The Performance Mindset

The Performance Mindset is a free e-book by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance

Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.

In early 2019 I wrote the better part of a book without a title. I felt it necessary to get down on paper some of the key mental strategies that we, at Condor Performance, use on a daily basis as a sport and performance psychologists. I’m not sure if I ever intended it to be published or not. So, rather than try and finish it (below is basically the first draft) and take it to publishers I thought I would simply add it here to the blog section of our website. For the time being, I am calling this e-Book The Performance Mindset.

Typo Warning: The majority of the below text was written using voice to text software. Although it has been proofread once it has not been professionally checked and therefore is very likely to contain a litany of typographical errors. These typos will in no way impact on the concepts I’m trying to communicate however they will bother both perfectionists and grammar-police alike.

Part One

In the world of competitive sport, the term ‘performance’ is used a lot. In my experience as an Applied Sport Psychologist who has been working at the coalface of elite sport since 2005, it is generally used more in reference to competitions than training.

For example, comments like ‘that was a great performance today’ and ‘I hope I perform well on the weekend’ are much more commonplace than ‘regular mindfulness practice is a key ingredient to the preparation side of performance’ and ‘my training performance has been very consistent for some time now’ for example. 

This bias has resulted in some confusion about the true definition of performance. Given the title of this book, is worth addressing this from the very start. Quite simply, performance means ‘an extended period of preparation interspersed by opportunities to execute what has been practised under the pressure of official events’.

Performance Equals …

Performance = Preparation then Competition the Preparation then Competition then Preparation and so on.

So although we could attempt to describe our Preparation and Competition separately it would be difficult and counterproductive to try and label our ‘performance’. Using our definition it would be impossible to know which aspects of performance you were referring to. Furthermore whatever word you decided to use (e.g. good or disappointing) would be far too simple to describe the vast range of variables of either side of performance.

Did you mean that your preparation was great but that you failed to execute under the pressure of the competition? Or was it the other way around? Was the work you did in the lead-up poor but you managed to do well come game day?

With this in mind, the first bit of psychological advice that I am going to give you (first of many) is to mentally separate the preparation side of performance from the competition side.

So, as performance psychologists, we help ‘performers’ improve by addressing both sides of their performance. We help them optimise their preparation directly and depending on what they do this preparation will often go by many other names. Training, rehearsals, practice, rehab, sessions, drills, pre-season, run-throughs, effort, process(es) and workouts are amongst the most used in my experience.

More Than Semantics

We also assist directly with the competition side of performance. Again, this often masquerades as other terms such as matches, rounds, races, trials, bouts, games, tests, events, exams, assessments, heats, contests and fights – for example.

Due to the mostly 1-on-1 nature of what we do, we can easily switch between focusing on the client’s preparation and their competitions making sure never to confuse one with the other. This, despite the fact that they are obviously related to one another. But the cause and effect nature of the relationship is vastly exaggerated by many to their detriment.

In other words, although it would be reasonable to suggest that an extended period of solid preparation can assist with favourable results in a particular sporting contest it would be completely wrong to say (as many do) that the former caused the latter.

What really helps me not to fall into this all-too-common booby trap is to actually avoid using the word performance altogether. Instead, I would advise using Preparation when talking about Preparation and Competition when referring to any and all types of Competition – from heats to rounds.

Regardless of your role within the wonderful world of sport, I would advise you to start doing the same from this point forward.

Mentally Seperate Preparation from Competition

The principal reason (motivation) for separating Preparation from Competition is down to the fact that each benefit from having a different mindset. In fact, so different are these mindsets for the two sides of performance they could almost be regarded as opposites.

We will first delve into the preferred mindset for competitive situations due to the fact that it can be addressed relatively quickly. After this, and for the remainder of this e-book, we’ll focus on helping you create the best possible mindset for preparation – whether it be your own or that of those you coach.

The Ideal Mindset for Competition

The Relaxed Competition Mindset

“I’ve learned over the years that if you start thinking about the race, it stresses you out a little bit. I just try to relax and think about video games, what I’m gonna do after the race, what I’m gonna do just to chill. Stuff like that to relax a little before the race .”

Usain Bolt

As this e-book is a guide I don’t want to spent too much time on the ‘why’ as I’d rather focus on the ‘what, when and how’. Having said that a bit of context can be beneficial. So there are two ‘why’ questions on the table. Firstly, ‘why’ is the default emotion of most sporting individuals and teams to be anything other than relaxed in the lead up to competitions – either intentionally or by accident? Secondly, why does aiming to be relaxed work so well? What’s the science behind the effectiveness of this counterintuitive mindset?

The answer to the first question could be summed up by something one of my coaching clients (a client who is a high-level rowing coach) repeated back to me during a session via Skype many years ago. She said, “they don’t hand out Olympics medals for great training sessions, do they”? That pretty much sums it up. 

Same, Same But Different

Competitive sport is like almost no other human pursuit in terms of how unfairly we judge it. Not only do we easily forgot about the huge amount of effort than went into the preparation for sporting competitions but we tend to zoom in on ‘number of wins’ as being the most meaningful of all performance indicators.

Can you imagine what it would be like to spend thousands of hours preparing for something over four years and the entire world determining your success by your finishing position in an event that lasted a few minutes (or less)? Now imagine that the entire world is watching you during these few minutes despite not even knowing your name before they switched on the television. 

Even sports whereby competitive opportunities are more frequent and take hours rather than minutes – for example, professional soccer – tend to default to a ‘pathological obsession over results and outcomes’.

Win At All Cost

‘The Win At All Cost’ attitude is still regarded as a ‘badge of honour’ in many circles. This, despite the fact that most of us saw what that did to Lance Armstrong.

At the time of writing the 2018/19 edition of the English Premier League just came to end with Liverpool Football Club finishing a single point behind the eventual champions Manchester City. Liverpool smashed many of their club records and a number for the competition itself but the fact that their 97 points would have won every single edition of the English Premier League except one is regarded as secondary – even irrelevant – compared to the fact they finished as runners-up.

Some of the Liverpool players at the end of the 2018/19 season.

Can you imagine having the best year of your life by far – professionally – and yet still be considered a failure in some circles due to the fact that you got second place in the annual ‘salesman of the year’ award?

Although I am optimistic that over time the culture of elite sport will improve and the concept of ‘winning is everything’ will slowly be phased out (due in part to books like this) the best short and medium-term approach for those not wanting to get beaten down by the highly results dominated environment they find themselves in is to put all their energy into changing their mindset.

But before that, what about the science behind why prioritising relaxation just before and at certain points during competitions has such a positive impact – sometimes overnight?

Part Two

The Law of Reverse Effect

The Law of Reverse Effect in non-psychobabble terms means that for most automated motor skills in naturally ‘high stakes situations’ the less we try the easier they become.

Another way to understand The Law of Reverse Effect is to understand and accept that automatic processes – such as kicking a ball, running, catching, throwing, jumping, pulling a trigger  – often experience a ‘reverse effect’ whereby “the more you think about them” the worse they end up.

It’s easiest to understand The Law of Reverse Effect via everyday situations. Most people can relate to this if they have been subject to getting a severe case of the giggles. The harder you try not to giggle (maybe due to a warning from the teacher, coach or parent) the harder it is not to giggle. This often results in uncontrollable laugher in situations where it’s obvious that this is not acceptable behaviour. The Law of Reverse Effect would suggest the most effective remedy would be to just relax and cease trying not to giggle so much! 

How many learner drivers have failed their driving test(s) not because they couldn’t drive but because they were stressed to the eyeballs before and during their test(s)? What about the fact that the harder you try to fall asleep the harder it becomes!

Motor Skills

The reason why The Law of Reverse Effect is particularly relevant to sport and therefore warrants such prominence here is due to the high motor skill nature of sports. The amount of human movement a professional baseballer will do, say compared with a professional politician, can’t be ignored.

As human movements become more natural (mainly due to repetition but genetics plays its part) they move from the very conscious part of the brain (the frontal lobe – above your eyes) to a subconscious area called the Basal Ganglia – which is located more towards the middle of the brain closer to the top of the brain stem. When this starts to happen the movements are becoming automated which is where the term ‘muscle memory’ comes from. Due to the fact that we can learn to do pretty much any complex set of movements on ‘autopilot’, it feels like the muscles involved in that set of movements have actually remembered how to perform the task. In fact, it’s the Basal Ganglia that’s doing all the work.

The Basal Ganglia is on the right, the limbic system on the left.

This is why a chicken will run around for few a minutes after having its head chopped off. The Basal Ganglia of a chicken is found below the neckline and therefore will often remain in place and functioning after decapitation. Running for the chicken has become an automatic process and therefore it’s able to do so even after its head has been removed – albeit only for a few minutes until it dies from loss of blood.

Fine Motor Skills More Impacted By Stress

If the motor skills are fine or complex in nature then they are even more vulnerable to stress. By fine we mean smaller movements such as throwing a dart or spinning a cricket ball with just our fingers. By complex we mean anything that is very different from what we learn to do by just being a human being. For example, running would be regarded as a simple motor skill due to the fact that most of us do this a lot as children. On the other hand, all the technical requirements of golf – such as attempting a bunker shot without allowing the club to touch the sand before the swing – would be seen in most circles as unnatural and therefore complex.

Finally, the gains of the Relaxed Competition Mindset are related to how competent the athlete is. This makes complete sense. For a novice (beginner) rower taking part in his / her first few regattas a certain amount of mental reminding might be helpful. But as the athlete becomes more and more proficient (as displayed in training) and the “autopilot” takes over thinking about the skill is no longer required or desirable.

Despite the fact that possibly the most successful individual athlete of the last 20 years – Usain Bolt – religiously adopted a Relaxed Competition Mindset – there is still very little published evidence related to the effectiveness of this method.

Usain Bolt had the ideal Performance Mindset. Hard work in training, relax before competitions. .

Luckily, not all scientific data is published in peer-reviewed journal articles. My colleagues and I at Condor Performance have been encouraging athletes and sporting coaches to adopt this philosophy for over ten years now and the feedback has ranged from small effect to “game-changer” with the occasional ‘magic bullet’. These are real athletes and coaches paying real money looking for real mental improvements and I am still waiting for the day that one of them says to me “sorry, I was far too relaxed before then competition”.

But not everyone that I mentioned The Relaxed Competition Mindset to ‘got it’ straight away. Athletes and coaches from high decision making sports often pointed out that despite Usain Bolt’s achievements his chosen sport of sprinting is very light in decision making. Is the Relaxed Competition Mindset just as applicable for high decision making sports – such as cricket, tennis and most of the traditional team sports?

The Answer Is Yes

Yes, because guess where decision making ends up after it’s been rehearsed a few hundred times? That’s right – the basal ganglia. This is why a squash player can often make excellent split-second decisions – such as to play a drop shot. As you will find out later in this guide when we put the spotlight on tactics a combination of simplifying our decisions (reducing the number of choices) and rehearsing them will allow decision making to become just as automatic as running is for a headless chicken.

Another hesitation to mimic Usain Bolt’s pre-race preferences often come from the concern that the actions of a Relaxed Competition Mindset might often look – to the untrained eye – like a lack of interest or professionalism or desire to do well. One only needs to look at the antics of Mr Bolt in the moments before some of this biggest races to empathise with this concern. Moments prior to the 100m final of the 2012 Olympic Games he gives one of the officials a fist pump.

Looking relaxed and being relaxed are not one and the same of course. What this means is it’s entirely possible for you to develop a Relaxed Competition Mindset without anyone suspecting you’ve changed a thing. Which brings is nicely to the final part of this chapter – how to create one.

How To Develop An RCM

By far the most effective way to actually have a Relaxed Competition Mindset whilst competing is simply to strive for one. If I were your coach I’d basically be asking you to set that (trying to relax) as the main aim of your completive situations. Furthermore, striving (or aiming) to be relaxed is far more important than actually being relaxed.

Being relaxed is an outcome (result) and therefore not something we can guarantee. However, having the intention of being calm and having that as one of the ‘main aims’ of high-pressure assessment situations is something we have a lot of influence over. This frees us from the awkward situation where we know that being relaxed is important but we just can’t get anywhere close to feeling that way.

I have been lucky enough to be involved with a number of elite athletes who have shown remarkable gains by striving to be relaxed but only every showing small reductions in the actual amount of stress experienced in the lead up to competitions.

Part Three

The Ideal Mindset for Preparation

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of true preparation we need to understand what this practice time is designed to do. To do this I will introduce you to an analogy that is very dear to my heart. Why? Well, in part because I came up with it and in part because I use it with 100% of my sporting clients.

The analogy is that you are like a four-engined aircraft with five major “components”. Four of these components are the four engines themselves with the other component being ‘the rest of the aeroplane’ or ‘main body and wings’. 

The four engines represent what could be described as the traditional desirables of sports science; physical, technical, mental and tactical superiority. The rest of the aeroplane symbolises everything else that could be targeted for either improvement or maintenance in order to either directly or indirectly assist with our dreams and goals.

We could call these five major components Physical Capabilities, Technical Consistency, Mental Toughness, Tactical Wisdom and Personal Thriving.

Not only does this analogy include Personal Thriving as a key part of trying to be ‘optimal’ but it actually suggests that it might be the most important major component of all. In other words, there is not a lot of point in having four tip-top engines attached to an aircraft that is falling apart. It would make complete sense that if this were the case then the main body, wings and tail of the aircraft would get prioritised for improvement first. Although this may seem obvious in the aeronautical industry it certainly isn’t in competitive sport and other performance industries. 

Secondly, the professionals who typically look after and maintain fleets of aeroplanes are aeronautical engineers. I believe we could learn a lot about the way in which they go about their work. Actual aeronautical engineers have a mindset (due mainly to their training) that prevention is much better than trying to fix something after it has failed. In other words, they don’t sit around the hanger eating doughnuts waiting for one of the keys parts of their aeroplanes to blow up before trying to improve them. 

They are constantly checking all aspects of all of the aeroplanes they’re responsible for. Put this ‘aeronautical engineer mindset’ into the head of a young athlete then instead of waiting for an injury to happen, they start to include stretching in their weekly routines as a regular preventative measure.

Put this ‘aeronautical engineer mindset’ into a Head Coach then she quickly works out that it’s better not to assume that everything is fine, Instead go and measure it in some way. Furthermore, she understands that she is her own aeroplane and every single one of her athletes is their own plane too.

Finally, this analogy allows us to more easily see how “outcomes” (components and subcomponents) and “processes” (methods and tools) work together and why focusing more on the latter than the former is a ‘no brainer’.

Subcomponents

Now each of the five major components has a number of subcomponents that we could target for either improvement or maintenance. Of course, we could also choose not to target them.

For example, using Physical Capabilities as a quick example we might choose to target cardiovascular fitness for improvement, flexibility for maintenance and muscle strength might remain un-targeted for the time being.

Then, each of the subcomponents will have a set of “methods” that would be handy for just these purposes. Some of these methods will require some tools, whilst others will not. Some methods will have a definite impact on the associated subcomponent whilst others will only have a probable benefit. Then there are methods that do nothing for the subcomponent and even some that actually cause damage.

For example, if targeting cardiovascular fitness then two of the methods might be skipping and running whereby the skipping need a tool (skipping rope) and running don’t (you don’t need running shoes to run). Both have an obvious and direct impact on cardio fitness.

In other words, your plane has 5 major components, dozens of subcomponents and potentially hundreds of method and tools for ensuring your vessel is in the best possible condition and can fly as far as possible.  

Pomfret’s Paradox and Barracosa’s Law 

Pomfret’s Paradox refers to the fact that there is an unlimited number of ways to prepare but a finite amount of time to do so. With the analogy of the plane in mind by the time you have come up with all the many methods that can be used across the subcomponents, there will be far too many to squeeze into your week.

In my work as a sport psychologist, I work with many athletes of sports that can’t be done as a source of income. For example, most of the Olympic sports such as rowing and shooting. Many of these athletes have full-time jobs and families. Therefore the amount of preparation time they get during the week can be limited. Yet not once have I ever asked one of these clients to increase their preparation time. In fact, I’m more likely to suggest they decrease their overall training time.

This is due to Barracosa’s Law, sometimes called the Q10 x Q10 Principle.

Barracosa’s Law refers to the fact that the quantity and quality of preparation are separate concepts. It translates into a crucial mental skill as it allows the performer to mentally separate the amount of training from the effectiveness. All too often in high-performance situations, improvements are sought by trying to increase quantity whilst either ignoring or actually decreasing quality.

The first Q is for the quantity of preparation. Quantity is measured in units with the most common in sporting settings being minutes, hours, reps (repetitions), millimetres, grams and attempts. The ideal amount of quantity is somewhere in the middle with too many (much) and too few to be avoided.

Not for the last time, I will use examples away from sport to get my point across. In dental hygiene, for example, brushing one’s teeth once a week would be a Q1 (too infrequent), brushing them 10 times a day would be a Q3 (too often) but brushing them twice a day would be Q10 (also known as the sweet spot). In other words, a low quantity score occurs when either we are overdoing or undergoing it.

The second Q represents the other major element to preparation and that’s quality. Quality is very different from quantity due to the fact that it’s not possible to have something that is too high in quality. So for quality, a high score of 7, 8, 9 or 10 suggests really beneficial actions are taking place whereas below 4 implies what is being done during that time is not that effective.

Knowing the best way to brush your teeth and having access to the best possible toothbrush and toothpaste would be a 10. Inferior brushing techniques and poor quality toothpaste would lower this number even if the brushing was still taking place twice a day.

Another analogy to explain how quality and quantity really work is to think of water. There is not much to celebrate if you access to unlimited water but that water is contaminated. Likewise, although having access to the pristine waters of the New Zealand mountains might be nice it wouldn’t mean much if you only had a couple of litres that you brought down yourself from a hike you did years back. 

So the aim of preparation (all kinds) is to try and help all of the areas that we are working towards a score of 100 (10 x 10). To ensure we’re doing the right amounts of the highest possible practice across all the areas that are important to us. 

An extension of Barracosa’s Law is to actually do the maths. If you feel this would be of some benefit to you or your athletes. For example, if your current physical regime means that you attend a 90-minute hot yoga class once a month you might decide that in terms of quality this is a 9 / 10 activity. However, as you’d prefer to do it weekly then you give it a 4 / 10 for quantity. As 4 x 9 is 36 then you might like to think of you current physical choices are operating at 36% or 36 out of a possible 100.

It makes a lot more sense (to me at least) that we multiple the Qs instead of adding them together – to create a maximum of 100 instead of 20. The reason being is that although it’s useful to be able to mentally separate the quantity of quality of our preparation the fact is that whilst you’re actually doing that 10 minutes HIT activity the two sides are working together with more of a multiplication effect.

If you are not sure if doing the actual maths is going to help or hinder you then I would suggest giving it a go first and deciding later. They are just numbers after all – they can’t really hurt you. 


Part Four

Time To Get To Work

I will be spending the rest of this e-book going through each of the five major components. In doing so I will try clarify what the subcomponents are and the various method and tools that exist for each. The order I will be going through is as follows:

PC, TC, PT, MT and TW

I want to start with PC (Physical Capabilities) because it’s the most tangible of the components. Therefore it will be the ideal place to set the tone for how we then approach some of the less tangible ones later on.

I am mindful as I write this section that I am not a qualified expert in three of the five components (physical, technical and tactical). So I need to be somewhat careful about how much advice I give compared with Mental Toughness and Personal Thriving which fit completely with my formal credentials and experience as a performance psychologist.

But here is my justification for not entirely skipping over these three components entirely. Everything that humans do is partially psychological in nature. 

Although I am not a qualified dentist I would happily take on any qualified dental expert in getting – for example – people to floss more often due to my knowledge of motivation and what is required to form genuine habits. Although I am not a qualified physiotherapist my knowledge and experience around the mental impacts and solutions to injuries (physical setbacks) allows me to confidentially and without apologies contribute to the Physical Preparation of athletes. You get the picture.

Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Physical Preparation

For each part of the Preparation Plane there will be a number of subcomponents that could be targeted for either improvement or maintenance. For each of these there will be potentially millions of methods that help us do just that. To help us not get overwhelmed by the almost endless number of methods and tools for each of the subcomponents then we can – and will – stick to mostly the methods that we know definitely work. 

When applied to the first engine of the Preparation Plane – Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Physical Activities – it might look something like this:

Physical Activities >> Subcomponents  vvIncreasing Heart Rate on purpose via HMStretching on purposeResisting on purposeBalancing on purpose
CardioDefinitelyProbablyProbablyMaybe
FlexibilityMaybeDefinitelyMaybeProbably
StrengthProbablyProbablyDefinitelyMaybe
BalanceMaybeProbablyProbablyDefinitely

By zooming in only on the “definitely” above we can quite easily start to create some lists of specific method and tools that will more than likely improve or maintain each of the four subcomponents of Physical Capabilities if they are done regularly and on purpose.


Subcomponents
MethodsUseful ToolsExamples
CardioIncreasing Heart Rate on purpose via HMskipping roperunning, skipping
FlexibilityStretching on purpose
stretching
StrengthResisting on purposeheavy thingsweight training
BalanceResisting on purposebalance boardbalancing 

You’ll notice that the word ‘on purpose’ appears alongside each of the Physical Preparation subcomponents. This is important. Intentionality (being deliberate or purposive) is one of the easiest ways to boost the effectiveness of the any activity (more sophisticated way to follow). 

It is particularly important for the ‘increasing Heart Rate’ subcomponent as there are many occasions where one’s HR will increase that we would not want to count towards as physical preparation – such as when we get nervous or consume too much caffeine.

Have we left out anything? 

Well I invite the exercise physiologists reading this book to contact me if they think I have but I am quietly confident that the four subcomponents above cover most if it.

Let’s put it to the test. 

What about speed? 

The kind that might help you run 100 meters as fast as possible. Correct me if I am wrong but all four physical preparation subcomponents will help you become faster at sprinting. The precise way in which they are combined may well be difference for a middle distance runner, long distance runner or sprinter but that can be addressed via the amount of time you spend on each one. Again, I am no expert here but I am guessing a sprinter will want to spend a lot more time on upper body muscle development that his Marathon running counterpart.

What about injuries?

Surely the kinds of exercises that a physiotherapist might ask us to do are vastly different from these four simple subcomponents? I spend a lot of time with injured athletes and their rehabilitation programs tend to always be made up of lots of stretching, weights, cardio and balancing activities simply adapted to gently improve the physical condition in a way that doesn’t risk further injury.

In other words the subcomponents are identical for injured and uninjured athletes – what might be different are the methods and the tools.

In fact, you could argue that terms such as ‘injury’ are unhelpful as they direct the mind towards the problem rather than the solution. With the exception of unexpected career ending injuries the ideal mindset for injuries athletes is simply to adjust their physical preparation accordingly. 

For example, before a ligament injury in the knee (such as an anterior cruciate ligament or ‘ACL’) a squash player might have been doing 2 x 30 minute of “shuttle runs” per week. After the ACL and with some advice from a qualified physiotherapist, she changes this to 2 x 30 minute of “shuttle walks” instead. The quantity has remained the same and the quality is also still very high as it refers more of a ‘best possible’ way of thinking as opposed to a ‘best ever’ one. More about quality and quantity later – what about the rest of the Preparation Plane.

Part Five

Technical Consistency Being Targeted By Technical Preparation

The technical aspects of sport are all about biomechanics or the science related to preferred body movements, positions and postures. And although this engine is by far the most sports-specific – meaning that the subcomponents will vary the most between sports (and even different positions within the same sport) – there are still some general rules that we can follow.

First and foremost we need to acknowledge that making technical changes will be disruptive to our ability to then automatically repeat the new version of the technique. Bigger and more frequent changes will be particularly destabilising.

This presents us with yet another conundrum. How we safely navigate the highly technical nature of sport where, for example, some codes refer to the guy in charge of everything as the Technical Director?

The answer is that we need to separate the two sides of Technical Preparation into the “adjustment” part and the “consolidation” part. Both count as Technical Preparation but – like stretching and running – they have very different purposes.

Time spent on technical adjustments will generally centre around “working out what the best technique” is. This can be done with a coach or without one. Think about those golf magazines articles full of photos with lines all over them. It would be normal for this time to have a lot of second-guessing, experimenting, tinkering and backflipping.

In tennis, this might be seeing what it feels like for your default backhand to become two-handed rather the one-handed (or vice versa). In ice hockey, this could include varying the distance between your hands on the stick as you attempt a slap shot.

Time spent on technical consolidation is the pure unadulterated repetition of the movements that have now been “locked away” after whatever time on adjustments was required.

The amount of time that you dedicate to each of the two types of technical consistency will depend mostly on your current abilities and how soon your next competition is.

Let me explain …

For novice (beginner) athletes you’d expect a healthy dose of tinkering as they become comfortable with the basic techniques of their new sport. As the athletes improve the number of technical adjustments should decline to the point where it would want to be virtually absent from the weekly training of an elite performer.

The opposite, of course, would apply for technical consolidation whereby you’d expect elite athletes to spend far more time trying to commit their movements to muscle memory compared with a beginner.

I for one believe that far too much time is typically spent on both these sides of technical preparation. Remember, it’s only one of the four engines.

Time spent on technical adjustments should take place as far from competitions as possible. A month before is much better than a week before but not as good as four months before.

If, like most athletes, you have an “off-season” then do all of your technical adjustings in one big go during the early part of your offseason. Then don’t even think about trying to squeeze in any more technical changes before the next offseason – 12 months later. 

This hard and fast rule can be relaxed somewhat for novice and younger athletes but the same principles apply to everyone. Change (if you must), consolidate, consolidate, consolidate and then compete. For a younger athlete this might mean the change happens on Monday (after feedback from the coach), this new technique is practised on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after the game on Saturday. In other words no technical changes after Monday.

They can then spend the rest of their time on the only activity that counts as Technical Preparation – which is the repetition of these “locked-in” body positions/movements until they feel as natural as possible.

Before moving on to the next Component it is important to spend a little time addressing the notion of the perfect technique.

Biomechanists look away now. There is no such thing. The perfect technique is a bit like the Loch Ness Monster. It’s a myth. Just because people talk about it and you can buy mugs with a picture of “it” on doesn’t make it real.

Entire sporting careers have been squandered by athletes chasing a perfect technique when little did they know that the way they were doing it’ when they there thirteen was probably fine but just lacked a bunch of repetition.

The world of elite sports is full of examples of high achieving athletes whose techniques are or were regarded as suspect or at least unconventional.

Jim Furyk is a US golfer with 26 tour victories to his name and at the time of writing has won more than USD $70 million in prize money. Yet, he has achieved this with a swing that if you asked a 10-year-old beginner to do it on a Saturday morning golf clinic would likely get the swing coach into a frenzy. His swing has what could be described as a loop when the club is at the top of the backswing. This has been described by David Feherty as “an octopus falling out of a tree” and by Gary McCord as “a one-armed golfer using an axe to kill a snake in a telephone booth.” 

How many PGA tour events have you won David and Gary?

Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson are also great examples of athletes who achieved greatness with techniques that were heavily criticised – before they started to win stuff. Bolt sprinted with an “uneven side” and Johnson hardly moved is arms – both counter to what the text books say.  

Technical Practice and The Q10 x Q10 Principle

Remember that Barracosa’s Law, above, applies to all forms of preparation. It strongly encourages us to question the quality of all of our practice. What this basically means is that on occasions the best way to ensure the maximum possible quality of our technical practice is to know what type of technical practice is required at this time. Are you changing something just for the sake of it or are you sure this technical change is required? Are you repeating a new movement due to having recently changed it or are you just going through the motions because it feels good?

One thing is for sure though unless you are a beginner athlete you probably need less quantity of technical practice than you are currently undertaking.

Part Six

Tactical Wisdom being targeted by Tactical Preparation

How Much Time Do You Spend Practising Your Decision Making?

Ok, so we have done the below the neck stuff – it’s now time to move to the components where the brain is really in charge.

As was the case with technical preparation, the precise nature of your tactical preparation is really going to depend on your particular sport (or sports) as well as your designated role (or roles). But as was the case with both technical and physical previously there are still some universal guidelines that could be outlined that apply to 100% of athletes and coaches. 

But before we do that let’s really clarify what we mean by the tactical side of sport. In my experience, it’s very frequently misunderstood and confused with other areas.

Being ‘tactically wise’ means that the athlete consistently makes the best possible decision given the circumstances whilst competing. In order words Tactical Preparation is all about various training exercises aimed at helping athletes make better ‘in competition’ decisions and choices. What this means is that we can exclude other types of decisions from this particular engine of the Preparation Plane. Such as the decision to specialise as a defender or midfielder or the choice about whether to stay for another drink or head home now.

Don’t get me wrong, these are also decisions and of course they all impact on performance they just belong to a different part of the plane.

Introducing Hick’s Law

Hick’s Law – named after British psychologist William Hick – proved that both decision-making speed and accuracy were most related to the number of possible options to choose from. In other words, increase the number of perceived options for a person to choose and watch how the decision making time and number of poor selections increases. 

Decreasing the number of items available to choose from in “the buffet” of the brain is one of the most effective ways to improve both decisions making speed (far more important in some sports, say squash, than others such as golf) and decision making accuracy (actually picking the right option).

And it not the actual number of choices that matters it’s the number of perceived choices. In other words, it’s the number of options that the decision-maker is aware of rather than the total that exists. From a psychology of performance point of view, this is a very bid deal.

Of course, once the number of perceived choices across a range of situations has been reduced then decision-making practice drills need to be introduced that genuinely expose the athletes to actually having to make these decisions in a way that would be similar – or harder – than during competition.

In many ways, this is exactly the same scenario that we faced for technical preparation. The process of deciding ahead of time the smaller workable number of choices is much like Technical Adjustment in that this wants to be done infrequently and ideally during the offseason. We could call the tactical equivalent ‘tactical clarification’.

The decision making drills that occur after this and could (should) by part of weekly training at any time of year might be called Tactical Automation – a process that is very similar in it’s intent to Technical Consolidation.

Tactical Clarification

If we interpret Hick’s Law to the extreme then the aim would be to simply reduce the number of decision making options to as few as possible with ‘two’ being the ideal, three being not quite as good but better than four etc.

To make sure you’re following you might like to take a minute to consider why the smallest number of decision making options is two and not one or zero.

Did you get it?

Any action which only has a single option (for example, using a putter when your ball is on the putting green) doesn’t need to be practiced from a decision making point of view.

Whilst we are alive then it’s not possible for an action to have less than one option. In other words zero decision making possibilities is really someone that belongs to the forth dimension.

It may often feel like no decisions are being made – and it’s the job of tactical automation to make you feel that way – but unless you’re one of those chickens that has had its head chopped off – there is a decision making aspect to everything we do.

One of the aims of this guide is to help you manage this unavoidable truth.

If Blank Then Blank Scenarios

First, we need to see if we can predict some of your competitive decision-making scenarios. Then, can we minimise the number of choice options to three of four without running the risk of knowing what is going on around us?

As mentioned before the decision-making requirements can vary a lot not only from sport to sport (sprinting low to gridiron high) but also within each sports depending on your role (quarterback very high, everyone else lower).

I have always found that creating simple If Blank Then Blank Scenarios the best way to go about Tactical Clarification. This is one of the ways of clarifying some of the most intense decision making situations imaginable (for example, those that would exist in the emergency department of a hospital) so let’s assume it’s sufficient for our purposes.

I have resisted the temptation thus far to use certain sports in detail to explain various concepts but this part of the guide would really suffer without some.

Tennis Examples

If my opponent is at the net and in the middle then go for a lob shot rather than a passing shot …

If the wind is assisting my serve then use more slices serves …

Soccer Examples

If we lose the ball in our attacking half then one forward drops back to defend …

If we are leading on the scoreboard with 10 minutes to play then midfield just tried to keep hold of the ball …

Once these scenarios have been clarified then of course it’s time to really learn them. I would suggest starting by learning them theoretically. Get your friend to ask you ‘what would you do if lost the ball in your attacking half’ for example? Afterwards, you can then move to a more applied type of tactical practice. By this, I mean to practice “on-field” situations that have been manipulated to force you to have to make the very decisions you have previously clarified. If you get them wrong in practice, keeping trying until you don’t.

Part Seven (Just Added)

Mental Toughness, Health and Wellbeing

Okay, we are now getting to the part that we really know a lot about. There are now two parts of the plane remaining; sporting/performance mental toughness and overall health and wellbeing. Mental Toughness is the fourth and final of the engines. In this way, we would benefit from treating it like the previous three. For these, in case you’d benefit from a quick reminder, the engine itself needs to be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Then, each of these mini-outcomes could have a series of processes aimed at their improvement or maintenance.

This suggests that that very first task here is to break down mental toughness for sport / performance into smaller chunks.

My colleagues and I at Condor Performance did this many years ago. We looked at all the dozens of definitions of mental toughness that were available at the time both from and outside of the science. But few attempted to subcategorise the concept. Yet, by looking at the many definitions you can quickly see what these subcomponents are.

And So Metuf Was Born

Metuf is the word created by taking the first letter of what we consider “The Big Five” subcomponents of sporting/performance mental toughness:

M for Motivation

E for Emotions

T for Thoughts

U for Unity

F for Focus

I expected, over the years to have to add one or two new subcomponents but this had never been required. For example, most of the other mental desirables are either synonyms of one of these five are a combination of them. For example, although some might say that attention and concentration are different from focus we’d disagree. Each of these is clearly about the ability (or lack of) to stay on task. Performing under pressure is another classic. Performing under pressure is basically what occurs when you’re good enough at the E and the F parts. When you can manage your emotions and focus regardless of both internal and external distractions then you’ll be able to execute your skills under pressure.

Regardless of whether you agree or not with the Metuf breakdown, the concept of subcategorisation is crucial for the next stage. The stage that very, very few athletes, coaches and performers get to. What are the best processes for improving these five mental constructs? For example, if you asked a group of 10-year-olds to draw up a list of ways of improving mental toughness you’d likely get very few ideas. But ask the same group to come up with ways to help them bond as a group, to improve their group unity and you’ll get dozens of great ideas.

This ebook/blog is not the best place for us to list the hundreds of processes that my colleagues and I use on a daily basis. Although now a little out of date one of the best places to learn about these processes is via the Metuf for Sports website we created just for this purpose. At Metuf for Sports, you’ll be able to watch the introductory videos for free. Then, for the cost comparable to a book you’ll be able to complete the entire course whereby the video formats does justice to these concepts in a way that the written word would struggle.

Finally, Mental Health

Yes, it would remise of me not to finish this ebook with some comments about “the rest of the plane”.

Maybe one of the best places to end is where we began, by emphasising the importance of separating processes from outcomes. Mental health, regardless of how you choose to define it is an outcome. It’s a result and it’s a consequence. In fact, all health measures, both mental and physical, are outcomes.

It is the opinion of this psychologist that we spend far too much time thinking about outcomes in general. And that this is particularly troublesome when it comes to physical and mental health.

The two biggest reasons why an over-emphasis on outcomes is problematic is due to the fact that we don’t have that much influence over them (think genetics) and it distracts us from the processes that we would benefit from making permanent.

The health industry is very keen on diagnoses. They love to come up with labels. They then use these labels to work backwards and attempt interventions or a series of interventions (aka processes). This by self is quite logical as surely somebody with bipolar will benefit from different processes compared with someone without it however once the diagnosis has been “fixed” all too often the processes then get abandoned. Then the problem (diagnoses) often returns and around and around we go.

Extreme Process Mindset

What if we took an Extreme Process Mindset and applied it to mental health and well-being. What would that look like? Well in the first instance we wouldn’t bother with diagnoses and labels. We would ask ourselves the question of what collections of processes would have the greatest impact on mental health with the least side effects.

My colleagues and I Condor Performance recently spent the better part of two days trying to answer this very question. In doing so we came up with some smaller health outcomes that make it considerably easier to suggest processes. Through a combination of both luck and a bit of ingenuity, these smaller health outcomes spell the word NEEEEDS (yes, that’s Needs but with 4 x S).

I thought it might be a fun way to end this e-book by asking those who have followed it over the last few months to guess what the NEEEEDS stands for.

If you have an idea please list your best guess in the comments section below and I will personally email everyone who has a guess the actual list. Please free to copy and paste this to make it easier:

I think the …

N stands for …

E stands for …

E stands for …

E stands for …

E stands for …

D stands for …

S stands for …

~ The End ~

Sport Psychology or Sports Psychology?

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Sport Psychology or Sports Psychology
Sport Psychology or Sports Psychology

It All Starts With Commitment …

Commitment (also know as motivation, perseverance) is arguably the most critical aspect of Sport Psychology

“Desire is the key to motivation, but it is determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”

Mario Andretti
Commitment mind map, business concept for presentations and reports

It’s That Time Of Year …

This New Year’s shorter-than-normal edition of the Mental Toughness Digest is an edited/updated version of an article I published exactly two years ago. Time of year should have nothing to do with various mental aspects of performance. But it tends to. One of the most significant is this. At the start of the year – now – motivation for improvement tends to be higher than at other times. Why? Most likely, the start of new periods (weeks, months, years, seasons) implies new energy and new opportunities. It shouldn’t but it does. The mentally strong can conjure this same energy at any time.

So it’s appropriate that this first article of this New Year is about motivation and commitment. About getting started, about finally closing the gap between yourself and your best self.

Committed Performance / Sport Psychologists

Since starting Condor Performance back in 2005 I have given many psychologists a chance to join our team. I don’t keep a count but I would suggest the number is close to 40 or 50. Yet only ten remain (are still working for us). What is it about my current team that separates them from the dozens that have come and gone? Only those that remain have shown a real commitment to the sport psychology work we do.

Due to the client focussed monthly options that our clients choose from, whereby our clients are encouraged to have shorter, more frequent sessions at times that suit them (not necessary us) real commitment gets tested from the get-go. Nothing questions commitment in our line of work quite like sitting in traffic for an hour to deliver a 20-minute session or getting up at 4 in the morning due to a time zone difference. The cracks tend to start appearing early for those who are not really committed to helping others improve.

Commitment Is The Same As Motivation

Commitment is essentially a synonym of motivation. The scientific literature correctly suggests that a healthy mixture of both internal and external motivation is required to reach optimal. External factors, which refer to rewards or praise from others only get you so far. Ideally, we’d want more than half of the drive to come from internal factors. These are factors such as enjoyment, self-worth/efficacy, passion and seeing the bigger picture (short term pain but long term gain).

It’s this magical combination of internal factors being backed up by external ones that only a few have and becomes quite obvious pretty quickly. I remember once calling a staff meeting on a Sunday and the person who lived furthest away (who shall remain nameless) wasn’t very well so I gave him the option of not coming. Yet 5 minutes before the meeting was due to commence he arrived coughing and sneezing. He wanted to be there – for himself (internal) and for his colleagues (external) and didn’t see why a runny nose and a 90-minute drive should get in the way. It should be no surprise therefore that this performance psychologist is still working with us. He is a key member of our team and recently passed the milestone of having started working with his 450th monthly client.

If you’re interested in learning more about your own levels of motivation (commitment) then click here to access our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Once completed one of the team will be in touch with your results.