Powerlifting Psychology

Powerlifting Psychology is a free blog post by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of the sport of Powerlifting.

Powerlifting Psychology is all about improving the mental aspects of this oh-so technical and physical sport.

Not a powerlifter or vaguely interested in powerlifting psychology? Fear not for the below article mainly uses the sport of powerlifting/weightlifting as an opportunity to look at some classic sport psychology concepts from a different angle. Read it before judging it!

Powerlifting Psychology – Introduction

Powerlifters are on a constant mission to find out just how strong they are (or could be). For those of you who are not familiar with what powerlifting looks like, athletes attempt to lift the heaviest weight possible on three different lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). The aim is to reach their one-rep max (heaviest they can lift in a single attempt) within 3 attempts. 

The all or nothing nature of lifting creates a lot of mental challenges. At the end of the day, in powerlifting, you either make the lift or you don’t. This has the potential to foster a bit of an all or nothing attitude amongst lifters. We often hear powerlifters speak about the fear of “Bombing Out”, or failing to make one successful lift in the three attempts. The effects of missed attempts on performance seem to be exponential. The fear of bombing out and its impact on performance increases at a higher rate with each missed lift. 

Falling Down The Rabbit Hole

After missing the first attempt, lifters are tasked with the challenge of avoiding what we might call “falling down the rabbit hole”. The first attempt often sets the tone for the following attempts. If unsuccessful there are only two more chances. One thing we know about how the human mind works is that as soon as we are in a situation where our number of opportunities is reduced, we often go into overdrive on a cognitive and emotional level. The stakes become much higher, and our perceived importance of having a successful next lift dramatically increases. This often leaves lifters focusing too much on outcomes, and not enough on the processes they need to be focusing on to get those outcomes. 

Preempting Thoughts Ahead of Time

Getting “hooked” is where our thoughts and emotions dictate our actions in an unhelpful way, reducing our capacity to perform. One of the best ways to prepare for the threat of getting hooked and bombing out on competition day is to preemptively identify what thoughts you’re likely to have at the various stages of competition; when things go to plan and when they don’t.

Our mind is a reason-giving machine, the best ever created. Because of this, we’re really good at surviving, but we’re also really good at talking ourselves out of doing things that are outside of our comfort zone. To help a powerlifter preempt competition day thoughts, we might ask:

  • “As you enter the venue, how is your mind likely to try and talk you out of doing this?”
  • “What is your mind likely to tell you as you approach the bar? 
  • “It is possible you might miss the first lift. What is your mind likely to say when that happens?”
  • “When you approach the bar for your third and final attempt, your mind is going to generate a lot of objections. What do you think it’s likely to say?”

Predicting the time and frequency of these competition thoughts can also be beneficial:

  • “How many times do you think your mind will tell you this before you approach the bar?”
  • “When will your mind start telling you all these things?
  • “How many times will your mind say this to you throughout the entire day?”

What To Do About This?

After identifying these thoughts and when we’re likely to experience them, we can take the final step which is to name them. Naming uncomfortable thoughts brings a sense of familiarity with them so they’re not as frightening on competition day, and creates a bit of distance between yourself and those thoughts. Some great examples include:

  • “There’s my mind reason-giving again”
  • “There’s the ‘I’m not good enough’ story”
  • “The ‘What if mess up” thought is back”

So a big part of the work we do at Condor Performance is in helping lifters handle these challenging situations and the associated thoughts more effectively. That is, by reducing their impact on performance. 

Flow and Trusting Your Body 

Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow. Flow State, by Csíkszentmihályi and is when we are so intensely present in what we are doing time and distractions appear to vanish. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform on autopilot. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would. 

Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow, and it’s where one is so intensely present engaged in what they are doing, that they are in a state of hyper-awareness. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform in the way it has been trained to perform. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would. 

At Condor Performance we often talk about getting the head out of the way so the body can do what it already knows how to do, so we see a lot of value in the concept of flow. If you ask any elite lifter what they think about in the moments before a competition lift, you’re likely to get the response “absolutely nothing”. The best powerlifters in the world trust that their body knows what to do, and with enough training (and trust in their training program) they can go to competitions and consistently enter a state of flow right before they go to lift, through engaging in simple mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing. 

Powerlifting Psychology: Visualisation

Visualisation in powerlifting is becoming more and more popular as athletes begin to see the benefit of mental rehearsal on performance. For this to work, mental rehearsal needs to be as specific as possible, covering as many details of the competition day as possible from the actual lift itself, to the sound and temperature of the venue, to the feeling/sensation of clothes and equipment on the body during the warm-up lifts. When visualising it is important to both set the scene and engage all of our senses. Lifters might want to visualise the different aspects of their entire competition day, including weigh-in, waiting around, seeing the audience for the first time, loading and unloading weight, warm-up attempts and hearing the commands for their actual lifts. 

However one trap lifters often fall into is only rehearsing successful lifts, often for fear of thinking about how things could possibly go wrong. This goes back to preempting – it’s important for lifters to preempt and visualise what an unsuccessful lift will look and feel like, how they’re likely to respond to this emotionally and cognitively, and rehearse how they want to respond to this and how they might coach themselves through it. This creates a sense of familiarity with unsuccessful attempts so that they don’t come as such a surprise on competition day, and allows us to pre-plan our response so we know exactly what to do in the case that it does happen.

Getting “Stuck”

One of the most challenging mental hurdles lifters talk about is getting “Stuck”. When a lifter sees no progress or doesn’t see progress at the speed they expected, they’ll often label themselves as being stuck. Something important to keep in mind is that there are many reasons why a lifter may physically plateau, but it is actually our cognitive and emotional response to this physical plateau that often exacerbates its duration. Our default response to seeing minimal to no progress includes thoughts of self-doubt, diminished confidence in our ability, and questioning whether or not all the work we are doing will be worth it. When a lifter becomes hooked by these thoughts, this often perpetuates the cycle of minimal progress. 

How To Get “Unstuck” 

It can be really beneficial for lifters who have become stuck, physically and/or mentally, to reflect on what life values they are fulfilling as a human being, (not necessarily as an athlete), that initially motivated them to pursue the sport and have kept them there up until now. Rather than looking at training through a purely athletic lens, we want to help them identify how lifting contributes to the individual living a rich and meaningful life, and through which of their life values this occurs. Many of the values that arise include:

  • Living a healthy lifestyle 
  • Self-discipline
  • Competing with Others
  • Learning new Skills
  • Attempting new challenges 
  • Never giving up 
  • Being responsible for my actions 
  • Feeling good about myself
  • Having a sense of accomplishing
  • Striving to be a better person

Shifting the lens on training from better athletic to better human allows for the rediscovery of the things an athlete truly values in life, and how they live in accordance with these values through their training (regardless of their results). This can serve as an internal driving force through prolonged periods of a plateau (perceived or actual) and is a process that can certainly help a lifter become “unstuck”. 

Powerlifting Psychology; Conclusion

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take from this article, it’s that thinking about all the things that could go wrong isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, when we expect and embrace the full range of emotions and thinking competition day brings about, they often seem a lot less threatening, and we’re giving ourselves the best chance to respond in a more helpful way. As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists, we acknowledge that we can’t significantly change the way we think and feel, and therefore the goal of the work we do is to minimise the effect of these experiences on performance. And if you (or someone you know) want some help with any of this, get in touch.

Psychology of Climbing

Not a climber nor remotely interested in the sport of climbing (rock climbing)? Fear not and read on for the below article simply uses this sport as an opportunity to look into an array of mental challenges and solutions common to many performance areas.

The Psychology of Climbing refers to the mental challenges and solutions faced by those who choose to do this extreme sport either recreationally or competitively.

Reaching New Heights Through Mental Toughness Training

The motor skill of climbing is incredibly tough and equally enjoyable. Yes, these two concepts can and often do coexist. Relatively new to the competitive sporting domain, climbing has reached new heights in the last thirty years. It’s expanded to include three competitive disciplines (plus a combined event) in which athletes can compete against each other at the international level. Since the first Climbing World Championships in 1991, climbing has grown in popularity both as a recreational and competitive sporting avenue.

Lead Climbing and Speed Climbing have been around from the get-go, with the addition of Bouldering in the early 2000s. The Combined Event was then introduced in 2018. The Combined Event was (controversially) selected as the Tokyo Olympic Games format when the sport made its debut in 2021. Here, athletes are scored based on their performances across all three climbing disciplines. Climbers who were the best in their specific disciplines were therefore not favoured.

Nature of Competitive Climbing 

Why was this controversial? Because the three disciplines test unique physical capabilities. In Lead Climbing the goal is to climb as high as possible (15m) within a set amount of time, testing power, endurance and technical problem-solving. At the elite level, the route isn’t seen until moments before starting, meaning climbers have to think on their feet and plan as they go. On the other hand, the goal of Speed Climbing is to climb this same wall as fast as possible. Here the route is always the same, testing speed, power and accuracy.

Bouldering is a little bit different. The wall is much shorter (4m) and climbers are given a time limit to solve a number of “problems” with the fewest moves possible. Bouldering tests flexibility, coordination, strength and technical problem-solving. Therefore, to be successful in the combined event, athletes must train to meet the demands of each climbing style and need to demonstrate competence across each of the three disciplines.

The Mental Challenges of Climbing

It is important to acknowledge that with the different physical requirements of each discipline come a set of unique mental barriers as well. For Lead Climbing and Bouldering, there is a huge element of “in the moment” problem-solving required. This means the climbers need to be able to engage in decision making under fatigue, overcome thoughts of self-doubt, and engage in appropriate risk-taking.

It’s arguable that focus is the most important mental component required for Speed Climbing. The top climbers in the world are reaching 15m in just over 5 seconds – that’s 3m per second! To be able to climb at this incredible speed athletes need to be completely focused, as one wrong move could completely disrupt their entire performance. The margin for error in speed climbing is so small, meaning attention to detail and accuracy of hand and foot placement are absolutely crucial.

Trust Your Body

One mental barrier common to all three disciplines is the need for climbers to trust their bodies. They need to trust that come competition day, their body will be able to meet the complex physical demands of the performance as a result of their training and preparation. When climbers lack trust they often hesitate and are unable to perform those more difficult, dynamic movements that require a higher level of risk. However, trust is a tricky thing to develop and maintain, especially when it’s been broken in the past. 

If you watch any elite climber train or compete it is clear they place a huge amount of trust in their body to take them where they want to go. With trust being such a huge mental component of climbing it’s important to talk about why we find this so challenging. From a psychological point of view, a lot of this boils down to fear. Whether this is fear of falling, fear of taking a risk and it not paying off, or the fear of failure. 

Fear And Trust 

Fear of falling is often one of the first mental hurdles climbers overcome in their career, particularly in bouldering where there is no harness. With this fear of falling comes the need to trust our body to hold itself up, but this isn’t something that is developed overnight. Trust in our body is something that comes over time with practice, and it strengthens each time we push ourselves to do something we haven’t yet done before. Each time our body shows us it can do something we were unsure it could do, we learn to trust it a little bit more.

But each time we take a risk and our body is unable to physically cope, our trust is inevitably shaken and it’s normal for us to second guess our abilities. For climbers the journey to trust is a constant battle of pushing themselves beyond what they know they can do, celebrating when their body can cope and picking themselves back up when it doesn’t. In no way is the journey to trust smooth sailing – behind every successful climb are many unsuccessful ones. Trust is one of the many human concepts that is hard to build but easy to destroy.

Fighting With Our Mind

Hesitation is another common mental barrier to performance mentioned in the climbing sphere. This also has to do with trust in our body, but through understanding the mental processes that underlie hesitation we can learn to overcome it. Hesitation mainly stems from the fear that our body won’t be able to successfully perform the movement needed to progress in the climb. As a result of this, we often get into a bit of a fight with our minds. This is because our mind is really good at debating and intellectualising – it’s great at coming up with rational and logical reasons for us not to do something that might put us at risk of harm. It generates all the possible outcomes and potential (negative) consequences, and details any and every reason why we shouldn’t attempt that next move. Our mind is really just warning us that if we go ahead with the movement we might slip and fall, but our default response to this is often to try and convince it otherwise. 

It is important for climbers to understand that their mind is not going to change its mind. Because its job is to warn us of the dangers of any behaviours we might engage in, arguing why you still want to engage in the behaviour isn’t going to change your way of thinking. Trying to convince your mind why it is a good idea to take this risk to progress in the climb isn’t going to necessarily stop it from telling you it might not be a great idea. Here, we need to remember that we don’t want to view the mind as the thing that tells us what to do. Rather, we want to try and view it as something that warns us, protects us, but still gives us a choice as to whether or not we proceed with those actions. But how can we learn to go against what our mind is telling us?

Mental Processes Underlying Hesitation

One of the most important mental tools a climber can develop is a heightened awareness of their inner private experiences. Private experiences include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and anything an individual experiences privately that has the potential to influence their behaviour. Because there is an extremely important technical aspect to climbing, particularly Lead Climbing and Bouldering, climbers need to be guided by their problem-solving minds. When the mind is in a problem-solving mode and we’re relying on it to make complex technical decisions, this leaves us vulnerable to overthinking and fosters the perfect mental environment for hesitation. 

Because the brain by nature is a problem-solving machine, it will calculate as many routes as possible, the consequences of each of these, and will leave it up to us to weigh up the risks associated and make the best decision we can at the moment. This can be extremely challenging, especially once physical fatigue sets in, and the fear of making an error can often hold us back from progressing. Once we notice we’re starting to hesitate, it’s also easy for us to begin to worry about the fact that we’re hesitating, often perpetuating this behaviour.

Hesitation Mindfulness

By bringing awareness to our mind and what it is telling us in those moments, our body and how we are feeling in those moments, and any of the memories from the past that come up in those moments, we can minimise their impact on our behaviour and commit to the actions we want to take. There is a part of us that thinks, feels and remembers, but there is also a part of us that can take a step back and observe these thoughts, feelings and memories from a distance. By taking a step back in our minds (metaphorically speaking) we can bring awareness to these private experiences that often lead to hesitation and observe them from a more distant viewpoint. This distance provides us with the room to make a decision about our actions that are not influenced by these thoughts, feelings or memories. It is when we get caught up in these experiences that they have the biggest impact on our actions. 

This is called mindfulness, and it’s where we bring awareness to our most inner experiences, separate ourselves from them and take actions in accordance with what matters to us.

Visualising The Climb

Visualisation is a mental strategy that can be used to enhance performance across virtually any performance domain. In competitive climbing, the way visualisation might be used would vary slightly across the different disciplines, but most of the benefit of this mental strategy lies in the practice effects it can produce. Technical consistency can be improved through pure and other forms of mental rehearsal, meaning we don’t necessarily need a wall or any equipment to improve our technical abilities. 

Psychology of Climbing
What do you think is going through this climber’s mind?

Mental Rehearsal: Lead Climbing and Bouldering

For Lead Climbing and Bouldering, because the route isn’t known and cannot be practiced beforehand the best use of visualisation here would be to prepare for the most unideal scenarios. For visualisation to work, it needs to be as specific as possible, and must be a complete sensory experience meaning we need to go beyond just what we can see. Visualise yourself stuck, struggling to progress on the wall, and think about what you are likely to be seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting and hearing at this time.

Visualise how you would overcome this physical barrier, and what that would look like, feel like and sound like, but also visualise not overcoming this hurdle, and think about what you would want this to look like? What would you want your body language, facial expressions, and your interactions with others on the ground to look like? It’s one thing to plan for when things go our way, but how often do they? Visualisation is such a great tool because it allows us to familiarise ourselves with the worst-case scenarios and plan our response to them. And we can do this all from the comfort of the ground. 

Mental Rehearsal: Speed Climbing

Alternatively Speed Climbers might want to use visualisation in accordance with unique demands of the discipline. Rather than placing complex and dynamic decision making at the centre of the exercise, here we would want that focus to be around speed and accuracy. Speed climbers might want to mentally rehearse their climb from different viewpoints, and vary between the first-person or third-person perspective. They might also want to vary the pace of their climb, visualising their climb in slow motion with more emphasis on technique. Or at real speed with a focus on arm and foot movement/placement. 

Climbers may also want to engage in a variation of mental rehearsal known as Pure Shadow Practice, where they move their arms and legs while they mentally rehearse to mimic the movements they want to perform on the wall. Having our body go through the motions can provide additional benefit relative to Pure Mental Rehearsal alone. Finally, climbers might want to engage in another variation of mental rehearsal known as Video-Assisted Mental Rehearsal. Here, they might watch video footage of themselves or another climber on the course and analyse their movements, before using this knowledge to inform their Pure Mental Rehearsal and Shadow Practice. But again, it is important for speed climbers to integrate planning for the best and worst in their visualisation practice. How are you likely to feel if your foot slips on the wall? What are you likely to see as you make your way back down to the ground? And how do you want to behave? 

The Aim of Visualisation

In addition to having actual practice effects, the goal of visualisation is to increase our familiarity with as many different scenarios of the same event as possible. Athletes often feel scared to think about what could possibly go wrong during their performance, and sometimes think that planning for the worst is setting themselves up for a bad performance. For climbers who feel this way it is important to acknowledge that although we might complete all of our processes correctly, this only increases the chance we’ll get the outcome we want. Our desired outcome is never guaranteed despite our best efforts, so it is important to prepare for when we don’t get the results we want as this helps us to bounce back and try again. 

Reaching New heights 

Climbers are constantly being asked to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, and must continue to push their own perceived physical limitations in order to see any progress. Through mindfulness and visualisation strategies, climbers can work towards a building a trusting relationship with their body to help them overcome fear, and helpful a relationship with their mind whereby thoughts and feelings no longer dictate their actions.

Condor Performance is one of the global leaders in applied sport and performannce psychology and we’d love to lend you a hand if you’re looking to lift your performance to the next level through a greater focus on the psychological. What is the best way to get in touch? We’d suggest completing one of our four intake questionnaires here as an inital step. Once done one of us will be in touch typically within two or three days.

Competitive Diving Psychology

Competitive Diving Psychology is a free article by Madalyn Incognito that “dives” into the mental challenges and tips of competitive diving.

Olympic / Competitive Diving Psychology – Conquering New Heights Through Mental Training

Conquering New Heights Through Mental Training

WaterSports meets Gymnastics. A combination of the pool and the gym has produced the sport of Competitive Diving. When we mix two such demanding sports the end result is something extraordinarily demanding. But despite diving’s requirements for incredible strength and technical ability, it’s arguable that the mental aspects of the sport really separate the best from the rest.

The nature of competitive diving is more complex than a lot of us realise. We can separate diving into two main disciplines, springboard and platform, and there is an opportunity for athletes to dive from a variety of starting positions including forward, backward, reverse, inward, twisting and armstand. Divers are then scored on their performance by a judging panel (consisting of 5+ at international competitions) across a series of dive elements, including approach, takeoff, flight and entry.

The Specific Challenges Of Diving 

Divers face fear on a daily basis. The margin for error in diving is so small, one wrong movement and the impact of the water could leave you with a broken bone or dislocated joints. Not only are divers required to enter the water with minimal splash travelling at extremely fast speeds (of up to 55kms per hour), but they’re required to perform a series of technical acrobatic movements with artistry and precision as they fall. 

Diving can certainly be classed as a high-impact sport, and it is this in combination with our natural fear of heights that makes diving a particularly challenging sport mentally. Diving is obviously made up of a large technical and artistic component, but there is also a huge mental component to diving we don’t often see. 

Consistency Is Key

As is the case with many competitive sports, consistency is extremely important as part of Competitive Diving Psychology. For much more on the subject of consistency read this “ahead if it’s time” article by Condor Performance stalwart Chris Pomfret.

But one thing our mind is really good at is remembering what we’ve done in the past and using this to inform what we do in the future. For diving, this can be helpful from a technical point of view, through mentally correcting our form on our previous dive and using this learnt information to improve the next one. The downside to this is that thinking about the last dive often results in the onset of a lot of worry about the next dive, regardless of its outcome.

Think about it. After a good dive, we feel great and want things to continue going our way. The only way we can do this is to back it up and perform another good dive, and this (outcome) is now at the forefront of our minds. On the other hand, after a ‘not so good’ dive, our default response is to think about what we did wrong and how to make sure we don’t do the same thing on the next one. Ensuring the next dive is better (another outcome) is now at the forefront of our minds. It’s a lose-lose situation here. Whether we do or don’t do a great dive, making the next one better becomes our focus by default. 

Noticing And Working With Our Mind

There are a few things we can learn from this. The first is that our mind is very outcome-driven by nature, meaning that in response to a situation its first job is to predict the outcome of the event and use that to inform any future decision making. What divers need to become really good at doing is noticing when their mind sneakily slips into outcome-only thinking. Building an awareness of our mind’s automatic response to certain situations is important, as only then we can choose to focus our attention back on what we need to be doing. That is, performing the actions we train to do every single day.

The second thing we can learn from this is that no matter how we go on the previous dive, we’re probably never going to feel 100% confident going into the next one. When things are going our way, we often become so fused with the idea of keeping it that way that we lose track of what we actually need to do to keep things going our way. When things don’t go our way, we become fused with the idea of getting back on track, and the same thing happens.

Unfortunately, we can’t help the fact that our mind does this. What we can do instead is notice when it does, acknowledge the reason it does this (evolutionary history and survival instincts), accept that it has happened and choose to focus our attention back on our actions/processes. This is the key ingredient to great Competitive Diving Psychology.

Battling Your Mind

On the topic of our brain trying to work against us in the diving sphere, divers will often describe knowing they can do the dive (because they’ve trained for it and done it plenty of times before), but having to argue with their mind telling them all the reasons not to do it. This creates a bit of a tricky situation; knowing you can do something, feeling scared to do it and having your mind tell you not to do it. And talk about vulnerability. Standing high above a pool in your swimsuit on a relatively flimsy’s springboard. Nowhere to hide up there.

What most of us don’t realise is that getting into an argument with our minds is actually the source of the problem. Our mind is a reason-giving machine, so it’s great at debating and intellectualising, and it’s even better at arguing its way out of situations that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it is very helpful for our brain to do this and for obvious reasons (keeping us safe), but in the sporting world and particularly in diving this has the potential to do us more harm than good. 

Accepting And Working With Fear

The first step in overcoming fear is accepting it’s a part of the sport. To be successful in diving, athletes need to learn to accept fear as part of the process, and with this comes an understanding and acknowledgement of the ways in which our minds might try to work against us. It is our mind’s job to generate and predict all possible outcomes of going through with the dive, particularly the undesirable outcomes, as part of its role in survival. So for competitive divers wanting to think more positively, it’s just not a realistic goal. A goal that is realistic is accepting fear, reframing it in a way that is more helpful, and bringing awareness to the ways in which your mind might try to talk you out of doing what you want to do.

Reframing Fear

The idea behind reframing is shifting your view from one perspective to another. This can be very helpful when it comes to fear and other strong emotions. Sure, thinking about belly-flopping off the 10m platform is scary, frightening even. But doesn’t this make us that little bit more alert than we would be if we weren’t afraid? We can choose to view these “protective” thoughts as a warning, but one with a level of helpfulness associated.

If we didn’t overthink and fear the worst possible outcome we wouldn’t take any caution, and some level of caution is certainly needed when the margin for error is so small. Rather than seeing these thoughts as something out to stop us from doing what we want to do, we can choose to see them as a warning and that something important is about to happen. We can reframe this experience as the mind and body preparing us for something special. 

They Are Only Thoughts …

Another part of overcoming this mental hurdle is preparing for the argument our mind is likely to start come competition day. In the lead up to an event, it can be beneficial to think about how our mind is likely to debate the actions we need to perform, and what it might say to try and talk us out of it. Knowing our mind is likely to try to talk us out of it firstly prevents this from surprising and/or shocking us on the day (which is sometimes half the problem), and it also allows us to plan for how we might want to respond to it. Through doing this we are making room for these private experiences (thoughts and feelings) on competition day, rather than trying to fight them or get rid of them. We are ultimately bringing awareness to our potential thoughts before the day has arrived, reducing the likelihood of us getting caught up in them when we need to be focusing on our performance. Of course, it’s not essential that you do this with the guidance of a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist but more and more competitive divers are choosing to do it this way (less guesswork, more evidence-based etc).

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Sport Psychology for Winter Sports

As the 24th edition of the Winter Olympics draws to a close we felt compelled to rush through this special edition of The Mental Toughness Digest on the theme of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports / Snow Sports.

The Winter Sports require a very special kind of Sport Psychology

Introduction

As is the case with all previous additions where we focus on a particular sport we highly recommend that even if you’ve never even seen snow before that you make your way through the below article as you will be surprised at how many ideas might be applicable for your particular sport or performance area.

In the realm of Snow Sports, we see what can only be described as some of the most extreme, dangerous and downright fantastic sports of the modern era. From snowboarding and skiing, figure skating to luge and everything in between, Snow Sports athletes are the pros at defying gravity, making the ‘impossible’ look like a piece of cake and leaving us as spectators speechless.

Of course, with any sport comes a cocktail of physical and mental challenges. But in sports where sticking the landing is in some cases a matter of “life or extreme physical injury”, the mental barriers to performance are on a whole other level. On another note, some snow sports test a very broad range of physical capabilities under one event, requiring athletes to both master and be able to shift back and forth between contrasting physical skill sets. 

In this article, we’ll explore three popular Snow Sports in detail, and explore their unique mental demands. I’ll also run you through how you might be able to overcome a few of these performance barriers through evidence-based mental skills, starting with an event that sits on the extreme end of the Snow Sports spectrum. My last article was on Figure Skating which you can read here which when combined with the below hopefully provides a reasonable conceptualisation of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports.

Skeleton

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports One – Skeleton

In addition to being one of the fastest sports on the planet, Skeleton is also considered the world’s first sliding sport. Riders travel at speeds of up to 130km/hour head-first on a small sled (known as a skeleton bobsled) with their face only centimetres off the ice. It is the job of the rider to steer using their entire body, which involves careful manoeuvring of the shoulders, legs and toes. It’s pretty obvious from the nature of this sport that the margin for error is extremely small, and fair to say that one wrong move could potentially result in disaster. 

So in order to succeed in the Skeleton event, one must be able to execute precise movements whilst travelling at incredible speeds, and you could argue that in order to do this the rider needs to be completely focused and present. A lot of staying focused and present boils down to the athlete’s ability to manage their thoughts, in particular overthinking (e.g. planning, problem-solving) or what we might call “difficult” thoughts (e.g. thinking about the worst-case scenario, “what if” thinking). In terms of overcoming this mental barrier to performance, the first thing to acknowledge is that in any situation perceived as important or threatening our mind is always going to look for a way out of it. Our mind is likely to perceive travelling headfirst on ice at 130km/hour as extremely threatening, so you can imagine all the things it’ll try and say to us to talk us out of doing it. 

“I can’t afford a single mistake?”

“What if I crash and all that hard work goes to waste?”

“This is too risky, I don’t want to be here?”.  

So the question here is how do we go about changing this – how do we go about making our thinking more positive so that it doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do? Well if you read my previous article on thoughts you’d know by now that the answer to this is “we don’t, because we can’t.” 

If you think that elite athletes are the experts at thinking positive, we’re here to tell you that’s not really the case. It’s likely that the minds of the most elite Skeleton athletes are also trying to talk them out of doing what they love to do. Why? Because they’re human, just like you. And as humans, we have very limited influence over the things our mind tells us purely due to the fact that there is always some biological reason or survival instinct at play. The most elite athletes in the world don’t necessarily think the most positively, they’re just masters at not letting what they think impact what they do. Our job as Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists is therefore not to change the way athletes think, but to change the relationship athletes have with their thoughts and minimise the power their thoughts have over their actions. Please note that this might not be the approach of other sport psychologists but is certainly the case for our current team.

Noticing Thoughts, Making Room For Them And Coming Back To The Here And Now

So how exactly do we reduce the power thoughts have over our actions? Or in terms of Skeleton, how do commit to the slide when everything in our mind is telling us not to? At Condor Performance we take a mindfulness approach to this question, starting with the simple practice of bringing awareness to our mind and the way it speaks to us. One of the ways we can practice this is through a skill known as The Noticing-Self. When we tap into our noticing-self we ultimately ‘take a step back and observe’ what we are thinking and feeling in that moment. But the key here is to try to do this without judgement. That is, once we notice what our mind is telling us, the aim isn’t to argue whether or not the thought is true, false, right, wrong, positive or negative. All we want to do is notice the presence of this thought. For example, “I notice my mind is asking me what will happen if I crash.” 

Once we have noticed our thought(s) without judgment, the next step is to make room for these thoughts in the sporting experience. Basically, we need to accept that this is what our mind is telling us. Part of this is appreciating the fact that our mind can have a mind of its own, and is hardwired to talk us out of engaging in dangerous or threatening behaviour. If we can learn to accept the way our mind speaks to us and acknowledge that it’s coming from a place of protection, we then have the power to choose whether or not we want to listen to it. To choose whether or not to let it influence what we then do next.

Last but not least, it is our job to redirect our focus back to the present. After bringing awareness to and accepting our thoughts, it’s useful we bring our attention back to what we need to be doing at this moment, right here, right now. If the Skeleton rider is getting ready to start then try to notice where their hands, arms and legs are, and where do they need to be. Bring awareness to what can you see, smell, hear, taste and feel in that moment, and remind yourself of what processes you need to be thinking about. Mindful (deep) breathing or action-based cues (e.g. adjusting equipment) can be used here to aid us in bringing our focus back to the present.

4-Person Bobsleigh

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports Two – Bobsleigh

On the topic of sliding events, I’ll now bring your attention to the 4-Person Bobsleigh, the fastest snow event with riders reaching speeds of up to 150km/hour. You can imagine it’d share some of the same mental challenges as Skeleton, but there is a whole other dynamic at play in this event. Throw in the fact that it’s you plus three other riders, and now you have the added pressure of not messing up because doing so doesn’t just affect you.

Unity in Bobsleigh

We can’t ignore the role cohesion plays in this sport. Team members have to work together to execute a seamless start (where they essentially run with the sled, jump in and sit down within only a few seconds) as well as the entire run itself despite the fact that most of the steering is done by the driver (the person in the front). What a lot of us don’t realise is that a lot of planning goes into preparing for a run. Teams will walk, slide, re-walk and re-slide, to familiarise themselves with the twists and turns of the course and plan the details of steering.

Sticking To The Processes

Again, for those of you who have read my previous article on Unity, you will know that team cohesion goes beyond having a shared vision. To increase the chances of success the team needs to be on the same page in terms of A) how they set expectations or ‘goals’ for their performances and B) the way they evaluate (judge) their performances afterwards. Part of creating a winning culture is placing less emphasis on ‘winning’ itself, and instead placing a higher emphasis on processes and how to increase the chances of getting those things right both at the individual and group level. In a sport like Bobsleigh where Team Unity is so integral to success, it is important for team members to acknowledge the amount of influence they have over the outcome (and how little this actually is). If we were to breakdown the amount each factor in the Bobsleigh event contributes to the outcome, it might look something like this:

  • The Team – 40%
  • The Sled – 20%
  • The Ice – 15%
  • The Course – 15%

= 100%

So we’re talking about an event where teams have less than 50% influence over the outcome as a result of all the other external factors at play (the sled, the ice, the course). If we break that down to the individual level, each team member is likely to contribute to about 10% to the outcome. That’s not a whole lot.

Processes, on the other hand, are all the actions that are performed out there on the ice that increase the chances of achieving that desired outcome (e.g. starting sprint, getting seated, steering, etc). It’s important for teams to not only have a shared vision but to share an understanding of the importance of setting process-based goals and essentially leaving the results to take care of themselves.

Note: In an attempt to get this article out before the Winter Olympics is over and forgotten we did not have time to consult bobsled contacts/athletes or coaches on whether the above breakdown of influence is correct. So if you are involved in the sport at any level and would like to share your thoughts on the accuracy of these numbers please do so by using the comment section at the bottom of this article.

Biathlon 

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports Part 3 – Biathlon

Moving away from the sliding sports and onto something a little bit different. The Biathlon event is both unique and incredibly fascinating; a combination of Cross Country Skiing and Rifle Shooting. The cross-country ski of up to 20km for men and 15km for women are interspersed with shooting ranges in which biathletes have 5 targets and 5 attempts, with time penalties added for missed shots. The very nature of the event in that athletes are required to shift back and forth between contrasting physical capabilities creates some pretty significant mental barriers to overcome, the most obvious being the need to go from one physical extreme to another with efficiency. More specifically, to be still enough in the shooting section coming off the back of intensive cross country skiing that’ll inevitably elevate the heart rate.

Replicating Competition Stressors at Training

Only through physical conditioning can we increase the rate at which our heart rate returns to resting after intensive physical activity, but other than this we don’t have a whole lot of influence over this kind of thing as it’s physiological. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t use mental hacks to increase the likelihood we’ll be able to cope with this stressor come competition day. In order to cope with the stressor of an elevated heart rate during a time where stillness is required for accuracy, we need to practice doing so under exact or similar conditions. Replicating the competition environment (e.g. shooting practice with an elevated heart rate) or increasing the difficulty of practice through other means (e.g. increasing the shooting range, reducing the shooting target at resting heart rate) are some of the ways athletes can train to be more comfortable with these physiological and psychological stressors. 

One Common Challenge…The Snow Itself

But although these sports have a series of unique mental barriers that separate them from one another, there is one thing they all have in common that separates Snow from non-Snow sports. That is – access to the right conditions. Snow is typically seasonal, and therefore present for only a portion of the year – and that’s just in the places where it does snow. One of the biggest barriers to Snow Sports preparation is snow itself. Its relative unreliability and short-lived lifespan often produce a whole bunch of challenges that we hear back from athletes of these sports during sessions. So how do Snow Sports athletes train and prepare all year round, even in places where there is little to no access to the good stuff?

Organic Versus Synthetic Practice 

The concepts of Organic and Synthetic Practice become particularly important here. When we talk about Organic Practice, we’re referring to training that takes place in competition form (or as close as possible). For Skeleton and Bobsleigh, this would be sliding a course, and for Biathlon this would be sprint skiing interspersed with shooting practice. Synthetic Practice on the other hand includes all the practice that takes place in a modified competition environment (e.g. smaller/larger game environments, smaller/larger teams, artificial rules that raise the margin for success), any drills that are aimed at specific competitive techniques or tactics or any other training that takes place outside of Organic Practice.

It’s quite common for Snow Sports athletes to train without snow, during the warmer months of the year or for some pretty much all year round (in places without much snow). Synthetic practice is therefore a huge part of their preparation as access to organic practice in some cases is very limited. A lot of this takes place in the form of strength and conditioning training targeted to the specific demands of the sport, track and fieldwork, and using non-snow equipment replicas to get as close to organic practice as possible (as seen in the below videos). The same rules apply to Mental Training as per Physical Training. In other words in the absence of the ability to work on mindset in an organic fashion – in winter conditions – rather than throwing up your hands in frustration and not bothering try and see how you might be able to replicate some of the mental demands away from the conditions. If you have no idea where to start, get in touch as we can help.

Mental Rehearsal 

However, one of the greatest things about the world of Sport and Performance Psychology is the fact that in order to enhance performance, all you need is your mind. One way Snow Sports athletes can rehearse their competition-day processes is through Visualisation or ‘Mental Rehearsal’. This type of practice can take place in various forms (with equipment, without equipment, video-assisted or pure mental rehearsal), and it works through firing the same kinds of neurons that would fire if we were to physically perform those actions leading to practice effects. In other words, no snow is needed!

But We Are Here To Help If You Need A Hand

If you’d like to get in touch please choose from one of the below methods:

Figure Skating Psychology: Overcoming Fear On Ice 

Figure Skating Psychology is a free article by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito. Even if you’re not a Figure Skater, it’s worth a read.

Figure Skaters exhibit an extreme amount of mental toughness – so how can we develop some of this ourselves?

Figure Skating Psychology; Definitions 

Whenever the Winter Olympics come around one of my favourite events to watch is Figure Skating. Whether it’s the Singles, Pairs Skating or Ice Dance, I can’t help but be in awe as these athletes perform what can only be described as superhuman-level stunts. But as I watch in amazement I can’t help but wonder how many times they had to fail in training in order to be able to execute their routines so well under competition pressure.

Not only are the physical skills they perform on another planet (see picture above), but the mental toughness they would need to be able to master them and be able to perform them with “ease” on the world stage is off the charts.

Of course, they don’t perform these skills with ease – it just looks like that. But part of a Figure Skater’s job is to perform intensely detailed and complex movements with speed, precision and artistry, whilst making it look easy. During a routine, you’ll see Figure Skaters perform a series of jumps, lifts, throws, spins and footwork, all in an effort to demonstrate their level athleticism and artistry to the judges. But behind every “good” performance sits the numerous unseen falls, injuries (or near-injuries), and the countless times their mind would’ve told them to hang up the skates and pick an easier sport. 

Mental Demands of Figure Skating

It’s clear that Figure Skaters, particularly those at the elite level, require a certain mindset. At the end of the day, we’re talking about a sport where one of the first things you learn is how to fall properly on the ice without breaking a bone or getting a finger sliced off! But with learning to fall comes needing to learn how to get back up – and not just in a physical sense. The best Figure Skaters in the world are masters of picking themselves back up psychologically.

They have the ability to “move on very quickly” from parts of the routine that did not go perfectly. It’s arguable that the ability to do this is what separates the good Skaters from the great ones. They know that a 6/10 “double axel” without showing any disappointment is better than a 7/10 with a drop in body language.

It’s important for Skaters to understand that what makes their sport so mentally challenging is the fact that our brain is hardwired for survival. As humans, our default cognitive response (the things our brains immediately crank out in response to a situation) is always going to be a protective one rather than a performance-based one. After falling and bruising our hip, it’s normal for our brain to tell us not to try that again. ‘What if next time you break your hip?’.

If our partner almost drops us during a lift, again, it makes sense for our brain to say to us “what if he drops me next time and I fall flat on my face?”

The moment we step outside our comfort zone, our brain’s default response is to tell us all the reasons we should step back inside it.

In a sport like Figure Skating where the threat of slips and falls are constantly looming, it’s inevitable that our brain is constantly going to be on the lookout for all the bad things that could possibly happen. 

Committing To The Jump

Figure Skating Psychology: Committing To The Jump

When our default response is to go straight to the worst-case scenario, it becomes a lot harder for us to commit to doing what we need to do. However, Figure Skaters who struggle to overcome these unhelpful thoughts are in short giving their thoughts the power to do so. When we discuss the power of thoughts with a Skater, there are a few questions we might ask to get the ball rolling in the right direction:

  • Do we have the ability to think one thing and do another?
  • Do we have the capacity to do the opposite of what our brain is telling us to do?
  • Can I perform a jump while my brain cranks out all the reasons I shouldn’t do it?
  • Does the thought, “I’m scared because I might get hurt” physically stop my body from moving? 
  • Does this thought, these words in my mind, physically stop my arm and legs from moving and doing what I want them to do? 

As a provisional psychologist currently undertaking supervision with some phenomenal sport psychologists and performance psychologists I know the answer to all of the above is “no”. But do you?

We need to recognise when our mind is playing the role of ‘protector’ and when it’s playing the role of ‘performer’, and develop the capacity to question the power of those thoughts over our actions at that moment. Remember, “they don’t hand out gold medals for who was thinking the best”.

Overcoming The Fear of Injury 

To have the mental skills required for Figure Skating athletes need to become seriously good at committing to the movement, in spite of any difficult thoughts or feelings they have. We need to understand that our response to fear is unique (a combination of predisposed sensitivity to fear and learnt experiences), and will be different to the person sitting next to us. It’s important for Figure Skaters to learn to recognise their fear in order to learn to commit to their actions regardless of it. 

At Condor Performance we work with Figure Skaters through a mostly ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) approach. This psychology framework allows performers to notice and accept this natural fear as being a normal part of the human condition. For Figure Skaters who values new challenges, improving their skills and pushing themselves beyond their limits, taking action guided by their values would be to commit to the jump despite feeling fearful and hearing their mind tell them “you have got to be kidding”.

Swerving the Subjective Nature of Skating

Another mental challenge for Figure Skaters is the way that scoring is subjective, so there may be a gap between a Skater’s own subjective view of their performance and the view of the judges. Because the goal of Figure Skating is to score the highest possible mark from the judges, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on outcomes and not enough on processes. For example, getting caught up in whether or not they’re going to land that jump, rather than visualising the processes involved in executing that jump (e.g. foot and arm positioning, speed and direction of their movement, height of the jump, etc.).

This can be problematic as outcomes are something we have very little influence over. At the end of the day, we might perform every single process involved in the jump correctly, but with the slightest shift in movement as we’re travelling in the air we don’t stick the landing. Unfortunately, we can’t make our way over to the scoreboard and change the scores ourselves either – when it comes to outcomes, we have no place. The only thing we can influence is what we do on the ice, and we can’t commit to landing the jump if we don’t commit to the processes first.

This All Sounds Great But I Need Some Help 

We know, some of the above sport psychology suggestions are “easier said than done”. So regardless of whether you yourself are actually a figure skater or simply another competitor who has cleverly invested some time in reading an article on another sport (we call this mental cross-training) if you feel like you’d benefit from some professional guidance then we’re here to help. Get in touch via one of the methods below, our response time is normally around 48 hours.

Water Polo Psychology

WATER POLO Psychology is an article that looks into some of the specific mental challenges of water polo and how to overcome some of them.

Water Polo Psychology is related to the mental challenges that are specific to the sport of Water Polo and how to overcome some of them.

Water Polo Psychology: Giving Meaning to Mistakes

In the sporting world, there is a growing consensus that Water Polo is one of the most physically brutal and demanding sports around. To be a Water Polo player, you’ll need incredible core strength, endurance, and the ability to anticipate player movement based on visual cues in an extremely fast and dynamic competition setting. And – you’ll have to do all of that while keeping your head above the water. 

Many similarities can be drawn between Water Polo and fighting sports such as Kickboxing and MMA. Cuts, bruises, knocked out teeth – it’s arguable that many of the principles that apply to Combat Sport psychology in terms of not getting hit also apply in the pool when you put two teams together in a body of water and ask them to fight over a ball. 

Water Polo and Mental Toughness

What makes Water Polo so challenging mentally is the fact that it is a fast-paced and physically demanding team sport. At Condor Performance, one of the most common areas of concern brought up by the Water Polo athletes we work with is the desire to play at a high level consistently

Like in many other team sports, in Water Polo, there appears to be some sort of pattern in performance, whereby individual playing ability is impacted by various external factors. For example, we often see player performance differ depending on which team they are playing against (for example, a highly ranked team, a team with older/more experienced players), and the perceived importance of the game (for example, a semi-final or grand-final match). When players are impacted by external factors such as these, we’re really seeing the impact of a diminished mental game on their physical game; fear of failure becomes a lot scarier, the consequences of letting the team down becomes more apparent, and the desire to win becomes even stronger.

Letting The Team Down

When playing as part of a team there is an element of safety in the sense that if the desired outcome is not attained it is not completely on any one individual. But with this, comes the idea of not wanting to let the team down – a commonly heard phrase with the work that we do. 

My response to this is usually, “define letting the team down”. What I want to see here is how the player defines failure and mistakes so that they can be challenged. As is the case with a lot of mental skills it’s important for the water polo player to know the difference between a process and an outcome and the superior amount of influence over the former. In other words, it’s far better for mistakes to be used when referring to failures of the process whereas they tend to get used when talking/thinking about outcome failures. More on this later.

Humans Are Social Creatures 

Something important to acknowledge here is that humans are social beings. From an evolutionary point of view, by living in groups and through reciprocity we give ourselves the best chances of survival. Because of this, we are hardwired to get others to like us; to do things that benefit others in our “groups” so that in situations where we need help, the favour will be returned. Unfortunately, this creates a lot of mental obstacles for athletes in team sports. 

When we make a “mistake” (an occurrence in the game ultimately benefitting the other team) this often sends us into a bit of a panic. Something Water Polo players will often say to us after making a mistake is it’s hard to forget about it and move on. This increases the likelihood of them making a subsequent mistake. It makes sense why players are often so afraid to make a mistake in the first place, as often this seems to set the tone for the rest of the game.

With repeated mistakes, players often fall into the trap of generating possible ideas about what their team, their coach and others think about them (social hardwiring comes in here), and without being unable to “unhook” from this players have the potential to become fused with these thoughts. From our point of view, at this point, the game is pretty much over. 

Challenging The Idea of Mistakes 

For players who struggle to come back from “mistakes,” our goal would be to redefine their idea of a mistake. Society today has fostered a culture of perfectionism, so many of the athletes we speak with across both individual and team sports come to us with the idea that game errors are purely negative occurrences, often forgetting the importance of doing things wrong so that we can learn to get them right at a later time.

Rather than evaluating these game occurrences as positive or negative, we want to just notice them. Not necessarily judge whether or not they’re good, bad, helpful or unhelpful, but rather extract some piece of objective information. For example, “maybe my position in the water was too low; through kicking with a little bit more speed and power I can get my body a little bit higher in the water.” Rather than getting caught up in the nature of the occurrence, we can take the opportunity to correct our form and refine our skills.

Good Water Polo Psychology can be trained, just like learning to become better at shooting or blocking (above)

It’s Those Skills We Mess Up That We Eventually Master

Reflecting upon my own training in the pool, it was those skills that I didn’t get right at times that I still remember today. There’s just something about making a mistake, identifying the issue, problem-solving and receiving feedback that creates a more in-depth and memorable learning experience, often leaving the skill to sink in a little bit deeper than those skills we never get wrong or get right straight away.  

For Water Polo players or any team athlete, the goal of our work with relation to overcoming mistakes would be to reframe the way they perceive game day errors. Over time what we want to try and do is help them shift their cognitive response to one that views the occurrence as a learning experience rather than a mistake; an opportunity to learn a skill, refine technique and make us 0.1% better than we were yesterday. We usually like to start this work by having a discussion around the stats of professional athletes. One of our favourite examples is Michael Jordan:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael Jordan

So we’re talking about the greatest basketballer of all time here, making countless “mistakes” – missing thousands of shots, some of which lost his team the game. So why is that we call Michael Jordan the best basketball player in the world, despite the fact that over the course of his career he’s missed thousands of shots – what makes him the best?

Crediting Successes to Mistakes

What makes him, and all the other elite athletes we know today the best is their response to mistakes. Rather than how they place when things are going their way, it is their response in the face of adversity that makes them the best at what they do. Anyone can play a good game when things are going their way, but what makes an athlete elite is how they play when things aren’t. 

We do have a choice at the end of the day – to let the mistake define us or to give meaning to the mistake. With the assistance of some mindfulness-based exercises often this choice is a little bit easier. Something important to keep in mind is that our default cognitive and emotional response to a mistake is always going to be an uncomfortable one, but for those who are willing to learn to sit with those inner thoughts and feelings and take something away from the experience, you’re already halfway there.

How We Define a“Great Athlete”

If there’s one message I’d like you to take away from this piece, it is that a great athlete is defined not by their best game, but by how they respond to and learn from their worst game. The best athletes across all water sports and beyond credit their successes to the mistakes they made (and continue to make along the way), and that is what makes them the best.

If you’d like a hand in doing this, get in touch.

Focus for Sport And Performance

Focus for Sport and Performance
“Focus for Sport and Performance” – A Critical Mental Skill

Intro: Focus for Sport And Performance

Focus is arguably one of the most crucial components of sporting and non-sporting performance. High-performance realistically isn’t possible without it.  Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. Focus is what the f is Metuf stands for. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. Focus for sport and performance can be measured and improved.

As Sport and Performance Psychologists our clients often ask us for ways to become more focused, stay focused or refocus after. But to understand how to improve focus, we first need to understand exactly what it is.

What Is Focus?

In psychology, ‘focus’ is defined as mentally attending to something while tuning out any other irrelevant incoming information. And like every other mental process, it plays an important role in helping keep us alive. Our survival is ultimately aided by our ability to attend to stimuli and extract information from our social and environmental surroundings. The ability to focus is a mental process that is present from birth, indicating it’s something we’re hardwired to do. It plays a vital role in virtually every life domain.

Focus In The Performance Domain

There are many different types of focus. But the two most relevant to performance domains are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time, allowing us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. We might focus our attention on an external sensory stimulus, for example, something we hear, see, smell or feel, and in doing so can formulate a quick and immediate response to this stimulus if required.

The performance domains where one might need to engage in focused attention are those where individuals are required to respond with speed and accuracy. For example racquet, ball and combat sports as well as emergency service work (e.g. police officers, paramedics), security and defence work.

Sustained attention, or what is commonly known as concentration, is where we focus on a task for an extended period of time. Complete attention is given to the task until it is over. Any irrelevant sensory information is filtered out. This type of focus is crucial for long-distance and enduro-sports, musical and theatric performances or surgery. Basically, anything that requires an individual to concentrate for a prolonged period of time. A swimmer (left)) requires focused attention whilst on the blocks followed by sustained attention during the race.

Because focus plays such a large role in high-performance across the sporting and non-sporting performance domain, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus, starting with mindfulness. Focus for sport and performance is not identical to the kind of focus that might be required in the classroom for example.

Meditative Focus 

The benefits of meditation extend beyond the general health benefits it’s commonly known for. In the performance domain, meditation is commonly used to bring our attention to the present moment, and focus our mind on the task at hand. Meditation is in no way the production of more positive thinking or a way to stop thinking altogether. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.

Every single moment of the day we’re thinking, whether we want to or not. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment, including any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts), and to observe them without judgement. Or as little judgment as possible. This heightened awareness allows us to focus on the task at hand and fully engage in what we are doing, in spite of everything going on around us.

Focus for Sport And Performance: FAM and OMM

There are many different styles of meditation. Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) and Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM) are two of the most common in performance settings. During Focused Meditation, the individual attends to one single target and is aware of their wandering mind so they can bring their focus back to that target. Attention may be drawn to a visual stimulus, sound or any other sensory experience, and practising this form of meditation can improve our ability to filter out irrelevant sensory information and maintain attention to a single thing (Yoshida et al., 2020).

Open Monitoring Meditation on the other hand is where an individual observes any private experiences they have. These include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, urges and cravings. The aim of this exercise is to watch these inner experiences come and go without struggle or judgement. This heightened state of awareness increases our presence in the current moment. It allows us to attend to the task at hand and again, fully engage in what we’re doing. 

There has been some research into the effects of these types of meditation on attentional control and thought processing, with Focused Meditation resulting in more specific, solution-based problem solving, and Open Monitoring Meditation promoting broader thinking and the development of new ideas (Lippelt, Hommel & Colzato, 2014).

Screen Time And Sleep

Aside from the benefits of meditation on our cognition and focus, sleep also plays an important role in these mental processes. We know that sleep deprivation can severely impact our decision making, alertness, memory, learning and reaction time, as well as our mood states and stress regulation.

One of the biggest causes of sleep disruption today is screen time, particularly its proximity to bedtime.

Electronic device usage prior to sleep can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Research has shown that individuals who use their mobile phones right before sleeping experienced a decline in both focused and sustained attention the following morning (de Oliveira et al., 2020). To enhance your sleep quality and reduce the impact of screen time usage on your focus the following day, it is ideal for athletes and performers not to be on their phones right before bed. One way of giving yourself the greatest chance for a good performance is through switching off any electronic devices as early as possible before sleeping.

Flow And Focus for Sport / Performance

The word Flow is also thrown around in the sporting world when we talk about focus. Flow refers to a state where an athlete or performer is fully and completely immersed in what they’re doing. What we know about flow is that in this state physical performance is heightened, because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information. The benefits of flow on performance extend across the sport and performing arts domain (Swann et al., 2012; Martin & Bhattacharya, 2013; Csikszentmihalyi, Montijo & Mouton, 2018).

Based on Flow Theory, individuals who struggle to get focused or stay focused are probably experiencing one of two things – they’re either experiencing anxiety or boredom. The two variables at play here include the individual’s skill level and the difficulty of the task they have been asked to do. If an athlete’s skill level is relatively lower than the difficulty of the task, this often creates a lot of anxiety for them disrupting flow. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this often leaves them feeling bored and struggling to engage in the task as they’re not challenged. To create an environment where flow can occur, skill level and task difficulty need to be roughly equal. 

Flow and Focus are very closely linked

Matching Skill Level and Task Difficulty 

Matching skill level and task difficulty can be particularly tricky in a team or group setting where you have individuals of varying skill levels and experience. For athletes in a group training setting where the prescribed sets or drills are too “easy”, creating artificial constraints on performance or setting artificial thresholds for success to increase difficulty can help in keeping them engaged. For example, if a boxer is asked to spar against a less experienced opponent, setting higher point thresholds or introducing artificial rules to make the round more physically and mentally demanding might aid them in entering a state of flow. 

Throwing a minimum of three strikes per combo, only leading with a feint or a double jab, or starting a combo with anything but a jab are some artificial rules that can be introduced to increase the difficulty of the round and help the athlete engage in the task where their experience level isn’t matched. For a swimmer hitting well below the times they need to be hitting during an endurance set, introducing a more difficult breathing pattern or a higher dolphin kick benchmark off each wall might introduce some additional physical and psychological constraints to a relatively easy set. 

It is important for athletes and performers to shift their thinking from what they can’t get out of a session to what they can get out of a session. Through enhancing task difficulty in an artificial sense we can help them to better engage in the session, and this will increase the chance of them leaving the session feeling as though they’ve gotten something out of it.

Narrowing Your Focus

Sometimes we underestimate the value of setting objectives or targets for the session we’re about to do or the week of training we’re about to commence. Narrowing our focus to a small selection of focus areas when we train (and even compete) is an attentional style that promotes concentration and helps us filter out all the irrelevant information around us.

I often find that athletes, particularly those on the younger side, struggle to engage during training and even on game day because they don’t know what to think about. They’re often trying to focus on too many things at once, which can lead to a lot of overthinking. For players who just can’t get their head in the game, this is most likely the reason why. Particularly during the development stage where athletes are trying to learn a whole range of new skills, it can be difficult to see them engaged in what they’re doing because they’re having to think about and remember so many different things. Trying to focus on so many different skill areas isn’t always the most efficient way of working towards progress, and it can often be hard for us to physically see our progress and use this as motivation to keep going. 

Focus Goals

To see more engagement on the field, narrowing their focus might help. Focus areas can be changed on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Choosing one, two or three areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what they need to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wonders and then stay engaged in what they’re doing. Clarifying these focus goals ahead of the session, week or month also allows them to take ownership.

Focus goals allow athletes to recognise their progress more clearly and take accountability for their efforts during training and on game day. There is no real excuse for not knowing what the objectives of the session or game are. Increased accountability is a large part of the philosophy of my primary superior Gareth’s approach.

Do You Need Help With Your Focus?

It’s clear that focus is an integral part of any performance arena. If you’re an athlete or performer looking to develop some of these ideas further please get in touch by completing our Contact Form here. Focus for sport and performance can be improved and qualified psychologists are the ideal teachers.

References

de Oliveira, M. L. C., de Nogueira Holanda, F. W., Valdez, P., de Almondes, K. M., & de Azevedo, C. V. M. (2020). Impact of electronic device usage before bedtime on sleep and attention in adolescents. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(4), 376-386.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Montijo, M. N., & Mouton, A. R. (2018). Flow theory: Optimizing elite performance in the creative realm.

Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving-kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity–A review. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1083.

Marin, M. M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2013). Getting into the musical zone: trait emotional intelligence and amount of practice predict flow in pianists. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 853.

Swann, C., Keegan, R. J., Piggott, D., & Crust, L. (2012). A systematic review of the experience, occurrence, and controllability of flow states in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(6), 807-819.

Yoshida, K., Takeda, K., Kasai, T., Makinae, S., Murakami, Y., Hasegawa, A., & Sakai, S. (2020). Focused attention meditation training modifies neural activity and attention: longitudinal EEG data in non-meditators. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 15(2), 215-224.

Team Unity and Culture

If you are part of a team (sporting or otherwise) and you’re not actively trying to improve the unity of the group then you’re missing a trick.

Team Unity
Team Unity – The U in Metuf (Mental Toughness Training)

In the world of team sport, we often talk about team unity as playing a vital role in success. But how important is unity to sporting success and how do we go about developing it?

Creating a Winning Culture 

Coaches often talk about creating a “Winning Culture” as the key to success in team sports. When we talk about a winning culture, we’re usually referring to a team environment that fosters the best outcomes (that is, “winning”). But if we were to pull apart the training environment of a team with consistent success what would this look like? You would likely see a group of individuals with shared values (despite varying individual values), working towards a common goal and supporting each other to flourish in their own individual roles. Teams that are well known for establishing a winning culture place an emphasis on characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, ability to take on feedback and having a positive influence on the people around them, and through these factors a sense of unity is easily established. Without unity, it is arguable that a team limits their opportunity to get the results they want, as the nature of the team sport ultimately requires individuals to work together towards a common goal. 

Process Goals In Team Settings

In an effort to develop team unity, it is important firstly to separate outcome-based goals from process-based goals. Sure, working towards establishing a ‘winning culture’ sounds good and might motivate players (initially), but placing such a large focus on results doesn’t guide anyone on the team to work on the processes that contribute to those results. With every outcome goal, there need to be process goals to complement it. Of course, it’s only normal to think about what outcomes we want out of the season, but we want to place a larger amount of focus on how we plan to give ourselves the best chance of getting those results. 

Because how many factors contribute to the end result of a game? You’ve got your team, the other team, the officials, the spectators, the weather – all of these factors in some way contribute to the end result of a game. Let’s say 40% of the outcome is determined by your team, 40% the other team, 10% the officials, 7% the weather and 3% the spectator’s presence. Winning is therefore something we have less than 50% influence or control over. So why spend so much time focusing your efforts on it? 

Processes (the things we do to get those results) on the other hand are something we have a lot of influence over and are the things we should be encouraging team members to focus their efforts on. Players who are asked to work towards these kinds of goals often leave training feeling empowered because they’re focusing their efforts on things that are within their individual reach. Some process goals you might want to set for your team to increase your chances of getting that win, might include communicating in a compassionate way, showing support for team members through verbal (spoken words) or physical (handshake, pat on the back) signs of support, and being authentic, genuine and respectful in your interactions with others (through tone of voice, choice of words, body language and eye contact). These communication process goals are one way of increasing the chances your team will get the outcome they want. 

Having a Shared Vision

Integral to team sport success is having a shared vision. This is often outlined by the leader (e.g. coach) and should include the details of his or her expectations, and the role each individual on the team will play. The perspectives of each member around what they value in a team setting should also be heard, including what they’d like others around them to be doing to promote their best performance. You as the coach might want to ask some questions to initiate a discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training to help produce the best results for the team. For example, “What do you want to accomplish this season, and what will it take for us to get there?”, or “What would you like others to be saying about us at the end of the season?”. 

It will be important for you to lead this conversation to ensure the brainstormed goals are both attainable and within your team’s influence (or control). That is, they are process-focused. Winning might pop up in the conversation which is fair enough, considering sport is often result-based, but exploring what exactly this might look like could prompt some discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training by each team member to help achieve this outcome. For example, “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to have effective communication; what does this look like?”, or “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to create a positive environment at training so individuals can push themselves; how can we do this?”.

Understanding Your Role

The trickiest thing about working in a team setting is that you basically have a group of individuals with different experiences and roles trying to work together towards a common goal. In a team setting it is vital each member of the team understands their own ability, role, the expectations and limits of their role and that of the others around them. Team members need to be able to make judgements around when to rely on others and when to step up and perform, and without an understanding of these fundamentals you’ll have multiple individuals trying to perform the same role on the field or worse, no one jumping in to do anything at all. 

It is also important for individual players to separate the team outcome from their individual roles to evaluate their own performance. For the team to progress individual players need to progress, so it is important for players to recognise any progress they have made, examine how they contributed to the team outcome and highlight areas that need to be improved on an individual level. For example, how was your footwork, passing and communication regardless of the fact that we won/lost the game? The team outcome is not a reliable indicator of their individual performance, so it is important for individuals to reflect on their own performance keeping in mind that there are many things outside of their influence that may have contributed to the outcome of the game.

Culture, Atmosphere and Communication

For team unity to flourish it is well known that the team atmosphere needs to be a positive and cohesive one. A positive and cohesive team culture is made up of a whole range of factors, including player attitudes, team motivation, ensuring every team member feels valued and empowered, and most importantly team identity. Team identity refers to the distinct characteristics of the team the make it unique, and it flourishes when each team member takes pride in their membership in the group. Individuals also need to place the values of their team above their own individual values in working towards that common goal to establish a sense of cohesiveness. 

Effective communication is also a huge part of establishing that positive team atmosphere. Open communication needs to be able to occur without fear of disrupting the relationship between coaches and players or the players themselves. One way individuals can provide feedback in a group setting without damaging those important relationships is through solution-focused feedback, as opposed to problem-focused feedback. Solution-based feedback involves highlighting what individuals could be doing instead, or should start doing differently. Problem-centred feedback on the other hand is where the problem is highlighted, and individuals are told not to do those things again. Pointing out what players have done wrong and asking them not to do it again might seem helpful, but in actual fact, this can lead to a lot of overthinking on their end around NOT making the same mistake. Keeping the feedback solution-focused helps guide their thinking towards how they can do that skill better, which indirectly prevents them from making the same error again. Helping players solve the problem rather than just highlighting the problem is one way of making them feel supported in their development, and this kind of feedback should extend to between-players to foster an environment of camaraderie and ensure team members feel supported by each other.

Respect 

Finally, it is important to distinguish liking our team members from respecting them. In the sport and performance domain, respect plays a huge role in fostering an environment where team unity can flourish. Individuals might differ in their approach to the work and what they value, but agreeing with or liking the approaches and values of everyone we work with isn’t necessarily required for unity to thrive. Respecting them, however, is.

Respect is defined as demonstrating a high regard for someone or their ideas regardless of their differences and in order to create an environment where individuals push themselves beyond their limits each day they need to feel valued and respected by others around them. We can choose to communicate with others whose ideas we don’t like with complete disregard, or we can choose to show our appreciation for the strengths in those ideas and offer alternative ones. The team environment needs to foster non-judgement to allow individuals to take risks and step outside their comfort zones on an individual level as they work towards that common goal.

Forget About Winning To Build A Winning Culture

The take-home message from this piece is that in order to establish a winning culture, we should forget about winning altogether. Rather the focus should be on establishing supportive environments for team members where they feel valued and empowered to achieve their individual best for the good of the team, and the goal of their work should be more centred around the journey rather than the destination. That is, focusing on the here and now, what we can be working on that is within our influence to give ourselves the best chance of success later on, rather than working with success at the forefront of our minds. In the performance world, we often see the best results achieved by those who don’t focus on results at all. 

References

Yukelson, D. (1997). Principles of effective team building interventions in sport: A direct services approach at Penn State University. Journal of applied sport psychology, 9(1), 73-96.

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.