankful at the same time). And lastly, if you can remember one or two positives from any and all of your pursuits, you will approach the next pursuit with more and more confidence.  It’s hard to totally overlook mistakes, and we shouldn’t ignore them because we WILL learn from them and use them as opportunities to get better.  But as you mentally toil on this journey, you need to cling to all the success along the way – no matter how small – build on successes.

Controlling doubt under pressure makes an athlete CLUTCH!  Once you know how to handle the weeds and welcome the butterflies, your yard will become beautiful - so too will your life.  The next time you feel pressure, welcome it and embrace it and enjoy the feeling of being fully immersed in the challenges and risks of competition.  Sometimes negative pressure leads to the temptation to LOOK for “greener pastures”.  In reality, GREENER PASTURES ARE OUR OWN GARDENS.  You cannot run from your own garden nor can you hide from your own weeds.  You have to stay and learn and perform and deal with the challenges.  Tending to your garden becomes your legacy (for better or worse).  Don’t believe that in “quitting and running off” to other pastures, that you can literally leave behind YOUR WEEDS.  The better choice is to sow the seeds of your own green pastures and continue to cultivate your beautiful garden, all the while, finding solutions for the weeds and loving the butterflies. 

GEAUX CAJUNS!!!  GOOD TIMES:  Remembering Coach Beryl Shipley.  Former UL Legendary Basketball Coach from 1957 – 1973 passed away last week at the age of 84 from lung cancer.  Great articles by Kevin Foote and Bruce Brown (see the link below to read The Daily Advertiser article) that reminded us of the flavor of Coach Shipley’s personality; additionally, it is a good thing to recognize his contributions to our University and to give him credit for his successes as a coach; but most importantly, it makes you think back and put in perspective “that it was a different world in the late 60s and early 70s, especially in the Deep South for an African-American athlete”, and Coach Shipley was indeed a pioneer or a rebel or a man of courage or ahead of his time or just a decent man who believed in equal opportunity or a coach who wanted to coach and win, and the “establishment” didn’t appreciate it.  Reminds me of the movie GLORY ROAD about Coach Don Haskins who won the 1966 NCAA Championship at UTEP – same era.  Haskins made history by starting 5 African American players for the 1st time in a championship game versus the all-white Kentucky squad coached by Adolph Rupp.  Great movie.  I coached against Coach Shipley in a very competitive Biddy Basketball League; I think he was working in oil field sales and he was coaching one of his co-employee’ son; still helping out kids and loving basketball.  Once a coach, always a coach.  Rest in peace, Coach.     

Happy Easter everybody!  GEAUX CAJUNS!