Sport Psychologists – Applied and International Since 2005
Author: Chris Pomfret
Chris "The Gun" Pomfret is an exceptional performance psychologist who has helped boost the Mental Toughness of many a sporting client since joining Condor Performance in 2012. He lives in Brisbane, Australia with his wife and two daughters.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”
Communication As A Mental Skill
NOTE: If you’re not part of a traditional team sport and therefore think that an article about communication doesn’t apply to you then think again. “Team” by our definition basically just means a group of people working together. So if you’re an individual sport athlete then “your team” is probably your family, your coach(es) basically anyone in your life with whom you have a relationship. Ideally, one of these helpers is a qualified performance or sport psychologist (hopefully one of us 😊). Of course, for athletes of traditional team sports all these “support” people also apply. But the overall number of personnel in your “team” is probably larger.
Let’s Start With A Question
Is communication really a mental skill or is it more of a life skill? Well, to be honest, most psychological skills are life skills. Some are obvious whilst others are in disguise with a fake mustache and a wig! Let’s take motivation as an example. Yes, motivation is hugely valuable in sport and performance but really it’s useful for everyone in every situation. The kind of commitment that high-performing athletes have to get up at 5 am and train is not that different from plumbers who get up at a similar time in order to earn an honest income.
Simply put, as human beings our mental strengths and weaknesses spill into everything we do. Although at Condor Performance we tend to assist athletes, coaches and performers improve mental areas such as communication mainly for performance enhancement in most cases it benefits them well beyond their chosen domain. This is a nice side effect of working with someone trained in both general psychology as well as performance psychology.
What Is Communication? What Is It Not?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines communication as “the activity of expressing or exchanging information, feelings, etc.”
Some psychologists like to include, in the definition of communication, “communicating” with oneself. We disagree with this. “Communicating” with oneself should fall under thinking and self-talk. The word itself in English derives from the Latin communicare meaning “to share”. So for us, communication as a mental skill needs to involve at least two people.
So how do we share with others then?
Basically, in either a non-verbal or verbal way. Non-verbal includes body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Verbal includes the actual words.
Then, of course, there is both the production of these and the receiving of them too. By production I mean you are producing the stimulus. By receiving, someone else is.
How Well Do You Communicate Now?
One way to answer this is by asking others. Or you could complete one of our MTQs all of which attempt to measure communication. However, arguably the most objective way of measuring this critical mental skill is by recording yourself. When watching yourself back turn the volume down to analyse your body language, for example. How focused are you in the footage when someone else is doing the communicating? For example, when a coach or captain is going over tactics? And one of the very best questions you could ever ask yourself.
How could I have done that better?
Use A 2 x 2 Matrix
A 2 x 2 matrix is just a small table with two rows and two columns. To improve your communication as a mental skill create one like the one below somewhere.
As you can see the four main types of communication each have their own cell. 1) Non-verbal production, 2) Verbal production, 3) Non-verbal reception and 4) Verbal reception.
Try to spend 5 minutes a week trying to improve each cell of the Matrix. For example, for non-verbal production, you might practice looking confident in front of a mirror. Remember, you don’t have to be confident to portray confidence to others. Read much more on this concept here.
For the Verbal Productive cell, it might be worth seeing if you can navigate the content of what you’re saying toward stuff that is more influenceable. And avoid crapping on about less influenceable subjects.
And as always, if you need a hand, just fill out our Contact Us form and one of the crew will get back to you with detailed info on our 1-on-1 services.
‘Enjoyment Is One Of The Cornerstones Of Sporting Success’ argues Chris Pomfret. Without it, it’s a very long way to the top.
This article was first written by Chris Pomfret in 2017, then slightly updated by Gareth J. Mole in 2022. Another article on the same subject by the same author – Enjoyment and Performance – can be found here.
The Fun Factor – A Key Mental Skill
There are so many questions regarding fun and enjoyment in the context of elite sport and performance. But the most pressing would be these two. Is it actually necessary for an elite athlete to love their sport? And can The Fun Factor be increased in situations whereby the mojo is gone?
To address the first of these I can’t help but think back to the 2017 Wimbledon Tennis tournament. And in particular, comments made by Aussie Bernard Tomic following his elimination. Tomic appeared to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seemed so unappealing. One thing is obvious when looking at this from the outside, The Fun Factor had gone. And this is assuming it was there in the first place.
To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court. That he was lacking motivation during Wimbledon and in his playing career more generally. He reported lacking a sense of fun. He described being happy with his life from a financial perspective but being dissatisfied with the sport of tennis and not caring about his results. Tomic acknowledged the difficulties of playing at the top level for such a long period but stated that he planned to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”
Include Mental Training From The Start
In later interviews, Tomic said that he felt “trapped” in the sport and that if he could go back in time he’d encourage his younger self to pursue another career. “Do something you love and enjoy” he would advise the 14-year-old Bernard, “because it’s a grind and it’s a tough, tough, tough life.”
Sporting results are a crude way to make conclusions about anything but sometimes this is the only data we have. When Tomic made these comments in 2017 he was ranked in the Top 20 in the world. As we update this article almost five years later his ranking is 260. And I would suggest this slide in the rankings is mostly due to mental health reasons. The lack of the fun factor is now taking its toll. And it wouldn’t surprise me that soon we’ll be referring to him as a ‘former tennis professional’.
All Athletes Have Mental Health Issues
Every single athlete will have some kind of mental health issues that they would benefit from addressing. This is particularly true for those competing at the pointy end whereby the psychological challenges tend to be much greater. Think about a professional tennis player who spends eight months of the year ‘on the road’. So rather than dividing athletes into those who are mentally well versus those who are mentally unwell, it’s more useful to separate them into those who are addressing inevitable mental challenges versus those in denial.
Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the top three. Performance anxiety tends to be ranked first, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked next. But the loss of fun. enjoyment, motivation is a close third.
If we compare Tomic to someone like the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt the differences could hardly be more extreme. Among the many contributing factors to Bolt’s success as a runner, his pure love of racing was right up there. It was remarkable to observe how every time he competed he treated it as a celebration of his passion for running. I’m sure this was one of the main reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete.
Enjoyment And Seriousness Can Coexist
Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify. As such it’s no wonder that so many sporting and non-sporting performers struggle to find it when it ‘goes missing’. The word ‘fun’ often gets used in this context. Wherever possible we encourage our clients to tap into the pure childlike thrill that comes with performing. One problem is that even something that seems as straightforward as fun is hard to define as a concept.
If you’re a tennis player reading this now, ask yourself what exactly is most fun about the sport? If your answer is that you just love hitting the ball, can you describe in words why that is? Is it movement-based, or the challenge of executing a successful shot, or the ‘feel’ of a clean stroke when the racquet and ball meet, or just being in the moment?
If you’re finding it hard to put into words why hitting the ball is such fun that’s entirely understandable, but what happens when you’re suddenly not hitting it well? Or when you’re injured? Or when you’re hitting it well but results aren’t going your way?
Enjoyment isn’t simply having fun (whatever that word means to you) and again most people find it difficult to define what the additional components are. Enjoyment also involves a challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment. This often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them into their sport or performance area in the first place. A lack of a suitable performance/life balance is detrimental to the fun factor and in turn to the performance itself.
Another common cause for reduced enjoyment is when our personal identity (who we are) becomes defined solely by our sporting/performing self (what we do). In fact, there are many reasons why enjoyment can suffer. People typically find it much harder to address these challenges because unlike technical issues (such as serving, volleying, or hitting forehands in tennis) they do not have a way to quantify what enjoyment means to them and therefore they don’t have a way of improving it.
Whilst you don’t need to love your sport, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits both from a performance point of view as well as overall mental health. Depending on where you are in your career this article might be a great opportunity to take a little bit of time to sit down and really consider the reasons why you spend so much time on your sport or performance area. Does it fit into your overall purpose or upon reflection are you doing it for all the wrong reasons. As always if you need a helping hand from a qualified professional that please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Sport psychologists Coaching The Coaches is becoming more and more normal as competitive sport finally start to understand what we do.
One of the great professional delights for us here at Condor Performance is the opportunity to work alongside sporting coaches. We are privileged to work with coaches across many sports and levels of competition. Most of this consulting is 1-on-1 whereby we help them improve both their own mental toughness as well as their mental coaching skills. Of course these two areas are related but are far from one and the same. So coaching the coaches really means coaching the coaches mentally.
The process of collaborating with coaching staff provides a range of challenges and rewards distinct from working directly with athletes. It is immensely satisfying for us to help coaches redirect some of the vast amounts of time and energy spent on their players back into improving their own performance. That’s right, coaches are performers too even if they don’t actually strap on the boots.
An Unlimited Appetite for Learning
Increasingly at the elite level of sport there is a trend for coaches to take off-season trips. The idea is to ‘pick the brains’ of other organisations in order to bring new perspectives back home. “Study tours” are fascinating exercises with a host of educational benefits. However they’re not exactly cheap and that thing called ‘life’ can get in the way.
We are huge advocates for these study tours but accept they will not be possible for most coaches. Luckily there is a workaround. Start working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist from the comfort of your own home.
Of course when it comes to the practical application of coaching tasks and responsibilities it is the coaches themselves who are the experts, not us. But we become involved to provide mental skills training to the coach, not to start developing game plans or overhaul training regimes.
Five Key Questions
Below you will find five key questions for coaches directed at their own performance, not that of their athletes.
HOW ARE YOU PERFORMING OUTSIDE OF THE PLAYING ARENA?
Before we discuss the mental side of your coaching performance, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Improving your performance in areas which don’t at first appear to be directly linked to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of coaching will in fact directly benefit your work with your athletes. Attending to ‘off-field’ matters will help to increase your physical and mental energy. It will sharpen your focus when coaching. It will enhance your enthusiasm for your duties. Furthermore, it will promote enjoyment of your role and contribute to your general wellbeing. Finally, it will help to address (prevent) burnout in the longer term. The major targets for improvement for any coach, from a lifestyle perspective, are:
Nutrition. No doubt you’re encouraging your athletes to put the right fuel into their bodies? And while you may not be running around on the court with them it’s important that you do the same. This isn’t just necessary for general health but also for enhancing your mood and improving concentration. Taking care of your nutritional needs seems fairly obvious at first glance. But that’s why it often takes a back seat to other tasks which seem more urgent at the time.
Sleep. Unfortunately this is not an exact science and a great night of shut-eye can’t be guaranteed. There are various factors which can get in the way of sleep. So anything you can do to increase the chances of a good night’s rest will have flow-on benefits to life and sport. Taking basic steps to plan for and implement good sleeping habits sounds sensible enough. Like nutrition, sleep can be one of the forgotten components in the grand scheme of coaching performance. See this great PDF for more details.
WHAT DOES MENTAL TOUGHNESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
The mental qualities you hope to see in your players are easy enough to picture. But what does mental toughness actually look like for you personally? What are the skills you’re seeking to keep improving upon in order to perform at your best? Below are some points that keen-eyed readers will recognise fall along the lines of the Metuf model. These are all areas we often discuss when coaching the coaches.
What are your reasons for coaching and wanting to do it well? The immediate response to this may be that you love your chosen sport. However it’s helpful to clarify this passion further. Why exactly does coaching appeal to you and what are the rewards which you get in return for your efforts? Knowing what matters to us in terms of our chosen sport means that we can keep these values as non-negotiable aspects of our sporting lives.
How well are you able to manage your emotions? That term – manage – is used deliberately and is not a result of the growing ‘business-speak’ in modern society. Although the term ‘control’ is thrown around freely in sports, we cannot control our emotions as we cannot guarantee them. What we can guarantee are the actions that we pick in response to our feelings. Developing competency in recognising and better understanding one’s own emotions – and the impact of these emotions on performance – benefits the coach in their work and enables the coach to teach their athletes similar skills.
Do you spend the majority of your time worrying about aspects you have little or no influence on? For example, your opponents? Food for though, no?
How well are you able to get your message across to others? Are you able to receive and interpret messages well from others? How effectively can you get messages across to yourself? Communication is a hugely under-utilised skill. Normally this is due to lifelong habits which we have developed in everyday interactions. Even minor modifications can yield powerful changes in tasks such as teaching biomechanics or managing different personalities.
How well are you able to focus on what is most relevant and useful in your role as a coach? It is equally important to improve your attention in preparation as well as in competitioN. Are you prioritising one over the other at present?
DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR SPORTING IQ?
Out on the playing surface, tactical wisdom refers to knowledge about the sport. It’s about decision making skills and knowing ‘when’ to or ‘why’ to do something. There is an enormous difference between ‘how to’ shoot for goal (technique) vs. determining if a shot or a pass is best goal (tactics). Developing decision making skills is something which the vast majority of coaches I’ve encountered have revelled in. I enjoy helping them to teach their athletes how to become smarter and to read the play. How to be proactive rather than reactive.
Off the playing surface these same principles apply for coaches. We want to encourage them to continue learning, to seek new knowledge, and to gain deeper insights into their sport. Tactical wisdom for coaches isn’t restricted to coming up with new game plans. Instead, tactical wisdom is looking at the bigger picture and planning how to acquire and utilise knowledge for the benefit of your athletes. As a coach, if you can recognise what your strengths and weaknesses are knowledge-wise then you’ve immediately begun a process of filling in any gaps and strengthening the existing foundations.
IS YOUR BODY GETTING ENOUGH ATTENTION?
Improving the strength, fitness and flexibility of athletes is of course a key consideration for any coach on any given day. However, we are talking about coaches here and the risk with this group is that enhancing the physical capabilities of athletes will always take priority over your own needs. Taking the time to plan specific goals for improving your physical capabilities and implementing weekly effort towards these goals will benefit your work with clipboard and whistle. It may even help you to come up with some new ideas for punishing your athletes with torturous fitness drills!
ARE YOU REFINING AND UPDATING YOUR TECHNICAL SKILLS?
When discussing technical consistency with an athlete, we would be talking about their ability to execute movements and apply skills the way they want to over and over again across all conditions in competition. That is, ‘how to’ do something. One of the primary concerns of a coach is to help teach athletes these skills. So in order to improve your performance as a coach it is worthwhile considering ‘how to’ teach your charges. It is one thing to demonstrate to a javelin thrower the method for launching that piece of equipment. However, it’s another to be passing on that knowledge in a way that is effective and of most benefit to that individual athlete. It’s hugely useful for coaches to break from habit where possible and review how they go about executing their skills in their role as a coach. How effectively are you teaching your athletes and how satisfied are you in your current ability to pass on skills/knowledge/information to others? As with all the previously mentioned pillars of performance, ongoing improvement in the ‘how to’ of coaching players is the goal here regardless of which technical elements are areas of strength for you as an individual.
If you are a sporting coach and you’d like some info on how we can work with you please contact us via one of the below.
Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret muses about how off-field endeavours can actually help with on-field performances.
Has there ever been a better time to consider your work-life balance? The Corona Virus, although devastating, is a reset and rethink opportunity for many of us. Are you spending too much time on one area of your life to the detriment of another?
The parents of our younger athletes will often ask us how they might encourage their kids to take their schoolwork seriously. Understandably, young athletes can struggle to see what relevance of studying or exploring long-term work options has to achieve their sporting dreams.
It is here that the answers hides. What if you could prove to elite athletes and performers that sometime less is more. What if they knew that hitting the maths books was actually going to help them play better on Saturday morning?
Multiple Pursuits; A Key to Good Mental Health
Let’s start with a fact. Playing careers are short at most levels for most athletes in most sports. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the need for athletes be participating in a ‘dual career’. Or at least for them to be taking steps to prepare for their post-athletic life. Most competitive athletes retire at a young age. Think of gymnasts who are ‘over the hill’ in the twenties. This not only impacts on their lifestyle and their finances but also ‘bigger picture’ areas such as their sense of self, their social identity, and their sense of direction in life.
In US college sport, for instance, approximately 1% of collegiate athletes become professional athletes. And the average professional sporting career only lasts around 3.5 years (1). One area where the US college system ‘has it right’ is that athletes are required to maintain grades whilst studying in order to play. Traditionally this has not been the case elsewhere in the world, where club-based sporting systems are prevalent or professional development pathways are separated from the education sector.
Heading In The Right Direction
This has changed in recent times however, with athlete education and career guidelines now being set by national governing bodies across the globe.
In Australia and New Zealand many of the major sporting codes now require professional athletes to undertake vocational training as part of their contracts. Essentially a focus on health work-life balance is becoming compulsory like gym sessions. After all, many of these sports have very high injury rates. And some of these injuries, that can happen in seconds, can end sporting careers once and for all.
In the past, professional clubs have ‘paid lip service’ towards career, personal and welfare development. This was due to a belief that their athletes should be focusing solely on improving on-field rather than off-field. To be fair, this hasn’t been helped by a tendency for many athletes to prioritise their sporting activities above all other pursuits. Not surprisingly, athletes choosing to maintain a non-sporting activity achieve better jobs and are happiest with their life beyond sport than those who focus exclusively on sport (2).
Some research has suggested that engagement in dual career activities may actually lead to a performance benefit for athletes. That’s right, work-life balance is good for now and later! This may in part be due a sense of balance in life and a sense of security from preparing for the future (3). Interestingly, a recent study showed only 31.9% of elite Olympic athletes decide to follow the ‘sport only’ career path (2). A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League suggested that club culture supporting whole person development was associated with on-field performance rather than being irrelevant or even competing against performance (3).
In the work that we do in this areas we often use a made-up term called T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A.
T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. stands for ‘The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At.’ This essentially involves something outside of your chosen sport that provides you with:
A sense of reward
A purpose in life
Something to challenge and stimulate you
Something to develop skills and competencies for self-improvement
Activities to take your mind off training, practicing, playing or competing
In other words, T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. helps to provide that elusive ‘sport/life balance.’ We prefer this made-up label as it doesn’t imply it has to be obviously job related. For many of my sporting clients T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. has been a hobby. Or just trying to become a better father, brother or friend.
As the growing body of research shows, when T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. is defined by an athlete as an academic goal (such as completing a course of study) or as a vocational goal (such as working towards a long-term profession) there are significant rewards to be gained during their playing days and in the years that follow. What this research also shows, however, is that there are a range of barriers to successfully balancing sporting and non-sporting career progression. Chief of these is the issue of ineffective time management (2), along with a lack of understanding or support for dual career development at the family, club or organisational level (4).
With the above in mind it should come as no surprise that time management is organically woven into all the consulting that we do at Condor Performance. By this I mean it would be difficult to imagine us working 1-on-1 with an athlete over an extended period of time without us examining their schedule in detail. Often serious psychological challenges can be overcome by simply looking at what you do and don’t do on a weekly basis. Or by considering the quality of your time as a seperate concept to the quantity.
Would you like some help with your work-life balance? If you would like some professional assistance on anything raised in this article please reach out to us via one of the following ways:
Send a regular old email to email@example.com and make sure to include lots of background infomation. For example, your age, your sport, your location, your goals and your challenges.
Tshube, T. & Feltz, D.L. (2015). The relationship between dual-career and post-sport career transition among elite athletes in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 109-114.
Pink, M., Saunders, J. & Stynes, J. (2015). Reconciling the maintenance of on-field success with off-field player development: A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 98-108.
Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret argues that ‘Performance Consistency’ should be the most highly valued goal for all elite athletes and performers.
Performance Consistency Is The Holy Grail of Competitive Sport
With a few notable exceptions there seems to be a ‘HOT or NOT’ element to many sporting performances. Across all sports and levels it is common for great performances to be followed by relatively poor ones. This has generally left participants and onlookers perplexed and asking why and how questions for the rest of the week. How is is possible for these players to play so well one week, then so poorly the next? Why am I only excellent some of the time?
This short article will explore some of the reasons behind Performance Consistency and Inconsistency. I will conclude with a few tips on how to attempt a move towards The Holy Grail of Competitive Sport; Performance Consistency.
The Holy Grail
We call Performance Consistency the Holy Grail because it’s the ultimate sport and performance outcome goal. For non-Monty Python fans the Holy Grail was the cup Christ used at the Last Supper which has been the quest by various pilgrims for centuries.
Every athlete knows what it’s like to hit that ‘purple patch’ where everything just seems to click into place. This, of course, is not Performance Consistency as it always comes to end (often a sudden and ugly one). Performance Consistency occurs when you can extend this purple patch to a few weeks, a whole season, or even an entire career.
What Causes Performance Inconsistency?
I would suggest the number one cause of Performance Inconsistency is the overuse or misuse of performance reviews. In particular, athletes and coaches misunderstanding the amount of influence they have on their performance results (outcomes). In its simplest form ‘a performance’ is the consequence of about 25 to 30 areas of effort. One such area of effort might be (should be) Mental Toughness. On top of these areas of effort we also have many less influenceable elements aspects such as genetics.
After a particular performance it’s very common for the performer to ‘assign’ reasons for the result. For example, “I played really well because I have a new coach.” Or “I played poorly because I have been out injured.” This then often leads to doing more of the things that you thought caused the ‘good performance’. You might also do less of that which you believed caused the performance decline. And so begins the Performance Rollercoaster – the very opposite of Performance Consistency. Effort becomes reactive (emotional) rather than premeditated (rational) and up and down you go like a Yo-Yo.
The reality is, you will never know exactly what ingredients went into making up a performance. At best you might be able to develop a hunch that links some elements of effort to some variations in results, with a whole heap of unknowns leftover. Thoughts and beliefs are just that – thoughts and beliefs – and although they can feel incredibly reliable the truth is they are perceptions, not facts. So when you say “the reason why my performance was so great was due to X, Y or Z,” ask yourself if this is a fact or a thought that seems factual. They are very different.
Failure to Plan is a Plan to Fail
Instead, plan your effort without factoring in results. Just consider what you believe might be worth spending time on. Spare yourself the distraction of strengths and weaknesses or good and bad. Second, ensure the effort is broken down into very clear categories. Try not to end up with too many of them nor too few. Finally, make sure you ‘buy into’ the 4 laws of effort below.
Improvement is never ending. You will never reach a point of mastery and be ‘good enough’ to then move on to something else.
The number of ways to improve is unlimited. But the time and resources we have in order to get better are very limited.
Improvement is best achieved through the focus on training and practice. This basically boils down to EFFORT.
Effort is fundamentally a combination of Quality and Quantity into the areas you are targeting for improvement.
The above article was written by performance psychologist Chris Pomfret in 2019 and updated in 2020. The below article, on the same general topic of Performance Consistency, was written by his colleague David Barracosa. Both psychologists have worked for Condor Performance for almost 10 years and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Is Performance, Really?
I love jumping online and examining statistics and reading about new ways to understand and analyse the sports we love. There are endless amounts of data available, which are used to evaluate an individual or team’s performances. These statistics are often seen to be of high importance. They are considered factual because they are quantifiable measurements of performance. Comments such as “it’s hard to argue with the numbers” may help me make my point here. Despite my interest in statistics, I intend to challenge these notions from a sport psychology perspective.
In the current sporting climate statistics are used by people involved at all levels. From front office personnel to coaches, players, fans and especially commentators during broadcasts. Due to this saturation of statistical information it becomes difficult for performers to ignore these numbers. This is particularly the case when they are not trending in a direction they are happy with. But what if statistics only painted a narrow view of the story? What if they didn’t portray the bigger picture when it comes to performance?
A Common Mental Conflict
One of the conflicts I have noticed for clients during my time with Condor Performance is the battle between statistics and strategies. Motivated athletes and coaches are keen to monitor their progress in both skill acquisition and skill maintenance. As performance psychologists we encourage this through our version of goal setting and goal getting principles. We are always cautious of being entirely dependant on statistics for feedback. Results (another word for statistics) are only influenceable after all. This means lots of other variables and factors can impact the result or outcome of your performance. Many of these are outside your bubble of responsibility.
When we begin working with our athletes and coaches we often enquire about their goals and expectations. One of the things I notice in these early conversations is that many of the shorter term expectations are based around statistics. Soccer players will talk about scoring a goal or how many chances they create. Basketball players will discuss points, rebounds and assists. Swimmers and runners can put a lot of focus towards completing their race under a certain time. Sporting officials will often determine a game’s quality by the number of errors they made.
Now before I go any further I want to say that goals are important and we are always in favour of people having them. But sporting success is a little like cooking.
Hmmm, Something Smells Good
The goal of cooking is usually to produce a tasty mean or dish. The goal of high performance sport is to produce consistency good performances. The best chefs and home cooks know the key is to focus on the process and high quality ingredients. The best athletes and coaches do exactly the same.
When we become reliant on statistics to measure our performances it can also significantly impact our mental toughness. The uncertain nature of statistics means areas such as our confidence and emotional state can go up and down like a yo-yo. Think of a cricket batter who has recent scores of 24, 4, 14, 1, 43, 3. Or a tennis player who is knocked out in the early rounds of three tournaments in a row. What about a goalkeeper in soccer for a team on a losing streak. Statistics alone paint a certain picture about their performances. However we need to understand more than just the numbers in order to properly evaluate these individuals.
Chris Pomfret, a performance psychologist based in Queensland (Australia), looks at the fascinating concept of performance momentum.
Performance Momentum; The Basics
As with many phenomena in the world of sport psychology, it’s interesting to observe people talk about momentum. If you listen closely, it’s almost as if they chatting about something tangible, something real.
At the time of writing, the Australian Opentennis tournament is in progress. Listening to commentators it would seem beyond question that there is a mysterious yet unmistakable energy. Something that ebbs and flows through each match like a tide. There is an energy that has the potential to sweep a player towards glory, or to leave them stranded. But in truth, things aren’t that straightforward.
As most of our sporting clients will know we often stress the importance of clear and workable definitions for all component of performance. If we can quantify something we can understand it and therefore improve it.
Momentum can be defined as changes to cognition, feelings and behaviour as an athlete moves towards a goal.
Positive and Negative Momentum for Performance
Positive momentum is typically described in physics-related terms such as ‘surging’ towards victory within a single contest. Or ‘riding the wave’ across multiple contests towards an end-of-season championship.
Negative momentum is often described in terms of a ‘tide-turning’ against an athlete. Some sort of resistance is experienced, or of a ‘pendulum swinging’ against them and energy being ‘lost’.
Momentum Is Not The ‘Hot Hand’
Note that momentum is different from the ‘hot hand’ effect often described in basketball. This describes those freak moments when it suddenly seems like a player can’t miss a shot. Their teammates start to desperately feed them the ball before this shooting streak suddenly vanishes. As much as the hot hand effect captures our imagination there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back it up. Making a successful shot does not appear to increase the chances of making the next shot.
The fascinating thing about the concept of momentum is that it is almost universally accepted as fact. Research into the topic shows that people perceive momentum to be real. They act on the basis of this perception and past experiences supporting it. Simply put, athletes genuinely believe in momentum. When they think positive momentum has occurred they see it as a direct cause for their success. However, there is surprisingly little evidence to justify this belief.
But Perception Is Reality
If researchers question the existence of performance momentum and the everyday sportsperson struggles to express in words what momentum even means to them, why then is the concept so popular? One explanation is that for most human beings perception is reality. We want the world to seem as structured and predictable as possible. We find it hard to accept the idea of randomness. It’s hard for us to realise that our thinking is biased in many ways and that these biases impact on how we process information. We look for explanations in events, particularly where underlying meanings might help us in the future. Plus, we are just very poor at calculating probability.
There is a certain appeal to the idea that with a little bit of luck and some hard work, one small action we take can trigger a chain reaction which will sweep us towards glory. On the other hand, perhaps there is also some small comfort in the idea that sometimes we are faced with forces working against us which can’t be controlled and we simply have no choice but to hang in there and do our best and then see what happens.
Performance Momentum; The Downside
The most obvious issue with really believing in the concept of performance momentum is when you feel like you lack some. Mentally, if you feel some past success had a lot to do with any success before that you have a mental weak point. Let me explain more.
Let’s say you are a golfer who has started to believe that birdies and bogeys come in groups. Now let’s imagine you need to par the final three holes to make the cut but you bogey the 16th hole. Instead of moving on and trying to play the best possible golf for the final two holes you might feel that the bogey on 16 has set the tone.
“Perhaps there is something to those old clichés about taking things one play at a time or week-to-week?“
Now please be clear that I am not saying momentum is a myth. In fact, there are various studies that do support the existence of momentum in sport. Not surprisingly, positive momentum has a role to play in performing at one’s best. However, some findings suggest that negative momentum is in many ways ‘stronger’ than positive momentum. It seems to be triggered faster and more easily and is harder to ‘escape’ from. Is this due to the sense of helplessness it can provoke?
In the case of positive momentum, there is a suggestion that athletes may occasionally ‘coast’ or ‘ease up’. This can in turn actually impair their performance. In the case of negative momentum, athletes may choose to use this to force themselves to improve focus and boost motivation.
When the topic of momentum comes up in the one on one work I do with my sporting clients this is how I approach it. I liken it to an emotion or physical sensation – like frustration or hunger. I then encourage them to notice it and move on as per the A.C.T model.
We love getting comments. If you have any anecdotes related to Performance Momentum please add them to the comments section below. If you’re not that keen on people knowing it’s you just exclude you personal details. Can you recall a time when your best performances seem to all be clumped together? That you could do no wrong. Or the opposite? No matter how hard you tried you couldn’t get any momentum going?
Chris Pomfret explores the common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success.
The Serious Business of Keeping Sport Fun At The Highest Level
Another article – called The Fun Factor – by the same author and on the same general topic can be viewed here. Due to the very different way in which Chris addresses this sport psychology concept in the two articles we highly recommend that you read both.
Enjoyment And Performance
A common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success. In other words, the higher up the ranks an athlete climbs, the more ‘serious’ things need to become in order to reach the pinnacle in their chosen sport. Or to put it another way, the pure joy a child experiences get lost as their passion becomes just a job. And this does happen.
Elite athletes are often instructed to “just have some fun”. Or “relax and enjoy yourself” during times of hardship or pressure or form slumps. You can imagine how confusing this must be for many athletes. One minute they are meant to be all business and the next it’s ‘party time’. The implication here is that it is easy to simply tap into the pleasure pot. Like turning on a switch. But how many top-level athletes actually practice the ‘fun factor’? Is learning how to approach ‘game day’ a little less serious part of the overall process?
Some Applied Exercises You Can Do Now
Try to describe why you do what you do. What drew you into it in the first place? What is keeping you there? Why do you want to continue? Why is it important for you to perform well?
Enjoyment involves some form of fun. Typically, tasks that simply feel good and put a smile on your face. Enjoyment is also driven by some deeper concepts. For example, achievement, pride, satisfaction, growth and progress.
Usain Bolt was a great example of someone who enjoyed what he did. He worked incredibly hard so that when a competition came around he could just chill. Take a look at the below video UB had a very relaxed competition mindset. Enjoyment doesn’t mean we are always smiling and laughing. But we need to stay in touch with the things we love about our sport or art or music or business or another performance area.
Quantification Is Essential
As with any concept in sport, quantification is essential. When we quantify something we put structures, values and measurements to it. If you can describe something you can start to understand it. This then means you can start to improve it. Enjoyment is typically a vague concept so we have to work harder to define it.
You might use the term ‘fun’ in conversation with your coach without actually talking about the same thing. Fun to one person could be fitness-related. While for someone else it’s beating people. Yet for another, there might be a certain social connection that needs to be really fun.
Regardless of your age or skill level, one relatively simple means of quantifying your experiences is to break things down into the following domains.
Mind, which includes thoughts (the words and pictures in my head), attitudes (the general ways I am looking at things), and beliefs (how I view myself, others, the future, and the world).
Feelings (your emotional energy and how intense it is).
Body (the messages you are receiving physically from head to toe).
Five senses (what your attention is drawn towards in the areas of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste).
Actions (what you are doing, what you’ve stopped doing, things you are speeding up or slowing down, doing more of or less of etc.).
Because enjoyment is a personal experience there are no universal rules to reignite your passion for the game. In a practical sense, however, you might benefit from any of the following.
Reward yourself with fun non-sporting activities before and after training/practice.
Seperate performance into preparation and competition. Now take all your seriousness and push it into the preparation side. Blood, sweat and tears want to be more related to practice than game day. As the great Jonty Rhodes once said “I got more bruises, grass burns and cuts in practice than in match play”.
Create small windows of pleasure and light-heartedness during practices. This might be arriving early to mess around with teammates. Or getting pumped up during certain segments of training such as racing people in fitness drills.
Indulge yourself in relaxing or fun or special non-sporting activities on the morning of competitions. It’s too late to improve anything. You are better of just chilling and trusting the work you have done.
Emphasise interactions and activities with your teammates or peers after competitions to enhance a sense of community. Do you see your teammates as people or just athletes?
Four More Ideas …
Become more invested in the process (journey) and less on the results (destinations). Although having a ‘win at all costs’ mindset sounds useful. It’s not, trust us. Just ask Lance!
Look over your season schedule and breaking it into smaller chunks. Any tangible evidence of improvement can be celebrated as a reward for your dedication and passion. Months lend themselves very well to reviewing and planning. This then frees you up to focus on the processes in between monthly reviews.
Glance at your weekly schedule. Do you have enough balance between sporting and non-sporting activities? A reminder quality and quantity are not the same. We want quality to be as high as possible. But quantity want to be “somewhere in the middle”. Too much and too little are dangerous.
Consider getting some expert assistance. If you can’t afford to work with a qualified sport / performance psychologists then consider our one of our Metuf programs. If budget is less of a concern then get in touch with us and request details about our 1-on-1 performance psychology services.
Enjoyment – and in particular a sense of fun – may not be as easily defined as other core components of performance such as physical capabilities, technical consistency or tactical wisdom. However, if you are able to conceptualise what you love about your chosen sport and take steps to improve upon this you will give yourself every chance of climbing towards the top and staying there.
What is the key to being a good fielder? First and foremost you have to enjoy being out there. If you’re enjoying it, and you’re loving what you’re doing, even if it is 90 overs in a Test match, it never really seems like hard work. That allows you to stay sharp and focused. Commentators often complimented me on my anticipation, but I was expecting every single ball to come to me. In fact, I wanted every ball to come to me. Fielding can become hard work, but if you’re enjoying it then it doesn’t feel like work.
Athletes and other performers are not immune to the challenges of finding a balance between life and performance.
(Or Performance-Life Balance As We Call It)
This article is designed to get you thinking about some of the hurdles that may get thrown up in the months ahead “when life gets in the way”, more commonly know as find a Work-Life Balance. Some barriers are predictable. For example, juggling work and training commitments. Others whilst will spring up unexpectedly, such as illness or financial stress. We’ve all had situations when “performance” has taken a back seat to other demands. But this thing we call “life” need not derail our progress or compromise our sense of pleasure.
Let’s pause for a moment and recall a core Metuf principle of performance enhancement: enjoyment is essential in developing mental toughness.
When life gets in the way we need to remember why we took up our chosen sport (or performance area) in the first place. What do we love about it and why it is enjoyable for us personally? In other words, it’s important to quantify the ‘fun factor’. What it is that we gain from participating in our chosen sport? This will help provide a buffer from the non-sporting challenges that life inevitably throws our way.
Work-Life Balance 101
‘Quantifying’ means putting a name, value or description to something to better understand it and improve it. If you can specify what you love about your sport then you can start incorporating this as a ‘non-negotiable’ in your sporting life. By maintaining the fun factor we give ourselves an outlet or refuge from life stressors. Furthermore, at the same time, we enhance our sporting performance in the face of adversity.
Following on from this idea of quantifying enjoyment, it’s extremely useful to define what matters to us outside of the sporting arena. Below some categories which our clients have identified as being important in their lives:
Family Friendship and social relationships
Emotional and personal wellbeing
Non-sporting leisure activities
Education and learning
Spirituality and religion
Employment and career
Community life and the environment
I daresay most readers would agree that the above categories are important with some categories more important than others. If we explore an area like ‘employment’ it becomes clear that this matters to individuals for very different reasons. For some people, employment is simply a means to an end, i.e. a way to put food on the table. Yet for others, it’s more than merely having a job, it’s about building a career. For others, their work helps to define their identity. And for the few, employment is a gateway to making a difference in the world.
Work-Life Imbalance; One Side Hurting The Other
When life throws up work-related stress it helps to know what matters most to you in this category so that you can define your own targets for improvement and develop strategies for meaningful gains. This has the benefit of contributing to positive changes in your job situation and also of knowing that you’re actively doing something to make things better for yourself.
Let’s again pause to recall another core Metuf principle of performance enhancement: that improvement is best achieved through a focus on effort.
Effort, for us, is controllable and is a combination of quality and quantity into what are targeting for improvement. It is most easily measured in minutes spent ‘trying your best’ each week. Most importantly, it involves setting clearly defined weekly blocks of effort to drive continual improvement towards attaining goals.
In essence, you can take goal setting and goal getting skills from sport and use them to better your life in general. Let’s take ‘education’ as an example, with academic issues such as low grades having a negative impact on an athlete’s performance.
Firstly, it may help to quantify what it is about those particular studies that matter to the athlete. Why are you doing that course and why is it important to do well? If there are elements of fun in those studies, it can help to specify what exactly is enjoyable about studying and incorporate these as ‘non-negotiables’ to help stay on track.
Secondly, it’s important to set clearly defined goals over the course of an academic year/semester – what grade or other outcome are you hoping to achieve in the not-too-distant future?
Monthly Checks (Key Work-Life Indicators)
Thirdly, the use of monthly checks allows you to keep tabs on your progress – what measures will serve as evidence of improvement and confirm whether you are on the right track?
Finally and most importantly, what does your academic effort look like? That is, what are you doing each week that is within your control to improve as a student? By allocating dedicated blocks of time each week to high-quality learning improvement activities an athlete gives themselves the best chance of addressing educational challenges.
Life has a tendency to get in the way of our sporting ambitions, either by disrupting our routines unexpectedly or casting a shadow over the simple pleasures of training and competing. Crises in areas such as family, work, study, health and finances can seem overwhelming. But the same strategies which allow you to quantify, understand and then enhance athletic performance can be used outside of the sporting arena to benefit you in “the game of life”.
If you’d like a simple way to measure the impact of your current workload and/or circumstances then complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires which, amongst a raft of other measures will show you how stressed you are at the moment.
This week I fielded an excellent question from one of our monthly clients regarding post-competition reviews. This person competes in an individual sport and had just finished a big weekend of racing… living the dream, essentially. A disappointing overall result was causing great frustration and they were second-guessing themselves as a racer and wondering exactly where all the hard work this season was actually leading them. They realised that this was in complete contrast to a competition only one week before, where a strong result prompted positive emotions and had them feeling optimistic about the rest of 2018 and beyond. Many of our discussions had been about taking a consistent approach before every competition, and their question was how they should approach the hours and days following a competition – win, lose, or draw.
The first thing we reflected on was enjoyment and ensuring that they did not lose sight of the things which drew them into the sport in the first place, the things that have kept them participating, and the things which they want to maintain in the long run. Given that it is a physically brutal sport they compete in, we distinguished between the fun elements (e.g. the things that elicit a big smile) and the deeper, more meaningful elements (e.g. the things that make them proud and challenge them).
Next we reflected on the nature of results themselves. No matter how easy or difficult, at the end of the day we can only influence results. That is, we can have an impact on the various outcomes in our chosen sport (a fast lap time, winning a heat, making a podium, being selected in a representative team) but we can never guarantee them. This isn’t to give ourselves an excuse for a disappointing performance or pretend that it doesn’t matter to us, but to bring our focus back to our weekly effort so that we can keep improving and ultimately shift results in our favour.
We then spoke about strategies for emotional release. As a reminder, emotions are neither good nor bad – they are just a primitive way of understanding our experiences. Of course I would rather feel happy instead of sad, but that doesn’t make happy ‘better’ than sad. The key thing is the intensity of the emotion and how we manage it. Most athletes do think about – and practice – regulating their emotions in the lead-up to a competition or when actually performing. Most athletes don’t consider how to handle intense emotions (desirable or unwanted) once they have finished competing. Whatever works for you in the lead-up to a competition is probably a good place to start in learning to handle yourself post-competition. As a general rule though, feelings are expressed through the body so often the quickest and easiest way to release that emotional ‘steam out of the kettle’ is by physical means such as deep breathing, movement, warm-downs, physical focus points such as stretching, or sensory stimulation such as showering. No matter the emotion you are experiencing, work on empowering yourself by releasing the emotion on your terms.
Next up, we discussed a specific framework for reviewing competitions from a mental perspective. Together we put aside important physical considerations such as fitness, strength and conditioning, training loads, flexibility, amount and quality of sleep the night before performing. Then we set aside non-sporting factors such as family, friendships, school, work, finances and life stressors. We also put aside technical aspects of the performance (the biomechanics and tangible skill execution within races). Finally we also set aside tactical considerations (decision making and bigger picture ‘smarts’ as an athlete) as these are issues constantly being reviewed with the coaching staff. This left us with the following categories, to which I posed the following questions:
Commitment: how strong was your sense of desire to perform well in this particular competition? How much importance did you place on this weekend’s events? Looking back, what signs tell you that your heart was really in it? If we were to say this was just another set of races in a long career, why did you push yourself to do your best yet again? How are you rewarding yourself for putting in so much hard work? Can you put into words what makes weekends like this so special, especially when things do go to plan?
Concentration: how well were you able to focus on what you wanted to focus on? What things captured your attention before, during and post-race? Were you aware of this happening? Have you practiced dealing with distractions? What are a few simple but relevant things you can turn your focus towards when next competing?
Confidence: if confidence is know that you can do something before you try, where is the evidence (e.g. through practice and past competitions) that tells you what is possible? How well are you able to feel what you want to before and during races? What unwanted thoughts and emotions can you expose yourself to through practice so that you have faith in your ability to execute your skills by the time the next competition rolls around?
Creativity: how flexible were you in your thinking? How well can you deal with the unexpected and think on your feet? How did you respond to the unpredictable?
Communication: what messages were you sending yourself? What messages were you sending other people (verbally and non-verbally)? Were these deliberate? Have you practiced them and do you have a sense of how effective they are?
Consistency: were your thought processes systematic, simple, clear and well rehearsed? Were you viewing external factors such as opponents, officials, weather conditions, equipment, facilities and spectators in a manner that suits you and your individual needs?
Culture: how were you viewing your coaching staff, your support crew, your team members, and the wider group of athletes coming together? What was your sense of connection and belonging like? Are you feeling part of a broader community and does this need to be worked on in some way?
Finally, we took a moment to step back and view the competition from a big-picture perspective. As challenging as the weekend’s results were for this person, the competition represented just another step in a long journey towards a higher destination. Whether an outcome is considered a huge success or a major disappointment, there must be a means of learning from the experience and using it to drive further improvement. How, when and where this reflective practice occurs is up to you.