Focus For Sport and Performance

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

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

Focus for Sport – How Important Is It?

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

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

What Exactly Is Focus?

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

Focus In The Performance Domain

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

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

Sustained Attention

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

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

Meditative Focus 

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

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

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

Screen Time And Sleep

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

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

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

Flow And Focus for Sport / Performance

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

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

Flow and Focus are very closely linked

Matching Skill Level and Task Difficulty 

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

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

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

Narrowing Your Focus

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

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

Focus Goals

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

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

Do You Need Help With Your Focus?

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

KISS Principle

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

The KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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

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

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

The KISS Principle For Sports

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

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

Imagine This Scenario

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

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

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

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

I think you get the picture.

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

Individual Differences

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

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

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

James Kneller, Sport Psychologist

The KISS Principle Provides An Answer

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

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

The Men’s English Cricket Team

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

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

Do You Need A Hand?

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

Psychological Flexibility

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

Psychological flexibility has never been so important.

What Is Psychological Flexibility?

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

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

Flexible (adjective):

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

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

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

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

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

Outcomes vs Processes

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Steven Hayes

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

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

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

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

Psychological Rigidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Bend, To Yield

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

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

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

Processes Need Repetition

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

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

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

Motivation In Sport And Performance

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

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

Why Is Motivation So Important?

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

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

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

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

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

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

The Role of Performance Psychology in Motivation 

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

Time To Think
Time To Think

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

Intrinsic Motivation

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

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

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

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

Not Just In Sport …

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

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

Extrinsic Motivation

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

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

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

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

Too Extrinsically Motivated?

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

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

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

Visualisation for Motivation

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

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

Understanding Your Motivation Fluctuations

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

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

Coachability

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

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

Preamble

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

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

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

So What Exactly Is Coachability?

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

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

Focus And Motivation Come First

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

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

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

Low Levels Of Coachability Are A Symptom

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

Do I Know Too Much?

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

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

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

But Back To Coachability

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

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

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

and/or

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

and/or

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

Coaching The Coaches

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

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

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

How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

How To Measure Mental Toughness. It’s easier than it sounds. Basically, all you need is a device, an Internet connection and some honesty.

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates, Co Founder of Microsoft

Intro: How To Measure Mental Toughness

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, and stretch and reach tests to measure 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 meaningful questions during the Kick Start Session.

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. Namely their mental health and mental toughness. 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.

Measuring Mental Toughness Will Always Be An Estimation

Fact: There is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which rely 100% on opinions and/or observation.

With The Luxury Of Time …

With the luxury of time, the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client as well. This is often called 360 Degree feedback. Observing athletes or performers in real-life situations can be a very valuable extra when attempting to measure mental toughness and mental health.

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 imagine having this video footage of the outburst to use in a session. In our work, we typically only get this kind of data when working with highly paid professionals who are already being televised.

Relative Subjectivity

But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindful of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here?”. This is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. Our psychologists consider the main purpose of the questionnaires to be time savers. Instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client to find out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move on to ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process. We’re mainly interested in these four general areas:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long-term goals

Five Major Subcomponents of Mental Toughness

The open and closed questions then generate scores for various aspects of mental toughness and mental health. It looks something like this when we get the email from Qualtrics.


Summary Scores

Overall Training Mental Toughness = 72 %

Overall Mental Health = 63 %

Breakdown of Your Current Mental Toughness:

DURING TRAININGYOUR SCORE OUT OF 20PRIORITY
Motivation18 
Emotions9 **
Thoughts13 
Unity15 
Focus18 
MENTAL HEALTHYOUR SCORE OUT OF 21CATEGORY
Depression2 Normal
Anxiety12 E. Severe
Stress9 Mild

This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, using the above made-up example. This athlete or performer clearly needs to prioritise how they manage their emotions during training as well as their everyday anxiety.

Mental Health is screened for due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of all 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 has become misleading. Why? Well, they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

Four Free Mental Toughness Questionnaires

The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

Sport Psychology for Soccer

Sport Psychology for Soccer (Association Football) is an insightful blog post by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance

Sport Psychology for Soccer
Sport Psychology for Soccer – The Mental Side of The World Game Is Still Hugely Underdone.

Soccer or Football or Both?

Before jumping into some of the many aspects that could come under the banner ‘Sport Psychology for Soccer‘ let’s establish facts.

Firstly, soccer is also known as football, the preferred term outside of the USA. This paragraph from Quora explains it best:

The correct full name of the sport still is Association FootballSoccer is a nickname and is seldom used outside of the US. Neither is wrong, but Football (or Fútbol, or Futebol, or all the other forms of the word) is the worldwide popular name of the sport.

The term soccer, however, might actually make more sense. Here in Australia, for example, the term football can refer to one of four totally different team sports. But if you tell someone you’re a, say, soccer referee, there is no chance they’ll think you officiate rugby league games.

The Most Popular Sport On The Planet

Soccer is by far and away the most played team sport in the world. At last count, there were 265 million registered players worldwide. No other sport comes close to this, see this PDF by Fifa with all the stats. Why is it so popular? And does this popularity give us our first insight into the psychology of the game?

The primary reason for the popularity of soccer is its simplicity. If you forget about official rules and regulations it’s unbelievably easy to organise a game of soccer. Ten or so people with a ball (actual or made) and something to aim at and away we go.

The other reason for the international appeal of soccer is of course unparalleled funding by FIFA. The governing body of the sport invests huge amounts of money in making soccer as accessible to many people around the world as possible. Of course, much of this funding comes from the success of flagship leagues and competitions around the world. Events like The FIFA World Cup and the English Premier League are money-making machines. This creates a huge unstoppable cycle whereby the success of these competitions increases funding and the funding is then partially used to further develop the game. This all increases the likelihood that young athletes across the world will pick soccer over another sport.

How is this linked to the first part of sport psychology of soccer? Simple, the more popular a sport the easier it is to motivate yourself for it. Whether it be external motivators such as a salary of a professional footballer or intrinsic motivators such as wanting to play well at the sport all your mates play – the popularity of an activity will always assist with the key sport psychology concept of motivation.

Sport Psychology is Not Just Mental Health For Sport

Sport psychology is currently going through a growth spurt. And just like a teenager, this can come with some growing pains. Mental health is now widely seen as an essential part of the performance puzzle. ‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’ so to speak. But there is still another mental side to sport that is unrelated to mental health. We call it Mental Toughness for performance. In other words, the mental aspects of both training for that sport as well as competing in it are separate from the mental aspects of being a human being.

This is not to imply that mental health is not linked with optimal performance in soccer or any other sport for that matter. Quite the opposite in fact. As sport psychologists and performance psychologists we do a lot of work assisting our sporting clients with their mental health. We do this because a) we can as registered psychologists and b) we know that it assists with both off-field and field areas.

However on many occasions when we work with soccer players what we are essentially doing is embedding mental skills training into their daily training environment. Below I have shared a couple of tips and would love to get your feedback via the comments section below.

Sport Psychology for Soccer – Training Tips

This is the typical image of soccer practice. But it can and should be, so much more than that.

For training, we want our minds to be on the concept of constant improvement through high-quality effort. Actually, through the right amount of high-quality effort to be more precise. Furthermore, we want our training to be spread across four different areas. Physical, Technical, Mental and Tactical. Far too much training and practice are put into physical and technical compared with mental and tactical. The balance is better for the best teams in the world. If you want to join them then you’ll need to copy them.

There are many frameworks for Sporting Mental Toughness. Over the years we have developed our own due to the inadequacies of any coming out of the scientific and academic communities. We call our framework Metuf which is a word that we created from the original five subcomponents of performance-oriented mental toughness. Motivation, emotions, thoughts, team unity and focus. Although we’ll be keeping the name Metuf, this year (2022) we are in process of expanding these subcomponents as well as delving into one of two. For example, there are many emotions so treating all of them as similar is not especially future proof.

Sport Psychology for Soccer – Match Day Tips

Unlike in training when it’s normal to be trying our hardest, for matches we are better off just being as relaxed as possible. Having a Relaxed Competition Mindset is one of the key aspects of match day mental toughness. One of the best ways to actually develop a Relaxed Competition Mindset is by targeting the hour or three before you start the whistle. This blog post from 2019 goes into a lot more detail about how you can develop a Pre Game Routine.

Another mental skill that can be incredibly effective is to make sure you know the difference between your processes and outcomes as an individual soccer player. Of course, ideally, these are established as part of your mental training as per the above but the best mindset for most sports during competition is one that is either 100% process-orientated or mostly process orientated. Processes are actions you have a lot of influence on such as “running hard” or “communicating consistently”.

Outcomes are results and in a sport with 24 other people directly involved our influence on these results is not that high. Common outcomes for soccer are goals scored, goals conceded as well as games won and lost. And not to mention all the stats that can be created such as passes completed etc. Outcomes can be, and often are, very distracting. If you try your hardest after your team concedes a goal, I would ask why it took for your team to let in a goal for you to start to do something that you could’ve and should’ve done from the very beginning of the match.

Don’t Take My Word For It …

As the great Spanish player and now Barcelona manager Xavi so eloquently once said:

In football, the result is an impostor. You can do things really, really well but not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting – a legacy.

Xavi

Keen But Need A Hand?

If this article has motivated you to improve either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance but you feel like you’d benefit from an expert helping hand then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.


Powerlifting Psychology

Powerlifting Psychology is a free blog post by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of the sport of Powerlifting.

Powerlifting Psychology is all about improving the mental aspects of this highly technical and physical sport.

Not a powerlifter or vaguely interested in powerlifting psychology? Fear not for the below article mainly uses the sport of powerlifting/weightlifting as an opportunity to look at some classic sport psychology concepts from a different angle. Read it before judging it!

Powerlifting Psychology – Introduction

Powerlifters are on a constant mission to find out just how strong they are (or could be). For those who are not familiar with this sport let me give a quick overview. Powerlifters attempt to lift the heaviest weight possible on three different lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). The aim is to reach their one-rep max (heaviest they can lift in a single attempt) within 3 attempts. 

The all or nothing nature of lifting creates a lot of mental challenges. At the end of the day, in powerlifting, you either make the lift or you don’t. This can lead to a lot of all or nothing / black or white thinking. Powerlifters often speak about the fear of “Bombing Out” (failing to make one successful lift in the three attempts). The impact of missed attempts are often exponential. In other words for the mentally vulnerable one missed attempt can often snowball into three.

Falling Down The Rabbit Hole

After missing the first attempt, lifters become vulnerable to “falling down the rabbit hole”. The first attempt often sets the tone for the following attempts. It shouldn’t but it does. There are many different types of pressure but one is ‘reduced opportunities’ pressure.

The stakes become much higher, and our perceived importance of having a successful next lift dramatically increases. This often leaves lifters focusing too much on outcomes/results. In doing this the processes they need to be focusing on to get those outcomes can be neglected.

Preempting Thoughts Ahead of Time

Getting “hooked” is where our thoughts and emotions hijack our actions in an unhelpful way. One of the best ways to prepare for the threat of getting hooked is to preemptively identify what these thoughts might be. Basically, what am I likely to think in these situations and what to do about it.

Our mind is a reason-giving machine, the best ever created. Because of this, we’re really good at surviving. But we’re also really good at talking ourselves out of doing anything outside of our comfort zone. To help a powerlifter preempt competition day thoughts, we might ask:

  • “As you enter the venue, how is your mind likely to try and talk you out of doing this?”
  • “What is your mind likely to tell you as you approach the bar? 
  • “It is possible you might miss the first lift. What is your mind likely to say when that happens?”
  • “When you approach the bar for your third and final attempt, your mind is going to generate a lot of objections. What do you think it’s likely to say?”

Predicting the time and frequency of these competition thoughts can also be beneficial:

  • “How many times do you think your mind will tell you this before you approach the bar?”
  • “When will your mind start telling you all these things?
  • “How many times will your mind say this to you throughout the entire day?”

What To Do About This?

After identifying these thoughts and when we’re likely to experience them, we can take the final step which is to name them. Naming uncomfortable thoughts brings a sense of familiarity with them so they’re not as frightening on competition day, and creates a bit of distance between yourself and those thoughts. Some great examples include:

  • “There’s my mind reason-giving again”
  • “There’s the ‘I’m not good enough’ story”
  • “The ‘What if mess up” thought is back”

So a big part of the work we do at Condor Performance is in helping lifters handle these challenging situations and the associated thoughts more effectively. That is, by reducing their impact on performance. 

Flow and Trusting Your Body 

Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow. Flow State, by Csíkszentmihályi and is when we are so intensely present in what we are doing time and distractions appear to vanish. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform on autopilot. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would. 

Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow, and it’s where one is so intensely present engaged in what they are doing, that they are in a state of hyper-awareness. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform in the way it has been trained to perform. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would. 

Get Out Of Your Own Way

At Condor Performance we often talk about getting the head out of the way so the body can do what it already knows how to do, so we see a lot of value in the concept of flow. If you ask any elite lifter what they think about in the moments before a competition lift, you’re likely to get the response “absolutely nothing”. The best powerlifters in the world trust that their body knows what to do, and with enough training (and trust in their training program) they can go to competitions and consistently enter a state of flow right before they go to lift, through engaging in simple mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing. 

Powerlifting Psychology: Visualisation

Visualisation in powerlifting is becoming more and more popular as athletes begin to see the benefit of mental rehearsal on performance. For this to work, mental rehearsal needs to be as specific as possible, covering as many details of the competition day as possible from the actual lift itself, to the sound and temperature of the venue, to the feeling/sensation of clothes and equipment on the body during the warm-up lifts.

When visualising it is important to both set the scene and engage all of our senses. Lifters might want to visualise the different aspects of their entire competition day, including weigh-in, waiting around, seeing the audience for the first time, loading and unloading weight, warm-up attempts and hearing the commands for their actual lifts. 

However one trap lifters often fall into is only rehearsing successful lifts, often for fear of thinking about how things could possibly go wrong. This goes back to preempting – it’s important for lifters to preempt and visualise what an unsuccessful lift will look and feel like, how they’re likely to respond to this emotionally and cognitively, and rehearse how they want to respond to this and how they might coach themselves through it. This creates a sense of familiarity with unsuccessful attempts so that they don’t come as such a surprise on competition day, and allows us to pre-plan our response so we know exactly what to do in the case that it does happen.

Getting “Stuck”

One of the most challenging mental hurdles lifters talk about is getting “Stuck”. When a lifter sees no progress or doesn’t see progress at the speed they expected, they’ll often label themselves as being stuck. Something important to keep in mind is that there are many reasons why a lifter may physically plateau, but it is actually our cognitive and emotional response to this physical plateau that often exacerbates its duration. Our default response to seeing minimal to no progress includes thoughts of self-doubt, diminished confidence in our ability, and questioning whether or not all the work we are doing will be worth it. When a lifter becomes hooked by these thoughts, this often perpetuates the cycle of minimal progress. 

How To Get “Unstuck” 

It can be really beneficial for lifters who have become stuck, physically and/or mentally, to reflect on what life values they are fulfilling as a human being, (not necessarily as an athlete), that initially motivated them to pursue the sport and have kept them there up until now. Rather than looking at training through a purely athletic lens, we want to help them identify how lifting contributes to the individual living a rich and meaningful life, and through which of their life values this occurs. Many of the values that arise include:

  • Living a healthy lifestyle 
  • Self-discipline
  • Competing with Others
  • Learning new Skills
  • Attempting new challenges 
  • Never giving up 
  • Being responsible for my actions 
  • Feeling good about myself
  • Having a sense of accomplishing
  • Striving to be a better person

Shifting the lens on training from better athletic to better human allows for the rediscovery of the things an athlete truly values in life, and how they live in accordance with these values through their training (regardless of their results). This can serve as an internal driving force through prolonged periods of a plateau (perceived or actual) and is a process that can certainly help a lifter become “unstuck”. 

Powerlifting Psychology; Conclusion

Thinking about all the things that could go wrong isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, when we expect and embrace the full range of emotions and thinking competition day brings about, they often seem a lot less threatening, and we’re giving ourselves the best chance to respond in a more helpful way.

Acknowledge that we can’t significantly change the way we think and feel, and therefore the goal of the work we do is to minimise the effect of these experiences on performance. And if you (or someone you know) want some help with any of this, get in touch.

Psychology of Climbing

Not a climber nor remotely interested in the sport of climbing (rock climbing)? Fear not and read on for the below article simply uses this sport as an opportunity to look into an array of mental challenges and solutions common to many performance areas.

The Psychology of Climbing refers to the mental challenges and solutions faced by those who choose to do this extreme sport either recreationally or competitively.

Reaching New Heights Through Mental Toughness Training

The motor skill of climbing is incredibly tough and equally enjoyable. Yes, these two concepts can and often do coexist. Relatively new to the competitive sporting domain, climbing has reached new heights in the last thirty years. It’s expanded to include three competitive disciplines (plus a combined event) in which athletes can compete against each other at the international level. Since the first Climbing World Championships in 1991, climbing has grown in popularity both as a recreational and competitive sporting avenue.

Lead Climbing and Speed Climbing have been around from the get-go, with the addition of Bouldering in the early 2000s. The Combined Event was then introduced in 2018. The Combined Event was (controversially) selected as the Tokyo Olympic Games format when the sport made its debut in 2021. Here, athletes are scored based on their performances across all three climbing disciplines. Climbers who were the best in their specific disciplines were therefore not favoured.

Nature of Competitive Climbing 

Why was this controversial? Because the three disciplines test unique physical capabilities. In Lead Climbing the goal is to climb as high as possible (15m) within a set amount of time, testing power, endurance and technical problem-solving. At the elite level, the route isn’t seen until moments before starting, meaning climbers have to think on their feet and plan as they go. On the other hand, the goal of Speed Climbing is to climb this same wall as fast as possible. Here the route is always the same, testing speed, power and accuracy.

Bouldering is a little bit different. The wall is much shorter (4m) and climbers are given a time limit to solve a number of “problems” with the fewest moves possible. Bouldering tests flexibility, coordination, strength and technical problem-solving. Therefore, to be successful in the combined event, athletes must train to meet the demands of each climbing style and need to demonstrate competence across each of the three disciplines.

The Mental Challenges of Climbing

It is important to acknowledge that with the different physical requirements of each discipline come a set of unique mental barriers as well. For Lead Climbing and Bouldering, there is a huge element of “in the moment” problem-solving required. This means the climbers need to be able to engage in decision making under fatigue, overcome thoughts of self-doubt, and engage in appropriate risk-taking.

It’s arguable that focus is the most important mental component required for Speed Climbing. The top climbers in the world are reaching 15m in just over 5 seconds – that’s 3m per second! To be able to climb at this incredible speed athletes need to be completely focused, as one wrong move could completely disrupt their entire performance. The margin for error in speed climbing is so small, meaning attention to detail and accuracy of hand and foot placement are absolutely crucial.

Trust Your Body

One mental barrier common to all three disciplines is the need for climbers to trust their bodies. They need to trust that come competition day, their body will be able to meet the complex physical demands of the performance as a result of their training and preparation. When climbers lack trust they often hesitate and are unable to perform those more difficult, dynamic movements that require a higher level of risk. However, trust is a tricky thing to develop and maintain, especially when it’s been broken in the past. 

If you watch any elite climber train or compete it is clear they place a huge amount of trust in their body to take them where they want to go. With trust being such a huge mental component of climbing it’s important to talk about why we find this so challenging. From a psychological point of view, a lot of this boils down to fear. Whether this is fear of falling, fear of taking a risk and it not paying off, or the fear of failure. 

Fear And Trust 

Fear of falling is often one of the first mental hurdles climbers overcome in their career, particularly in bouldering where there is no harness. With this fear of falling comes the need to trust our body to hold itself up, but this isn’t something that is developed overnight. Trust in our body is something that comes over time with practice, and it strengthens each time we push ourselves to do something we haven’t yet done before. Each time our body shows us it can do something we were unsure it could do, we learn to trust it a little bit more.

But each time we take a risk and our body is unable to physically cope, our trust is inevitably shaken and it’s normal for us to second guess our abilities. For climbers the journey to trust is a constant battle of pushing themselves beyond what they know they can do, celebrating when their body can cope and picking themselves back up when it doesn’t. In no way is the journey to trust smooth sailing – behind every successful climb are many unsuccessful ones. Trust is one of the many human concepts that is hard to build but easy to destroy.

Fighting With Our Mind

Hesitation is another common mental barrier to performance mentioned in the climbing sphere. This also has to do with trust in our body, but through understanding the mental processes that underlie hesitation we can learn to overcome it. Hesitation mainly stems from the fear that our body won’t be able to successfully perform the movement needed to progress in the climb. As a result of this, we often get into a bit of a fight with our minds. This is because our mind is really good at debating and intellectualising – it’s great at coming up with rational and logical reasons for us not to do something that might put us at risk of harm. It generates all the possible outcomes and potential (negative) consequences, and details any and every reason why we shouldn’t attempt that next move. Our mind is really just warning us that if we go ahead with the movement we might slip and fall, but our default response to this is often to try and convince it otherwise. 

It is important for climbers to understand that their mind is not going to change its mind. Because its job is to warn us of the dangers of any behaviours we might engage in, arguing why you still want to engage in the behaviour isn’t going to change your way of thinking. Trying to convince your mind why it is a good idea to take this risk to progress in the climb isn’t going to necessarily stop it from telling you it might not be a great idea. Here, we need to remember that we don’t want to view the mind as the thing that tells us what to do. Rather, we want to try and view it as something that warns us, protects us, but still gives us a choice as to whether or not we proceed with those actions. But how can we learn to go against what our mind is telling us?

Mental Processes Underlying Hesitation

One of the most important mental tools a climber can develop is a heightened awareness of their inner private experiences. Private experiences include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and anything an individual experiences privately that has the potential to influence their behaviour. Because there is an extremely important technical aspect to climbing, particularly Lead Climbing and Bouldering, climbers need to be guided by their problem-solving minds. When the mind is in a problem-solving mode and we’re relying on it to make complex technical decisions, this leaves us vulnerable to overthinking and fosters the perfect mental environment for hesitation. 

Because the brain by nature is a problem-solving machine, it will calculate as many routes as possible, the consequences of each of these, and will leave it up to us to weigh up the risks associated and make the best decision we can at the moment. This can be extremely challenging, especially once physical fatigue sets in, and the fear of making an error can often hold us back from progressing. Once we notice we’re starting to hesitate, it’s also easy for us to begin to worry about the fact that we’re hesitating, often perpetuating this behaviour.

Hesitation Mindfulness

By bringing awareness to our mind and what it is telling us in those moments, our body and how we are feeling in those moments, and any of the memories from the past that come up in those moments, we can minimise their impact on our behaviour and commit to the actions we want to take. There is a part of us that thinks, feels and remembers, but there is also a part of us that can take a step back and observe these thoughts, feelings and memories from a distance. By taking a step back in our minds (metaphorically speaking) we can bring awareness to these private experiences that often lead to hesitation and observe them from a more distant viewpoint. This distance provides us with the room to make a decision about our actions that are not influenced by these thoughts, feelings or memories. It is when we get caught up in these experiences that they have the biggest impact on our actions. 

This is called mindfulness, and it’s where we bring awareness to our most inner experiences, separate ourselves from them and take actions in accordance with what matters to us.

Visualising The Climb

Visualisation is a mental strategy that can be used to enhance performance across virtually any performance domain. In competitive climbing, the way visualisation might be used would vary slightly across the different disciplines, but most of the benefit of this mental strategy lies in the practice effects it can produce. Technical consistency can be improved through pure and other forms of mental rehearsal, meaning we don’t necessarily need a wall or any equipment to improve our technical abilities. 

Psychology of Climbing
What do you think is going through this climber’s mind?

Mental Rehearsal: Lead Climbing and Bouldering

For Lead Climbing and Bouldering, because the route isn’t known and cannot be practiced beforehand the best use of visualisation here would be to prepare for the most unideal scenarios. For visualisation to work, it needs to be as specific as possible, and must be a complete sensory experience meaning we need to go beyond just what we can see. Visualise yourself stuck, struggling to progress on the wall, and think about what you are likely to be seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting and hearing at this time.

Visualise how you would overcome this physical barrier, and what that would look like, feel like and sound like, but also visualise not overcoming this hurdle, and think about what you would want this to look like? What would you want your body language, facial expressions, and your interactions with others on the ground to look like? It’s one thing to plan for when things go our way, but how often do they? Visualisation is such a great tool because it allows us to familiarise ourselves with the worst-case scenarios and plan our response to them. And we can do this all from the comfort of the ground. 

Mental Rehearsal: Speed Climbing

Alternatively Speed Climbers might want to use visualisation in accordance with unique demands of the discipline. Rather than placing complex and dynamic decision making at the centre of the exercise, here we would want that focus to be around speed and accuracy. Speed climbers might want to mentally rehearse their climb from different viewpoints, and vary between the first-person or third-person perspective. They might also want to vary the pace of their climb, visualising their climb in slow motion with more emphasis on technique. Or at real speed with a focus on arm and foot movement/placement. 

Climbers may also want to engage in a variation of mental rehearsal known as Pure Shadow Practice, where they move their arms and legs while they mentally rehearse to mimic the movements they want to perform on the wall. Having our body go through the motions can provide additional benefit relative to Pure Mental Rehearsal alone. Finally, climbers might want to engage in another variation of mental rehearsal known as Video-Assisted Mental Rehearsal. Here, they might watch video footage of themselves or another climber on the course and analyse their movements, before using this knowledge to inform their Pure Mental Rehearsal and Shadow Practice. But again, it is important for speed climbers to integrate planning for the best and worst in their visualisation practice. How are you likely to feel if your foot slips on the wall? What are you likely to see as you make your way back down to the ground? And how do you want to behave? 

The Aim of Visualisation

In addition to having actual practice effects, the goal of visualisation is to increase our familiarity with as many different scenarios of the same event as possible. Athletes often feel scared to think about what could possibly go wrong during their performance, and sometimes think that planning for the worst is setting themselves up for a bad performance. For climbers who feel this way it is important to acknowledge that although we might complete all of our processes correctly, this only increases the chance we’ll get the outcome we want. Our desired outcome is never guaranteed despite our best efforts, so it is important to prepare for when we don’t get the results we want as this helps us to bounce back and try again. 

Reaching New heights 

Climbers are constantly being asked to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, and must continue to push their own perceived physical limitations in order to see any progress. Through mindfulness and visualisation strategies, climbers can work towards a building a trusting relationship with their body to help them overcome fear, and helpful a relationship with their mind whereby thoughts and feelings no longer dictate their actions.

Condor Performance is one of the global leaders in applied sport and performannce psychology and we’d love to lend you a hand if you’re looking to lift your performance to the next level through a greater focus on the psychological. What is the best way to get in touch? We’d suggest completing one of our four intake questionnaires here as an inital step. Once done one of us will be in touch typically within two or three days.

The Fun Factor

‘Enjoyment Is One Of The Cornerstones Of Sporting Success’ argues Chris Pomfret. Without it, it’s a very long way to the top.

Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.
Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top. But one thing is for sure. He used enjoyment as a key mental skill for his amazing success as a sprinter. He had the fun factor.

This article was first written by Chris Pomfret in 2017, then slightly updated by Gareth J. Mole in 2022. Another article on the same subject by the same author – Enjoyment and Performance – can be found here.

The Fun Factor – A Key Mental Skill

There are so many questions regarding fun and enjoyment in the context of elite sport and performance. But the most pressing would be these two. Is it actually necessary for an elite athlete to love their sport? And can The Fun Factor be increased in situations whereby the mojo is gone?

To address the first of these I can’t help but think back to the 2017 Wimbledon Tennis tournament. And in particular, comments made by Aussie Bernard Tomic following his elimination. Tomic appeared to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seemed so unappealing. One thing is obvious when looking at this from the outside, The Fun Factor had gone. And this is assuming it was there in the first place.

To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court. That he was lacking motivation during Wimbledon and in his playing career more generally. He reported lacking a sense of fun. He described being happy with his life from a financial perspective but being dissatisfied with the sport of tennis and not caring about his results. Tomic acknowledged the difficulties of playing at the top level for such a long period but stated that he planned to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”

Include Mental Training From The Start

In later interviews, Tomic said that he felt “trapped” in the sport and that if he could go back in time he’d encourage his younger self to pursue another career. “Do something you love and enjoy” he would advise the 14-year-old Bernard, “because it’s a grind and it’s a tough, tough, tough life.”

Sporting results are a crude way to make conclusions about anything but sometimes this is the only data we have. When Tomic made these comments in 2017 he was ranked in the Top 20 in the world. As we update this article almost five years later his ranking is 260. And I would suggest this slide in the rankings is mostly due to mental health reasons. The lack of the fun factor is now taking its toll. And it wouldn’t surprise me that soon we’ll be referring to him as a ‘former tennis professional’.

All Athletes Have Mental Health Issues

Every single athlete will have some kind of mental health issues that they would benefit from addressing. This is particularly true for those competing at the pointy end whereby the psychological challenges tend to be much greater. Think about a professional tennis player who spends eight months of the year ‘on the road’. So rather than dividing athletes into those who are mentally well versus those who are mentally unwell, it’s more useful to separate them into those who are addressing inevitable mental challenges versus those in denial.

Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the top three. Performance anxiety tends to be ranked first, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked next. But the loss of fun. enjoyment, motivation is a close third.

If we compare Tomic to someone like the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt the differences could hardly be more extreme. Among the many contributing factors to Bolt’s success as a runner, his pure love of racing was right up there. It was remarkable to observe how every time he competed he treated it as a celebration of his passion for running. I’m sure this was one of the main reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete.

Enjoyment And Seriousness Can Coexist

Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify. As such it’s no wonder that so many sporting and non-sporting performers struggle to find it when it ‘goes missing’. The word ‘fun’ often gets used in this context. Wherever possible we encourage our clients to tap into the pure childlike thrill that comes with performing. One problem is that even something that seems as straightforward as fun is hard to define as a concept.

If you’re a tennis player reading this now, ask yourself what exactly is most fun about the sport? If your answer is that you just love hitting the ball, can you describe in words why that is? Is it movement-based, or the challenge of executing a successful shot, or the ‘feel’ of a clean stroke when the racquet and ball meet, or just being in the moment?

If you’re finding it hard to put into words why hitting the ball is such fun that’s entirely understandable, but what happens when you’re suddenly not hitting it well? Or when you’re injured? Or when you’re hitting it well but results aren’t going your way?

Enjoyment isn’t simply having fun (whatever that word means to you) and again most people find it difficult to define what the additional components are. Enjoyment also involves a challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment. This often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them into their sport or performance area in the first place. A lack of a suitable performance/life balance is detrimental to the fun factor and in turn to the performance itself.

Another common cause for reduced enjoyment is when our personal identity (who we are) becomes defined solely by our sporting/performing self (what we do). In fact, there are many reasons why enjoyment can suffer. People typically find it much harder to address these challenges because unlike technical issues (such as serving, volleying, or hitting forehands in tennis) they do not have a way to quantify what enjoyment means to them and therefore they don’t have a way of improving it.

Summary

Whilst you don’t need to love your sport, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits both from a performance point of view as well as overall mental health. Depending on where you are in your career this article might be a great opportunity to take a little bit of time to sit down and really consider the reasons why you spend so much time on your sport or performance area. Does it fit into your overall purpose or upon reflection are you doing it for all the wrong reasons. As always if you need a helping hand from a qualified professional that please don’t hesitate to get in touch.