Psychology of American Football / Gridiron / NFL

Psychology of American Football. Picture from Big Stock Photo. LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 03 2019: Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback, Gardner Minshew during the NFL game between Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium

The Psychology of American Football – An Introduction

American Football is one of those sports that goes by different names. The official name is gridiron but most of those in the United States refer to it as NFL despite this just being the name of the highest league. For this article I shall simply refer to it as American Football.

American Football is a sport littered with inspirational quotes and messages. Some are from real life whilst others are from television and/or films. One that is applicable to everyone in a competitive situation came from Cincinnati Bengals running back Archie Griffin. He famously once said “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog”. When you start to sift through them (a quick Google of “American Football quotes” is a worthwhile exercise), you soon realise a large portion are related to the mental side of the game.

Not Just Brutality And Physical Aggressiveness

American Football is known for its brutality and physical aggressiveness but as soon as I started to work with these athletes, from the professional level to high school footballers, it became clear that without the right mental processes talent and physical aptitude wouldn’t lead to the success these individuals desired. They needed mental skills that promoted acceptance, resilience, patience and a mindset that not only recognised their performance but also how it fits into the bigger picture of the offensive or defensive schemes coaches are drawing up. American Football is nuanced and it’s the mental challenges of the sport that take an individual from being good to great to a ‘hall of fame inductee’.

What Are Some Of These Mental Processes?

Let’s look at some of these mental processes and mindsets that can begin to improve the American Football psychology of players who participate on Fridays (high school football), Saturdays (college football) or Sundays (the NFL). 

One of the first things about American Football that will stand out to anyone participating or observing is the structure of the game. Every play called is meticulously considered in order to create an advantage for the team and each player has a very particular role to play to execute the play successfully. Aside from trick plays, players fill very individualised roles and this is where we begin to see why good mental processes are important for optimal performance. 

As with any team sport one player cannot do everything and this is even truer in American Football. For example, a quarterback can’t snap the ball, drop back and then pass it to themselves. They need the assistance of their teammates to be able to not only have time to throw the ball but also to see a pass completed. To manage the challenge of this, a player needs to have a good practice of acceptance where they can understand their role and focus on completing their given task instead of being distracted by what others on their team are doing.

A large part of The Psychology of American Football is knowing what your role is.

In speaking with an American Football coach, we used the analogy that for each play, we need to imagine the 11 players on the field are on a boat with 11 leaks. If each player deals with their leak then the boat continues to sail. However, as soon as one person starts focusing on the other leaks or even tries to go and stop the leak somewhere else then they expose themselves. A great example of this is on the offensive line where we need to trust our teammates to hit and stick their blocks rather than trying to block all of the oncoming pass rushers and being found out as a result. This is not the same for less pre-rehearsed sports like soccer whereby from time to time you need to help your teammate fix his or her leak.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance (being good at it) comes from the field of psychology in the form of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. At Condor Performance, we look at this by focusing on the level of influence we have in any given moment. We want athletes to channel their energies and efforts into making sure the things that are highly influenceable are what they are taking responsibility for in a sporting context. To put it simply, our own actions are highly influenceable while the actions of others are a much lower level of influenceable. When we accept this, we let go and allow others to do their job while we do ours. We are better focused, can more effectively judge our own performance and are a more complimenting fit within the structure of the team. We can also use this mentality to reset between each play and make sure we know our role and are locked in on accomplishing it while also motivating and encouraging others with theirs where possible.

Another element that stands out is the flow of the game between plays. The stop-start nature of the sport provides the players with a chance to huddle together and reset their intentions on the next play. It also provides the opportunity for each player to reset themselves to ensure that they are fully committed to what comes next – irrespective if previous plays went their way or not. In a sport like American Football it doesn’t matter whether you missed an assignment or ran the wrong route the previous play because it can’t be undone. All we can do is know what is being asked of us this play and look to execute to the best of our abilities with 100% effort. To make this reset work consistently it can be worthwhile to think about different actions that we use to settle, such as taking a deep breath, clapping as we come out of the huddle, redoing the velcro on our gloves, the way we get set in our stance, etc. Having this reset action helps remind us to start again and be committed to what we are trying to execute.

Psychology of American Football For Coaches

If you’re the coach or a leader on the team and you want to be able to take this idea of resetting one step further, then you can look at how the the offensive and defensive teams retake the field following a change of possession. When the unit goes back out onto the field it is an important opportunity to have players focus on landing the metaphorical first punch and creating some momentum on this particular drive. Even if previous possessions resulted in a poor outcome the other team does not have any advantage when this one starts unless we let them by focusing on the past which we cannot change. Just like a boxer coming out for the next round we want to establish ourselves and perform to our plan and create some ascendency that we can build on with each play. This is achieved through communication and the way we look to motivate and create energy in our athletes and teammates. We want to ensure we aren’t placing unnecessary pressure on their shoulders and instead highlighting that the ultimate goal of each possession is exactly the same: to have committed players on the field who know their roles and are giving 100% effort on each play. If you can get 11 players all buying into that philosophy and letting their actions do the talking we know we’ve got them in the right headspace. 

For individual players, one thing we also want to keep in mind is that the football we play wants to ignore any element of what I term the “fantasy football headspace”. What I mean by this is that we don’t want to judge our own performances the way we judge players in fantasy football, i.e. stats are the most important thing and highlight good performance. For every player, regardless of position, I would encourage you to develop ways of defining good performance that don’t have anything to do with the stats or outcome. If you’re a quarterback, how do you know you’ve had a good game without referring to touchdowns/interceptions thrown or yardage in the air? If you’re a wide receiver, how do you know you’ve had a good game without referring to receptions or yards? If you a defensive player. how do you define a good game without referring to interceptions, passes deflected, tackles made or points given up? The answer to this question will help you understand effort and take your performances to an even higher level of consistency because we aren’t reacting to previous plays and instead are locked in on recommitting to the next one. I will say that if you are struggling to answer that particular question, another way of answering it would be understanding what it looks like to compete out there on the field. How you compete has nothing to do with your outcomes and everything to do with the way you try to breakdown your opponents with movement, footwork, decision making, energy and competitiveness.

While each position in a game of American Football is different the mental elements of performance highlighted in this blog provide insight into how we can begin to get the most out of ourselves and our abilities. They are universal for all players and by making some adjustments you will better play your role for the team and leave the game having made a greater influence on how proceedings played out.

If your are an American Football player or coach and would like the assistance from one of our growing team of sport psychologists / performance psychologists then the best place to start is by completing the applicable Mental Toughness Questionnaire at here. Once done, one of our team will then get back to you with your results and, if you have asked for it, detailed information about our sport psychology services.

Baseball Psychology

Baseball Psychology Is A Ten Minute Read by Performance Psychologist David Barracosa On The Mental Aspects Of Baseball

There Is A Lot Of Psychology In The Sport Of Baseball

Introduction

When I applied for a position at Condor Performance a little over 10 years ago one of the first questions that Gareth asked me was which sports I considered to be the most mentally challenging. It’s a difficult question because every sport has its challenges which Madalyn and Morgan have outlined in their excellent recent blog articles. However, after some consideration and debate with my family the two that that I landed on were Baseball and Biathlon. The focus of this blog is going to be on the mental side of baseball (or Baseball Psychology) by exploring what these challenges are and different approaches we can take to best manage them and allow our performances to thrive.

Why Is Baseball So Psychologically Challenging?

Now I will say that the answer of baseball as one of the most mentally challenging sports might have a touch of bias to it as I spent most of the afternoons and weekends during my youth toiling away trying to be the best first basemen and clean up hitter that I could be. I love the sport and everything about it including its unique challenges that for me add to the excitement and spectacle that is America’s pastime. Since working for Condor Performance (Gareth must have liked the answer to the previous question amongst others during the intake process haha) I have had the chance to work with a number of baseball players at all levels of the sport and this has given me the opportunity to see how individuals react to the challenges that are thrown their way (literally and metaphorically) and also determine what works and does not work in terms of strengthening performance.

Analysing baseball performance and determining player strength is something that for a long time has come under the microscope of sabermetrics. If you are not familiar with this term it was coined by Bill James to evaluate in-game performances of players and something that was brought to Hollywood via the movie “Moneyball”. Through these practices baseball has become obsessed with statistics and this has filtered down into the mindset of a lot of players I have worked with who are more focused on box score performance rather than the actions and intentions that make up their time on the field. What this means is that a significant part of any improvement to a baseball player’s mindset is about shifting their attention away from being statistically motivated to being process orientated. Statistics muddy the waters and focussing on them essentially means we are trying to control too much of what happens in the game which leads to overthinking, self-doubts, knee jerk changes to our approach and a greater level of emotional variability. All of these factors are the kryptonite to process consistency which wants to be the goal that we are all striving for. Of cause this is true for many sports but baseball is particularly susceptible to an obsession with outcomes (both large and small).

It’s How You Handle The Stats!

Now I know a lot of people might be reading this and thinking that statistics are important especially if you’re a player trying to earn more playing time or generate college offers. To an extent this is true. They are important but they don’t want to be the focus or the way we judge our own performances. They assume too much and don’t represent the cog in the machine that we have control over. To me statistics are the taste of your favourite meal whereas processes and tactical wisdom is the recipe that allows you to produce that taste. I am much more interested in knowing whether we executed the recipe correctly because this will go a long way to determining the taste of the meal. In baseball terms I’m more interested in knowing that you took an aggressive mindset at the plate and followed your pre-pitch routine which resulted in hard hit line drives that might have been caught in the outfield than being distracted by what happened in your last at bat, worrying about getting on base safely and therefore you’re not locked in but managing to bloop a couple of safe hits. The former of these scenarios represents process and performance consistency and that drives confidence even if the statistics don’t align.

If we take a statistics only (mostly) frame of mind I believe we get distracted from the essence of baseball (and any other sport to be honest) which is the competitiveness between two opponents. Whether you are the pitcher, batter, fielder or base runner you are engaged in a contest and in order to put our best foot forward in the contest we want to be focused on the present moment, be routine based and active with our processes. Strengthening these three mental skills will help take any baseball player’s performance to the next level.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Baseball Psychology

Being focused in the present moment aligns itself with the approach of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If you look at being consistent in terms of thoughts and emotions we need to observe how a focus on different points in time affect us. Focusing on the past can generate an internal experience of frustration, disappointment and regret whereas focusing on the future can generate an experience of stress, anxiety and excitement. When you put these ingredients into the performance pot what I have found is that it either distracts or causes an individual to rush, not the mindset we want to have. Baseball (like volleyball, golf, cricket, American football and tennis) is a stop-start sport which means that there is a clear distinction of what the present moment is, i.e. this pitch.

This pitch is the only one I can actually do something about from any position on the field. As a pitcher its the only one I have control over throwing, as a hitter its the only one I can look to hit and as a fielder it is the only one I can make a play on. All the pitches that were previously thrown are done and cannot be changed even if we made a mistake or missed an opportunity to have an impact. All future pitches are irrelevant because we have no idea what is going to happen. It’s this pitch (and only this pitch) that I can contribute on and therefore we want to be locked in on ensuring it gets our full attention.

Repeatable Routines Are Key

The way that we can increase that present moment focus is by being routine based. When the play pauses while the ball is thrown back to the pitcher and they reset before going again is a really good opportunity to make sure we lock back in for the next play. I remember a junior coach that I had who would always say that each pitch when you’re in the field you need to expect the ball to be hit to you so you’re ready to make a play. Having a routine can help with this by making sure that we know the game situation, are walking in with the pitch to ensure we are on our toes and are ready to be active if the ball is hit our way.

The same applies at the plate or on the mound where we can go through a routine (think David Ortiz at the plate or Craig Kimbrel on the mound as exaggerated but effective examples of having a routine before every pitch). Irrespective of what has happened the routine is exactly the same and ensures that when they are set and ready to go. The only thing we are focusing on is this moment and the opportunity to contribute. If you are designing your own routine then the thing that is important to keep in mind is that it is very action based because no matter the situation we want to be confident that our routine can hold strong. If it is too mental (e.g. reminder words etc) there’s a chance we lose it to distraction whereas no matter what circumstance we can execute a series of small behaviours to ready ourselves for what’s to come next.

Once we have readied ourselves and have that focused locked in we give ourselves an opportunity to land a punch in this contest. Baseball is made up of split second decisions so being primed for the moment is essential to playing on the front foot proactively rather than being reactive and chasing the moment. I mentioned earlier that each pitch is a chance to contribute and this is absolutely true. I see too often players will have altered intentions based on what’s occurred previously and the most common of these is a tendency to play it conservative when things have not gone their way, e.g. let a ball drop in the field instead of laying out for it, not throwing an off-speed pitch when there’s a runner on third or waiting for the pitch rather than looking to attack it at the plate. In each of these situations we have drastically reduced our chances of showcasing our strengths and skillset and if you are too statistically minded we have also reduced the chances of being successful in that way as well.

Staying True To Our Processes

Staying true to our processes is designed to help us be aggressive and look to command the moment whereas getting caught focusing on something out of the present moment means we lose that command. We begin to play like we have something to lose instead of playing like we have something to win. We play to avoid mistakes instead of creating success. We catch ourselves worrying more about the opinions of others than the pride we have in ourselves.

The strength of our processes ultimately comes down to how we practice. If we are reinforcing our processes and routines in that space then they are likely to show up in a game. Think about throwing a bullpen or taking batting practice and often it’s about volume and repetitions. What you might like to think about is slowing it down and making sure there is a space for your routine which I think can also increase the quality of the work you are putting in. The application of processes in practice also means that we can create a sense of confidence and test ourselves in that forum so that we have trust that in pressure moments the same version of ourselves is going to show up to compete. In other words the pattern of how we practice is the pattern of how we will compete.

A Final Thought …

The final thought I have is that the pace of baseball ultimately means there is a lot of thinking time. The ideas presented in this blog will help ensure that the thinking time actually turns into a bit more doing time and allows you to stay consistent over the course of nine innings and see the best version of yourself showing up to compete.

Psychology For Endurance Sports And Pursuits

What are these endurance athletes thinking about and focus on? There is a lot of psychology to endurance sports such as long distance running.

An Introduction To The Psychology For / Of Endurance Sports

There is something incredibly inspiring about watching runners finish a marathon. The mental toughness required to sustain such a performance despite fatigue over long distances and durations is undeniable. It can be the difference in seconds between elite athletes, or the defining factor in finishing your first ultra. In my eyes, it’s one of the most enchanting things about endurance sports and one of the main factors that motivated me to pursue a career in performance psychology.

Whether your goal is to run 100 miles, chase a sub 3-hour marathon, or finish your first Ironman triathlon, you know you’re going to suffer for a long time. You can expect discomfort and fatigue from pushing yourself, regardless of how physically well-prepared you are. In the context of endurance sports, that’s the point. This is what athletes sign up for, especially if they want to be able the sense of achievement that comes from realising their capability. Relative suffering from maximum effort is the same lived experience for both elite and recreational endurance athletes. One of the unique challenges for all athletes in endurance sports is developing the mindset to be able to suffer ‘better’, and for longer. 

Suffer ‘Better’, And For Longer

Extended feelings of physical exertion and associated discomfort are accompanied by a constant stream of helpful and unhelpful thoughts. Some might make us feel strong and capable in our efforts, others tell us to cut corners or simply give up. Becoming aware of the relationship between your thoughts and feelings and actions is the key to being able to get the most from our training processes and push ourselves on race day.

One of the core frameworks we like to borrow from in our approach to thoughts and feelings is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This framework has recently gained a lot of traction in sport psychology and performance psychology. Unlike many traditional approaches, it is founded upon the idea that our thoughts and feelings do not need to impact our behaviour and therefore do not need to be changed or ‘fixed’. This does not mean that we simply ignore our unhelpful thoughts and discomfort. It’s actually quite the opposite. Observing thoughts for what they are, ‘just thoughts’, can help us to accept them and focus instead on the way we choose to engage with them.

Be Present And Aware

Before we can accept unhelpful thoughts and feelings of discomfort to our performance advantage, we need to become fully aware and familiar with them and the context. It is very difficult to be open to accepting something you are not noticing. Learning to openly observe our thoughts, bodily sensations and surroundings is a great way to stay focussed on the present moment. It also provides a strong foundation for developing effective mental strategies to engage with thoughts and feelings in helpful ways. Here are some strategies for increasing openness to our internal experiences and awareness for external factors in the context and environment.

Checking In

  • Practice noticing sensations in different parts of your body as a type of routine. Check in with the pressure you feel under each foot, engagement of specific muscles with each movement, the feeling of breeze on your skin, and your breathing rhythm. It’s important that you simply notice these sensations and do not overlay any interpretation like ‘I must be tired’.

Checking Out

  • Work through your senses one at a time to focus on the present environment and how you’re interacting with it. Note things you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste, focussing on smaller things you might normally miss. If you listen to music, this can be a great way to engage with it differently.

By Feel

  • Leave your watch at home and experience your own levels of ‘perceived effort’. That is, what you can better observe about your bodily sensations and fatigue when you can not use your pace or heart rate as a cue to expectations like ‘this is an easy pace for me’.

Once Step At A Time

  • One of the most confronting things in a long run or ride is the realisation early on of how far you still have to go. A common strategy used by many athletes is breaking the distance up into smaller sections by what you see around you – trees, traffic lights, lamp posts etc. Notice what these are, their characteristics, their physical relationship to you as you travel toward them.

Train of Thought

  • Just as you notice your physical sensations, observe any thoughts that pop into your mind as occurrences. Note them for interest’s sake as ‘I’m having a thought that…’. There is no need to label them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Notice what you are physically experiencing when they occurred, and when they come and go.

Obviously these experiences will be highly personalised for every athlete. The most important part is not the content, but creating openness and awareness to the experience for exactly what it is in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness in this way can be challenging at first, and these types of strategies are best served alongside clarity for why you’re out on that long run in the first place.

Embrace Your ‘Why’

Consider this apparently paradoxical scenario. Ask anyone who identifies as an elite or recreational runner, if they enjoy running. Almost all will say something like ‘Absolutely, I love running!’. They might even try to recruit you if you’re not already a runner. Follow up with ‘doesn’t it hurt though?’. And almost all will agree. At face value, why would anyone love to participate in an activity that they expect will cause them to suffer? 

Anyone who has ever been for a run can probably relate to realising the above ridiculousness at some point while running – ‘Why on earth do I do this?’. Training for endurance events also requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline. The reason we persist is likely because it represents a core set of values – our ‘Why’.

For some, the ‘Why’ might be the feeling of challenging yourself, feeling of connectedness to the running community or as way to practice gratitude for mental health. There are no correct answers. Values are far more vague than goals – they can never be fully achieved. This is the beauty of them – values persist where goals might expire, and living your values is independent of your performances or race outcomes.

If you are in touch with your values and how you found yourself here, they become easier to draw on when required. When training is tedious, and it feels easier to just hit the snooze button. Acting consistently with our values may not always be enjoyable, but we recognise that it is important, so we follow through. It’s that 4am training session in the rain when ‘no-one is watching’. Being intentional about noticing, documenting and monitoring your values-driven processes can bring a greater sense of enjoyment and commitment to your training. 

You Don’t Have To Stop

From the ACT perspective in endurance sports, why fight unhelpful thoughts and feelings of discomfort if we can expect them and know they are a core component of the sport we love? The personal strength that is associated with conquering discomfort in endurance sports even forms part of the ‘Why’ for many athletes. It’s important to note here, I am referring to discomfort from maximum physical effort and fatigue – like running an interval at threshold, pushing your bike up a steep incline, or those last couple of miles. The approach I recommend for managing these experiences is to be open and accepting when we inevitably meet them, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them.

Putting cognitive effort into trying to change or suppress unhelpful thoughts such as ‘I’ve had enough’, or ‘I don’t think I can do this’ might cause more distress in the situation. It can also distract from putting effort into the essential physical processes that are simply turning the legs over. This can be illustrated in a silly way as, ‘Whatever you do, DO NOT think about an elephant, it will harm your performance’.

Look at this picture and try as hard as you can not to think about elephants.

Of course, an elephant immediately pops into your mind, and trying to remove it dominates our attention. Shifting the focus away from trying to control or change thoughts and feelings creates room for more productive engagement with the situation and growth from living these experiences fully, and in line with our values above.

There are plenty of thoughts we have in a day that we do not act upon. These thoughts occur, and we simply do not do anything about them. Similarly, just because you may think you need to stop running, does not mean you have to if you recognise it as avoiding the discomfort that comes from effort.

In the familiar example above, a feeling of fatigue generates a thought – ‘I need to stop’.  If you’re a new runner, this might hit close to home. When these enter our awareness, we make a choice to act or not. In fact, if you did choose to stop, you have reinforced the very thought-behaviour pattern in question. We want to de-couple this relationship if we are to manage fatigue and continue to perform as close as we can to our physical capability.

For example, there is a subtle but very important difference between ‘I need to stop’ and ‘I’m having a thought that I need to stop’, as per our earlier example. The first is a command to action, the second is just noticing that a thought popped into your mind. This simple exercise in reframing unhelpful thoughts can help us to accept them for what they are – thoughts. When conceptualised this way, it is easier to adopt strategies for dropping them or letting them go along your way – like taking a weight out of a backpack every so often. By practicing accepting thoughts, we leave more room in our mind to trust our training and past commitment to our physical processes.

From a different point of view, this approach might also bring new meaning to infuriating statements from supporters and coaches such as ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other’, ‘You’re really holding your form’ or ‘You look great!’. These comments are about actions – behaviours they can see. You’re acting as if you were an athlete with no feelings of fatigue in that moment. At the end of the day, only actions get us to the finish line. Regardless of feelings of fatigue, discomfort, or any unhelpful thoughts, these comments celebrate the evidence of your ability to persist despite them.

Plan To Show Up

Athletes in any sport are quick to recognise the importance of a physical training plan to prepare for this. In a typical endurance training program, there are a mixture of session types targeting different physical performance aspects – long runs, interval sessions, targeted strength training etc. to build aerobic and anaerobic capacity, improve lactate clearance and Vo2 Max.

The different challenges that a diversity of physical training sessions present is the ideal opportunity to create a foundation for mental training plan to match. Like any training, mental training comes from the deliberate repetition of our actions, processes and routines. Failing to plan our mental training processes is leaving this essential component of endurance to chance. This may be as simple as going for a run with the commitment to practicing a specific mindfulness strategy (like the examples above). Here are some recommendations for both athletes and coaches.

Routines

  • Creating a routine to document your observed experiences against the function or purpose of the session. Use this to reflect on what you might have noticed about the thoughts and sensations that occurred to you under different efforts and conditions. You might use these insights to build visualisations to prepare for difficult periods in a race with sessions of comparable challenge. For example, those designed to simulate the physical experience of fatigue in the latter stages of a race.

Alone Time

  • If you typically complete your long run or ride socially, create opportunities to practice becoming more open and aware of your experience alone. This is especially important if you will be racing alone. 

Mental Flexibility

  • If you are naturally drawn to either monitoring internal states or external awareness, plan sessions to engage deliberately in one or the other throughout. Mental flexibility from engaging with both approaches can be useful at different points in a race, or for different types of endurance events.

Summary

To summarise, endurance sport creates special opportunities for us to realise the great sense of personal strength that comes from conquering discomfort and suffering over an extended period. For many, this experience forms part of our ‘Why’ for engaging in these sports from the start. If we want to be prepared to ‘show up’ fully for this experience – including the discomfort, fatigue – it’s essential we take advantage of training opportunities to rehearse mentally. Thoughts and sensations do not need to interact with the repetitive sequence of actions that’s been the focus of our physical training. Embracing this perspective can bring more enjoyment to the process and the inspiring challenge of endurance.

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

Sport Psychology for Combat Sports

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

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

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

Combat or “Fighting” Sports

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

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

Fighting Sports Can Be Uniquely Challenging

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

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

Fighters, Thoughts, Feelings and Actions

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

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

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

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT)

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

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

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

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

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

Fake It ’Til You Feel It

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

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

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

Shifting Our Focus …

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

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

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

What Constitutes a “Good Fight”

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

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

Give Yourself A Fighting Chance …

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

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

Swimming Psychology

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

Swimming Psychology can be the difference between good and great.

Swimming Psychology 101: Every Millisecond Counts

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

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

Reflections of My Own Swimming Psychology

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

Swimming Psychology and “The Performance Funnel”

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

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

Why Is This So Important For Better Swimming Psychology?

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

Sticking To A Race Plan

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

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

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

What Do Process Driven Race Plans Look like?

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

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

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

Using Visualisation to Practice your Race Plan

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

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

Did You Watch The Movie Cool Runnings?

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

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

In Swimming, You Always Race How You Train

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

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

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

Competence Before Confidence

Canberra based Performance Psychologist Harley de Vos muses about how overstated CONFIDENCE is as a performance predictor in most sports and other performance domains.

What are these race car drivers thinking and feeling? Or does it matter …

“I just need to feel more confident, and I will be able to perform at my best. Can you help me to build confidence?”

This is one of the most common reasons why athletes and performers reach out to us at Condor Performance. This article will seek to debunk some common misconceptions around confidence. It may even help you to be more confident when you are performing!

What Comes To Mind When You Think Of Confidence?

Is it feeling a particular way, assured or trust of yourself and what you are doing? Is it based on what you do when you feel confident, your actions and your behaviours? But what actually is confidence? Confidence is simply the belief in one’s ability to perform a particular behaviour or action. What confidence is not is some magical state that will guarantee you perform at your best. If only!

If we pull back the curtain and examine what is behind the belief that we have in our ability to perform a particular action, we will find competence. Competence is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. Competence is what we develop over time, at training and practice, through hard work and repetition. And in the long run, competence is far more valuable for us from a performance perspective than confidence will ever be. Competence on the most part is permanent, reliable and predicatble. Confidence on the hand can be fleeting and unpredictable.

Consider The Following Scenario

You are an experienced driver (i.e., you’ve been driving for a few years), and you are driving your car on your way to training. In this scenario, your ability to drive the car, to use the brakes and accelerator as you need, to indicate when you are turning, to change gears and so forth is about your competence. In other words, you are a competent driver. And so where does confidence fit into this scenario? You may be feeling confident about your driving ability, but you may not. Perhaps the weather conditions are challenging for driving. Maybe it is dark. Perhaps there is a lot of traffic, or the roads are unfamiliar. Regardless of the circumstances, you don’t need to feel confident in your ability to be able to drive the car in order to drive. And the same is true when it comes to performance. 

What the scenario above demonstrates is that consistent motor execution (i.e., actions) is possible regardless of how you are feeling. We don’t need to feel confident in order to be able to perform. Most athletes and other performers should have experienced this at least once; the “Suprise Performance”. A situation where the performance was excellent despite all sorts of self-doubt. Sometimes our clients describe this as been surprised at their ability to perform so well whilst lacking confidence. As evidence based sport psychologists and performance psychologists this is not surpringing to us in the slightest.

I understand how competence before confidence may be relevant to driving a car, but I don’t see how it will help me to perform better?

As a performance psychologist, part of my approach to working with my sporting and performance clients is to focus on learning to accept our thoughts and feelings whilst still committing to our actions. It is an approach shared by several of my colleagues at Condor Performance, including our founder Gareth J. Mole. With this approach, I focus on using our actions to generate the thoughts and feelings that we want and not the other way around.

If we take the view that we need to feel confident in order to be able to perform, we are relying on our feelings to influence the thoughts and actions that we want to have. The pitfall of this approach is that we are (highly) unlikely to wake up one day suddenly filled with confidence and ready to perform. So, by holding onto the belief that confidence is the key to performance, we are actually likely to undermine our ability to perform in situations when we do not feel confident.

My view is that it is more effective to focus on our actions (i.e., what we are doing) and use these to generate our feelings. So when it comes to confidence, we want to be focusing on actions that help to develop our confidence and let the feeling follow. These actions can include our body language and displaying confidence even if we’re not feeling confident (“Fake It Til You Feel It”) as well as our preparation, and performance routines. By focusing on our actions, what we are doing is focusing on our competence. Focus on actions first, feelings will follow. In other words, competence before confidence.

Not Convinced Yet, Then Read On …

Another reason why focusing on competence before confidence will help you to perform better is that competence can be measured easily and directly, whereas confidence can’t. If we take the driving scenario from above, we can measure our competence as a car driver with a driving test or the number of speeding fines we get. In order to be able to drive a car, we need to get a licence. Passing a driving test is evidence of our competence as a driver not our confidence. But how can we measure our level of confidence at driving? The answer is that we can’t, not objectively anyway. We may feel confident as a driver, and then we find ourselves in a challenging and unusual environment (such as driving at night on unfamiliar roads in the rain) and all of a sudden, our confidence has gone.  

Focusing on our competence, which we can easily and directly measure, helps to guide us at practice. We can focus on developing and refining our skills, and we can measure our progress. This helps us with motivation, motor skill development and execution, and over time this will build deep confidence in our ability.

Ok, I understand why competence before confidence is useful for performance. But the best athletes and performers are so confident? 

One common misconception about elite athletes and performers is that we often overestimate their level of confidence. We assume because of how skilled and experienced they are, how they leave us in awe with what they are capable of doing, that they must feel supreme confidence. But this is far from true. Some performers never feel real confidence. Some performers are so plagued by self-doubt and performance anxieties and insecurities that they cannot feel confident before and when they are performing. Yet they can still produce exceptional performance despite not feeling confident. How are they capable of this? Because they focus on competence before confidence.

So to help feel more confident, focus on developing your toolkit of competencies. Focus on your actions, on developing your skills. By doing this, you will build competence. And with competence, you will feel more confident (maybe)!

Conclusion / Plug

If this article has encouraged you to consider going about your performance from a more psychological point of view then get in touch and be guided by Harley (author) or one of our other psychologists. Even better complete one of the free, online Mental Toughness Questionnaire via this link here and one of the crew will get back to you in less than 48 hours.

A Different Perspective on The Naomi Withdrawal

Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the 2021 French Open for mental health reasons.

What Is The Naomi Withdrawal?

On the off chance that you have been trekking in the Himalayas without Wi-Fi for the past four weeks let me quickly bring you up to speed on what I mean by The Naomi Withdrawal. Naomi Osaka, currently ranked as the second-best female tennis player in the world, decided to pull out of the French Open. Why? The reason was that she originally wanted to take part in the tournament but didn’t want to do the post-match press conferences. The reason she gave is that these press conferences have a negative impact on her mental health. As these media opportunities are compulsory she was told she’d be fined if she boycotted them. So she withdrew from the tournament completely. Here is her actual statement from Instagram account:

Taken from https://www.instagram.com/naomiosaka/

Before getting into the nitty-gritty it’s probably worth mentioning that I cannot remember the last time in which a single story produced so many opinions. Maybe it’s because my LinkedIn feed is full of comments from people who are interested in mental health and/or the mental aspects of sport but it’s been almost wall-to-wall opinions about The Naomi Withdrawal since it took place in late May. Almost all of them have had the same basic message. Well done Naomi for doing what’s best for your mental health. I agree with this part entirely. You should never put your working obligations ahead of your health and wellbeing, however … (I will come back to this ‘however’ later).

I am also professionally thankful for the boost in awareness around mental health in elite sport that both the decision and subsequent commentaries have produced. 

However … 

I can not speak for all sport psychologists, not even the ones who work for Condor Performance but I am trained to see difficult situations as either practice opportunities or ways to improve training (or both).

Let me explain by using a completely different type of mental challenge common in sport. Making big mistakes at crucial moments. This could be a dropped catch in cricket or baseball or missing an open goal in the final moments of a close soccer match. If this happens to an athlete repeatedly then this data can be used as part of a feedback loop.

First of all, it’s a great chance to practice how to respond to such an occurrence. Most people know the best way to respond. Put it behind you, chin up and go again! This is all very well but in my experience only really happens properly after it’s been practised at least a few times. The other ideal frame of mind is to use the errors to either add something new to the practice program or improve some current part of training. In the case of the dropped catches, this can be as simple as doing more catching practice and/or increasing the mental demands of current training.

Mental Health Is Not Fixed

The common theme here is that “the problem” (if we can use that word) is not permanent. It can be solved.

Ms Osaka has been very brave in voicing how she struggles with the media and limelight in general. But I for one would be much more interested in what she is doing about it now. If it’s nothing, implying that there is nothing she can do to become better at this part of professional tennis, she is giving the wrong message about mental health. That it’s fixed and the best way to protect yourself is to avoid mentally challenging situations.

Another part of this commentary I am frustrated about is how the term ‘mental health’ is used almost as if it’s a specific diagnosis. Can we be more specific speak Naomi? You mention depression but which of seven major types are you referring to? When an athlete has to withdraw from an event due to a physical health issue we get specific. ‘John has pulled out due to a torn, left hamstring.‘ What aren’t we doing the same for mental health? Are the huge waves of anxiety mentioned above clinical or what most people experience when in public speaking situations? There are up to 11 different types of anxiety disorder, would it not be more useful to be talking about one of these instead?

Are Press Conferences Really Part Of The Job?

This story actually boils down to if press conferences are genuinely a compulsory part of the job or not. If you believe they are then you might suggest that Naomi has a couple of simple choices moving forward. She can either find a job that doesn’t require speaking to the media (99.99% of jobs don’t) or she’ll need to learn how not to let negative comments impact her mental health. Even if she wanted to keep playing tennis as her job she’d still have these two options. Either only enter tournaments that have no press conferences (there are plenty of these, but the prize money is far less) or she’ll need to learn how not to let negative comments impact her mental health [as much as they do now].

It might be easier to think about this choice away from sports. Imagine a policewoman, for example, who hated witnessing gun violence to the point where it impacted her mental health. She has the same choice, no? Leave or learn. She has to pick between either finding a way to make a living where there is no chance of any guns being involved (99.99% of jobs would meet this criterion) or she’ll have to learn ways in which this “unavoidable part of the job” doesn’t impact her [as much].

Leave or Learn

Those who know me as either a colleague at Condor Performance or as one of my former or current clients will know I have a strong preference for learning rather than leaving.

Due to Naomi’s status (and bank balance), she’d have unlimited options if she wanted to learn how not to let critical comments impact her mental health. To start with, as part of training, she’d benefit from learning some basic thought diffusion techniques. These skills, one of the foundations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, literally allow people to learn how to be more comfortable with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings so that commit instead to their actions. These uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can originate from many sources. For example, being bombarded with difficult questions within an hour of having just played a high-intensity tennis match. Thought diffusion techniques, just like a serve or backhand volley, only really work when they are included as part of the Daily Training Environment (DTE).

Another way to learn in this particular situation would be to arrange for some (lots) of practice press conferences. Imagine the delight of some retired journalists in setting up some mock pressers as part of Naomi’s training regime. You combine these two strategies and it’s just a matter of time for press conferences to just feel like a normal part of the job. In fact, she might even start looking forward to them!

Summary

In summary, good job Naomi on bravely withdrawing from the French Open. But please don’t imply that mental health is fixed and that there is nothing we can do to improve it other than by avoiding the situations that make us feel like ‘a dog that is being kicked whilst it’s down’. 

Performing Under Pressure

“I’m fantastic in training but I fall apart during matches. Can you coach me on how to perform better under pressure?” These are amongst the most common reasons that performers first reach out to us as sport psychologists and performance psychologists. This article provides a few tips on how we help these athletes and non-sporting performers.

Performing Under Pressure is all about psychologically astute preparation.

Below is the definition of the word performance from the Cambridge dictionary:

Introduction

It’s important to start an article entitled ‘Performing under Pressure’ by clarifying the key terms. What do we mean by both performing and pressure?

In some circles, performing is virtually regarded as any action. This can range from really obvious actions (playing a sport) to ones that don’t immediately come to mind such as sex or running a business. For others, the word performance is and should be much more limiting. For them, it would only apply to competitive sports and a few other areas such as the performing arts.

At Condor Performance we sit somewhere between these two extremes. For us performing is essentially just the execution of skills, with the majority of these skills being motor skills. So of course this covers all traditional sports. But would also include the performing arts, military activity, most medical and emergency procedures and even competitive games such as chess and eSports despite the fact that there is less human movement involved in these.

Performing should include both the preparation and competitive sides of the equation. This is important because in many sports the word performing gets mostly used as a synonym for competing. For example, in a post-match press conference, a coach may say that she was happy with the performance. Or that the performance wasn’t quite what they were looking for. The issue with using the term performance as a synonym for on-the-day competitive outcomes is that it forgets about the performance element of preparation. As you’ll see from below it is actually what do you do in preparation that ultimately allows us to perform better under pressure.

In the interest of accuracy and objectivity here is the Cambridge Dictionary definition of the word performance. In summary, “how well a person, machine, etc. does a piece of work or an activity”.

So What About This Thing Called Pressure?

In my work as a sport psychologist, I often simplify and separate everything into thoughts feelings and actions. Those who are familiar with my particular style will know that I am a big believer in predominantly learning to accept thoughts and feelings whilst still committing to our actions. When breaking down the human experience like this it can be useful to try and consider if pressure is more of an emotion or a thought or a combination.

For most performers, it will be a combination of thoughts and feelings. Consider the typical signs of experiencing extreme pressure. In terms of emotions tensing up, tightening of the muscles and nerves might be common. The thoughts that typically present themselves when pressure is experienced are often predictive and negative. For example, cognitions such as “what if I mess up today” or “I just know I am going to play badly”.

Arguably the most important starting point when it comes to helping performers to be more consistent under pressure is for them to learn unequivocally that pressure is neither good nor bad. All too often athletes and non-sporting performers will regard pressure as negative. They frame it as something that will get in the way of them performing at their best. Interestingly there’s actually a small percentage who believe the exact opposite! This minority hold the view that they need some pressure to produce the goods!

The Pressure Is Real, Just Accept It

The mindset that we are looking to help our clients develop is one whereby pressure is just pressure. It’s neither good nor bad. It can be useful for you to consider the variations in pressure as similar to other variables. Such as the weather or the colour of the opposition’s kit (shirts). These are just natural variations common in sport. It’s unhelpful to think of warmer days as being good and cooler days as being bad for example. The same applies to pressure vs. no pressure.

The most effective way of learning to perform better under pressure is by learning to accept the thoughts and feelings rather than get into a fight with them. There are multiple ways of doing this but some of the most useful would be via these five mindfulness apps which have been approved by psychologists. 

Once the process of learning to observe thoughts and emotions is underway we can move onto the next stage. That is, learning they needn’t have any impact on your desired actions. In other words, the goal is to learn to execute your skills irrespective of the thoughts and emotions you may be experiencing at the time.

This is easier said than done of course. Often experiences of pressure are much less common in training. This reduces the opportunities whereby we can prove to ourselves that we can kick a rugby ball or smash a backhand down the line even under extreme pressure.

Mentally Harder Practice

Mentally harder practice addresses this issue most of the time. MHP attempts to replicate pressure-related feelings and thoughts in training situations. The logic behind this is sound. Doing MHP in training will make it much easier to ride the pressure wave when it happens organically in competitive situations. 

A nice analogy for mentally harder practice is lifting weights. If you want to be able to flip a truck tire over a dozen times (thinking about CrossFit clients now in particular) then you’re gonna need to slowly increase your muscle strength in practice. The same logic applies to performing under pressure using mentally harder practice. You need to be able to slowly increase the mental demands of certain aspects of your training so when they occur in competitive situations that they are not so different from the training challenges you set up. 

The weight training analogy is so useful because it quickly allows you to see the risks of overdoing it. So if you make your training psychologically too difficult, it will have the opposite effect and potentially cause some kind of psychological injury. By psychological injuries, we could be referring to genuine mental health impacts such as a trigger for depression or anxiety.

Conclusion

As we have very little influence over who stumbles across our blog posts then we would urge anybody who feels they might want to lower the risk of overdoing mentally harder practice to get in touch and be guided by one of our highly qualified and experienced sport psychologists or performance psychologists. The best way to get in touch is by completing one of the free, online Mental Toughness Questionnaire via this link here and one of the crew will get back to you in less than 48 hours.

Exercise Psychology

This article by psychologist James Kneller is about “Exercise Psychology”. This topic is related to both the mental health benefits of human movement but also the psychology of getting started.

Exercise psychology is related to the mental health gains of physical activity

Before I began working with Condor Performance in 2019 as a performance psychologist (and soon to earn the title of sport psychologist) I was working with a mixture of athletes and the general public. This work leant towards traditional mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and life stressors. In a traditional psychology setting, I am often asked what the best thing to do is to help with these sorts of issues. My answer, after the colloquial “laughter is the best medicine”, is always exercise. 

I take clients through what I call the basic five things to be taking control of to give them the best opportunity for optimal mental health.

These five areas are: 

  • Diet – an appropriate and relatively healthy diet provides the nutrients and energy to deal with daily requirements 
  • Water – adequate hydration of our bodies is vital for both physical and mental health. As I tell my clients our brains transmit their signals through electrical currents, these move more effectively through water than air
  • Appropriate use of drugs – this means taking any medications or supplements required in the way that they were designed and instructed to do along with limiting or avoiding potentially harmful substances such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal substances
  • Sleep – good sleep is a very close 2nd to my top answer of exercise. In sleep, the body, and particularly the brain is restored, cleaned, and reset to face the next day
  • Exercise – our bodies are designed to move and when we deny them this, they tend to crumble a little including our brains. Modern-day exercise psychology is all about not letting this happen.

Exercise Psychology Basics

It is well known that exercise has numerous physical benefits. For example, physical activity is known to reduce the risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. It has also been shown to reduce the likelihood or onset of neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have had a stroke recover faster. It also improves or maintains muscle mass and bone strength. Exercise is a key component in maintaining or losing weight which leads to a longer life expectancy and likely higher quality of that longer life. 

What is sometimes overlooked is the value of exercise to the brain directly, and to mood and wellbeing associated with this. Studies of the impact of exercise on the brain have found that it improves blood circulation in the brain which helps clarity of thought. It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily responsible for memory. It also improves the connections within nerve cells in the brain improving function and protecting against disease. 

When we exercise the brain releases feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. Many of us have heard of “runners’ high” which is this process, but the benefits are not only felt by those who run great distances. Just getting a sweat up will help the brain produce and release more of these chemicals.

The Right Amount of Exercise

When recommendations are made for how much exercise we should be getting it is just 30 minutes per day for five days a week. This does not need to be gut-busting. It does not have to come in one block of 30 minutes and can be broken down into two or three sessions of 10-15 minutes each. 

I mentioned earlier that enough good quality sleep is my 2nd best action for better mental health, and another benefit of exercise is the strong link between increased exercise and improved quality of sleep. The actions of getting a sweat up through the day help the body feel tired and allow it to more effectively regulate itself to have a sleep period and an active period through the day rather than being confused over which is supposed to be the active one. 

One of the most frustrating things that often happens when clients struggle with depression (for example) is that it can rob them of motivation and our belief that they can achieve anything in life. Regular exercise decreases stress hormones which has a beneficial impact on dealing with life stressors and anxiety. When they begin doing some exercise, even one session a week, they begin to develop a sense of achievement and they begin to break the inertia hold of being sedentary. 

I hear clients say they are waiting for some motivation to hit them, but motivation needs to be created it does not just arrive. But like a snowball, once they take one step and do one session it makes the next easier to achieve and so on. As they continue, they can see the benefits for themselves. They might start receiving comments from friends or family on their progress and their self-esteem rises. For some it is the thrill of looser clothing or making it all the way around the block without stopping. The goals do not need to be massive, and neither do the results. The sense of empowerment for a client to see that they can take some charge over their life can be truly life-changing. 

A Pathway To Social Connections

Exercise can be done in isolation, and with the world currently dealing with pandemics and lockdowns this is both relevant and necessary, but it can also provide a pathway to social connections. This is another important component of strong mental health. Whether walking at the local park and simply seeing others doing the same, or joining a community such as weekly park runs, or getting involved with a team sport. When we exercise with others we can get, and provide, motivation and encouragement from them to simply show up when we are not feeling like it. Teams allow us to work on social skills and leadership skills that are transferable to all aspects of life. 

While exercise psychology is not a focus of Condor Performance, and we would expect our clients are already doing much more than the minimum recommendations each week, many of the skills we work on with clients are transferrable. Planning and setting appropriate structured and incremental goals with clients gives the greatest chance of achieving an end goal or dream. Assisting them to find their motivation and focus assists them to break the inertia of stillness. The accountability of someone who is checking in with them regularly and the support through setbacks allows them to know they are not alone. 

In writing this we would hope that even if it does not apply to you, it is something that you might be able to use to start a discussion with family or friends that you have seen struggling with their mental health and point them in the direction of a local psychologist to assist with getting them back in better mental, and physical, shape. 

Sport Psychology Myths

Some of the most common myths about sport psychology and mental toughness are debunked by leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Sport Psychology Myths potentially outnumber the facts due in part to a lack of consensus and unity from the custodians of the profession until this point.

Sport Psychology Myths – Where To Start?

I am sure all professionals feel like this to some degree. That their working world is full of myths and half-truths. But due to the nature of the work we do and how relatively new our profession is I believe sport psychology is surely up there when it comes to a number of misconceptions. Below are some of our favourites – in no particular order. I use the word favourite due to both a combination of how often we come across them and the potential benefits of debunking them.

Myth 1: Sport Psychology Is Like Counselling, Therapy

This is a classic half-truth in that it is literally half correct. Some elements of the work we do have similarities to the work of counsellors, therapists or clinical psychologists. For example, the confidential nature of the relationship and we can help with mental health issues. But the other half of the process is much more likely to resemble a coach. For this part of the process, we’re more likely to be talking about goals and how to achieve them.

Obviously, some performance psychologists will tend to be more like a therapist whilst others will lean more towards the coaching approach. This is one of the biggest advantages enjoyed by our clients. With such a strong and varied team of psychologists, we can literally allow our clients to tell us what they’re looking for. And with very few exceptions, we can ensure their psychologists has these preferences. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 2: The ‘Natural Talent’ Myth

This is a humdinger of a myth. The notion that we are born to be potentially excellent at something regardless of the amount of effort we put in. In my view, people confuse what they regard as “natural talent” for biological and genetic variation.

The classic example is when young athletes hit puberty and some of them suddenly become taller and heavier than their peers. Although there is no doubt these growth spurts play a role in influencing the outcomes of sporting contests, they should not (yet often are) be regarded as natural talent as there is nothing talented about your genetic makeup.

In fact, I try to get my sporting clients to stop using the word “talent” altogether. Quite simply there are performance variables that are either controllable, influenceable or uninfluenceable. What you inherited from your parents falls into the last of these three categories. Simply put you cannot influence your genetics, and therefore they should occupy as little of your attention as possible. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 3: The ‘Best Time to Start is’ Myth

Mondays, or the 1st of the month or the old favourite January! Don’t get me wrong, in much of the work we do we use time as reminders. For example, using Sunday night as a cue to plan the next seven day. However, these time point myths are often used as an excuse to delay effort.

We know this first hand by the number of enquiries we get for our Sport Psychology services based on the time of year. We still get about the same number of enquiries in December compared with any other month. However, unlike other months most people who decide to start working with one of our sport and performance psychologists delay it until January.

This is despite the fact that we continue to be available to our current and future clients right through the Christmas and New Year period. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

The best time to do/start something that is going to benefit you is now, today – no exceptions.

Myth 4: The ‘Thoughts Can Be Controlled’ Myth

As current and past Condor Performance clients will know we’re often encouraging our clients to consider the amount of control or influence they have on different aspects of their performance. Just over 10 years ago, when clients of ours added ‘thoughts’ to the controllable column we didn’t challenge it. But recent research suggests that although we can influence our thoughts we can never control (guarantee) them. This is not to suggest that traditional thought improvement strategies (such as reframing) are a waste of time. It suggests that thoughts (as opposed to actions) should not be relied on as an essential ingredient of your performance plans.

A classic example of this is the work we do around Pre Performance Routines in start-stop sports. In the old days, we constructed short routines with both actions (put on my glove) with thoughts (“focus on just this shot”). But in recent times we have removed the thought component so our clients’ routines are now all actions based. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 5: The ‘You Have To Feel A Certain Way To Perform Well’ Myth

Same as the above basically. In fact, as humans, we have even less influence over our emotions than our thoughts. Consider extreme emotions like grief. Sure, there are a number of things that you might be able to do to lessen experiences of grief if you lost a loved one. But these kinds of interventions are only going to make a small difference. Those that imply you can control your emotions (an unfortunate number) or suggesting that you can actually make the grief go away entirely through your own volition. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 6: That ‘sport psychologists’ are similar to ‘mental skills coaches’

Possibly in terms of ability, this might occasionally be true. However, in terms of formal training and regulation, they couldn’t be further apart. Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologist (in Australia at least) are all registered psychologists. So what? This link does a better job than I ever could at explaining the benefits of choosing to work with a highly qualified and regulated professional. And this article from The Age highlights a possible ‘worst-case scenario’ of allowing unqualified individuals to “work on” the emotions of athletes. If the link doesn’t work it’s because the article has been removed but the basic details should now be permanently available via Wikipedia here. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 7: That a ‘sport psychologist’ only work with athletes

Not true. We have been operating for long enough now and have tracked enough data to be able to answer this categorically. Yes, the majority of our monthly clients are still athletes (70%). But the rest are a multitude of different kinds of performers. From politicians to dancers to students to emergency workers. One of the most significant group of non-athletes we work with a sporting coach. A lot more detail about this kind of work can be provided in this separate blog post and this one. It is my hope and belief that as time passes, a greater percentage of our work will be with coaches. Helping mentally astute coaches become even better they working with someone genuinely qualified in this area. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 8: The ‘Face To Face Session Are More Effective’ Myth

At Condor Performance we have been delivering sessions via video conference technology well before the Corona Virus hit us. Furthermore, we measure client satisfaction and can say with empirical confidence that there is no difference between “face-to-face” and “telehealth” sessions. In fact, according to our numbers, the clients who have all sessions via video conference do slightly better in terms of mental health and mental toughness outcomes. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 9: The ‘Experience Is Everything’ Myth

This sport psychology myth is the easiest to believe or understand. But it’s still wrong. The issue with the concept of experience is that it assumes the superior number of hours was done in the right way. It also assumed that the performer has the ability to learn from mistakes. As both of these assumptions are rare (in my experience) then in actual fact experience is overrated at best and quote often detrimental. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

If you’d like to bust some more sport psychology myths have a listen to the answers to our FAQs here. Do you know of any other common sport psychology myths that are not covered above? If you do please add them to the comments sections below and we’ll then add them when we update this blog. If you disagree with any of these sport psychology myths please present your argument in the comments below.