Sport Psychology Barriers

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole outlines the seven most common sport psychology barriers and how to overcome a few of them!

There are many barriers to fully embracing sport psychology. One of them is what you imagine it to be like? Something like the above? Not even close …

The 7 Biggest Sport Psychology Barriers

One of my roles at Condor Performance is speaking to the many people who make enquiries about our sport psychology services. Since we have been operating and I would have spoken to approximately five thousand parents, coaches, athletes, performers and sporting administrators. In doing so we have learned a lot about the reasons why many athletes / performers still don’t bother to include bonafide sport psychology as part of their plans.

With this is mind below I will outline the seven most common of these barriers and where possible help you to put a step ladder up against a few of them. As always we welcome your comments and questions either publicly (via the comments box below) or privately (via info@condorperformance.com).


Sport Psychology Barrier #1: No Idea There is A Mental Side of Sport / Performance

Mental Toughness is not as tangible (visible, obvious) as the other performance areas. Consequently it’s not targeted for improvement because many athletes have no idea their motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus can be developed and strengthened just like other more obvious areas such as skills and fitness.

The only way around this barrier is through some kind of education so that an awareness of the mental side takes places. This will happen automatically if working with a qualified sport psychologist / performance psychologists but there are other ways too. One such way is to invest in your sport science knowledge, which now agrees that sporting mental toughness is a real thing. This doesn’t require you to complete a sport science degree, simply taking online courses such as Metuf can get the job done.


Sport Psychology Barrier #2: Confusing Mental Training with Something Else

Similar to the above but arguably worse. It’s very common for athletes to fall into the trap of thinking that working on the physical, technical and tactical aspects of their sport will naturally result in greater mental toughness. So for example, because it took motivation to get up at 6 am to go for a run in winter, it will automatically result in an improvement of your overall motivation.

Although this might happen, it also might not. Sport psychology, as with all types of psychology, wants to be and should be heavily evidence based. What this means is that the mental skills (or methods) used to improve areas such as motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus have been tried, tested and approved. So getting up at 6am in winter to go for a run might motivate some people some of the time. But really good goal setting (for example) will motivate most people, most of the time. There is a difference.

Even those who are aware of the importance of the mental side, and are motivated to try and improve it, can be left really struggling to find genuine, dependable ways to actual work on it. Most resort to Googling questions like ‘how to improve my concentration’ which results in millions of websites full of contradictory ideas.


Sport Psychology Barrier #3: Hoping For A Magic Bullet

By “magic bullet” we mean those who expect that a single session with a sport psychologist will suddenly make them mentally tough. That all of a sudden their nerves will vanish, they’ll can motivate themselves at will and can focus like a fighter pilot. When this doesn’t happen, they bail well before the sport psychology process starts to bear fruit.

The only way to overcome this barrier is to trust in the process and be patient. There are many ways to help with this. One is to show that improving the mind is a lot like improving the body. No one ever expects to go to the gym and have an 8 pack after one session with the exercise physiologist. Not even a dozen sessions. It works the same with sport psychology. If you wants results fast, fine, listen harder and apply the mental skills but don’t expect miracles.


Sport Psychology Barrier #4: Confusing Mental Toughness with Mental Health

Unfortunately the words ‘psychology’ and ‘psychologist’ still evoke thoughts of mental illness and disorders. Therefore, a large number of athletes incorrectly feel that seeking the assistance of a sport psychologist / performance psychologist is a sign of mental weakness. Not that long ago I wrote an entire blog post on this which you can read in full here.


Sport Psychology Barrier #5: It’s Too Expensive

Even when none of the above barriers apply, often cost gets in the way. The current recommended hourly rate for psychologists is about $250 an hour. This is the most awkward of the sport psychology barriers as it’s relative to your own income / wealth. For some people $250 an hour is chump chain, for others it’s a fortune.

At Condor Performance, instead of reducing our rates and cheapening what we do we add extra value to our 1-on-1 sport psychology services instead. How? Our rates are per month not per session so we allow and encourage email / text communication between sessions. Furthermore the first 30 minute session is not charged for, it’s free. For a more in depth understanding of our monthly approach watch the below video that Dave and I created recently. Here is the link to the FAQs page referenced in the video.


Sport Psychology Barrier #6: There Are No Sport Psychologists Near Me

The Corona Virus of 2020 is / was a terrible thing but there were some benefits. Suddenly, the whole world realised that a sport psychology session via video call was / is just as good as one where the sport psychologist and client are in the same room. We knew this early on and started delivering sport psychology sessions this was as early as 2008. So maybe this barrier is not really a barrier nowadays but we’ll still keep it here anyway.

In fact we’re almost at the point now where we could say that sessions via Zoom, FaceTime video, Skype and other platforms are better than what we call Same Place Sessions. Why? For a start, they are a lot more convenient with no travel time required. Athletes and performers can and do have sessions just before practice, competitions and sometimes – where allowed – during both of these. I would suggest we are less than a decade away from Same Place Sessions with any kind of psychologist being almost unheard of.


Sport Psychology Barrier #7: Now Is Not The Right Time ..
.

Tricky, tricky, tricky. If your Granny passed away so you had to postpone your start then this sounds like a sensible option rather than a barrier. But most of the time when we hear this is for these kinds of reasons. I am too busy. I’m in my offseason. I have just picked up an injury so need to focus on that. I have too much going on. I’m playing really well, will get in touch when I am in a slump.

Trust me when I conclude with this. All of the above suggest you will be well advised to start some kind if sport psychology process now. If you feel that this process should be working with a sport psychologist / performance psychologist then get in touch and will send you detailed info and costing about how we go about it.

Sport Psychology Barriers? What Sport Psychology Barriers?


Practice Makes Permanent Not Perfect

Perfection in sport or life can be thought of being like the Loch Ness Monster. It’s doesn’t really exist, but you can have a lot of fun trying to look for this mythical beast.

The Sporting World Is Full Of Clichés

The majority of them are normally harmless. However some are either mentally beneficial or potentially damaging. Recently I wrote a blog containing some of the best quotes from a sports psychology point of you in my opinion. But what about the duds? What about the quotes or clichés that sound good but in actual fact are detrimental to performance? Fortunately there are a lot less of these “stinkers” compared to the good ones. Those that I would be more than happy to see my sporting clients right on post-it notes for inspiration outnumber the ones that should be banned.

It may come as a surprise to some of you that a number of the least useful but very well-known sport psychology quotes come from Vince Lombardi. I do not want to criticise Vince nor take anything away from his amazing achievements as a coach. But some of the quotes that he is most known for are psychological bloopers. Chief among them are these three:

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

I won’t go into too much detail about why the first two above simply send the wrong message to anybody playing competitive sport. Suffice to say that for the first one think Lance Armstrong and the “win at all costs mindset”. For the second one it just sounds like an excuse to me. I know it’s supposed to be cheeky but saying you only lost the game because you ran out of time is no different to saying you only lost the game because the opposition scored more points than you. 

Practice Makes Permanent Not Perfect

But it is this third quote that I really have an issue with. In particular the shortened version which is ‘practice makes perfect’. Fun fact ‘practice makes perfect’ currently gets 976,000,000 hits on Google. Practice Makes Permanent, the correct version, gets half the amount at 515,000,000 results.

For those of you who we have had the privilege of working with since we opened our doors in 2005 you’ll likely be aware of the fact that we do not do too much by way of cognitive restructuring during the mental conditioning process. By this I mean that by and large we let people think what they think. We would much rather help our clients to accept their thoughts and execute their motor skills anyway. Sometimes this philosophy is slightly misunderstood as us not being interested in cognitions at all. This is not true, let me explain.

Certain practitioners who subscribe to the ever increasingly popular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model may choose to be completely distance from the meaning of words and the potential impact of one inspirational quote versus another.

This Is How We Show Our Clients To Bake Their Cake And Eat It

There are many, many types of thoughts. Let’s conceptualise thoughts in terms of how permanent they might be. A simple way to do this is to divide thoughts into two seperate types. The first group, which we could call VABs (for values, attitudes and beliefs) are rather permanent. They create most of the other type of thoughts, the second type. We could call these Current and Individual Thoughts (or CITs). 

This Is How VABs And CITs Interact

We all have some very well ingrained beliefs. Let’s imagine someone who has an ingrained belief that at work everybody should dress in a smart and presentable way. This would mean that they value people who take pride in their own appearance and choice of clothing. This is likely to have been the case in the past. It’s the case now and very likely to be the case into the future. It’s a permanent belief, one that would be hard to change.

Now imagine that somebody with these values and beliefs starts a new job. On the very first day of work they are provided with a mentor to show them the ropes. This mentor has come to work in attire that would potentially be more suitable for a lazy Sunday afternoon at home. The VAB about dressing well at work then combines with a desire to leave a good first impression to create a whole bunch of CITs. For example “I can’t believe she’s come to work dressed like that”. Or “don’t say anything, look beyond the Hoody and smile”.

It Works The Same In The World Of Highly Competitive Sport

For example consider an athlete who values effort above results. And maybe this athlete has a coach who has a ‘win at all cost mindset’. The athletes’ VABs might result in CITs such as “coach is going to be pissed again because we lost despite playing pretty well”. 

How this all plays out from a mental toughness training point of view is quite simple. As sport psychologists and performance psychologist we see the benefits of spending some time on your values, attitudes and beliefs. This can be done in many ways but ‘hoping for the best’ is not one of them. Most people simply develop their values, attitudes and beliefs from their childhood. It’s typically a very organic process. Now this is fantastic if you have been surrounded by psychologically astute people since you were born. But this is rare. For most of us we would need to sit down regularly in order to clarify our VABs. If you have absolutely no idea about how to go about it get in touch by completing your details on our contact form.

One of my beliefs, not just as an applied sport psychologist but as a person too, is that the concept of perfect does not exist. Striving to be perfect at something is alright as long as you know you’ll never get there. I am a very logical person and it is this analytical part of me which has led me to believe that chasing perfection is like trying to find the Loch Ness monster. Just because people talk about it doesn’t make it real. 

This Is The Reason Behind The Belief

Prefect implies that no more improvement can take place. As improvement is never ending then this renders the concept of perfection as a misnomer. Think about it, for each time you get to something that you mislabelled as perfect you can still improve it further! So it wasn’t perfect was it.

It should come as no surprise having read this why I dislike the “practice makes perfect” principle. And no Vince perfect prcatice doesn’t make perfect either.

What practice can do, if you go about it in the right way, is make something permanent. Practice makes permanent correctly suggests that through the process of repetition it will eventually become a habit, an automatic action that requires little or no front of mind awareness. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.

Often when I am helping my sporting clients with their values and I manage to convince them to replace practice makes perfect with practice makes permanent they ask me about how long it would take to make something permanent. Quite often the 10,000 hours principal comes up which is another furphy. There are too many variables to that question. It will depend on the complexity of the task and genetic factors. Are you starting as an absolute beginner or are you already reasonably adept at it? 

Having said that I did stumble across this very cool TEDTalk recently which suggests that a massive amount can be achieved in the first 20 hours:

But the goal for competitive sport and anybody wanting to perform consistently at their best should always be the same. You need to put in the effort so that the main motor skills required become automatic. This allows you to go into high-pressure situations with the aim of being present and enjoying yourself. Trust that the practice has made these skills permanent. Accept whatever thoughts and feelings that you happen to be experiencing on the day. And of course if you need a hand with all of this give us a shout. 

Pre Shot Routines

Pre Shot Routines might be the most common of the short routines used before closed sporting skills, but they’re not the only type of short routine.

A Good Pre Shot Routine can be half the battle with improving the mental side of target based sports such as shooting (above) and many others.

Pre Shot Routines Are The Number One Mental Skill for Most Target Sports

One of the intentional exclusions from our self-guided Mental Toughness Training courses is advice on Pre Shot Routines. This is because the first Metuf programs were created for all sport and performance areas in mind. In other words we only included mental skills that would apply to all types of performer. Pre Shot Routines only apply to certain sports and in some sports they are only needed by certain players. More on that later.

Pre Shot Routines are the most common of the short routines, but they are not the only type.

Any closed motor skill that is required frequently during a sporting context could and should have a routine beforehand. A closed motor skill is a skill which is typically ‘performed in a stationary environment, where the performer chooses when to start the skill’.

With this in mind I suggest there are actually 5 types of short routine:

  • Golf, shooting sports, table sports. lawn bowls: Pre Shot Routines
  • All racket sports: Pre Point Routines (or you can have Pre Serve Routines and Pre Receive Routines)
  • AFL, soccer (set shot takers), rugby league, rugby union, American football (kickers): Pre Kick Routine or Pre Throw Routine (shot put, javelin, basketball)
  • Racing sports: Pre Start Routines
  • All other sports (e.g. curling): Pre Attempt Routines

Pre Attempt Routines (PARs)?

In fact, if we are looking for a single term that might include all of the above it would be Pre Attempt Routines (PARs). In discussions with my clients and colleagues the word ‘attempt’ has received a bit of push-back. The thinking is that the word ‘attempt’ doesn’t exude the kind of confidence that many are looking for at these key moments. I get that. But the fact is that all of the above are in fact attempts.

The work that my colleagues and I do at Condor Performance in this area is the most sports specific of anything we do. In fact, it’s so ‘sporty’ that some suggest it’s more technical than psychological. Some say pre shot routines are better left to a coach instead of a performance psychologist. But they would be wrong. I am more than happy to work with (alongside) coaches on this mental skill. But to say my skill set as a sport psychologist is not relevant here is insulting.

Pre Shot Routines / Pre Attempt Routines Before Closed Motor Skills

For all closed motor skills, the athletes will always have at least a few seconds before attempting the action. Left in the lap of the Gods these few seconds (or few minutes) can often become fertile grounds for “overthinking”. This tends to lead to underperforming in high-pressure situations.

With the construction or improvement of any Pre Shot Routine there is one main rule. Only include easily repeatable actions. In other words, the only premeditated aspects of the routines are body movements of some kind. Thoughts and feelings are simply left to occur naturally at the time. You have far too little influence on them in order to ensure you can “do them” when it counts.

Intended actions are far more reliable than thoughts and feelings. In fact, they are so reliable that we can (with a lot of practice) virtually guarantee them. We can never guarantee being able to think a certain way in certain situations. So trying to do so is fraught with danger from a psychological point of view.

Let’s run through some examples.

The Classic ‘Pre Shot Routine’

Your first decision here is ‘is one Pre Shot Routine enough or do I need several?’ For most of sports, one is normally enough. But sports such as golf, which has some very different types of shots, might benefit from various PSRs.

The start of the Pre Shot Routine benefits from ‘a trigger action’. This helps us to switch on at that moment. For golf this can be something to do with your glove or maybe an action related to your club.

After this initial action add around three to five other action steps that naturally leads up to the shot. Any more than five and you really are running the risk of over complicating it.

You can these steps to your sport and preferences of course. For example, in clay target shooting one of these steps wants to be shouting the word ‘pull’. I will resist the temptation to add some example of actual pre shot routines. Why not? Because you might copy them and that defeats the purpose.

Pre Point Routines

Rafa’s Pre Point Routines are amongst the many aspects of his tennis that make him so very hard to beat

Of course, we have all seen Rafa going through his pre-point rituals. To the untrained eye, it might seem more like a set of ticks. In fact, Rafa’s Pre Point Routines are amongst the many aspects of his tennis that make him so very hard to beat. 

Tennis is interesting as only the serve is a closed skill due to the fact that the receiver doesn’t decide when to receive the ball. But I have always found that in my work with tennis players it’s a good idea to have both a Pre Serve Routine and a Pre Receive Routine.

The good old face wipe with a towel is hard to beat as a starting trigger for both server and receiver. The rest of the routine needs to be aligned with what is required in a few seconds time. If you’re about to receive the ball then walking to the right spot and taking the right body position might want to be included. If you’re serving then bouncing the ball, pausing then slowly looking up can be great inclusions.

I often get asked if it’s important to decide exactly how many times to bounce the ball – for example. Also, if the decision of which serve (or where to serve) can be included as surely this is not an act but a thought.

Ball Bouncing

Ball bouncing (waggling the golf club, same same) is a double edged sword. Most players do it “until they feel right” but this assumes you’ll always feel right at some point. I am in favour of picking a range of bounces. For example, 2 or 3 and then sticking to this 100% of the time. Yes, even in practice and when you’re do it as part of your visualisation.

If decision making is taken seriously as part of the practice, then this will become as automatic as the skills being done around them. In other words, choosing where to serve only becomes cognitively demanding if you have excluded tactical preparation as part of your practice. If you must have a decision making step in there, add it before the trigger.

Pre Kick and Throw Routines

Due to the fact that these actions tend to be part of fast flowing sports they are often not considered in the same group of closed skills as the previous examples. This is a huge missed opportunity for the kickers and free throwers of these sports in my opinion.

In the 1-on-1 work we do with kickers and throwers I basically treat them like golfers. But instead of a golf club and ball, they have their leg and foot or arms and hands and some kind of inflated ball.

First up, as with golfers, we agree on the ideal number of routines after going through the pros and cons of one versus several. For example, a rugby union player will need one for set shots and another for kick offs.

After this, we follow the same rules as before. Only use actions to build the Pre Kick/Throw Routine. If you must include a thought, try to keep them as simple as possible.

Is It A Good Idea To Visualise As Part Of My Routine?

I have received a fair bit of criticism for my lack of enthusiasm about including imagery in routines. Some of this comes from the famous Jack Nicklaus quote about visualisation. “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head,” Nicklaus said.

Here is the issue Jack. We can’t guarantee cognitive processes such as imagining the path of a ball. Even with repetition, it will be very vulnerable under pressure or high levels of distraction.

The solution to this conflict is two-fold. First, practice the visualisation part as part of your PKR in practice 100% of the time so it feels automatic (second nature). Second, don’t stress if it’s hard or not possible come game time. It’s not that you are weak, it’s the thoughts are weak. Your action based Pre Attempt Routine will get the job done regardless of what you’re thinking or feeling.

If you’d like the assistance of one of psychologists with your short routines then complete one our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. A member of our team will be in touch with you to discuss options.

Choking In Sport

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the main reasons why many athletes can easily perform in training but struggle on competition day.

Choking in sport is basically any decrease in performance due to pressure or psychological factors

What Exactly is Choking in Sport?

Choking is one of those interesting terms which is commonly associated with sport psychology but not so common in the scientific literature. In other words it was first used colloquially to describe ‘falling apart under the pressure of competition’. Since then it seems to have ‘stuck’ as the term used most often to describe mental disintegration.

In this 2013 journal article choking is defined as follows:

In sport, choking under pressure is a negative athletic experience that may have psychologically damaging effects. The media recognises that choking is a dramatic drop in performance, whereas researchers have labeled choking as any decrease in performance under pressure. This discrepancy between the media’s and researchers’ perception of choking leads to ambiguity among terms and confusion among researchers, applied practitioners, and the general public.

As a practising sport psychologist I typically don’t use the words choke or choking at all. I prefer to describe the same challenge in a little more details. For example, underperforming in competition due to pressure. Or maybe due to poor concentration?

Can You Help? I Keep Choking …

There are literally hundreds of reasons why people contact us here at Condor Performance. One of the most common, however, is the athlete/performer who excels in practice situations but struggles to reach anywhere near this level during actual competitions. Most of the time they’ll refer to this as choking. “I keep choking” or “I am a choker”.

It’s worth mentioning that there is always a risk when writing about the psychological aspects anything of oversimplifying matters. This is certainly the case here. Be aware of this when I suggest that although there are potentially hundreds of causes of choking most can be attributed to one or a combination of the below.

  • a practice environment that is mentally far too easy (for that person)
  • a competition mindset that is far too taxing (for that person)
  • the perfect storm – a combination of both of the above

And In This Lies The Solution

Quite simply most of those who are better at executing their skills in practice are better as they are doing so in a false environment. One where more often than not there are little or no consequences involved. Go to any golf driving range in the world and you’ll see dozens of golfers (if we can call them that) smashing balls into the distance without caring about where they end up. Take the same golfers and plonk them onto the first tee with three other golfers watching and see how suddenly smashing this particular ball into the distance makes them tighten up and duck hook it straight out of bounds.

Even those who practice smart and try to replicate the mental demands of competition in their preparation often struggle as they tend to fall short of being able to mimic feelings of extreme pressure. The result is that they then have to try and execute their skills in competition whilst experiencing feeling like extreme nerves or stress that were not there during practice. To add insult to injury, they then fuse with these feelings unaware that feelings and actions can be separated.

There are a number of tried and tested ways around. Although reading this blog should never take the place of working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist the below might be enough to at least get the ball rolling.

1. Make Your Practice Mentally Harder

By harder we mean mentally harder not physically harder. The easiest way to try and do this is by replicating situations that you don’t like or that you find hard. For example, you might prefer to practice in the morning so you intentionally switch some practice sessions to the afternoon. Or you might enjoy practising with others so you do more and more training alone. To get the sweet-spot is not easy. You’re looking for the practice session(s) to be psychologically demanding but not too demanding. A great analogy for this is weight training. If the weights are too light then not much will happen. If they are too heavy they might cause injury and long term harm. It’s the same with mental demands. Too little means no growth, too much means damage. British sport psychologist Dan Abrahams refers to this as stretch and support. Too much and too little stretch are what we’re trying to avoid here. If you are not confident at being able to create your own sweet-spot mentally harder practice session(s) then please contact us here and so we can lend you a hand.

2. Make Your Competition As Relaxed As Possible

Is it possible for an athlete to be too relaxed whilst competing? Not really (don’t confuse tiredness with being relaxed) so we suggest you do what the great Usain Bolt used to do. He only “worked” on things in training. This freed up his competitions to just exist, enjoy himself and let his training express itself without a worried mind getting in the way. In particular, he didn’t worry about being worried. Easier said than done many might say. I often use the analogy of driving a car (apologies to our younger readers). Manoeuvring a vehicle around safely is a difficult motor skill with huge consequences if you get it wrong. Yet, most of us (who drive) do a great job of trusting our muscle memory. We quickly get to a level of expertise behind the wheel were we don’t actually have to try hard to drive well, we just do. What if you approached sporting contests in the same way? Arrive, ready, relax, trust your training.

3. Use Performance Routines

Action-only pre-performance routines can be a great way to keep you grounded at certain key moments both in practice and during competitions. The reason they work so well is that they’re built using the most influenceable aspect of performance – present actions. This means they should remain both easy to do and consistent regardless of the thoughts and emotions of the current situations. You didn’t really think that Rafa Nadel actually sweated that much did you? Rafa’s use of the towel is a great example of a mentally astute athlete using the action of wiping as a reset between points.

If you’d like to read a lot more about routines then you can read this blog or this one. And as always, please use the space below to let us know your thoughts and/or questions on the topic of Choking in Sport.

Mental Blocks

Mental blocks are common in sports like gymnastics. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole explores what they are and how to overcome them.

Mental Blocks are more common than you might think …

In this article we will explore the concept of mental blocks. Specifically the kinds of mental blocks that we commonly encounter in a sport and performance context. Without a doubt, some sports are likely to product more mental blocks than others. Which ones? Those that require manoeuvres such as gymnastics, surfing and all equestrian sports to name the most obvious.

For the rest of this article I will use gymnastics as an example. This is what the situation typically looks like when we find out about the mental block. A young gymnast is preparing for a major upcoming competition. For the uneven bars she is confident about the whole routine expect for the The Def (see below).

The Def (bars)

Description: The Def is a Gienger release move with an extra full twist. In simpler terms, the Def is a skill completed on the uneven bars where the gymnast releases the bar, completes a back salto layout with one and a half twists (540°) before catching the bar again.

In the mind of this hypothetical gymnast The Def is a mental block. It’s a skill that is so hard that she can’t imagine being able to do it in training; let alone in competition.

So how we know it’s a mental block as opposed to a different type of block? Is it enough to just take this athlete’s word for it? Not really.

What are the other kinds of blocks?

The main ones are physical and technical blocks. A physical block is when the body simply will not allow for the skill to be executed at this time. This might be due to injury, or literally the size of athlete. Think about a junior basketballer who wants to dunk the ball. She knows how but is just not tall enough (yet) to get anywhere near the ring.

A technical block, on the other hand, is when an athlete currently doesn’t have the “muscle memory” to execute a certain skill. A great example of this is when it golf, a few year back, they allowed long handled putters. For the non-golfing readers, this is a putter (used on the green) that is much longer than normal ones. The technique required to use this new type of putter is not the same as for a normal, shorter putter. So, many players tried it, had technical blocks and then went back to the old style.

Finally, We Have Mental Blocks

Or maybe we should call them genuine mental blocks. A genuine mental block is when the performer really believes that they will not be able to perform the skill. And it’s this belief, and nothing else, that is actually getting in the way of them doing it.

So here are no physical nor technical reasons why they shouldn’t be able to do this skill. One of the most compelling pointers it’s a mental block is if the performer has already done the skill in the past. 

Let’s go back to our example of the gymnast. If she has executed The Def before but can’t anymore this suggests a mental block.

Some sport psychologists might like to find out if there is reason for this. Was there a bad fall once? Maybe she saw another gymnast try and fail? Maybe someone has told her it’s impossible. Personally, I prefer to spend the majority of the mental conditioning on how to help them overcome the mental block. And these suggestions, below, are likely to the same regardless of the cause. And remember, these is not always a cause. This is mainly due to the limited amount of time that we have without our sporting clients. On average, via our monthly approach to consulting, we spend between 90 and 120 minutes “in session” with our clients. So it’s not that we are uninterested in the causes of things (such as mental blocks) it’s that we don’t have time to really get into them.

Baby Steps 

Baby steps refers to simply breaking down the skill into smaller, more manageable parts. Of course this is normally the coaches’ domain but not all coaches are mentally astute. Competence (actions) before confidence (a feeling) is the key here. Competence before confidence means that an athlete needs to be able to do something competently in order to feel confidence. In other words telling them “you can do it” is not very effective. Baby steps are a great way to overcome mental blocks. If done right there is never a large leap in difficulty.

For example, let us imagine that The Def is a 9 / 10 in terms of difficulty. What does a 7 look like? And and 5 or 3? Once these have been established then the gymnast can go back to the number in which they feel competent. Let’s say 4/10. With some patience, they can then work their way slowly up through the numbers. Do not, under any circumstances, jump from a 6 to 9 for example.

Seperate Actions from Thoughts from Emotions

Another way to overcome mental blocks is by realising that actions, thoughts and emotions are not one and the same. By this I mean separate actions, emotions and thoughts into different types of stimulus. This can be done away from training to start with. Through processes like Really Simple Mindfulness anyone can learn to observe their emotions and thoughts and therefore not let them stop certain actions from taking place.

As some of my clients know I like to prove this during sessions. For example, I will ask them to tap their head whilst saying to themselves “I am tapping my thigh”. Once the athlete knows that action are genuinely independent of thoughts and emotions they can use this in training. Using the current example, this means accepting that thoughts such as “I will never be able to do this” are fine. Feelings of panic are to be accepted and they don’t have to stop you from taking the first step (literally).

And if you combine these two ideas, the combination tends to be very effective.

As always, if you’d like a helping hand let us know. 

Natural Talent … Or Is It?

Natural talent might just be one of the most unfortunate combinations of words ever. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains.

Is Natural Talent really natural?

For those of you who know me professionally you’ll know that I am a bit of a word policeman. By this I mean I consider the genuine definition of words in more detail than do most people. Words or combinations of words, especially when spoken, are powerful and to be treated delicately. As a general rule I try hard not to dislike certain words. Instead I simply choose not to use certain combination myself. For example in performance psychology circles the word control is used prolifically. As my colleagues and clients know I prefer to use the word influence. It’s just a much better word for exerting an impact on something.

As a sport psychologist who doesn’t use direct cognitive therapy techniques I try not to correct my sporting clients when they use the word control. Instead I simply choose not to use it myself. I refer to the varying degrees of influence that we have on different aspects of our life and performance.

Two Words Not One: Natural + Talent

But there is one pair of words that I am particularly offended by; natural talent. Now before I go about pulling it apart and explaining why I feel these words should be banned let’s look at each word by itself.

The ‘natural’ part is referring to genetics, what we’re born with, our DNA. In other words it is the former in the Nature Versus Nurture concept/debate. Like most scientists I believe that most of our abilities are made up of a combination of nature plus nurture. Most experts now believe that it’s a fairly even contest between genetics and environment. And this may well be the case in many areas that I have little knowledge about. However in the world of sport, and in particular certain sports, I strongly believe that the role of genetics is vastly overplayed as a determinant of success. Let me be 100% clear here. I am not dismissing the role of genetics. I am simply saying that factors such as height and hand size play a much smaller part than many people believe they do.

The Word Talent By Itself

In doing some research for this article I decided to check what the definition of talent really is. I guessed it would say something like skilful or full of ability. But in fact the word talent even without the word natural before it implies a heavy dose of biological inheritance.

For example, the Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘talent’ as follows:

(someone who has) a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught. Examples; Her talent for music showed at an early age. His artistic talents were wasted in his boring job.

With such an inference of genetics one would have to ask whether it’s necessary to add the word natural before hand. I suspect it’s there to just emphasise the point. I for one and a little aggrieved at the fact that talent infers inherited. For me talent has always just meant ‘good at’ as in I am talented home cook, meaning that I am handy in the kitchen. No more, no less.

Not All Performance Areas Are The Same

As performance psychologists we work right across the multitude of performance domains that exist. Some of the most interesting work that I have done is with both male and female professional models. By models I’m referring to men, women, boys and girls who make a living from doing catwalks and photoshoots. It is hard to imagine a performance domain with a more significant genetic component to professional modelling. After all height is considered critical for adult models. And the last time I checked it doesn’t matter how hard you try you can’t make yourself taller. Yet even in this cutthroat you’ve either got it or you haven’t industry I still assert that success is more than 50% about non genetics factors. Chief amongst these non genetics factors is effort, or how you apply yourself. Suddenly natural talent isn’t feel that natural.

What About Sports?

Not too far behind professional modelling in the world of sport are sports that require very specific physical attributes. We are talking about factors such as height for basketballers, netballers and high jumpers. Given the high ratio of sprinters with ethnic links to Africa running fast would also appear to have genetic favourites. And even I will admit it. A snowy white sprinter might have to work harder and smarter than her Caribbean opponents. Especially if she wants a share of the medals.

But what about sports which are much less physical. Sports such as golf, dart, lawn bowls and figure skating. Are there some genetically predetermined characteristics that allow you to be good at golf? For these kinds of sports I would hypothesise that genetics are only playing between 10 and 15% of potential ability. As mentioned previously genetics is never completely relevant. For example eyesight is mostly genetic and this is certainly a factor in being able to see the ball well. But with the exception of some incredibly rare genetic traits I would say that the world’s best golfers have very little in common in terms of natural talent. So if I am correct then between 85% and 90% of success in many of the worlds most popular sports have nothing to do with your genetics.

So If It’s Not Natural Talent, What Is It?

In intentionally simple terms it’s about how you spend your time. In particular it’s how you spend your time in terms of quality and quantity after the very early years. Where things get complicated in terms of the nature versus nurture debate are around topics such as motivation. If a certain level of motivation is required for you to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go for a run before school there is a strong argument from some sectors that sheer motivation is largely generic. In other words although the 6 km runs is obviously ‘nurture’ the spark that got you to the start line could be very ‘nature’. Even if this is true, the comeback will always be the same.

There is nothing you can do to change the genetic part so you might as well ignore it. 

One of the key aspects of our performance psychology framework Metuf is an increased awareness in the amount of influence you have on “stuff”. For example, learning that you have more influence preparing for sleep than the actual amount of sleep you get. Well guess which aspects are at opposite ends of this spectrum of influence? You guessed it. Genetics and effort. We have so little influence on our genetics that we call it uninfluenceable. On the other hand we have so much influence over our effort that we could almost call it one of the very, very few controllables (I still refer to effort as highly influenceable though). What does all of this mean? 

Where To From Here?

For a start, get rid of all talent identification programs. Abolish them and replace them with development programs that allow anyone to have a go. Next, stop using the term talent or natural talent. Get rid of them and instead focus more on the quality and quantity of effort regardless of current abilities. Maybe we should start talking about unnatural abilities instead? Those who rose to the top despite the genetic odds being stacked against them.

For example, Muggsy Bogues and Emily Ratajkowski. Muggsy played 889 NBA games between 1987 and 2001. Emily Ratajkowski is considered to be one of the most successful supermodels of all time. Both of them thrive in industries that prefer tall people. Muggsy is 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) and Emily is 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m).  Enough said.

Please use the comments boxes below to provide your thoughts on this fascinating topic. We would especially like to hear from those of you who have found success despite the natural odds

Sport Psychology Into The Future

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses about where sport psychology is headed and guesses what the field will look like in 2050.

What will the sport psychology landscape look like 30 years from now? Picture from FROM MOVIESTORE COLLECTION/REX/REX USA.

Back From The Future

Ok readers, I borrowed the Delorean and just got back from the year 2050. And you will not believe what I saw. Doncaster Rovers F.C. win the English Premier League for the second year in a row. And sport psychology is nothing like it is in 2020. It’s mainstream, it’s normal and it is regarded as the most important part of competitive sports.

I am of course kidding (wish I wasn’t). And in case some of you missed the Delorean reference let me context you. In 1989 the writers and producers of the classic movie Back To The Future 2 made some predictions about what life would be like in 2015. Marty McFly (pictured above) then went into the future in a Delorean time machine (also pictured above).

This Vanity Fair article actually shows how accurate some of these educated guesses turned out to be. Forecasting the future is one of the most remarkable aspects of being human. No other species can do it quite like we can. But it’s both a blessing and a curse. The upside is our ability to plan and things three moves ahead of our opponent. The downside is wasting mental energy such as “I just know I am going to play poorly tomorrow”.

Sport Psychology In 2050?

During a number of interviews between UK sport psychologist Dan Abrahams and his guests on the highly recommended The Sport Psych Show he asked them to imagine using a time machine to go back in time. I thought it might be fun and thought provoking to use it to go into the future instead!

In this article I will predict what the sport psychology landscape will look like thirty years from now. Just like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (creators of the Back To The Future Trilogy) I will make some educated guesses. Feel free to save a copy and then get in touch in 2050. Let me know how accurate or inaccurate they turn out to be. I will not, in this article, focus on the problematic aspects of future-based thinking. But I will say this. We now know that one of the key aspects of sporting mental toughness is being able to focus at will on the present moment. In others words there are many occasions in a competitive sporting situation in which we literally want to ‘turn off’ our ability to think about the future. More on this during another article (which when written I will link here).

3 Majors Changes To Sport Psychology Are Coming

I hypothesise three major changes in the coming decades to dramatically change what sport psychology looks like. I predict that by the middle of this century the following will be taking place or have happened already.

  • The phasing out of generic (non-sport specific) sport psychology.
  • The phasing in of much greater checks about qualifications (or lack of).
  • A spike in sporting coaches working 1-on-1 with sport psychologists / performance psychologists. And the first few head coaches who are in fact sport psychologists themselves.

I will now go into more detail about each of the above.

Phasing Out of Generic Sport Psychology

By the end of this decade it will be universally accepted that the ‘interventions’ used to help someone with clinical depression are different from ‘the mental tools’ used to motivate a mentally well athlete whose training enthusiasm has dropped. (For those of you who are reading this who think this has already happened trust me it hasn’t. But we are getting there).

This move towards more specificity will then continue past 2030, More and more will accept that snooker and boxing are too different to be aided with the same psychological tools. There are so many sports now and we can’t pretend they all have the same mental requirements and therefore solutions.

Let’s Consider A Couple Of Key Questions

  • How much do the general strategies used by most (non-sport) psychologists apply to athletes and coaches who are trying to improve the mental aspects of their performance or coaching abilities?
  • How ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another? Or even from one specific sport to a different sport?

When trying to answer the first question we need to be a little careful not to imply that all psychologists use the same models. But there are some well established models which are likely to be more prevalent than others. That is for sure. So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘about one third’ (see below for more on this).

For example, if the athlete is functionally well (without a recognised mental illness) then at Condor Performance we would not focus significant attention on a long and detailed history of the client’s mental health and wellbeing. We would most likely measure it via the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale every couple of months just to keep an eye on it. But the majority of the sport psychology sessions would be related to the mental aspects of the client’s sport.

This is not to say that some of the mental methods we often use from the get-go don’t have clinical origins. But the final versions which are presented to our clients would be largely unrecognisable to our non-performance focussed colleagues.

Examples

A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting. When we help our clients set goals we often introduce a level of accountability to these targets that some mental health practitioners might find objectionable. But from our standpoint, this level of accountability is a key ingredient in helping them get to the next level. If it is confronting for the client (‘you committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, what happened?’) then we will use that to further the discusses by asking lots of ‘why’ questions. A practitioner with more of a mental health angle might default to just making the client feel better about this type of non-compliance. (‘You committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, totally understandable given the current challenges’).

Another example might be mindfulness. Mindfulness looks rather different when you are doing some at home with few outside distractions to the version you might use on the golf course, for example. And the version you might use on the golf course is hopefully only partially the same as what a competitive tennis player might adopt.

How Transferable

So, how ‘transferable’ are mental skills from one performance area to another? Or even from one specific sport to another? In answering this question I often like to use the rule of thirds. Roughly a third of the mental ideas are due to generic sport psychology principles. Another third wants to acknowledge that although Olympic bob-sleighing and Clay Target Shooting are both sports they are bloody different pursuits. And the final third is further adapting the mental training program to that individual. To that person’s personality and learning styles.

In other words, the sports psychology services that we’d deliver to a competitive pro golfer with a drinking problem and a rugby league coach looking to improve their coaching abilities might only have a crossover of about 15 to 20%. One of the commonalities between these very different hypothetical client might be using some key aspects from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For example, educational processes around “we are not our thoughts” might be useful for both of them. I have found a Behaviour First (only) approach to be universally beneficial in my sport psychology work regardless of who I am sitting in front of.

Some Sports Are Mentally Very Similar

Although I predict a phasing out of generic sport psychology we need to remember some sports are psychologically very similar. When you put the technical and tactical aspects to one side the same kinds of mental tools should work just as well for certain sports. Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do around Short Performance Routines to aid with concentration and execution under pressure. In helping a golfer create or improve his or her Pre Shot Routine(s) the principles will be almost identical in working a snooker player on their PSR.

Greater Checks about Qualifications

This is how I think it will work in 2050. If you want to charge a fee for advice on X then you need some kind of approved qualification in X. No exceptions. So if you want to be a personal trainer that goes to people’s houses and gives fitness advice in exchange for a fee you’ll need to genuinely qualified. I gather the whole physical conditioning industry is trying to make this happen at the moment.

Psychology in sport is years behind our S&C friends and co-workers but we will catch up. Over the next 30 years there will be a gradual phasing out of entities charging a fee for psychological advice (even if they call it something else) who doesn’t have some kind of approved training in psychology. This is a very difficult area and I suspect that more than a few tears will be shed along the way. The hardest part will be to get everyone to agree on what ‘approved training in psychology’ is. And then afterwards educating the public in such a way to reduce assumptions that Mindset Coach and a Sport Psychologist are one and the same.

More Coaches Working 1-on-1 With Sport Psychologists

This has already started to happen. In 2005 I worked with no sporting coaches. In 2020 roughly a third of all my monthly clients are coaches. The premise is this. Coaching education programs the world over are lacking in highly effective mental toughness training elements. We could try and improve all of these coach ed programs or even ask the coaches to do ‘approved training in psychology’ but there is an easier and better way. All sporting coaches, especially at the elite level, will be working behind the scenes with a genuine expert in sporting mental toughness.

This coach-sport psychologist collaboration will eventually result in sport psychologists taking up positions as assistant coaches and then eventually getting the ‘top job’ themselves. When this happens, and these professionals are successful and they stick with the title sport psychologist over Head Coach or Manager whilst in the top job, we can say we’re made it.

If you are a sporting coach and would like to get ahead of the curve then start by completing this questionnaire. This questionnaire will assess, amongst other factors, your current mental coaching abilities. You will then be contacted by one of our team within a day or two.

Motivation, Sport Psychology and Marshmallows

Motivation is about more than a subcomponent of sport psychology and mental toughness. This article looks at delayed gratification and more.

Child eating two marshmellows
“If you don’t eat this marshmallow, you’ll get two later on”

Too Many Theories

I have long held the view that most areas of psychology are blighted with too many theories. Don’t get me wrong, I know we need research to support our professional decision making. But in my view there are simply too many below par theories, models and papers out there. Google Motivation and sport psychology theories and you’ll see what I mean.

This then blows out the work load of applied sport psychologists such as myself. I try to read as many peer-reviewed journals on sport psychology as possible. Unfortunately have to sort through the mountain to find the gems.

Oh, and there are some real gems.

One of these is the work done around Delayed Gratification via The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments. Starting in the 60s Walter Mischel did a series of studies that gave us with a huge clue about the motivational requirements of successful people.

One Marshmallow Now Or Two Later?

In these studies, children between four and eight years of age were offered a choice. Each child, in turn, could pick between one small reward immediately or two later. One marshmallow now or two later, you decide? If the child decided to have two marshmallows later then it would be on the condition that the single treat was still there when the experimenter returned. This was normally after about 15 minute.

Remarkably in the majority of the testing about half the children gobbled down the one marshmallow almost immediately. The other half would exercise great will power and wait for the experimenter to return. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to “delay their gratification” tended to have better life outcomes. For example, these high will power youngsters went on to get better exam results. They were happier and more likely to have good relationships. They ended up with much better jobs than the lower will power kids.

Below is a 6 minute Ted talk which explains the concept and experiments in more details.

Here is the video link to Joachim de Posada’s TED talk in 2009 that we keep banging on about in the context of delayed gratification as a key mindset for peak performance. Enjoy.

Although I am assume that Professor Mischel had little interest in the specific field of sport psychology I can’t imagine another branch of psychology whereby the concept of delayed gratification is more relevant.

Delayed Gratification

Delayed gratification is really just “doing something difficult now in the hope that it will be prove worth it later on”.

Of all the hundreds of theories on motivation pertaining to sport psychology this is most useful. Quite simply put, one of the chief explanations about why so few succeed is because they can’t link their short term struggle with their long term aspirations.

Most athletes and coaches try and find shortcuts. They throw in the towel when the rewards for their effort are not immediate and obvious. They gobble down the single marshmallow instead of waiting for two. Very few people actually love getting up at 4am in order to do laps under floodlights. But the champions and champions-in-the-making do it anyway.

In the defence of ‘most athletes’ it’s unlikely that anyone has taken the time to carefully explain to them that improving is all about patience. Doing the hard yards in the preseason so the rewards can come during the season.

What If The Kids Had Been Coached First?

What would have happened had all the Marshmallow experimentees been coached beforehand. Imagine a performance psychologist had been allowed to spend time helping the kids mentally prepare first. How about the impact if a performance psychologist shows pictures of other kids succeeding. Imagine if all the subjects has been taught proper mindfulness techniques thus allowing ‘urges’ to just be noticed.

But of course elite sport, especially at the highest level, requires a little more delayed gratification than 15 minutes. On many occasions the truly meaningful “payoff” for effort might only be 10 or even 20 years down the track. That’s a long time to wait for that second marshmallow! Think about the young athletes who sacrifice time with friends and family whilst they are teenagers only to see the rewards in their twenties and thirties.

Remember, the experiments centred around one marshmallow now or two later. The children were not left with a brussell sprout for 15 minutes. This is a super important point. There was nothing mean about leaving the kids alone in a room with one marshmallow. The only difficultly some of them experienced was the tussle between their own strength of mind and their own temptations.

Applied Sport Psychology

At Condor Performance one of the ways we help those we work with to embrace delayed gratification is by encouraging them to keep track of their progress.

Key Performance Indictors can “bridge the gap” between the daily and weekly grind and possible moments of glory. These monthly checks act a little like licking the marshmallow but not eating it. They help remind us about what we might get later on down the track. They remind us about why we’re doing what we’re doing even if it’s uncomfortable. MCs are, in my opinion, the most powerful motivators available when you can’t actually use marshmallows!


Easier said than done? If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.

Emotional Intelligence and Managment

Emotional Intelligence. Can we control our emotions? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole takes a deep dive into the topic of emotions.

Sport psychology and its big sister performance psychology are minefields when it comes to terminology. What I mean by this is that related terms gets thrown around often and easily. Some of these words are more common than others. For example, ‘mental toughness’ and ’emotional intelligence’ are used and misused more frequently than ‘team unity’ and ‘flow’.

Those of you who are familiar with Condor Performance (the psychologists) and Metuf (the model) will likely know that for a long time we have tried hard to define such terms. For example, for us mental toughness is an umbrella terms that pertains to the “Big Five” aspects of the mental side of sport / performance. In fact, the word Metuf is an acronym for motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. And of course, mental toughness is not to be confused with the other ‘

But what about the “Big Five” terms themselves. When we use the words emotional intelligence for example are we all in agreement about exactly what we are talking about? Not in my experience, not even close. In fact, I find emotions and related discussions to be the most confusing, and risky, of all the sport psychology concepts.

Some Recent Examples

Let me use an example to explain. Recently on social media I saw a screenshot of a presentation that contained the words “controlling their emotions under pressure”. It was a bullet point next to the words composure, one of “six keys to being resilient” (according to the slide). I added this comment “It is not possible to control emotions, only influence them. It is psychologically dangerous to imply you can”. I will not go into detail about the back and forth that took place after this initial comment except to say this. It would be very useful if there was a censuses on how emotions work and what we mean by emotional intelligence.

With that I will give my professional opinion and expand on my “it is not possible to control emotions” comment. As an applied sport psychologist it’s not really my job to prove that the below is correct, or scientifically robust. Having said that, at Condor Performance, we do collect a huge amount of internal data as part of our mission to be constantly improving. Some academics might argue that because our data is not converted into scientific articles and then submitted for peer review that it is meaningless. I will save my counterargument to that assertion for another time / blog.

Our Guide to Emotional Intelligence

First and foremost we want to agree on what emotions are. They are feelings. Many of these feelings are enjoyable like joy and excitement. Many are not that fun such as fear, nerves and frustration. Then there is the feeling of not feeling anything at all – often called apathy. Some recent studies suggest there are 27 main emotions that most humans experience. This “feels” about right. Especially if you remove the ones that sounds like emotions but are actually thoughts (like worry, for example).

In browsing the list of these 27 emotions I have picked eight as very common for athletes, coaches and other performers:

  • Anxiety
  • Calmness
  • Confusion
  • Envy
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Satisfaction
  • Triumph

With these in mind we turn our attention to the question what is your relationship (as a person) to these and other feelings? Is it useful to find the cause of your excitement (for example) so you can replicate it at will? Are strong feelings of anxiety and fear bad – to be stopped like some kind of emotional disease? Do we control our emotions or do they control us or neither of these?

This Is How I Explain It To My Clients

Emotions are just part of the human experience. Internal feelings are one of seven sources of information (stimulus) available to most of us most of the time. The others are sight, sounds, smell, thoughts, touch and taste. All of these groups of stimuli vary in terms of their pleasantness. For example, drinking fresh and sour milk activate different taste buds but both are taste sensations nonetheless. You can apply the same to all seven. We experience fear and excitement very differently but both are emotions, nothing more, nothing less.

The first and most important part of being emotionally intelligent is just becoming better at noticing and experiencing different emotions. Yes, both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones. There are many ways to go about this but there are a couple of rules to ensure it’s helping. Don’t try and change the emotion directly. Wether it be via mindfulness, meditation or moonwalking your task is to “increase your awareness of your feelings with decreased judgment”. I often like to do this by going through all the senses so that there is no real difference between the internal two and the external five. Here is a link to 16 minutes “Really Simple Mindfulness” audio recording we created recently in case you want a helping hand.

Technology – Friend or Foe?

You can certainly use one of the myriad of Apps as well (too many now to list) but remember this. Mindfulness, like exercise, shouldn’t cost you anything. You do not need a gym membership to improve your cardio fitness. You don’t need to pay for the Premium version of an App in order to do mindfulness. Even our “Really Simple Mindfulness” audio recording above is only really designed as ‘training wheels’ until you get the hang of it by yourself.

So becoming better at observing your emotions is the first part of emotional intelligence. But it’s not the only part.

The second part is about realising that although you can never control your emotions you can sometimes influence them. And that choosing to do this might assist with what you’re trying to do (achieve etc).

For example, you might decide that you would like to feel as calm as possible before competitions (exams, performances etc). In your attempt to influence this (NOT CONTROL) you might design a Pre Competition Routine that is full of tasks they YOU find relaxing. With practice (repetition) the likelihood of you feeling calm the hour before kick off or tee off will increase. But real emotional intelligence comes with knowing that there will never be a guarantee (synonym for control) that you will in fact feel calm and relaxed.

Don’t Try And Change Emotions Directly – Ever

And not even here you are not trying to change your emotions directly. If you relaxation tasks are actions (preferable) then you’re really influencing your preferred pre game actions and hoping they make you feel calm. This is very different from trying to calm yourself down.

How do we deal with this? We just notice these unexpected feelings alongside all the other sights, sounds and  thoughts of the situation. Which if you’ve been doing this on a daily or weekly basis (see above) as part of your training will be child’s play.

For those of you who stumbled across this article in search of an applied definition of emotion intelligence then copy and paste this.

“Emotional intelligence is the ability observe and label your own human emotions and to know when and how to influence them”. 

Gareth J. Mole, Sport Psychologist @ Condor Performance

Sporting Comebacks – A Mental Perspective

Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The Term ‘Comeback’ Is An Interesting One

What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?

What are some of the most memorable comebacks that you have been involved in as a coach or athlete? How about as a sports fan? Is it the size of the deficit that was overcome or the amount of surprise caused?

Last year, in 2019, we were treated to two of the most remarkable comebacks I can ever remember. But each earned the label epic comeback for very different reasons.

Tiger Wood’s Comeback Win at The 2019 US Masters

Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.

Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him! Roger had to share most of the spoils with Rafa and Novak.

Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during his glory years.

The Decline …By His Standards

Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following ten years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.

Tiger won most of his golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sport psychology, comebacks are all relative.

Tiger’s win at Augusta in April 2019 will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat. Then he didn’t for a while. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) getting ignored, dismissed or underplayed. Let me say it again. Most pro golfers would give their left leg to have achieved what TW did during his “slump years”.

Sporting Success Is About So More Than Trophies and Medals

I advise my athletes and coaches to be mindful of not letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as success. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of stats not just wins.

Our Metuf model suggests there are five major areas that all contribute to performance success. Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as four ‘engines’ on a performance plane. The rest of the aircraft is like their health and wellbeing. To increase your chances of winning anything you’re better of focussing on there five areas. Sport psychology stalwart Dr Chris Shambrook says it best. “Focus on the input, and let the output take care of itself”.

Tiger is now known to have had a number of physical and personal challenges for most of the previous decade. Maybe these were enough to result in him “only” coming 2nd and 3rd in the hardest golf events in the world. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.

What Tiger had to endure from a physical point of view (injuries and surgeries) would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement. But most athletes don’t have the mindset (grit?) of Tiger Woods.

The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance to dominate if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury-free at least) but whose Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised. If this sounds like you please get in touch, we can help, it’s what we do.

The Rest of the Plane

The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. We could refer to this as mental health and wellbeing. In my work as a sport psychologist I prefer to think about this from a solutions point of view. For example, sleep, nutrition, relationships, rest and purpose to name some of the most common.

It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so. I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.

During the famous green jacket ceremony Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’. This suggests how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.

Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me the two are heavily linked.

Genuine sport psychology will only become mainstream when sporting decision makers realise that happy athletes win more – a lot more.

Another Epic Comeback in 2019

Some comebacks take much less time that the ten years it took Tiger to win another major. Some only take 45 minutes in fact.

Lets fast forward a few weeks and move from the greens of Augusta to the floodlit nights of Champions League football (soccer). The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.

Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all examples into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs. This means that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.

In last year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid. Barcelona took a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London. So they would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.

Yet Despite All The Odds …

Yet despite all the odds both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way and worthy of the label comeback. But the Liverpool comeback would have to go down as one of the comebacks of the century. Especially given that it resulted in them going onto to lift the trophy a couple of weeks afterwards.

There are some lessons to be learnt here from the men who orchestrated these comebacks. For a start, both the managers (head coaches) of these two famous English team appear to take the mental side very seriously. The have created a ‘never give up’ attitude with their respective playing squads. I suspect that their comebacks are always less of a surprise to them than their fans.

In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback semi final win as ‘mentality giants’. This is a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.

Mohamed Salah’s ‘Never Give Up’ T-shirt epitomises Liverpool’s mindset in Barcelona victory in the 2019 Champion League semi final.

How about you? Have you been involved in a sporting comeback? If you have add the details to the comments section below. Better still, describe your mindset before and during the comeback for others to read and benefit from.