Focus For Sport and Performance

How important is focus compared to all the other mental skills required for consistently high performance? Provisional Psychologist Madalyn Incognito addresses this question and more in this great feature article.

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

Focus for Sport – How Important Is It?

Obviously, as a growing group of sport psychologists and performance psychologists, we do a lot of work around focus and attention. But how important is focus compared to all the other mental skills required for consistently high performance?

Focus is arguably the most crucial mental skill of them all. High performance really isn’t possible without it.  Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here.

What Exactly Is Focus?

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

Focus In The Performance Domain

There are actually several different types of focus. But the two most relevant in the work we do are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time. This allows us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. Good examples from major sports would be:

  • Cricket: The batter watches the ball and has to adjust their shot based on the bounce of the ball off the pitch.
  • Tennis: The speed that a player can react to a volley whilst focusing on the incoming ball.
  • Baseball: Too many examples to list.

Sustained Attention

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

Because focus plays such a large role in high performance across the sporting and non-sporting performance domains, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus.

Meditative Focus 

The benefits of meditation extend beyond the general health benefits it’s commonly known for. In the performance domain, meditation is commonly used to bring our attention to the present moment. Basically, this practice helps us get better at focusing our minds on the task at hand. Meditation is not about positive thinking nor about changing thoughts. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.

“As our clients know it’s better to just accept your thoughts and get on with the job.”

Every single moment of the day we’re thinking about something. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment. This includes any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts) observing them without judgment. Or as little judgment as possible!

Screen Time And Sleep

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

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

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

Flow And Focus for Sport / Performance

The word Flow is also thrown around in the sporting world when we talk about focus. Flow refers to a state where an athlete or performer is fully and completely immersed in what they’re doing. What we know about flow is that in this state physical performance is heightened. This is because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information.

Based on Flow Theory, individuals who struggle to get focused or stay focused are probably experiencing one of two things. They’re either experiencing anxiety or boredom. The two variables at play here include the individual’s skill level and the difficulty of the task they have been asked to do. If an athlete’s skill level is relatively lower than the difficulty of the task, this often creates anxiety. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this tends to lead to boredom. To create an environment where flow can occur, skill level and task difficulty need to be roughly equal. 

Flow and Focus are very closely linked

Matching Skill Level and Task Difficulty 

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

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

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

Narrowing Your Focus

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

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

Focus Goals

To see more engagement, narrowing one’s focus can help. Choosing one or more areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wanders and stay engaged in what they’re doing. Clarifying these focus goals ahead of the session, week or month also allows them to take ownership.

Focus goals allow athletes to recognise their progress more clearly and take accountability for their efforts during training and on game day. There is no real excuse for not knowing what the objectives of the session or game are. Increased accountability is a large part of the philosophy used by our founding sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole. This style of sport psychology can be confronting at first. But it is vital as part of the performance enhancement aspect of what we do. The coaching side as opposed to the counseling side.

Do You Need Help With Your Focus?

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

KISS Principle

The KISS Principle is a reminder of the benefits of keeping things as simple as possible. In this brand new blog post our founding Sport Psych explains why this has never been so important. And four tips on getting started.

The KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Never heard of The KISS Principle before? I’ll bring you up to speed via this Wikipedia entry:

KISS, an acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid!”, is a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960. First seen partly in American English by at least 1938, the KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated. Therefore, simplicity should be a key goal in design, and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. The phrase has been associated with aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson. The term “KISS principle” was in popular use by 1970. Variations on the phrase (usually as some euphemism for the more churlish “stupid”) include “keep it super simple”, “keep it simple, silly”, “keep it short and simple”, “keep it short and sweet”, “keep it simple and straightforward”, “keep it small and simple”, “keep it simple, soldier”, “keep it simple, sailor”, “keep it simple, sweetie”, or “keep it sweet and simple”.

Maybe for the work we do it wants to be “Keep it simple, sportspeople!” 😊

The KISS Principle For Sports

Competitive sport has one inherent issue. And this issue is becoming more problematic every single year. It is this. As athletes become better they attract more advice. Sometimes this advice is part of a sporting team. Other times it might just be well-intended tips from Uncle Joe. But what you end up with is a scenario where at the pointy end of sport it often feels anything but simple. Team meetings all of a sudden resemble something you might associate more with NASA than netball.

The consequence is something we as psychologists refer to as mental load. Someone’s mental load is the quantity of information they are trying to keep in mind at any point in time.

Imagine This Scenario

A professional athlete has a series of compulsory consultations and meetings every week. 

First up, a chat with the Technical Coach. An hour-long video analysis session of biomechanical discrepancies. “Your left arm is too bent”. “You should be closer to the ground”. “Could your hands be in a better position for those ones”? Oh and the sports scientist at the back of the room also chirps in with some data as well.

After this, it’s a quick break then straight into a similar-length session with the physical team made up of two physiotherapists and an exercise physiologist. This session is more practical but there is still plenty of information flying around.

Finally, it’s back-to-back sessions with the Manager and sport psychologist. Oh, but only after lunch with the sports dietician. That’s right. A potentially restful lunch becomes a double-tasking endeavor of actually eating whilst trying to understand the impact that carbohydrates can make at different points during the training cycle.

I think you get the picture.

Although the advice at the more competitive end of sport is generally speaking well intended and mostly useful there is no denying that there is a lot of it. And in the opinion of this specialist – generally too much.

Individual Differences

As we have mentioned many times over the years during editions of the Mental Toughness Digest individual differences are a big deal. In the context of mental load and the KISS Principle, it means that some people are just more able to take on lots of advice compared to others. It is tempting to say that intelligence plays a role in this but there is no evidence for that. Probably the biggest predictor is the ability (mental skill) to filter or sort advice. In other words not necessarily treat all information equally.

One of the quotes on our ever-increasingly popular quotes page by fellow sport psychologist and Condor Performance colleague James Kneller gets straight to this very point.

“Listen to everyone because even an idiot will have a good idea once or twice in their life. Then evaluate and pick out what works for you and commit to it.”

James Kneller, Sport Psychologist

The KISS Principle Provides An Answer

It is your job, as the performer, to work out a system whereby you can keep things as simple as possible. There are many ways to use the KISS principle for Sports but here are four that I would highly suggest.

  1. Be as process-focused as possible. Work out what actions or activities are most valuable in training and when you’re competing. Try and become consistent in these. Let these dominate your mindset, rather than results. Ask yourself a question what’s the smallest list of fundamental skills required for your sport. Then try and become world-class in just those. Yes, even at the pointy end. Yes, even if you’re getting paid and it feels like you need to be doing more.
  2. Consider yourself to be your own Head Coach. Remember you are the one out there having to execute the skills under pressure. So even though you might actually have a head coach ultimately they are just another advice giver. The recently retired legend Roger Federer was an athlete who essentially considered himself to be his own coach. And it seemed to work out pretty well for him, don’t you think?
  3. Keep a Thought Diary. This is most easily done as part of a training diary. Worrying is normal. But worrying about being worried is not. List your worries at the end of each day or week and let that lighten the mental load.
  4. Learn to prioritise. Currently, the research department at Condor Performance (me 😊) is working on a framework that will incorporate prioritisation as a key aspect of progress. But in the meantime just follow the advice of this Russian proverb. “If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both”. Maybe limiting our focus to just a single area is a bit extreme. But the premise is sound. Prioritisation is highly effective in reducing mental load.

The Men’s English Cricket Team

I do not have as much information on this as I would like but I have been made aware through contacts that the Men’s English Cricket Team is currently undergoing a simplification process. Rob Key (the new director of England men’s cricket), Brendon McCullum (the new head coach), and Ben Stokes (the new captain) all appear to be fans of The Kiss Principle.

If fact, so simple are they keeping things that Brendon McCullum, in this interview with The Guardian, signed off from a transformative first summer as England’s Test head coach with a shrug about “not doing a lot”.

Do You Need A Hand?

If reading this article has piqued your interest in working on the mental aspects of your performance but you don’t feel equipped to go it alone then get in touch and ask about our one-on-one psychology services. Well before the Pandemic our team of psychologists had been delivering most of their work via WebCam. So irrespective of where you are located we can help you to help yourself. Reach out today.

Psychological Flexibility

You’ve heard of physical flexibility right? But what about Psychological flexibility? In this article sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole takes a close look at this ‘game changing’ mental skill.

Psychological flexibility has never been so important.

What Is Psychological Flexibility?

Psychological flexibility – heard of it? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Many qualified psychologists would struggle if you asked them what psychological flexibility is. And maybe just as important, what it is not.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the origins of the word flexible from which flexibility derives. The Online Etymology Dictionary Etymonline shows the below.

Flexible (adjective):

early 15c., “capable of being bent; mentally or spiritually pliant,” from Old French flexible or directly from Latin flexibilis “that may be bent, pliant, flexible, yielding;” figuratively “tractable, inconstant,” from flex-, past participle stem of flectere “to bend,”

The two words that jump out from this are yielding and bend. We’ll come back to these.

Of course, the word flexibility from a human point of view is much more commonly associated with physical flexibility. So much so that if you booked in to see an exercise physiologist and asked him or her to help you design a program to boost flexibility they’re very unlikely to say do you mean mental or physical.

The flexibility of the body means that there is a far greater range of possible movements. Sometimes this is most beneficial in an injury prevention scenario. Two similar athletes who endure the same legal but brutal rugby league tackle are most likely impacted not by how strong they are, but by how flexible.

Of course, there are sports whereby physical flexibility is arguably the number one priority. Gymnastics and many dancing pursuits emphasise the importance of suppleness.

Outcomes vs Processes

It’s impossible to overemphasize the usefulness of being able to separate processes versus outcomes. And to realise how much more influence you have on processes. In fact, I think each of the last five articles has mentioned this at least once. If you’ve missed any of these the easiest way is to go to our blog homepage here and scroll down.

So, what are physical and psychological flexibility then? Are they outcomes or processes? Feel free to stop reading for a while if you want to try and figure that out on your own.

Both types of flexibility are outcomes. They are the consequence of the processes. If these processes are good (sufficiently scientific) then the consequence may result in some improvement. If the processes are not-so-good … you get the picture.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with outcomes as long as you know that they are outcomes. In fact, they often make for an invaluable starting point. It’s far more useful to want to improve your physical flexibility than your physical health for example. In the same way, it is better to want to improve your psychological flexibility than your “mindset”.

But after we have chosen this as one of our priorities it’s then time to start working out what processes are required. From a physical flexibility point of view, the majority of these are going to be some form of stretching. But not just stretching. I’m happy to be corrected by genuine experts in this field but I’m guessing sleep, nutrition, and recovery methods also aid in better physical flexibility.

Dr. Steven Hayes

The concept of psychological flexibility is mainly credited to Steven C. Hayes and his related work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. As he himself better explains in the below TEDTalk video Dr. Hayes stumbled across the concept partially to help with his own spiraling panic disorder.

In the ensuing years, as is the case with many academics, he produced an avalanche of scientific studies and books on the subject. Maybe too many?

Potentially due to the nature of our work at Condor Performance whereby overcomplicating concepts would see us swiftly thrown out of the locker room I have always tried to simplify where possible. In the below short 6-minute video I really try and explain just the fundamentals.

If you have any comments or questions about the contents of this video please add them to the bottom of this page and I will reply so other readers can benefit.

Psychological Rigidity

Sometimes when we’re trying to wrap our minds around a concept it can be useful to know what the opposite is. When learning about good manners it can be helpful to know what poor manners look like.

The opposite of psychological flexibility is psychological rigidity. It is interesting how obvious it is that physical rigidity is clearly not desirable. But in some circles, psychological rigidity can be regarded as beneficial. For example, certain aspects of the military might believe this.

On a scale of one to ten between rigidity and flexibility where zero represents maximum rigidity, I am about a four. But I used to be a one, maybe even a zero. Certain traits of psychological rigidity are extreme rule-following and stubbornness. My way or the highway. This is fine if you live by yourself on a desert island but in the real world, it causes issues.

My journey from one to four is mostly thanks to my wife and kids. Children, especially the youngest ones, just don’t play by the rules. It’s literally how they’re designed. So a psychologically rigid parent is always going to really struggle. I had to learn to be more flexible through absolute necessity.

But I am still only a four. Why not higher?

My excuse is that I am time-poor. Hence many of the mindfulness strategies that I insist my clients do I only manage to do myself fleetingly. But I am highly motivated to become more psychologically flexible. Watch this space.

To Bend, To Yield

Maybe more than ever before life in 2022 is requiring us to bend, adapt, to yield. Whether it be learning to train in a hotel room during quarantine. Or work around canceled events. Or just turn up to practice when your thoughts and feelings are both screaming “what’s the point” or “stay in bed mate”.

In a 2019 book by Dr. Hayes that I would highly recommend called A Liberated Mind, he goes into a lot more detail about six core practices that when combined improve Psychological flexibility. They are defusion, acceptance, present moment, self-as-a-context, values, and committed action. Here is a quick summary of each from my understanding.

  • Defusion is best summed up by “you are NOT your thoughts”.
  • Acceptance is mainly about the benefits of learning to radically experience and observe (not change) all thoughts and feelings – even the yucky ones.
  • The Present Moment is about trying to focus on the here and now.
  • Self-As-Context is the concept that people are not the content of their thoughts or feelings, but rather the consciousness experiencing said thoughts and feelings.
  • Values are chosen qualities of purposive action that can never be obtained as an object but can be instantiated moment by moment.
  • Committed Actions are intentional, purposeful behaviours towards one / some of your values.

Processes Need Repetition

I find that one common stumbling block with the above six skills is that they are often confused with processes. But they are not, they too are outcomes. Think of it like this. The big outcome is psychological flexibility. The little outcomes, that lead to the big one, are these six skills. So each of them requires a set of methods in order to become skillful. Some of these methods can help with more than one. For example, regular mindfulness ought to help the first three.

For values, the process is essential to sit down and come up with some. Typically about three or four core values are enough. And finally, for committed actions, some good old-fashioned planning and habit forming is a good place to start.

Quite understandably many people feel like they would benefit from having a guide or a coach when trying to get started. If this is you, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask about our one-on-one psychology services. Although the majority of the work we do is in the context of competitive sport and other performance domains we can, and do, work with anyone.

Team Unity and Culture

“Team Unity” works the same as all the other mental skills. They don’t become excellent accidentally. What are you and your teammates doing to intentionally improve this essential performance ingredient?

Team Unity. In team sports, we often talk about team unity as playing a vital role in success. But how important is team unity to sporting success? And how do we go about developing it?

Creating a Winning Culture 

In this article, I will mainly use the term team unity. But as is often the case in psychology there are often multiple terms to refer to the same thing. Other common ways to describe team unity include team cohesion, togetherness, chemistry as well as team culture. Note this article was originally written in 2021 but recently updated.

Coaches often talk about creating a “Winning Culture” as one of the keys to success. When we talk about a winning culture, we’re usually referring to a team environment that helps its individuals thrive. So what does the training environment of a team with consistent success look like?

You would likely see a group of individuals with shared values (despite varying individual values). A group working towards a common goal and supporting each other to flourish in their own individual roles. Characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, constructive feedback, and having a positive influence on the people around them would likely be commonplace. If team unity is not a priority then that team limits its opportunity to improve. The unavoidable nature of team sport is that it requires individuals to work together towards a common goal. 

Process Goals In Team Settings

In an effort to develop team unity, it is important firstly to separate outcome-based goals from process-based goals.

Sure, working towards establishing a ‘winning culture’ sounds good and might motivate players (initially), but placing such a large focus on results is not that useful. With every outcome goal, we want process goals as well – preferably a whole bunch of them. We want to place more focus on how we plan to improve compared to how we want to end up. 

We have a lot of influence over our processes. Not only the planning of these processes but carrying them out as well. Outcomes on the other hand, not so much. Why? Because there are a lot of other contributing factors to results. The most obvious and common of these include other people, varying weather conditions, officials, and equipment.

Process goals might include communicating in a compassionate way, showing support for team members through verbal (spoken words) or physical (handshake, pat on the back) signs of support, and being authentic, genuine, and respectful in your interactions with others (through tone of voice, choice of words, body language and eye contact).

Understanding Your Role

One of the trickiest aspects about working in a team setting is that you basically have a group of individuals with different experiences and roles trying to work together. In a team setting it is vital each member understands their own ability, role, and expectations. Team members need to be able to make judgments about when to rely on others and when to step up and perform. Without an understanding of these fundamentals, you’ll have multiple individuals trying to do the same thing. Or worse, nobody there at all.

For the team to progress individual players need to progress. So it is important for players to recognise any progress they have made, examine how they contributed to the team outcome, and highlight areas that need to be improved on an individual level.

For example, how was your footwork, passing, and communication regardless of the fact that we won/lost the game? The team outcome is not a reliable indicator of their individual performance. It is important for individuals to reflect on their own performance as well as that of the team. Remember there are many things outside of their influence that may have contributed to the outcome.

Culture, Atmosphere, and Communication

For team unity to flourish then the group atmosphere needs to be a positive and cohesive one. Positive and cohesive team cultures are made up of a whole range of factors but here are the most common:

  • Player attitudes
  • team motivation
  • Individual empowerment
  • Team identity

Team identity refers to the distinct characteristics of the team that make it unique. It is strongest when each team member takes pride in their membership in the group. Individuals also need to place the values of their team above their own. Easier said than done, right?

Effective communication is also a huge part of establishing that positive team atmosphere. Open communication needs to be able to occur without fear of disrupting the relationship between coaches and players or the players themselves.

One way individuals can provide feedback in a group setting without damaging those important relationships is through solution-focused feedback, as opposed to problem-focused feedback.

Solution-based feedback involves highlighting what individuals could be doing instead, or should start doing differently. Problem-centered feedback on the other hand is where the problem is highlighted, and individuals are told not to do those things again.

Pointing out what players have done wrong and asking them not to do it again might seem helpful, but in actual fact, this can lead to a lot of overthinking on their end around NOT making the same mistake. Keeping the feedback solution-focused helps guide their thinking towards how they can do that skill better, which indirectly prevents them from making the same error again.

Helping players solve the problem rather than just highlighting the problem is one way of making them feel supported in their development, and this kind of feedback should extend between players to foster an environment of camaraderie and ensure team members feel supported by each other.

Respect 

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

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

Let The Score Take Care Of Itself

The take-home message from this piece is that in order to establish a winning culture, we might want to focus less on winning. Rather the focus should be on establishing supportive environments for team members where they feel valued and empowered to achieve their individual best for the good of the team. And the goal of their work should be more centered around the journey rather than the destination. That is, focusing on the here and now, what we can be working on that is within our influence to give ourselves the best chance of success later on, rather than working with success at the forefront of our minds. In the performance world, we often see the best results achieved by those who don’t focus on results at all. As legendary NFL coach Bill Walsh famously said “The score takes care of itself” (see right).

Get In Touch

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then get in touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services. We typically respond within 48 hours.

References

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

Sport Psychology for Kids

Sport Psychology for Kids, by provisional psychologist Darren Godwin based in Melbourne, looks at how traditional sport psychology methods are adapted for younger performers and athletes.

Sport Psychology for Kids
Let’s Talk About Sport Psychology for Kids and Teenagers.

Introduction

As one of the provisional psychologists at Condor Performance, I have found myself working with a number of younger athletes and competitors. Basically, a healthy chunk of nine to fourteen-year-olds. It has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the concept of Sport Psychology for Kids. In other words, the way in which traditional sport psychology methodology is adapted for much younger clients. I hope, in sharing some of these reflections that I can provide some general tips to parents/carers/coaches of younger athletes and performers. This is not to imply that the suggestions are not applicable to all athletes. It’s just that they are particularly pertinent to those yet to hit puberty.


Why Do Kids Play Sport?


There are many reasons why children play sports. But to keep it simple the biggest motivations are exercise, social, mastery, and fun. Or in other words, they want to be liked, be good at stuff and have fun and get fit at the same. Sport, especially competitive sport, is unique in providing this irresistible cocktail.

They have begun school and are starting to absorb a lot of information. They want to show others that they are capable. In many ways, sports contests are the first time they will have the ability to show their skills whilst being directly observed by their friends and family. It’s hard to get a standing ovation when you ace a maths test. But scoring the winning try/runs/goal and the cheer from the sidelines can be a huge incentive to try and do it again.


The Fun Factor

The Fun Factor is also a major part of sport psychology for kids. Fun is a subjective term and it can be difficult to understand this from the child’s perspective at times. In simple behavioural terms, if something is fun we’re more likely to want to do it again.

What I try to encourage caretakers to consider is the main driver of the child’s experience of fun and development from their point of view. As adults, it is very easy for us to impart what we want and miss what the child is telling us they’re trying to accomplish. This is important because we can easily crumple the child’s sense of fun by over-imposing our values on their training. I’m sure it feels strange to sit down with an eight-year-old and let them help you design some of their training sessions. But you’d be amazed at what happens when you try this.

When the fun goes it is hard to get it back. This typically leads to kids deciding they are not really ‘sporty’ and quitting competitive sports altogether. For those interested, here’s an article and study on why kids play and quit sports (Visek et al., 2015).


What Can We Control?


When you go over a list of things that your attention goes towards during competition, it does not take long before you realise that you can’t control most of them. Burning effort and energy on factors outside of our control is something that kids are especially susceptible to. I do this exercise with young competitors where we write this list out. Most of the time they can accurately identify what is within their control (or influence) and what is not. The hardest part, as is the case with most sport psychology techniques, is applying it in a beneficial way.

So crucial is this mental skill that the younger it can be developed the better. All too often the consequence of this exercise is that the young athlete will have a short list of half a dozen aspects that they have a huge amount of influence on. In our experience as psychologists, it’s rare that these items are the same ones their parents and coaches are telling them to focus on. Hence why one of the cornerstones of great sport psychology for kids is making sure that caregivers and coaches are mentally upskilled as well. This is one of the main reasons why at Condor Performance we allow and often encourage the families of our younger clients to sit in on sessions. You can hear more about this via the answer to this FAQ.

Processes Over Outcomes


A process is a series of actions that can be repeated or have a sequence. Outcomes, on the other hand, are results or the byproduct of some actions. In the context of sport and performance, both training and competitions can have processes and outcomes. Let’s take basketball for example. Training processes could be all the practice shots attempted at the end of squad training. But the number of balls that go through the hoop and any credit you get (or did not get) from the coaches are outcomes. These two are almost the same in an actual competitive basketball match but not exactly. Suddenly in a match, you have a defender who will be trying to actually reduce the number of shots you attempt. So for this process, you might need to be trying to make shots by running hard. Suddenly, the number of shots you get joins the number of points you score in the outcome column.

When I ask young competitors what they enjoy about their sport one common answer is “winning”. It is wonderful to hear this accompanied by a big grin however for kids this is usually the extent of the concept.

Shifting their focus toward the process and away from the outcome is not easy but can pay huge dividends throughout the rest of their sporting career. Imagine how much better placed a 10-year-old is when they learn to become more process orientated and use that for the next 25 years of their career. A ‘win at all cost’ mentality is potentially understandable for highly paid professional athletes. But not for youngsters.

Thinking About Winning

Thinking about winning, or any outcome for that matter does not actually help us achieve that outcome. I know it feels like it does and I know many well-intended adults will tell you as such but it just is not the case. Our attention is better placed on the actions that we need to perform in order to give us a higher probability of that outcome occurring.

Which of these two hypothetical children do you think will fair better in their upcoming soccer/football match? The child who is saying to themselves “I must win, I must play well, I must impress my friends”. Or the child who is reminding themself before kick-off “dribble when in space, spread out and use the whole pitch and run hard, I can rest after the match is over”? A Process Oriented Mindset (POM) will also help children manage their own expectations. They do not need to produce something each week, they just need to aim to give their best effort and let the processes take care of the outcomes. Hmm, that would be a great title for a book (see right)!


Delayed Gratification


In today’s world, it’s very easy to access things that bring us immediate pleasure. Largely thanks to advancements in technology we can buy most things online and have them the next day. We can watch almost any TV show or movie at the press of a button.


Communicating with groups of friends only takes a few seconds in 2022. However, there are still a number of very important human experiences that don’t have short-term solutions. These include the development of meaningful relationships and the mastery of skills.

Delayed gratification is putting off short-term enjoyment for long-term benefits. It is important for young competitors to build an understanding that their improvement will not happen overnight. If they have big goals, they might have to skip watching TV for some practice in the backyard. A much more in-depth article on this subject can be seen here.


The Relationship Between Action And Emotions


Sport provides a wonderful opportunity for children to learn about their emotions. It is very important that we start to teach them that it is okay to experience these emotions. We are all human so our lives will be filled with a full array of feelings. What we are looking to do is model for the child how we act whilst we experience those emotions.

Where we get into trouble is when we view certain emotions as undesirable. We then get into a position where we want to remove ‘the nerves’ for example because they make us uncomfortable. This results in an endless struggle because ultimately we don’t have much influence over our emotions.

We are really looking to create a habit where our actions are not conditioned by our emotions. There are a number of examples of this happening in daily living such as getting up early in the morning to catch a flight or going to school. In those moments our feelings aren’t necessarily positive but our actions are more aligned with what we want to accomplish. What we want to do is help kids increase their capacity to respond to these emotions instead of reacting. Basically, we want to reduce impulsivity as per this recent article by my colleague and supervisor Gareth J. Mole.

Resilience


Resilience is a very alluring quality. When asked, most people respond by saying they want it or that they want to help their child develop it. We know a lot more about its benefits rather than how to develop it. The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”. This implies that the person has to experience something difficult first.

This puts a completely different twist on training. When practice situations are littered with difficulties this is a golden opportunity to develop resilience. The child is essentially practicing accepting the challenges, accepting their emotions, and developing helpful actions that basically equate to recovering quickly.

A wonderful post-match process is reflecting on the performance and writing down what you want to make the focus of your next practice. This reinforces the process over the outcomes, as mentioned above, and gives them a tool to continue developing their skills so that they are better equipped for the next time they meet the challenge.

Do You Want To Get In Touch?

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then get in touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services. We typically respond within 48 hours.

Motivation In Sport And Performance

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

We’re only just starting to understand just how big a role motivation plays in … well …. everything.

Why Is Motivation So Important?

The simple answer is that motivation underpins all the other aspects. Think about it. When you are motivated, everything is easier. And when your motivation drops suddenly these same tasks seem much harder.

It also plays a huge role in longevity. The higher the motivation, the longer (in years) you’ll want to continue in your sport/performance area.

There are a number of reasons an athlete or performer might struggle with motivation at some point in their career. Barriers can be physical, biological, social, environmental, and/or psychological. In terms of psychological barriers, what we know about motivation is that it is fostered by meeting three basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

For motivation to flourish, a performer first needs to be able to do the task to the ability they are happy with. Then they have to have the freedom to choose to do the task. In other words, they are not being forced into it. Finally, having a sense of connectedness with others helps a lot. This is the social element of sport that can be so powerful. Winning and losing with your mates basically.

We know that by meeting these three major needs the likelihood of burnout is reduced significantly, keeping performers in their performance domain for longer.

The Role of Performance Psychology in Motivation 

What we also know about motivation is that the type of motivation a performer has is another extremely important factor to consider. One of the first questions we ask our clients during their initial free Kick Start Session is, “why do you do what you do?”. Understanding the reasons why an individual engages in something is vital. Not just for the psychologist, but for the client as well. Why not stop reading for 5 minutes and just list 5 reasons why you do what you do?

Time To Think
Time To Think

The most crucial bit of information we want to extract from this answer is around whether their motivation is intrinsic, extrinsic, or a mix of both.

Intrinsic Motivation

An athlete or performer who is intrinsically motivated does what they do for their own sense of personal satisfaction. If you listed any of the below, then this suggests you are internally or intrinsically motivated.

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

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

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

Not Just In Sport …

In alternative performance settings such as workplaces, intrinsic motivation is also associated with greater worker satisfaction and commitment, self-reported performance, company profitability as well as lower emotional and exhaustion burnout.

If you’re wanting to stick around in your area of performance for the long run, I suggest boosting your intrinsic motivation. One obvious way to go about this is to work with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist. Click here to browse our current team and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about working with one of us.

Extrinsic Motivation

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

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

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

For performers who are extrinsically motivated, it’s happy days when all the external factors we base our motivation on are present. The issue here is when they’re gone, you can expect to experience a real dip in your motivation. How many of the reasons that you listed above are external rewards? If at least one, ask yourself how your motivation would be impacted if it was taken away.

Too Extrinsically Motivated?

A nice analogy to explain the pitfalls of being too extrinsically motivated is like building a house on weak foundations. Think of the internal reasons why you do your sport as being the foundations. Essentially, what everything else is built on.

They are less glamorous and often invisible. But they are absolutely crucial to make sure the house on top is safe and secure. In this analogy, the house itself with its fancy solar panels and double-glazed windows represents the external motivators. It basically works like this:

  • Only internal motivators – fine.
  • Both internal and external motivators – great.
  • Just external motivators – potentially problematic.

Visualisation for Motivation

Visualization or Mental Rehearsal has many different purposes, of which technical practice and motivation are the two main uses. 

Visualization for motivation is particularly important during times of prolonged intense training with limited competition (did someone say pandemic?). Visualizing intentions (the actions or processes we wish to perform) from the first-person perspective can have a positive effect on motivation. Basically, process-based mental rehearsal from the mind’s eye is going to provide the best motivational outcomes. 

Understanding Your Motivation Fluctuations

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

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

Sporting Superstitions

Sporting Superstitions Versus Performance Routines. In this article Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance looks at both.

And How They Differ From Routines 

Sporting superstitions are surprisingly common. But do they cause more harm than good?

One of the lawn bowlers I work with recently asked me this question during a session. “What is the difference between a pre-performance routine and having some superstitions?” So good was the question that I decided to expand the answer that I gave her into this feature article on Sporting Superstitions.

Sporting Superstitions Versus Routines

In the work we do as sport psychologists and performance psychologists, we use routines frequently. I suspect I use them more often than my colleagues at Condor Performance due to my extreme “you can’t control your feelings/thoughts” approach to consulting.

For a much deeper dive into routines it’s probably better if you read these articles here and here but here is a quick summary. Routines are basically just premeditated series of actions. I tend to leave thoughts out of the equation. These action sequences vary mostly in terms of duration and timing. Some routines are very short (a few seconds) whilst others can take hours. 

And we try to name them accordingly. For example, the routine that tennis players might use to get themselves mentally ready to receive the ball might be labelled a Pre-Point Routine or Pre-Receiving Routine. However, the longer routine before the start of the competition might be called a Pre-Match Routine. The middle part of this can be changed depending on the sport. For example combat sports athletes might have a Pre-Fight Routine.

Guaranteeableness (Made Up Word)

But despite these differences, good routines have one thing in common. They are built around actions that are intended to be guaranteeable. I typically prefer the word guaranteeable to controllable. Because the actions are guaranteeable then they can be entirely relied upon in any and all situations.

This is especially true when they are practised frequently and become automatic. And it is here that the majority of the benefit is found for this particular mental skill. In highly pressurised situations knowing that you can execute these predetermined actions amidst the chaos is the biggest contributor to composure. And composure is the biggest contributor to consistency. And consistency is the biggest contributor to sustained excellence.

Whether or not to include premeditated thoughts such as cue words in these routines is a contentious issue at the moment in international sport psychology circles. My issue with including any cognitive steps in these routines is that they simply are not guaranteeable. It’s all good and well in the calmness of practice to say to yourself “watch the ball”. But can you guarantee to remember to think this when you are feeling nauseous from nerves?

Actions Are Far More Reliable Than Thoughts

Instead, I’d rather my clients include the more reliable step of “widening their eyelids” (not saying to themselves ‘widen eyelids’, actually completing this micro action) in this example.

This way the cue word “watch the ball” becomes a bonus and not a requirement. If it’s used then great. If it’s not used then no biggie.

In doing this, we avoid what is known as metacognition. Metacognition is the process whereby you start thinking about your thoughts. Basically worrying about being worried. And it can snowball. Worrying about worrying about being worried etc.

So for the above example metacognitive worry might look like this. “Oh bugger I forgot to think to myself watch the ball”. And suddenly attention for simply completing the actions is diverted to a cognitive process that is completely unnecessary in order to complete the motor skill. You don’t need to have any dental-related thoughts before, during or after brushing your teeth. You just need to complete the action. 

A Difference In Flexibility

One of the major differences between sporting routines and sporting superstitions is flexibility.

Most sporting superstitions are concerningly inflexible. Because good routines are designed (not accidental) flexibility can be embedded from the very start. For example in the longer Pre-Performance Routines there will not be a set order for the actions. So they may have a checklist of several activities they want (not need to, want to) to complete. For example, listening to some music, or maybe doing mindfulness. But the duration and order of these can change if required.

For sporting superstitions, not so much. If an athlete feels like they need to put the left sock on before the right sock to play well then there’s not a lot of wiggle room in that. In this example lies another clue about the difference between sporting superstitions and routines. Although routines are certainly designed as a performance optimiser we are quick to point out that they’re not magic. In other words, the routine doesn’t cause a good performance – there is simple a correlation. The difference between correlation and causation is brilliantly explained in this four minute video. Most athletes who use sporting superstitions do so because they actually believe it will result in a better performance. This is mentally damaging on all sorts of levels. If you are one of these performers then it might worth getting in touch with us.

Famous Sporting Superstitions

I thought it might be nice to wrap up this article with some of the most famous sporting superstitions of all time. These two Bleacher Reports articles go through 25 famous and 50 famous Sporting Superstitions. My favourites from these lists are:

Richie Ashburn Slept with Baseball Bats

Hall of Fame slugger Richie Ashburn had his own way of keeping a hot streak hot. Anytime he had a particularly good day at the plate, he would be sure to use the same bat for as long as the success would last. And Ashburn went to extraordinary lengths to remain in possession of his lucky bats. Concerned that equipment managers couldn’t be trusted to keep his bat separate from all the other bats, Ashburn would take his bat of the moment with him each night. He even made room in his own bed for his lucky bats.

Wade Boggs Pre-Game Chicken.

If you want to know the secret to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, 2005 inductee Wade Boggs might tell you it has something to do with poultry. In 1999 he revealed his entire career had been fuelled not by steroids, but by chicken! Legend has it that during his rookie season Boggs recognised some kind of correlation between his chowing down on chicken and games with multiple hits. He stuck to his superstitious diet religiously and his wife accumulated more than 40 chicken recipes for the 3,000 chicken meals she was tasked with producing each season. 

Are You Curious About Our 1-on-1 Psychology Services?

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.

Emotions, Sport And Performance

Are you still trying to feel a certain way in order to perform at your best? Madalyn explains why you might want to consider another approach.

Emotions – The ‘E’ in METUF

  • As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists we are often asked for ways to improve emotional management. So what exactly does this involve?
  • Through variations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we can learn to manage our emotions in more helpful ways.
  • At Condor Performance the goal of our work when it comes to emotions is mainly to teach clients how to perform at the highest possible level whilst experiencing the full range of emotions. It is not about helping them feel better.
  • If you’d like more information about our sport and performance psychology services get in touch by completing the form on our Contact Us page.

Please Make Me Feel Better! 

In our profession, we deal with emotions on a daily basis. Athletes and Performers often ask us how they can learn to feel better. Most of the time this is a desire to feel a certain way on competition day. A day that is often riddled with a whirlwind of emotions from excitement to anxiety and everything in between. The work we do around emotions often begins with a deep dive into reality.

We’re probably never going to feel great on these highly meaningful days. And we will certainly never feel great before and during all competitive situations. As fellow psychologist Peter Clarke mentions in this Podcast interview “we have this thing in our mind of I gotta feel perfect, calm and confident and THEN I’ll perform well. Mate, if that’s the case you’re going to perform well a very, very small portion of the time.”

Our first job as Psychologists is to help our clients let go of the idea of wanting to control the way they feel. Emotions aren’t something we have a huge amount of influence over. Athletes and performers often come to us wanting to learn how to get rid of the “negative” emotions and replace them with positive ones.

In their defence, this is often what is taught to us from a very young age. Remember this from the movie A League of Their Own? “There’s No Crying in Baseball.”

Emotions And Performance

During the initial Kick Start Session with new clients, we often hear stories of struggles when it comes to feelings on game day. Performers often describe the many ways in which they try to control these uncomfortable emotions. We get remarkable insight into how much impact feelings seem to have on their performance. To understand how to manage emotions, we first need to understand exactly what they are.

Why Do We Feel Things?

It is important for athletes and performers to understand why humans experience emotions. In short, they play a very important role in our survival. There are countless examples of this but the classic is the very natural human feeling of fear. Being afraid of snakes for example is jolly useful. This fear acts as a major deterrent to going anywhere near anything that vaguely resembles a snake. Despite the fact that most snakes are nonvenomous we typically leave them alone mostly thanks to fear.

The Amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain) produces emotions mainly to warn us or reward us. The well-known fight or flight response is basically about our internal warning system. It’s hugely beneficial in survival situations but not so much in performance scenarios.

Survival vs Performance

So what we know about emotions is that within a survival framework they’re really good at keeping us alive. However, emotions in the performance domain have a habit of getting in the way of us doing the things we already know how to do well. Our job as psychologists is to challenge the consensus that emotions have a direct impact on our performance. That is, to challenge the idea if I feel “bad” (i.e. nervous, anxious, doubtful) on game-day, I’ll inevitably perform “poorly”. One of the first questions I will often ask a new client is this one.

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

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

The Reality Of Emotions in Sport

Little do most people know that it is actually the power we attribute to emotions that makes them so problematic. We assume greats like Roger Federer are all calm before and during matches. The fact is that even the best athletes in the world feel the full range of emotions we experience before an important event. Sometimes we forget that they are actually humans with a pumping amygdala just like the one you and I have.

What has made them so good in their performance domain is their ability to welcome and embrace these emotions and perform at a high level with them present. The ability to do this is a skill that can be developed by anyone. And just like learning the right technique the earlier this becomes a habit the better.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

The main therapeutic framework we work within at Condor Performance is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced “act”) for short. This approach suggests that trying to get rid of unwanted emotions actually creates a lot of psychological distress. In fact this psychological distress is often worse than the original feeling.

This often has a maladaptive impact on our behaviour (or in this case, a negative impact on our performance). This is basically because we are trying to fight something we don’t have a lot of influence over.

Through the mindful nature of ACT, we can learn to reduce the impact of emotions. How? By building awareness and actually making room for them and learning to let these feelings come and go without a struggle.

ACT Works

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

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

Acceptance

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

The “Noticing Self”

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

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

Emotion Validation

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

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

Commitment

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

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

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

Learning to Embrace Emotion

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

“Fake It Till You Make It”

One of our Senior Sport Psychologists, Gareth J. Mole, takes a look at the concept of “Fake It Till You Make It” in this brand new feature article.

Elite poker players are particularly good at the skill of “Fake It Till You Make It”.

Fake It Till You Make It … or Till You Feel It!

As many of my clients and colleagues will know I’m a big fan of the concept of ‘fake it till you make it’. However, potentially due to the word fake, and what it implies, this catchphrase is often misunderstood. So am I glad that I have finally had the time to write something on the subject. As always I welcome your questions and comments at the bottom of this page.

It is worth mentioning that in my consulting as a sport psychologist I typically use the term ‘fake it till you feel it’ rather than ‘fake it till you make it’. I do this intentionally. Making it implies the reaching of a goal and in much of the work that I do continual improvement is the main aim. You may be surprised to read that often I am unaware of the goals of my clients.

Fake it till you feel it gets to the very heart of the main model that my colleagues and I at Condor Performance use to assist our clients to improve. Namely, an adaptation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) developed by Steven C. Hayes. The reason for the adaptation part is down to us wanting an even simpler framework. Below, is a Post It note drawing of what I would consider the bare bones of ACT.

“Fake It Till You Make It” when looking at just Actions, Thoughts and Feelings.

Human Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions

As you can see in the diagram our thoughts, feelings and actions are all separate from one another. The dotted line around actions is the key. Some of my clients will know this as a moat or a wall. We are trying to protect our actions from being railroaded by our very natural thoughts and feelings.

Note the varying amount of influence we have on each one. I’ve intentionally used the word influence rather than the word control as I find the word control can be very black or white. “I can control this but I can’t control that”, for example. In reality, we can’t really control much at all (maybe our effort but even then it depends on how you define effort) if the word control is used as a synonym for guarantee. We just have varying amounts of influence on stuff.

  • Quite simply, we have more influence on our actions than our thoughts.
  • In turn, we have more influence on our thoughts and our feelings.
  • Therefore logically we have much more influence over our actions compared to our feelings.

In other words, we have the least amount of influence over our feelings by far and by far the most amount of influence on our actions. And this is especially true when these same actions (e.g. a left jab in boxing) have been repeated a lot so that muscle memory takes care of the biomechanics. Basically, you don’t need to think about how to do it you just do it. Most adults who have been driving for a long time will be familiar with this feeling.

The Spectrum of Influence

Just to ram the point home, if we were to arrange thoughts, feelings, and actions into an influence ranking system actions would be at the top and feelings would be at the bottom. Thoughts would be in the middle, following?

So if we return to the fake it till you make it or fake it till you feel it concept this premise starts to become clearer as a form of psychological advice. The faking it part is actually all about body language. It is about portraying a certain emotion (or lack of) from the outside irrespective of what you’re actually feeling on the inside. Faking it, certainly by my interpretation, is not about pretending to feel something that you’re not.

So as explained in this previous article by my colleague Harley De Vos competence is far more valuable than confidence. Now in the work that we do this is most often in the context of the skill execution itself. But it can and should be extended to some of the less obvious actions pertaining to performance. One of these is body language. How competent are you at body language? Elite poker players seem to be the only performers who typically include working on this as part of their normal training. Maybe we all should?

Body Language Basics

One of the hidden bonuses about working on your body language is that you are effectively practicing one of the fundamental aspects of psychological flexibility. Because in working on your body language you will need to choose a way of looking – for example confident –and work out a way where your actual feeling – let’s say embarrassment – does not override your facial expressions, head position, posture, etc.

Often the most effective type of body language from a performance perspective is actually very neutral. I am not one for histrionics. Great body language should keep your opponents guessing. Hence the term ‘poker face’.

Conclusion

As I have become known for saying in recent years “they don’t hand out gold medals for who was thinking or feeling the best”. Very importantly thoughts and feelings needn’t have any impact on our actions. Especially if these actions are well rehearsed. However, it is quite acceptable and normal for our actions to have a one-way impact on our thoughts and feelings. And it is with this that the rest of that concept of fake it till you make it / feel it is complete. Basically, we fake it – we act confidently from the body language perspective without necessarily being confident and this often leads to increased feelings of confidence as a result.

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then get in touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.

Coachability

How Coachable are you? Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the mental concept of coachability in this brand-new feature article.

Coachability might just be one of the most important mental components of team sports.

Preamble

I recently volunteered to assist with the training and game management of my son’s Under 9 soccer/football team. I will likely write a whole feature article on the entire experience later (a must-read for those involved in developmental or junior competitive sports). But for now, I’m only mentioning it to provide some context for this blog on coachability.

During the first game of the season, one of the other fathers and I were chatting on the sideline. By the end of the match, we basically agreed that the team could do better. Rather than grumble from the stands we felt it appropriate for us to lend a hand. Fortunately, this offer was accepted and Coach J and Coach G (me) got to work.

As I write this we are midway through the season. So far, two of the most common words during pre and post-training sessions have been coachable and coachability. As these young seven, eight and nine-year-old boys and girls learn to deal with competitive sports for the very first time some of them are highly coachable whilst others are less so. As you would expect.

So What Exactly Is Coachability?

While researching for this article the first thing that I realised is that coachable and coachability are not actually official words yet. The Cambridge Dictionary shows up nothing when you punch them into their online search. However, it does show up in The Britannica Dictionary suggesting they are trying to officially make it into the English language.

Their definition of coachable is “capable of being easily taught and trained to do something better.”

Focus And Motivation Come First

One concept that is obvious when it comes to the range of coachability is that some of them struggle to be coachable because they lack focus. Whilst others struggle because they don’t really, really want to be there. It is mid-winter here in Australia and La Niña has made for some pretty challenging training conditions. Which of course I love.

As a practising sport psychologist, this is a timely reminder that in psychology things aren’t always as they appear. Although on the surface it appears as if we have inherited a group of soccer players whose overall coachability is not great I am confident that this is most effectively addressed by helping them with their focus or motivation or both. 

And of course, this is my bread and butter. This is literally what my colleagues and I do five days a week, most weeks of the year.

Low Levels Of Coachability Are A Symptom

It is tempting to try and work out which players are struggling due to an inability to focus and which ones lack motivation but this is actually an unnecessary step. Regardless of how motivated and focused they are they can always improve. Improvement is a never-ending process. You never reach the finish line where it is no longer possible to improve.

Do I Know Too Much?

One of the challenges of being so qualified and experienced in sport psychology when assisting with your own child’s sporting team is not getting carried away. This is one of the main reasons why I insisted on doing it with somebody else. Coach J, a Scotsman, is a vital cog because not only does he have a great understanding of the sport but he also helps me to remember that these are youngsters at the very, very start of their sporting journey. They are not Premier League players. Not yet, anyway.

So the two of us have regular meetings whereby his knowledge of the technical and tactical gets mixed with my knowledge of the mental. And then we come up with a unified approach to training and games. What is apparent is how effective this is compared to the way that sport psychology is so often done.

Often the sport psychologist will come in and run a series of workshops without any involvement with the coach(es). Some professionals call this Working In Silos. Even more common is when the sport psychologist only helps with mental health issues. He or she is basically a therapist who happens to work with sporting individuals. For anyone who has watched the Ted Lasso TV series the way the work of Dr. Sharon Fieldstone is portrayed is more or less what I am referring to here.

But Back To Coachability

We need to acknowledge when coachability is an issue that it could be caused by poor coaching. Let’s be honest here. Not all coaches are equal and not all coaches are at the top of their game. 

If you are reading this and you are heavily involved in the running of a sporting team where you feel like coachability is an issue then I would suggest you start with an examination of your coaching staff. Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • What are the qualifications of our coaches? Do they have some kind of formal training or are they just former players or mates of one of the decision-makers?

and/or

  • Are any processes in place that allow them to develop professionally? Or are they doing exactly the same this year as they were four years ago? 

and/or

  • Are the players given an opportunity to provide feedback about the coaches? It seems so one-sided that the coaches provide feedback to the players but rarely the other way around?

Coaching The Coaches

Once you’re happy that the coaching staff are not the primary cause of poor coachability then of course it’s time to help the players. Obviously, I am heavily biased but dispatching your coaches off to retrain as qualified sport psychologist (a six to eight-year process in most countries) is impractical and ridiculous. But what if sporting organisations give their coaches the opportunity of working alongside a sport psychologist or performance psychologist? Not because they too need therapy like Ted does in the Ted Lasso series. But because one of the most effective ways of improving the mental toughness of a sporting team is for it to come directly from the coaches who have the right mentors.

More and more of the work we do at Condor Performance is to mentor sporting coaches. Below, to finish off, I have listed of few recurring suggestions that come up over and over again in the 1-on-1 work I do with sporting coaches. If you want more, you know how to find us.

  1. Processes are more important than outcomes.
  2. Treat athletes as people first, performers second.
  3. It’s very difficult to help others if you are not looking after yourself first.