“The Stairs vs. The Elevator”
Read time: 6 minutes
Arsene Wenger, one of the great soccer coaches of his generation, once said about athlete confidence “You take the stairs up and the elevator down”. His coaching excellence aside, he is certainly not the only coach who has used this analogy to describe the ups and downs that all athletes (and people in general) experience when it comes to self-confidence. It is human nature to want to excel and be recognized for your abilities in whatever you do, but in many ways, this is especially exaggerated in sports. Why is confidence so fickle and what can we as parents/coaches do to help our athletes understand these ups and downs better? How do we help children overcome a period of declining self-confidence and learn to process the feelings that come with it externally?
When I was playing college basketball at the University of Portland, I felt the extremes at both ends of the confidence spectrum. My first two years were spent developing the necessary skills to be able to perform at this new high level that I was surrounded by. Day by day I was taking the stairs. Building my skills. Building my strength. Building my confidence. During my third year of school, I had an excellent season and was named one of the top 10 players in our league as well as finishing 5th in the entire country in 3-point percentage. My confidence was sky-high and I had my sights set firmly on the NBA. Nothing was going to stop me!
But extreme highs are often followed by some kind of dip. Some dips are small, some are big, but the question is whether you are prepared to deal with them when they happen.
My 4th and final year started off great. I was named an all-star at our season-opening tournament and had a huge game against a Kentucky team that ended up winning the national championship that season. But then came the dip. After a bout of food poisoning that I tried to play through, I was benched in favour of our top incoming recruit and my confidence took a hit. Poor performances followed, which led to more scrutiny from our coaches and before you know it, I was trapped in a vicious cycle of declining confidence and poor performances. I am a pretty confident person by nature, but after 3 whole years dedicated to taking the stairs every day to build the ultimate belief in myself and my abilities, I took the elevator straight to the bottom of the confidence spectrum. No one on my team really understood what was going on and more importantly, no one really did anything to try and help me get out of the hole I was stuck in. I finished out the season, and my career, as a shell of the player I had worked so hard to become and with doubts about my future career as a professional player that lay ahead the following year.
The reasons for why the dip actually happened would require a much longer blog post to discuss. But more than a decade later, one thing is very clear – no one around me knew how to help, those who could have helped were too far away and I didn’t possess enough tools mentally to help myself. If I could go back in time, these are 3 things that could have lessened the magnitude of the spiral or perhaps even prevented it from happening:
1. BE WARY OF THE HIGHS
While there were a lot of external forces that contributed to the entire episode I described above, a portion of it was definitely my fault. After my excellent Junior year, I felt indestructible. I finally showed everyone how good I was and earned the respect of anyone who had doubted me in the past. I will never forget the feeling when I heard the news that I had been named to the All-Conference team. I cried tears of joy quietly in my room and felt so proud of all of the hard work it took to get to that point. But rather than taking the good with the bad and keeping my emotions balanced, I stayed in the high of my achievement for months. I went to training camp with the Men’s Senior National Team that summer and continued to build on this bubble of good feelings that had lasted over a year at that point. Never did it once cross my mind that I would ever play bad again.
In my opinion, one of the most important things that children need to learn through youth sports is how to allow their emotions on the court to come and go. Young athletes have a tendency to deeply experience all of the emotions associated with doing well or doing poorly. As parents and coaches, the best thing we can do for them is to allow them to experience the full range of emotions, teach them that they are all a part of the game and that they will continue to experience this full range throughout their life, whether in sports or otherwise.
Never too high, never too low.
2. UNDERSTAND THAT EVERYTHING IS TEMPORARY
It sucks to miss a shot. It sucks to lose a game. It sucks to have a bad season. It sucks to not even make the team!
But everything is temporary, and the true test is whether we continue to try. For children, that doesn’t mean they have to continue to put effort toward a sport that they are struggling with or to play for a team where they are having a hard time finding their footing. The important part is to not allow a temporary defeat to be a permanent one. When our kids at Momentum are having a tough day or have been struggling with something for a few months, the main thing we try to communicate to them is that it can only get better from here. Positive reinforcement goes a long way toward helping them understand that the struggle they are currently experiencing is temporary.
Despite all of the problems I had at the end of my college career, I still went on to play professionally for many years and today I feel more confident in myself than ever before. The beautiful part about the ups and downs of my basketball career is that they taught me how to navigate difficult times and have more emotional stability. I started taking the stairs again and made my way up, day by day. But this can only be developed through communication with the people who provide support and through continued persistence in challenging yourself with things that cause you some difficulty.
3. HOW COACHES AND PARENTS COMMUNICATE MATTERS
Part of my struggles in 2011-2012 was on me for sure. But the other people involved deserve some of the blame for it getting to the eventual low point it reached.
From my first official practice in Portland until the day I graduated, my coaches and I never had a great relationship. They were hard on me and often went too far with their criticisms in hopes of getting more out of me on the court. Over time I created defence mechanisms to protect myself and it wasn’t very often that I felt like they were in my corner. The first breaking point before the bad year that ensued was when our head coach humiliated me in front of 100+ teenage campers and parents for making a single mistake on defence.
How we communicate matters, both internally and externally. If my coaches had put in some time to build healthy communication between us, it would have been all that we needed to prosper together. Over the past 3 years of coaching, we have certainly gotten some glimpses into communication that were not super positive between parent and child as well. Being a coach is difficult and being a parent is exponentially harder, but these authority figures often shape how we feel about ourselves as we pass through our developing years. I’m all for some tough love but everything requires balance, and balance requires positive communication.
Sports often serve as a microcosm of the real world, and offer opportunities for children to build their mental and emotional strength. Our experiences as children, in large part, shape who we later become as adults. All athletes who come through our program, and children in general, are currently taking the stairs in their lives and building up their self-confidence as they try to figure out who they are and how the world works. Some are higher up on the staircase, some are lower down. But the elevator is always around the corner, so it is the support system that can help those elevator rides get shorter and shorter over time.
Written by: Nem Mitrovic