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Commitment (also know as motivation, perseverance) is arguably the most critical aspect of Sport Psychology
“Desire is the key to motivation, but it is determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”Mario Andretti
This New Year’s shorter-than-normal edition of the Mental Toughness Digest is an edited/updated version of an article I published exactly two years ago. Time of year should have nothing to do with various mental aspects of performance. But it tends to. One of the most significant is this. At the start of the year – now – motivation for improvement tends to be higher than at other times. Why? Most likely, the start of new periods (weeks, months, years, seasons) implies new energy and new opportunities. It shouldn’t but it does. The mentally strong can conjure this same energy at any time.
So it’s appropriate that this first article of this New Year is about motivation and commitment. About getting started, about finally closing the gap between yourself and your best self.
Since starting Condor Performance back in 2005 I have given many psychologists a chance to join our team. I don’t keep a count but I would suggest the number is close to 40 or 50. Yet only ten remain (are still working for us). What is it about my current team that separates them from the dozens that have come and gone? Only those that remain have shown a real commitment to the sport psychology work we do.
Due to the client focussed monthly options that our clients choose from, whereby our clients are encouraged to have shorter, more frequent sessions at times that suit them (not necessary us) real commitment gets tested from the get-go. Nothing questions commitment in our line of work quite like sitting in traffic for an hour to deliver a 20-minute session or getting up at 4 in the morning due to a time zone difference. The cracks tend to start appearing early for those who are not really committed to helping others improve.
Commitment is essentially a synonym of motivation. The scientific literature correctly suggests that a healthy mixture of both internal and external motivation is required to reach optimal. External factors, which refer to rewards or praise from others only get you so far. Ideally, we’d want more than half of the drive to come from internal factors. These are factors such as enjoyment, self-worth/efficacy, passion and seeing the bigger picture (short term pain but long term gain).
It’s this magical combination of internal factors being backed up by external ones that only a few have and becomes quite obvious pretty quickly. I remember once calling a staff meeting on a Sunday and the person who lived furthest away (who shall remain nameless) wasn’t very well so I gave him the option of not coming. Yet 5 minutes before the meeting was due to commence he arrived coughing and sneezing. He wanted to be there – for himself (internal) and for his colleagues (external) and didn’t see why a runny nose and a
If you’re interested in learning more about your own levels of motivation (commitment) then click here to access our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Once completed one of the team will be in touch with your results.
My children are now at the age now where they have started asking ‘proper questions’. For example, ‘Daddy, what do you do for work?’ and ‘who will mow the lawn if you die? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others of course. Both the answers to these questions and the questions themselves come under the topic of ‘sport psychology basics’. Why both? For all questions and all answers are a part of psychology.
There are three fundamental questions that arguably once answered can summarise any profession. Why do you choose to do what you do? Who do you work with? What do you actually do with them?
Firstly I appreciate that many people don’t actually choose to do the work that they do. I’m thinking about the single parent who takes on a second job packing shelves to make ends meet. But certainly I choose to do the work that I do. My experience and training would now allow me to pick from a considerable number of jobs. And it is not uncommon for me to be contacted by recruitment agencies asking if I would be interested in work related to sport psychology.
So what is it about my role at Condor Performance that means that I don’t even take a look at the details of these kinds of offer? One of the biggest reasons is that it feels like one of my children in some ways. I started Condor Performance in 2005 and I’ve seen it grow from a newborn to a young adult. Saying goodbye to Condor Performance and leaving it entirely in the responsibility of others would be like saying goodbye to one of my kids. I know I’m gonna have to do that some day but not yet, not yet.
The second reason why I continue to choose my work at Condor Performance over other jobs is that I still love the vast majority of my working time. This is not to be underestimated. After 15 years of doing more or less the same kind of work on a weekly basis it would be understandable if I no longer enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because of how important I know the fun factor to be. I always ensure that the work that I am doing a Condor Performance is highly motivating. Writing this blog post and the vast majority that are published through the Mental Toughness Digest might not be many sport psychologist’s cup of tea. But I love it. Writing really lends it self to my strengths. I have unlimited ideas and passion when it comes to sport psychology. From sports psychology basics to the most complicated aspects of the profession.
It also helps me tremendously with the all important work life balance. I can tap away – as I’m doing now – at any time of day or night. This flexibility is key when you have bitten off more than you can chew. Furthermore it acts as practice for one of our most exciting future projects. A number of sport specific mental toughness training guides are in the pipelines most of which will have a written version initially. Through the process of repetition my confidence in my writing ability is now pretty high. After all, practice makes permanent.
When answering this question it might be better for me to answer on behalf of the entire Condor Performance team. For I myself now work with only a very small percentage of our overall clients. Still to this day the majority of our one-on-one clients are athletes. This should come as no surprise when the first word of the profession is the word ‘sport’. Non-sporting performers, sporting coaches and sporting officials make up the rest. By non-sporting performers I’m referring to students, medical personnel, those in the military for example. These non-sporting performers have correctly worked out that the mental skills required by an elite athlete to perform consistently at the top are very much the same as would help them in their profession. What is a little bit disappointing is the ratios of these three groups has not changed much for the last 10 years.
I was convinced that the percentage of sporting coaches we work with would eventually overtake the number of athletes. One of the main reasons for this hypothesis is some of the actual work we do a sporting coaches. I’ve heard comments such as ‘this is the missing piece of the puzzle’ and ‘you’re going to be inundated by requests from sporting coaches when they work out what you guys really do.’
I have pondered from time to time what we as a group could be doing to help with this. The peculiar nature of sports coaching is that sometimes the better we do the less likely he or she is to recommend us to other coaches. Why? Why give one of your potential opponents a leg up unnecessarily? If one then really wanted to point the finger about why this is not happening you would need to look at those in charge of the profession.
From time to time, certainly in Australia, due to us having eleven sport and performance psychologists we are confused with a professional body. But we are not. We are just a growing private practice. Our primary intentions are to look after the interests of our staff. If we help the overall reputation of sport psychology at the same time this is great – but it’s not our main focus.
I am a proud member of AAPi. But they represent all psychologists and therefore are not well-placed to communicate some of the nuances of sport psychology to public. Another professional body for psychologists in Australia – which I will not mention as I don’t want to help with their search engine optimisation – is run by clinical psychologists for clinical psychologist but pretends to be otherwise.
In terms of the athletes that we work with individual sports still dominate over team sports. In other words we are more likely to be contacted by a golfer than a water polo player. The range in ages and professional level is truly vast. We work with 8 year olds through to 80 year olds. We work with top 10 rank players in the world right through to the definitive amateur who just wants to improve how he does at his club’s annual tournament. The ratio of working with male athletes versus female athletes is fairly even. This despite the fact that we have eight male psychologists and only three female psychologists on the team. And we are very proud to have recently started working with our first gender non-binary athlete as well.
Again I am answering this question on behalf of the team rather than just myself. Despite the fact that our methodology has evolved over the past 15 years there are still some very common core ingredients. I have listed these below in bullet point form and I invite you to consider the benefits if you were guided by a professional in adopting all or some of them. If you think you would be then get in touch and request info about our 1-on-1 sport psychology services.
1. Focus on the process (effort) and let the outcome take care of itself
2. Reduce attention to the factors you have little influence on (such as the past)
3. Avoid only working on your weaknesses. Improve your strengths as well
4. Don’t underestimate the impact that overall mental health can have on performance
5. The number of ways to improve is unlimited, but the time you have to improve is very limited
6. Fake It Til You Feel It
7. Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it
Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.
“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”Bill Gates
Okay, I’ll admit it. We’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.
In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt it. Instead we simply asked a series of questions at the start of their sport psychology journey.
But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business . So over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.
Fact: there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.
The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.
With the luxury of time the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client and/or via direct observation. Observing athletes or performers in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions. Then image having of video footage of the outburst to use in session.
But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.
“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.
For us, the sport and performance psychologists at Condor Performance, what we’re most eager to find out about before and during the journey fall into four general groups:
I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.
The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness; Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus are all subcomponents of MT. This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.
Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!
I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires have become misleading. Why? Well they they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).
The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.
The majority of them are normally harmless. However some are either mentally beneficial or potentially damaging. Recently I wrote a blog containing some of the best quotes from a sports psychology point of you in my opinion. But what about the duds? What about the quotes or clichés that sound good but in actual fact are detrimental to performance? Fortunately there are a lot less of these “stinkers” compared to the good ones. Those that I would be more than happy to see my sporting clients right on post-it notes for inspiration outnumber the ones that should be banned.
It may come as a surprise to some of you that a number of the least useful but very well-known sport psychology quotes come from Vince Lombardi. I do not want to criticise Vince nor take anything away from his amazing achievements as a coach. But some of the quotes that he is most known for are psychological bloopers. Chief among them are these three:
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
I won’t go into too much detail about why the first two above simply send the wrong message to anybody playing competitive sport. Suffice to say that for the first one think Lance Armstrong and the “win at all costs mindset”. For the second one it just sounds like an excuse to me. I know it’s supposed to be cheeky but saying you only lost the game because you ran out of time is no different to saying you only lost the game because the opposition scored more points than you.
But it is this third quote that I really have an issue with. In particular the shortened version which is ‘practice makes perfect’. Fun fact ‘practice makes perfect’ currently gets 976,000,000 hits on Google. Practice Makes Permanent, the correct version, gets half the amount at 515,000,000 results.
For those of you who we have had the privilege of working with since we opened our doors in 2005 you’ll likely be aware of the fact that we do not do too much by way of cognitive restructuring during the mental conditioning process. By this I mean that by and large we let people think what they think. We would much rather help our clients to accept their thoughts and execute their motor skills anyway. Sometimes this philosophy is slightly misunderstood as us not being interested in cognitions at all. This is not true, let me explain.
Certain practitioners who subscribe to the ever increasingly popular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model may choose to be completely distance from the meaning of words and the potential impact of one inspirational quote versus another.
There are many, many types of thoughts. Let’s conceptualise thoughts in terms of how permanent they might be. A simple way to do this is to divide thoughts into two seperate types. The first group, which we could call VABs (for values, attitudes and beliefs) are rather permanent. They create most of the other type of thoughts, the second type. We could call these Current and Individual Thoughts (or CITs).
We all have some very well ingrained beliefs. Let’s imagine someone who has an ingrained belief that at work everybody should dress in a smart and presentable way. This would mean that they value people who take pride in their own appearance and choice of clothing. This is likely to have been the case in the past. It’s the case now and very likely to be the case into the future. It’s a permanent belief, one that would be hard to change.
Now imagine that somebody with these values and beliefs starts a new job. On the very first day of work they are provided with a mentor to show them the ropes. This mentor has come to work in attire that would potentially be more suitable for a lazy Sunday afternoon at home. The VAB about dressing well at work then combines with a desire to leave a good first impression to create a whole bunch of CITs. For example “I can’t believe she’s come to work dressed like that”. Or “don’t say anything, look beyond the Hoody and smile”.
For example consider an athlete who values effort above results. And maybe this athlete has a coach who has a ‘win at all cost mindset’. The athletes’ VABs might result in CITs such as “coach is going to be pissed again because we lost despite playing pretty well”.
How this all plays out from a mental toughness training point of view is quite simple. As sport psychologists and performance psychologist we see the benefits of spending some time on your values, attitudes and beliefs. This can be done in many ways but ‘hoping for the best’ is not one of them. Most people simply develop their values, attitudes and beliefs from their childhood. It’s typically a very organic process. Now this is fantastic if you have been surrounded by psychologically astute people since you were born. But this is rare. For most of us we would need to sit down regularly in order to clarify our VABs. If you have absolutely no idea about how to go about it get in touch by completing your details on our contact form.
One of my beliefs, not just as an applied sport psychologist but as a person too, is that the concept of perfect does not exist. Striving to be perfect at something is alright as long as you know you’ll never get there. I am a very logical person and it is this analytical part of me which has led me to believe that chasing perfection is like trying to find the Loch Ness monster. Just because people talk about it doesn’t make it real.
Prefect implies that no more improvement can take place. As improvement is never ending then this renders the concept of perfection as a misnomer. Think about it, for each time you get to something that you mislabelled as perfect you can still improve it further! So it wasn’t perfect was it.
It should come as no surprise having read this why I dislike the “practice makes perfect” principle. And no Vince perfect prcatice doesn’t make perfect either.
What practice can do, if you go about it in the right way, is make something permanent. Practice makes permanent correctly suggests that through the process of repetition it will eventually become a habit, an automatic action that requires little or no front of mind awareness. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.
Often when I am helping my sporting clients with their values and I manage to convince them to replace practice makes perfect with practice makes permanent they ask me about how long it would take to make something permanent. Quite often the 10,000 hours principal comes up which is another furphy. There are too many variables to that question. It will depend on the complexity of the task and genetic factors. Are you starting as an absolute beginner or are you already reasonably adept at it?
Having said that I did stumble across this very cool TEDTalk recently which suggests that a massive amount can be achieved in the first 20 hours:
But the goal for competitive sport and anybody wanting to perform consistently at their best should always be the same. You need to put in the effort so that the main motor skills required become automatic. This allows you to go into high-pressure situations with the aim of being present and enjoying yourself. Trust that the practice has made these skills permanent. Accept whatever thoughts and feelings that you happen to be experiencing on the day. And of course if you need a hand with all of this give us a shout.
Pre Shot Routines might be the most common of the short routines used before closed sporting skills, but they’re not the only type of short routine.
One of the intentional exclusions from our self-guided Mental Toughness Training courses is advice on Pre Shot Routines. This is because the first Metuf programs were created for all sport and performance areas in mind. In other words we only included mental skills that would apply to all types of performer. Pre Shot Routines only apply to certain sports and in some sports they are only needed by certain players. More on that later.
Pre Shot Routines are the most common of the short routines, but they are not the only type.
Any closed motor skill that is required frequently during a sporting context could and should have a routine beforehand. A closed motor skill is a skill which is typically ‘performed in a stationary environment, where the performer chooses when to start the skill’.
With this in mind I suggest there are actually 5 types of short routine:
In fact, if we are looking for a single term that might include all of the above it would be Pre Attempt Routines (PARs). In discussions with my clients and colleagues the word ‘attempt’ has received a bit of push-back. The thinking is that the word ‘attempt’ doesn’t exude the kind of confidence that many are looking for at these key moments. I get that. But the fact is that all of the above are in fact attempts.
The work that my colleagues and I do at Condor Performance in this area is the most sports specific of anything we do. In fact, it’s so ‘sporty’ that some suggest it’s more technical than psychological. Some say pre shot routines are better left to a coach instead of a performance psychologist. But they would be wrong. I am more than happy to work with (alongside) coaches on this mental skill. But to say my skill set as a sport psychologist is not relevant here is insulting.
For all closed motor skills, the athletes will always have at least a few seconds before attempting the action. Left in the lap of the Gods these few seconds (or few minutes) can often become fertile grounds for “overthinking”. This tends to lead to underperforming in high-pressure situations.
With the construction or improvement of any Pre Shot Routine there is one main rule. Only include easily repeatable actions. In other words, the only premeditated aspects of the routines are body movements of some kind. Thoughts and feelings are simply left to occur naturally at the time. You have far too little influence on them in order to ensure you can “do them” when it counts.
Intended actions are far more reliable than thoughts and feelings. In fact, they are so reliable that we can (with a lot of practice) virtually guarantee them. We can never guarantee being able to think a certain way in certain situations. So trying to do so is fraught with danger from a psychological point of view.
Let’s run through some examples.
Your first decision here is ‘is one Pre Shot Routine enough or do I need several?’ For most of sports, one is normally enough. But sports such as golf, which has some very different types of shots, might benefit from various PSRs.
The start of the Pre Shot Routine benefits from ‘a trigger action’. This helps us to switch on at that moment. For golf this can be something to do with your glove or maybe an action related to your club.
After this initial action add around three to five other action steps that naturally leads up to the shot. Any more than five and you really are running the risk of over complicating it.
You can these steps to your sport and preferences of course. For example, in clay target shooting one of these steps wants to be shouting the word ‘pull’. I will resist the temptation to add some example of actual pre shot routines. Why not? Because you might copy them and that defeats the purpose.
Of course, we have all seen Rafa going through his pre-point rituals. To the untrained eye, it might seem more like a set of ticks. In fact, Rafa’s Pre Point Routines are amongst the many aspects of his tennis that make him so very hard to beat.
Tennis is interesting as only the serve is a closed skill due to the fact that the receiver doesn’t decide when to receive the ball. But I have always found that in my work with tennis players it’s a good idea to have both a Pre Serve Routine and a Pre Receive Routine.
The good old face wipe with a towel is hard to beat as a starting trigger for both server and receiver. The rest of the routine needs to be aligned with what is required in a few seconds time. If you’re about to receive the ball then walking to the right spot and taking the right body position might want to be included. If you’re serving then bouncing the ball, pausing then slowly looking up can be great inclusions.
I often get asked if it’s important to decide exactly how many times to bounce the ball – for example. Also, if the decision of which serve (or where to serve) can be included as surely this is not an act but a thought.
Ball bouncing (waggling the golf club, same same) is a double edged sword. Most players do it “until they feel right” but this assumes you’ll always feel right at some point. I am in favour of picking a range of bounces. For example, 2 or 3 and then sticking to this 100% of the time. Yes, even in practice and when you’re do it as part of your visualisation.
If decision making is taken seriously as part of the practice, then this will become as automatic as the skills being done around them. In other words, choosing where to serve only becomes cognitively demanding if you have excluded tactical preparation as part of your practice. If you must have a decision making step in there, add it before the trigger.
Due to the fact that these actions tend to be part of fast flowing sports they are often not considered in the same group of closed skills as the previous examples. This is a huge missed opportunity for the kickers and free throwers of these sports in my opinion.
In the 1-on-1 work we do with kickers and throwers I basically treat them like golfers. But instead of a golf club and ball, they have their leg and foot or arms and hands and some kind of inflated ball.
First up, as with golfers, we agree on the ideal number of routines after going through the pros and cons of one versus several. For example, a rugby union player will need one for set shots and another for kick offs.
After this, we follow the same rules as before. Only use actions to build the Pre Kick/Throw Routine. If you must include a thought, try to keep them as simple as possible.
I have received a fair bit of criticism for my lack of enthusiasm about including imagery in routines. Some of this comes from the famous Jack Nicklaus quote about visualisation. “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head,” Nicklaus said.
Here is the issue Jack. We can’t guarantee cognitive processes such as imagining the path of a ball. Even with repetition, it will be very vulnerable under pressure or high levels of distraction.
The solution to this conflict is two-fold. First, practice the visualisation part as part of your PKR in practice 100% of the time so it feels automatic (second nature). Second, don’t stress if it’s hard or not possible come game time. It’s not that you are weak, it’s the thoughts are weak. Your action based Pre Attempt Routine will get the job done regardless of what you’re thinking or feeling.
If you’d like the assistance of one of psychologists with your short routines then complete one our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. A member of our team will be in touch with you to discuss options.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the main reasons why many athletes can easily perform in training but struggle on competition day.
Choking is one of those interesting terms which is commonly associated with sport psychology but not so common in the scientific literature. In other words it was first used colloquially to describe ‘falling apart under the pressure of competition’. Since then it seems to have ‘stuck’ as the term used most often to describe mental disintegration.
In this 2013 journal article choking is defined as follows:
“In sport, choking under pressure is a negative athletic experience that may have psychologically damaging effects. The media recognises that choking is a dramatic drop in performance, whereas researchers have labeled choking as any decrease in performance under pressure. This discrepancy between the media’s and researchers’ perception of choking leads to ambiguity among terms and confusion among researchers, applied practitioners, and the general public.“
As a practising sport psychologist I typically don’t use the words choke or choking at all. I prefer to describe the same challenge in a little more details. For example, underperforming in competition due to pressure. Or maybe due to poor concentration?
There are literally hundreds of reasons why people contact us here at Condor Performance. One of the most common, however, is the athlete/performer who excels in practice situations but struggles to reach anywhere near this level during actual competitions. Most of the time they’ll refer to this as choking. “I keep choking” or “I am a choker”.
It’s worth mentioning that there is always a risk when writing about the psychological aspects anything of oversimplifying matters. This is certainly the case here. Be aware of this when I suggest that although there are potentially hundreds of causes of choking most can be attributed to one or a combination of the below.
Quite simply most of those who are better at executing their skills in practice are better as they are doing so in a false environment. O
Even those who practice smart and try to replicate the mental demands of competition in their preparation often struggle as they tend to fall short of being able to mimic feelings of extreme pressure. The result is that they then have to try and execute their skills in competition whilst experiencing feeling like extreme nerves or stress that were not there during practice. To add insult to injury, they then fuse with these feelings unaware that feelings and actions can be separated.
There are a number of tried and tested ways around. Although reading this blog should never take the place of working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist the below might be enough to at least get the ball rolling.
By harder we mean mentally harder not physically harder. The easiest way to try and do this is by replicating situations that you don’t like or that you find hard. For example, you might prefer to practice in the morning so you intentionally switch some practice sessions to the afternoon. Or you might enjoy practising with others so you do more and more training alone. To get the sweet-spot is not easy. You’re looking for the practice session(s) to be psychologically demanding but not too demanding. A great analogy for this is weight training. If the weights are too light then not much will happen. If they are too heavy they might cause injury and long term harm. It’s the same with mental demands. Too little means no growth, too much means damage. British sport psychologist Dan Abrahams refers to this as stretch and support. Too much and too little stretch are what we’re trying to avoid here. If you are not confident at being able to create your own sweet-spot mentally harder practice session(s) then please contact us here and so we can lend you a hand.
Is it possible for an athlete to be too relaxed whilst competing? Not really (don’t confuse tiredness with being relaxed) so we suggest you do what the great Usain Bolt used to do. He only “worked” on things in training. This freed up his competitions to just exist, enjoy himself and let his training express itself without a worried mind getting in the way. In particular, he didn’t worry about being worried. Easier said than done many might say. I often use the analogy of driving a car (apologies to our younger readers). Manoeuvring a vehicle around safely is a difficult motor skill with huge consequences if you get it wrong. Yet, most of us (who drive) do a great job of trusting our muscle memory. We quickly get to a level of expertise behind the wheel were we don’t actually have to try hard to drive well, we just do. What if you approached sporting contests in the same way? Arrive, ready, relax, trust your training.
Action-only pre-performance routines can be a great way to keep you grounded at certain key moments both in practice and during competitions. The reason they work so well is that they’re built using the most influenceable aspect of performance – present actions. This means they should remain both easy to do and consistent regardless of the thoughts and emotions of the current situations. You didn’t really think that Rafa Nadel actually sweated that much did you? Rafa’s use of the towel is a great example of a mentally astute athlete using the action of wiping as a reset between points.
If you’d like to read a lot more about routines then you can read this blog or this one. And as always, please use the space below to let us know your thoughts and/or questions on the topic of Choking in Sport.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses about where sport psychology is headed and guesses what the field will look like in 2050.
Ok readers, I borrowed the Delorean and just got back from the year 2050. And you will not believe what I saw. Doncaster Rovers F.C. win the English Premier League for the second year in a row. And sport psychology is nothing like it is in 2020. It’s mainstream, it’s normal and it is regarded as the most important part of competitive sports.
I am of course kidding (wish I wasn’t). And in case some of you missed the Delorean reference let me context you. In 1989 the writers and producers of the classic movie Back To The Future 2 made some predictions about what life would be like in 2015. Marty McFly (pictured above) then went into the future in a Delorean time machine (also pictured above).
This Vanity Fair article actually shows how accurate some of these educated guesses turned out to be. Forecasting the future is one of the most remarkable aspects of being human. No other species can do it quite like we can. But it’s both a blessing and a curse. The upside is our ability to plan and things three moves ahead of our opponent. The downside is wasting mental energy such as “I just know I am going to play poorly tomorrow”.
During a number of interviews between UK sport psychologist Dan Abrahams and his guests on the highly recommended The Sport Psych Show he asked them to imagine using a time machine to go back in time. I thought it might be fun and thought provoking to use it to go into the future instead!
In this article I will predict what the sport psychology landscape will look like thirty years from now. Just like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (creators of the Back To The Future Trilogy) I will make some educated guesses. Feel free to save a copy and then get in touch in 2050. Let me know how accurate or inaccurate they turn out to be. I will not, in this article, focus on the problematic aspects of future-based thinking. But I will say this. We now know that one of the key aspects of sporting mental toughness is being able to focus at will on the present moment. In others words there are many occasions in a competitive sporting situation in which we literally want to ‘turn off’ our ability to think about the future. More on this during another article (which when written I will link here).
I hypothesise three major changes in the coming decades to dramatically change what sport psychology looks like. I predict that by the middle of this century the following will be taking place or have happened already.
I will now go into more detail about each of the above.
By the end of this decade it will be universally accepted that the ‘interventions’ used to help someone with clinical depression are different from ‘the mental tools’ used to motivate a mentally well athlete whose training enthusiasm has dropped. (For those of you who are reading this who think this has already happened trust me it hasn’t. But we are getting there).
This move towards more specificity will then continue past 2030, More and more will accept that snooker and boxing are too different to be aided with the same psychological tools. There are so many sports now and we can’t pretend they all have the same mental requirements and therefore solutions.
When trying to answer the first question we need to be a little careful not to imply that all psychologists use the same models. But there are some well established models which are likely to be more prevalent than others. That is for sure. So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘about one third’ (see below for more on this).
For example, if the athlete is functionally well (without a recognised mental illness) then at Condor Performance we would not focus significant attention on a long and detailed history of the client’s mental health and wellbeing. We would most likely measure it via the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale every couple of months just to keep an eye on it. But the majority of the sport psychology sessions would be related to the mental aspects of the client’s sport.
This is not to say that some of the mental methods we often use from the get-go don’t have clinical origins. But the final versions which are presented to our clients would be largely unrecognisable to our non-performance focussed colleagues.
A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting. When we help our clients set goals we often introduce a level of accountability to these targets that some mental health practitioners might find objectionable. But from our standpoint, this level of accountability is a key ingredient in helping them get to the next level. If it is confronting for the client (‘you committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, what happened?’) then we will use that to further the discusses by asking lots of ‘why’ questions. A practitioner with more of a mental health angle might default to just making the client feel better about this type of non-compliance. (‘You committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, totally understandable given the current challenges’).
Another example might be mindfulness. Mindfulness looks rather different when you are doing some at home with few outside distractions to the version you might use on the golf course, for example. And the version you might use on the golf course is hopefully only partially the same as what a competitive tennis player might adopt.
So, how ‘transferable’ are mental skills from one performance area to another? Or even from one specific sport to another? In answering this question I often like to use the rule of thirds. Roughly a third of the mental ideas are due to generic sport psychology principles. Another third wants to acknowledge that although Olympic bob-sleighing and Clay Target Shooting are both sports they are bloody different pursuits. And the final third is further adapting the mental training program to that individual. To that person’s personality and learning styles.
In other words, the sports psychology services that we’d deliver to a competitive pro golfer with a drinking problem and a rugby league coach looking to improve their coaching abilities might only have a crossover of about 15 to 20%. One of the commonalities between these very different hypothetical client might be using some key aspects from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For example, educational processes around “we are not our thoughts” might be useful for both of them. I have found a Behaviour First (only) approach to be universally beneficial in my sport psychology work regardless of who I am sitting in front of.
Although I predict a phasing out of generic sport psychology we need to remember some sports are psychologically very similar. When you put the technical and tactical aspects to one side the same kinds of mental tools should work just as well for certain sports. Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do around Short Performance Routines to aid with concentration and execution under pressure. In helping a golfer create or improve his or her Pre Shot Routine(s) the principles will be almost identical in working a snooker player on their PSR.
This is how I think it will work in 2050. If you want to charge a fee for advice on X then you need some kind of approved qualification in X. No exceptions. So if you want to be a personal trainer that goes to people’s houses and gives fitness advice in exchange for a fee you’ll need to genuinely qualified. I gather the whole physical conditioning industry is trying to make this happen at the moment.
Psychology in sport is years behind our S&C friends and co-workers but we will catch up. Over the next 30 years there will be a gradual phasing out of entities charging a fee for psychological advice (even if they call it something else) who doesn’t have some kind of approved training in psychology. This is a very difficult area and I suspect that more than a few tears will be shed along the way. The hardest part will be to get everyone to agree on what ‘approved training in psychology’ is. And then afterwards educating the public in such a way to reduce assumptions that Mindset Coach and a Sport Psychologist are one and the same.
This has already started to happen. In 2005 I worked with no sporting coaches. In 2020 roughly a third of all my monthly clients are coaches. The premise is this. Coaching education programs the world over are lacking in highly effective mental toughness training elements. We could try and improve all of these coach ed programs or even ask the coaches to do ‘approved training in psychology’ but there is an easier and better way. All sporting coaches, especially at the elite level, will be working behind the scenes with a genuine expert in sporting mental toughness.
This coach-sport psychologist collaboration will eventually result in sport psychologists taking up positions as assistant coaches and then eventually getting the ‘top job’ themselves. When this happens, and these professionals are successful and they stick with the title sport psychologist over Head Coach or Manager whilst in the top job, we can say we’re made it.
If you are a sporting coach and would like to get ahead of the curve then start by completing this questionnaire. This questionnaire will assess, amongst other factors, your current mental coaching abilities. You will then be contacted by one of our team within a day or two.
Motivation is about more than a subcomponent of sport psychology and mental toughness. This article looks at delayed gratification and more.
I have long held the view that most areas of psychology are blighted with too many theories. Don’t get me wrong, I know we need research to support our professional decision making. But in my view there are simply too many below par theories, models and papers out there. Google Motivation and sport psychology theories and you’ll see what I mean.
This then blows out the work load of applied sport psychologists such as myself. I try to read as many peer-reviewed journals on sport psychology as possible. Unfortunately have to sort through the mountain to find the gems.
Oh, and there are some real gems.
One of these is the work done around Delayed Gratification via The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments. Starting in the 60s Walter Mischel did a series of studies that gave us with a huge clue about the motivational requirements of successful people.
In these studies, children between four and eight years of age were offered a choice. Each child, in turn, could pick between one small reward immediately or two later. One marshmallow now or two later, you decide? If the child decided to have two marshmallows later then it would be on the condition that the single treat was still there when the experimenter returned. This was normally after about 15 minute.
Remarkably in the majority of the testing about half the children gobbled down the one marshmallow almost immediately. The other half would exercise great will power and wait for the experimenter to return. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to “delay their gratification” tended to have better life outcomes. For example, these high will power youngsters went on to get better exam results. They were happier and more likely to have good relationships. They ended up with much better jobs than the lower will power kids.
Below is a 6 minute Ted talk which explains the concept and experiments in more details.
Although I am assume that Professor Mischel had little interest in the specific field of sport psychology I can’t imagine another branch of psychology whereby the concept of delayed gratification is more relevant.
Delayed gratification is really just “doing something difficult now in the hope that it will be prove worth it later on”.
Of all the hundreds of theories on motivation pertaining to sport psychology this is most useful. Quite simply put, one of the chief explanations about why so few succeed is because they can’t link their short term struggle with their long term aspirations.
Most athletes and coaches try and find shortcuts. They throw in the towel when the rewards for their effort are not immediate and obvious. They gobble down the single marshmallow instead of waiting for two. Very few people actually love getting up at 4am in order to do laps under floodlights. But the champions and champions-in-the-making do it anyway.
In the defence of ‘most athletes’ it’s unlikely that anyone has taken the time to carefully explain to them that improving is all about patience. Doing the hard yards in the preseason so the rewards can come during the season.
What would have happened had all the Marshmallow experimentees been coached beforehand. Imagine a performance psychologist had been allowed to spend time helping the kids mentally prepare first. How about the impact if a performance psychologist shows pictures of other kids succeeding. Imagine if all the subjects has been taught proper mindfulness techniques thus allowing ‘urges’ to just be noticed.
But of course elite sport, especially at the highest level, requires a little more delayed gratification than 15 minutes. On many occasions the truly meaningful “payoff” for effort might only be 10 or even 20 years down the track. That’s a long time to wait for that second marshmallow! Think about the young athletes who sacrifice time with friends and family whilst they are teenagers only to see the rewards in their twenties and thirties.
Remember, the experiments centred around one marshmallow now or two later. The children were not left with a brussell sprout for 15 minutes. This is a super important point. There was nothing mean about leaving the kids alone in a room with one marshmallow. The only difficultly some of them experienced was the tussle between their own strength of mind and their own temptations.
At Condor Performance one of the ways we help those we work with to embrace delayed gratification is by encouraging them to keep track of their progress.
Key Performance Indictors can “bridge the gap” between the daily and weekly grind and possible moments of glory. These monthly checks act a little like licking the marshmallow but not eating it. They help remind us about what we might get later on down the track. They remind us about why we’re doing what we’re doing even if it’s uncomfortable. MCs are, in my opinion, the most powerful motivators available when you can’t actually use marshmallows!
Easier said than done? If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.
Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.
What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?
What are some of the most memorable comebacks that you have been involved in as a coach or athlete? How about as a sports fan? Is it the size of the deficit that was overcome or the amount of surprise caused?
Last year, in 2019, we were treated to two of the most remarkable comebacks I can ever remember. But each earned the label epic comeback for very different reasons.
Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.
Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him! Roger had to share most of the spoils with Rafa and Novak.
Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during his glory years.
Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following ten years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.
The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sport psychology, comebacks are all relative.
Tiger’s win at Augusta in April 2019 will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat. Then he didn’t for a while. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) getting ignored, dismissed or underplayed. Let me say it again. Most pro golfers would give their left leg to have achieved what TW did during his “slump years”.
I advise my athletes and coaches to be mindful of not letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as success. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of stats not just wins.
Our Metuf model suggests there are five major areas that all contribute to performance success. Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as four ‘engines’ on a performance plane. The rest of the aircraft is like their health and wellbeing. To increase your chances of winning anything you’re better of focussing on there five areas. Sport psychology stalwart Dr Chris Shambrook says it best. “Focus on the input, and let the output take care of itself”.
Tiger is now known to have had a number of physical and personal challenges for most of the previous decade. Maybe these were enough to result in him “only” coming 2nd and 3rd in the hardest golf events in the world. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.
What Tiger had to endure from a physical point of view (injuries and surgeries) would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement. But most athletes don’t have the mindset (grit?) of Tiger Woods.
The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance to dominate if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury-free at least) but whose Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised. If this sounds like you please get in touch, we can help, it’s what we do.
The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. We could refer to this as mental health and wellbeing. In my work as a sport psychologist I prefer to think about this from a solutions point of view. For example, sleep, nutrition, relationships, rest and purpose to name some of the most common.
It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so. I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.
During the famous green jacket ceremony Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’. This suggests how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.
Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me the two are heavily linked.
Genuine sport psychology will only become mainstream when sporting decision makers realise that happy athletes win more – a lot more.
Some comebacks take much less time that the ten years it took Tiger to win another major. Some only take 45 minutes in fact.
Lets fast forward a few weeks and move from the greens of Augusta to the floodlit nights of Champions League football (soccer). The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.
Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all examples into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs. This means that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.
In last year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid. Barcelona took a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London. So they would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.
Yet despite all the odds both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way and worthy of the label comeback. But the Liverpool comeback would have to go down as one of the comebacks of the century. Especially given that it resulted in them going onto to lift the trophy a couple of weeks afterwards.
There are some lessons to be learnt here from the men who orchestrated these comebacks. For a start, both the managers (head coaches) of these two famous English team appear to take the mental side very seriously. The have created a ‘never give up’ attitude with their respective playing squads. I suspect that their comebacks are always less of a surprise to them than their fans.
In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback semi final win as ‘mentality giants’. This is a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.
How about you? Have you been involved in a sporting comeback? If you have add the details to the comments section below. Better still, describe your mindset before and during the comeback for others to read and benefit from.