‘Performance Consistency’ – The Holy Grail of Sport

Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret argues that ‘Performance Consistency’ should be the most highly valued goal for all elite athletes and performers.

Of all Usain Bolt's many achievements, maybe the most impressive was how consistent he was in major competitions.
Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.

As anyone who is participating in an office footy tipping competition can attest, trying to pick winners week to week in any sport often feels like an exercise in futility. With a few notable exceptions (that’s the topic of a whole other edition – so stay tuned) there seems to be a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ element to many performances which has many of the participants and onlookers perplexed and tearing their hair out. At the elite level, you don’t have to wait long in a post-match press conference to hear someone voice their frustration at the dramatic turnaround in fortunes as they have gone from ‘world beaters’ in practice to a ‘rabble’ on game day. This brief article will explore some of the reasons behind inconsistent performances and conclude with a few tips on how to attempt a move towards The Holy Grail: Performance Consistency.

We call Performance Consistency the Holy Grail because it’s the ultimate sport and performance goal (for non-Monty Python fans / religious readers, the Holy Grail was the cup Christ used at the Last Supper which has been the quest by various pilgrims for centuries).

The Real Holy Grail
The Real Holy Grail

Every athlete, coach or performer knows what it’s like to hit that ‘purple patch’ where everything just seems to click into place. It might only last for a few seconds or could last for a whole day or two and terms such as ‘in the zone’ or ‘flow’ might come to mind when describing this aligning of the stars. This, of course, is not Performance Consistency as it often 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.

But first, what causes Performance Inconsistency?

I would suggest the number one cause of Performance Inconsistency is the overuse or misuse of performance reviews. Specially, athletes and coaches misunderstanding the amount of influence they have on their performance results (outcomes). In its simplest form ‘a performance’ is probably the consequence of about 25 to 30 areas of effort (that we put into several categories, one being mental toughness) and at least the same number of uncontrollable elements such as genetics.

For a lot more detail on how we – as performance psychologists – break down ‘performance’ then sign up for the free Introductory Video at Metuf – Online Mental Toughness Training for Sport and Performance.

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’ and / or less of that which you believed caused the performance decline. And so begins the Performance Rollercoaster – the very opposite of Performance Consistency as effort becomes reactive (emotional) rather than premeditated (rational).

The reality is, you will never know exactly what ingredients went into making up a performance: at best (and this is assuming you record your training endeavours down to the minute) 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).

Instead, plan your effort without factoring in results. Just consider what you believe might be worth spending time on without the distraction of strengths and weaknesses or good and bad. Second, ensure the effort is broken down into very clear categories and make sure you don’t end up with too many of them (a great analogy is the way the world is broken down: first continents, then countries, then states etc.). Finally, make sure you ‘buy into’ the 4 laws of effort below. If it were me, I’d copy and paste them into a Word document, max the font size so they take up the whole of an A4 sheet, print a dozen copies and then put them up as mini posters at home, where I study / work and where I train:

  • 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 which basically boils down to EFFORT.
  • Effort is fundamentally a combination of Quality and Quantity into the areas you are targeting for improvement.

Please use the comments box below if you have any questions or comments about this article. For a full list of previous editions of the Mental Toughness Digest click here.

Post Competition Reviews

Chris Pomfret, Senior Performance Psychologist from Condor Performance looks at the pros and cons of Post Competition Reviews.

The Game Is Over. What Is The Coach Saying?
The Game Is Over. What Is The Coach Saying?

Note: This article was written an published before major improvements were made to Metuf in late 2018. Metuf is the name given to the collection of mental skills that we use with our sporting and non-sporting clients. For more information about Metuf please click here.

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.

Enjoyment and The Serious Business of Keeping It Fun

Chris Pomfret explores the common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success.

Fun and enjoyment are key mental skills for peak performance
Fun and enjoyment are key mental skills for peak 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 running/throwing/kicking/riding in their local park will eventually get lost as their passion becomes just a job. However, elite athletes are inevitably instructed to “just have some fun” or to “relax and enjoy yourself” during times of hardship or pressure or form slumps. You can imagine how confusing this must be for the athlete: one minute they are meant to be ‘all business’ and the next it’s ‘party time’. The implication here is that it should be easy to simply tap into the pleasure that (hopefully) caused them to pursue the sport in the first place. But how many top-level athletes – or athletes at any level, for that matter – practice the ‘fun factor’ along with all their physical training and technical skill development?

In terms of enjoyment as a concept, here are a few quick reflection points regardless of where you currently sit on your sporting journey:

Try to describe why you do what you do. What drew you in to 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 fun (things that simply feel good and put a smile on your face) as well as deeper concepts like 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 have some fun, execute the skills he had been developing over many years, and celebrate his love of running. 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 other performance area).

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, which means you can start to improve it. Enjoyment is typically a vague concept and you could use the term ‘fun’ many times in conversation with your coach, for example, without actually talking about the same thing. Fun to one person could be fitness-related, while for someone else it’s beating people, while for another there’s a certain aspect of feeling a social connection, while for another they appreciate learning new technical skills. If we take Usain Bolt in his athletics career and imagine that we were his coach: how could we possibly make running more fun during times of hardship if we don’t even know what it is that he enjoys about running? It’s the same idea with other key concepts like ‘worry’, ‘stress’, ‘focus’, ‘fitness’, ‘tactics’, ‘pressure’… the list goes on. If you can put names/numbers/amounts/categories to something, you can improve it.

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).
  • 5 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:

  • Rewarding yourself with fun non-sporting activities before and after training/practice.
  • Creating small windows of pleasure and light-heartedness during practices (e.g. arriving early to mess around with teammates, or getting pumped up during certain segments of training such as racing people in fitness drills).
  • Indulging yourself in relaxing or fun or special non-sporting activities on the morning of competitions to take your mind away from the event as much as possible.
  • Emphasising interactions and activities with your teammates or peers after competitions to enhance a sense of community.
  • Occasionally overlooking any objectives/targets you set for yourself within competitions (e.g. if you have any key performance indicators) and focusing on the thrill of movement and skill execution.
  • Looking over your season schedule and breaking it into chunks with challenging objectives for each competition. Any tangible evidence of improvement can be celebrated as a reward for your dedication and passion.
  • Glance at your weekly schedule and check that you have enough balance between sporting and non-sporting activities. It’s particularly important that you emphasise the ‘Lifestyle Choices’ pillar of performance (see the excellent aeroplane analogy from Metuf – Online Mental Toughness Training for more about ‘Lifestyle Choices’). This can include areas in your life such as sleep, family, friendships, hobbies, leisure time, stress management and so on.

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.

It’s A Long Way To The Top

‘Enjoyment Is One Of The Cornerstones Of Sporting Success’ argues Chris Pomfret. Without it, it’s a very long way to the top.

Riding down the highway… stop in all the byways…Gettin’ had, gettin’ took, I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks….If you wanna be a star of stage and screen: look out! It’s rough and mean.It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ’n’ roll.Well it’s a long way, such a long way.

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

Classic tune, yes, but what does this have to do with mental toughness in sport? I’m often reminded of these lyrics when discussing the challenges of the touring circuit with tennis players, parents and coaches. One story capturing a lot of attention in sports media in recent weeks involves professional Australian player Bernard Tomic and his comments following his elimination from the prestigious Wimbledon tournament. Like a rock star exhausted by the endless gigs, hotels and hours on the road, Tomic appears to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seems so unappealing.

To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court and 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 lengthy period already (he is 24 years old and joined the professional tour around age 17) but stated that he plans to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”

In later interviews Tomic said that he feels “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.” Tomic has come in for some very strong criticism from the tennis world and in the Australian community as a result of his comments – not all of it constructive. There has been a genuine concern expressed for Tomic’s mental health off the tennis court by some observers, however given that I have never spoken to him it would be inappropriate to offer comment on that front except to wish him well during this difficult period. Purely from a tennis perspective there are clearly some hard questions being asked on and off the public record.

If nothing else, I’m impressed by Tomic’s brutal honesty. Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us to improve their mental toughness, a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the ‘top 3’ (performance anxiety tends to be ranked #1, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked #2). Bernard Tomic is obviously not enjoying the sport he has dedicated his life to. He is certainly not alone in this regard! If we compare Tomic at this stage of his career 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 is his love of racing. It’s remarkable to observe how every time he competes he treats it as a celebration of his passion for running, and I’m sure this has been one of the reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete. Now please be clear that I’m not saying that Tomic needs to suddenly become the most enthusiastic tennis player in the world. What I would say is that enjoyment is a necessary ingredient for anyone to perform well and at the moment it’s sorely lacking for him (if it was ever really there in the first place).

Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify and 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 and wherever possible we encourage clients to identify then tap in to that 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 challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment and often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them in to their sport or performance area in the first place. A lack of suitable sport/life balance or performance/life balance is detrimental to the fun factor and in turn to 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.

At the time of writing this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest, Bernard Tomic recently indicated he does not ever expect to truly love the sport of tennis and that for the foreseeable future it will simply be a job to him. Whilst he doesn’t need to love the game, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits on and off the court. Tomic did express a sense of hope that he can one day win a major tournament such as Wimbledon and experience the joy that would come with such a feat. With the best years of his career ahead of him this remains possible, but only time will tell.

It’s a long way to the top, indeed.

Momentum In Sport

Chris Pomfret, a performance psychologist who specialises in assisting sporting teams, looks at the fascinating concept of performance momentum.

'Momentum in Sport' is a fascinating concept but with very little research
‘Momentum in Sport’ is a fascinating concept but with very little research

Note: The reason why momentum is not specifically covered in our therapeutic model – Metuf – is basically due to the fact that it can’t be targeted for improvement directly. The Metuf model will indirectly improve sporting momentum by directly targeting Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus.

As with many phenomena in the world of psychology, it’s interesting to observe people talk about momentum as something simple, tangible, or obvious. At the time of writing, the Australian Open tennis tournament is in progress. Listening to players, coaches, commentators and fans over the past week it would seem beyond question that there is a mysterious yet unmistakable energy that ebbs and flows through each match like a tide: an energy that has the potential to sweep a player towards glory, or to leave them stranded. As with many phenomena in the world of psychology, however, in reality things simply aren’t that straightforward.

As most of my sporting clients will know I often stress the importance of clear and workable definitions for any 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 momentum) or away from a goal (negative momentum). In other words, a combination of changes to an athlete’s thinking, emotions and actions may be very helpful in playing well, or they may become counterproductive.

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 so that some sort of resistance is experienced, or of a ‘pendulum swinging’ against them and energy being ‘lost’.

It is worth briefly mentioning 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 and their teammates desperately feed them the ball as fast as possible before this shooting streak suddenly vanishes. As much as the hot hand effect captures the imagination there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back it up, as 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 and that 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. Various studies have found that the likelihood of a good performance is largely independent of previous performances, either within a single competition or between separate competitions. 

Perhaps there is something to those old clichés about taking things one play at a time or week-to-week?

Despite a lack of compelling evidence, momentum continues to capture the imagination and it is taken as a fact of our sporting lives. If some researchers question its very existence 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 human beings like a sense of order. We want the world to seem as structured and predictable as possible, and 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 (both in real time whilst competing, and over many years via our memory). 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.

To put it another way, perhaps 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.

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 and that help us to understand its role in sporting performance. 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 as it seems to be triggered faster and more easily and is harder to ‘escape’ due to the sense of helplessness it can provoke. Interestingly, there are question marks over the common view that riding a wave of positive momentum can only benefit an athlete or team, whilst the resistant effect of negative momentum can only be problematic. In the case of positive momentum, there is a suggestion that athletes may occasionally ‘coast’ or ‘ease up’ and 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, boost motivation, and attempt to regain control over the contest or season.

One topic which seems to fascinate and infuriate many of our readers is the concept of ‘hoodoos’ – particularly in team sports at away venues – so stay tuned for our thoughts on that. For now, I’m grinding to a halt: it’s back to the tennis for me.

The team here at Condor Performance welcome your suggestions for topics to address in future editions of the Mental Toughness Digest so please keep them coming (info@condorperformance.com).

The Performance-Life Balance

The Performance-Life Balance – Some of the hurdles that get thrown up “when life gets in the way” and how best to overcome them.

When Life Gets In The Way

When Life Gets In The Way
When Life Gets In The Way

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.” Some barriers are predictable (e.g. juggling work and training commitments) whilst some will spring up unexpectedly (e.g. illness or financial stress). We’ve all had times when “performance” has taken a back seat to other demands; however 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 we love about it; and why it is enjoyable for us personally. In other words, it’s important to quantify the ‘fun factor’ and what it is that we gain from participating in our chosen sport, so as to provide a buffer from the non-sporting challenges that life inevitably throws our way.

‘Quantifying’ means putting a name, value or description to something so that we can better understand it and therefore improve it. If you can specify what you love about your sport (e.g. working on a common goal with team mates vs. beating the clock vs. learning new skills vs. simply running around under lights on a Friday night) 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, as well as enhancing 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 are a range of categories which our clients have identified as being important in their lives:

  • Family Friendship / social relationships
  • Physical health
  • Emotional and personal wellbeing
  • Non-sporting leisure activities
  • Education
  • Personal development
  • Spirituality / religion
  • Employment / career
  • Community life The environment

I daresay most readers would agree that the above categories are important – to varying degrees – with some categories more important than others. If we explore an area such as ‘employment’ it soon 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. For others, it’s more than merely having a job: what matters is building a career. For some people their work helps to define their identity, whilst for some their employment is a gateway to making a difference in the world.

When life throws up work-related stress, for example, 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 – as we define it – is controllable and involves a combination of quality and quantity into the areas you are targeting for improvement; It is most easily measured in minutes spent ‘trying’ 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?

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; however 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, amount a raft of other measures will show you how stressed you are at the moment.

Chris also wrote the below article in 2014 on the same subject:

Striking the Balance: How Off-Field Gain Can Boost On-Field Game

By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)

Parents of young athletes will often ask us – with varying degrees of seriousness – how they might encourage/support/force/trick/bribe their kids into taking their schoolwork seriously, or at the very least doing something to prepare for some sort of career once they ‘hang up the gloves.’ Understandably, young athletes can struggle to see what relevance of studying or exploring long-term work options has to achieve their sporting dreams. Those Mental Toughness Digest (MTD) readers living in Australia or New Zealand may have noticed increasing coverage in the media about the importance of developing a ‘sport/life balance’ for those athletes competing professionally or at the elite level (and in turn for those young people involved in development pathways, or amateur athletes aiming to reach the top one day). We at Condor Performance welcome the growing awareness of the important – yet underappreciated – role of ‘off-field’ matters in not only safeguarding an athlete’s long-term future but also enhancing their performance ‘on-field.’ So let’s consider the Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance excellence and in particular a target for continual improvement which we call T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. But firstly…

… I’m sure you’ll agree that playing careers are short at most levels for most athletes in most sports. At the elite end of the spectrum, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the need for athletes to either be participating in a ‘dual career’ (a non-sporting career), or to be taking steps to prepare for their post-athletic career while still participating in their sport. Most competitive athletes retire at a young age, which 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 sports career only lasts around 3.5 years (1). One area where the US college system appears to ‘have 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. This has changed in recent times however, with athlete education and career guidelines now being set by national governing bodies across the globe.

MTD readers in Australia and New Zealand will probably be aware that many of the major sporting codes in these countries now require professional and semi-professional athletes to be studying or undertaking vocational training as part of their contracts. In the past, professional clubs or franchises have sometimes ‘paid lip service’ towards career/personal/welfare development or have even been deeply sceptical 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 or placing equal importance on the alternate activity achieve better jobs and are happiest with their life beyond sport than those who focus exclusively on sport (2). But for those of you still playing or coaching in your sport, take note: some research has suggested that engagement in dual career activities may actually lead to a performance benefit for athletes. 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). From a psychological research perspective it’s relatively ‘early days’ as far as identifying the direct impact of dual career development on elite level performance but it will be absolutely fascinating to see how this develops and we might revisit this area here in the MTD in the near future.

Now let’s take a step back to the Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance excellence. You may recall from the Metuf mental method Simplifying It that a key component of one’s best possible performance on-field involves constantly improving off-field. The Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance can be broken down into a number of targets for improvement, including (but not limited to) Fun, Nutrition, Sleep, and – you guessed it – 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.’

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).

Outside of the study and employment fields, some other areas that Condor Performance clients typically tell us they want to be excellent at include family; hobbies; music; travel; church/spiritual life; community; art; personal development; and more. Through Simplifying It they learn how to break down the pillars of performance excellence and in turn understand how T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. can drive them to greater heights. Athletes of all ages are pleasantly surprised at this discovery and as for Mum and Dad: you’re welcome.

References

  1. 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.
  2. Lopez de Subijana, C., Barriopedro, M. & Conde, E. (2015). Supporting dual career in Spain: Elite athletes’ barriers to study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 57-64.
  3. 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.
  4. Ryba, T.V. et al. (2015). Dual career pathways of transnational athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 125-134.