The Performance Mindset

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

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

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

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

Part One

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

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

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

Performance Equals …

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Semantics

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

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

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

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

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

Mentally Seperate Preparation from Competition

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

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

The Ideal Mindset for Competition

The Relaxed Competition Mindset

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

Usain Bolt

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

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

Same, Same But Different

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

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

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

Win At All Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two

The Law of Reverse Effect

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

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

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

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

Motor Skills

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

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

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

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

Fine Motor Skills More Impacted By Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Answer Is Yes

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jEQEGQYUuI

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

How To Develop An RCM

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

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

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

Part Three

The Ideal Mindset for Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subcomponents

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

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

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

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

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

Pomfret’s Paradox and Barracosa’s Law 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Part Four (Just Added)

Time To Get To Work

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

PC, TC, PT, MT and TW

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

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

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

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

Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Physical Preparation

[Mainly Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Mainly Physical Preparation]

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Have we left out anything? 

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

Let’s put it to the test. 

What about speed? 

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

What about injuries?

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

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

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

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

This is the end of the latest instalment. The fifth part will be added here on Monday 15th March 2021.

It All Starts With Commitment …

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

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

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

It’s That Time Of Year …

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

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

Committed Performance / Sport Psychologists

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

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

Commitment Is The Same As Motivation

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

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

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

Sport Psychology Basics

Sport Psychology Is Vulnerable to Over Complication – Let’s Get Back To Basics

Sport Psychology Basics

My children are now at the age now where they have started asking ‘proper questions’. For example, ‘Daddy, what do you do for work?’ and ‘who will mow the lawn if you die? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others of course. Both the answers to these questions and the questions themselves come under the topic of ‘sport psychology basics’. Why both? For all questions and all answers are a part of psychology.

There are three fundamental questions that arguably once answered can summarise any profession. Why do you choose to do what you do? Who do you work with? What do you actually do with them?

Sport Psychology Basics ~ Why Do You Choose To Do What You Do?

Firstly I appreciate that many people don’t actually choose to do the work that they do. I’m thinking about the single parent who takes on a second job packing shelves to make ends meet. But certainly I choose to do the work that I do. My experience and training would now allow me to pick from a considerable number of jobs. And it is not uncommon for me to be contacted by recruitment agencies asking if I would be interested in work related to sport psychology.

So what is it about my role at Condor Performance that means that I don’t even take a look at the details of these kinds of offer? One of the biggest reasons is that it feels like one of my children in some ways. I started Condor Performance in 2005 and I’ve seen it grow from a newborn to a young adult. Saying goodbye to Condor Performance and leaving it entirely in the responsibility of others would be like saying goodbye to one of my kids. I know I’m gonna have to do that some day but not yet, not yet.

The Second Reason …

The second reason why I continue to choose my work at Condor Performance over other jobs is that I still love the vast majority of my working time. This is not to be underestimated. After 15 years of doing more or less the same kind of work on a weekly basis it would be understandable if I no longer enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because of how important I know the fun factor to be. I always ensure that the work that I am doing a Condor Performance is highly motivating. Writing this blog post and the vast majority that are published through the Mental Toughness Digest might not be many sport psychologist’s cup of tea. But I love it. Writing really lends it self to my strengths. I have unlimited ideas and passion when it comes to sport psychology. From sports psychology basics to the most complicated aspects of the profession.

Work Life Balance

It also helps me tremendously with the all important work life balance. I can tap away – as I’m doing now – at any time of day or night. This flexibility is key when you have bitten off more than you can chew. Furthermore it acts as practice for one of our most exciting future projects. A number of sport specific mental toughness training guides are in the pipelines most of which will have a written version initially. Through the process of repetition my confidence in my writing ability is now pretty high. After all, practice makes permanent.

Sport Psychology Basics – Who Do You Work With?

When answering this question it might be better for me to answer on behalf of the entire Condor Performance team. For I myself now work with only a very small percentage of our overall clients. Still to this day the majority of our one-on-one clients are athletes. This should come as no surprise when the first word of the profession is the word ‘sport’. Non-sporting performers, sporting coaches and sporting officials make up the rest. By non-sporting performers I’m referring to students, medical personnel, those in the military for example. These non-sporting performers have correctly worked out that the mental skills required by an elite athlete to perform consistently at the top are very much the same as would help them in their profession. What is a little bit disappointing is the ratios of these three groups has not changed much for the last 10 years.

I was convinced that the percentage of sporting coaches we work with would eventually overtake the number of athletes. One of the main reasons for this hypothesis is some of the actual work we do a sporting coaches. I’ve heard comments such as ‘this is the missing piece of the puzzle’ and ‘you’re going to be inundated by requests from sporting coaches when they work out what you guys really do.’

What Could We Be Doing?

I have pondered from time to time what we as a group could be doing to help with this. The peculiar nature of sports coaching is that sometimes the better we do the less likely he or she is to recommend us to other coaches. Why? Why give one of your potential opponents a leg up unnecessarily? If one then really wanted to point the finger about why this is not happening you would need to look at those in charge of the profession.

From time to time, certainly in Australia, due to us having eleven sport and performance psychologists we are confused with a professional body. But we are not. We are just a growing private practice. Our primary intentions are to look after the interests of our staff. If we help the overall reputation of sport psychology at the same time this is great – but it’s not our main focus.

I am a proud member of AAPi. But they represent all psychologists and therefore are not well-placed to communicate some of the nuances of sport psychology to public. Another professional body for psychologists in Australia – which I will not mention as I don’t want to help with their search engine optimisation – is run by clinical psychologists for clinical psychologist but pretends to be otherwise. 

Back To Who We Work With

In terms of the athletes that we work with individual sports still dominate over team sports. In other words we are more likely to be contacted by a golfer than a water polo player. The range in ages and professional level is truly vast. We work with 8 year olds through to 80 year olds. We work with top 10 rank players in the world right through to the definitive amateur who just wants to improve how he does at his club’s annual tournament. The ratio of working with male athletes versus female athletes is fairly even. This despite the fact that we have eight male psychologists and only three female psychologists on the team. And we are very proud to have recently started working with our first gender non-binary athlete as well. 

Sport Psychology Basics – What Do You Do With Them?

Again I am answering this question on behalf of the team rather than just myself. Despite the fact that our methodology has evolved over the past 15 years there are still some very common core ingredients. I have listed these below in bullet point form and I invite you to consider the benefits if you were guided by a professional in adopting all or some of them. If you think you would be then get in touch and request info about our 1-on-1 sport psychology services.

1. Focus on the process (effort) and let the outcome take care of itself

2. Reduce attention to the factors you have little influence on (such as the past)

3. Avoid only working on your weaknesses. Improve your strengths as well

4. Don’t underestimate the impact that overall mental health can have on performance

5. The number of ways to improve is unlimited, but the time you have to improve is very limited

6. Fake It Til You Feel It

7. Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it

Win At All Cost

‘Win At All Cost’ is a blog post by one of Condor Performance’s team of sport psychologists on the perils of being outcome obsessed.

The Win At All Cost Mindset is not to be recommended. Just ask this guy (above).

The ‘Win At All Cost’ Mindset

I am pretty sure there are many athletes and coaches out there who still believe that having a “Win At All Cost” mindset is something to be admired and developed. For those who understand the downside of an obsession about winning (outcomes) it is far less appealing of course. The irony is that very few of world’s best try to literally win at all cost. It was their obsession about effort and their training processes that got them to the top. We are much less likely to hear about the athletes, coaches and performers who had / have a Win At All Cost way of thinking. Why not? Most of them crumble under the weight of frustration and pressure well before the become newsworthy.

For many years when I thought about a celebrity who personified the ugly side of Win At All Cost it was Lance Armstrong. So obsessed with winning that he that he was willing to use systematic doping and he allegedly bribed UCI to cover up a positive doping test.

The 2020 US Presidential Elections

But the recent events in the USA elections suggest there is another “poster boy” to trying to Win At All Cost. Disclaimer; the sport psychologists and performance psychologists from Condor Performance are apolitical professionally. What does this mean? It means that in our work we stay as far away from politics as possible. This includes both actual politics (that of governments) and the politics of sport. The latter is the behind the scenes “stuff” that goes on between sporting decisions makers. Most of the work we do in this area if around helping our clients deal with the “fallout” from this “stuff”. Politics in sport is a massive natural mental test, just like real politics.

One of the easiest ways to gain insight into someone’s character is to see how they handle not winning. (I say not winning rather than losing as for me coming second doesn’t feel like losing but of course is not winning either). 

In recent weeks the 45th president of the Unites States became the first president to lose an election and not concede coming second (aka defeat) right away. Why not? Because his obsession with winning blinds him to about the right thing to do. Let me repeat myself. One of the easiest ways to see someone’s real character is to see how they handle not winning.

More than half of the sport psychology consulting we do is with young athletes. Some of them are very successful when we start working with them. Some of them have never lost. So I always have a slight smile on my face when they first taste defeat. Why? So we can help them learn to be a gracious non-winning. Not winning is part of sport and life and the true greats are good at both.

It’s Fine To Want To Win But …

There is nothing wrong at all about wanting to win. In fact, there is little wrong with always wanting to win. But there is when it comes a the cost (detriment) to others and yourself. So it’s really the ‘At ALL Cost’ aspect of trying to Win At All Cost that is the major issue. All cost, think about it. Is the amount you have to spend greater than what you can get back? What is the cost to your mental health, your relationships?

At Condor Performance, via our model Metuf, we encourage those we work with to push this obsession with winning towards their preparation, their processes. Why? For a start we have much greater influence on our processes compared with outcomes. But another whopper of a reason is this. The people closest to you, the most important ones, will judge you on what you do not what you win (achieve).

I for one am glad the the whole world has witnesses the ugly side of having a Win At All Cost mindset via the US political system these past few weeks. Let’s hope we can all take some lessons from these recent events into our everyday lives. How do you handle not winning? How invested are you in your weekly effort and processes?

As always, you if feel like you’d benefit from a professional helping hand then get in touch. You can either complete the Contact Us form here or just send an email to info@condorperformance.com. We will try to respond in less than 48 hours.

Too Many Chefs (Coaches)

Too Many Chefs (Coaches) is an article by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole on the perils of having too many advice givers.

Too Many Chefs, Too Many Sporting Coaches ..

Too Many Chefs In the Sporting Kitchen!

In my work I don’t actively seek any controversy. However as other trailblazers will be aware when you push the envelope regarding the work you do it comes with a certain amount of contention.

Once such area which I have always believed in but have really written about is this one. The topic of too many athletes having too many coaches. I use the word “coach” as the label to describe any official helper or advice giver. So although your grandfather would not count as a coach if chatting to you about some recent performances over a family dinner. He certainly would if he followed you down to the bowling alley twice a month and started giving you tips.

Let me start with the end in mind and work my way backwards. For team sport athletes I feel the ideal number of official coaches should be one. For those participating in individual sports the ideal number long terms is zero!

Let me explain …

The school system has it more or less correct. Teachers are generally aware of the fact that they have a limited amount of time to do their job. So although a maths teacher might be very proud of his or her contribution to someone who goes on to be a world-renowned engineer the maths teacher would not be involved past a certain point. This should be the same for developmental sporting coaches. But unfortunately it doesn’t happen that way very often.

In sport the more successful an athlete becomes the more coaches they tend to attract. Many of these coaches will be well intended but problematic nonetheless. The primary issue with having five or six official advice givers (which is common nowadays) is that much of their suggestions will be contradictory. This puts the athlete into a real predicament because he or she probably wants to trust all of them. But they soon find out this is not possible as different suggestions clash. I could write an entire book on one of the reasons why the advice tends to be so contradictory. But suffice to say it’s because sports coaching is still mainly based on guesswork. If you ask most coaches why they’d doing something the most common answer is this. “That’s what my coach used to do”.

There is also a real issue with role clarity. Which area of the “performance plane” each coach is supposed to be giving advice about is not obvious. In other words you get technical coaches giving psychological and tactical advice. You have physical coaches giving mental health and well-being advice.

What’s The Solution To Too Many Chefs / Coaches?

The answer is very different depending on if you play a team sport or an individual sport. For team sports there is no getting away from the fact that there needs to be a head coach. Ideally the head coach becomes the go-between for the players and all the other experts involved. In other words you may have a technical coach who is observing the players from a technical standpoint (biomechanics). But to ensure that any messaging around biomechanics does not accidentally get in the way of the bigger picture that message needs to come from one person – the head coach.

The same would apply to a sport psychologist working with a sporting team. Having a sport psychologist deliver mental skills training without the head coach being involved is absurd. Sport psychologists sometimes get into a huff when they hear this for fear of breaches in confidentiality. Or they feel the head coach is not been qualified to deliver the mental skills. All these potential issues can be nullified by proper communication and agreements before the start of the contract. 

This head coach can still work tremendously hard to make him or herself irrelevant on match day but ultimately the nature of team sports will still require them to be there before, during and after the match.

Coachless Individuals Athletes

This is not the case with individual athletes such as tennis players, golfers, surfers and boxers etc. These sports do not require a coach to be there during competition.

If you don’t have to have something at this important time, why would you want it? Central to sporting mental toughness is a low reliance on factors that we have little or no influence on. Other people, even the most reliable and well intended, are are partially influenceable. What does this mean? It means that athletes who depend on “certain” things or people are risking it from a psychological point of view. Why? Because you can’t guarantee these things or people will be there when you want them to be.

This philosophy, in part, explains why our team or sport psychologists and performance psychologists spend very little time with our clients whilst they are competing. Don’t get me wrong if a client insists on having a session the night before a competition we will certainly oblige. But we are trained to assist our clients improve in such a way that they would not feel like they needed such a session.

Too Many Coaches

From a systems point of you I’m not sure what the answer to that too many coaches dilemma is. What I do know is this. If you are a developmental aged elite athlete (13 – 17) and you have already had close to 10 official coaches then the system has failed you. Unless of course in the unlikely event that all of those coaches are singing from the same song book. And they are unbelievably good at communicating between one another. Until that happens then less is more when it comes to the number of coaches and formal advice giver as you have.

We would like to hear from readers via the comments section below about stories on this topic. Did you have too many coaches? How did it impact you? Can you give examples of when well intended advice was contradictory? To safeguard your identity feel free to add your comment using a false name.

How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

How do you measure your Mental Toughness?

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates

Okay, I’ll admit it. We’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.

In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt it. Instead we simply asked a series of questions at the start of their sport psychology journey.

But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business . So over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.

Measuring Mental Toughness Will Always Be An Estimation

Fact: there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.

With The Luxury Of Time …

With the luxury of time the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client and/or via direct observation. Observing athletes or performers in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions. Then image having of video footage of the outburst to use in session.

Relative Subjectivity

But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.

For us, the sport and performance psychologists at Condor Performance, what we’re most eager to find out about before and during the journey fall into four general groups:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long term goals

I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.

Five Major Subcomponents of Mental Toughness

The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness; Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus are all subcomponents of MT. This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.

Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!

I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires have become misleading. Why? Well they they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

Four Free Mental Toughness Questionnaires

The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

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.