Overthinking In Sport and Performance

Overthinking is one of the most common mental challenges we deal with as sport psychologists and performance psychologists. Are you an overthinker?

Sport and Performance Related Overthinking

  • A large part of our work as Sport and Performance Psychologists is centred around the relationship between thoughts and performance.
  • Through mindfulness-based strategies, we can learn to reduce the impact of our thoughts on our performance.
  • At Condor Performance, one of our main goals is to help our clients develop a more helpful relationship with their mind so they can perform at their best.
  • The T in Metuf stands for thoughts / thinking, in case you didn’t already know that.
  • Can’t be bothered to read the article but really want some help around your thoughts and overthinking? Get In Touch by clicking here and give us the basic details of what you’re struggling with and one of the team will get back to you within a couple of days.

Psychology in a general sense is the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviour. As Performance Psychology experts our work is centred around these same three areas but with one eye always on their impact (or lack of) from a performance standpoint. One of our main consulting goals is to help athletes and performers understand how thoughts, emotion and performance really interact. This is often very different from how most of them believe that they interact.

Thoughts and Performance

Reflecting on my own experiences as an athlete and now working for Condor Performance, I would argue that the most challenging mental aspect of any performance is trying not to overthink it. It is clear that our thoughts have the capacity to be a barrier to performance, but through psychological research and practice, we also have the capacity to overcome this mental barrier.  

All of us have experienced our minds going into overdrive. As soon as we’re faced with something important or threatening, our mind goes into a state of overthinking. Overthinking is not a comfortable mental state to be in, making it a lot more difficult to do the things we train to do on a daily basis. We often hear athletes and performers say that during training they perform at quite a high level but find it difficult to perform well on competition day, often stating that their thoughts get in the way. Most competitors associate a higher level of importance with competition than training, so it makes sense why they overthink during this time.

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Out of all of the sport psychologists that I’ve met, the most process focussed is my primary supervisor Gareth J. Mole – the founder of Condor Performance. In fact, so process-focused is he is that the majority of the focus in his work is around practice, preparation, training and effort. The logic behind this is very sound. He wants his clients to overthink concepts such as getting the most from training, planning training sessions and “what to do in a lockdown” but underthink the actual day of competition.

Thoughts Are Just Thoughts

Most athletes and performers don’t realise is that it is actually the relationship they have with their thoughts that gives them the power over their performance.  

So why do we overthink? We think like this because our brain is hardwired to view the world in certain ways, and for a very important purpose. Like emotions, our thoughts play a huge role in our survival. One of our mind’s jobs through thinking is to generate all possible outcomes, predict and preempt the worst possible scenarios. In other words, problem solve its way through these potential events so that in the slight chance they do pan out we’ll be prepared. Our brain does a lot of the thinking in the lead up to something happening so that when it does, we can rely on the Limbic System (home of the fight or flight response) to help us survive this threatening or important event. Basically, our brains are the perfect overthinking machines.

Because of the important role that our thoughts play in survival, it’s something we don’t have a lot of influence over. Our default cognitive response to an event is always going to be one of caution. It is our mind’s job, as a reason-giving machine, to go straight to the “negative”, and list all the possible bad things that could happen. Our mind is never going to go straight to the positive, and because of this, the idea of changing the way we think is a hopeless and impossible one.

Thoughts Play A Role In Survival

Don’t get me wrong you can try and change a single thought or three with some success but the very notion of learning to think more positively as a habit is flawed. Imagine if our minds didn’t think in this way? Instead of stopping at the crossroads to check if traffic is coming because your mind is saying “better to be safe than sorry” imagine the carnage if our thought in this situation was “just go, peak hour is over, you’ll be right”.

We don’t step out onto busy roads because our mind tells us we might get hit by a car. We don’t stand too close to the edge of a cliff because our mind tells us we might fall. But we often hold back on performance day because our mind tells us we might get it wrong or we might not be good enough. Unfortunately, when this happens we’re letting our protective mind dictate our behaviour rather than our performance mind.

Postive Thinking … Good Luck With That

What you’ve probably gathered from the tone of this article (and my last one) so far is that trying to think more positively is a near-impossible task, and certainly not the goal of our work. In saying that, the first step we want to take in learning to manage difficult thoughts is to shift this near-impossible goal to one that is attainable. That is, rather than striving to think more positively, we instead aim to build an awareness of the mind that allows us to diminish the power of thoughts over our actions. We can achieve this goal through working under an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) framework, where we assume that thoughts cannot necessarily be changed but rather our response to them can. 

Developing Psychological Flexibility 

Through building an awareness of the mind our goal is to ultimately build what is known as “Psychological Flexibility”. This is basically the ability to engage in behaviour that is functional and congruent with one’s values irrespective of their private experiences (thoughts, emotions, memories, cravings, bodily sensations, etc.) (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010).

Through developing psychological flexibility, individuals have the capacity to let their actions dictate their thoughts and feelings, not the other way around. For an athlete who values challenging themselves and seeing what they’re capable of, the idea behind building psychological flexibility is to help them live out these values through their sport despite any difficult thoughts or uncomfortable feelings they have. For a performer who values creativity and bringing enjoyment to others, developing psychological flexibility means teaching them the skills to go out and perform in the presence of any yucky private experiences they might have. 

“ACT” on Thoughts

Psychological Flexibility is the main goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an effective psychological intervention used across clinical and performance settings and a potent one in sport and performance. ACT is a multi-diagnostic approach to mental health, effective in reducing symptom severity in depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction (A-tjak et al., 2015; Berman, 2019). This intervention is also commonly used across multiple psychological and behavioural disorders among children to help improve quality of life and overall wellbeing (Fang & Ding, 2020). 

ACT’s popularity in the sporting domain is also growing. This intervention has shown effectiveness in helping athletes manage thoughts, in particular thoughts of perfectionism (Watson et al., 2021) and worrying/ruminating (Ruiz et al., 2018). ACT’s effectiveness as an intervention has also been seen across many other performance domains, including the performing arts (Juncos et al., 2017; Juncos & de Paiva e Pona, 2018), academia (Scent & Boes, 2014; Wang et al., 2017) and the workplace (Flaxman & Bond, 2010; Moran, 2015, Kiuru et al., 2021).

Accept Most Thoughts, Then Let Them Go

Athletes and Performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to rid of their difficult thoughts. However, it is the attempt to get rid of that is actually the source of the problem. To get rid of difficult thoughts we need to focus on them, and when we’re focused on them we’re not focusing on what we need to be doing at the moment.

We call this becoming fused, meaning we’re so caught up in getting rid of the difficult though that we can’t focus on anything else. Before we know it, 10 minutes have gone past and we’ve been cruising through the game on autopilot, not really paying attention to what we’re doing and certainly now showcasing the best of our physical abilities. 

Diminishing The Power Of thoughts

Through regular mindfulness, athletes and performers learn how to notice their thoughts, acknowledge and accept their thoughts, and let their thoughts come and go without a struggle. Through developing a relationship with our thoughts in which we learn to observe and watch them come and go without engaging too much in them, the power of those thoughts are often diminished as a by-product.

In order to do this, we first need to acknowledge that there is a part of us that thinks, but there is also a part of us that notices that we think. A part of us that can take a step back and observe what we’re thinking. Through accessing this “noticing self” we can become aware of those thoughts without getting tangled in them, and give ourselves a choice regarding how we’d like to respond to them. We can either let the thought stop us from doing what we’re doing, or we can notice it and choose to redirect our focus back to what we’re doing.

The Power of Mindfulness

One of the best ways to practice bringing awareness to our thoughts is simply through meditation. Meditation is often associated with the idea of only thinking positively, or being completely free from thoughts altogether, but this is not the goal of the exercise. If done right, meditation should bring heightened awareness to any private experiences we have at that moment (thoughts, feelings, memories, bodily sensations, urges, cravings), so that we can practice observing them without necessarily engaging with them.

We can do this through simple visualisation exercises, one of the most common being ‘Leaves on a Stream’ where we visualise our thoughts on leaves floating down a stream. If leaves and streams aren’t appealing, you can instead visualise sushi going by on a sushi train, or a train going by as you watch from the platform, whereby you notice your thoughts going by on the carriages but don’t get on the train, even if it stops.

To bring awareness through meditation we engage in what we call mindful (deep) breathing, where we really focus on the entire sensory experience of breathing (what our breath feels/smells/sounds/tastes like). When our mind wanders away from our breathing, it is our job to then notice that, accept that our mind has wandered, and choose to bring our focus back to our breathing. 

We Are Not Our Thoughts

We can add to this by developing a relationship with our thoughts whereby we view them as separate from us. Through noticing our thoughts and silently verbalising them (e.g. “I notice I am thinking…”) we can separate our thinking-self from our noticing-self.

Viewing our thoughts from our noticing self allows us to observe them as they come and go, and make a choice about whether or not to engage with them (try to get rid of them) or allow them to be there will we focus back on our actions. We can take this one step further by personifying our thoughts, or giving them an identity we know them by (e.g. “The ‘I’m not good enough’ thought is here). The idea here again is that we are stepping into the shoes of our noticing self. It is in this state of noticing and awareness that we can make more mindful decisions about how we respond to difficult thoughts (Assaz et al., 2018).

Changing Our Relationship With Thoughts

Ultimately our goal in the work we do with athletes and performers isn’t to change the way they think but to guide them towards a more helpful relationship with their thoughts. Sure, the thoughts we have about screwing up before going out on stage to perform are uncomfortable, but don’t those thoughts motivate you to prepare ahead of time? And yes, the thoughts we have about whether or not we’ll be good enough to pass that exam are frightening at times, but don’t they push us to study and revise for the test to ensure we’re as prepared as we can be? 

A lot of this boils down to reframing the way we view our thoughts. Rather than evaluating them as positive, negative, true, false, right or wrong, we can instead look for their helpfulness. To overcome the mental hurdle thoughts create we need to understand that there is always a reason for thinking the way we do. And of course, if you feel like some expert guidance with all of this then Get In Touch and ask us about our 1-on-1 sport and performance psychology services – most of which now take place via Webcam.

References

A-tjak, J. G., Davis, M. L., Morina, N., Powers, M. B., Smits, J. A., & Emmelkamp, P. M. (2015). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 84(1), 30-36.

Assaz, D. A., Roche, B., Kanter, J. W., & Oshiro, C. K. (2018). Cognitive defusion in acceptance and commitment therapy: What are the basic processes of change?. The Psychological Record, 68(4), 405-418.

Berman, N. C. (2019). Treating taboo or forbidden thoughts: integrating mindfulness, acceptance, and emotion regulation into an exposure-based intervention. Journal of cognitive psychotherapy, 33(3), 196-212.

Fang, S., & Ding, D. (2020). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for children. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 15, 225-234.

Flaxman, P. E., & Bond, F. W. (2010). A randomised worksite comparison of acceptance and commitment therapy and stress inoculation training. Behaviour research and therapy, 48(8), 816-820.

Juncos, D. G., Heinrichs, G. A., Towle, P., Duffy, K., Grand, S. M., Morgan, M. C., … & Kalkus, E. (2017). Acceptance and commitment therapy for the treatment of music performance anxiety: a pilot study with student vocalists. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 986.

More References …

Juncos, D. G., & de Paiva e Pona, E. (2018). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a clinical anxiety treatment and performance enhancement program for musicians: Towards an evidence-based practice model within performance psychology. Music & Science, 1, 2059204317748807.

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.

Kiuru, N., Puolakanaho, A., Lappalainen, P., Keinonen, K., Mauno, S., Muotka, J., & Lappalainen, R. (2021). Effectiveness of a web-based acceptance and commitment therapy program for adolescent career preparation: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of vocational behavior, 127, 103578.

Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26-31.

Ruiz, F. J., Flórez, C. L., García-Martín, M. B., Monroy-Cifuentes, A., Barreto-Montero, K., García-Beltrán, D. M., … & Gil-Luciano, B. (2018). A multiple-baseline evaluation of a brief acceptance and commitment therapy protocol focused on repetitive negative thinking for moderate emotional disorders. Journal of contextual behavioral science, 9, 1-14.

Scent, C. L., & Boes, S. R. (2014). Acceptance and commitment training: A brief intervention to reduce procrastination among college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 28(2), 144-156.

Wang, S., Zhou, Y., Yu, S., Ran, L. W., Liu, X. P., & Chen, Y. F. (2017). Acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive–behavioral therapy as treatments for academic procrastination: A randomized controlled group session. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(1), 48-58.

Watson, D., Hill, A., Madigan, D., & Donachie, T. (2021). Effectiveness of an online Acceptance and Commitment Therapy-based sport psychology programme for managing trait perfectionism, perfectionistic thoughts, and emotions in athletes.

Emotions, Sport And Performance

“Emotions, Sport And Performance” is another free article by our own Madalyn Incognito. Are you still trying to feel a certain way in order to perform at your best? Madalyn explains why you might want to consider another approach.

Competitive sport is highly emotional, it always has been and always will be.

Emotions – The ‘E’ in METUF

  • As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists we’re often asked for ways to improve emotional management come performance day. So what exactly does this involve?
  • Through varitions of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we can learn to manage our emotions in more helpful ways compared with what society generally suggests.
  • At Condor Performance the goal of our emotion work is to teach athletes and performers how to perform at the highest possible level whilst experiencing the full range of emotions.
  • If you’d like more infomation above our sport and performance psychology services get in touch by completing the form on our Contact Us page.

Please Make Me Feel Better! 

In our profession, we deal with emotions on a daily basis. Athletes and Performers often ask us how they can learn to feel better on performance or competition day. A day that is often riddled with a whirlwind of emotions from excitement to anxiety, to helplessness, guilt and everything in between. The work we do around emotions often begins with a deep dive into reality. We’re probably never going to feel great on most performance days. And we will certainly never feel great before and during all competitive situations.

Our first job as Fully and Provisionally Registered Psychologists is to help our clients to let go of the idea of wanting to control the way they feel. Emotions aren’t something we have a huge amount of influence over. Athletes and performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to get rid of the “negative” emotions and replace them with positive ones. Yeah, good luck with that!

In their defence, this is often what is taught to us from a very young age. “It’s not appropriate to feel anger in the classroom” or “you should feel excited by the chance to play in the biggest competition of the year”.

What they often don’t realise is that it is trying to get rid of the negative ones that is actually the source of the problem. Not the actual uncomfortable feelings themselves.

Emotions And Performance

Emotion plays a huge role in Mental Toughness purely due to the fact that it has the capacity to impact virtually everything else. During the initial Kick Start Session, we hear stories of struggle when it comes to feelings on game-day. Performers often describe to us the many ways in which they try to control the uncomfortable emotions that inevitably arise on performance day. We get remarkable insight into how much impact emotions and feelings seem to have on their performance. To understand how to manage emotions, we first need to understand exactly what they are.

Why Do We Feel Things?

It is important for athletes and performers to understand why humans experience emotion. In short, it plays a very important role in our survival, providing us with crucial social and environmental information:

  • Feeling betrayed by someone? The emotion of betrayal teaches us not to trust that person again, because they have the potential to harm us. 
  • Feeling scared to jump out of a plane? The emotion of fear warns us that if we jump out of the plane, we could die. 
  • Feeling happy you completed that task? The emotion of happiness reinforces the behaviour you just performed, increasing the likelihood you’ll do it again. 

The Amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain) produces emotions mainly to warn us or reward us. The well-known fight or flight response is basically about our internal warning system. It’s hugely beneficial for there to be a surge in emotion and adrenaline when being attacked by a killer wombat, for example.

Survival vs Performance

So what we know about emotions is that within a survival framework they’re really good at keeping us alive. However, emotion in the performance domain has a reputation for often getting in the way of us doing the things we already know how to do. Our job as Sport and Performance Psychologists is to challenge the consensus that emotions have a direct impact on our performance. That is, to challenge the idea if I feel “bad” (i.e. nervous, anxious, doubtful) on game-day, I’ll inevitably perform “badly”. 

Often one of the first questions I’ll ask a new client during the initial Kick Start Session is,

“How do you view the relationship between emotions and performance. If I were to draw an arrow between the two, which direction would the arrow be pointing and what would this mean?”

Nine times out of ten, the response I get is, “how I feel usually determines how I perform”. But if we rarely feel fantastic come performance day due to our Amygdala then we’re in trouble, no?

The Reality Of Emotions in Sport

Little do most people know that it is actually the power we attribute to emotions that makes them so problematic. If you had the opportunity to ask some of the more mentally astute athletes in the world (e.g. RF) how they feel going into important matches most of them (if being honest) will say nervous or very nervous. We think either they’ve been doing it for so long they just don’t get nervous anymore, or they’ve developed some ‘magic skill set’ where they can switch off those uncomfortable feelings. The fact is that even the best athletes in the world feel the full range of emotions we experience before an important event.

What has made them so good in their performance domain is their ability to welcome and embrace these emotions and perform at a high level with them present. The ability to do this is a skill that can be developed in virtually any performance domain, so how do we go about developing it?

Introducing ACT

The main therapeutic framework we work within at Condor Performance is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced “act”) for short. This approach assumes that trying to get rid of unwanted emotions (anxiety, depression, hopelessness) actually creates a lot of psychological distress, often having a maladaptive impact on our behaviour (or in this case, a negative impact on our performance). This is basically because we are trying to fight something we don’t have a lot of influence over.

Through the mindful nature of ACT, we can learn to reduce the impact of emotions through building awareness and actually making room for them in our lives (and on performance day) and learning to let these feelings come and go without a struggle.

ACT Works

ACT is an extremely effective therapeutic approach to mental wellbeing and mental performance. In terms of emotion management, ACT has built a reputation over the past 30 years in terms of its effectiveness in both clinical and performance settings.

In the sporting domain, mindfulness-based strategies within an ACT framework have assisted athletes in emotion regulation, particularly during challenging periods of post-injury rehabilitation (Bernier et al., 2009, Mahoney & Hanrahan, 2011, Gardner & Moore, 2017). The effectiveness of ACT has also been seen in other performance domains including the workplace, academia and the performing arts (Moran, 2015; Paliliunas, Belisle & Dixon; 2018, Pingo, Dixon & Paliliunas, 2020; Clarke, Osborne & Baranoff, 2020).

Acceptance

ACT is an umbrella term for a range of mindfulness-based skills, with acceptance being one of the most useful and important. Through the skill of acceptance, our goal for athletes and performers is to help them open up to the uncomfortable feelings they experience as part of the human condition, before accepting their presence and allowing them to be there, rather than trying to avoid them. The idea behind acceptance is that if we learn to make room for emotions in our lives (without trying to fight them off), their power is ultimately diminished. ACT assumes that it is the struggle with and fighting off of these emotions that give them their power over our actions.

The “Noticing Self”

There is a part of us that feels, and then there is a part of us that notices that we feel a certain way. It is important for performers to learn to notice their emotions as they arise and build more awareness of them – why? Because our default response to uncomfortable feelings is to turn away from them – try to suppress, avoid or escape them, or distract ourselves from them. This is catastrophic when it comes to the motor skills required in most sports. It quite literally stopped you from doing what you are naturally very good at (e.g. kicking a soccer ball etc).

A trap we often fall victim to in performance settings is getting sucked into this default response. Eventually, we become so caught up in trying to get rid of uncomfortable emotions (an impossible task), that it’s impossible for us to be intensity aware, present and focused on what we need to be doing in that present moment. To help athletes and performers develop the noticing skill, we ask them to practice intentionally and consciously noticing and acknowledging uncomfortable feelings. We might ask them to silently tell themselves what they notice they’re feeling. For example, “I’m noticing anxiety”, or “I notice I’m feeling worried”. Through accepting and noticing emotions, we can learn to sit with the discomfort and reduce its impact on our actions (e.g. kicking a soccer ball etc).

Emotion Validation

Without acknowledging the presence of uncomfortable emotions we can actually invalidate our own experiences. When our most inner and private emotional experiences feel invalid, we’re then at risk of falling victim to that unhelpful emotion default response (suppress, avoid, escape, distract). Following this, our default cognitive response is often “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I should be able to handle this better”.

Validating our emotions is a very technical term for comforting and reassuring ourselves (through some compassionate self-talk) that as part of the human condition, it is very normal to feel uncomfortable emotions when we encounter difficult situations. When we learn to notice, acknowledge and validate our emotions (in light of the important role they play in survival), this allows us to make room for them without feeling the need to struggle with them.

Commitment

But at the end of the day, there is a choice to be made. The athlete or performer can choose to:

  1. Feel these uncomfortable emotions and not commit to their actions, or
  2. Feel these uncomfortable emotions and commit to their actions.

Through mental toughness training our goal is to empower individuals to choose the latter. With the help of skills such as acceptance, noticing and validation, the decision to commit becomes much easier. 

Learning to Embrace Emotion

At Condor Performance, our goal is to guide athletes and performers towards a more healthy relationship with emotions. Because think about how boring would life be without them? The only reason we know happiness is because we’ve experienced sadness, so it is important as part of the human condition that we choose to welcome all emotions, pleasant and unpleasant. In the performance domain, we often view emotion in a negative light, but rather than looking at it as a sign of weakness we can choose to see it as a sign that we’re living. If you need help in doing this, then get in touch.

References

Angiola, J. E., & Bowen, A. M. (2013). Quality of life in advanced cancer: An acceptance and commitment therapy view. The Counseling Psychologist, 41(2), 313-335. 

Blackledge, J. T., & Hayes, S. C. (2001). Emotion regulation in acceptance and commitment therapy. Journal of clinical psychology, 57(2), 243-255.

Bernier, M., Thienot, E., Codron, R., & Fournier, J. F. (2009). Mindfulness and acceptance approaches in sport performance. Journal of clinical sport psychology, 3(4), 320-333.

Chawla, N., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Experiential avoidance as a functional dimensional approach to psychopathology: An empirical review. Journal of clinical psychology, 63(9), 871-890.

Clarke, L. K., Osborne, M. S., & Baranoff, J. A. (2020). Examining a group acceptance and commitment therapy intervention for music performance anxiety in student vocalists. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1127.

Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2017). Mindfulness-based and acceptance-based interventions in sport and performance contexts. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 180-184.

Graham, C. D., Gouick, J., Krahe, C., & Gillanders, D. (2016). A systematic review of the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in chronic disease and long-term conditions. Clinical psychology review, 46, 46-58.

Liverant, G. I., Brown, T. A., Barlow, D. H., & Roemer, L. (2008). Emotion regulation in unipolar depression: The effects of acceptance and suppression of subjective emotional experience on the intensity and duration of sadness and negative affect. Behaviour research and therapy, 46(11), 1201-1209.

Mahoney, J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2011). A brief educational intervention using acceptance and commitment therapy: Four injured athletes’ experiences. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5(3), 252-273.

Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26-31. 

Paliliunas, D., Belisle, J., & Dixon, M. R. (2018). A randomized control trial to evaluate the use of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to increase academic performance and psychological flexibility in graduate students. Behavior analysis in practice, 11(3), 241-253. 

Pingo, J. C., Dixon, M. R., & Paliliunas, D. (2020). Intervention enhancing effects of acceptance and commitment training on performance feedback for direct support professional work performance, stress, and job satisfaction. Behavior analysis in practice, 13(1), 1-10.

Ruiz, F. J. (2010). A review of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) empirical evidence: Correlational, experimental psychopathology, component and outcome studies. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 10(1), 125-162.

Motivation In Sport And Performance

“Motivation In Sport And Performance” is a 15 minute read by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito. Please enjoy and share responsibility.

  • As Sport and Performance Psychologists we’re often asked about ways to improve or enhance motivation – so how do we do this?
  • The M in Metuf stands for motivation, and it’s apt that it comes first in our mental training model.
  • The best way to measure you motivation is by completing one of our four MTQs via this link. Your results will be emailed to you within a day or two.
  • Other words (synonyms) that are very similar to motivation are commitment, desire, passion and determination.
We are only just starting to realise just how big a role motivation plays in sport and performance situations. What will this mountain cyclist need to pass the athlete in front of her? Motivation obviously plays a part.

Why Is Motivation So Important?

The simple answer is motivation improves longevity both in sport (Sarrazin et al. 2002) and other performance domains (Grant, 2008). The higher the motivation, the longer (in years) you’ll want to do it for. There are a number of reasons an athlete or performer might struggle with motivation at some point in their career. Barriers can be physical, biological, social-environment or psychological. In terms of psychological barriers, what we know about motivation is that it is fostered by meeting three basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000):

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

For motivation to flourish, a performer first needs to be able to do the task. Then they have to have the freedom to choose to do the task, and finally, in some way feel a sense of connectedness with others. We know that by meeting these needs the likelihood of burnout is reduced significantly, keeping performers in their performance domain for longer.

The Role of Performance Psychology in Motivation 

What we also know about motivation is that the type of motivation a performer possesses is another extremely important factor to consider. One of the first questions we ask our clients during their initial free Kick Start Session is, “why do you do what you do?”. Understanding the reasons why an individual engages in something is a vital bit of information to have.

The most crucial bit of information we want to extract from this answer is around whether their motivation is intrinsic, extrinsic, or a mix of both. It’s important for both the Psychologist and the Performer to understand which of the two are at play, due to the fact that they work in different ways and can provide the performer with different motivational outcomes. 

Intrinsic Motivation

An athlete or performer who is intrinsically motivated does what they do for their own sense of personal satisfaction. Individuals who are internally driven will often say the reason for doing what they do is because it brings them a sense of:

  • Achievement
  • Purpose
  • Challenge 
  • Personal Reward 
  • Belonging 
  • Enjoyment

Performers who are intrinsically motivated participate in the performance domain because they enjoy learning and improving their skills, and have made a self-determined choice to participate. 

What makes intrinsic motivation so useful is the fact that it’s completely dependent on the individual. That is, the performer’s motivation isn’t based on anything or anyone else, and therefore isn’t reliant on things the individual doesn’t have a huge amount of influence over. The performance psychology literature claims that intrinsic motivation has the largest and most positive impact on performance quality (Cerasoli, Nicklin & Ford, 2014), and is the better of the two for more stable, long-term motivation. 

Not Just In Sport …

In alternative performance settings such as workplaces, intrinsic motivation is also associated with greater worker satisfaction and commitment, self-reported performance, company profitability and lower emotional and exhaustion burnout (Deci, Olafsen & Ryan, 2017). If you’re wanting to stick around in your area of performance for the long run, I definitely suggest sitting down and figuring out whether or not you are intrinsically motivated to put in the work. I don’t think just because you don’t love your sport at the moment that you can’t learn to love it.

Think about certain foods that as a kid you hated but that as you got older you learned to enjoy them (Brussel sprouts, dark chocolate!). One of the simplest exercises to boost intrinsic motivation is to write a list of your five favourite aspects of your involvement in the sport or performance area. Now, really “go to town” with these. For example, if you love the health benefits of running then keep a track of these benefits as objectively as possible.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsically motivated performers put in the work for some external reason or benefit. An individual who is very extrinsically motivated may feel obligated to do what they do as a result of external pressure (parents, coach, peers), or for financial or social benefit. 

The issue with extrinsic motivation is that it is reliant on things we don’t have a huge amount of influence over. For example;

  • What if one day mum and dad decide they’re not interested in your athletic career anymore? What if something else becomes more important to them than your athletic pursuits? Would you still want to continue?
  • What if I told you that you would never go on to earn lots of money, never land any sponsorships, and no one outside your local sporting community ever learns your name? Would this have an impact on your motivation?

For performers who are extrinsically motivated, it’s happy days when all the external factors we base our motivation on are present. The issue here is when they’re gone, you can expect to experience a real dip in your motivation.

Intrinsic or Extrinsic Motivation

The simplest way to determine whether or not a performer is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated is through a simple listing exercise – in the same format as a pros and cons list. What we would hope to see is that the performer lists more reasons they are intrinsically motivated than extrinsic. In-session, the discussion around this generally tends to serve as a time for realisation, and in some cases rediscovery:

  1. The athlete/performer may not have acknowledged the value of enjoyment, sense of reward and challenge they get from doing what they do, and how this can actually serve as an internal driving force during prolonged periods of training.
  2. The athlete/performer may also come to a realisation that they are doing what they do for the wrong reasons. A discussion around whether or not they’re taking committed action towards living a rich and meaningful life (as defined by their values) might follow this.

Visualisation for Motivation

Following discussions around the types of motivation that may be driving performance pursuits, we then have an opportunity to discuss some more practical skills to enhance it. Visualisation or Mental Rehearsal has many different purposes, of which technical practice and motivation are the two main uses. 

Visualisation for motivation is particularly important during times of prolonged intense training with limited competition (did someone say pandemic?). Visualising intentions (the actions or processes we wish to perform) from the first-person perspective can have a positive effect on motivation (Ouellette et al., 2005; Knauper et al., 2011; Johannessen, Oettingen & Mayer, 2012), and therefore process-based mental rehearsal from the mind’s eye is going to provide the best motivational outcomes. 

Understanding Your Motivation Fluctuations

Motivation tends to fluctuate (and sometimes for no obvious reason). This is particularly likely during a period of intense training or preparation. We often like to remind our clients that they are not robots and that doing the same thing over and over again is very unlikely to always be highly satisfying and enjoyable.

Having an understanding of what factors influence your levels of motivation is important. Knowing why you’re not that keen to go to training is far better than just having that feeling. Keeping note of motivation levels in response to known hormonal changes, level and intensity of training, presence of upcoming competitions and stressors outside of your performance domain is an important part of managing your mental wellbeing as an athlete or a performer. This allows for us to acknowledge we may need to engage in some self-compassion practices during those particularly challenging times. Try and track your motivation in a diary or similar format in order to link certain events so you can understand your motivators better.

Exploring Motivation Further

If you’re an athlete or performer and would like some tailored insight on how to boost your motivation then please get in touch by completing our Contact Us form and one of our team will get back to you to discuss how we might be able to assist you in this crucial performance area.

References

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 980–1008. http://dx.doi.org/10 .1037/a0035661

Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108

Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychol. Inquiry 11, 227–268. doi: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01

Grant, A. M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, performance, and productivity. J. Appl. Psychol. 93:48. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.48

Johannessen, K. B., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2012). Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behaviour. Psychology & Health, 27(sup2), 43-58.

Knäuper, B., McCollam, A., Rosen-Brown, A., Lacaille, J., Kelso, E., & Roseman, M. (2011). Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption. Psychology and Health, 26(5), 601-617.

Ouellette, J. A., Hessling, R., Gibbons, F. X., Reis-Bergan, M., & Gerrard, M. (2005). Using images to increase exercise behavior: Prototypes versus possible selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(5), 610-620.

Predoiu, R., Predoiu, A., Mitrache, G., Firancescu, M., Cosma, G., Dinuta, G., Buchroiu, R. A. (2020). Visualisation techniques in sport – The mental road map for success. Physical Education, Sport and Kinetototherapy Journal, 59 (3), 245-256. https://doi.org/10.35189/dpeskj.2020.59.3.4 

Sarrazin, P., Vallerand, R., Guillet, E., Pelletier, L. G., and Cury, F. (2002). Motivation and dropout in female handballers: a 21-month prospective study. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 32, 395–418. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.98 

Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9, 78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-9-78

CrossFit Psychology: Training For The Unknown

CrossFit is the ultimate test of an athlete’s physical, technical and mental abilities.

CrossFit Psychology: It’s Mentally Brutal!

It has been incredible to watch the progression of CrossFit over the past twenty years or so. From its humble beginnings as a young, modern, up-and-coming form of fitness training to its recent status as a globally recognised competitive sport. CrossFit or Cross-Discipline Fitness has become an incredibly popular form of training for individuals of all fitness levels, and a versatile competitive sporting avenue for those wanting to push themselves beyond what they know they’re capable of. 

What draws many people to CrossFit is its brutal nature. It incorporates virtually every form of training that you can imagine. CrossFit athletes have an incredible level of athleticism, discrediting the idea of “Jack of all trades, Master of None” through training to compete at the highest level they can in as many styles of training as possible. Swimmers swim, runners run, cyclists cycle – CrossFitters do it all and more.

It’s clear that CrossFitters need an extreme level of mental toughness to compete in such a physically demanding and versatile sport. In what other sport can you be asked to perform absolutely anything from gymnastics to swimming, plyometrics to powerlifting, high-intensity interval training to distance running and everything in-between? What other sport assesses virtually every physical capacity humans are capable of training, including strength, power, flexibility, coordination, endurance, agility, speed, accuracy and balance? Very few other sports have such element of the unknown as to what physical capacities you’ll be asked to demonstrate on competition day

CrossFit is Uniquely Challenging

CrossFit is uniquely challenging in terms of its variety and unpredictability. For athletes competing at qualifying rounds for the CrossFit Games (World Championships), competition workouts are gradually revealed in the weeks leading up to the event. The final workout is often revealed as little as a week before the event, allowing athletes only a limited amount of time to prepare for the specific workouts they’ll be asked to do. Athletes who then qualify to compete at the CrossFit Games are tasked with the challenge of rocking up to the competition venue having no idea what they’ll be asked to do. 

Every year the workouts are different, and arguably more challenging than the last. So for CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental toughness a lot of this boils down to knowing how to answer this simple question; how do you mentally prepare for the unknown?

Welcoming Discomfort with Open Arms 

The first thing to acknowledge about preparing for the unknown is that we are hardwired to mentally thrive in settings of certainty and predictability. This often works against athletes in competition settings, particularly for CrossFitters due to the uncertain nature of competition. Going into an event pre-empting the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel is the first step in being able to manage them. Take some time to think about how you’re likely to be feeling on competition day:

  • What sort of emotions do you expect to experience – Nerves? Worry? Excitement? Fear? 
  • When are these emotions likely to kick in – the morning of? The day before? The week before? 
  • Are these emotions likely to become more apparent and harder to ignore the close you get to the start time?

After taking some time to predict the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel, it’s important to have a think about how you would like to physically respond to these emotions. If I followed you around with a video camera the morning of competition right up until start time:

  • What would your body language suggest to me about how you’re feeling?
  • What would you like your body language to suggest about how you’re feeling? 
  • How would you like this to be different to the last time you competed?

Accept The Emotions, Don’t Fight With Them

Finally, it’s important to preempt our subsequent emotional response to these normal competition day emotions. Athletes often get caught up in the amount of worry they are experiencing on competition day. Due to the inbuilt fight and flight response feeling such as worry generally are uncomfortable. Rather than focusing on the competition itself, they find themselves worrying about their emotions.

Predicting ahead of time when you expect to feel certain emotions heighten our ability to notice them on competition day, and empowers us to reduce their impact on our actions or behaviour. When we acknowledge that competition day is full of emotions and learn to embrace them with open arms rather than wrestling with them on competition day, they often seem a lot less threatening. 

In 2021 Tia-Clair Toomey (blue shirt) made history as the most dominant CrossFit athlete to date with five consecutive championships to her name.

CrossFit Psychology: Setting Expectations

It’s important for CrossFitters to think about what kind of training and performance expectations they set for themselves. More importantly, for these to align with their actual competence, that is, their physical capabilities as measured through objective and reliable forms of measurement. CrossFit takes place mainly in a group setting which has the potential to foster an environment of comparison, making it very easy for individuals to compare themselves to others. For beginners or those working their way to the elite level, it’s easy to compare your abilities against those who have been training for much longer. For those coming back from injury, it is easy to compare yourself to where you were pre-injury, or to those uninjured athletes around you. In terms of prolonged motivation and athlete mental wellbeing, establishing a helpful point of reference becomes really important. 

A helpful point of reference is one that is recent and is a comparison to something that we have influence over. For example, an unhelpful point of reference for an injured athlete could be what they were pre-injury, as to reach that level took many months or even years of training. A more helpful point of reference would be anything post-injury. For example, “I can lift X amount of weight since I returned to training”, rather than “I can lift X amount of weight now, but this isn’t as much as Y which I could lift before my injury”. It’s important to recognise any progress no matter how small after an injury, in light of what you have been able to do since the injury rather than comparing this to what you were about to do pre-injury. 

Data Destroys Doubt

Sport Psychologist Harley de Vos brilliantly explains the concept of tracking progress in his article Confidence Before Competence. There is a certain level of trust we need to place in our training program, but by measuring and tracking progress athletes are able to see their physical gains through an objective lens. Measuring competence is essential in prolonging motivation, particularly in an environment where comparisons are so easy to make. Come competition day, rather than relying on how confident we feel in our ability to perform certain workouts (as this is subjective and unreliable), we can instead rely on what we know we can do

Take It One Workout At A Time

For CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental performance, my advice would be to embrace discomfort and learn to preempt and welcome it, and set realistic expectations and recognise any improvements made. In the world of CrossFit athletes often look at the end product and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they’ll have to do to get there, often making it even more difficult to start. However, we don’t get results without taking each of the small steps required to get there. A great way to think about the journey is like crossing a river; with each workout, we jump across to the next stepping stone. Only through taking it one workout at a time will you be able to see what you’re truly capable of.  

If reading this article has piqued your interest in terms of improving the mental aspects of what you do then get in touch with us now so we can send you some detailed information about our sport/performance psychology services. If you are just curious but would like to find out more before making an official enquiry then we suggest you browse the answers to our frequently asked questions.

Sport Psychology for Combat Sports

Sport Psychology for Combat Sports is an article by Madalyn Incognito on the specific mental demands of fighting sports … and how to overcome a few of them!

“It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the movie Rocky Balboa.
Sport Psychology for Combat Sports. Despite their physicality, they are much more mental than you’d imagine.

Combat or “Fighting” Sports

One-on-one combat has been around for a very long time. They date back to the Ancient Olympic Games. Today we see an amazing array of combat or fighting sports which can be separated into striking-centred styles, more commonly known as stand-up fighting (e.g. Boxing, Kickboxing, Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu) or grappling styles (e.g. Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling), which centre around what happens when a fight ends up on the ground. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the product of striking and grappling styles combined. The best and hardest parts of both some would say.

When we think about how success in fighting sports is measured it really boils down to the athlete’s ability to hit and not get hit. To be really successful competitive fighters are ultimately required to anticipate upcoming attacks. This is most often based on visual cues, such as their opponent’s footwork, body and hand positioning and pace of movement around the ring. This feedback is then used to quickly select the most appropriate defence and counter-attack, which they then need to execute with speed, accuracy and power.

Fighting Sports Can Be Uniquely Challenging

The reason fighting sports are so hard is because humans naturally aren’t very fast responders. The average human reaction time sits anywhere between 200ms – 250ms. Seasoned fighters, especially those at the elite level, take less time than this to land a jab, body kick or initiate a take-down. 

Fighting sports are also challenging in the sense that due to their one-on-one combat nature the risk of physical injury is very real. And it’s arguable that a fighter’s ability to overcome setbacks (e.g. copping a powerful body shot) and deal with adversity (e.g. one half of the crowd cheering for the other guy) is a relatively more significant predictor of success when compared to many other sports. What I’ve come to see through my own experiences, both as a point and full-contact fighter in my younger years are that often it is the athlete who demonstrates a higher level of what we call mental toughness that comes out on top. This psychology often trumps other areas of fight preparation such as physical conditioning, skill execution or strategic wisdom. So, how we can build this mental toughness to ensure that on fight day we’re giving ourselves the best chance for success?

Fighters, Thoughts, Feelings and Actions

One of the most common questions we get as a collective of sport and performance psychologists is “how can I change my thinking to be more positive?”. Or “how do I stop having negative thoughts?”. The simple answer is, you can’t. And even if you could it wouldn’t help you much anyway.

What we now know about how the human mind is designed to work is that when we find ourselves in high-pressure situations or one that we’re emotionally invested in, all signs of rational thinking go out the window. One thing that humans are really good at doing in the lead up to important events is thinking irrationally, illogically and ‘worst case scenario’. I will not bore you with a full anthropological explanation as to why this is the case but ‘in a nutshell, it boils down to the survival benefits of predicting and assuming danger even if there isn’t any.

One common misconception among many of the athletes and performers we work with is that in order for us to have an effective performance we need to reduce, eliminate or change these unhelpful thoughts. The problem here is that trying to change or eliminate unhelpful thoughts doesn’t work, and when we attempt this we often end up going around in circles. If I told you not to think about the colour blue for the next 10 seconds, could you do this? Do we possess the ability to not think of a thought? I can guarantee that anyone who tries to not think about something ends up thinking about it even more. So for a fighter who’s having doubts about their ability to win going into a fight, or can’t seem to shake the idea of how a loss might impact their career and what others might think of them, the real question here is can we still have an effective performance despite having unhelpful thoughts? At Condor Performance, our answer to this is an emphatic and empirical yes.

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT)

The therapeutic framework we like to borrow most from is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Under the ACT approach, we acknowledge that actions can certainly have an impact on how we think and feel, however, thoughts and feelings needn’t have an impact on our actions. In other words, we can train our mind and body to still have an effective performance in the presence of very uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. With some guided practice, both in our everyday lives and subsequently in sport-specific training environments, we can train ourselves to accept any uncomfortable thoughts or emotions we have and still commit to our rehearsed actions.

You Don’t Have To Be Fearless To Be A Fighter 

For anyone who has ever seen a semi-professional or professional fight, you’ll have witnessed what is referred to as the ‘ring walk’. Once a very straightforward and relatively unimportant stage of the fight, it’s now one of the most exciting and significant stages of fight preparation. Today, we see choreographed entrances into the ring, often involving some sort of dance or Martial Art-like movements against a background of lights, smoke and dramatic music, before the fighter eagerly climbs the stairs of the ring, parading around to soak up the energy of the crowd. However, one can argue that what stands out most about the walk-out is the level of confidence that is often displayed by the fighter. Their body language, facial expressions and walking style almost always convey to the audience and their opponent a sense of fearlessness and determination as they enter the ring. What many onlookers don’t realise is that this is basic ACT in practice. And in many cases, it’s their mastery of this mental skill that has helped them rise to the top.

A footballer I once worked with described the ring walk as an “act”, and this really stuck with me – why? Because when a fighter confidently completes the walk-out and enters the ring, only one of two things can be happening:

  1. He or she both looks 100% fearless and is 100% fearless
  2. He or she looks 100% fearless but is not actually 100% fearless

Fake It ’Til You Feel It

Fact – not every fighter who confidently walks into the ring is also feeling 100% confident. So the answer to “how do fighters fearlessly enter the ring” is simply, they don’t. Most of the time, they are actually battling a flood of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, just like athletes across any other sport and in just the same way we do in our everyday lives when faced with a situation we’re uncomfortable with (e.g. public speaking). The fighters that make it to the top don’t necessarily have the ability to change their thoughts and feelings, they’ve really just mastered the ability to walk into the ring and perform well in spite of these. A lot of this simply comes down to body language combined with basics thought acceptance. This is something we at Condor Performance like to call “Fake it ’til you Feel it”. 

Those at the elite level typically acknowledge that the amount of influence they have over their thoughts and feelings is very minimal. Rather than letting uncomfortable thoughts and emotions stop them from performing, they’re able to shift their focus to where their influence is highest, that is, on their actions. So essentially acting in a way that is incongruent with how they may be thinking or feeling.

At Condor Performance, we are very lucky to have Sydney based Brian Langsworth as a member of our growing team of psychologists. Apart from being an outstanding performance psychologist, Brian is also a former actor and therefore brings a huge amount to the team when it comes to the practicalities of acting, body language and the like.

Shifting Our Focus …

Because most of our influence lies within our actions, it’s really important for fighters to evaluate their past performances as well as set expectations for future performance around their ability to execute the actions they practice every day in training and on ‘fight day’. 

Performance can be evaluated in one of two ways. Processes (i.e. actions and effort) or outcomes (i.e. results) and one of the trickiest things about fighting sports is that success is often outcome-based only. There are no prizes for who has the best footwork, who has the fastest or most creative striking combinations or who can perfectly execute a triangle choke. Success in combat sports is results-focused, that is, it’s based on wins and loses, whether that be knockout, decision, submission or Technical Knockout (TKO).

Due to this, fighters often become caught up in the possible outcome of an upcoming fight and whether they’re going to win or lose. The issue with this, mentally, is that there are just so many things that contribute to an outcome of a fight. For example, the opponent, the referee and judges, the spectators and all the other things going on around them to name the most obvious. Shifting our focus to what we know best, our actions and effort in the ring can give a fighter an increased sense of “control” in a very unpredictable and uncertain situation. 

What Constitutes a “Good Fight”

For fighters with values grounded in the results of their performance, reframing the way they evaluate past performances and the way they set expectations for upcoming performances to be more aligned with actions, effort and processes rather than outcomes or results is an important first step in empowering them in the lead up to a fight, during a fight and after a fight.

That’s why one of the first conversations I’m having with fighters is usually around what actions and processes constitute a good performance in their eyes. More specifically, what are the attacking processes (e.g. striking, kicking, hand positioning, footwork, countering) and defensive processes (e.g. head movement, body movement, blocking, catching, evading) that give them the best chance of success if executed consistently across the fight, and what practical strategies can be employed to ensure they’re able to execute these processes under the pressure of an important match. 

Give Yourself A Fighting Chance …

If there’s one message I’d like you to take away from this it’s that success, particularly in fighting sports, is almost always determined by the athlete’s ability to still have an effective performance despite feeling uncomfortably nervous and having doubts about their ability to win. I remember my principal supervisor and Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole once saying “They don’t hand out gold medals for who was feeling the best” and this is especially true for fighters. It’s not about who feels the best on fight day, it’s about who can put together the best performance on the day despite how they’re feeling. 

If you are a combat sports competitor or coach and would like to expand on these ideas then Madalyn is available for private performance psychology coaching either in person in Sydney (NSW, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Madalyn Incognito”.

Swimming Psychology

This blog article, “Swimming Psychology” is a 20 minute read by provisional psychologist Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of competitive swimming. Please enjoy and, as always, share responsibly.

Swimming Psychology can be the difference between good and great.

Swimming Psychology 101: Every Millisecond Counts

If there is one sport where every millisecond counts, it’s swimming. Often the difference between qualifying for a final, placing top 3 in an event, or being selected for an international team can come down to just milliseconds. This is especially true at the elite level. Because of this swimming is now at a point where taping into the mental aspects of performance has become widely accepted. Mental Toughness is an essential part of success, as a few milliseconds could mean the difference between achieving one’s dreams or missing out on them completely.

Despite this most competitive swimmers love the fact that their sport is objective in nature. First place is awarded to whoever touches the wall in the fastest time. There are no judges and no point system (such as with gymnastics or figure skating). If you are the fastest on the day, no one can take that away from you. However, this is also the hardest aspect of swimming too. Because success in the sport is so largely determined by results, swimmers often fall into the trap of focusing too much on outcomes. Where they’ll place in a heat or final or how close they are to making that national-open qualifying time are often front of mind. The consequence of this is that they forget about all the smaller processes required to improve and succeed. Swimming psychology being ones of these groups of processes.

Reflections of My Own Swimming Psychology

I myself was a competitive swimmer for many years. I remember being midway through a race once only to give up when I saw that I was falling behind the other swimmers. Looking back on this now, I realise that rather than focusing on the other swimmers and what they were doing, I should’ve been focusing on my race plan and sticking to this just the way I had practised in training in the lead up to the event. It’s challenging not to become caught up in where we’re ranked compared to the swimmers in the other lanes. But we need to have an understanding of what we have control or influence over, so that we can shift our focus from what we have minimal influence over (i.e. the other swimmers) back to what we have maximum influence over (i.e. my race plan). 

Swimming Psychology and “The Performance Funnel”

The sport psychologists and performance psychologists at Condor Performance have always been at the forefront of developing the most effective mental skills for performance enhancement since 2005. This year I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a subcommittee on the development of something that we hope will become mainstream in the coming years. It’s called The Performance Funnel.

The Performance Funnel is a concept that some of us use to assist our clients in understanding how crucial it is to separate processes from preferences (aka goals). When we talk about processes, we’re talking about the intentional actions and efforts we engage in. For example, in swimming, one’s race plan. We use the term preferences rather than goals as this accounts for the fact that engaging in all the correct processes will never guarantee the successes we want, rather it only increases the likelihood of them occurring.

Why Is This So Important For Better Swimming Psychology?

While we are more emotionally invested in our preferences or the outcome of a race, our level of influence over this is only small. We can’t hop out of the pool, run over to our timekeeper and hit stop on the clock so that we record the fastest time. What we can do however is employ the actions and processes we practise every day at training and execute them to the best of our ability. This is why during your mental training with one of the Condor Performance Psychologists only a small amount of time will be spent discussing past or future potential results. Most of the discussion will be focused on formulating ways to improve your execution of swimming-specific processes on race day. And one way that we can enhance our ability to be able to do this is through formulating and practising a race plan.

Sticking To A Race Plan

Whilst results are important indicators of improvement and where our performance is currently at compared to others, having a race plan encourages us to align our focus, set our expectations and base our confidence on the things we do in training every day. A race plan accounts for all the smaller processes that go into the race. For example, executing an efficient start, turn and finish, sticking to a pre-planned breathing pattern, and planning points at which to increase the speed of your kick and stroke rate and when to back off.

With a significant commitment to practice, many of these above actions can become second nature, therefore, minimising on day decision making.

As performance psychologists what we want to try and understand is what allows a swimmer to look back on their performance and confidently say that they gave it 100%? If their answer is predominately outcome-focused, for example, “I didn’t give it 100% because I didn’t win”, this is an issue. So, reframing their idea of a good performance so that it aligns with actions and effort becomes very useful. If their answer is “I know I gave it 100% because I swam the fastest I could”, well that’s great, but what processes allow you to do this? Was it because you executed the start, turn and finish with speed and accuracy? Was it because you stuck to your breathing pattern? Did an increase in your stroke rate at the correct times have something to do with it? 

What Do Process Driven Race Plans Look like?

For swimmers who do not already have a race plan, creating an action-based checklist is a great way to empower them both in preparation for a race and on race day. A race plan for 100m freestyle might look something like this:

  1. 8 x strong dolphins kicks off the start
  2. Transition into fast flutter kick as you edge towards the surface allowing for smooth transition from underwater work to first stroke 
  3. 4-6 breathing pattern on the first lap
  4. Speed up kick + increase stroke rate 10m out from the turn
  5. Head down 5m out from the turn 
  6. Turn with speed, 5 x dolphin kicks off the turn 
  7. Transition into fast flutter kick as you edge towards the surface allowing for smooth transition from underwater work to first stroke 
  8. Increase speed of kick at the beginning of the second lap, maintaining 4-6 breathing pattern
  9. Increase stroke rate to maximum at the 75m mark 
  10. Last breath at 15m out from the wall and head down for the finish
  11. Finish on a full stroke

Having the swimmer evaluate their performance in terms of what aspects of their race plan they did and did not adhere to provides them with an opportunity for genuine improvement. They either acknowledge that although they may not have achieved the outcome they’d hoped for they understand there’s nothing more they could have done. Or they recognise which aspects of the race plan they didn’t stick to, how this impacted their performance and make arrangements to correct this for next time. Having them focus on these processes before and during the race essentially gets their head out of the way. It allows their body to do what it knows how to do and encourages them to take ownership of their performance and come up with ways to improve it.

Using Visualisation to Practice your Race Plan

Many people outside of swimming don’t realise the level of strategic planning that goes into a race, particularly among the shorter distances (e.g. 50m, 100m, 200m) as the room for error is very minimal. The same way a dancer would rehearse their choreography, or a diver would practice their competition dives, swimmers practice their race plan at training to increase the likelihood that on race day they can stick to it. However, what separates swimmers from many other types of athletic performers is that they don’t always have access to the setting where their performance takes place – the pool. One way around this is through the mental rehearsal of their race plan, aka visualisation.

There’s a whole range of reasons why an athlete might engage in visualisation. The most common is for the practice effects it has on performance. Visualisation can take place from the 1st or 3rd person and is a mental process whereby the athlete uses imagery to rehearse the aspects of their performance “in their mind’s eye”. For a swimmer, this type of rehearsal would mirror their race plan and include when to take breaths, increase their stroke rate, change their stroke style and other processes which go into a race.

Did You Watch The Movie Cool Runnings?

Those of you who have seen the 1990’s movie classic Cool Runnings will know what visualisation looks like when you think about the scene in the bathtub. (If you haven’t seen it go and watch it and look out for the scene in the bathtub).

However, a swimmer who only visualises the ideal parts of their performance is setting themselves up for a hard time on race day. There are more physiological variables at play for the longer races. These include muscular fatigue and lactic acid build-up. It’s really important to incorporate these physiological barriers into a visualisation routine so that we know how to respond to them if they occur on race day. Visualising possible barriers to performance, when they’re likely to occur and how you will respond to them will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to overcome these barriers to performance on race day, as they will have been part of your rehearsed race plan.

In Swimming, You Always Race How You Train

What makes race plan rehearsal so important, whether it’s in the pool or through visualisation, is that with fatigue our attention, concentration and focus deteriorates. When this happens our chances of sticking to our race plan also deteriorate as doing this requires mental effort, leaving us with only physical strength and stamina to rely on to get us to the finish line. But who would want to limit themselves to utilising only the physical aspects of performance when we have the opportunity to use this in conjunction with mental toughness?

In swimming, you will race how you train. If you practice your race plan during and away from training, it becomes muscle memory just like any other skill. Over time, the processes become more automated and require less mental resources to execute, and in the last 25m, this will make all the difference. 

If you are a competitive swimmer or swim coach and would like to expand on these ideas and improve your Swimming Psychology then Madalyn is available for private coaching either in person in Sydney (NSW, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Madalyn Incognito” due to her background in swimming.