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Simplexity and Sport: Guidelines For Coaches

by Charlie Maher


I am sure that you have heard the following kinds of phrases in your coaching of athletes and teams, and perhaps you have used some of them yourself:

  • “Keep the game simple.”
  • “Don’t make things hard on yourself.”
  • “It is only a game.”
  • “Don’t get caught up in the hype.”

Coaching and participating in sport has many dimensions: The task is easy and hard at the same time. It is enjoyable and frustrating, simple, yet complex. In order to make sense of this reality and keep things in perspective, I would like to introduce a term from outside of sport that may be useful: Simplexity.

The term – combining the words simplicity and complexity – was coined by consultant Anuraj Gambhir for use in the telecommunications industry. Simplexity has to do with the process where human nature strives toward simple ends by complex means, where the complex and the simple intersect in a dynamic relationship between process and outcome.

Simplexity applies at the professional, collegiate, secondary, and youth levels. Consider a professional athlete, who is embedded in a complex environment (e.g., contracts, agents, expectations of others), but who also has a simple task of execution. Likewise, a youth athlete just learning a sport also is involved in a dynamic relationship of the complex (e.g., school, family, friends, rules of the sport) and the simple (e.g., seeing the ball and making contact with it). No matter the level of competitive play, good coaches strive to ensure that the complex is recognized, while emphasizing the simple, both for the sake of themselves and but also for their team.

A great example of someone who has been able to recognize and balance the simple with the complex is Cleveland Indians Manager Terry “Tito” Francona. During our run to the 2016 World Series, Tito was outstanding at ensuring that each player had a daily plan that was clear and basic, while also talking to the players about a range of complex demands, such as increased media attention, that were of concern in the post-season environment.

In contrast to a Major League Baseball manager, I also observed the same quest for balancing the complex with the simple in one of my grandchildren’s baseball coaches, leading five and six-year-olds. How can you, as a coach, leverage simplexity in your work with athletes and teams?

Consider the following guidelines:

  • Respect the sport: Make sure that your athletes understand and appreciate that their sport is larger than themselves. As I frequently tell our Indians players: Baseball is what you do, but it is not who you are.
  • Emphasize humility: Teach your athletes that the more they learn about their sport, the more they will understand that they do not know it all. In order to succeed, therefore, they need to learn how to seek and accept coaching. They cannot succeed alone, no matter what the sport.
  • Take charge of the process: Teach your athletes how to deal with the daily things that are under their control in developing and improving as an athlete, in short, focusing on control of the process. This encompasses: (a) preparing to compete in a purposeful and quality manner; (b) maintaining contact with the present moment during competition; and (c) being an accurate self-evaluator of performance.
  • Be a good separator: Make sure that each athlete or team member learns how to separate their results as a performer from themselves as a person and the rest of their daily lives.
  • Enjoy the process: Playing sport is a privilege as well as a great opportunity to grow and develop mentally, physically, and technically. So, try to make sure that athletes are enjoying what they are doing, both during the ups and downs of performance.

Dr. Charlie Maher is Sport Psychologist and Director of Psychological Services for the Cleveland Indians, a position that he has held since 1995. He also serves as Sport Psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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