Sport Psychologists – Applied and International Since 2005
Category: Mental Toughness Digest
The Mental Toughness Digest is a weekly email sent by the sport and performance psychologists from Condor Performance. It’s our way of staying in touch with the thousands of people who have contacted us since it all started in 2005.
The Digest doesn’t pretend to be a source of scientific facts that might be found in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, it aims to promote thoughts and discussions about the important role that psychology plays in sport and performance.
My children are now at the age now where they have started asking ‘proper questions’. For example, ‘Daddy, what do you do for work?’ and ‘who will mow the lawn if you die? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others of course. Both the answers to these questions and the questions themselves come under the topic of ‘sport psychology basics’. Why both? For all questions and all answers are a part of psychology.
There are three fundamental questions that arguably once answered can summarise any profession. Why do you choose to do what you do? Who do you work with? What do you actually do with them?
Sport Psychology Basics ~ Why Do You Choose To Do What You Do?
Firstly I appreciate that many people don’t actually choose to do the work that they do. I’m thinking about the single parent who takes on a second job packing shelves to make ends meet. But certainly I choose to do the work that I do. My experience and training would now allow me to pick from a considerable number of jobs. And it is not uncommon for me to be contacted by recruitment agencies asking if I would be interested in work related to sport psychology.
So what is it about my role at Condor Performance that means that I don’t even take a look at the details of these kinds of offer? One of the biggest reasons is that it feels like one of my children in some ways. I started Condor Performance in 2005 and I’ve seen it grow from a newborn to a young adult. Saying goodbye to Condor Performance and leaving it entirely in the responsibility of others would be like saying goodbye to one of my kids. I know I’m gonna have to do that some day but not yet, not yet.
The Second Reason …
The second reason why I continue to choose my work at Condor Performance over other jobs is that I still love the vast majority of my working time. This is not to be underestimated. After 15 years of doing more or less the same kind of work on a weekly basis it would be understandable if I no longer enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because of how important I know the fun factor to be. I always ensure that the work that I am doing a Condor Performance is highly motivating. Writing this blog post and the vast majority that are published through the Mental Toughness Digest might not be many sport psychologist’s cup of tea. But I love it. Writing really lends it self to my strengths. I have unlimited ideas and passion when it comes to sport psychology. From sports psychology basics to the most complicated aspects of the profession.
Work Life Balance
It also helps me tremendously with the all important work life balance. I can tap away – as I’m doing now – at any time of day or night. This flexibility is key when you have bitten off more than you can chew. Furthermore it acts as practice for one of our most exciting future projects. A number of sport specific mental toughness training guides are in the pipelines most of which will have a written version initially. Through the process of repetition my confidence in my writing ability is now pretty high. After all, practice makes permanent.
Sport Psychology Basics – Who Do You Work With?
When answering this question it might be better for me to answer on behalf of the entire Condor Performance team. For I myself now work with only a very small percentage of our overall clients. Still to this day the majority of our one-on-one clients are athletes. This should come as no surprise when the first word of the profession is the word ‘sport’. Non-sporting performers, sporting coaches and sporting officials make up the rest. By non-sporting performers I’m referring to students, medical personnel, those in the military for example. These non-sporting performers have correctly worked out that the mental skills required by an elite athlete to perform consistently at the top are very much the same as would help them in their profession. What is a little bit disappointing is the ratios of these three groups has not changed much for the last 10 years.
I was convinced that the percentage of sporting coaches we work with would eventually overtake the number of athletes. One of the main reasons for this hypothesis is some of the actual work we do a sporting coaches. I’ve heard comments such as ‘this is the missing piece of the puzzle’ and ‘you’re going to be inundated by requests from sporting coaches when they work out what you guys really do.’
What Could We Be Doing?
I have pondered from time to time what we as a group could be doing to help with this. The peculiar nature of sports coaching is that sometimes the better we do the less likely he or she is to recommend us to other coaches. Why? Why give one of your potential opponents a leg up unnecessarily? If one then really wanted to point the finger about why this is not happening you would need to look at those in charge of the profession.
From time to time, certainly in Australia, due to us having eleven sport and performance psychologists we are confused with a professional body. But we are not. We are just a growing private practice. Our primary intentions are to look after the interests of our staff. If we help the overall reputation of sport psychology at the same time this is great – but it’s not our main focus.
I am a proud member of AAPi. But they represent all psychologists and therefore are not well-placed to communicate some of the nuances of sport psychology to public. Another professional body for psychologists in Australia – which I will not mention as I don’t want to help with their search engine optimisation – is run by clinical psychologists for clinical psychologist but pretends to be otherwise.
Back To Who We Work With
In terms of the athletes that we work with individual sports still dominate over team sports. In other words we are more likely to be contacted by a golfer than a water polo player. The range in ages and professional level is truly vast. We work with 8 year olds through to 80 year olds. We work with top 10 rank players in the world right through to the definitive amateur who just wants to improve how he does at his club’s annual tournament. The ratio of working with male athletes versus female athletes is fairly even. This despite the fact that we have eight male psychologists and only three female psychologists on the team. And we are very proud to have recently started working with our first gender non-binary athlete as well.
Sport Psychology Basics – What Do You Do With Them?
Again I am answering this question on behalf of the team rather than just myself. Despite the fact that our methodology has evolved over the past 15 years there are still some very common core ingredients. I have listed these below in bullet point form and I invite you to consider the benefits if you were guided by a professional in adopting all or some of them. If you think you would be then get in touch and request info about our 1-on-1 sport psychology services.
1. Focus on the process (effort) and let the outcome take care of itself
2. Reduce attention to the factors you have little influence on (such as the past)
3. Avoid only working on your weaknesses. Improve your strengths as well
4. Don’t underestimate the impact that overall mental health can have on performance
5. The number of ways to improve is unlimited, but the time you have to improve is very limited
6. Fake It Til You Feel It
7. Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it
Perfectionism in Sport is a short article by leading sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole about the pros and cons of sporting perfectionism
Perfectionism in Sport
The first thing to mention is somewhat of a confession. Depending on which definition of perfectionism you use I certainly classify as one. At least some of the time and in certain situations. I crave order and excellence like a sugar addict craves chocolates and iced donuts.
The second mentionable is that perfectionism is very common in sport. In fact I would say it is relatively unusual for elite athletes and coaches not to have at least some perfectionistic qualities. Regarding perfectionism as something good or something bad is unhelpful. It’s more beneficial to consider it a personality type. In the same way some people are extroverts whilst others are introverts some are perfectionists and others are not.
As a sport psychologist who doesn’t use personality assessments and theories at all then the fact that I consider perfectionism to be a personality type is more of an observation that anything else.
This is a very interesting definition for me as correct and perfect are only partial related. In sport, for example, having the correct technique is very attainable. Apart of beginners most athletes will have the correct technique early in their development. But perfect technique? Not that’s a whole different story. Is there even such a thing?
More Than Just Semantics
It can be tempting to get into a semantic tug-of-war with the word perfect and all of its iterations. Logically the concepts of perfect and perfectionism are completely flawed. If perfect suggests no more improvements can be made and all things can be improved (even if outstanding already) this renders the concept of perfect impossible and therefore obsolete. As some former and current clients of mine will know I have sometimes likened perfect to the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. In other words you can try as hard as you want to look for it but you ain’t gonna find anything resembling a giant serpent at the bottom of that or any other lake.
Let’s talk about why it is so common for self-classified perfectionists to contact us for help. The main reason is that a constant search for the perfect round of golf, tennis match, lap, bout, routine, throw (etc.) is emotionally exhausting. This is why I love my Loch Ness Monster analogy so much. Imagining spending half your life looking for it, believing it exists but in fact it’s a myth.
Yet many of these perfectionists are already outstanding performers in their sport or performance area. So it can’t be all bad, right?
So I will tell you what I tell them. We want to be much more precise about where to focus this quest for better, for correct, for perfect. In other words we are really looking to keep some of the elements of perfectionism and remove the toxic aspects of it. Perfectionism in sport, or any other areas, is a mix of the Dark Side and Jedi super powers.
Three Parts To Performance
One of the easiest and most effective ways of doing this is to consider the three major components of performance. A reminder about what these are in case you’re a new subscriber to the Mental Toughness Digest.
Outcomes / Results – which are only somewhat influenceable
Examples: winning, medals, ranking, prize money, qualifying, team selection, personal bests
[Key] Performance Indicators – which are often more influenceable than the above
Examples: greens in regulation, batting averages, clean sheets, goals scores, passes completion ratios and so many more
Processes or Intentions or Effort – which are highly influenceable
Examples: walking, stretching, reading, memorising, visualising, simulating and millions of others
As one of our recent articles suggested too much emphasis on outcomes such as winning is a very bad idea. Why? Because we only have some influence on our results. And too much time obsessing over them is time that could have been spend better elsewhere.
In other words being a results-perfectionist is mental sabotage. If you are reading this and you feel like you are a perfectionist then ask yourself this confronting question. Am I a result-perfectionist? Are you only happy when your results are better than they were in the past? Is the quickest way to upset you simply to witness you during a form slump? As they sing in the stands of the football grounds arounds England. “You only sing when you’re winning, sing when you’re winning”.
How about performance indicators? Just to clarify in sport these will often be things such as the statistics associated with bigger picture results. In cricket and baseball these might include batting statistics for example.
Generally speaking a batter has a lot more influence over their own batting average compared with if their team wins the tournament or not. So typically these performance indicators are smaller results that we have more influence over but they are still results. Typically athletes and coaches exaggerate the amount of influence they have on these smaller results. And in doing so this causes a whole draft of mental challenges.
Last But Not Least …
So last but not least we have good old effort. What does that look like? Effort can normally be broken down into the quantity and quality of actions. For example putting aside 60 minutes a week to do some Really Simple Mindfulness. Or ensuring that active recovery is always done after a match are good examples of effort. If you separate effort from any possible benefits that may take place – which is highly recommended – then you can focus on making sure that the right quantity and quality is happening week in week out.
It is this third and final aspect of perfectionism that can be worth holding onto. And in fact it is this aspect that would allow me to admit that I myself am a part time perfectionist. I am always striving for the perfect week. The perfect balance between life and work. The prefect ratios of how I spend my working time. The perfect way to handle unexpected disruptions to my day.
And because I am detaching these processes from outcomes I often succeed. The way that I manage my time is so effective that it is quite normal for me to plan a day down to the minute and for the day to pan out exactly like that. But if I were obsessing about the much less influenceable outcomes of this effort I’d be in a world of mental pain.
Accept and Act Principal
Some of you may be thinking how do I respond when my best laid plans get disrupted? I’ll admit I experience frustration. But I try very hard to practice what I preach. I use the Accept and Act Principal. What’s that I hear you say? I accept the natural emotions that come with the disruption and I choose to focus on my actions instead. There will be much more on this in the future so watch this space.
If you’d like a hand with any of this, or anything for that matter, get in touch.
‘Win At All Cost’ is a blog post by one of Condor Performance’s team of sport psychologists on the perils of being outcome obsessed.
The ‘Win At All Cost’ Mindset
I am pretty sure there are many athletes and coaches out there who still believe that having a “Win At All Cost” mindset is something to be admired and developed. For those who understand the downside of an obsession about winning (outcomes) it is far less appealing of course. The irony is that very few of world’s best try to literally win at all cost. It was their obsession about effort and their training processes that got them to the top. We are much less likely to hear about the athletes, coaches and performers who had / have a Win At All Cost way of thinking. Why not? Most of them crumble under the weight of frustration and pressure well before the become newsworthy.
For many years when I thought about a celebrity who personified the ugly side of Win At All Cost it was Lance Armstrong. So obsessed with winning that he that he was willing to use systematic doping and he allegedly bribed UCI to cover up a positive doping test.
The 2020 US Presidential Elections
But the recent events in the USA elections suggest there is another “poster boy” to trying to Win At All Cost. Disclaimer; the sport psychologists and performance psychologists from Condor Performance are apolitical professionally. What does this mean? It means that in our work we stay as far away from politics as possible. This includes both actual politics (that of governments) and the politics of sport. The latter is the behind the scenes “stuff” that goes on between sporting decisions makers. Most of the work we do in this area if around helping our clients deal with the “fallout” from this “stuff”. Politics in sport is a massive natural mental test, just like real politics.
One of the easiest ways to gain insight into someone’s character is to see how they handle not winning. (I say not winning rather than losing as for me coming second doesn’t feel like losing but of course is not winning either).
In recent weeks the 45th president of the Unites States became the first president to lose an election and not concede coming second (aka defeat) right away. Why not? Because his obsession with winning blinds him to about the right thing to do. Let me repeat myself. One of the easiest ways to see someone’s real character is to see how they handle not winning.
More than half of the sport psychology consulting we do is with young athletes. Some of them are very successful when we start working with them. Some of them have never lost. So I always have a slight smile on my face when they first taste defeat. Why? So we can help them learn to be a gracious non-winning. Not winning is part of sport and life and the true greats are good at both.
It’s Fine To Want To Win But …
There is nothing wrong at all about wanting to win. In fact, there is little wrong with always wanting to win. But there is when it comes a the cost (detriment) to others and yourself. So it’s really the ‘At ALL Cost’ aspect of trying to Win At All Cost that is the major issue. All cost, think about it. Is the amount you have to spend greater than what you can get back? What is the cost to your mental health, your relationships?
At Condor Performance, via our model Metuf, we encourage those we work with to push this obsession with winning towards their preparation, their processes. Why? For a start we have much greater influence on our processes compared with outcomes. But another whopper of a reason is this. The people closest to you, the most important ones, will judge you on what you do not what you win (achieve).
I for one am glad the the whole world has witnesses the ugly side of having a Win At All Cost mindset via the US political system these past few weeks. Let’s hope we can all take some lessons from these recent events into our everyday lives. How do you handle not winning? How invested are you in your weekly effort and processes?
As always, you if feel like you’d benefit from a professional helping hand then get in touch. You can either complete the Contact Us form here or just send an email to email@example.com. We will try to respond in less than 48 hours.
Too Many Chefs (Coaches) is an article by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole on the perils of having too many advice givers.
Too Many Chefs In the Sporting Kitchen!
In my work I don’t actively seek any controversy. However as other trailblazers will be aware when you push the envelope regarding the work you do it comes with a certain amount of contention.
Once such area which I have always believed in but have really written about is this one. The topic of too many athletes having too many coaches. I use the word “coach” as the label to describe any official helper or advice giver. So although your grandfather would not count as a coach if chatting to you about some recent performances over a family dinner. He certainly would if he followed you down to the bowling alley twice a month and started giving you tips.
Let me start with the end in mind and work my way backwards. For team sport athletes I feel the ideal number of official coaches should be one. For those participating in individual sports the ideal number long terms is zero!
Let me explain …
The school system has it more or less correct. Teachers are generally aware of the fact that they have a limited amount of time to do their job. So although a maths teacher might be very proud of his or her contribution to someone who goes on to be a world-renowned engineer the maths teacher would not be involved past a certain point. This should be the same for developmental sporting coaches. But unfortunately it doesn’t happen that way very often.
In sport the more successful an athlete becomes the more coaches they tend to attract. Many of these coaches will be well intended but problematic nonetheless. The primary issue with having five or six official advice givers (which is common nowadays) is that much of their suggestions will be contradictory. This puts the athlete into a real predicament because he or she probably wants to trust all of them. But they soon find out this is not possible as different suggestions clash. I could write an entire book on one of the reasons why the advice tends to be so contradictory. But suffice to say it’s because sports coaching is still mainly based on guesswork. If you ask most coaches why they’d doing something the most common answer is this. “That’s what my coach used to do”.
There is also a real issue with role clarity. Which area of the “performance plane” each coach is supposed to be giving advice about is not obvious. In other words you get technical coaches giving psychological and tactical advice. You have physical coaches giving mental health and well-being advice.
What’s The Solution To Too Many Chefs / Coaches?
The answer is very different depending on if you play a team sport or an individual sport. For team sports there is no getting away from the fact that there needs to be a head coach. Ideally the head coach becomes the go-between for the players and all the other experts involved. In other words you may have a technical coach who is observing the players from a technical standpoint (biomechanics). But to ensure that any messaging around biomechanics does not accidentally get in the way of the bigger picture that message needs to come from one person – the head coach.
The same would apply to a sport psychologist working with a sporting team. Having a sport psychologist deliver mental skills training without the head coach being involved is absurd. Sport psychologists sometimes get into a huff when they hear this for fear of breaches in confidentiality. Or they feel the head coach is not been qualified to deliver the mental skills. All these potential issues can be nullified by proper communication and agreements before the start of the contract.
This head coach can still work tremendously hard to make him or herself irrelevant on match day but ultimately the nature of team sports will still require them to be there before, during and after the match.
Coachless Individuals Athletes
This is not the case with individual athletes such as tennis players, golfers, surfers and boxers etc. These sports do not require a coach to be there during competition.
If you don’t have to have something at this important time, why would you want it? Central to sporting mental toughness is a low reliance on factors that we have little or no influence on. Other people, even the most reliable and well intended, are are partially influenceable. What does this mean? It means that athletes who depend on “certain” things or people are risking it from a psychological point of view. Why? Because you can’t guarantee these things or people will be there when you want them to be.
This philosophy, in part, explains why our team or sport psychologists and performance psychologists spend very little time with our clients whilst they are competing. Don’t get me wrong if a client insists on having a session the night before a competition we will certainly oblige. But we are trained to assist our clients improve in such a way that they would not feel like they needed such a session.
Too Many Coaches
From a systems point of you I’m not sure what the answer to that too many coaches dilemma is. What I do know is this. If you are a developmental aged elite athlete (13 – 17) and you have already had close to 10 official coaches then the system has failed you. Unless of course in the unlikely event that all of those coaches are singing from the same song book. And they are unbelievably good at communicating between one another. Until that happens then less is more when it comes to the number of coaches and formal advice giver as you have.
We would like to hear from readers via the comments section below about stories on this topic. Did you have too many coaches? How did it impact you? Can you give examples of when well intended advice was contradictory? To safeguard your identity feel free to add your comment using a false name.
Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.
“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”
Okay, I’ll admit it. We’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.
In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt it. Instead we simply asked a series of questions at the start of their sport psychology journey.
But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business . So over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.
Measuring Mental Toughness Will Always Be An Estimation
Fact: there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.
The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.
With The Luxury Of Time …
With the luxury of time the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client and/or via direct observation. Observing athletes or performers in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions. Then image having of video footage of the outburst to use in session.
But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.
“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.
The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness; Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus are all subcomponents of MT. This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.
Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!
I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires have become misleading. Why? Well they they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).
Four Free Mental Toughness Questionnaires
The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.
Below is a 16 minute video on what has become known as The Aeroplane Analogy. It basically explains how mental toughness and mental health fit into the overall performance picture. And below that a full transcription of the video in case you’d rather read than watch (or do both). Enjoy and as always please share and comment.
Greetings, everybody. I hope you’re well. My name is Gareth Mole. I’m one of the senior sport and performance psychologists that has the great pleasure to work for Condor Performance. We’re an Australian-based group of sport and performance psychologists that have been providing mental toughness training services since 2005. My colleagues and I at Condor Performance are the creators and the custodians of Metuf. Metuf has been designed to solve one of the most common problems in competitive sport, and that is that everybody seems to be aware of the importance of the mental side. Yet, at the same time, there is a tremendous lack of understanding in terms of how to improve it. So Metuf is the answer to that dilemma.
In order for me to explain how mental toughness fits into the bigger picture as part of this very brief introductory video, I’m going to use an analogy that the competitive athlete is a little bit like a four-engined airplane, similar to the one that has just flown onto your screen. So there’s a couple of things to mention before I actually take you through what each part of the airplane represents. So the first thing to mention is that the mindset of those that actually work on airplanes, so for example, aeronautical engineers, is a mindset that we believe would be incredibly valuable if adopted by competitive athletes and coaches.
The mindset that they have is one whereby they do not wait for something to go wrong before they attend to it. They are constantly checking in on the state of all different aspects of their aircraft. The likelihood that something goes wrong is a lot, lot lower because they are constantly doing checks and maintenance. This is a mindset that would be incredibly valuable if you are a competitive athlete or a competitive sporting coach. Unfortunately, the default is for something to only get a significant amount of attention when something goes wrong.
The second reason why this analogy is so helpful is because as you can imagine, there is no point in having four engines that are in fantastic condition if they’re attached to an aircraft that is falling into disrepair. I’m going to come back to that second part of the analogy after I’ve taken you through all the different aspects of the airplane. Okay. So let’s start by giving you some clues. So engine one is PC. Engine two is TC. The main body of the aircraft is MB and WB. The third engine is MT, and the fourth engine is TW. If you like, pause the video and have a little bit of a go at trying to work out what each of these five different aspects of the airplane is referring to.
Okay, so let’s go through the answers. Let’s see how you end. So PC refers to physical capabilities, and one way you could break down the physical aspects of your sport is to think about it in terms of speed, fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance. TC refers to technical consistency, and technical consistency is basically where we would consider all the different skills that are applicable for your sport. Of course, because this Metuf program is designed for all coaches and all athletes of all sports, then I’m simply going to refer to them here as skill A, skill B, skill C, and skill D, for example.
But to give you a bit of a clue as to what these are for you in your particular sport, it’s probably the area that you’ve spent the most amount of time on. So for example, if you’re a golfer, then I suspect that you have spent the most amount of time on areas such as practicing your putting, practicing your short game, practicing your long game. If you are a rugby player, then I suspect you spent the most amount of time practicing your passing, practicing your catching, practicing your kicking, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Okay. Next, we have mental toughness, and all I’m going to do for mental toughness at this stage is give you the first letter of each of the five different aspects of mental toughness. So M, E, T, U, and F. I’ll let you think about that for a little bit. Moving on to TW. TW refers to tactical wisdom, and tactical wisdom is basically all about on-field decision-making. I’m not going to go into any detail in terms of tactical wisdom, except to mention a couple of things.
One is we are referring to the decisions that get made in sporting contests. So we are not referring to life decisions, for example. That is going to be better contained in the MB WB section. Of course, the second thing to acknowledge, as is the case with all of these engines, is that sports, of course, do vary significantly in terms of the amount that is going on. So for example, a tennis player and a squash player, of course, have to make hundreds and hundreds of decisions almost instantly as part of a tennis match or a squash match. Whereas, for example, a 100-meter sprinter does not have nearly the same amount of decisions to make in their competitive environment.
Okay. So those are the four engines, and we won’t be finished until we have worked out what the MB and the WB is referring to. So I’d be interested to know how many of you worked out, but that stands for mental health and wellbeing. That’s right. The main part of the aircraft is mental health and wellbeing, and I’m going to go back to why this analogy, that the competitive athlete is like a four-engined airplane is so useful. So I want to emphasise that there is not a lot of point in having amazing physical capabilities, amazing technical abilities, really good sporting mental toughness, and amazing on-field decision-making if your overall mental health and wellbeing is suffering.
In other words, there’s no point in having four amazing engines attached to an airplane that is falling into disrepair. So you can imagine if there was an airplane where the main fuselage is all rusty and full of holes, and yet attached to that airplane were four engines that were straight out of the factory floor, brand new, ready to go. That aircraft is going to struggle because although the engines are doing their best to basically propel the aircraft towards its destination, the fact that they’re attached to an aircraft that’s falling into disrepair is a potential disaster waiting to happen.
So logic would suggest that in those circumstances, it would be a more logical, more sensible to improve the actual main part of the aircraft first or at least at the same time as looking at the engines. If it is an area of concern to you, then it’s probably worth you prioritising your energy into improving that area either first or alongside areas such as physical, technical, mental, and tactical. What we are trying to avoid is for you to ignore your mental health and wellbeing completely, and just focus on those four sporting engines. If you would like some assistance on mental health and wellbeing, then the best way of going about that is for you to speak to someone, a family member, your family doctor. For example, just say that you are concerned about your mental health and that you would like to do some kind of assessment. That is always the best way to start.
This Metuf program will not directly help you with your mental health and wellbeing as you can appreciate. The program has been created in order to improve sporting mental toughness. So that M, E, T, U, and F that you’ll find out about in a minute. So we are not going to talk specifically about mental health and wellbeing as part of this program, but that’s not to say that we are diminishing its importance. In many ways, we’re doing the exact opposite.
Okay. To finish up this very brief introductory video, what I want to do is set up the rest of the video presentations that are about to follow. So you may recall that we broke down physical capabilities into five different sub-areas. So speed, fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance, for example. So now, we want to do the same for mental toughness, and let’s see how many you managed to work out. So basically, the M stands for motivation. The E stands for emotions. The T stands for thoughts, U for unity, and F for focus.
So when we talk about mental toughness, we’re actually talking about a combination of these five different areas, and it is important to emphasise that it is much more useful to talk about it at the subcategory level. As you can appreciate, it’s quite possible for an athlete to be highly motivated, but to really struggle with their focus, for example. You can have those two things happening at the same time, and so it would be counterproductive for us to describe either ourselves, an athlete, or even a sporting team as mentally tough because in doing so, we lose out on the ability for us to hone in on these five separate aspects of mental toughness.
So the second thing to mention is that if I was to ask you to come up with ideas on how to improve the five aspects of physical capabilities, I’m guessing that you’re going to have a whole bunch of ideas that will come to mind pretty quickly. So for example, for speed, we might do some sprint training. To improve fitness, we might do some endurance training, resistance for strength, stretching for flexibility, and then of course, balancing if we want to improve our balance or our proprioception.
If I was to put you on the spot, however, and ask you to do the same for mental toughness, can you list five different ideas, activities, tasks, processes that are designed to improve motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity, and focus, what would you come up with? What would come to mind? If you’re like most people, not a lot comes to mind. You might basically think about maybe a little bit of goal setting for motivation, and that’s often when you might run out of suggestions. So we are here to address that issue, and we’re going to do it in a very simple way, a very intentionally simple way. That’s through the introduction of mental methods.
So as you can see there, what we are basically going to do in the upcoming video presentations is introduce you to five mental methods. At the moment, we can call them mental methods A, B, C, D, and E. Each one of them designed to address the five different aspects of mental toughness in the same way that sprint training, endurance, resistance, stretching, and balancing address speed, fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance respectively. So I look forward to seeing you at the beginning of the video presentation, which is all about motivation and how to either improve or maintain it. See you then.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole outlines the seven most common sport psychology barriers and how to overcome a few of them!
The 7 Biggest Sport Psychology Barriers
One of my roles at Condor Performance is speaking to the many people who make enquiries about our sport psychology services. Since we have been operating and I would have spoken to approximately five thousand parents, coaches, athletes, performers and sporting administrators. In doing so we have learned a lot about the reasons why many athletes / performers still don’t bother to include bonafide sport psychology as part of their plans.
With this is mind below I will outline the seven most common of these barriers and where possible help you to put a step ladder up against a few of them. As always we welcome your comments and questions either publicly (via the comments box below) or privately (via firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sport Psychology Barrier #1: No Idea There is A Mental Side of Sport / Performance
Mental Toughness is not as tangible (visible, obvious) as the other performance areas. Consequently it’s not targeted for improvement because many athletes have no idea their motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus can be developed and strengthened just like other more obvious areas such as skills and fitness.
The only way around this barrier is through some kind of education so that an awareness of the mental side takes places. This will happen automatically if working with a qualified sport psychologist / performance psychologists but there are other ways too. One such way is to invest in your sport science knowledge, which now agrees that sporting mental toughness is a real thing. This doesn’t require you to complete a sport science degree, simply taking online courses such as Metuf can get the job done.
Sport Psychology Barrier #2: Confusing Mental Training with Something Else
Similar to the above but arguably worse. It’s very common for athletes to fall into the trap of thinking that working on the physical, technical and tactical aspects of their sport will naturally result in greater mental toughness. So for example, because it took motivation to get up at 6 am to go for a run in winter, it will automatically result in an improvement of your overall motivation.
Although this might happen, it also might not. Sport psychology, as with all types of psychology, wants to be and should be heavily evidence based. What this means is that the mental skills (or methods) used to improve areas such as motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus have been tried, tested and approved. So getting up at 6am in winter to go for a run might motivate some people some of the time. But really good goal setting (for example) will motivate most people, most of the time. There is a difference.
Even those who are aware of the importance of the mental side, and are motivated to try and improve it, can be left really struggling to find genuine, dependable ways to actual work on it. Most resort to Googling questions like ‘how to improve my concentration’ which results in millions of websites full of contradictory ideas.
Sport Psychology Barrier #3: Hoping For A Magic Bullet
By “magic bullet” we mean those who expect that a single session with a sport psychologist will suddenly make them mentally tough. That all of a sudden their nerves will vanish, they’ll can motivate themselves at will and can focus like a fighter pilot. When this doesn’t happen, they bail well before the sport psychology process starts to bear fruit.
The only way to overcome this barrier is to trust in the process and be patient. There are many ways to help with this. One is to show that improving the mind is a lot like improving the body. No one ever expects to go to the gym and have an 8 pack after one session with the exercise physiologist. Not even a dozen sessions. It works the same with sport psychology. If you wants results fast, fine, listen harder and apply the mental skills but don’t expect miracles.
Sport Psychology Barrier #4: Confusing Mental Toughness with Mental Health
Unfortunately the words ‘psychology’ and ‘psychologist’ still evoke thoughts of mental illness and disorders. Therefore, a large number of athletes incorrectly feel that seeking the assistance of a sport psychologist / performance psychologist is a sign of mental weakness. Not that long ago I wrote an entire blog post on this which you can read in full here.
Sport Psychology Barrier #5: It’s Too Expensive
Even when none of the above barriers apply, often cost gets in the way. The current recommended hourly rate for psychologists is about $250 an hour. This is the most awkward of the sport psychology barriers as it’s relative to your own income / wealth. For some people $250 an hour is chump chain, for others it’s a fortune.
At Condor Performance, instead of reducing our rates and cheapening what we do we add extra value to our 1-on-1 sport psychology services instead. How? Our rates are per month not per session so we allow and encourage email / text communication between sessions. Furthermore the first 30 minute session is not charged for, it’s free. For a more in depth understanding of our monthly approach watch the below video that Dave and I created recently. Here is the link to the FAQs page referenced in the video.
Sport Psychology Barrier #6: There Are No Sport Psychologists Near Me
The Corona Virus of 2020 is / was a terrible thing but there were some benefits. Suddenly, the whole world realised that a sport psychology session via video call was / is just as good as one where the sport psychologist and client are in the same room. We knew this early on and started delivering sport psychology sessions this was as early as 2008. So maybe this barrier is not really a barrier nowadays but we’ll still keep it here anyway.
In fact we’re almost at the point now where we could say that sessions via Zoom, FaceTime video, Skype and other platforms are better than what we call Same Place Sessions. Why? For a start, they are a lot more convenient with no travel time required. Athletes and performers can and do have sessions just before practice, competitions and sometimes – where allowed – during both of these. I would suggest we are less than a decade away from Same Place Sessions with any kind of psychologist being almost unheard of.
Sport Psychology Barrier #7: Now Is Not The Right Time ...
Tricky, tricky, tricky. If your Granny passed away so you had to postpone your start then this sounds like a sensible option rather than a barrier. But most of the time when we hear this is for these kinds of reasons. I am too busy. I’m in my offseason. I have just picked up an injury so need to focus on that. I have too much going on. I’m playing really well, will get in touch when I am in a slump.
Trust me when I conclude with this. All of the above suggest you will be well advised to start some kind if sport psychology process now. If you feel that this process should be working with a sport psychologist / performance psychologist then get in touch and will send you detailed info and costing about how we go about it.
Sport Psychology Barriers? What Sport Psychology Barriers?
The majority of them are normally harmless. However some are either mentally beneficial or potentially damaging. Recently I wrote a blog containing some of the best quotes from a sports psychology point of you in my opinion. But what about the duds? What about the quotes or clichés that sound good but in actual fact are detrimental to performance? Fortunately there are a lot less of these “stinkers” compared to the good ones. Those that I would be more than happy to see my sporting clients right on post-it notes for inspiration outnumber the ones that should be banned.
It may come as a surprise to some of you that a number of the least useful but very well-known sport psychology quotes come from Vince Lombardi. I do not want to criticise Vince nor take anything away from his amazing achievements as a coach. But some of the quotes that he is most known for are psychological bloopers. Chief among them are these three:
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
I won’t go into too much detail about why the first two above simply send the wrong message to anybody playing competitive sport. Suffice to say that for the first one think Lance Armstrong and the “win at all costs mindset”. For the second one it just sounds like an excuse to me. I know it’s supposed to be cheeky but saying you only lost the game because you ran out of time is no different to saying you only lost the game because the opposition scored more points than you.
Practice Makes Permanent Not Perfect
But it is this third quote that I really have an issue with. In particular the shortened version which is ‘practice makes perfect’. Fun fact ‘practice makes perfect’ currently gets 976,000,000 hits on Google. Practice Makes Permanent, the correct version, gets half the amount at 515,000,000 results.
For those of you who we have had the privilege of working with since we opened our doors in 2005 you’ll likely be aware of the fact that we do not do too much by way of cognitive restructuring during the mental conditioning process. By this I mean that by and large we let people think what they think. We would much rather help our clients to accept their thoughts and execute their motor skills anyway. Sometimes this philosophy is slightly misunderstood as us not being interested in cognitions at all. This is not true, let me explain.
Certain practitioners who subscribe to the ever increasingly popular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model may choose to be completely distance from the meaning of words and the potential impact of one inspirational quote versus another.
This Is How We Show Our Clients To Bake Their Cake And Eat It
There are many, many types of thoughts. Let’s conceptualise thoughts in terms of how permanent they might be. A simple way to do this is to divide thoughts into two seperate types. The first group, which we could call VABs (for values, attitudes and beliefs) are rather permanent. They create most of the other type of thoughts, the second type. We could call these Current and Individual Thoughts (or CITs).
This Is How VABs And CITs Interact
We all have some very well ingrained beliefs. Let’s imagine someone who has an ingrained belief that at work everybody should dress in a smart and presentable way. This would mean that they value people who take pride in their own appearance and choice of clothing. This is likely to have been the case in the past. It’s the case now and very likely to be the case into the future. It’s a permanent belief, one that would be hard to change.
Now imagine that somebody with these values and beliefs starts a new job. On the very first day of work they are provided with a mentor to show them the ropes. This mentor has come to work in attire that would potentially be more suitable for a lazy Sunday afternoon at home. The VAB about dressing well at work then combines with a desire to leave a good first impression to create a whole bunch of CITs. For example “I can’t believe she’s come to work dressed like that”. Or “don’t say anything, look beyond the Hoody and smile”.
It Works The Same In The World Of Highly Competitive Sport
For example consider an athlete who values effort above results. And maybe this athlete has a coach who has a ‘win at all cost mindset’. The athletes’ VABs might result in CITs such as “coach is going to be pissed again because we lost despite playing pretty well”.
How this all plays out from a mental toughness training point of view is quite simple. As sport psychologists and performance psychologist we see the benefits of spending some time on your values, attitudes and beliefs. This can be done in many ways but ‘hoping for the best’ is not one of them. Most people simply develop their values, attitudes and beliefs from their childhood. It’s typically a very organic process. Now this is fantastic if you have been surrounded by psychologically astute people since you were born. But this is rare. For most of us we would need to sit down regularly in order to clarify our VABs. If you have absolutely no idea about how to go about it get in touch by completing your details on our contact form.
One of my beliefs, not just as an applied sport psychologist but as a person too, is that the concept of perfect does not exist. Striving to be perfect at something is alright as long as you know you’ll never get there. I am a very logical person and it is this analytical part of me which has led me to believe that chasing perfection is like trying to find the Loch Ness monster. Just because people talk about it doesn’t make it real.
This Is The Reason Behind The Belief
Prefect implies that no more improvement can take place. As improvement is never ending then this renders the concept of perfection as a misnomer. Think about it, for each time you get to something that you mislabelled as perfect you can still improve it further! So it wasn’t perfect was it.
It should come as no surprise having read this why I dislike the “practice makes perfect” principle. And no Vince perfect prcatice doesn’t make perfect either.
What practice can do, if you go about it in the right way, is make something permanent. Practice makes permanent correctly suggests that through the process of repetition it will eventually become a habit, an automatic action that requires little or no front of mind awareness. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.
Often when I am helping my sporting clients with their values and I manage to convince them to replace practice makes perfect with practice makes permanent they ask me about how long it would take to make something permanent. Quite often the 10,000 hours principal comes up which is another furphy. There are too many variables to that question. It will depend on the complexity of the task and genetic factors. Are you starting as an absolute beginner or are you already reasonably adept at it?
Having said that I did stumble across this very cool TEDTalk recently which suggests that a massive amount can be achieved in the first 20 hours:
But the goal for competitive sport and anybody wanting to perform consistently at their best should always be the same. You need to put in the effort so that the main motor skills required become automatic. This allows you to go into high-pressure situations with the aim of being present and enjoying yourself. Trust that the practice has made these skills permanent. Accept whatever thoughts and feelings that you happen to be experiencing on the day. And of course if you need a hand with all of this give us a shout.
Recently I had the pleasure to join Dan Abrahams on his podcast The Sport Psych Show; the best sport psychology podcast out there by far. The main focus of the ‘elite banter’ was the future of sport psychology. More specifically, we predict what the sport psychology / performance psychology landscape will look like in 2050.
If you’d like to listen to the full episode below is the embedded audio file. If you’d prefer to read then further down the page is the full transcription of this Sport Psychology Podcast. As always we’d love to hear your comments using the comments section at the very bottom. Enjoy and share!
Sport Psychology Podcast – Transcription
Published on Thursday 20th August 2020
Hey everyone. Welcome back to the Sport Psych Show. Thanks so much for joining me. Today I’m delighted to be speaking with sport psychologist, Gareth Mole. Gareth, welcome to the Sport Psych Show.
Gareth J. Mole:
It’s great to have you here. Why don’t we start by getting you to introduce yourself to the Sport Psych Show audience?
Gareth J. Mole:
Sure, Dan. So my name is Gareth Mole. A little fun fact, I was named off to Gareth Edwards, obviously the legendary Welsh rugby union player. One of the greats, and I suppose sometimes I do reflect if you name a child after one of the greatest athletes, maybe he or she is determined to potentially end up working in the sports industry. So I was born in South Africa, lived in South Africa until I was 10, and I suppose growing up in South Africa really shaped my passion for sport and you could probably guess the kinds of sports which I’m particularly fond of and particularly passionate about, obviously crickets, rugby union.
So my childhood sporting heroes are people like Jonty Rhodes and Joost van der Westhuizen. I think I was living in South Africa when Gary Player passed on the baton to Ernie Els. So I definitely give credit to South Africa for my love of sport. And I suppose, and we may talk about this later, growing up in apartheid there’s a part of me that feels like my sort of sense of wanting things to be fair might be from those days.
When I was 10 moved to the UK, I went to boarding school in the UK at a place called Oundle in Northamptonshire near Peterborough, and I’m worth mentioning that because I have been appropriately accused of being fairly opinionated and I put that down to a lot of debating whilst the at Oundle. At Oundle certainly when I was there, debating was sort of regarded as a sport. And so we did a lot of it and we got fairly good at it, and once you have gotten into the routine of giving your opinions on an almost daily basis, it is quite hard to turn it off.
Then I did my undergraduate psychology at the University of Leeds, which was fantastic. And then after a little bit of backpacking and so on, I moved to Australia in 2003 to complete my master’s in Sports Psychology, which turned into or turned out to be, I should say, the last running of that particular master’s program. So I sort of got fairly lucky in that I applied from the UK, got accepted, moved over here, and then shortly after moving over here found out that they weren’t going to be taking any sports psych master’s students because the program was wrapping up.
And then like a lot of us graduated as a newly qualified sport psychologist. So I was waiting for the phone to start ringing because I’d spent seven years studying and it was tumbleweed. And so I sort of thought to myself, “Hang on, I’ve just relocated to the other side of the world. I’ve spent seven years studying, and there’s a sort of a dearth of jobs. What do I do about it?”
And so I just decided that the only sort of proactive option was to create work for myself. So in 2005 I started Condor Performance. And so we sort of slowly grown in the last 15 years, and without having this as a goal or an intention, someone who’s incredibly processed-focused, I’ve ended up with a team of nine other psychologists. We call them sports psychologists and performance psychologists because as some of your listeners may be aware in Australia, you cannot use the term sports psychology if you don’t have the endorsement in sport and exercise psychology.
So myself and Michelle Pain, who’s a bit of a pioneer in sports psych here in Australia are able to and choose to use the term sport psychologists, and the other eight are all performance psychologists, which here in Australia means they’re all registered psychologists with AHPRA, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Authority. So basically we are a team of sports psychologists and performance psychologists that works predominantly in sport, but also in non-sporting settings such as the performing arts and so on.
And then just to wrap up the intro to give you and the listeners an idea of my sort of day-to-day work. So I suppose I spend the majority of my time on the business and not in the business. So the kind of things I would do on a Thursday morning, be supervising the other psychologists, sales and marketing, which I’ve always been surprised is regarded as a bit of a dirty word for highly qualified people, whereas I see it as absolutely essential risk management, bookkeeping, et cetera. I only work with a small percentage of our overall clients and quite interestingly, a growing percentage of those are sporting coaches, about a third of my personal clients and our sporting coaches.
So I have no interaction with their players. In fact, I think their players wouldn’t even know I existed. I work exclusively with the coach in order to help him or her become a better mental skills coach, a better mental coach, as well as just coaching people and not just players, if that makes sense. And just finally, as a sports psychologist, I would describe myself as very behavioral. And so I know you’ve had guests on who are big fans of act acceptance and commitment therapy. I draw heavily on that.
I suppose a good way to describe my personal philosophy as an applied sports psychologist is really, I try and almost direct everything back to the action side of things, the behavioral side of things. So I like CBT, but I will very much lean towards the B of CBT. If I’m to describe how I’m operating, it would be a tiny little C and a huge B. That’s kind of how I would describe myself. So for example, when helping golfers to develop pre-shot routines, it’s the routines of the golfers that I work with very, very action-based, and I’m almost intentionally trying to minimize the cognitive demands that are included in those pre-shot routines.
Interesting. Thorough introduction there, Gareth. I love it. Now we’ve spoken off-air about what we can talk about and, well, you threw me a bit of a curve ball, which was this idea of perhaps talking about what psychology might look like in 2050, which I thought was a really, really fun topic to talk about. But I think we can have a broad conversation, because I think there’re several things you’ve said already, which are really interesting and we can bring in the behavioural stuff into that, and you’ve talked about marketing and selling and what we do as a profession, helping people understand. And I think all of that really comes under the header of psychology in 2050.
So it’s going to be an interesting conversation. I mean, if I may ask you, when we were talking off-air you mentioned, let’s talk about what psychology can look like in 2050. What drew you to that? Why that conversation?
Gareth J. Mole:
Two things happened a couple of weeks ago. So one is, I listen to most of your interviews and I’m a bit of a fanboy, in that basically I almost insist that all of my colleagues listen to most of the conversations that you’ve had. And one of the things that I picked up on is that you often ask your guests, if you had a time machine and you went back five or 10 years, and I thought to myself, if Dan’s got this time machine, then I think we might want to do a couple of trips in the other direction. So that was the first thing.
And then what happened, almost as if it was telling me to respond, is that Back to the Future II was on Australian television. In the movie, for anyone who hasn’t watched it, the film is set in I think 1985 and Back to the Future part two is 30 years into the future. And I thought it would be a really fun little conversation for us to have about, not five years from now, not 10 years from now, which in many ways sort of seems so close, but what about 30 years, which I’m guessing is probably around about the time where the two of us will be sort of either about to retire or retired, but hopefully still alive.
So that’s why I picked 2050 for us to sort of, I suppose, in many ways, just hypothesise about some of the directions that the profession might be heading. And I suppose just the final bit, there is a part of me that can’t help but think from a goal setting perspective. If you can crystallise what the future might look like, maybe what we able to do or appealing to the greater sports psych community is maybe we can work together to actually increase the chances that some of them happen.
Well, let’s get in our DeLorean car, back to the future car, [inaudible 00:11:10] 2050. I’m sure there’s many people who would think of better things to do if they did have a car to go to 2050, but hey, we’re passionate sports psychology, so we can go and seek what sports psychology looks like in 2050. So talk to me, give me a number one prediction, or thought or feeling.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah. And I just want to clarify that I’m calling these, they’re not really hypotheses, I’m calling them “hopotheses”. Hopothesis is kind of a bit like a hypothesis, but with slightly less evidence to make the educated guests. And so, the first two, Dan, are linked and I’m super keen to get your thoughts on these. The first one is an official change of name to performance psychology as the overarching name of the discipline in 2050.
And funny enough, just to really sort of emphasise my point, last week I listened to your conversation with Paula Reid, the adventure psychologist, and it was really obvious to me that someone like Paula and her passion would fit very nicely under performance psychology semantically, but that she was articulating very well that it’s not really the same as sports psychology. There was a fantastic conversation between the two of you how in many ways she thought sport was a lot more predictable and so on. So my first prediction is the overarching name of the discipline will be performance psychology and we’ll have the option of calling ourselves performance psychologists.
And part two will be specialisation within performance psychology. So what we’re basically saying is that someone could be a golf psychologist as a subdiscipline of performance psychology, or they could be an adventure psychologist like Paula mentioned, or maybe they aren’t that interested in sport but they love the performing arts. And so maybe they would be a dance psychologist and all these different performance pursuits would fit semantically logically under the broad term performance psychology. And for those who might be listening, you think, “Oh, no.” Because that’s moving away from specialisation, we can then specialise within performance psychology.
Sport Psychology Podcast continued …
So just to try and draw a picture here. At the top of our sheet of paper we’ve got performance psychologist.
And down from that, I’m picturing sports psychologist, maybe a performing arts psychologist, maybe-
I can’t really use the term … Well, maybe business psychologist, although that has its own sort of credentials.
But underneath sports psychologist would be all the sports that you can think of. And what you’re saying is you’ve got to work in say four or five or six that could actually render you a sports psychologist. Would that be a picture I’ve created that would be accurate to your vision?
Gareth J. Mole:
A very accurate picture, Dan. Yeah. So I suppose there’s a couple of obvious ones missing. I think military, I think would be one, which would be another type of performance psychology. I don’t know the name of it, but we work with a lot of people in the medical profession. People like ambulance drivers and surgeons, often in their training. So we’re basically using the same kind of principles that we would work that we would use to help a golfer or a cricketer perform under pressure. We would use those exact same or very similar, I should say, mental strategies to help someone become better at performing a complicated surgical procedure. So I suppose you could call it medical psychology, maybe something along those lines.
That debate could … Yeah, healthcare psychology. Exactly very sort of poignant at the moment. And all of these would be the layer under performance psychology, where you’ve got practitioners who are both good at the, you call it the below the line, above the line. I suppose I call it the mental health and the mental toughness side of things, or the mental side of the actual performance area and then the mental aspects of the rest of their life.
I think it’s interesting because I think if we draw it back to today, listening to you speak, it makes me consider the confusion that people have around sports psychology. What is sports psychology? Is it about performance? Is it about welfare or well-being? There’s a big drive around mental health at the moment. And I’ve spoken quite a bit about this on the Sport Psych Show with various people. That conflation between welfare, well-being and mental health. What is it that we do? How do we describe it? What qualifications do we need? What registrations do we need? It almost feels like what you want in 2050 is a much more streamlined picture, some clarity here whereby everything falls under this term of performance psychology.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah. And I think that’s spot on. I think a label is a really important aspect of clarity. Picking the right label.
And for me, semantically performance psychology is the best label. I mean, I’m sure it’s the case there in the UK, but here in Australia there’s, I can think of a couple of very prominent, qualified sports psychologists who refer to themselves as sports psychologists who don’t do much work in sport. And in fact, the official title, the full title here in Australia at the moment is sport and exercise psychologist. And having done this work for 15 years, I can tell you, I don’t give any advice to anyone on the exercise side of things. So I think that there has to be a realization that at some point if we want to collectively inform the public about what we do, we might want to start by picking the label that is most closely related to what we all actually do.
Interesting. Interesting. So performance psychology at the top, underneath that strands, including sports psychology, exercise psychology, military psychology, public sector psychology, private sector psychology such as corporate psychology. Yeah, interesting. And building on that idea, run a sports psychology piece. This idea of working in multiple sports, or specialising in a sport. I mean, is that something that you come across?
Do you think it is a challenge is for a sport psychologist to work across multiple sports? Should sport psychologists specialise? Do you think in 2050 you will see a lot more? Well, I’m a performance psychologist and I specialise in golf. I’m a performance psychologist and I specialise in soccer. I’m a performance psychologist and I specialise in baseball. Do you think specialism is the future?
Gareth J. Mole:
I think that’s where we will end up, it’s inevitable. I mean, if you look at other professions, things like the medical profession, for example, that’s basically what’s happened. You got people who work in the medical profession now who … You got knee surgeons who only operate on a particular type of knee injury. Like that’s all they do. Whereas, 20 years ago or 30 years ago, all knee surgeons had to be able to do everything.
I do like your question though, Dan, because you’re almost implying, I think that, is that too much? In other words, are our skillsets actually better off if you have to work in rugby and then golf and you have to then sort of be flexible. I think that ultimately what we would probably want to see is the psychologist having the choice. I think that’s what we would probably want to see. It might be that I have a colleague for example who absolutely loves baseball, and as soon as a baseball contacts us, it goes straight to my colleague, David, and that it might be reasonable to say to someone like him, “Look, do you just want to fill your boots with baseball, because you love the sports so much?”
Whereas to someone else, that might lead to monotony, it might lead to boredom. Who are we to say? Individual differences is a common theme that keeps coming up in the show, which I think is such an important reminder. I think it would be about creating a mechanism that would allow the psychologists to choose. Personally I would definitely not choose to specialise in one sport. I would probably pick the ones that I’m most fond of. Sports like squash, cricket, rugby union, golf, football, et cetera. So I would probably naturally end up with about five or six, and therefore it’s likely I would then continue to use the term sports psychologist who works or specialises across those sports.
It’s an interesting landscape. I think obviously right now, when you qualify as a sports psychologist, you qualify to work in all sports. And I think the vast majority of sports psychs would say, “Well, that’s what I do. I’m a sports psychologist. I work across all sports.” I had a conversation with Professor Brendan Cropley on episode 90 about this. And I think it’s one of those, like every landscape, it has its advantages and disadvantages, its strengths and its weaknesses.
As a former professional golfer, I feel fairly confident walking into a golfing environment and having a great deal of knowledge, that’s going to set the scene, that’s going to help me to build the relationship with the golfer. I’ve been there, I’ve been in his or her shoes. I know what it feels like. So, I feel I’m at an advantage there. At the same time, and not that I’ve actually ever come across a golfer who said this, at the same time I can also fully appreciate that, that golfer has a lot of people around them who know about golf.
He will have one, maybe a couple of coaches, maybe a couple of parting coach, a short game coach, as well as a full swing coach. He or she has got a lot of people around them who know a lot about golf, who can advise on that side of things. And sometimes I think that sports people like to have people around them who don’t necessarily have an expertise of their particular sport and knowledge of their sports, who they can talk with more generally about performance psychology or welfare and well-being.
So I think there’s that interesting landscape there. So, yeah. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that. I think it brings its own advantages and its own limitations when one specialises, but I can, when you were speaking there, I was thinking of multidisciplinary. For example, I was thinking of a psych who comes in and says, “That’s my strength here, is I work across multiple sports.”
Gareth J. Mole:
“And actually because of that, I bring in a range of experiences to the table.” And I think of, okay, your comment here in a second. I think of the sports psychs who may be spend 20, 25 weeks out on the golf tour, and I’m sure there’s some who do it on the tennis tour as well, which is great. But why they’re missing out is they’re missing out on working in other sports and experiencing those other sports can feel what they do in golf or in tennis or in any sport that they spend the most amount of time in.
Yeah. I mean, I think if I was having a vote, the way I would do it is in training in the journey to becoming a qualified performance psychologist. Let’s say it in 2015, that’s a regulated and registered profession. I would insist that the trainees have exposure right across that spectrum that you mentioned earlier. So you have to work with some people in the public sector, for example, because that’s part of your criteria, but that once you have earned the right to call yourself a performance psychologist, then ultimately you can then decide.
And I suppose one little comment, and I forget which episode it was, but there was a great conversation between you and someone about how important it is to know the sport. And I think you kind of both agreed that it’s better to have the knowledge and not need it than need it and not have it. Anyway, if those weren’t the words you used, those were the words which I remembered from listening into that conversation. Better to have the understanding of what a leg before wicket is and not need it than be in an awkward conversation where they’re talking about how leg before wicket is, kind of his or her awkward way of getting out and having to put your hand up and saying, “Sorry, can you guys just tell me what LBW stands for.”
So I don’t think we are necessarily in a situation whereby just because someone knows a huge amount about bobsled that, that means that they’re going to blurt out a whole bunch of sort of technical and tactical advice on bobsled. You would hope that as part of the training. What they’re saying is you are not the technical and the tactical coach, but a knowledge of this sport is going to allow you to build rapport and reduce the chances that people are going to be talking a language that you have no idea what they’re talking about.
Yeah. And as you’re speaking there, I’m actually thinking of the advantages of knowing quite a lot about a specific sport. For me, I think it can help you set up better questions. I think it can increase your range of ideas around performance psychology. I personally think I can have more ideas in golf psychology than somebody who more solutions than somebody who hasn’t been in a golfing environment before, in my humble opinion. So I can see an advantage in that respect. Is it critical? Absolutely not.
So I think that’s an interesting landscape. I think, related to that, I mean, you mentioned you started to talk about the qualifications that a sports psychologist has, and I do wonder if there can be some professional governing bodies who could hand out certain credit or qualifications related to a specific sport related to psychology.
So in golf, may be the Professional Golfers’ Association could have psychology courses for psychologists within golf so that you can as a psychologist go on these courses and learn the specifics of golf psychology. Maybe the IRFU in England could offer psychology courses related to rugby for psychologists to go on. And maybe coaches might go on them as well. I mean, I know the English FA have done this or did do this for a number of years, five levels, but for psychologists to go on as well to be able to really learn the language and the specific challenges that people face, because golf psychology is different to tennis psychology, is different to football psychology, is different to rugby psychology and so on and so forth. Of course, they have similarities, but there are differences. So I wonder. Getting your comment here, I wonder from a professional perspective, can we have accreditation that enables practitioners to advance their knowledge of specific sports?
Gareth J. Mole:
I think that’s an absolutely crackerjack idea. One of the reasons I love the format that you’ve created here with a Sport Psych Show is that I didn’t think of that when I was sort of brainstorming to myself earlier. That’s not something that popped into my mind, but through the process of dialogue, that idea just popped out and it’s only 2020 we got 30 years where we can potentially make some of these things happen.
And of course, one of the really important things there is you’ve got the football experts or the rugby experts being involved. We’re not excluding them and saying, “Hang on, guys. We don’t need you. We can learn plenty about your sport. And we’re the ones with the fancy psychology credentials.” It’s bringing them into the conversation and then saying, “Look, you guys know a lot about football. We know a lot about human behavior. You teach us a bit, we’ll teach you a bit and then we’ll come up with some kind of clear sort of set of qualifications and we’ll then work together to inform the public.”
So they’re not sort of having to second guess what that person does and what that person does. And just a final comment on of course on knowledge, we need to remember that knowledge forms along … Sorry, falls along a continuum. And so we’re not saying that everybody who wanted to work in golf as a psychologist would need your knowledge of golf. I think it’s going to be very difficult to compete with someone who has played like you have and as coach like you had.
So maybe if your knowledge of golf is a 10 out of 10 and someone who’s never heard of the game or the sport is a zero out of 10, and I’ve met a few of those by the way. Maybe what we’re saying is that in order for you to work in golf as a psychologist you need to approve a seven out of 10 knowledge of golf. We’re not saying that you need to become an equivalent expert of someone who has played the sport at a high level, coached it at a high level. It’s simply saying, if you want to work in golf, we can’t allow you to do that if your knowledge of golf is a three out of 10.
Your next prediction-
Gareth J. Mole:
… of 2050.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah. What were we calling them? Hopotheses, I think.
Hopotheses, thank you.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yes, we may have just invented a new word, which is totally appropriate I think when you’re thinking about the future. So my next is the slightly controversial one. This is where we start. In 2050, I think there’ll be much more emphasis on formal qualifications. And what I mean by that is, I think that there’ll be a much reduced likelihood that someone will be allowed to work in any performance sector who hasn’t met certain, I suppose formal qualifications. So, I’m predicting it’s, and it’s just a prediction, that there will be a lot less people involved in sport and performance who simply finished high school and then decided they were going to start a business and make up a title. That’s my prediction.
Why do you think that’s important?
Gareth J. Mole:
Look, I suppose the reason why I wanted to include that, and this is maybe where the bit of the hopothesis is really emphasized, because I run a business which I suppose is, in many ways I’m looking after the best interest of a total of 10 psychologists. I suppose I have a lot of conversations with sporting organizations and individuals as well. And one thing is very clear and that is that, in particular in sport, there is still a huge lack of understanding about what various professional titles actually mean from a kind of a risk point of view.
And so, one of the things that we’re doing on a fairly regular basis is sort of trying to educate and make aware the fact that for example, as a psychologist, we all have a professional indemnity insurance. That’s a very boring sort of fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless. And therefore, if you do decide to employ, let’s say a mind coach or mindset coach, then I would like the sporting entity to know that they’re doing that and they can tolerate the risk that comes with that person having no professional insurance for example, and other things besides.
So I think that what will eventually happen is that, we will invite into the conversation people who potentially don’t have any recognized qualifications but who do a very good job of the work. People like Gilbert Enoka is incredibly well-regarded and has done an amazing job in New Zealand rugby, but he’s not a registered psychologist. So bringing people like Gilbert into the conversation and saying, okay, how do we communicate all these different titles to the sporting community out there, I think is a really important step.
And it may involve the difficult decision of certain people who don’t have recognized qualifications who might not be doing a good job. It may involve us saying to them, “So you can no longer work with such and such a team or such and such an individual.” Dan, what’s your thoughts on this, and how’s things panning out in the UK with regards to that? Is that the hopothesis with the longest bow?
Yeah. I mean, I think I’ll start by saying, I think clarity. Again, I’m going to come back to this word clarity. I just think the sports industry needs greater clarity as to what … Let’s come back to your title of performance psychology. What do performance psychologists, or we could use sports psychologists. What do sports psychologists do? Let’s come back to 2020 and call it sports psychology, and just say, look, what do sports psychologists do? What are your qualifications? Who are you registered with? What do you do? And how are we protected? What are we getting when we get a sports psychologist?
And I think we as an industry need to be better. So if we talk about 2020 to 2050, 30 years, I think we got 30 years to become better, helping the sport industry, gain clarity as to what sports psychology is and what sports psychologists do. I personally don’t have a problem with anybody going away and doing whatever they want in terms of a … They can do a two-week course. They can do a two-day course or a two-year course. Whatever they want to do, they do. But I think what national governing bodies, organisations, clubs, teams require is clarity.
I think there needs to be as much exposure as possible with regard sports psychology and sports psychologists so that these national governing bodies, clubs, teams, organizations know exactly what they get. And if they choose to say, “Okay, we know you’ve got the qualifications, you’ve got the registration, you’ve got the insurances. We know our people are safe. However, we’re going to go with Johnny or Mary over there Who’s got their two week NLP qualification, because you know what? We think they’re brilliant at what they do.” Fine. No problem at all.
But I think we in the next 30 years, if we want to talk about this span of time, we have to be better at every single national governing body, every single organization, every single club globally in every single sport, knowing exactly what they get with us. Now that is complex and complicated because every single country has different rules. In UK, I should say, there’s an interesting dynamic whereby a practitioner psychologist, the term practitioner psychologist is legally protected but the term performance psychologist isn’t.
Again, I could do a two-week course and then call myself a performance psychologist. So there’s an interesting dynamic there. So I think we do have to try to come together. That’s a very bland statement I know, but some people within psychology who are registered psychologists within their country have to come together and find a way to help our global sports organisations understand what they get when they employ us as psychologists. When we do that, I think then there’s very real choice through that very real clarity.
Sport Psychology Podcast continued …
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah. Look, I totally agree. There’s probably just a couple of additions there. I think that one is, what I really like about what you said there is we’re ensuring that the consumer is the one that knows what we do. So I think it was in episode two with Chris Shambrook where I think he was alluding to this fact, if memory serves me correctly, but he said something along the lines of, we know a lot about what we do, like you and me because we work within the profession.
But what about build the rugby coach from down the road? Like, does he know? A few months ago I went to stay with some friends in Sydney and they were like, “Oh, one of your sports psychologists guys is all over the news at moment.” And I was like, “Oh, show me the article.” And sure enough, it was not somebody who was a qualified psychologist. It was a mindset coach. And so these friends of mine just naturally assumed that because that person was working in the mental side of sport, that they were a sports psychologist. I think that is an absolute key to it.
We have to start including various different programs, which means that the consumer, the people who are potentially interested in our services, they are the ones that know what it means to be a qualified performance psychologist and what it means to not be a qualified performance psychologist. That’s the real key with regards to that, that third prediction of more emphasis on formal qualifications.
Well, I think you’ve eloquently put it in that sentence. The consumer needs to know what we do. I think that’s a really eloquent way of putting it. The challenge is it’s on a global scale. The challenge is that we could go down to the lay person, the person who’s just a sports fan and most people don’t have a clue, no idea.
And if they’re going to make an assumption, they’re going to assume it’s predominantly around mental health. I think there are a lot of coaches through no fault of their own who would see it in a similar vein mental health towards welfare and well-being. And then I think there’s the more informed coaches, players, key stakeholders in our organization, sporting organizations who understand that there’s a performance psychology piece to this as well. And actually ironically, I think most sports psychology see themselves as purveyors of performance psychology.
So there really needs to be an education process. We need to become proper profession. And for me, we are a proper profession. I mean, there are papers, research articles out there, commentaries that say, “Well, we’re not a profession because we don’t have a standard practice, strengthened by and large, and I might get vilified for this on social media.” But my understanding of say a sports science or, especially strength and conditioning is that there are standard methodologies of practice that run through those industries.
And therefore, it becomes much easier for them to be recognized professions. But anyway, I think what we need to do is, we need to avoid the rant because I think it is getting better. But I think as we’re talking about 30 years, 2050, I think we need to be less scared of marketing, you coming back to your marketing point at the beginning. We need to be less scared of marketing, of sales. We need to be less scared of helping people understand what it is that we do on those multiple levels, performance psychology, welfare and well-being, and mental health. Let’s move along. Give me another hopothesis.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yes. Number four. Yes. So, number four was a much greater collaboration between coaches and performance psychologists. And I hope everyone’s sitting down for this. The kicker to this is in 30 years time. This collaboration between coaches and performance psychologists will eventuate in the first few head coaches who are qualified performance psychologists. In other words, people who potentially have no experience playing a particular sport will be given the top job.
So obviously in English football we’re talking about the manager here. In most other sports we’re talking about the head coach. And I suppose for me this is … Again, referring back to a lot of the conversations that you’ve had with your guests, a lot of the really interesting conversations were from coaches who were basically saying, “Look, what we do as a coach is psychology.” And I’ve heard you say many, many times, you just can’t remove the psychology from the equation.
Depending on when you put this episode out, obviously, you and I both know that Liverpool have just won their first Premier League title for 30 years. And if you listen to Jürgen Klopp, it would be easy to assume guy had some pretty impressive psychology qualifications. So I think that the fourth hopothesis is going to be much, much more collaboration between coaches and performance psychologists.
So an expansion of what I do at the moment with a third of my clients who are sporting coaches, but that becoming much more common place. And then the eventual end point of that will be, if I’m working with a coach and assisting him or her so much with all aspects of their coaching, because ultimately you cannot remove the psych-social part of human improvement. You just can’t. You may not think it’s there, but it’s there.
Then what will eventually happen is that some people will be then said, “Well, why don’t you just come in and be the head coach.” And if that happens, if that prediction happens, then obviously one thing that we really want to make happen is for those first few qualified psychologists to do the best possible job. I refer back to Annika Sörenstam, who I think in 2003 was invited to play on one of the men’s tour events-
… and under obscene … Yeah. Under obscene. So. Yes. Female golfer invited to play on one of the men’s tour events, but she didn’t do that well. I did a bit of research before she came 96 out of 111. So what we would want to ensure if my prediction is correct, Dan, and that’s in 30 years time, you will see qualified performance psychologists are in the role of head coach or manager. What we’ve got to make sure happens is those first few do an excellent job, both from a results point of view, from an impact point of view, because otherwise it could set us back another 20 years.
If the first few that are given that opportunity don’t do a great job, then as you can imagine, the sports industry might misjudge us unfairly. And so we would have to work very hard to making sure that those first few who were given the opportunity did the best possible job possible. And we see it already. There’s head coaches who come from biomechanics, there’s head coaches who come from strength and conditioning. Isn’t it a bit bizarre that on paper the area which is most aligned with coaching, which is surely is, is human improvement?
Psychology is the one that’s least likely to generate a head coach from my point of view. It’s the most likely, and I think all we’ve got at the moment in 2020 is a situation where, to be honest, and this refers back to some of your comments earlier. I don’t think the sports industry is ready for that. I don’t think that if there was a qualified sport or performance psychologist who was actually the head coach of a Premier League team of a major league baseball team, I think the first thing that do is say, “Don’t use the term sports psychologist or performance psychologist. People are going to get the wrong idea.” And I think that’s very indicative.
I think it’s interesting. It’s just speaking there. I’m thinking of the question, how much domain specific expertise do you need to have as a coach? So if I was to join José Mourinho’s coaching team, if I was to join Jurgen Klopp’s coaching team, how much domain specific knowledge do I need for that to happen? And I think it’s intriguing. I really do. That kind of thing has happened already in British soccer. So Steve McClaren invited Bill Beswick to be his assistant manager at Middlesborough actually a couple of decades ago.
I know that Bruno Demichelis, an Italian sport psychologist was brought over by Carlo Ancelotti around 2008, 2009, to be his assistant manager at Chelsea after being his assistant manager at AC Milan, or at least being very influential at AC Milan. So that kind of thing has happened, but it’s very, very rare. I’m sure there are other instances in other sports globally, and maybe listeners can tweet in if they know of that happening. But I think it’s very possible, and I would like to see it because I think that, that can be such a crucial role that somebody can play.
I think you can coach because you don’t necessarily need much domain specific knowledge to be a coach, especially if, what normally happen is you’d have a couple of other coaches who have a vast amount of domain specific knowledge, they have a vast amount of knowledge on the strategical, tactical, physical technical side of the specific sport you’re talking about. So I think you could still coach. I certainly think that coach could take on the role of a head of psychosocial methodology within that coaching unit, which I think is sorely lacking.
And again, in my mind when I’m thinking of this, I’m always thinking of say Premier League soccer in England, because I know that the coaching teams there are quite big, but you could say about baseball, the American version of football, NFL, basketball, that there are substantial coaching staff. The size of the coaching staff is quite big. I think it always lacks what I would describe as a head of psychosocial methodology.
So I think that, that person could do that and just, let’s come back to on-pitch involvement. On-pitch involvement. Again, let’s come back to your notion of, this is about working towards 2050. If on the picture, on the court or on the field is where it happens, why or why, or why would you not have the psych there in amongst it doing it? I just don’t get that, unless the psych is a clinical psych and it’s about the mental health piece, and the welfare and well-being is not about performance.
If it’s performance psych, why is the psych not involved in the performance environment? That doesn’t make sense, if you really strip it back and you really think about it. Now, that might involve some communication. It might involve some general fitness levels from the sports psych him or herself, but why not? Why not? Why can’t … Trust me until you can’t trust me. And if I make a mistake, that’s fine. Have a conversation with me, admonished me, if you have to.
Now I’m not going to go and talk. I’m not going to stand on the pitch and direct people tactically, but I can certainly engage in conversation around a psych social piece. These are the things that mediate wins and losses. These are the things that mediate jobs, whether somebody keeps their job who doesn’t. The things that mediate players’ careers. Why oh why, or why am I not invited onto the pitch? Why?
Gareth J. Mole:
Well, I think the biggest reason is just still the stigma that comes with the word psychologist, I think is such a heavy burden. I remember at the very infancy of my career in the year 2005, I just moved to Australia, and I remember there was a huge international conference in Sydney. Pure luck, I just moved to Australia and there was the biggest international [sport psychology] conference, and there was a very well-regarded sports psychologist who just given a keynote and I was a bit cheeky in those days and I sort of went up and tapped him on the shoulder and I said, I won’t mention his name, but I said, “Sir, can you give me one bit of advice for someone who really wants to make it as a sports psychologist.”
And he turned around, he said, “Don’t use the term psychologist.” And I was like, “Oh, you are kidding me. You’re joking. I’m just moved right across the world in order to do a program that basically allows me to use this title and you’re telling me that if I want to make it I should use another term.” So, look, I think it’s inevitable. Just going back to your comment about the two assistant coaches that you mentioned, who were psychologists, all that really needs to happen is that I think we would agree that one of the best ways to become a head coach is for you to first be an assistant coach.
So if people, if qualified psychologists are being given the opportunity to be assistant coaches, then the only thing missing from that anecdote, Dan, was then taking over the head coaching role when the person who brought them in moved aside or when somewhere else. And then the only bit missing from that is for as many people to know that, that person is a qualified psychologist. So it might not necessarily be as extreme as not using the term head coach and using the term performance psychologist, although there’s a part of me thinks that’s a totally appropriate name for someone involved in helping a bunch of human beings improve, given what we know about psych social.
But if that’s too much, then it would be just a case of such and such is our new head coach. Tom Smith is our new head coach who is a qualified performance psychologist with 30 years experience helping people improve. That may be enough to then get a little bit of momentum going. And again, hence why there are hopotheses because there’s a part of me that’s saying this because I desperately want it to happen, but I’m not sure if it will.
Yeah. And just for me and a word about players here, because I think maybe a lot of head coaches would say, “Oh, well, the players won’t have that. Rubbish, rubbish.” I think this is something that coaches get wrong very respectfully. I think players are much more open-minded. Players want to improve. They want to get better. Now, players demand competence, and there’s always going to be some players who are a little bit more closed-minded, and they might always have something to say, and that’s okay, that’s fine. That’s fair enough. Everybody’s individual differences. Again, everybody’s individual, and that’s fine. And you might never please some people within a squad of players, but I think firstly, I think players would be much more open to it than coaches think or believe.
Sport Psychology Podcast continued …
… I think it comes back to negotiation. I think that you’ll trust me to negotiate with your players. I’d like to sit down with players, to sit down with the captain, the leadership group and say, “This is what I propose happen, because as an example, we know that you have to focus your attention as you’re competing and deal with distractions quickly. We know that you have to compete at a certain intensity level. We know that you have to compete with a positive intent. You have to execute your actions positively.
These are the kinds of things, the game winning and losing mediators that I want to really help you with, that I want to work with you on. This is what I’m proposing. What are your thoughts? Where are your pushbacks here? What would work for you? What wouldn’t work for you? How can we give this a go?” It kind of it comes back to negotiation. We got to be better at the art side of negotiation when it comes to things like that, but give us a chance to do it. Because I think that coaches would see a great deal of benefit if they open their minds and allowed it to happen.
Gareth J. Mole:
Totally agree with that. And I love what you said. Was it trust me until I stuff up? What was the word that you said there?
Well, trust me until you can’t trust me.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah. Trust me until you can’t trust me. I’ve written that down. That’s a keeper.
Yeah. Trust me-
Gareth J. Mole:
That’s a keeper. Trust me till you can’t trust me. And what you just emphasise there is that, if you remove the label in the stigma with psychologist and you just describe to that group of players what we do, you get complete buy-in, don’t you? Think about it. It’s like I can help you stay motivated when you’re not particularly motivated. We can help you perform under pressure. We can help you concentrate on the things that are most important. If you were just to describe the processes that we do on a daily or a weekly basis, you get complete buy-in. Everyone’s like, “Yep. I want some of that. Thank you very much. Good appointment.”
As soon as you say, “Oh, by the way, he’s a qualified psychologist.” you start getting a little bit of concerns. But I do agree with you wholeheartedly, those pushbacks are probably likely to come much more from administrators, owners, people maybe concerned with the image of the club. I think if you were to say to the players, we think that a qualified psychologist is going to be best placed to be your main coach and these are the reasons, I think you’re right. I think that even in 2020, I think there wouldn’t be any issues there whatsoever.
Yeah. Yes, yes. I mean, it’s certainly an extreme point of view or extreme approach to say this psych is going to be your main coach. I think maybe at the beginning this psychologist is going to be on the pitch with us.
These are the reasons why, and again, then we fall into that negotiation. But across all of this conversation, I want to emphasize, and I’m sure you would as well that nobody’s saying, “Hey, coaches, you have this opinion and it’s the wrong opinion or this is a terrible opinion.” This opinion or the approaches we’ve got right now are limited because we as psychologists, in my opinion, sports psychologists, haven’t been good enough to get our message across to help you understand what we can do. I think we need to be better at that. I think that we need to be a little bit bolder with our messages at times, and a bit braver and we’re going to get lots of pushbacks and that’s okay.
And that last thing to say, so in 2050, there will be some psychs, sports psychs who won’t … Performance psychs, if we’re going to call them performance psychologists, who won’t want to go on to pitch, who won’t want to go get their [crosstalk 01:00:32] body essentially. That’s okay. But what I would say there is possibly my hope is that actually that’s where coaches will say, “Well, do we want that person? Do we want that psychologist?” Because actually we want to have the performance psych who’s willing to get out there.
Now, we’re going to be at our early 70s then. So maybe I shouldn’t be saying this because hopefully it will be fit 70-year-olds who can still get out there. But as hopefully we won’t be putting ourselves at a disadvantage. But look, I’m conscious of time. And I’d like to get on to … I think this is a great conversation. Let’s get onto our fifth and final.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah. So I suppose, and as a natural conclusion to all of the other four, what I’ve written down here, Dan is much greater unity and collaboration within the profession. And literally, I’ve written down proper international trade union for performance psychology. So, if we’re talking about what … One of the things you mentioned previously about SMC, for example, and having a lot more clarity, one of the things we haven’t done yet is how to look at some of the other professions in sport and said, “What have you done to clarify your position?”
I don’t think we’ve done that yet. I don’t think we’ve looked at some of the success stories. So one of the most obvious things to do would be to form some kind of international trade union for performance psychology. So you start with the correct label, as we mentioned earlier. Let’s try not to confuse people unnecessarily because we pick the wrong term. And then what we do is we look at other international trade unions, other professions that have worked well, even if some of the people are in Australia, some of them are in the UK, some of them are in the USA, and it’s a classic case of the … Some of the parts make up much more than the individuals involved.
And I’ll be honest, and maybe I can sort of segue into just a massive thank you to you and a wrap for putting together the Sport Psych Show. But over here in Australia, there’s a part of me, I’ll be honest. It’s sort of started to lose a little bit of hope in terms of whether or not the profession was actually going in the right direction. Here in Australia, we used to have four master’s programs. We have one.
Now, it would be very easy if you were stuck in Australia only to think that sports psychology is going backwards and hanging by a thread. I think that would be an appropriate way for me to describe it. And it was only really when I stumbled across your podcast and started listening to some of the high quality banter, I call it, that I was reinvigorated for the first time in many, many years, that there are some incredibly smart, passionate, and skillful people who happen to have the same professional title as me.
The only thing is, some of them are in the US. Your conversations with Scott Goldman were just mind-blowing, just like, are you kidding me? Didn’t even knew exist. I had no idea he existed. The one with Chris Shambrook as well, it was just unbelievable. [inaudible 01:04:05], just immediately sort of gave me something that I could start using with my clients and my team. So I think the individual superstars, if we can call on that exists, they just don’t operate as a team. That’s the only thing that is potentially missing.
So my final hopothesis, and maybe this is partially a prediction, and maybe it’s partially a call of expressions of interest, would be international group of performance psychologist who collaborate well together for the advancement of the profession. And all of the previous things that we’ve discussed during the interview would all be very common, regular discussion points for that particular group. Your thoughts on that one?
Well, at the moment my mind is envisioning a whole bunch of sports psychologists on the picket line with banners and placards saying right for sports psychs. So I’ve got that in my mind. Now, I love it. It’s an interesting landscape, every country has its different landscape. I think it’s different scene in terms of sports psych. it’s fascinating listening to you in terms of what’s happening in Australia. I can’t believe there’s only one master’s program. That just amazes me, because certainly here in the UK, I honestly believe that our sports science and sports psychology is what it is today, which is extraordinarily strong because of Australia, because Australia beat us at everything in the ’80s and through the ’90s.
And then we had to do something and for various reasons the investment went through and the English Institute of Sport emerged and various things, and now we have very, very strong academic departments research, very strong in terms of practitioners. There is, I mean, certainly at English Institute of Sport a lot of psychs who work together. So there is that sense of collaboration there. So I think it does exist, but I think every country has its challenges. I mean, I look over as a Brit to the state and I grew up on a diet of American psychology in many respects. And yeah-
… I have interesting conversations with people over there who are very … There’s a lot of divided opinion as to the landscape over there when it comes to sports psych. There’s a lot of unregulated stuff, and at same time there’s a lot of great stuff that goes on. So I would love to see more global unity. I think that global unity is enormously challenging, but hopefully things like the Sport Psych Show can help. That would be awesome if people feel that it does. So yeah. 2050, the year of collaboration, perhaps. I think hopefully the year of greater clarity, the year of greater, maybe greater cohesion between coaches and psychs. I think those are the three … They just happened to be three Cs, but maybe the three Cs I take out of this hopothesis is clarity, collaboration and cohesion.
Gareth J. Mole:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think, although the international collaboration might be regarded as the biggest challenge, and I can see that, let’s just think about what you’ve managed to achieve in the Sport Psych Show. I’m sitting halfway between Sydney and Canberra. You’re in London. Through the wonders of modern technology, it’s like we’re sitting across from one another. So I think the advantage about the international approach is that what we can do is we can go, “Okay, what have you done in your country, Sweden? What have you guys done? And what can we learn from that?”
And I think ultimately, Dan, that will trump the difficulties that exist between borders, and those difficulties are really things that we could potentially just decide and not something that are going to interfere with what we are potentially trying to work on. So from my point of view, my enthusiasm for something international would be much greater than something only based in Australia, because I believe listening to so many of the interviews that you’ve had on the Sport Psych Show that there’s a really nice flavor of different experiences from different countries, and we could really learn a lot from what have you guys done versus us. And so for me, it would have to be international.
Interesting. Great stuff. And before we round things off, you mentioned that word technology. I mean, we hadn’t really talked about technology, which could be fruitful on another conversation in the future on the Sport Psych Show, but technology I’m sure would play a massive role in sports psychology delivery in 2050. But Gareth, what a rich conversation? I really, really enjoyed that, mate. Thank you so much for coming on.
Brilliant, Gareth. Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, mate. I Really enjoyed that. Thank you.
Gareth J. Mole:
And you too, Dan, and keep up the great work.
Thank you, mate. I really enjoyed that podcast, everyone, and I’d love to hear what you, the listener think. So please do get in touch via Twitter or Facebook or through my website, danabrahams.com to tell me exactly what you think of the Sport Psych Show. And if you do have any suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear them. I’m already looking forward to next week’s episode. Bye for now.
Performance Psychologist Harley de Vos and Jarrad Merlo talk about exam psychology in this E2 Talks podcast interview.
Recently, our colleague Harley de Vos spoke with Jarrad Merlo on his podcast E2 Talks on the fascinating topic of performance psychology for exams. Due to the growing number of students and exam takers contacting us we thought it would be a good idea to use this week’s Mental Toughness Digest to add their interview below.
For those who prefer to read instead of listen a full transcript of the conversation is below as well. As always, please share and use the comments box at the bottom to join the conversation. If you are an exam taker and feel like you’d benefit from some 1-on-1 mental coaching then get in touch and we’ll send you detailed infomation about our performance psychology services.
Episode 15 – How to win on test day with performance psychologist Harley de Vos from Condor Performance
Welcome to E2 Talks. It’s a podcast where we chat about the English language landscape. In this podcast, Jay chats with performance psychologist Harley de Vos about a range of issues that can affect your performance on test day. They discuss best practices leading up to your exam, the night before your exam, the morning of your exam, and during your exam. Importantly, they discuss ways to manage test anxiety before and during your test, so you can maximise your performance on test day and win.
Hello everybody, my name is Jay. I’m one of the expert teachers here at E2 Language. Today, I’m chatting to a sport psychologist named Harley de Vos. How’s it going, Harley?
Harley de Vos:
I’m very well, thanks, Jay. How are you?
Yep, I’m doing pretty well. Doing pretty well. Some of you might be thinking, why would I want to be talking to a sports psychologist when we prepare people for English language exams? And the reason is, I think there’s great overlap between what athletes do and what test candidates do. Obviously, test candidates luckily only do it once or twice. But there’s certainly some overlap there. Harley, can you just introduce yourself, if you don’t mind?
Harley de Vos:
Yep, certainly. Firstly, just a minor correction, I’m a performance psychologist, not a sport.
Harley de Vos:
I’m actually doing the registrar program to become an endorsed sport psychologist. I’ve got a master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology. But just in the interest of using proper titles, I call myself a performance psychologist at the moment, or a sport and exercise psychology registrar, but not a sports psychologist. So that’s my background. Currently, I work for a company called Condor Performance, and we provide sport and performance psychology services to athletes and performers. We work with individual athletes, we work with coaches, we work with teams. This work is both with athletes and performers based in Australia. But also globally as well.
One of the advantages of being in 2020 and especially it’s been probably amplified on the back of COVID-19, is that with all the technology that’s available now, you don’t have to be physically in the same place as someone anymore to be able to access those services.
Harley de Vos:
I do a lot of work with that. Work with a whole host of athletes and performers from different sports. I’m also, I’ve just started a PhD which is in sports psychology, which I’m doing through the University of Newcastle, and that’s in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport.
Nice. What’s your focus in your PhD?
Harley de Vos:
It’s looking at athlete performance health, we’re calling it. There’ll be a focus on mental health and on sleep and on, I suppose, developing strategies to optimise those with a view to improving athletes’ recovery, and also helping from a psychological point of view to reduce time away from training that athletes spend because of injury and illness.
One of the big things that we know is a really strong link between physically, our health, and mentally, our health. That sort of mind/body connection. So you’re looking at it from a psychological point of view, how we can improve athletes’ health so that they can train more frequently, and I guess the more time that athletes are able to train, and the less time that they spend absent from training through injury and illness, the greater that they’re likely to be able to produce their best performances when it really matters.
Harley de Vos:
Yeah. So it’s sort of in that space that we’re looking.
Yeah, nice, nice, nice. Yeah, the physical and the mental, they’re obviously so tightly interlinked, aren’t they?
Harley de Vos:
All right. The way that I thought we might structure this talk is to talk about what our candidates should be doing pre-exam, in the months or days leading up to their test. I then want to talk about what they should be doing on the day of their exam. You mentioned sleep there, which would be a part of that. Obviously, the night before. Hopefully not during the exam.
Harley de Vos:
Then I want to also talk about their performance and what’s going on during the exam itself. I should just also mention here that I’ve taken these tests myself. These tests are very high stakes. That’s why I wanted to talk to someone about performance. They can be very anxiety provoking. One of the things that happens when you get very anxious before and exam or during an exam is that it inhibits your cognition. Obviously, this is different than sport, because I suspect you’re focusing more on how it affects your physical performance. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Here, we’re really thinking about, you’re not so worried about your physical performance in an exam, obviously, but certainly worried about how you’re reading that text, and are you able to concentrate on that text? Are you able to comprehend that text or speak? I guess there is a physical aspect to speaking. Stuff like that. What do you think there?
Harley de Vos:
I think one of the things about performance is that it’s so intertwined between the physical and the psychological. I guess, in some sports there’s certainly an external element where it’s perceived to be a very physical sport. In the 100 meter sprint, the person who can run the fastest is going to win. Of course, what actually allows that person to run the fastest is often based on psychological underpinnings. Those that can deal with pressure the best in the moment of dealing with a big final, for example.
Harley de Vos:
The person who makes the least mistakes, or that can be the most focused, is who’s going to win in that sense. Starting from that, I guess if we’re talking about it from a pure exam point of view, there’s a much higher cognitive and intellectual component there. But there’s still a lot of the principles are the same. There’s still the capacity to talk. If it’s writing, you’ve still got to write and deal with that. We know that anxiety in a performance setting can certainly significantly impact even the most basic motor skills, such as talking.
I’m sure a lot of us will have experienced at some point doing a presentation in a classroom, or delivering a speech in a public space, where you get so anxious that it’s actually really hard to get the words out.
Harley de Vos:
So you’ve definitely got that physical component there as well.
No, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Really, really interesting stuff. Yeah. The other thing is, I think people underestimate how much this can impact test performance. Even native English speakers who go and take these tests can experience this as well. And all of a sudden, their language skills, which are native, natural, are inhibited. Also language is just one of those weird things where some days you wake up and you speak like a poet. Other days, you wake up and you struggle to get a sentence out, too. There’s a lot of variability just in day to day life with your language abilities as well.
All right, let’s start with pre-exam. What do you think our exam candidates should be doing sort of leading up to their tests? Let’s say a week out from their tests.
Harley de Vos:
A week out? I think the key thing to performing well in most situations is you want to get your work done early. The classic saying, proper preparation prevents poor performance. Really, I suppose, focusing on that. Having really strong study habits is really important so that’s where a good routine can be, recognising within yourself when you study the best. Some of us, if we wake up early in the morning, and the first thing that we do is sort of hit the books for a couple hours. Because that’s when we’re at our best mentally. We might be at our sharpest, and things like that.
Others, okay, I might need to ease my way into the day before I do it. But certainly, developing really strong study habits is a really important first step I think that needs to be built up. Obviously, the more that you know, the more confidence that you can take that you can perform at your best. So that’s a really important thing. I think there’s an element there which, if you look at it from a performance side, when we watch athletes and we watch top performers do their thing, for the average person there’s kind of that awe. Like wow, they’re so amazing.
But what you overlook is the fact that they have put in so much hard work to get to that point. That’s the key thing about performance is you’ve got to work really hard. When it comes to preparing for an exam, you’ve got to put in the work. You’re not going to … I think that’s a really important first step, that you’ve got to actually do the work.
Good call. Yeah. That’s music to my ears. We’re all about preparation at E2 Language, so that’s great. Yeah it really is, you have to start building up your endurance as well. One of the things with these exams is that they can go for about three hours. If you’re studying bits and pieces here and there for 10 minutes or 20 minutes, it’s a whole different ballgame when you’re into the last bit of the exam, the end of the second hour of the exam, and it’s in the listening section, and it really is a test of endurance. So that preparation for endurance is really important, too.
What would you say about preparing … It’s a good idea to prepare when you’re feeling good, when you’ve had a nice cup of tea, and you relax and you sit down at the computer, and you’re burning incense or whatever you’re doing to make yourself feel good. But on the exam day, you may not be feeling good. Would you recommend that people prepare when they’re tired or hungry or in other states?
Harley de Vos:
Absolutely. That’s really music to my ears. Definitely. You want to spend some of the time doing your preparation, preparing when, yeah, when things are really difficult for you. When you’re not at your best. As you say, when you are tired or when you’re hungry or whatever it is. Because you’re absolutely right, on exam day, we can’t guarantee that you’re going to feel at your very best. One of the important things in performance is you don’t have to feel your best to perform your best. There’s a big difference between those two.
Harley de Vos:
Absolutely, doing, practicing when you’re not feeling well is really, really important. Definitely, we want to be doing that at least some of the time. Some of the ways that I guess can help that, for some people that might be studying in the evening at the end of the day, when they’re really tired. Or they’re putting in a solid block of studying before dinner when they’re hungry. Just being able to deal with that. Doing some studying when you don’t want to do it, when your mind is protesting it, it’s telling you to go and do other things. But actually just sitting down and doing that is really important, so that you develop experience at being able to produce the work when you don’t feel like it.
Great, yeah. I remember taking the IELTS test and had to get up at about 7:00am to get to the testing centre, then I had to wait in line for hours. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast. But then the first part is the writing test where you have to write a 250 word essay and other bits and pieces. That’s at 9:00 in the morning. I really thought to myself, wow, how many people wake up and write essays? That doesn’t happen. So that would be a really good practice, to wake up and get in that mindset.
Harley de Vos:
Yeah. I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to try and replicate exam-like conditions as part of your studying. So doing some work at the time, so yeah, if you’ve got an early morning exam, practice getting up, getting out of bed, getting ready, and doing study at that time so that that becomes a little bit of a routine for you. I think that’s really important.
Yep, absolutely. What about, most people are okay, they get a few jitters, that they manage through and whatever, it’s not such a big deal. But we do have some people who write in and they genuinely suffer anxiety issues. What practices do you recommend? Practices like mindfulness meditation or physical exercise. How can these people leading up to their exams sort of calm their nerves?
Harley de Vos:
Yeah. So certainly, for anyone that is struggling with an underlying mental health issue, it’s important to know that there is help available, and that there’s really good help and support out there. So certainly for anyone who’s in that category, I would strongly encourage you to go and speak to someone. Maybe someone like myself who has an interest in performance, but also has a strong interest in mental health. Or it might be someone who specialises in an anxiety disorder or something else. But that’s really important, that you want to sort of work on that.
If we’re talking about general, I guess, performance anxiety and how to manage those nerves, certainly the mindfulness meditations and guided exercises and relaxation can be really helpful. What I would caution against though is if people aren’t already familiar with that, it’s probably not a good idea to start doing it. We don’t really want to be introducing anything new right before a major performance, because that can actually be detrimental to performance. For those that have experience in that, absolutely, that’s a really good practice to maintain. But if you haven’t, and it’s only a few days before the exam, don’t start now.
Don’t go on a meditation retreat?
Harley de Vos:
I wouldn’t be doing that.
Harley de Vos:
What else can help, certainly movement is really important. I guess in the days leading up to the exam, part of that daily routine should be some form of moving. Why that’s really important, whether that’s going for a walk, or going to the gym, or having a hit of tennis with a friend, doing a dance class if you can do them at the moment. But whatever it is. So moving your body’s really important. We know that’s a really great way for us to reduce stress. When we move, it helps our body to metabolise cortisol, which is our stress hormone, so that’s really important.
Then also we know that movement is really important for cognition. Okay, it helps with learning and with memory. So definitely doing something every day’s going to be really important. In terms of, I guess, closer to the exam or on the day of the exam, what can be really helpful is deep breathing and knowing how to deep breath. Deep breathing is really effective physiologically at actually changing our brain chemistry.
One of the things that we know is when we are in a stressful situation, such as an exam, our threat system is activated. Part of our brain gets activated, and that’s when we start to see our heart rate increase, our breathing gets shallower and faster, our digestive system shuts down, which is why we can experience the butterflies in the tummy, we become sweaty, we might become jittery. So they’re all the physical signs we experience. Plus, there’s also the cognitive element, with the worrying and the catastrophising thinking.
Breathing is really good, because it actually helps us to switch which parts of our brain are activated. A little bit like when we’re anxious, it’s like our foot’s on the accelerator, okay? But to perform really well in the exam, you need the brakes on. We need to slow it down. Breathing’s really good for that.
A little useful exercise that can help is what we call box breathing. This is simply just to breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold that breathe for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and repeat that. And it’s just like you’re going around a box. For those who are very visual, they might want to imagine that box just in front of them, and that can just be a nice way just to help slow down the breathing, which is really important. That’s one aspect.
The other thing which I think is also important to acknowledge is that exams are difficult and they are stress provoking situations, and they’re designed in many ways intentionally to do that. Part of it is also, I guess, a willingness to tolerate discomfort, knowing that this exam’s going to be difficult, but it’s really important for me to do that because it’s going to help me with future studies, or with other aspects of my life. So it’s really important that I do this exam and I’m willing to sit with the discomfort that I might experience along the way, in order of working towards what’s important for me.
Well said, yeah. I’m a big fan of acceptance. Just saying, you know what? My heart’s going to flutter, my stomach will feel terrible, my hands will sweat. Who cares? I’ll get over it.
Harley de Vos:
That’s okay, it’s normal. That’s just my body responding to a threat. It’s okay. I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to do that.
Yeah, good one, well said. All right. So what about sort of night before the exam with diet and sleep? What do you have to say about that?
Harley de Vos:
Yeah. Again, we don’t want to change anything a day or two days before. We want to keep doing our same routines. Hopefully, everyone has a good sleep routine where they go to bed at the same time every night and they wake at the same time, and if they’re not, it’s probably a good idea to be doing that. Particularly a few days before the exam. If you’ve got a 9:00am exam, and you know you have to be up at 6:30 in the morning so that you can have something to eat and you can get to the exam, then practice getting up at 6:30 a week before, the longer the better, so that you can just consistently waking at that time, even on weekends.
With that, then, you’re also going to try and set a bedtime that’s the same. So it might be 10:00pm or whatever. That’s the time that I’m going to bed. I’m going to build that into my routine. We want to keep that the same. I have heard anecdotally that for some athletes, that for them, they find the sleep two nights before their competition is the one that they most want to get right.
Harley de Vos:
Because of the night before, things can happen or whatever. Again, we can perform in the short term, even if we haven’t slept well. If they can nail it two nights before, then at least they’ve had a really good sleep and a good rest and they know that they’ll be right to go. Making that sleep a priority’s really important. But certainly, the night before, I think what is really important is you want to do your last revision of notes. You don’t want to be studying any new material that close, because that’s going to impact performance.
So just a revision of notes. You want to give yourself a really good break.
Good. I agree.
Harley de Vos:
So it’s about, I’ve reviewed my notes, I’ve done what I can, I’m ready to go.
I remember in high school, basically having that attitude. It’s like, there’s nothing more I can do now. So I might as well just chill out, watch a movie, relax.
Harley de Vos:
That’s exactly right. That’s really important. I’d encourage people to do that. To be switching off and really trying to relax and unwind the night before. Making sure that there’s a period of time, probably at least 30 minutes, ideally 60 before bed, where you’re not on any devices. Just to help sleep. Make sure that your room is a good place to sleep is really important as well. That it’s cool, it’s dark, it’s quiet.
Harley de Vos:
As free from clutter as much as possible. We’re not studying in bed or anything like that, because that’s going to impact it. Certainly that unwinding process is really important. I think that’s a big thing. The other thing that’s also important in this is if you are really anxious the night before an exam and you can’t sleep, don’t spend long periods of time laying in bed not sleeping.
Because what we do is, we actually condition our mind that that’s what we do. We go to bed and we just lay there and we think. Give yourself 20 minutes, half an hour, max. If you’re not asleep, come up. Get out of bed, go into a different room, do something that’s really quiet and not stimulating. Maybe it’s reading or some coloring or some journaling, or listen to some really soft, calming music. And there’s some really great soundtracks that you can get. You know, sounds of rain on the roof and things like that can be really good.
Again, be aware of caffeine and how much caffeine you have too close to bed. For those that do enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, caffeine before can help increase alertness and can help, there is an effect there. Certainly, if you’re someone who likes a coffee in the morning like I am, well have your coffee in the morning before the exam. That’s important to do. But don’t have the coffee probably at dinnertime, because you might not be able to sleep.
And probably don’t introduce any new foods into your diet the night before. Or just certain foods I would avoid, like chili, obvious things like that.
Harley de Vos:
That’s right. If anyone has any sensitivities or intolerances to certain foods, be steering clear of them the night before. Yes. Eating just a normal, healthy meal is really good. I’d encourage you to do that. Don’t eat too close to going to bed. Give your body a chance to actually start digesting and processing that food before you go to bed. That’s really important. You do want to eat something that’s wholesome, that has good proteins, plenty of vegetables there, some good fats and carbohydrates in that. Just eating what you would normally.
Nice. Good one. All right, let’s imagine it’s on the day. The alarm goes off. What do you recommend first thing up?
Harley de Vos:
Look, I think everyone has … Some people have very deliberate and structured morning routines, some don’t. But certainly, it’s important between waking and getting ready for the exam that you’ve had a really good, filling breakfast so that hopefully you’re not going to go into the exam hungry or so that your blood sugar’s stable. We don’t really want them crashing through the exam. So nothing too sugary.
It might be a smoothie with some fruit and Greek yogurt, or in the winter months, a good porridge or oatmeal. Something like that, that’s going to give you sustained energy beforehand is really important. It’s not going to be too sensitive in the tummy and cause you any issues there. Having breakfast. If you do like a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, have that and give yourself time to have that. A good idea to drink plenty of water as well. You want to be hydrated as you go into the exam as well, because we know dehydration affects your ability to think.
Yeah, good one. Good. All right. So don’t change it up too much, that makes sense. Big breakfast. I’m a big fan, I like healthy fats, avocado, stuff like that, that seems to sustain my energy for a long time.
Harley de Vos:
Perfect, yeah. Avocado toast, with an egg or without an egg could be ideal. This one is more my own personal experience more so than anything I know from science. But for me, when I was always doing exams at uni, I always had this motto that if I looked good, then I would feel good. And if I felt good, then I could perform better.
Harley de Vos:
For me, making sure that I had a shower, had a shave, put on jeans.
Yep. I like it.
Harley de Vos:
I was going out in my trackies and Ugg boots. That was something that was important for me. And for others, that might be important as well.
Harley de Vos:
Taking a little bit of pride in how you look. You don’t have to wear a dinner suit to the exam.
Good one. Yeah.
Harley de Vos:
But something just fine and casual. You’re going to be, probably think about different layers in case it’s really cold in the exam room or in the hall, wherever it’s done. Or if it’s really hot.
Harley de Vos:
That’s really important as well, that you dress depending on the conditions. If it’s too hot or too cold, that might impact your ability to perform well.
For sure. Yeah. I think also, you want to make sure you’ve got your transport organized. The testing center might be far away. Make sure you’ve got your Uber booked, or you know which train station you’re getting off at. Even doing that the week before, just so you know what that routine is, you don’t want any surprises on the day of the exam. You certainly don’t want to rock up late. Or as I did once, rock up and realize I hadn’t actually booked the test itself.
Harley de Vos:
Yes, you want to make sure you’ve done all that sort of stuff right. So you’ve got that. You give yourself plenty of time, I think is really important. In the event that the trains aren’t running, for example, if you’re taking public transport. You’ve got to get an Uber and still get there. You’re better off being at the exam center early and having to sit around rather than rushing around late. We want to just try and eliminate as much stress as possible. Again, doing all that stuff, doing it early, having your research done early, knowing where you have to go, how you’re going to get there, how long it’s going to take, that’s really important.
Yeah. One of the things you have to do when you take one of these tests is sit in the waiting room. I see people with notes, they’re doing their last minute cramming. One thing I like to do is actually take a pen and a piece of paper and just start writing. I find, when I just start writing off the bat with no, how can I say this? After a few sentences or a few paragraphs, I start to get in the rhythm, my brain starts to get in the writing rhythm. So obviously, it’s a bit like warming up before the exam. I think that’s really helpful. Just to practice writing an essay in the waiting room, just casually. Not putting any pressure on yourself, but just getting those bloods flowing.
Harley de Vos:
I think that’s a great idea. I think particularly when the focus is on actually the writing rather than the content is really important as well.
That’s it, yeah.
Harley de Vos:
Personally, I’d probably be discouraging people from reading notes. Like if you’re in the waiting room, you’re not going to gain anything at that point.
Yeah, I agree. I agree, it’s too late.
Harley de Vos:
If you don’t know by the time you get into the waiting room, you’re not ready to do it. And that’s not going to help. If anything, you’re going to actually hinder your performance. You’ve got to get all your studying done before.
That’s right. Some of these tests are also paper-based tests, and you have to write your essay with a pencil. That was a real shock to me the first time I had to do that. I hadn’t written with a gray lead pencil since I was in grade six at school. Actually, I mean I had the strength. But I tell you what, my hand was getting pretty sore. My handwriting was getting pretty messy by the end of it. I think a good practice would’ve been to actually write a couple of essays, do my preparation with the gray lead pencil. That would’ve been helpful.
Harley de Vos:
That’s a really great point. And definitely, certainly, if you can know as much about the exam before you’re going to do it, so that you can prepare accordingly. So yeah, if it’s going to be done with a gray lead pencil, well practice writing with a gray lead pencil.
Yes. Good one.
Harley de Vos:
Then you can buy those little grips that you can put on the, so possibly, if you’re allowed to bring something like that in, put it in your pocket. Then if you do have to write with a pencil, at least that might help, keep your hands from cramping and tightening up, so to speak. Little things like that’s really important. But definitely, you want to be practicing what you’re going to have to do in the exam in the days before you go into the exam.
Good one. All right, let’s imagine you’re in the exam room and you can open your test booklets and begin writing or begin reading or whatever it is you’re doing. Let’s say somebody, at this stage, let’s say it’s the reading section. And this is where emotion can really affect cognition when it comes to reading. I’ve experienced this. I’ll give you a funny little example. I was teaching the other day, I teach online, these live classes. There was about 250 people watching me as I was explaining the answer to this multiple choice question. I totally forgot what the answer was.
I had to work it out in front of 250 people as they watched me. All of a sudden, my mind just shut down and I couldn’t read that paragraph properly. It was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. I had to just say to the students, listen, I’ll just come back to this in a minute, bought myself some time. But that can certainly happen. What would you recommend to people when they’re looking at the paragraph and it’s just not making sense to them, because there’s too much emotion, too much anxiety going through their mind?
Harley de Vos:
I certainly think when you go in and sit down, that’s a really good opportunity to have a couple of those deep breaths we talked before about the box breathing. That’s a good thing. Just to try and really calm and center yourself in that moment. I think that’s really important. Then when you start reading, again, having a breath before you actually start. If you find that you’re reading something and it’s not making sense, or you can’t read it, just stop, take a moment, and then come back to it.
Harley de Vos:
Or move on to a different section and I think that’s really important. You don’t want to spend too long on something you’re not being able to comprehend and not understand. That’s only going to further increase any anxiety you might be feeling. Taking that time, possibly something you could do before the exam, and you can certainly do once you’re in the exam, if we talked earlier about movement and how important that is. But we can still move. Even if we’re seated, we can still stretch and things like that. Just taking a little bit of time, either your reading time or throughout your exam, just to do that, is really important as well.
Harley de Vos:
If you started reading a section in reading time, and you’re finding it really hard to comprehend, well just put it down for a moment, have a quick stretch, move the arms around, just sort of shake your legs out, have a slow, controlled, calming breath, and then try again.
I agree, man.
Harley de Vos:
And see if that works.
There’s breaths that you take where you become really conscious and aware, that can really just stop that compounding mechanism of the mind when it starts to spin out of control.
Harley de Vos:
Yep. Definitely even, some people sometimes, just shutting your eyes for a moment and then reopening them, and just allowing yourself to re-focus can also help.
Yeah, yeah. Good stuff. Good. All right. What about, just maintaining attention, maintaining concentration throughout this exam. I think obviously, we’ve had a good breakfast, that’s going to help a lot. What else is there that we can do to keep the focus?
Harley de Vos:
I think what’s important to realise, if you’ve got the exam and it’s going to go for three hours, you’re not going to be able to sustain your attention for that whole time. Just know that humans don’t concentrate for that length of time. What helps, I think, is just to break it down into smaller chunks. You might do it per question or per section. You might work on focusing on, you’ve got to write a short essay. So that’s, okay, I’m going to focus on that. I’m going to write that. Then I’m just going to give myself a minute after that, just to stop, to breathe, just to move a little bit.
Then I’m going to go onto the next section. So we actually break it down into chunks, and I think that’s a really helpful thing to do. I know, again, another personal thing that I used to do, and depending on the exam conditions whether this is allowed. But I, in exams, would always take what I would call a tactical toilet break. In the middle of the exam, whether or not I needed to go to the bathroom, I would just go. I would just give myself two, three minutes out of the exam room, maybe splash a little bit of cold water on the face. Just reset, refocus, an opportunity to get the blood flowing, because you’re moving around.
Then coming back in and going again. For me, I always found that the time that I would lose by doing that, I would gain because I was able to sustain my attention for longer. Something like that, I think is important. Don’t, I suppose, my advice would be don’t think that you have to sit in your seat for the whole three hours and do the exam from start to finish. We can break it up, we can break it down. If you do need to get out and come back in, that can actually be really, really valuable.
Harley de Vos:
That would be something I would consider. But again, using our breathing is also really important during that exam as well. Just being able to take those calming, centering breaths just to reset. I think breaking it down into smaller sections, one helps to reduce the complexity of the task, which makes it a little bit easier for us to do. Jay, if you and I were going to go and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, for example, and we stand at the bottom, we look at the top and we think wow, that’s really high, that’s really long, I don’t think we can do it, you’re forgetting the fact that you have to take individual steps to get to that point.
Harley de Vos:
If we start focusing on those individual steps, eventually, we get to the top.
Good one, yeah.
Harley de Vos:
Then we can apply that similar principle, when it comes to an exam, that sometimes we lose sight of what we actually have to do because we get overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. But if you actually think, okay, I’ve got this section to do, then I’ve got this section, then I’ve got that section, well I’ll just break them down and I can do that. I can do one section, and then I can do the next section.
Great, well said. The biggest way that candidates will screw up their test in the writing section is not their grammar, it’s not their vocabulary range, it’s actually writing off topic. Because what candidates typically do, or what they can do is, they’re in such a rush and it’s like, go, bang. Then they’ll quickly read the question prompt, not read it properly, they’ll scribble out an essay without sort of, as you mentioned, which I think is a great point, stopping after the first paragraph, the introduction, going, okay, does that makes sense? How am I going to link the second paragraph, writing that one, looking at the question prompt again. Just doing it stage by stage. Well said.
Harley de Vos:
Yeah. I think even on that, from when I was at school, when I had to write essays and exams, some of the advice I received was always spend a couple minutes actually making a little plan for what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. I think again, that time, that if you can spend a moment or two just jotting down some ideas about what’s really important, that will save you time, and that helps to ensure that what you’re writing is on topic. Because there’d be nothing worse than writing a really great essay but it’s not relevant to the question that’s been asked.
That’s it, that’s it. Okay, cool. The other one, and I guess the last bit is talking about the speaking section. Why this freaks candidates out is because when they’re dealing with the listening, the reading, and the writing, they’re dealing with a piece of paper that’s in front of them, right? But then all of a sudden, they’re now dealing in the speaking section with another human being with what’s going to interlock it as someone who’s going to be asking them questions and responding to them. This is an interesting one. I guess it differs between exams.
Other exams like PT, you’re actually speaking to a computer, which people find very helpful. That can actually … They prefer that to speaking with a person. My recommendation for this one is that these IELTS examiners, for example, they’ve seen all sorts of people come through, and they’ve seen people in all sorts of states of mind, right? They’re professionals. If you’re shaking or quivering or whatever, that’s not what they’re worried about. That’s not what they’re paying attention to. They’re paying attention to your language.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you’re having anxiety that’s completely normal, as we’ve said before, just sort of accepting it and going you know what? My hands are shaking, I can’t maintain eye contact, whatever’s going on, it doesn’t really matter. That’s not what you’re being scored on there. But, do you have any last suggestions about the speaking section when they’re in front of a person? What would you recommend there?
Harley de Vos:
Yeah, look, I think that big part about accepting is really important. Recognising that it will be a challenge. Again, trying to do as much practice as you can beforehand to prepare for that. So talking with different people, practicing getting used to that, trying to make that, I guess, as pressurised as you can. So it might be doing it when you’re tired, doing it when you’re hungry, doing it with someone you don’t know, getting them to make up material that you’re not aware of. All that sort of stuff so that you get used to doing that.
I think probably when you’re actually in the moment, what I would say is, it’s okay to have a breath and a pause before responding. So what I would imagine would probably happen a lot of time is someone starts talking to you, and your mind starts to think, okay, well what do I need to say? What do I need to say? Then you start talking, maybe it’s not coming out as you’d like, or you’ve lost track of words.
It’s like a bit of a snowball, it just spirals and it just gets worse and worse. Actually take a time to pause and process what you’ve been said, what’s been said to you, sorry, before you, then, respond.
Be cool. Yep.
Harley de Vos:
That would be probably my advice. Again, just trying to really slow things down. Even if you’re just buying yourself half a second or a second, that can be enough time for your brain to actually compute what it is that you need to say. So I guess, get your brain to work before your mouth is probably going to be really helpful in that setting, I would imagine.
It’s good to really pay attention to the other person. Because your body’s going to be going through all sorts of physiological whatever it’s going on, swirls and whirls, and twists and turns and stuff like that. If you’re paying attention to the person asking you the question, really putting your concentration on understanding what they’re saying, your body can do its thing, that’s fine, and you’ll respond appropriately, which is really important.
Harley de Vos:
Look, absolutely right. And there’s something to be said where if you can make your focus a little bit more outward, so direct it on the other person. What are they saying? And what’s my job? My job is to relay the information that I have to them, or to engage with them in a conversation. That’s my job. And if we can just move that, shift our focus, then it helps take it off the fact that you might be really anxious and uncomfortable in that moment. But you become less aware of it because your focus is now on them and what they’re saying. Which then actually helps you to do what you need to do.
That’s it, that’s it. Yeah. Yeah. Well said. It’s quite interesting. I do a bit of meditation. One of the things that I’ve become aware of it how often my body can be in pain, but I’m just not aware of it. Because I’m not paying attention to it, it doesn’t really matter. There’s all sorts of pain shooting around my body, and my shoulders, in fact, if I pay attention now, it’s like my shoulders are quite sore. But up until that point, it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t focusing on that. I was focusing on having a conversation and whatever I was doing at work earlier. Yeah, cool.
Great. All right. This has been a really, really good talk. I think this has been full of helpful bits of information for people who do have to take this high stakes exam. And it is high stakes. They’ve got their visas or their university entrance riding on it. We’re very empathetic, sympathetic to that. Any last things you’d like to say?
Harley de Vos:
Yeah. Probably the last thing, I guess, from my point of view is it’s really important to believe in yourself.
Harley de Vos:
You’ve earned the right to sit these exams because of what you’ve done beforehand. Not everyone gets that opportunity. The All Blacks have a saying, that pressure is a privilege. The idea being that if you find yourself in a situation where you feel pressure, that’s actually a privilege, because you’ve earned the right to feel that pressure. I think in many ways, sitting an exam relates quite well to that, the idea that I’ve earned the right to be here. So yes it is going to be stressful, because it’s a high stakes situation. But I’ve earned the right to do it.
I think that’s really important. Believing in yourself, trusting your processes. Trusting that you’ve done the work that will get you there is really important. That’s where we talked earlier about having really good preparation and good study habits early.
Harley de Vos:
Is important because that’s what gives us confidence. That’s our trust that I’ve done the work, that now I can deliver when it counts. I think that’s really important. The final thing as well is, I think just really to embrace the challenge and to try and enjoy that experience. Yes it’s difficult, but if you can try and enjoy it and see it as an opportunity, I think that’s really important. In a lot of difficult situations, we perceive as a threat to whether or not we get a visa or we can get into a university, and that makes it really hard.
Harley de Vos:
But if we can start to see it as a challenge and as an opportunity, that just shifts our mindset slightly and allows us to accept the difficulty that we’ll face, to accept those nerves that are going to be there and the self doubt, but allow us to do what we need to do to get the performance that we need.
Yeah. Great, man. Cool. Going to kick the exam’s ass, that’s what it’s about.
Harley de Vos:
That’s exactly right.
Good stuff. Harley, thanks so much for chatting today. It was really interesting.
Harley de Vos:
No, thanks so much for the opportunity, Jarrad. I’ve really enjoyed it, and hopefully for the listeners out there, they can pick something up out of this and that will help them with their exams.