Over Coaching in Professional Sport

Money is pouring into elite sport, especially in places like The UK, resulting in more coaches and support staff than every before. It is too much?

After the last edition of the Mental Toughness Digest, we received a comment from one of our readers that was so insightful and interesting I felt that it required an entire edition in order to properly answer.

Here is the comment:

“ … bad result in the game of course if you’re English, but good article! I would add that (related to your points I think) in my view England lacked leadership on the pitch, particularly in the forwards, to react to problems they were facing. I do think the modern professional rugby player tends to be over-coached and, having generally not been to uni or in a ‘day job’, lacks the leadership and problem-solving skills acquired in those walks of life. Thoughts?”

This comment, of course, was in response to the previous edition of Mental Toughness Digest which took a look at the psychological and tactical elements of the recently concluded Rugby World Cup. I heard during the commentary that the English team had close to 30 members of support staff with them during Japan 2019. In other words for every starting player, there were two members of backroom staff available.

Sport at the highest level can be cruel and I’m guessing that had England taken out the World Cup on 2nd November we would all be congratulating those behind the decision to provide them with so much support. But is more support always a good thing? In having every aspect all the players’ lives catered for them are they losing some of the basic problem-solving abilities most “normal” people develop when they are in there late teens and early 20s? This is certainly the premise of the question above from the reader and one that I would like to explore in a little more detail.

I don’t mean to use the word normal above to imply that professional athletes are not normal – I work with hundreds of them and most are actually very normal. What I really mean is that their lives are very different from what most people experience – especially in terms of their work.

My professional instinct is that many professional sporting teams have taken the concept of support too far. You might liken it to many variables that could all be placed along a Bell-shaped (normal distribution) curve whereby the far left and far right-hand side are both non-ideal situations with the middle being the sweet spot. As per the below were the Y-Axis would be ‘return on investment’.

Let us put this into the context of example at hand. If you go back 30 years professional rugby union players did not exist so those that represented their country at the first World Cup (1987) were definitely under-supported.

Although it might be tempting to suggest that the superior time management skills and problem-solving abilities of these bygone players were “all good” due to the fact that most of them had a normal job – it’s not quite that simple.

The lack of support for international rugby union players in the 1970s and 1980s made for a very stressful existence. The players essentially needed to keep two full-time employers happy; one that paid their salaries and one that selected them to play for their country.

Some of you may know I was named after the great Welsh scrum-half (halfback/number 9) Gareth Edwards and I’m lucky to have a signed copy of his autobiography taking pride on my bookshelf. In this book, Mr Edwards sums up the difficulty of being an international player in those days:

Fast forward 30 years and we have a team that takes 30 coaching/support staff to an international tournament.

Have some teams gone from the far left of the bell-shaped curve to the far right? Have the Springboks, as an example, ended up somewhere in the middle – the sweet spot so to speak whereby they have the essentials taken care of but the players are this still required to do a fair amount on the own? 

The really fascinating sub-topic within this discussion is the question about whether or not these highly qualified, highly paid support staff are actually increasing or decreasing the amount of dependancy experienced by the players they are working with?

One of our philosophies at Condor Performance is that we are essentially trying to make ourselves redundant in the lives and performances of our clients from the very beginning. 

We feel that it would be psychologically negligent to do anything as sport and performance psychologists that would make one are sporting clients feel like they needed us or depended on us in order to perform well.

Sometimes this means that we complete our job in just 2 or 3 months. To really get a good idea of our monthly approach to sports psychology then watch the below video.

Many years ago I remember having a conversation with our CFO Derek. He expressed concern that this philosophy was counter-productive from profit and loss point of view. Actually, as it turns out, it’s mighty helpful as our clients know that we are going to get in there, get the job done and then get out. This increases the possibility that they then recommend us to their friends and teammates.

I’m pretty sure I was right because in 2020 it is likely that for the first time in our history we will require the services of more than 10 sport and performance psychologists.

I do not know enough about how other professionals involved in sport are trained nor do I know enough about how other types of psychologists from other countries are trained but the ones that are fortunate enough to work for us are basically instructed to help their clients become their own mental coach – one that is free and available 24/7. 

It is due, in part, to the philosophy that we spend a remarkably small amount of time with our athletes whilst (or just before) they are actually competing. It would be very easy for us to do this given now than 99% of our sessions take place via video conference. A quick FaceTime video session 1 hour before kickoff is far easier in 2019 that it would’ve been in 2009. But we still generally avoid having too many sessions of this nature. Why? Because we want our clients to be able to problem-solve on the fly when the pressure is on. That is quite literally one of our mission statements.

If I were the head coach of an international rugby union team I would have a very, very small group of support staff that accompanied me and my players to international competitions. 

Probably the first two to get a plane ticket would be the physiotherapist and the team medical doctor in order to manage any physical issues that players take into the tournament or pick up during it.

I would also insist that one or two highly skilled massage therapists were in attendance as there are simply no shortcuts to helping players recover from such a physically demanding sport. Due to the fact that in this hypothetical situation the head coach is a highly qualified sports psychologist (me!) then there would probably be no need to take another one.

I certainly wouldn’t be taking anybody who is supposed to specialise in the technical aspects of the sport (biomechanics) as all of this would’ve already been completed well before we left the airport.

As mentioned in the previous article tactics are becoming more and more a part of the “sports psychology” realm (at least the way we define it) but my knowledge of the game might need to be boosted by having an assistant coach who knows the game backwards. This is the role I see former players taking on more and more in the future.

Finally, I would take a professional comedian with us to just hang out with the players and make sure that the atmosphere remains relaxed and light.

Slashing the support staff budget by two thirds would free up significant funds that could be spent elsewhere. How about an annual trip to Mozambique for the players to help out in some of the poorer villages; problem-solving and some perspective all warped up in one.

Last year we wrote an article called The Problem with Privilege which explores these ideas on an even deeper level.  

Rugby Union Psychology

Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole – born in South Africa, educated in England and lives in Australia – is a world leader in the mental side of rugby union

Observations of The 2019 Rugby Union World Cup

Due to the fact that many readers of The Mental Toughness Digest come from countries where rugby union is not a major sport then let me quickly start this article by providing a quick summary and context of the Rugby World Cup that has just finished in Japan.

The first point to mention from a psychological point of view is that the Rugby World Cup is by far the most valued prize in world rugby. In other words, unlike many other sports such as soccer, hockey and tennis which all have several majors competitions nothing comes close to the Rugby World Cup for rugby playing nations.

The Rugby World Cup is played every four years with New Zealand (The All Blacks) taking out the two previous editions in 2011 and 2015. These two tournament victories took New Zealand to a total of three (they also won the first one in 1987), one ahead of South Africa (1995 and 2007) and Australia (1991 and 1999) and two ahead of the only other country to have lifted the William Web Ellis Trophy – England (who won in 2003 after Johny Wilkinson’s last-minute drop goal against the Wallabies).

This means that strong rugby union nations such as Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Japan and Argentina have never gotten their hands on the Rugby World Cup.

Due to the fact that a handful of countries dominate the sport the initial stages of the competition are a little strange with powerhouse countries often beating ‘minnows’ by scores more common in cricket than rugby.

This means a much higher degree of predictability about who will make the final eight compared with a FIFA Soccer / Football World Cup for example. All four previous winners of the Rugby World Cup made it through to the quarter-finals of this year’s event. Furthermore, three of these rugby unions superpowers got through to the semi-final as well with only two-time winner Australia missing out on a place in the final four. Wales beat France to play only their 3rd ever semi-final.

Like most sports, it’s really at the pointy end of the competition – the knock-out stages where the mental side really kicks in. By ‘mental side’ we don’t just mean sporting mental toughness but tactics as well. Decision making, especially that required under pressure, is an entirely psychological process.

Examples were-a-plenty in both the semi-finals and the final. 

During the first semi-final that saw the mighty All Blacks take on The Poms (sorry, I mean the English) the game started with a little controversy. The English team, coached by a true lover of mind games Eddie Jones, lined up in a giant V whilst facing the famous New Zealand pre-game war dance – The Haka.

England started their mind games well before the opening whistle in their semi-final against New Zealand.

England was later fined for this which is something I disagree with. I am fine with one country being allowed to have an extra psychological boost just before the opening whistle but it should be left up to the opposition to decide if and how they observe or respond to this.

Of course, as is pointed out in this previous edition of the Mental Toughness Digest it’s never possible to really know what factors result in a win or loss in sport by I suspect that New Zealand was slightly distracted by England’s unorthodox facing of the Haka. England won the match comfortably 19 – 7.

In the other semi-final South Africa beat Wales 19 – 16 in one of the least attractive games of rugby union you’ll ever see. Tactics completely dominated this game with The Spingboks kicking the ball as often as possible. In my work as a performance psychologist I am becoming more and more involved in the tactical side – especially in the one on one work with coaches – but even I was stumped about why South Africa would want to give the ball away as often as they did. I suspect the brains trust knew something that I didn’t because The Boks scraped into their third Rugby World Cup final.

Based on the form of the two semi-finals England were down as clear favourites to take home the William Web Ellis trophy after the final in Yokohama on 2nd November.

But form is a hugely overrated concept in sport – it’s a reflection of the past which is completely uninfluenceable.

It was obvious right from the start of the final that the English players were trying far too hard. What, surely it’s not possible to try to hard – I can hear you think? Oh yes, it is my friends.

For those of you who we are either working with at the moment or who we have assisted in the past you might remember that one of the cornerstones of our mental coaching model – Metuf – is the idea that the hard work and effort needs to be kept in the preparation basket with the main aim of sporting competitions to be as relaxed as possible.

Let me explain why. Motor skills – such as catching, passing or kicking a rugby ball – all fall along a continuum of automaticity. On the one extreme, the action can be what we call “cognitive” which means a lot of thought is needed to attempt this skill. Think of a child learning to ride a bicycle. On the other extreme we have what is called the Autonomous Stage. Think about the action of brushing your teeth as an example. This action can and should be executed with little or no mental effort. In fact, the less mental effort you apply and the more relaxed you the more likely your best version of these motor skills will prevail.

It is for this reason that my colleagues and I at Condor Performance are such advocates of what we called The Relaxed Competition Mindset which is based on something called The Law of Reverse Effect.

The Law of Reversed Effect states; “The greater the conscious effort, the less the subconscious response” or understood another way “Whenever the will (conscious mind) and imagination (subconscious) are in conflict, the imagination (subconscious) always wins.”

Despite having a coach who has a great understanding of the mental side England tried too hard in the Rugby World Cup final. Their skills were negatively impacted by their over-eagerness.

On the flip side, South Africa relaxed, kept things simple and changed up the tactics that they’d used in the previous six games of the tournament. Suddenly they stop kicking as much and ran the ball and I suspect in doing so left the English game plan in tatters (who would have been expecting them to kick).

All of these factors – and many more – contributing to an emphatic 32 – 12 win that saw “The Boks” equal The All Blacks tally of three World Cup wins.

What is truly remarkable is that six of the nine Rugby World Cups have been won by only two countries – South African and New Zealand. Eight of the nine have been won by just three countries – although Australia’s right to be regarded as a rugby union superpower is somewhat in question at the moment with their last World Cup win exactly 20 years ago now.

It is impossible to really know why South Africa and New Zealand are pulling away from the rest but my guess is it has a lot to do with how seriously they take the mental and tactical side of their coaching development programs.

I will end this article by encouraging you to watch the press conference below with triumphant South African coach and captain – which is riddled with clues of a psychological nature. And my favourite part of this interview – Rassie Erasmus, less than an hour after winning the most sought after prize in world rugby – is already planning for the British and Irish Lions tours two years from now. Enjoy and as always use the space below to add your own thoughts and questions.

Team Unity and How To Improve It

Team unity, also known as culture, is the glue that sticks together the members of sporting teams so that they work together and not against each other.

Does your team work together or are you just a group of individuals?

It may come as a surprise to some readers that one of the aspects of performance we a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work with is team unity. Known more commonly by many other names such as culture, team cohesion and team chemistry team unity essentially describes all the little factors that can result in some sporting team being completely unified whilst others can resemble the boys from the famous novel The Lord of the Flies.

The first point to accept when it comes to team unity is that the chances of it being organically excellent are very, very unlikely. In other words, the culture of most sporting teams, even the professional ones, is typically not that flash. The second factor is that regardless of the current state of your team’s culture is can be improved. That’s right, if it’s currently poor it can be bettered and if it’s already excellent it can still be improved further.

How Is Team Unity Best Improved In Sporting Teams?

Well, the best way but also the most costly is to engage the services of a qualified sport or performance psychologist who has helped hundreds of teams to improve their culture already. I can’t speak for all sports psychologists but certainly, at Condor Performance the way we go about this is reasonably simple. We work mainly with the coaches so that we make ourselves redundant. As the CEO of a business or the principle of a school, one of the main jobs of the coach of a sporting team is to unify the team and them keep them unified.

The problem is, most of them (90%) attempt to go this delicate work underequipped. This results in millions of well-intended coaches around the world doing an average job of this key component of performance.

So we work with the coaches, ideally one-on-one and put what we call The 10 R’s under the microscope. The 10 R’s refers to five pairs of words that each start with the letter R that tend to provide most of the clues about how to improve the unity of any given team.

Roles and Rules

It is virtually impossible for a team to be unified if the individual members are not clear about their role and what the rules or expectations of the team are. If these can be established clearly during the offseason it can go a long way to helping make sure the team remains together during the highs and the lows of the season coming up. 

Relationships and Respect

It is important to mention that the members of a team don’t actually need to be the best of friends – in fact, they don’t even really have to like one another. But they do need to respect one another. Mutual respect tends to result from teams whereby cliques are not allowed to form. In other words, there is some kind of relationship between all members of the team. 

Reassurance and Reasons

Maybe more for the coaches but important nonetheless is the art of giving frequent reassurance and reasons to the playing group. Humans are not mind-readers, if you feel they’re doing a great job then let them know. If on the other hand you – as their coach – are not that happy with something then explain why you’re not staffed as well as how to improve it.

Ready and Relaxed

There is a huge furphy (furphy is an Australian slang word for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual) in elite sport that one of the best ways to help the members of a team to come together is by helping them win more. This is like putting the cart before the horse. In actual fact, one of the best ways is to help them prepare very well and feel relaxed and confidence come game time.

Recognition and Rewards

In sports, the obvious wins are often too obvious. In other words, there really is no need to celebrate winning the league or going the entire season undefeated. I am a much greater believer in recognising and celebrating the less obvious wins. What about the time that your teammate smashes her PB on the Beep Test or when all of you are able to attend training without anyone having an injury concern. Not only do teams with a strong culture recognise these smaller milestones but they’ll often reward them more than the obvious ones.

If your sporting team is only a tight budget and you’d like to learn more about The R’s then sign up for free to our online Mental Toughness training program – Metuf. If, on the other hand, you have some funds to spend on performance consider contacting us at info@condorperformance.com with the details of your sporting team and one of our psychologists will be in touch to explain who we can assist with factors such as team unity.

Mental Skills Etc.

Mental Skills are often mixed up with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sports psychs clarifies what ‘mental skills’ really are

Mental Skills Training is obvious for game-sports such as chess, but it should be obvious for all sport and performance areas.

The term ‘mental skill’ or ‘mental skills’ are surely the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly virtually everywhere in my experience.

You see, skills are the targets or outcomes, not the methods or processes and yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.

When we talk about an athlete – say a soccer player – who is skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. For example, they might be able to dribble the ball very well like the great Diego Maradona used to do in the 1980s. Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.

But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling. Mental rehearsal of the correct dribbling movements can be just as effective, for example. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills – technical, tactical, physical and mental.

The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.

Let me use some examples.

At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

You can liken – therefore – a concept such as emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better (yes, Maradona could have been better at dribbling too).

So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.

They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).

The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side (shout out to any physios or exercise physiologists reading this).

Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …

  • I could improve my flexibility by …
  • I could improve my cardio fitness by …
  • I could improve my upper body strength by …

In these three examples, the word in bold is the target and therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end, in place of the three little dots. For example:

I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.

One target with many physical methods.

Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (aka mental toughness). 

  • I could improve my motivation by …
  • I could improve my emotions by …
  • I could improve my thoughts by …
  • I could improve my unity by …
  • I could improve my focus by …

Not quite so easy is it?

Remember motivation is the mental skill here so the question is what processes (things you can actually do) might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation, passion, commitment and/or performance enthusiasm?

Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here.

How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ here and as explained in a lot more detail via the free Metuf program is all about ‘increased awareness of the present moment with decreased judgement’.

The mental skill of thinking (bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you?) has hundreds of tried and tested methods to try and better it (a lot more than most sporting skills such as dribbling a soccer ball that’s for sure) but the best – in my opinion – is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on stuff like results and other people.

How about the mental skill of Team Unity? Arguably the hardest of The Big Five areas of sport/performance mental toughness as it involves other people (only somewhat influenceable – see above). In fact, so tricky that I will dedicate the entire of next week’s edition of the Mental Toughness Digest to the topic.

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Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? The best way that I know is to work on switching on and off so that you are keeping all your focus juice for when it matters. Human concentration is limited, you can increase the amount you have a little but the best way to know when you focus and what not to.

Our team of expert mental skills coaches have helped countless numbers of athletes and performers with all of these mental skills and many more as well over the years so feel free to get in touch via email if you’d like our support. Please include a contact number (plus country) and you’ll get a call from one of us within 48 hours. 

Cricket Psychology

The sport of cricket is particularly demanding from a psychological point of view – which makes for some mentally very tough cricketers

Jonty Rhodes
This image courtesy of the Mumbai Indian IPL franchise

I think it would be reasonable to say that there is no sport quite like cricket from a psychology point of view. Although all sports are mentally challenging, most of them tend to require only certain kinds of mental skills in order for the athletes to perform consistently at the best.

Cricket, on the other hand, requires the entire array of mental techniques that we as sports/performance psychologists typically use during our consulting with sporting performers and coaches from around the world.

In other words, the 1-on-1 work we do with cricketers and cricket coaches from around the world tests our abilities as mental skills experts like no other sport I can think of.

Cricket Psychology Defined

Let’s breakdown the psychology of cricket a little. It is both a team sport and an individual sport. Due to this cricketers need psychological interventions that would apply both for team athletes (e.g. rugby league) as well as solo sports (such as golf). It even requires very specialised forms of communication normally only applicable to those who play “doubles” in sports such as tennis, badminton and beach volleyball. I am of course referring to the really interesting dynamic between two batsmen whilst they out there in the middle together.

Let’s get to the point – communication is a psychological skill even if the communicating is about something very tactical – such as whether to go for a second run or not. That is why we have dedicated an entire module of our online, self-guided Mental Toughness Training program for cricket (“Metuf for Cricket”) to team unity and communication skills.

Despite the fact that all of the skill execution is done on an individual basis cricket is still a team sport and therefore concepts such as team unity, cohesion, dynamics and the atmosphere of the dressing room are all pivotal to very successful cricketing teams.

Kevin Pietersen was statistically by far the best batsmen to play for England between 2005 in 2014. Yet despite this, it was decided that’s due to the ‘team dynamics’ that his services would no longer be required. It was a controversial decision at the time however the fact that England’s performances across all three formats of the game since then have improved suggests than team unity might be more important than an individual’s technical brilliance.

A Self-Guided Mental Training Program for Cricketers and Cricket Coaches looking to get the Mental Edge

Cricket Psychology – Focus is Essential

Even the shortest forms of cricket last a lot longer than the entirety of most sporting contests. Therefore cricketing excellence from a psychology point of view is synonymous with extraordinary abilities to be patient and reserving their focus for only when it really matters.

I had some great cricket coaches during my school days at Oundle (United kingdom) but I can’t recall any of them teaching me how to switch on and off effectively for either my keeping nor my batting. Oh, if I could only send a message to my 15-year-old self about the routines mentioned in the Focus chapter of Metuf for Cricket my cricket would have improved immeasurably.

Recent Examples of Cricketing Mental Toughness

With the recent (2019) English summer only just coming to a conclusion then a blog article on about cricket psychology would be lacking if we did not make reference to three of the most remarkable displays of sporting mental toughness that have been seen on the cricket pitch for many years.

The World Cup Final Over

In case readers do no follow cricket then let Wikipedia summarise what happened at the end of the Cricket Wolrd Cup that took place in England early this year. The final took place between New Zealand and England (hosts) on 14th July 2019 at Lords (the home of cricket):

The two teams were tied on 241 runs at the end of the match, resulting in a Super Over being played to break the tie. On the final ball of New Zealand’s Super Over, after equalling the 15 runs England managed in their over, Martin Guptill attempted to score the winning run but was run out by wicket-keeper Jos Buttler, meaning the Super Over was also tied. England won on the boundary countback rule, having scored 26 boundaries to New Zealand’s 17, thus becoming Cricket World Cup winners for the first time.

What was remarkable from a cricket psychology point of view was just how well all of the players and the umpires handled the extreme pressure of the situation. It is especially impressive given that the chances of a Super Over being required are about 0.5%. Huge credit needs to go into those who were assisting with the mental side of preparation of both the Kiwi and Pommy cricket teams.

The Ben Stokes Miracle

Again, in case you were not following the Ashes let me summarise. Ben Stokes scored 135 not out on the final day of the third test to deny Australia the win. From a cricket psychology point of view, the most commendable aspect of Stokes’ innings was just how ‘in the moment’ he was through the whole day. The past and the future of mostly distractions in high-pressure situations and Ben Stokes was the embodiment of relaxed and present-focused.

Steve Smith Stats’

In 2018 Steve Smith was banned for 12 months for the role he played in the ball-tampering incident that shook the world of cricket. Although as performance psychologists we are mindful never to judge everything on the results the fact that Smith scores 333 more runs than any other player in the series (both side) is truly incredible. Obviously we’re biased but it would be hard not to suggest the reason for Smith’s dominance with the bat is due to his amazing cricketing mental toughness.

But don’t take my word for it – have a read of what the current Australian coach wrote about Mental Toughness back in 2010 (view the original article here on the Cricket Australia website):

Being successful as an international cricketer transcends the ability to play an elegant cover drive, brutal pull shot or belligerent forward defence. The best players are not only physically fit and technically sound, they are also extremely mentally strong.

Mental toughness is often talked about, but exactly what does it mean when people talk about a player who is mentally tough? There have been many descriptions of mental toughness over the years, but in essence it is about the ability to perform consistently under pressure. When it all boils down, the game of cricket is about eliminating all distractions and giving 100% attention to the next ball. Simple as this may sound, concentration is often the hardest part of the game. There are so many distractions which can take a player away from pure concentration on the next ball delivered or faced.

During this first Test match in Wellington we have witnessed two examples of mental toughness. Michael Clarke’s departure from the one-day team has been so well documented that you would have had to have been living in a cave in the Himalayas not to have noticed the commotion. While Michael’s private life is no-one’s business, he has had to deal with a very public ordeal.

On two counts, he has shown class and courage under pressure. Firstly, he faced the media with dignity and style, and then he came out and let his bat do the talking with a brilliantly executed Test-match century. With his feet gliding like a ballroom dancer and his concentration as steely as a fighter pilot, Michael showed why he is evolving into one of the great players of this era.

No-one can judge what ‘Pup’ has been through but what we can conclude is that he is not only a very talented cricketer but an incredibly tough one at that.

During Australia’s first innings, one of the vice-captain’s partners in the middle was another man who has endured a different form of media scrutiny over the last few weeks. After a lean run of form, Marcus North’s future as a Test cricketer was under the microscope. As you would expect, he pleaded his case and to the selector’s credit, was picked for this Test series.

In the Australian cricket team there is always one player who is under the pump for their position in the team; it’s just how the industry works. When you are ‘that’ player being scrutinised the glare leaves you in a lonely place and sleep deprivation becomes a reality. Softer minds wilt under such distraction; tougher ones rise above the pressure and use it to inspire career-changing performances.

In this case, Northy’s courageous resurrection in form could prove to be a career-changing performance. From the first ball he faced, he converted his preparation into practice. He was alert and his balance was back to its best. Inside the camp, these traits of sharpness and balance were no coincidence or surprise because the moment he touched down in New Zealand he was visually determined and focussed to find the batting touch that had eluded him in the latter half of the domestic season.

To his credit he didn’t sit back and hope for the best but instead hit hundreds of balls in the practice nets, made a few minor adjustments to his stance, and then conquered the demons of insecurity to post his fourth Test century. Runs under pressure say a lot about the character of the person and both Marcus and Michael Clarke have proven that they are as mentally tough as they are technically correct.

Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness. What is it, can it be measured and most importantly for success-seekers; can it be improved? Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses these questions and more in this edition of the MTD:

Mental toughness is the interplay between motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

What Is Mental Toughness?

The term mental toughness is getting used more and more across many domains but in particular in competitive sporting circles. On the one hand, this is great news as finally, the mental side of performance is getting the attention it deserves and requires. The downside is that it is increasingly used in the wrong way – for example as a synonym for mental health.

At Condor Performance we typically consider mental toughness and mental health as both being important to performance but referring to different areas that can be targeted. Mental toughness by our definition refers to the ‘extra mental abilities required by those trying to achieve abnormally hard goals’. The key here is the ‘extra’ part – the part that if improved would benefit elite athletes much more than everyone else. This is what makes mental toughness difference from mental health. Mental health is something that every person on earth would benefit from improving as described in more detail via this previous blog post.

This is not to say that mental toughness and mental health are 100% unrelated nor opposites. The fact that your mind (brain) is involved in both correctly suggests there is a degree of overlap between these two psychological concepts.

One way that I like to explain it to my sporting clients is by using physical health and physical strength as parallels. Elite athletes need to be much stronger than most people will ever need to be. If you took a normal, healthy woman and asked her to play an international woman’s rugby match she’d be found wanting from a physical point of view. Yet, her actual physical health (blood pressure, skin folds etc) may well be the same – if not better – than elite female rugby union players.

So mental health is more or less like the mental basics. If you have clinical depression then this will impact on all aspects of your life. However, if you get nervous before certain sporting contests then the rest of your life might well be completely unaffected by this rather specific mental challenge.

As explained in the Intro video via the free, online, self-guided Metuf for Sports program sporting mental toughness can be thought of a being like one of four engines on an aeroplane whereby the rest of the plane is like mental health and wellbeing:

Mental toughness is like one of four engines on an aeroplane whereby the rest of the plane is like mental health and wellbeing

And just like how one of the other engines – Physical Capabilities – can be broken down into subcomponents (such as fitness and flexibility) so too can Mental Toughness.

As explained in Metuf for Sports sporting mental toughness might better be considered as an interplay between motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. In other words, when we, as sport and performance psychologists, assist our clients to improve their mental toughness what we are really doing is helping them improve or maintain these five areas.

And of course, we when say motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus in this context we are referring to these concepts as they relate to training and competing much more so than in everyday life.

For example, it’s quite possible for someone to have no signs of depression – which basically means their ‘motivation towards life’ is fine whilst at the same time not wanting to either train nor compete. Logically, interventions designed to improve clinical depression are not going to be much in this case. This athlete needs mental skills designed to help improve his/her motivation in the area(s) they lack motivation for – training and/or competing.

The same applies when referring to sporting emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. The emotions of walking down the 17th hole with a two-shot lead on the final day are not the same as those who experienced by general anxiety sufferers. The thoughts likely to trip up a Formula One driver before the light has turned green are unique and should be shaped accordingly. If you are part of a sporting team that lacks unity you will never be successful. And focus? The kind of focus needed to keep your eye on the ball as it’s coming towards your head at 100 km/h is not the same as the kind of focus that would help you do better at school.

Can Mental Toughness Be Measured?

If you’d like to read a full post dedicated to answering this question then click here. But in summary, the answer is ‘yes, but not directly’. When we measure mental toughness we do so by asking – normally via a questionnaire – about the five areas already mentioned (motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus). There is no way to assess these directly in the same way that a physio can measure flexibility – for example. Some aspects of sporting mental toughness can be measured via observation by an astute onlooker but again this is just a best guess.

For example, when I first start working as a sports psychologist with a new sporting team I typically spend the first week or so just watching and taking notes. I make estimates on areas such as team unity but I am mindful of the fact that a) what you see is not always what you get and b) the week might not be a typical week.

Having said that when I combine the ‘data’ from my notes with the numbers produced after all athletes and coaches complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires then this is certainly more than adequate.

How Can Mental Toughness Be Improved?

Of course it can and like so much in life how you go ahead it will likely depend on your budget. The expensive way is to work 1-on-1 with a qualified sport and performance psychologist like the ones that are part of the Condor Performance team. The cheap way – in fact so cheap it’s free – is to complete the Metuf for Sports online course.

This course should never be considered as a substitute to working with a psychologist in the same way that reading a book about driving a car should never be considered as a substitute to having driving lessons with a qualified driving instructor. But reading a book about how to drive a car is better than doing nothing at all!

Metuf and More …

Mental skills training for competitive sport just got a makeover! Free, online, self-guided & highly scientific – start improving your Mental Toughness now

More Than Just Mental Toughness Training …

Recently we made the decision that we would make the updated version of our online Mental Toughness Training program – Metuf – available to all athletes and sporting coaches completely free of charge.

Click here to watch Gareth’s greeting video on the Metuf website

We are far more interested in helping bust myths about mental toughness, mental health and sports psychology than making a buck. So we invite you to become one of the first athletes and/or sports coaches in the world to complete Metuf for Sports by clicking here. Enjoy and share!

More About Metuf …

Metuf stands for Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus as is the name that we have given our collection of methods that have evolved over the years in the work we have done helping sporting performers improve these five areas of sporting Mental Toughness.

The methods have deep scientific origins despite their relative simplicity – they are designed so that the ‘end-user’ can implement them simply and quickly.

Central to the Metuf model is the idea that sporting mental toughness is different from day-to-day mental health and wellbeing. Despite both playing a huge role in sporting success, there are better off being targeted separately for either improvement or maintenance.

Click here to be taken to the sign-up page for Metuf for Sports

Sports Psychologist South Africa

Gareth J. Mole is widely regarded as one of the leading sports psychologists in the world and is very proud of his South African heritage

Gareth J. Mole is a South African born sports psychologist who works with athletes and sports coaches from around the world via webcam technologies such as Skype and FaceTime video.

Meet a South African Sport Psychologist – But Not As You Know It

Gareth John Mole was born in Transvaal (that’s what Gauteng was called then) in 1976 to a South African father and an Australian mother.

Maybe a career in sport was his destiny as he was named after the great Gareth Edwards – the standout rugby union scrumhalf (halfback) for Wales and The Lions during that era.

He attended St Peters Preparatory School in Rivonia whereby his love for all sports was formed. “Most of my memories from St Peters are sports-related” he reminisces. “Of course in those days it was mostly rugby [union], cricket and athletics” he adds.

In the 1980s, unaware that most of the rest of the country were suffering during apartheid, Gareth could be found either watching or playing sport at the family home near Kyalami (yes, the race track) with his older brother Davin and youngest sister Tamara.

“Although there was no Formula One at Kyalami in those days there was still plenty of motorsport taking place all the time. The background soundtrack to my childhood was the roar of racing cars and the screech of tyres” Gareth recalls. “It’s no coincidence that my love of motorsport and motor racing has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up five kilometres from the premier circuit in Africa”.

Although Gareth and his team of sport and performance psychologists assist athletes of all sports from right across the globe he himself has become especially well known in motor racing circles for the work he does helping drivers and riders to improve their mental toughness.

“Competitive motor racing is mentally very, very hard and although the drivers and riders have to be supremely fit it’s really their mindset and tactical abilities that separate the good from the best” he mentions.

Nigel Mansell was far from being one of the fittest Formula One drivers during his time but he mental toughness and outstanding tactical preparation resulted in him being one of the best competitors of the Eighties”.

From South Africa To The World

At the age of ten, Gareth moved from South African to The UK to attend boarding school. It was at Oundle that the breadth of his sporting knowledge grew exponentially.

“Had I stayed in South Africa I suspect that my sporting knowledge might have remained somewhat limited. My time in England exposed me to many of the other major sports – in particular, football (soccer), hockey, squash and volleyball” Gareth says.

After finishing up at Oundle and taking a gap year, Gareth moved north in order to do a Psychology Degree at the University of Leeds. It was during the undergraduate years that his preexisting love of sport fused with his new psychology training.

“Sports psychology was only a small inclusion during my degree at Leeds but it was enough for me to think – I like this, I want to be a sports psychologist” he states.

At the time Masters degrees in The UK specialising in Sports Psychology were virtually non-existent. So in 2004, he found himself on a one-way flight to Sydney, Australia.

“Oh, how things have changed. In 2019 England is one of the best countries in the world in order to qualify as a sports psychologist – but in 2004 there were more options in Australia – so that’s where I went” Gareth declares.

After finishing his Masters and therefore becoming a qualified sports psychologist he set up Condor Performance – which had a very international perspective right from the start.

“I didn’t like the idea that I would only be able to assist athletes and coaches from Australia” Gareth recalls, “so from the very beginning we were on the front foot regarding webcam technologies such as Skype”. He goes on to say “As the technology improved word soon caught on that athletes and coaches from anywhere in the world could access our performance psychology services. Interesting, and maybe due to the dearth of sports psychologists physically located in South Africa we got and continue to get many enquiries from Cape Town to Johannesburg and everywhere in between”.

Sticking By The Term Sports Psychologist

As many qualified sports psychologists find it easier to use terms such as ‘mental skills coach’, ‘performance coach’ or just ‘coach’ Gareth has always stuck by the much-maligned title of ‘sport psychologist’.

“I liken sticking with the term ‘sports psychologists’ to those who have stuck by South Africa during the tough times,” he says. “When all the best dentists in the country leave then, of course, they are making the problem worse”. He goes on “the main reason that many choose not to refer to themselves as psychologists – despite having the qualifications to do so – it due to the stigma attached with the word psychologist”.

He concludes “the only way to remove that stigma is for sports psychologists to do excellent work and then keep using the title sport psychologist so that eventually it will not be associated with mental health problems and therapy/counselling”.

If you’d like more information about working 1-on-1 with Gareth you can email him directly at gareth@condorperformance.com ~ making sure to include details of your location, sport, goals and current mental challenges. He will typically get back to you within 48 hours.

Raising Young Elite Athletes

A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians

Trying to be the best parent you can be to you elite athlete son(s) or daughter(s) requires a lot more than just remembering to pack the fold-up chairs.

A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes that we are either currently working with or who we have worked with previously.

With very few exceptions I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably before, during and after the mental conditioning process. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship and tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy. 

In fact if I think back to all the young athletes that I have assisted myself over the last 15 years – which would easily be more than a thousand – I can only think of a single occasion whereby I felt that’s a parent was obstructing my attempt to help their son to improve both sporting mental toughness and overall well-being.

What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and either one or both parents to become a topic that needs some attention when putting complex concepts such as emotions and motivation under the microscope. 

For example questions such as “how do I explain to my father that’s I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?” or “I would like to have a boyfriend but I know that Mum would see this as me getting distracted from my long term sporting goals” or “if I start having sex will this have a negative impact on my sporting abilities?”.

Humdingers like this are common – especially after the coaching relationship has become very comfortable whereby the young athlete feels they can tell their sport/performance psychologist “anything” (at Condor Performance we really pride ourselves in the rapport building / maintaining aspects of our 1-on-1 work).

As a general guide when it comes to providing advice in the face of these types of difficult but important questions it is exceptionally rare that we try and change the parents’ way of thinking in any way. For example, if a parent has a “win-at-all-costs” attitude it’s very unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might seem productive but is actually anything but (for more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018).

For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with the athletes and although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent (particularly if it’s adding to the overall process) we do not have the luxury of allowing extensive conversations with those involved in our client’s lives if they themselves are not one of our clients. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services as it allows parents/guardian to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s performance psychologists but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time that we have with their son or daughter (or both)! 

So the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:

Genuine mental tests come in many packages but one of the most common is that the people you spend time with will not always make what you’re trying to do easy. Sometimes on purpose (e.g. sledging) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships can be very, very hard. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete untill this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with

If family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process this provides us with a golden opportunity to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words – instead of having to try and make a situation mental harder on purpose then we can use the “issues” to practice our new found mental skills.

Real confidence only really happens when you have seen it work in actual, real life situations

How Much To Push?

Of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on the overall topic of how pushy to be or not to be. In other words given the added demands faced by young athletes how much pushing, nagging, cajoling is necessary and when does it become too much?

This is an excellent question

I have had a few weeks to think about this since the question was sent to me and now that I have this is my response.

The clues to many – but not all – psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme is useful. A analogy of water temperature can be useful here. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter we take huge care of making sure that the water temperature is “somewhere in the middle” (warm) and would never think about bathing the infant in water that was too hot nor too cold.

In fact, when my daughter and son (now 6 and 4) were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was as close to 37.0 degrees as possible. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.

From my point of view this analogy is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are the more I’d suggest that you reduce the possibility of extremes (for example too much practice and too little, too many competitive situations and not enough). But as they grow older we’d want to allow more and more degrees of freedoms. In other words, although you still try and motivate them to do their homework the acceptable range becomes bigger and bigger. You might insist on them doing some homework each day but you become flexible with when this takes place and the duration.

In other words, if you’re the Mum or Dad of a 10-year-old athlete who is inclined to overtrain then I’d suggest making it virtually impossible for this to take place due to their age. However, if your son/daughter is almost an adult (16 – 18) and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service + helper.

Sometimes simple little strategies such as helping take the training equipment out before some home training and helping them pack away can do wonders when it comes to helping teenage athletes find the “sweet spot”.

8 ‘Quick Wins’ for Sporting Parents:

  1. Communicate with your child in a way that shows you are more interested / invested in their effort (highly influenceable) than their sporting results (somewhat influenceable).
  2. Get them to complete the free Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Athletes here and go through the results with them.
  3. The relationship you have with your son/daughter will always be more important than their sporting success – try not to sacrifice the former for the latter.
  4. Be there for them during the good times and the not-so-good times. Let them ride the ups and downs that come with elite sport with you always being available if they want someone to talk to.
  5. Try not to assume what is best for you is best for them. If you are telling them what to do all the time with few / no choices this should be a red flag.
  6. If you want to be a parent-coach (both their Mum / Dad and their coach) then first discuss the pros and cons with them and second clarify the dual role on paper before you jump in.
  7. Read this blog post from 2018.
  8. Read the below guidelines from the Western Australia Department of Sport and Recreation – Clubs guide to encouraging positive parent behaviour: