Overthinking In Sport and Performance

Overthinking
Overthinking is one of the most common mental challenges we deal with as sport psychologists and performance psychologists. Are you an overthinker?

Sport and Performance Related Overthinking

  • Much of our work as sport psychologists and performance psychologists centres around the relationship between thoughts and performance.
  • Through mindfulness-based strategies, we can learn to reduce the impact of our thoughts on our performance consistency.
  • At Condor Performance, one of our main goals is to help our clients develop a more helpful relationship with their minds so they can perform at their best.
  • If you have no time to read the article but really want some help with your thoughts and overthinking? Get in touch by clicking here and giving us the basic details of your struggles. One of the team will get back to you within a couple of days.

In general, psychology is the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviour. As experts in the field of sport and performance psychology, we consult around these same three areas but with one eye always on their impact (or lack of) from a performance standpoint. One of our main consulting goals is to help athletes and performers understand how thoughts, emotions and performance really interact. This is often very different from how most of them believe that they interact.

Thoughts and Performance

Reflecting on my own experiences as an athlete and now working for Condor Performance, I would argue that the most challenging mental aspect of any performance is trying not to overthink it. It is clear that our thoughts have the capacity to be a barrier to performance, but through psychological research and practice, we also have the capacity to overcome this mental barrier.  

All of us have experienced our minds going into overdrive. As soon as we face something important or threatening, our mind goes into a state of overthinking. Overthinking is not a comfortable mental state to be in, making it a lot more difficult to do the things we train to do on a daily basis. We often hear athletes and performers say that they perform at quite a high level during training but find it difficult to perform well on competition day, often stating that their thoughts get in the way. Most competitors associate a higher level of importance with competition than training, so it makes sense why they overthink during this time.

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Of all the sport psychologists I’ve met, the most process-focused is Gareth J. Mole – the founder of Condor Performance. In fact, he is so process-focused that most of his consulting focuses on practice, preparation, training and effort.

The logic behind this is very sound. He wants his clients to overthink concepts such as getting the most from training, planning training sessions and “what to do in a lockdown” but underthink the actual day of competition.

Thoughts Are Just Thoughts

Most athletes and performers don’t realise that it is actually the relationship they have with their thoughts that gives them power over their performance.  

So why do we overthink? We think like this because our brain is hardwired to view the world in certain ways and for a very important purpose. Like emotions, our thoughts play a huge role in our survival. One of our mind’s jobs through thinking is to generate all possible outcomes and predict and preempt the worst possible scenarios. In other words, problem solve through these potential events so that we’ll be prepared in the slight chance they do pan out.

Our brain does a lot of the thinking in the lead-up to something happening so that when it does, we can rely on the Limbic System (home of the fight or flight response) to help us survive this threatening or important event. Basically, our brains are the perfect overthinking machines.

Because of the important role that our thoughts play in survival, it’s something we don’t have a lot of influence over. Our default cognitive response to an event is always going to be one of caution. It is our mind’s job, as a reason-giving machine, to go straight to the “negative” and list all the possible bad things that could happen. This is often called the negativity bias. Our mind is never going to go straight to the positive, and because of this, the idea of changing the way we think is a well-intended waste of time.

Thoughts Play A Role In Survival

Don’t get me wrong; you can try and change a single thought or three with some success, but the very notion of learning to think more positively as a habit is flawed. Imagine if our minds didn’t think in this way? Instead of stopping at the crossroads to check if traffic is coming because your mind is saying, “Better to be safe than sorry,” imagine the carnage if our thought in this situation was, “Just go … peak hour is over … you’ll be right”. Splat!

We don’t step out onto busy roads because our mind tells us we might get hit by a car. We don’t stand too close to the edge of a cliff because our mind tells us we might fall. But we often hold back on performance day because our mind tells us we might get it wrong or we might not be good enough. Unfortunately, when this happens, we’re letting our protective mind dictate our behaviour rather than our performance mind.

Developing Psychological Flexibility 

Through building an awareness of the mind, our goal is to ultimately build what is known as “Psychological Flexibility”. This is basically the ability to engage in functional and congruent behaviour with one’s values irrespective of their private experiences (thoughts, emotions, memories, cravings, bodily sensations, etc.) (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010).

“Through developing psychological flexibility, individuals have the capacity to let their actions dictate their thoughts and feelings, not the other way around.”

For an athlete who values challenging themselves and seeing what they’re capable of, the idea behind building psychological flexibility is to help them live out these values through their sport despite any difficult thoughts or uncomfortable feelings they have. For a performer who values creativity and giving enjoyment to others, developing psychological flexibility means teaching them the skills to go out and perform in the presence of any yucky private experiences they might have. 

“ACT” on Thoughts

Psychological Flexibility is the main goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an effective psychological intervention used across clinical and performance settings. Not surprisingly, ACT’s popularity in the sporting domain is growing. Why? It’s the most effective framework when working with a highly perfectionistic cohort.

Accept Most Thoughts, Then Let Them Go

Athletes and Performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to rid of their difficult thoughts. However, the attempt to get rid of them is actually the source of the problem. To get rid of difficult thoughts, we need to focus more on them. And when we’re more focused on them, we’re not focusing on what we need to do now.

We call this becoming fused. Meaning we’re so caught up in getting rid of the difficult, though, that we can’t focus on anything else. Before we know it, ten minutes have gone past, and we’ve been cruising through the game on autopilot, not really paying attention to what we’re doing and certainly now showcasing the best of our physical abilities. 

Diminishing The Power of Thoughts

Through regular mindfulness, athletes and performers learn how to notice their thoughts, acknowledge and accept their thoughts, and let their thoughts come and go without a struggle. Through developing a relationship with our thoughts in which we learn to observe and watch them come and go without engaging too much in them, the power of those thoughts is often diminished as a by-product.

In order to do this, we first need to acknowledge that there is a part of us that thinks, but there is also a part of us that notices that we think. A part of us that can take a step back and observe what we’re thinking. Through accessing this “noticing self”, we can become aware of those thoughts without getting tangled in them and choose how we’d like to respond to them. We can either let the thought stop us from doing what we’re doing, or we can notice it and choose to redirect our focus back to what we’re doing.

The Power of Mindfulness

One of the best ways to practice bringing awareness to our thoughts is simply through regular mindfulness. Recently, Gareth created the below free 10-minute guided audio called Really Simple Mindfulness. It’s free for you to use and/or download. If you do, please add some comments at the bottom of this article.

We Are Not Our Thoughts

We can add to this by developing a relationship with our thoughts whereby we view them as separate from us. By noticing our thoughts and silently verbalising them (e.g. “I notice I am thinking…”), we can separate our thinking self from our noticing self.

Viewing our thoughts from our noticing self allows us to observe them as they come and go and decide whether to engage with them (try to get rid of them) or allow them to be there so we focus back on our actions. We can take this one step further by personifying our thoughts or giving them an identity we know them by (e.g. The ‘I’m not good enough’ thought is here). The idea here again is that we are stepping into the shoes of our noticing self. In this state of noticing and awareness, we can make more mindful decisions about how we respond to difficult thoughts.

Changing Our Relationship With Thoughts

Ultimately, one goal in our work with athletes and performers isn’t to change how they think but to guide them towards a more helpful relationship with their thoughts. Sure, the thoughts we have about screwing up before going out on stage to perform are uncomfortable but don’t those thoughts motivate you to prepare ahead of time? And yes, the thoughts we have about whether or not we’ll be good enough to pass that exam are frightening at times, but don’t they push us to study and revise for the test to ensure we’re as prepared as we can be? 

Much of this boils down to reframing how we view our thoughts. Rather than evaluating them as positive, negative, true, false, right or wrong, we can look for their helpfulness instead. To overcome the mental hurdle thoughts create, we need to understand that there is always a reason for thinking the way we do.

And of course, if you feel like some expert guidance with all of this, then Get In Touch and ask us about our 1-on-1 sport and performance psychology services – most of which now take place via Webcam.

Win At All Cost

In this recently updated sport psychology article we look at the pros and cons of having a Win At All Cost approach to your performance. After reading, join the conversation by adding a comment or a question below.

The ‘Win At All Cost’ Mindset

I know for a fact there are many athletes and coaches out there who still believe that having a “Win At All Cost” mindset is something to be admired and developed. For those who understand the downside of an obsession with winning (outcomes), it is far less appealing. The irony is that very few of the world’s best try to literally win at all costs. Most of the time, it’s more of a ‘win at some cost’ type of mentality.

It is more their obsession with effort and their training processes that got them to the top. We are much less likely to hear about the athletes, coaches and performers who had/have a Win At All Cost way of thinking. Why not? Most of them crumble under the weight of frustration, pressure and disappointment well before they become newsworthy.

For many years, when I thought about a well-known athlete who personified the ugly side of Win At All Cost, it was Lance Armstrong. He was so obsessed with winning that he was willing to use systematic doping to improve his results. I must admit, before he got caught, I was one of the many who loved Lance. Without knowing the full story, I thought he was the personification of mental toughness.

It’s Fine To Want To Win But …

There is nothing wrong at all about wanting to win. In fact, there is little wrong with always wanting to win. But there is when it comes at the cost (detriment) to others and yourself. So it’s really the ‘At ALL Cost’ aspect of trying to Win At All Cost that is the central issue. All cost, think about it. Is the amount you have to spend more significant than what you can get back? What is the cost to your mental health and your relationships? How many failed marriages are worth an Olympic medal?

At Condor Performance, we encourage those we work with to push this obsession with winning towards their preparation and their processes. Why?

For a start, we have a much greater influence over our processes compared with outcomes. This is a really key concept. Let me generalise. In individual sports, like motor racing and badminton, for example, an athlete has some influence on whether they win or not. It cannot be more than that because there are a whole bunch of other people who are also trying to win. When we consider a result such as who wins a tournament, there can only be one winner, so your result is highly dependent on what the other people do. For team sport athletes, the amount of influence an individual has on winning is even less. Why? More people are involved in the outcome.

A recent example is the goalkeeper of the England Women’s Football (soccer) team. Mary Earps basically did not put a foot wrong in the final of the women’s FIFA World Cup versus Spain – which included saving a penalty – but she still ended up on the losing side.

Spectrum of Influence

With this in mind, one very beneficial exercise is to do the following. Grab a blank piece of paper and draw a line in the middle. On the far left-hand side of this line, write the words ‘zero influence’. On the opposite side, jot down the words ‘maximum influence’. If you want to, you can write ‘some influence’ in the middle. Now brainstorm all the different types of results and training sessions you can come up with for your sport/performance area. Try and write them roughly in the correct position on this Spectrum of Influence. Less influence to the left, more influence to the right.

Notice anything? If you did, add your observations to the comment section below.

Improvanism As A Solution

One way to find the correct balance between winning and everything else is to become an improvanist. What on earth is an improvanist, I hear you ask? An improvanist is basically more interested in constant, slow improvements than bigger-picture outcomes. These improvements are ideally measurable subcomponents of their sport or performance area. For example, maybe a gymnast is trying to become more physically flexible. So he puts more emphasis on the quality and quantity of his weekly stretching sessions compared to how many points he accrues on the weekend. In other words, his main goal (where his energy goes) is to improve a bunch of stuff that he had a lot of influence on. But in the end, he is hyper-aware that his chances of a medal depend hugely on the happenings of his competitors.

The Japanese even have a word for this. Kaizen, roughly translated, means constant improvement. Improvanism will be the topic of a future Mental Toughness Digest article, so if you have yet to sign up for our email notifications, you can do so here. This way, as soon as this and future articles are ready to be read you’ll get an email direct to your inbox.

As always, if you feel like you’d benefit from a professional helping hand, then get in touch. You can either complete the Contact Us form here or just send an email to [email protected]. We will try to respond in less than 48 hours.

The Upside of Anxiety

Why does anxiety have such a bad reputation – especially when it comes to the impact on sport and performance? Our Founding Sport Psychologist addresses this question and many more in this brand-new feature article.

Is there really an upside to anxiety?

What … There Is An Upside of Anxiety?

Not too long ago, I was pulled into the General Manager’s office of one of the sporting teams that I’ve been working with for the last two years. I was told that my intensity was creating some anxiety for the players, especially before matches. He asked me, “Isn’t a sport psychologist supposed to reduce anxiety rather than increase it?”

My answer was simple … “no”.

What this short conversation made me realise is just what a bad reputation poor old anxiety still has. And how the general appraisal of anxiety is far, far worse than this very normal, common, sometimes helpful human emotion.

The concept that anxiety is bad and that eliminating it or reducing it is good for performance is arguably one of the most damaging myths floating around out there.

A Neurochemical Look At Anxiety

Let’s take a neurochemical look at anxiety first and foremost. Obviously, with full appreciation of individual differences, most people’s experience of anxiety is generally an increase in arousal (not that type 🤦). Not always, but often, this takes place before or during an important event or moment. Due to this, our bodies try to help us by releasing hormones like norepinephrine, adrenaline and dopamine. These hormones are typically very beneficial, but they do often feel unsettling. So, in many ways, anxiety is an umbrella term used to describe some of these many internal sensations:

  1. Thoughts related to appropriate worrying. “I really hope I don’t stuff up in tomorrow’s final”.
  2. Bodily Sensations – Feeling nervous, restless or tense. Having an increased heart rate. Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, trembling. Having trouble sleeping. Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems (butterflies). Wanting to go to the toilet more than normal (for both numbers ones and number twos).

You will see that I have not listed the word ’emotions’ above, as typically, this refers to an individual’s unique experience. For example, when I am nervous, I tend never to sweat, but for others, this is the very first thing that might happen.

Misinterpretations Galore

Where many people go wrong is that they essentially misinterpret the above internal stimuli. Instead of seeing them as either very normal in the lead-up to something important (or even useful), they see them as a problem. They drastically misread these sensations as being an impediment to optimal performance.

So they don’t just worry; they worry about worrying. Or worse, they panic about the worry. This is called metacognitive worry. Sometimes, it can be useful to break down an individual’s experience of anxiety and just determine whether or not it’s actually possible to perform competently.

For example, lack of sleep. Next time you have a poor night’s sleep, go out and train and see what happens. The scientific evidence on sleep deprivation is incredibly clear now. Individuals would need to experience five or six consecutive nights of very poor sleep before it started to have a dramatic impact on anything that they were highly skilled at. One night of prank calls from the team’s practical joker isn’t going to do much.

Some of these misinterpreted reactions of anxiety are actually very beneficial. Look at how the body generally will increase our need to go to the toilet before an important event. Particularly in sports, it is obviously better if you have “emptied” your bladder and bowels well before the gun goes off. That’s all your body is trying to do. To help you. And yes, the fact that you have to go to the loo more often than normal is just a natural consequence of this.

And an increase in breathing rate …. fairly obvious, right? You get the picture.

Not All Anxiety Is The Same

I want to be absolutely clear here that I’m not suggesting that all forms of anxiety are harmless and/or beneficial. Clearly, there are some situations where the original experiences of nervous energy are so powerful that they genuinely block other homeostatic processes. Such as breathing, for example. However, even in these extreme clinical situations, a portion of the problem is caused by the misjudgement of the original internal stimulus.

But the vast majority of ‘anxiety situations’ that come across our desks as sport and performance psychologists are not these extreme types. It’s the normal kind, the healthy kind. It’s the upside of anxiety because the client is invariably involved in some fairly important stuff. Think Olympic Games and/or performing open heart surgery on a toddler. That kind of stuff.

The Inverted U Hypothesis

A large part of anxiety’s poor reputation can be traced back to a theory that is often called the Inverted U hypothesis. In summary, it suggests that too little or too much anxiety is bad for performance. As per the above graph, an upside U or inverted U. I remember very clearly being taken through this theory during my Masters of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Western Sydney University back in 2004. Back then, I did not question it for a nanosecond. Even worse, it was a significant part of my consulting in the first years of Condor Performance. I organically moved away from using it when I realised that the frameworks related to Psychological Flexibility were far more effective.

But it was only earlier this year, when we had the pleasure of having legendary sport psychologist Jonah Oliver attend our annual Condor Performance Summit, that I realised just how ridiculous this theory was.

You see, the theory is one of the most flimsy ever from a scientific point of view. The Yerkes-Dodson Law’s original formulation derives from a 1908 paper on experiments in Japanese dancing mice learning to discriminate between white and black boxes using electric shocks. This research was largely ignored until the 1950s when Donald O. Hebb’s concept of arousal led to renewed interest in the Yerkes-Dodson law’s general applications in human arousal and performance. But virtually no thorough investigation was ever done to prove that elite human performance depended on some anxiety and suffered from too little or too much. Yet, it was assumed to be true and still is in most circles.

So I Leave You With Some Facts …

  • Well-rehearsed gross motor skills are incredibly independent and stable of whatever emotions are being experienced at that time. But as long as these emotions are allowed to exist in their natural state. Anxiety is just one of the many different emotions we experience. In brief, you can perform optimally whilst you are very, very nervous.
  • Fine motor skills and/or novice motor skills are more vulnerable to some common byproducts of anxiety (e.g. shaking), but even in these situations, it’s still the misjudgement of the anxiety that is the greater threat to performance.
  • Anxiety, as with all emotions and many thoughts, is an outcome. It’s a consequence, a result of something. And therefore, we only have a small amount of influence on it.
  • The best way to manage anxiety is to accept it as a normal, healthy part of the human experience. It is even better to see it as an indication that something important is on the horizon. Notice it and commit to the actions/processes of the task at hand.
  • Trying to reduce anxiety is an example of experiential avoidance. Below is a great 4-minute video on experiential avoidance that is worth watching.

And As Always, If You Need A Hand …

Then get in touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at [email protected] 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.

Ted Lasso Sport Psychology

What happens when one of our sport psychs sorts through the facts from the fiction of the immensely popular Apple TV series, Ted Lasso?

LOS ANGELES – JUL 15: Ted Lesso Cast at the Ted Lasso Season 2 Premiere Screening at the Pacific Design Center Rooftop on July 15, 2021, in Los Angeles, CA

Ted Lasso Is A Brilliant TV Show But …

Let me just start by saying I’m a massive fan of the show, Ted Lasso. 

For those who haven’t seen the miniseries on Apple TV, it’s well worth watching. The premise is a little bit far-fetched but highly entertaining. On top of the fun factor, there are some fantastic sport psychology concepts and messages contained throughout the seasons. But hidden subtly between the laughs and the logic are some lies. Due mainly to the popularity of the show I felt compelled to point out some of the aspects that are either inaccurate or unhelpful or even both.

I want to be absolutely clear that this is not a criticism of the storyline, acting, writing or premise of the show. But as an applied sport psychologist who has been working in elite sport for the better part of 15 years, there are just some things that are easier for me to spot compared with the layperson.

Ted Lasso Sport Psychology – Possibles

Before I get to the inaccuracies, I thought it would be sensible to point out a few aspects of the show that are totally possible and/or useful.

For those who have not seen it the main character Ted Lasso is an American football coach brought in to be the head coach of an English Premier League (football/soccer) team. It is entirely possible for an elite coach from one sport to pivot and apply his or her expertise in another sport. The reason for this is very simple. When we break down sporting performance into the five most important subcomponents, only two of these are highly sports-specific. Meaning three of the five parts are not. Using this logic it means that the majority of the work required at the pointy end of sport is very psychological in nature. This is the case with Ted Lasso, who is mainly operating as the team’s mental coach.

Yes in 2023 it’s still rare for a head coach to come from a sport other than the one he or she is known for but this is no reflection of the plausibility. The rarity is more a result of some uncreative decision-making at the Board and CEO level.

More Coaches Swapping Sports

This will eventually change. As will the frequency whereby qualified sport psychologists start becoming assistant coaches and head coaches. I talked through this latter prediction during my chat with fellow sport psychologist Dan Abrahams on Episode 103 of The Sport Psych show.

The second aspect of the Ted Lasso show that is realistic is the American’s coaching style. Again without wanting to spoil it for anybody who is yet to watch it, it would be fair to describe Lasso’s coaching style as laid-back and consultative. There is a lot of literature on the standard coaching styles in sports, but there is no doubt that fewer and fewer elite sportsmen and women benefit from a benevolent dictator. The players of the fictitious Richmond FC are not scared of their coach. They want to play well, in part, because they like him.

There are lots of other aspects of the show that real-life sporting teams would benefit from borrowing, such as:

  • Training is a healthy mix of fun and bloody hard work.
  • Players and coaches are encouraged to be vulnerable (I’m currently working on an article entirely dedicated towards this topic. If you are yet to subscribe to our notifications, you can do so here).
  • Good mental health underpins good everything else.

Ted Lasso Sport Psychology – Near Misses!

Let’s start with the sport psychologist that appears from time to time in the show. The character’s name is Dr Sharon Fieldstone played excellently by actor Sarah Niles. It is possible due to the popularity of the show that this depiction of this particular sport psychologist is the most visible since the professional was first conceived more than 100 years ago.

However …

Is the work that she appears to be doing in the show an accurate portrayal of what real sport psychologists do? Well, not the one writing this article I am afraid.

In most of the scenes in which we can get some sense of the topics discussed between Dr Sharon and the members of the club, she appears to be operating more as a therapist than a sport psychologist. Is there a difference, I hear some of you ask?

If not universally, there ought to be.

The majority of the work carried out by sport psychologists would ideally want to be around mental aspects of performance. At least 60% but possibly more. Sometimes the remaining work can and should be around general mental health, depending on which other qualified professionals might be available to the players and staff. Not on a single occasion can Dr Sharon be seen to be targeting an improvement in football (soccer) specific mental skills.

The Ideal

Given the budget at this level of sport, every club should have a minimum of at least two full-time psychologists working side-by-side. The first wants to be a qualified performance psychologist to predominantly target performance consistency through mental skills training. Working alongside this individual should be a non-sport psychologist who is in charge of the players’ mental health. There are dozens of recognised professions that – on paper – are able to do this role. These include but are not limited to:

  • Clinical psychologists
  • All other types of psychologists
  • Psychiatrists

So, despite Dr Sharon using the title of ‘sport psychologist’ she is not really carrying out the role of one. This is confusing and unhelpful for anyone trying to get a clearer picture of what we actually do.

In other words, the work that she is shown to be doing on screen – which is very much around mental health – does not have a direct link with winning more football matches.

Note above I use the word direct very intentionally. There is now absolutely no doubt that good mental health underpins sporting mental toughness. In other words, there is a robust indirect link between the two. In the same way, good physical health underpins excellent physical capabilities such as fitness and strength. But working on mental health does not automatically guarantee sporting mental toughness. Because the latter is a separate layer of the pyramid and needs to be targeted directly by different processes.

Get Out Of The Consulting Room

One reasonable way to get a quick idea of what the psychologist is working on is where the sessions are taking place. When I am physically in the same location as my clients very little of the work is occurring in a consulting room. It’s mainly in the locker room or on the training ground (see picture to the left).

When we see Dr Fieldstone doing her stuff in the Ted Lasso show it’s taking place in a consulting room. Highly valuable, but not typical sport psychology work as per the title on the door of the room.

Ted Lasso’s Four Keys To Success

Throughout the episodes, there is a crescendo towards the completion of a very special list. This list is basically the four key ingredients that Ted Lasso regards are the most important for success.

Spoiler alert!

The fourth one below is only revealed at the very end of the last episode of the third season so if you are yet to get to that part, then you may want to stop reading now.

  1. Conditioning.
  2. Versatility.
  3. Awareness.
  4. Self-belief.

I don’t have an issue with the first three of these. They might be fairly obvious to most operating in professional sports, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be added to a list. I love the second and third ones, but I wonder what processes need to be implemented to approve them. Not only in soccer/football but any sport where they could be regarded as performance benefits. But I do have an issue with the fourth one.

Self Belief Is Overrated

Self-belief is a controversial concept in modern-day sport and performance psychology. Self-belief is predominantly a collection of thoughts that revolve around how competent somebody feels they are at something.

The issue is when there is an implication that these actions need this self-assuredness. In other words, without a certain level of self-belief, the motor skills are in jeopardy … even if they themselves are highly proficient.

This is not true. Certain thoughts and feelings are (at best) a bonus to performance consistency but not a requirement. In other words, Ted, you don’t need self-belief to play good football.

Given this, to improve The Ted Lasso Sport Psychology list from above I would replace the fourth item with Psychological Flexibility. And if you want a hand in improving yours then get in touch by completing the form on our Contact Us page. We will try to get back to you within two business days.

Mental Skills Etc.

Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.

Mental skills play a monumental part in sporting success.

Mental Skills Are… umm … Skills

The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.

The skills are the outcomes, not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.

When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side, it’s quite easy to separate the outcomes (ability) from the processes (how).

Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. 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 actually dribbling is NOT the only way to become better at dribbling.

As I explain in this 2020 visualisation video imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to become more skilful. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. They can and should include physical skills, tactical skills and of course mental skills.

The main reason that the term mental skills is used incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.

Let’s All Use The Correct Terms

If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ or ‘process’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of processes that coaches use to help their players hone this particular skill.

How This Plays Out For Mental Skills

There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much at the moment. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than say the physical and technical aspects of performance. Secondly, there is very little agreement within the sport psychology community pertaining to exactly what are the most significant mental skills for optimal performance. How many are there? What are they called?

At Condor Performance, we have been diligently working away behind the scenes to come up with our own consensus. It is still too early for us to publish these findings, but I am happy to reveal exclusively to the subscribers and readers of the Mental Toughness Digest that we believe there are, in fact, six primary mental skills. And these six in actual fact all contribute to a seventh, the mother of all mental skills … consistency.

Inspired By Physical Skills

The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side. Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …

  • I could improve my flexibility by …
  • To improve my cardio fitness I could …
  • A great way to improve your upper body strength is by …

In these three examples, the word in bold is the skill – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the processes need to be added at the end. For example:

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

One physical with many physical methods. Probably hundreds if we really did some thorough brainstorming.

Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance by me revealing two of the six mental skills I alluded to above.

  • I could improve my composure by …
  • A great way to boost concentration is to …

Not Quite So Easy Is It?

Remember composure and concentration are the mental skills here. So the question is what processes might help improve them? Or maintain them if they are already excellent?

For composure (“the feeling of being calmconfident, and in control“) it would appear as if Psychological Flexibility is key.

For the mental skill of concentration, it seems as if sport-specific routines play a major role. Both routines for before you start competing or performing as well the those for whilst you are competing or performing.

What About The Other Four Mental Skills?

All in good time my friends, all in good time. As many of you may know in the past we have attempted to put some of our core ideas online for anybody to access. Imagine the explanation part of sport psychology consulting only, without the conversation part or the individualisation aspect. We are on track to replace all of these self-guided courses with updated ones by the end of 2024 and our followers will get first access when they are ready. In the meantime, the old version of Metuf is still available to trial for free online via this link here.

And if you want to access the full course you can do so via a whopping 60% discount using this code until the new versions become available:

newmetufcoming2024

Just copy and paste the above at the checkout where it says “Have coupon?” and away you go.

Metuf mental toughness training
Metuf – online mental toughness training

Control The Controllables

There is a lot of stuff we can’t control. Our interpretation of these “uncontrollables” plays a huge part in how our day, training and competition turns out.

Learning to control the controllables in professional surfing is essential.

Control The Controllables

Earlier this year Condor Performance turned 18 years old 🥳 .

As you might imagine there is not too much in common between the organisation we were in 2005 and the one we are now in 2023. But there are a few concepts that have stood the test of time.

One of these is the concept of control or influence as a pivotal aspect of our sport psychology consulting philosophy.

I was first made aware of this idea when I attended a professional development workshop entitled “Are You A Control Freak?”. I can’t recall the name of the presenter but I do remember the phrase ‘control the controllables’ being used a lot. More than enough for it is leave an impression and motivate me to find out more.

The premise was very simple, logical and appealing. There are a whole bunch of things that we encounter in our everyday lives which we don’t have much control over. Our interpretation of these “uncontrollables” plays a huge part in how our day goes most of the time. And of how our training or performance turns out as well.

Classic Examples

Let’s take the weather as a classic example.

We have absolutely zero ability to reduce the wind speed at any given time. But for a whole bunch of pursuits variation in wind speed will play a huge role in the outcomes and enjoyment of these activities. Golfers, for example, of all abilities score worse when playing in very windy conditions. Sailers, on the flip side, all underperform when the wind blows less.

When I first came across this theory almost 20 years ago it was very black and white. Basically, stuff could be broken down into one or two lists. The first list is everything that you can control. And obviously, the second list is everything that you can’t. It was a key part of my consulting weaponry between 2005 and 2010 … to get all of my clients to create exactly these two lists.

I would try to let these athletes and coaches populate these lists for themselves, but obviously part of the coaching process is to steer them towards “better”. “Do you really think you can control your results?”. Typically the uncontrollable list would contain items such as these:

  • Surroundings
  • Opponents
  • The Past
  • Weather
  • Results

And in the controllables list would be stuff like:

  • Myself
  • My Thoughts
  • My Teammates
  • My Effort
  • The Present Moment
  • My Feelings
  • My Actions

But There Was A Better Way

It took me a while to realise this black-and-white framework was not ideal. In other words, I was quickly able to see that there was a lot of stuff that was neither controllable nor uncontrollable. In fact, virtually everything was somewhere in between these two extremes.

For example, sporting results as one of the biggest distractors. Outcomes by their very definition are not controllable. But some are obviously more than others. In basketball, a player clearly has more influence over their own points tally compared with that of their teammates. The same applies to other people. Team-sport athletes clearly have more control over their own teammates than they do over the members of the opposition. “Hey Sue, try dropping back a few meters”.

So it was around 2010 from memory I moved to a spectrum of control. Anyone who attended any of my workshops from around this time would surely have been introduced to A Mental Dumbbell. The dumbbell was an analogy with absolutely no control on the left and maximum control on the right with the bar between the two sets of weights representing the variances between these two extremes. 

I Always Struggled With The Word Control

The word control in the English language kind of implies a yes or a no. So, as a psychologist who believes in the power of words ‘control’ felt like it was still very black and white. Yes, you can say you have some control over something, but why use this word when there is a far better word for this? Do you want to guess before you scroll down?

Time To Think
Time To Think

That’s right, it’s influence.

So the dumbbell was updated. The far left became ‘no influence’. The extreme right became ‘maximum influence’. And between is all the shades of grey needed. Some influence, lots, a little and so on. So when I hear (or read) Control The Controllables I hear (or see) Influence the Influenceables. Watch the video for a much greater explanation of how to “control the controllables”.

What Influence the Influenceables is really trying to do is to emphasise that various different factors are much more beneficial to obsess about than others. And crucially a lot of these are typically not as naturally exciting as a lot of the stuff that is better off being noticed as opposed to forced.

How Influenceable Are Thoughts?

It is impossible not to form some heavy opinions about where key psychological concepts should fall on the spectrum when this is a central aspect of your working life. In particular, thoughts, feelings and actions. Still, to this day there are a significant number of psychologists who suggest that humans have a lot of influence on all three of these. And in changing one you are likely to change the other two as well.

But that is just not true.

Acknowledging slight variations in the person, and the type of thought/emotion/action I firmly believe that this should be embedded in the value system of all performers. Your actions – especially the ones that have been well rehearsed – are highly influenceable. If you prefer the word control then they are highly controllable. When looking to ‘Control The Controllables’ basically it’s mostly these highly reliable motor skills. Thoughts are halfway down the spectrum. We have some influence but far less than our actions. And then feelings/emotions are very close to the left. We have a small amount of influence over them. Not nothing at all but typically less than many people believe.

Think about this for a second. Listen to your favourite song, and you might be influencing your mood for a few seconds, you might feel more joy. But try to feel joy for an entire day and you will fail every single time.

This Spectrum of influence, I find is a far better way to explain why at Condor Performance we are such advocates of psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is better understood as accepting thoughts and feelings whilst committing to our actions.

Recently, I put the below comment up on social media and it attracted quite a lot of controversy.

There is no such thing as an unhelpful thought or feeling. They just don’t exist. It is only actions (behaviours) that can/should be considered as either helpful or unhelpful. Nobody ever went to jail because they had some unhelpful thoughts and feelings. It is what they DID they put them in the slammer. Nobody ever won anything due to having helpful thoughts and feelings. It’s what they DID that got them the award/trophy/medal/certificate etc. Try to just DO BETTER whilst at the same time thinking and feeling whatever you just happen to be thinking and feeling at the time. 😎 #psychologicalflexibility

If you are reading this then use the comments section below to let me know what you think about this. Be honest, if you believe it’s wrong then say that but try and justify why you disagree with it. It was astounding to me how many people on social media threw their toys out of the cot when they saw this. But when I pushed them to explain themselves virtually all of them went quiet very quickly.

Working With Coaches

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my consulting in 2023 is working with a new wave of young sporting coaches from around the world. Most of them have realised that it is becoming increasingly difficult to be both a successful athlete in a particular sport and then go on to be a world-class coach.

All of these young coaches recognise the huge importance of sport psychology from a coaching perspective. And most of them don’t want to stop actually coaching in order to get a sport psychology qualification.

So the smart ones are baking their cake and eating it. What does that mean? These coaches continue to coach whilst becoming more mentally astute “whilst on the job” by working with an already qualified sport/performance psychologist like myself and my colleagues at Condor Performance.

In the work that I do with my coaches teaching them to Control The Controllables / Influence the Influenceables is a big part of the work. And making sure they can use this concept directly with their athletes. Coaching is stressful, especially at the pointy end so a chunk of consulting with coaches is also about helping them maintain good mental health.

As these coaches are genuine experts in their sports it is exciting to see how they take a number of different mental processes (like the dumbbell) and adapt them for their particular performance area.

If you are a sporting coach and you’d like some details about how to have a world-class sport/performance psychologist in your corner then get in touch today.

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.

LONDON, ENGLAND – July 18th, 2013: The Australian slip fielding cordon on day one of the Investec Ashes 2nd test match, at Lords Cricket Ground in London, England.

Unity, Cohesion, Harmony …

Team unity is also known by other names such as culture, team cohesion, and team chemistry. All of these labels describe the factors that can result in some sporting teams being completely unified. Whilst others can resemble the boys from the famous novel The Lord of the Flies. If you have never read the book I’ll sum it up for you. They end up killing each other!

Team Unity is possibly the most intriguing aspect of sporting mental toughness. It is without a doubt the area that athletes expect to be good at without having to do any work. All athletes understand that to improve muscle strength they’ll need to do some work. Most athletes understand that to improve managing emotions they’ll need to do some work. But most athletes expect their teammates to respect them just by existing.

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 it 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.

When Team Unity Falls Apart

Between 2005 and 2015 Kevin Pietersen was the top run scorer for the English men’s national cricket team. However, he was regarded by many of his teammates as a prickly character. They tried to address this but couldn’t. Many sporting teams would simply have accepted this and let him carry on playing.

However, unity was considered so important by The England Cricket Board they eventually stopped selecting their top batsman. This article explains the situation in a lot more detail.

How Is Team Unity Best Improved In Sporting Teams?

One of the best ways (but also one of the most costly) is to engage the services of a qualified sport psychologist. I am sure all psychologists working in sport have their own way of going about this. However at Condor Performance, when it comes to improving team unity we love to work mainly with the coaching staff.

One of the main jobs of the coach of a sporting team is to unify the team and then keep them unified. The problem is most of them attempt to do this delicate work under-equipped. 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 coach or coaches and put what we call The 10 R’s under the microscope. The 10 R’s refers to five pairs of words that each starts with the letter R. They provide a great starting point for discussions on how to improve the unity of any given team. Of course, these teams don’t have to be sporting groups.

Roles and Rules

It is virtually impossible for a team to be unified without clear rules and roles. If the individual members are not clear about their roles this will cause frustration and infighting. The ‘blame game’ is rife in sporting teams with poor role clarification.

The same applies to rules. What is and is not acceptable should form a key part of pre-season for all competitive sporting teams. The most effective rules are confirmed in consultation with all the members of the team. Then they are written down. Then all parties sign on the dotted line to agree to abide by them.

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

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

More for the coaches but important nonetheless is giving frequent reassurance and reasons to the playing group. Humans are not mind-readers. Athletes are humans too. Some love getting reassurance that they are on track. Others need less reassurance. This is where the magic of the ‘why’ comes in. Letting players know why they’re progressing or struggling is the magic dust.

Ready and Relaxed

One furphy in elite sports is that one of the best ways to boost team chemistry is to 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. Performers who feel ready and relaxed tend to get along much better than their stressed counterparts. And of course that proper preparation needs to include all aspects of performance. What are these again? Physical, Technical, Tactical, and Mental.

Recognition and Rewards

In most sports, the wins are often obvious. If your team wins the grand final you will not need our help in celebrating that. 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? Teams with a strong culture recognise these smaller milestones.

At Condor Performance we practice what we preach. Due to the monthly approach that we use in our consulting, we all accrue months. Each time a client pays for another month we add one month to our records for that psychologist. We then celebrate 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 2000 months together. For example below is a short video we made when Brian hit 500 months recently.

Do You Need Our Help?

If you are part of a team and you’d like some info on how we can work with you and your teammates please contact us via one of the below.

Baby Steps

Learning to take small steps in the right direction is potentially one of the most important mental skills of them all. As Gareth explains in this brand new feature article.

Learning to take small steps in the right direction is potentially one of the most important mental skills of them all.

What Are Baby Steps?

Most of you have surely heard the term baby steps, right?

Maybe for some, it rings a bell from the classic Bill Murray movie “What About Bob?”. For the rest of you here is a two-minute clip from the 1990’s comedy classic which gets straight to the heart of this concept:

As brilliantly explained by “Dr. Leo Marvin” Baby Steps are about taking small, incremental steps. And as I will explain later they actually don’t have to be towards a goal. In fact, sometimes chasing a goal can create some surprising and unnecessary issues.

Baby Steps for Sport Psychology

Although the concept of baby steps originates more from psychiatry it is just as applicable to modern-day sport psychology. In fact, it might be even more beneficial in performance-enhancement settings than deficit-fixing ones.

There are a couple of important aspects to highlight first. To start with most of the really meaningful stuff in our lives takes a lot of time to develop. So although the concept of baby steps does not directly mention the speed of those steps I think it’s implied. Slow and steady baby steps.

The second aspect central to baby steps is that most improvement is kind of hard to see. Like the nervous steps of a toddler learning to walk sometimes it’s more shuffle than step. And of course, there is a lot of falling over. 

I have always held the belief that slow, steady, hard-to-see improvements are the best type. For they tend to be longer-lasting.

Sure, every athlete and performer has the potential to make huge improvements all of a sudden, but these are typically the direct result of years of hard work where suddenly everything clicked. In most situations, there were a ton of baby steps before the huge step occurred.

Baby Steps With And Without Goals

Despite rumours in some circles, I don’t have a problem with goal setting. Setting goals is fine as long as the “setter” has a vague idea of how much influence they have on what they are “setting”.

I am a decent squash player and one of my intentions for when I hit 50 (4 years from now) is to climb the squash Masters rankings. Now I might set a goal, for example, of trying to get into the Top 10 squash players of my age group in New South Wales. But I am blissfully aware that I only have some influence on this. Another way of saying this is the reaching or not reaching of that future intention is only partially up to me.

Think about it. The quality of the other squash players and their training processes play a monumental part in whether or not I will achieve this goal or not. Imagine if suddenly five of the best male squash players of my age suddenly decided to move to New Zealand to start up a business together. Without me doing diddly squat the chances of me achieving this ranking goal would improve dramatically.

On the flip side, if a small wave of squash-loving Egyptian and Pakistani immigrants moved to Australia in the next few years (both nations are traditionally very strong in this sport) then the chances of me achieving my goal would go down significantly. But without me doing anything differently. 

So how then do baby steps work without setting goals?

Basically, you try and make tiny improvements at something important but without having a bigger purpose. This might be hard for many involved in competitive sports where there might always seem like there is an end goal in mind.

One of the biggest myths about the world’s best athletes is that they all set goals. Absolute hogwash. A large chunk of them just want to get better over time, and then with a huge dollop of patience, they end up at the top of the pile.

Examples

The basketballer wants to improve her basketball abilities but is not too concerned about making it as a pro. The cricketer is obsessed with becoming a more consistent batter but has not sat down to clarify his cricketing intentions over the next 5 years.

Earlier I said setting goals can actually do more harm than good. There are two ways in which setting goals can trip up athletes and other nonsporting performers.

First, is the very existence of the goal as a huge dollar of unnecessary pressure. Now of course in an ideal world using a psychological flexibility framework pressure would not be problematic. In the same way that negative thoughts and feelings ought not to be problematic. The reality is that working with a qualified sport psychologist to ensure that this happens is still the exception, rather than the norm. So too much pressure is an issue for many performers still. And a lot of this unhealthy kind of pressure comes from the expectations of others and the future.

Imagine a golfer going into a golf tournament whereby only a win will give them enough ranking points to get into the Top 20 Order of Merit. The goal they set at the start of the season. Many psychologically inflexible golfers would perform better if they didn’t have this hanging around their necks as they stood on the first tee each day.

The other issue with goalsetting is actually when you achieve them. If not careful ‘getting there’ can act as a huge demotivator. Let me use the golfer from the previous paragraph to illustrate. So this golfer had a season-long goal of finishing in the Top 20 Order of Merit. Now, let’s imagine that he had a better-than-expected season going into the final tournament. In fact mathematically even if he comes dead last in this event he will still end up in the Top 20. Deep down, will he be as focused in these final rounds?

Baking Your Cake And Eat It 

The Japanese have a word that roughly translates to constant improvement. It’s called Kaizen. So a Kaizen Mindset might be the best way to use baby steps. And it’s best done by actually separating out the four performance pillars.

Let’s see if we can slowly improve your sporting abilities without concerning ourselves too much with where it might end up.

See if you can get some objective data on your current physical abilities. Now get to work and try and improve them ever so slightly over the next month. Then retest. Do exactly the same for your current tactical, technical, and mental abilities. For the mental part, you might like to consider mental health and performance-specific mental toughness as being related but not the same thing.

And if you need a hand, we can help you with both (get in touch here).

Music and Sport Psychology

Athletes have been using music for sport psychology purposes for decades. But what type of music is best? Gareth answers this and more …

Sport Psychology and Music – A Great Combination.

Music and Sport Psychology -Intro

Music is very emotional. So is the world of competitive sports. So it makes complete sense that they might be able to work together – and they do. Music and sport psychology have gone hand in hand also ever since the field was first invented over a hundred years ago.

Things really ramped up when athletes were able to listen to music via a portable playing device. For readers over the age of 40, they might remember the Walkman. Walkmans were then replaced by Discmans. MP3 players such as iPods (do they still make those?) took down Discmans. Fast forward to 2023 and the combination of a smartphone and platforms such as Spotify now allow us to listen to virtually anything at any time.

Technology And Sport Psychology

At Condor Performance we are big believers in taking full advantage of the wonders of modern technology.

We were delivering sport psychology consultations via Skype years before the term ‘Telehealth’ was coined. My very first session via webcam took place in 2006. Skype was only created in 2003! Obviously, nowadays we are spoilt for choice. Zoom is still the preferred option for most of our psychologists. But Google Meets and Microsoft Teams have both improved their features recently.

And it’s not just sessions themselves where technology is changing how sport and performance psychology services are delivered. Ever since moving to a monthly approach to our service delivery, we have allowed and encouraged our clients to contact us between sessions. Emailing, texting, and messaging via Whatsapp are ideal for small questions and reminders between sessions.

And of course, finally, there are the Apps. Such is the explosion of Apps designed to improve mental health and performance that we are currently working on a blog post dedicated to just this topic. If you are yet to get reminders after each new article is published then add your details here.

What Type of Music is Best for Sport Psychology?

Probably the most common mistake made in this area is the assumption that fast-paced energetic type music (such as rock and Punk) is naturally best to listen to before the big game. What if you are already very energised, for example by the organic importance of the competition that is about to begin? Do you really need to listen to Tina Turner’s Simply The Best when you’re struggling to keep down your breakfast?

Music for Sports Psychology

One of the cornerstones of our shared consulting framework is that it is better to learn to perform regardless of your current thoughts and feelings. In other words, if you hold onto the belief that you can only play well when you are relaxed, then you’re in trouble. Why? Thoughts and feelings are not that influenceable.

But music can genuinely change feelings. So how about you try this instead? If you’re listening to music as part of a pre-competition routine, then just pick songs that you like. Keep it simple. Also, remember that because the music is coming through a device and that devices are not guaranteeable you need to have a backup in case the battery dies or you leave it at home.

But some music helps us relax and other types do the opposite. This is true. If you are looking to try and change your arousal levels (not that type 😜) then do so as part of training not before you compete or perform. Ideally, if you have embedded some form of mental training into your preparation then part of this wants to be learning to “do” whilst feeling a wide range of emotions. There are not too many better ways to do this than through music.

Calming Music Playlist

Recently I created a couple of playlists on Spotify for my monthly clients. The first is a collection of calming-type songs. These songs would be ideal for an athlete who feels like they need to be hyped in order to perform well. Listening to these songs before training, to lower arousal, might lead them to change that belief for the better.

Calming Music for Sport Psychology

Energising Music for Performers

The songs below are designed to do the opposite. They are fast-paced and upbeat so should increase arousal when listening to them. So these tunes are well placed to be used in training for those who feel like they need to be relaxed to do well but know that the chances of them always feeling like that are basically zero. So pump yourself up in training and become psychologically more flexible.

Energising Music for Sports Psychology

And as always, if you need a hand with any of this or any other mental aspect of your performance then get in touch. Our Intake Team will always try and get back to you within 48 hours.

Performance Consistency

Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret argues that ‘Performance Consistency’ should be the most highly valued goal for all elite athletes and performers.

The New Zealand All Blacks (rugby union – left) and Manchester City (football/soccer – right) are two of the most consistent sporting teams in the world. But what exactly makes them so good on such a consistent basis?

Consistency – The Ultimate Goal

With a few notable exceptions, there seems to be a ‘HOT or NOT’ element to many sporting performances. Across all sports and levels, it can be common for great performances to be followed by relatively poor ones. This has generally left participants and onlookers perplexed. How is it possible for these players to play so well one week, then so poorly the next? Why am I only excellent some of the time?

This short article will explore some of the reasons behind Performance Consistency and Inconsistency. I will conclude with a few tips on how to attempt a move towards The Holy Grail of Competitive Sport; Performance Consistency.

The Holy Grail

We call Performance Consistency the Holy Grail because it’s the ultimate sport and performance outcome goal. For non-Monty Python fans, the Holy Grail was the cup Christ used at the Last Supper which has been the quest by various pilgrims for centuries.

The Real Holy Grail
The Real Holy Grail

Every athlete knows what it’s like to hit that ‘purple patch’ where everything just seems to click into place. This, of course, is not Performance Consistency as it often comes to an end (often a sudden and ugly one). Performance Consistency occurs when you can extend this purple patch to a few weeks, a whole season, or even an entire career.

What Causes Performance Inconsistency?

I would suggest the number one cause of Performance Inconsistency is the overuse or misuse of performance reviews. In particular, athletes and coaches who misunderstand the amount of influence they have on their performance results (outcomes). In its simplest form ‘a performance’ is the consequence of about 25 to 30 areas of effort. One such area of effort might be (should be) Mental Toughness. On top of these areas of effort, we also have many less influenceable elements aspects such as genetics, weather conditions etc.

After a particular performance, it’s very common for the performer to ‘assign’ reasons for the result. For example, “I played really well because I have a new coach.” Or “I played poorly because I have been out injured.” This then often leads to doing more of the things that you thought caused the ‘good performance’. You might also do less of that which you believed caused the performance decline. And so begins the Performance Rollercoaster – the very opposite of Performance Consistency. Effort becomes reactive (emotional) rather than premeditated (rational) and up and down you go like a Yo-Yo.

The reality is, you will never know exactly what ingredients went into making up a performance. At best you might be able to develop a hunch that links some elements of effort to some variations in results, with a whole heap of unknowns leftover. Thoughts and beliefs are just that – thoughts and beliefs – and although they can feel incredibly reliable the truth is they are perceptions, not facts.

Failure to Plan is a Plan to Fail

Instead, plan your effort without factoring too much on results. Just consider what you believe to be the best use of your time. Spare yourself the distraction of strengths and weaknesses or good and bad. Second, ensure the effort is broken down into very clear categories. Try not to end up with too many of them or too few. Finally, make sure you ‘buy into’ the 4 laws of effort below:

  • Improvement is never-ending. You will never reach a point of mastery and be ‘good enough’ to then move on to something else.
  • The number of ways to improve is unlimited. But the time and resources we have in order to get better are very limited.
  • Improvement is best achieved through the focus on training and practice. This basically boils down to EFFORT.
  • Effort, as a concept, is fundamentally a combination of Quality and Quantity of time focussing on the areas you are targeting for improvement.

What Is Performance, Really?

I love jumping online and examining statistics and reading about new ways to understand and analyze the sports we love. There are endless amounts of data available, which are used to evaluate an individual or team’s performance. These statistics are often seen to be of high importance. They are considered factual because they are quantifiable measurements of performance. Comments such as “it’s hard to argue with the numbers” may help me make my point here. Despite my interest in statistics, I intend to challenge these notions from a sport psychology perspective.

In the current sporting climate, statistics are used by people involved at all levels. From front-office personnel to coaches, players, fans, and even commentators during broadcasts. Due to this saturation of statistical information, it becomes difficult for performers to ignore these numbers. This is particularly the case when they are not trending in a direction they are happy with. But what if statistics only painted a narrow view of the story? What if they didn’t portray the bigger picture when it comes to performance?

A Common Mental Conflict

One of the conflicts I have noticed for clients during my time with Condor Performance is the battle between statistics and strategies. Motivated athletes and coaches are keen to monitor their progress in both skill acquisition and skill maintenance. As performance psychologists, we encourage this through our version of goal-setting and goal-getting principles. We are always cautious of being entirely dependent on statistics for feedback. Results (another word for statistics) are only influenceable after all. This means lots of other variables and factors can impact the result or outcome of your performance. Many of these are outside your bubble of responsibility.

When we begin working with our athletes and coaches we often enquire about their goals and expectations. One of the things I have noticed in these early conversations is that many of the shorter-term expectations are based on statistics. Soccer players will talk about scoring a goal or how many chances they create. Basketball players will discuss points, rebounds, and assists. Swimmers and runners can put a lot of focus on completing their race in a certain time. Sporting officials will often determine a game’s quality by the number of errors they made.

Now before I go any further I want to say that goals are important and we are always in favour of people having them. But sporting success is a little like cooking.

Hmmm, Something Smells Good

The goal of cooking is usually to produce a tasty meal or dish. The goal of high-performance sport is to produce good performances all the time. The best chefs and home cooks know the key is to focus on the process and high-quality ingredients. The best athletes and coaches do exactly the same.

When we become reliant on statistics to measure our performances it can also significantly impact our mental toughness. The uncertain nature of statistics means areas such as our confidence and emotional state can go up and down like a yo-yo. Think of a cricket batter who has recent scores of 24, 4, 14, 1, 43, 3. Or a tennis player who is knocked out in the early rounds of three tournaments in a row. What about a goalkeeper in soccer for a team on a losing streak? Statistics alone paint a certain picture, however, we need to understand more than just the numbers in order to properly evaluate these individuals.

If you would like to bring a little more consistency to your performances, moving forward, then consider getting in touch and asking us about our current availability to take on new clients and associated costs by emailing us at [email protected] today.