Skylar Diggins’ Headband: A Sport Psychology Perspective

I love March Madness. Normally I write a blog to critique sport media in terms of TV coverage amount and quality of between the men and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. This year I am happy to report the ESPN coverage of the women’s games includes all rounds, full game coverage of all Sweet 16 games, great production quality, highly talented color and in studio commentators, all games in HD, cross brand promotion of espnW, and coverage that looks and feels nearly the same as coverage for the men. YAY.

Diggins sans headband
Diggins' with headband

In the absence of critiquing sport media, I want to discuss “the headband” of University of Notre Dame junior hoop star Skylar Diggins (@SkyDigg4) from a sport psychology perspective.

I’ve watched Notre Dame play on TV 6-8 times this season and have heard “the headband” discussed in every game by commentators. It is also the source of many fan tweets. At the start of the game, Diggins wears a wide white Adidas headband. If she is happy with her play, it stays on. If she is unhappy with her play, she takes it off. Usually it comes off at halftime, but recently she has taken it off as early as the 5th minute. As a fan of Notre Dame, when I see her take off the headband I groan. As someone trained in sport psychology I find it an interesting case study. Here is my analysis of “the headband” ritual using sport psychology research.(note: I have not talked directly to Diggins, about how and why she uses this ritual, nor have a talked to her coaches or teammates about how they perceive her ritual).

Having a competitive ritual helps increase the likelihood of optimal performance in many ways: Athlete’s who have developed and practice detailed. consistent, and controllable competitive rituals are more likely to optimally perform on command regardless of the situation.

THE GOOD: Doing the same thing in the same way helps reduce uncertainty which can lead to less anxiety, provides control for the athlete, focuses attention, focuses emotion, and focuses energy. Diggins has discussed her headband ritual with the public, therefore her opponents likely know of the practice, so it signals to the opponent that she is refocused and coming at them. It also tells her teammates and the public that she isn’t happy with her play, and she can do better.  It might help her teammates feel confident (“We know when Diggins takes off the headband, she means business). From reading tweets, it seems that a majority of fans believe she gets more focused, serious and competitive when the head band comes off.

THE NOT SO GOOD: The problem with this competitive ritual is she is not consistent about WHEN the head band comes off.  Her subjective assessment and mood state dictate when/if it comes off. A good competitive ritual is done the same way at the same time. (For example a free throw ritual, wearing the same socks, tapping your racket on the ground before returning a serve, addressing a golf ball). The downside of this ritual is that she is telegraphing to her opponent and teammates that she isn’t feeling confident and isn’t happy with her play. Taking off the headband may undermine her teammates’ confidence (“Diggins took off the headband, she isn’t feeling it. Here we go again. I better play well now”).

The second downside is she is spending energy with the headband that she could be using to focus on what she needs to do to play better. If starting the game WITH the headband gives her confidence, but it quickly dissipates and results in whipping it off whenever she can during play or at a whistle, I might advise her to rethink “the headband”. If it is her signature but she can’t keep it on the whole game, then maybe she should start the game without it. Just leave it off. Then if she is playing poorly, her teammates and opponents don’t have the benefit of knowing she is vulnerable. She would look the same regardless of how she is playing, and that gives her and her team the advantage. If I were a coach, I’d tell my team when they see Diggins take off the headband to go right at her and to feel confident that we have her rattled. She shouldn’t be giving her opponent so much information that can be used against she and her team.

Mentally tough athletes and those that perform consistently at the upper range of their competitive talent, use positive emotion, feel challenged by equally matched opponents/teams, and see competition as a fun and enjoyable opportunity. “The Headband” appears to be linked to negative emotion such as anger at herself and her play, and this is not a facilitative competitive ritual. Again, I don’t know what is going through her head, but I can see her body language at the times she takes it off and she appears irritated, angry, flustered, frustrated, and not confident. Often it shows in her play. If an athlete is mad at herself, then she is mad at the one person she NEEDS to compete well and is wasting energy. VERY FEW athletes can use anger effectively as a competitive ritual and tool.

Lastly, in all sports, some days competing and playing seems effortless and easy. All your shots drop, your legs feel lively, the hoop seems very large, you see plays unfold, and time seems to slow down. Other days it doesn’t. This cannot be controlled, it just is. What can be controlled is how an athlete reacts to this phenomenon. Athletes that start a game feeling they HAVE to or SHOULD play perfectly all the time, or at a certain level, are setting themselves up for frustration. Instead athletes should focus on what they can control-effort, mental focus (i.e., sticking with the game plan, taking the right shots), sportsmanship, emotion and behaviors.

When Diggins has her swagger going, she looks confident, her body language and facial expressions are very different, she takes control of the floor and leads her team. The Irish are much stronger as a team when she is in this mental frame. The team is good enough to compensate for Diggins when she isn’t, but to win a national championship the Irish need Diggins to play with confidence for the entire game, and I feel that is more possible if she leaves the headband in the locker room. When she takes the headband off, for her it signals she is playing poorly…which could also be a self-fulfilling prophecy and focus her attention on the fact she is playing poorly, rather than focusing on what she can do to play well.

However, at this point in the season it is probably unwise for her to start a new ritual but for her senior year, it may be worth reconsidering “the headband”.

Regardless of this analysis, Diggins is an amazing athlete. I have used “the headband” as an interesting case study to help illustrate how competitive rituals can be facilitative or not of optimal performance.

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