A Must Read For All Coaches Who May Have a Self-Doubting Athlete
Choice Theory and the Self-Doubting Athlete
Glasser Canada E-bulletin Spring Vol. 2 2017
By Francesco “Frenchie” Bazzocchi
Today, I would like to focus my article on how to best deal with a self-doubting
athlete. In the coaching setting, I often deal with players who begin to question their
confidence, which slowly strips away their enjoyment of the game and, unfortunately, their self-worth. Prior to learning Choice Theory, as a coach, I would often let the athlete ‘figure it out’ by him/herself. This was not great coaching because I was not providing any feedback and, indirectly, hurting both the athlete and the performance of the team as a whole. As a coach, faced with these situations, I believe it is very prudent to learn how Choice Theory, Lead Management and Reality Therapy assist in leading the athlete to change his/her paradigm and help to build self-confidence.
The athlete I will be discussing is a hockey player I will refer to as Paul. Paul has great skills and performs above average in practice but, when faced with game situations, he performs below expectations. Paul is 17 years old and plays Prep Hockey. He has aspirations of moving on to a College Scholarship; however, if Paul continues to perform below his potential, he will not meet his goal. When I ask Paul why he is not playing to his expectations, he is not able to articulate an answer.
Paul is upset about his game performance and the coaches have decided it is time to have a serious chat with him. Choice Theory and Paul I set up a meeting with Paul to seek more information and see if I can help him achieve his goal. My first interest is to find out what is happening between the practice session and the game.
I begin by asking Paul how he prepares for practice (get an idea of his quality world pictures through the exploration of Total Behaviour) by asking him:
• What are you doing to prepare?
• What are you thinking about before practice?
• What do you feel?”
• How would you describe your physiology going into a practice?
He tells me…
• That he goes through his regular warm up, stretches and prepares all his
• Paul says he loves practice because he can relax and be with his friends
(Feeling, Love and Belonging).
• He thinks about scoring and making great plays, (Thinking) and feels good and
happy to be a part of the team (Feeling).
• In addition, he mentions that he has a lot of energy going into practice
It is safe to say that in preparing for practice, Paul is in balance because he appears to be going in the direction he wants (QWP of Great Practice Round) to go! His ‘total behaviour’ supports the direction he is taking. Essentially, Paul is in more effective control. I then ask Paul the exact same questions about how he prepares for games and, in this case, I observe a slightly different view of what he really wants (Quality World pictures.)
It appears that, when faced with competition, Paul is very much out of balance and is
in less effective control. He reveals that, before a game, he is very nervous (Feeling)
but does not know why; I think that Paul does know but it will take some time to get
him to verbalize why he feels nervous. Once he becomes more knowledgeable of
Choice Theory, he will be able to understand better, why and how he behaves.
I ask Paul what he thinks before the game. Here Paul tells me that he thinks about
making mistakes or that, perhaps, he is not as good as the other players (Thinking). He also adds that he does not want to disappoint his father or his coaches (Relationship). I then aim to see what he feels when he experiences those thoughts .He responds by saying: “I get a funny feeling in my stomach (Feeling) and I have low energy (Physiology).” I ask him what his ideal performance would look like in a game: “What do you want from the game?” Paul responds: “I want to score goals and play hard and play like I know I can.” He adds that he also does not want to disappoint his dad or coaches (External Control Psychology).” I then inquire when he thinks about letting others down or worries about making mistakes – whether it helps to achieve his ideal performance (Evaluation). He is quick in responding: “No, it does not.” He then stops, pauses and thinks some more. I then ask him again: “What do you want out of your game performance?” He says: “I want to play like I do in practice.” I ask: “That is great and how do you play in practice?” He answers me: “With confidence.”
When Paul is thinking of the game, he is spinning his back wheels – stuck in his
feeling and physiology (although the four components of Total Behaviour occur
concurrently). Here, Paul needs to find new behaviours by thinking differently and
acting in ways that will give him a chance to compete at his best when it counts the
most. He is the driver of the car and his Pictures provide the direction to get what he
wants and, indirectly, meet one or more of his needs.
Paul has raised many barriers that are affecting his play; therefore, for this session, I
will focus my attention on Total Behaviour. I will assist Paul to make a plan to discover new behaviours so that he can manage negative thoughts. I ask Paul to explain what is different from the games to the practices for him. Without any hesitation, he answers: “It is easy, in practice, I feel no pressure.”(At this time, I ask him to describe what pressure feels like to him. Metaphors work well in getting a better picture of how Paul perceives pressure, such as: “… it’s as if I am going to explode when I feel pressure”, or “…pressure is like someone pushing down on me…”, or “…it is like a kettle reaching a boiling point….”). Paul merely describes his perception of pressure as fear of failure and it chokes him up to a point where mentally he gives up on himself. It is as if he shuts down and does not have the confidence or energy to compete at a high level. Unlike practices where the perceived barrier of pressure is not present, in games, Paul’s perception of pressure is affecting his performance.
I ask him if he thinks he could do anything different before a game to help manage the pressure he feels (Evaluation). He thinks for a while and then mumbles that he is not sure. I ask if he would be open to some suggestions and if ‘we’, together, can work on a plan he can put into place for the next three games. He is open to the idea.
I explain to Paul a little bit of how total behaviour works. . I tell him that we have less direct control over what we feel and what signals our body is giving us (physiology) but that we have more direct (a lot of control) over what we think and do. He looks a bit confused so I explain it another way. I remind Paul of a game situation where we, as a team, gave up a bad goal late in a game. The team behaved in a very negative way. The impact of that bad goal made us angry and upset and it affected our physiology in a negative way. The team’s body language was evident by banging our sticks and lowering our heads as if we had lost the game with still a lot of time left on the clock. I needed to teach them that we are responsible for our actions and have other behaviours we could have used. It would be normal to be upset; however, how we behave in relation to the bad goal can make all the difference in the world. For instance, if we think ‘we are done’ or that we have no chance of winning, we mentally and physically quit on the team.
However, if we take control of what we think and act upon it, it will affect us in a positive way. We may be ‘angering’, be upset for giving up a bad goal but we can certainly be in more effective control of how we think and what we do in this situation. Imagine if we had taken control of the situation by shifting our paradigm and considering the rest of the game as a big challenge. We decide to get the goal back and work very diligently to get back into the game. The positive thinking and the doing will affect our physiology and feelings, keeping us in more effective control, instead of allowing us to mentally and physically give up. In essence, we shift the feeling of anger into a sensation of excitement and enjoyment towards the rest of the game. I ask Paul: “Do you think that your perception of pressure described earlier can be changed?” He looks at me with interest and says: “So, I can control what I think and what I do?” I answer him that yes, of course he can.
I explain to Paul a simple technique he can apply before a game: SOSA –
• Stop the negative thinking (Thinking).
• Oxygenate, take a few deep breaths (Doing, Physiology).
• Seek what information you need, what kind of self-talk you can tell yourself in
order to get yourself ready (Thinking).
• Lastly, Anchor, what kind of positive thoughts or visualizations you can think of
that will help you achieve your ideal performance (Total Behaviour).
I tell Paul, as soon as he feels the pressure and those negative thoughts appear in his
• Stop the negative thinking – no more ‘awfulizing’.
• Next, take a few deep breaths; breathing is very important in calming and
relaxing any anxiety that might try to creep in.
• Third, seek more information. At this point, it is imperative to introduce some
self-talk, such as: “I am great, I was meant to play in these games, I love to be
in big games, this is what I always dreamed about.”
• Lastly, we search for an anchor point, visualizing the performance you want,
concentrating on the positive outcome as you see it unfold before your eyes.
Paul and I work through this plan and I have him practice as if he would before
I teach Paul a few simple breathing techniques to help him relax and he suggests a
few self-talk sayings that work for him. I also stress the importance of focusing on
what he wants by visualizing his ideal performance (Quality World).
I finally ask Paul if he is ready to commit to this plan for the next three games and if
we can meet again to self-evaluate how it worked for him. He agrees to meet after the three games and comes up with a visual card he plans to read to himself before each game:
1. Believe in yourself
2. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable – it is perfectly normal to feel
nervous or feel pressure, remember you can always manage those emotions, by
what you think and do
3. When you feel nervous, remember to breathe, get an anchor point (cue word)
and trust your mechanics
4. Only put your energy on things you can control
5. Begin to enjoy being in the spot light – this is what you are meant to do – love
the opportunity to play in big games – it is another chance for you to express
Many athletes like Paul let their emotions get in the way of their performance. I have
discovered that Choice Theory helps immensely in helping athletes deal with the many different problems that occur throughout the course of a season. Helping athletes become more aware of total behaviour and how they can gain more control of their life is a wonderful way of teaching athletes life skills well beyond the sport they are playing.