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Attitude is everything

A bad attitude is like a flat tyre, if you don’t change it you’ll never go anywhere — Author Unknown

The title of this essay, taken from a coffee mug says it all, “Attitude is Everything”. All coaches have witnessed the ascent of minimally talented athletes and sportspersons who work hard to overcome inherent lack of talent. Conversely, most of us have also witnessed the downfall of sportspersons gifted with an abundance of physical talent, who never achieve any significant success because of what is popularly described as ‘bad attitude’. 

What are the causes of bad or non-productive attitudes? Are they rooted in choices made by sportspersons or are they determined by extraneous forces impacting athletes? Jewish psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl would surely attribute such attitudes to ‘choice’. During his prolonged detention in Nazi concentration camps, his family was murdered, he was forced to sleep hungry and naked on bare concrete floors and subjected to extreme physical, mental and emotional torture. Yet during this time, he awoke to the realisation that everything could be taken from him except his freedom to choose his response to his captors’ actions. He describes this as the ultimate freedom. Attitudes — positive or negative — are choices.

If you are a coach who cannot accept athletes with ‘bad attitude’ into your programme, you need read no further. However, if you are like most school coaches committed to nurturing and developing youth with good and bad attitudes, we need to understand what leads sportspersons to slip into self-destructive behaviour.
To understand the factors and circumstances that prompt promising sportspersons to go bad, bear in mind that everyone’s behaviour makes sense to them. So we must try to view things from their perspective. 

Most often, athletes slip into bad attitudes because they feel they can’t learn anything from their coach. This may be because the coach lacks knowledge of the game, the athlete himself is ignorant or there’s lack of mutual respect.

Sportspeople with bad attitude find it very difficult to admit they have serious flaws in their game which need correcting. And bad attitude is usually a cover for low self-esteem. Therefore, until the athlete’s self-esteem has been raised, self-destructive attitude won’t change. This is how athletes protect their fragile concepts of self. I have witnessed such negative attitudes when coaching basketball players who are good shot makers, but flunk turn-the-over repeatedly.

Negative, self-destructive behaviour can also result if athletes play for reasons other than love of the sport — parents want them to play, the thought of a possible scholarship or other financial gain or ambition to acquire status. This is the only group of athletes who may be better off if they quit sports altogether. Full and open communication helps such athletes come to grips with the real reasons for engaging in sports and whether they should continue to play. 

The genre of potentially self-destructive sportspersons also includes players who have such deep-rooted fear of failure that they cannot and will not, allow themselves to innovate and improve on-field performance. This is always a difficult problem to correct although positive reinforcement and helping the athlete to accept correction can help. But their lack of intensity (to avoid failure) is often a major problem.

As mentioned above, everyone’s behaviour make sense to them. Thus when sportspersons unable to control a situation at home develop ‘bad attitude’, they extend it to the gym or playing field.

Coaches cannot change the attitude of lapsed athletes. In his book Attitude and Attitude Change, Harry Triandis writes that changing deeply ingrained attitudes isn’t an easy task, but self-correction can be stimulated. Change in any components of the “thinking, feeling, doing triangle” will result in wider changes in athletes with negative attitude, if they are fed new information. A change in their ‘thinking’ component is likely to stimulate other changes. For example, a sportsperson who has chosen a bad attitude as protection from an insensitive coach merely requires a pleasant supportive environment.

To summarise, attitudes are choices made by athletes to express inner problems and sentiments. Bad attitudes become positive given changed situations. With insight and empathy, coaches can help athletes choose positive attitudes and enable them to realise their full potential.

(Dr. George Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)

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