How Coachable are you? Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the mental concept of coachability in this brand-new feature article.
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?
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?
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.
Processes are more important than outcomes.
Treat athletes as people first, performers second.
It’s very difficult to help others if you are not looking after yourself first.
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.
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.
Overall Training Mental Toughness = 72 %
Overall Mental Health = 63 %
Breakdown of Your Current Mental Toughness:
YOUR SCORE OUT OF 20
YOUR SCORE OUT OF 21
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.
The correct full name of the sport still is Association Football. Soccer 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
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 is a free blog post by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of the sport of Powerlifting.
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 of you who are not familiar with what powerlifting looks like, athletes 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 has the potential to foster a bit of an all or nothing attitude amongst lifters. We often hear powerlifters speak about the fear of “Bombing Out”, or failing to make one successful lift in the three attempts. The effects of missed attempts on performance seem to be exponential. The fear of bombing out and its impact on performance increases at a higher rate with each missed lift.
Falling Down The Rabbit Hole
After missing the first attempt, lifters are tasked with the challenge of avoiding what we might call “falling down the rabbit hole”. The first attempt often sets the tone for the following attempts. If unsuccessful there are only two more chances. One thing we know about how the human mind works is that as soon as we are in a situation where our number of opportunities is reduced, we often go into overdrive on a cognitive and emotional level. 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, and not enough on the processes they need to be focusing on to get those outcomes.
Preempting Thoughts Ahead of Time
Getting “hooked” is where our thoughts and emotions dictate our actions in an unhelpful way, reducing our capacity to perform. One of the best ways to prepare for the threat of getting hooked and bombing out on competition day is to preemptively identify what thoughts you’re likely to have at the various stages of competition; when things go to plan and when they don’t.
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 things that are 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.
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.
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
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
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take from this article, it’s that 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. As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists, we 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.
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.
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 thatfocus 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.
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.
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.
‘Enjoyment Is One Of The Cornerstones Of Sporting Success’ argues Chris Pomfret. Without it, it’s a very long way to the top.
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.
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.
Body Language for Sport and Performance is a free article by internationally renowned sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance.
A Quick Introduction to Body Language
The first and most important aspect of improving your body language is to accept/believe that the way you look on the outside doesn’t always need to match how you feel on the inside. Before reading the rest of this article I would like you to reflect on this question for a few minutes.
If you don’t buy into this fact, believing that certain strong emotions are always going to come out (“I couldn’t help it”) through your facial expressions and the rest of your body then there is no point in moving onto some of the strategies below until you have worked out a way to prove yourself wrong.
If you have no idea how then hire an acting coach for a few hours and ask them to teach you. Or send us an email asking to work with Performance psychologist Brian Langsworth who is a master of this work due to his background in the performing arts. Or at least scroll to the bottom of this blog where I have added two of my favourite body language improvement videos from Youtube.
If you’ve been reading some of my colleague Madalyn’s excellent recent sport-specific articles you’ll be aware that actions, thoughts and feelings are more separate (independent) than most people believe. Body Language movements are actions and actions alone. They are not thoughts nor are they feelings.
But if you are already a believer then read on …
Body Language is best broken down into three main areas. First, we have the face (eyes and mouth), then the head and then finally the rest of your body (the parts below the neck). Generally, Body Language doesn’t incorporate other non-verbal forms of communication such as tone of voice or grunts etc. But this is certainly another aspect that can be worked on. Think about how important communication is in team sports and how little non-verbal communication is targeted for improvement in such teams (not the ones we work with of course ?).
A nice gentle introduction to improving your body language is to go through these three areas and simply mix it up. Many athletes and performers who take body language seriously (typically, the most successful ones … surprise, surprise) use a mirror or record themselves whilst doing this but it’s not essential. Why not try right now? Make a happy face, then a sad one, then a calm one followed by an angry one.
The Next Step …
The next step is to try and identify what you believe is the Optimal Body Language (face, head position and rest of body) for certain predictable situations that are common in your sport/performance area.
For example, maybe you are a tennis player and you identify that just after the conclusion of each point is a key opportunity to display a certain kind of body language. It can also be very helpful to identify what is destructive body language in these situations.
Remember one of the biggest disadvantages of feeling like you have no control over your own body language is that you are giving a huge amount of unnecessary information to your opponent. If you and I are playing a competitive match against one another I am going to want you to be as unaware as possible about how I’m travelling. Basically from the outside (to my opponents), I would want to come across as cool, calm and collected, even if I am actually feeling anything but.
The template for this would look something like this (which you can copy and paste):
In situation X, I would like my face to appear A, my head B and my [replace with the name of body part] would be C.
Here is an example for a tennis player;
In a situation where my opponent is having an argument with the umpire, ideally, my face would appear calm with a slight smile, my head would be upright but looking towards the crowd and my hands would be behind my back. What would be counterproductive is to approach the chair and look frustrated by putting my hands on my hips and shaking my head.
Now It’s Your Turn …
Once you have established your Body Language preferences it’s time to practice them. It’s at this stage that using a full-length reflective surface or recording device is highly recommended. How you think you look from inside your body might not be what you’re looking for so you can adjust before the actions start to become second nature (via repetitions).
The final stage is to see if you can replicate the situations via some kind of mentally harder practice. In other words, using the above example, this tennis player would first practice Optimal Body Language anywhere but later set up practice sessions whereby during a practice match his or her hitting partner intentionally stops to argue with the umpire. And of course, any other situation previously identified whereby displaying the right kind of body language may be particularly difficult.
The final part is to embed this kind of body language practice into everyday training situations. There is rarely a substitution for repetition and as explained in this previous blog in the end Practice Makes Permanent, not perfect.
Get In Touch
If you would like some professional assistance with your Body Language for Sport and Performance or any other mental area then get in touch and one of the team will get back to you as soon as possible.
Competitive Diving Psychology is a free article by Madalyn Incognito that “dives” into the mental challenges and tips of competitive diving.
Conquering New Heights Through Mental Training
WaterSports meets Gymnastics. A combination of the pool and the gym has produced the sport of Competitive Diving. When we mix two such demanding sports the end result is something extraordinarily demanding. But despite diving’s requirements for incredible strength and technical ability, it’s arguable that the mental aspects of the sport really separate the best from the rest.
The nature of competitive diving is more complex than a lot of us realise. We can separate diving into two main disciplines, springboard and platform, and there is an opportunity for athletes to dive from a variety of starting positions including forward, backward, reverse, inward, twisting and armstand. Divers are then scored on their performance by a judging panel (consisting of 5+ at international competitions) across a series of dive elements, including approach, takeoff, flight and entry.
The Specific Challenges Of Diving
Divers face fear on a daily basis. The margin for error in diving is so small, one wrong movement and the impact of the water could leave you with a broken bone or dislocated joints. Not only are divers required to enter the water with minimal splash travelling at extremely fast speeds (of up to 55kms per hour), but they’re required to perform a series of technical acrobatic movements with artistry and precision as they fall.
Diving can certainly be classed as a high-impact sport, and it is this in combination with our natural fear of heights that makes diving a particularly challenging sport mentally. Diving is obviously made up of a large technical and artistic component, but there is also a huge mental component to diving we don’t often see.
Consistency Is Key
As is the case with many competitive sports, consistency is extremely important as part of Competitive Diving Psychology. For much more on the subject of consistency read this “ahead if it’s time” article by Condor Performance stalwart Chris Pomfret.
But one thing our mind is really good at is remembering what we’ve done in the past and using this to inform what we do in the future. For diving, this can be helpful from a technical point of view, through mentally correcting our form on our previous dive and using this learnt information to improve the next one. The downside to this is that thinking about the last dive often results in the onset of a lot of worry about the next dive, regardless of its outcome.
Think about it. After a good dive, we feel great and want things to continue going our way. The only way we can do this is to back it up and perform another good dive, and this (outcome) is now at the forefront of our minds. On the other hand, after a ‘not so good’ dive, our default response is to think about what we did wrong and how to make sure we don’t do the same thing on the next one. Ensuring the next dive is better (another outcome) is now at the forefront of our minds. It’s a lose-lose situation here. Whether we do or don’t do a great dive, making the next one better becomes our focus by default.
Noticing And Working With Our Mind
There are a few things we can learn from this. The first is that our mind is very outcome-driven by nature, meaning that in response to a situation its first job is to predict the outcome of the event and use that to inform any future decision making. What divers need to become really good at doing is noticing when their mind sneakily slips into outcome-only thinking. Building an awareness of our mind’s automatic response to certain situations is important, as only then we can choose to focus our attention back on what we need to be doing. That is, performing the actions we train to do every single day.
The second thing we can learn from this is that no matter how we go on the previous dive, we’re probably never going to feel 100% confident going into the next one. When things are going our way, we often become so fused with the idea of keeping it that way that we lose track of what we actually need to do to keep things going our way. When things don’t go our way, we become fused with the idea of getting back on track, and the same thing happens.
Unfortunately, we can’t help the fact that our mind does this. What we can do instead is notice when it does, acknowledge the reason it does this (evolutionary history and survival instincts), accept that it has happened and choose to focus our attention back on our actions/processes. This is the key ingredient to great Competitive Diving Psychology.
Battling Your Mind
On the topic of our brain trying to work against us in the diving sphere, divers will often describe knowing they can do the dive (because they’ve trained for it and done it plenty of times before), but having to argue with their mind telling them all the reasons not to do it. This creates a bit of a tricky situation; knowing you can do something, feeling scared to do it and having your mind tell you not to do it. And talk about vulnerability. Standing high above a pool in your swimsuit on a relatively flimsy’s springboard. Nowhere to hide up there.
What most of us don’t realise is that getting into an argument with our minds is actually the source of the problem. Our mind is a reason-giving machine, so it’s great at debating and intellectualising, and it’s even better at arguing its way out of situations that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it is very helpful for our brain to do this and for obvious reasons (keeping us safe), but in the sporting world and particularly in diving this has the potential to do us more harm than good.
Accepting And Working With Fear
The first step in overcoming fear is accepting it’s a part of the sport. To be successful in diving, athletes need to learn to accept fear as part of the process, and with this comes an understanding and acknowledgement of the ways in which our minds might try to work against us. It is our mind’s job to generate and predict all possible outcomes of going through with the dive, particularly the undesirable outcomes, as part of its role in survival. So for competitive divers wanting to think more positively, it’s just not a realistic goal. A goal that is realistic is accepting fear, reframing it in a way that is more helpful, and bringing awareness to the ways in which your mind might try to talk you out of doing what you want to do.
The idea behind reframing is shifting your view from one perspective to another. This can be very helpful when it comes to fear and other strong emotions. Sure, thinking about belly-flopping off the 10m platform is scary, frightening even. But doesn’t this make us that little bit more alert than we would be if we weren’t afraid? We can choose to view these “protective” thoughts as a warning, but one with a level of helpfulness associated.
If we didn’t overthink and fear the worst possible outcome we wouldn’t take any caution, and some level of caution is certainly needed when the margin for error is so small. Rather than seeing these thoughts as something out to stop us from doing what we want to do, we can choose to see them as a warning and that something important is about to happen. We can reframe this experience as the mind and body preparing us for something special.
They Are Only Thoughts …
Another part of overcoming this mental hurdle is preparing for the argument our mind is likely to start come competition day. In the lead up to an event, it can be beneficial to think about how our mind is likely to debate the actions we need to perform, and what it might say to try and talk us out of it. Knowing our mind is likely to try to talk us out of it firstly prevents this from surprising and/or shocking us on the day (which is sometimes half the problem), and it also allows us to plan for how we might want to respond to it. Through doing this we are making room for these private experiences (thoughts and feelings) on competition day, rather than trying to fight them or get rid of them. We are ultimately bringing awareness to our potential thoughts before the day has arrived, reducing the likelihood of us getting caught up in them when we need to be focusing on our performance. Of course, it’s not essential that you do this with the guidance of a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist but more and more competitive divers are choosing to do it this way (less guesswork, more evidence-based etc).
WATER POLO Psychology is an article that looks into some of the specific mental challenges of water polo and how to overcome some of them.
Water Polo Psychology: Giving Meaning to Mistakes
In the sporting world, there is a growing consensus that Water Polo is one of the most physically brutal and demanding sports around. To be a Water Polo player, you’ll need incredible core strength, endurance, and the ability to anticipate player movement based on visual cues in an extremely fast and dynamic competition setting. And – you’ll have to do all of that while keeping your head above the water.
Many similarities can be drawn between Water Polo and fighting sports such as Kickboxing and MMA. Cuts, bruises, knocked out teeth – it’s arguable that many of the principles that apply to Combat Sport psychology in terms of not getting hit also apply in the pool when you put two teams together in a body of water and ask them to fight over a ball.
Water Polo and Mental Toughness
What makes Water Polo so challenging mentally is the fact that it is a fast-paced and physically demanding team sport. At Condor Performance, one of the most common areas of concern brought up by the Water Polo athletes we work with is the desire to play at a high level consistently.
Like in many other team sports, in Water Polo, there appears to be some sort of pattern in performance, whereby individual playing ability is impacted by various external factors. For example, we often see player performance differ depending on which team they are playing against (for example, a highly ranked team, a team with older/more experienced players), and the perceived importance of the game (for example, a semi-final or grand-final match). When players are impacted by external factors such as these, we’re really seeing the impact of a diminished mental game on their physical game; fear of failure becomes a lot scarier, the consequences of letting the team down becomes more apparent, and the desire to win becomes even stronger.
Letting The Team Down
When playing as part of a team there is an element of safety in the sense that if the desired outcome is not attained it is not completely on any one individual. But with this, comes the idea of not wanting to let the team down – a commonly heard phrase with the work that we do.
My response to this is usually, “define letting the team down”. What I want to see here is how the player defines failure and mistakes so that they can be challenged. As is the case with a lot of mental skills it’s important for the water polo player to know the difference between a process and an outcome and the superior amount of influence over the former. In other words, it’s far better for mistakes to be used when referring to failures of the process whereas they tend to get used when talking/thinking about outcome failures. More on this later.
Humans Are Social Creatures
Something important to acknowledge here is that humans are social beings. From an evolutionary point of view, by living in groups and through reciprocity we give ourselves the best chances of survival. Because of this, we are hardwired to get others to like us; to do things that benefit others in our “groups” so that in situations where we need help, the favour will be returned. Unfortunately, this creates a lot of mental obstacles for athletes in team sports.
When we make a “mistake” (an occurrence in the game ultimately benefitting the other team) this often sends us into a bit of a panic. Something Water Polo players will often say to us after making a mistake is it’s hard to forget about it and move on. This increases the likelihood of them making a subsequent mistake. It makes sense why players are often so afraid to make a mistake in the first place, as often this seems to set the tone for the rest of the game.
With repeated mistakes, players often fall into the trap of generating possible ideas about what their team, their coach and others think about them (social hardwiring comes in here), and without being unable to “unhook” from this players have the potential to become fused with these thoughts. From our point of view, at this point, the game is pretty much over.
Challenging The Idea of Mistakes
For players who struggle to come back from “mistakes,” our goal would be to redefine their idea of a mistake. Society today has fostered a culture of perfectionism, so many of the athletes we speak with across both individual and team sports come to us with the idea that game errors are purely negative occurrences, often forgetting the importance of doing things wrong so that we can learn to get them right at a later time.
Rather than evaluating these game occurrences as positive or negative, we want to just notice them. Not necessarily judge whether or not they’re good, bad, helpful or unhelpful, but rather extract some piece of objective information. For example, “maybe my position in the water was too low; through kicking with a little bit more speed and power I can get my body a little bit higher in the water.” Rather than getting caught upin the nature of the occurrence, we can take the opportunity to correct our form and refine our skills.
It’s Those Skills We Mess Up That We Eventually Master
Reflecting upon my own training in the pool, it was those skills that I didn’t get right at times that I still remember today. There’s just something about making a mistake, identifying the issue, problem-solving and receiving feedback that creates a more in-depth and memorable learning experience, often leaving the skill to sink in a little bit deeper than those skills we never get wrong or get right straight away.
For Water Polo players or any team athlete, the goal of our work with relation to overcoming mistakes would be to reframe the way they perceive game day errors. Over time what we want to try and do is help them shift their cognitive response to one that views the occurrence as a learning experience rather than a mistake; an opportunity to learn a skill, refine technique and make us 0.1% better than we were yesterday. We usually like to start this work by having a discussion around the stats of professional athletes. One of our favourite examples is Michael Jordan:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
So we’re talking about the greatest basketballer of all time here, making countless “mistakes” – missing thousands of shots, some of which lost his team the game. So why is that we call Michael Jordan the best basketball player in the world, despite the fact that over the course of his career he’s missed thousands of shots – what makes him the best?
Crediting Successes to Mistakes
What makes him, and all the other elite athletes we know today the best is their response to mistakes. Rather than how they place when things are going their way, it is their response in the face of adversity that makes them the best at what they do. Anyone can play a good game when things are going their way, but what makes an athlete elite is how they play when things aren’t.
We do have a choice at the end of the day – to let the mistake define us or to give meaning to the mistake. With the assistance of some mindfulness-based exercises often this choice is a little bit easier. Something important to keep in mind is that our default cognitive and emotional response to a mistake is always going to be an uncomfortable one, but for those who are willing to learn to sit with those inner thoughts and feelings and take something away from the experience, you’re already halfway there.
How We Define a“Great Athlete”
If there’s one message I’d like you to take away from this piece, it is that a great athlete is defined not by their best game, but by how they respond to and learn from their worst game. The best athletes across all water sports and beyond credit their successes to the mistakes they made (and continue to make along the way), and that is what makes them the best.
Focus is arguably one of the most crucial components of sporting and non-sporting performance. High-performance realistically isn’t possible without it. Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. Focus is what the f is Metuf stands for. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. Focus for sport and performance can be measured and improved.
As Sport and Performance Psychologists our clients often ask us for ways to become more focused, stay focused or refocus after. But to understand how to improve focus, we first need to understand exactly what it is.
What Is Focus?
In psychology, ‘focus’ is defined as mentally attending to something while tuning out 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 social and environmental surroundings. The ability to focus is a mental process that is present from birth, indicating it’s something we’re hardwired to do. It plays a vital role in virtually every life domain.
Focus In The Performance Domain
There are many different types of focus. But the two most relevant to performance domains are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time, allowing us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. We might focus our attention on an external sensory stimulus, for example, something we hear, see, smell or feel, and in doing so can formulate a quick and immediate response to this stimulus if required.
The performance domains where one might need to engage in focused attention are those where individuals are required to respond with speed and accuracy. For example racquet, ball and combat sports as well as emergency service work (e.g. police officers, paramedics), security and defence work.
Sustained attention, or what is commonly known as concentration, is where we focus on a task for an extended period of time. Complete attention is given to the task until it is over. Any irrelevant sensory information is filtered out. This type of focus is crucial for long-distance and enduro-sports, musical and theatric performances or surgery. Basically, anything that requires an individual to concentrate for a prolonged period of time. A swimmer (left)) 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 domain, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus, starting with mindfulness. Focus for sport and performance is not identical to the kind of focus that might be required in the classroom for example.
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, and focus our mind on the task at hand. Meditation is in no way the production of more positive thinking or a way to stop thinking altogether. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.
Every single moment of the day we’re thinking, whether we want to or not. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment, including any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts), and to observe them without judgement. Or as little judgment as possible. This heightened awareness allows us to focus on the task at hand and fully engage in what we are doing, in spite of everything going on around us.
Focus for Sport And Performance: FAM and OMM
There are many different styles of meditation. Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) and Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM) are two of the most common in performance settings. During Focused Meditation, the individual attends to one single target and is aware of their wandering mind so they can bring their focus back to that target. Attention may be drawn to a visual stimulus, sound or any other sensory experience, and practising this form of meditation can improve our ability to filter out irrelevant sensory information and maintain attention to a single thing (Yoshida et al., 2020).
Open Monitoring Meditation on the other hand is where an individual observes any private experiences they have. These include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, urges and cravings. The aim of this exercise is to watch these inner experiences come and go without struggle or judgement. This heightened state of awareness increases our presence in the current moment. It allows us to attend to the task at hand and again, fully engage in what we’re doing.
There has been some research into the effects of these types of meditation on attentional control and thought processing, with Focused Meditation resulting in more specific, solution-based problem solving, and Open Monitoring Meditation promoting broader thinking and the development of new ideas (Lippelt, Hommel & Colzato, 2014).
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, as well as our mood states and stress regulation.
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 experienced a decline in both focused and sustained attention the following morning (de Oliveira et al., 2020). 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 through 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, because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information. The benefits of flow on performance extend across the sport and performing arts domain (Swann et al., 2012; Martin & Bhattacharya, 2013; Csikszentmihalyi, Montijo & Mouton, 2018).
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 a lot of anxiety for them disrupting flow. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this often leaves them feeling bored and struggling to engage in the task as they’re not challenged. To create an environment where flow can occur, skill level and task difficulty need to be roughly equal.
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. Through 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 where 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.
To see more engagement on the field, narrowing their focus might help. Focus areas can be changed on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Choosing one, two or three areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what they need to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wonders and then 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 of my primary superior Gareth’s approach.
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. Focus for sport and performance can be improved and qualified psychologists are the ideal teachers.
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.