MAP IT. BELIEVE IT. ACHIEVE IT. How a Stanford Team became Fierce

We had nine women on the team for the ’91-’92 season: four freshmen, four sophomores, and one junior. Very small, and very young. I had just arrived at Stanford University to be the assistant coach for the Women’s Gymnastics Team. Up to that point, Stanford had little success. They’d never made it to the NCAA National Championships, before. They wanted to break into that level, yet talent was an issue. And worse than that, what I observed almost immediately, these young women did not play the part. They lacked the confidence and ‘grit’ you see in a driven team.

I wanted to change that.

As a college gymnast in the 80s, I competed for the University of Utah. We were the best in the nation. While I was on the team, we won 4 consecutive NCAA National Championships. Under Greg Marsden, one of the winningest coaches in college sports. We had extremely disciplined practices, killer conditioning, and consistent mental training with sport psychologist, Dr. Keith Henschen. The mental training was powerful, and, furthermore, Utah had fiercely determined athletes. Every gymnast trained with a boldness I admired. I was motivated every day by my teammates. They had ‘sass’ and vision. Greg drilled us into the strongest and leanest bodies, with focused minds and exact performances. Wewould win.

I wanted to infuse that into Stanford.

In Fall pre-season training, one day, I entered the gym with a map. We had talked with the team about their goal to make it to nationals and I had an idea. I unfolded the chart of The United States of America and showed it to the girls: “Here we are in California.” I tapped Palo Alto. “Nationals are in…” and I pointed way across the map, “Tuscaloosa, Alabama.”

I folded my arms and said: “We are going to Alabama.”

Their eyes grew wide…and they smiled.

I had a red marker and made a RED DOT where we were in Palo Alto, and another RED DOT where we were going – Tuscaloosa. I taped the map to the wall in the gym, right by bars.

“Every extra hard practice you do, we will draw a small red line toward Alabama. Every conditioning round. Every bike circuit. Every early morning aerobics. You will be stronger, more focused and more disciplined than ever before. You will become a top team and you will earn your way to Alabama.”

I could feel my own determination buzzing in my body, and as the team looked at me and the map, I could also feel their energy – it was palpable.

Over the following weeks, we drilled and drilled: lots of basics, solid technique, perfect form, repetition, repetition. We broke down the gymnasts physically till they cramped and moaned. It was exhausting…and thrilling. Then we had team talks. Intense talks. They were asked to reveal personal challenges, doubts and fears. Acknowledge their own conflicts and struggles. The girls got to know each other deeply, and in kind, supported each other in every way. They pushed each other to overcome, to work harder, draw red lines on the map, and keep going and going… The drive began.

In the locker room, they kept a team journal. The women randomly took turns entering positive, inspiring messages to each other. Writing and reading those messages kept them hooked into believing Nationals was possible.

In the winter, we started competition. I said, “Now, you need to TELL SOMEONE 10 times a day – A friend, parent, dog, anyone. Tell them you’re going.

They paused….got quiet.

“This isn’t bragging or wishing,” I explained. “You are being assertive. You are taking action and spreading positive belief. You are saying what you want and what you will do.”

They looked at each other, hesitating, but a new challenge stirred inside them.

Soon, I had daily phone messages, “Hey Coach, we’re going to Nationals!” “Coach, see you in Alabama.” “Coach, did you know we’re going to Nationals? hahaha”

They took it seriously, it was fun, and they started to become fierce. They strutted into the gym, arms swinging, and heads held higher. They shared with each other who they were telling, who was excited for them, and also, who believed in them. They kept marking red lines on the map. They built mental powers. They were beginning to believe. 

The season progressed; we competed every week. Going against UCLA, Arizona State, and other dynamic teams was not easy; we were not winning. So we had to remind our Stanford gymnasts the journey is a process: “Keep your eyes on each other, focus on performances. Don’t watch the other team.” They listened. They re-focused. And soon, we were breaking Stanford school records. Other coaches and teams took notice, and our routines were securing solid scores from the judges. This. Was. . We were emerging as confident competitors.

In practice, we sat in a circle and imagined. We talked about Alabama, what Tuscaloosa looked like, the 2-hr time difference, southern culture, which famous bbq restaurant we’d eat at, and we performed mock ‘national’ competition in our gym. The team pretended to go against other teams at Nationals. and rehearsed the determination and focus for ‘the stage.’ As we approached NCAA Regionals, the lo-ng dotted red line on the map, from California to Alabama, was complete. When the team saw it, in some way it cemented all of their hard work. They had earned it. And by the time we arrived at Regionals, the Stanford team had evolved.

They created courage and honed a calm stance. Before competing beam, they blocked out everyone else, a mental ritual I taught them. They gathered in a circle, held hands, closed eyes, and stood very still…breathing….as one. The crowd made noise, music played, and our opponent rumbled. But our team focused solely on themselves. Going inward and connecting with each other gave them inner power—it made them believe in their abilities and the strength of their collective energy. We were one of the most consistent beam teams in every meet we competed.

Finally, after 6 months of preparation the night arrived. NCAA Regional Championships were hosted at UC Berkeley. Our team knew it was the deciding meet. I could feel the tension. After warm ups our nine women-athletes were dressed and set in red sweats, ponytails, and white bows. It was time to march into the arena for competition…they were strangely quiet.

Then, Kerri, one of the sophomores broke the silence. She yelled, “EVERYONE…JUST RELAX!!!!”

There was a silence…and they all burst out laughing. They giggled and nudged each other, making little cracks, “Guys, it’s just a meet.”

You may not believe it, but that night of competition wasn’t about Nationals. It was about who they were; who they had become as athletes; how they matured as competitors; who they wanted to be for each other. And, ohhh, how Stanford did it. With Athena-like valor, the gymnasts transcended, flying high, nailing dismounts, and peaking at NCAA Regionals. When it was all over, when the scores were in and double checked, Stanford University squeaked in as the 12th and final qualifier to the 1992 NCAA National Championships. Stanford Gymnastics was going to Alabama!

At Nationals, we did very well. We moved up a spot and finished 11th in the country, the highest Stanford ever finished.

Since then, Stanford Women’s Gymnastics Team has competed in 15 NCAA National Championships and is one of the premier teams in the country. I often recall that year, that journey, and how amazing it was. Sometimes I shake my head and think to myself…Noooo waayyy, I can’t believe it.  🙂

Advertisements

Awareness, awareness, awareness! – Self 1 vs. Self 2

“Oh, that was bad!” “Man, I’m slow,” “What’s wrong with me, run faster!” “God…I can’t do this.”

Allow me to introduce you to yourself as…Self 1, better known as, your Critical Voice. Such a judgmental and bossy voice — a voice that’s hard on you when you make mistakes, it’s not forgiving, and not objective. This voice tightens you up in the midst of self-criticism. 

Do you recognize that voice inside you? Of course you do — we all do it. But does it feel good to criticize yourself? that is the question. And does it motivate you. Orrr does it cause you to doubt your abilities. And moreover, is this how your coach talks to you…? If so, maybe imagine silver duct tape over his/her mouth, because those critical messages are not instructional, nor encouraging.

Now, consider your other self, Self 2 – the body, the performer, The Doer. (Not a voice.) Self 2 is often overpowered by Self 1, because your critical voice tells your body what to do and does not trust your body’s ability to perform. Self 1 tries to force things, it tries too hard, and that creates tension and an inner battle. You, my friend, battle yourself. And an inner battle tightens, it obstructs, it stops free flowing movement, and therefore, kills your performance. 

Self 2, The Doer, learns best through sensory experiences: seeing, feeling, listening, while performing. What does a basketball player FEEL in her elbows, wrists, and fingers when she shoots a free throw shot? Is it quick? Abrupt? Extended? Fluid? What does a gymnast SEE before, during, and after she jumps backward to do a back flip?  

Put your attention on what you SEE and FEEL during your performance. Be in tune with the sensory experience and you will be in tune with your body. Not distracted. But very focused.

Put your attention on what you SEE and FEEL during your performance. Be in tune with the sensory experience and you will be in tune with your body. Not distracted. But very focused.

SENSORY EXPERIENCE BRINGS FOCUS: Being aware of sensory experiences keeps you in tune with your body, therefore, more connected to Self 2, The Doer. And that gets you out of the critical mode, the doubts, the nervousness, and INTO FOCUS. Get connected to Self 2. Leave the critical voice behind. Be clear and positive for best performance by connecting to your body. 

USE YOUR BRAIN – BECOME AWARE OF YOUR THOUGHTS: How do you connect to your body? The trick is this: First, you need to PUMP UP AWARENESS. Use your brain! Become very aware of your critical voice. What does it say? Learn how your mind works, because once you recognize what’s happening – what your train of thoughts sound like – that’s how you can stop the negative and critical messages. Then shift into a clear, positive, and powerful mind that cooperates with your body. Start playing [in your mind] positive messages about yourself and what you want to do. The prize of learning awareness is to be able to change your thoughts, which changes your whole approach, which of course effects your performance. Again, you will perform better when you use your brain to think positively and stay in tune with your body. 

Use your brain in a strategic manner, practice awareness, observe your performance, play positive messages. Because...your brain IS a muscle!

Use your brain in a strategic manner, practice awareness, observe your performance, play positive messages. Because…your brain IS a muscle!           Illustrated by Lisa Mitzel

STEPS TO BECOMING AWARE AND PERFORMING YOUR BEST: Here are steps and exercises, that you can practice daily. I guarantee, once you put effort toward being aware, your attitude and performance will improve.

1. First, sit with paper and pen and think… Ask: What do I say to myself when struggling in practice? Write down the criticisms and negative messages you tell yourself.

2. Second, create a list of positive things you can say to yourself. Statements that are true. Like…I am fast, or I am strong, or I am good. Any message that someone has said about you and/or you know to be true about yourself. Say these messages to yourself. Like a mantra.

3. When practicing, put your attention on your thoughts. Listen to Self 1’s critical comments. Then stop them. Either use a mental Stop Sign. Or see and hear a ringing bell. That means STOP or ALERT! then change to your positive messages.

4. Observe. Learn to use your awareness to observe your own performance with no judgment. Observe your moves calmly, not emotionally, just note facts. For instance, “I kicked to the right,” makes you aware of what you did. It’s not a judgment. It’s a fact. And with that information, you can then say, “I’m going to move my leg in a straight line forward, kick straight.” This is instructional. Assertive in a positive way. Accurate. Not emotional or critical. 

5. Put your attention on what you SEE, FEEL, and HEAR. While you perform, create a fully-alive sensory experience. Don’t let you mind blank out. Focus on what you see and feel in moments of performing. Examples: I saw my hands hold the ball, I saw my leg kick straight, I felt my head tilt back, I felt my arms stretch up. See. Feel. Be in tune.

QUICK REVIEW:

1. Write down and learn about the critical messages you say to yourself.    

2. Make a list of positive, true statements about yourself.

3. During practice, listen to your critical voice and stop it – change to positive messages.

4. Observe your performance with no judgment, no emotion. See what you did, then give clear instructions to your body to make adjustments.

5. See, feel, and hear while you perform. Know what your body is experience through sensory perceptions. Note what you experience. Get into the experience.

Once you practice and do these steps, over and over, you will become less tense and more analytical. You will be using your brain in a strategic manner. You will trust your body is doing its best. You will be self-encouraging and, absolutely maintain a higher energy and free-flowing action. You will perform better! 

I like the model of Self 1 and Self 2. Thanks to W. Timothy Gallwey, who wrote “The Inner Game of Tennis: the classic guide to the mental side of peak performance.” It’s an excellent book! I suggest you read it, if at all interested.  

An excellent book - easy to read - to help you learn how to control your thoughts and perform your best. I teach similar methods when I work with my athlete-clients, teaching them mental skills. It's good stuff!

An excellent book – easy to read – to help you learn how to control your thoughts and perform your best. I teach similar methods when I work with my athlete-clients, teaching them mental skills. It’s good stuff!

I hope this helps you.  Send me any message if you’d like to! 

reach, sweat, believe,

~mitz

If you’d like assistance in learning mental skills – learning how to perform your best – reach out, contact me. This is what I love to do. See LisaMitzel.com. And smile! 

 
(photo credit: “eye” photo from article about kids with ESP)

Need your opponent, then kick her ass: Sport Community is everything

My mom and I used to pray before practices, and ALL the time before competition. One meet, we not only prayed for me to do well, but my mom said (as we held hands, sitting in the car, me in a leotard and sweats): “…and may all the girls do their best, today…”

"We pray ALL the girls will do their BEST, today." -- my mom

“…and may ALL the girls do their BEST, today.” — my mom

Huh. Reeeally. We want everyone to do their best? Not just me? (I was 11)

This began my education, specifically in sports, to WISH EVERYONE WELL. That they will have a positive attitude, be safe, and perform their best. (I know, I know, why send anyone else good energy when you need it yourself to win? So keep reading…)

My mom demonstrated for me how to “bless” my opponents, as she openly wished them, “Good luck!” at gymnastics meets. She commented on how cute their hair ribbons and ponytails were, she buzzed around other moms and said nice things like, “Isn’t this exciting!” with a big grin on her face. My mom was absolutely happy, no, tickled, that all the competitors were there, together. Didn’t matter what team they were on. She delighted in the energy and anticipation of the event: the athletes marching out, standing in straight lines, singing the National Anthem, and heading to their first event. The competition was pure excitement for all to experience and watch!

Sports camp at Stanford inspires girls from all over. Sports community is key!

Sports camp at Stanford inspires girls from all over. Sports community is key!

So think *community.* A sports community. You need athletes, coaches, and officials in your sports community. And, consider your opponent…even if your opponent is a jerk or (pardon my french) an ass, this well-wishing is worth doing: So picture her in your mind, your opponent. Okay, now give thanks for this awful opponent. Better still, wish her well! (Smile, nod your head, shake hands.) Because you need her. And her fierce play can only give you the best test of your preparation, skills, and attitude. Choose the high road to be your finest self. Your energy – when you genuinely wish someone luck – will vibrate on a higher frequency than usual because of your positive thoughts, making all doors open for you in terms of performance and, yes, for miracles to happen.

So think about it: You NEED your opponent. NEEEEED. Or probably a better word is to ‘respect’ and ‘value.’ Because, without your opponent, there’s no one to challenge or play against. In addition, there would be no games – and no YOU as an athlete. It’s clear, you, by yourself, does not a sport make.

Gather, look in each others' eyes, and create energy and focus! Need each other!

Gather, look in each others’ eyes, and create energy and focus! Need your teammates!

Simply put, sport is people. Sport is community. Sport is a powerful connection with coaches and athletes who train, prepare, and compete. And sport is life-giving. If you genuinely wish opponents the best, in a flash, you can focus back on you, your breathing, and your performance. You can bring out your own inner “tiger” to go out and attack!

Come on. Say, “Good luck.” Wish your opponent well and mean it. Then, go get her…go kick her ass. That’s great competition!

And the cool part is that well-wishing is pure and good and inspiring to others. It is sport at its most magical high point. It’s you, me, everyone doing something amazing…like human beings…flying.  And that is *wow.*  🙂

reach, sweat, believe,

~mitz