Sporting Comebacks – A Mental Perspective

Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The term ‘comeback’ is an interesting one.

What first comes to my mind when I think about the actual word is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?

Unless you have been hiding out in a cave somewhere over the last few weeks I’ll assume you have at least heard about the fact that golfer Tiger Woods – at age 43 – recently won The US Masters golf tournament (one of the four majors).

Apologies if you already know all of this but it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the some of the facts associated with this remarkable sporting victory.

Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. I am not a big fan of comparing athletes from one sport or era with another but it is easy to understand why many people regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance would have been a contender but we all know what happened to him!

Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles (majors being the Key Performance Indicator that is typically used as the main barometer of success in professional golf) fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during the glory years.

And then came the decline by his standards …

Only he will really know what contributed to the fact that he went from more than a major a year to none for the following 10 years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals meant that between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.

Tiger won most of his 81 golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

The above graph is very telling in many ways but probably the most meaningful takeaway from a performance psychology point of view is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like some much in sports psychology, comebacks are all relative.

Tiger’s win at Augusta in April will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat for such a long time, and then went for a long period without one. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) got ignored, dismissed or underplayed.

With this in mind, I would suggest that athletes and coaches be very mindful of letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as successful. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of them, not just the ones the tabloid journalists write about.

Our Metuf model suggests that Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as the four ‘engines’ that most influence our performance outcomes (such as winning a golf tournament). But maybe it was only really Tiger’s physical capabilities were an issue during the 2009 and 2018 period. 

Take a look at Tiger’s injury “timeline” combined by ABC new (with a nice graphics if you only have a couple of minutes and would rather spend your time reading the rest of this blog). As you can see what he had to go through from a physical point of view would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement.

But most athletes don’t have the mindset of Tiger Woods.

The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury free at least) but who Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised (if this sounds like you shoot us an email).

The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. This includes – amongst other factors – relationships, happiness, mental health and fun! It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so and I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness.

During the famous green jacket ceremony – where the winner of the US Masters gets a green jacket in their size – Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’ suggesting how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.

Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me as a performance psychologist whose team of psychologists currently assists athletes and coaches from across the English speaking world – the two are linked.

Another couple of sporting comebacks that just took place and that probably gives readers some clues about the sports that I tend to follow in my downtime were the two recent Champions League semifinals. The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.

Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all stories into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs meaning that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) then the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.

In this year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid in early June. Barcelona would take a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London at therefore would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.

Yet despite all the odds, the Champions League final will, in fact, be played between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur and the internet / social media will provide you with more than enough opportunities to see just how they did it. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way but what is obvious from the outside looking in is the seriousness with which the two managers / Head Coaches take the mental side of the game and have created a ‘never give up’ attitude across there playing squads.

In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback win as ‘mentality giants’ – a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.

Mohamed Salah’s ‘Never Give Up’ T-shirt epitomises Liverpool’s mindset in Barcelona victory

Of course although Tiger Woods’ latest major title and a couple of football (soccer) matches on the other side of the world might not, at first glance, appear to have too much in common they add to the growing list of remarkable sporting comebacks where the performers have learnt to harness the power of the mind.

Sports Psychology – A Brief History

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the history of sports psychology and points out a few missed opportunities from the 100 year story so far.

I have always been fascinated by history to some degree. This, despite the fact that one of the major aspects of the model we use – Metuf – centres around the importance of focusing as much as possible on the present moment – and therefore less on the past and the future. One of the most interesting modules that I did during my psychology undergraduate degree at The University of Leeds in the late 90s was ‘The History of Psychotherapy’.

My old mate Tom and I would often go for a bacon and avocado baguette after lectures and chat about various ‘psychological methods’ that they used to use in the ‘old days’ – such as frontal lobotomies and electrocuting people!

Yet despite all this, the area that I would eventually end up working in (sport psychology) was not mentioned once during The History of Psychotherapy course – and for good reason.

The Pioneers of Sports Psychology

You see, the real origins of sports psychology as a separate field had very little to do with traditional psychotherapy and was almost entirely about performance enhancement in the early days.

Basically – it was research and coaching but with more emphasis on mental aspects than before. Although even Ancient Greeks were interested in the mind-body connection the real start of sport psychology as a specialisation was almost exactly 100 years ago.

In 1921 baseball player Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University in order to try and find out what made him so good – and so much better than the rest of the hitters at that time. A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted a number of studies that focused entirely on how to optimise the performance of American football players and coaches whilst they were training and competing.

Coleman Griffith

But it was Coleman Griffith (right) who really put sport psychology on the map with two classic publications in the 1920s.

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. Therefore and for good reason, he’s regarded as the father of modern sports psychology (at least as far as North America is concerned). I actually own a first edition of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’ after stumbling across a copy in an antique store about 10 years ago and it is, in part, one of the reasons why I am so passionate about helping coaches to become better at coaching the mental aspects of their sports.

For sporting coaches reading this looking to take the first (or next) step to become a better mental coach then complete the Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Coaches here.

It should be noted that these early pioneers were not very interested in the psychology of exercise and physical activity. From their point of view, their population of interest were already very active and any ‘advice’ pertaining to their physical training should come from experts in other fields.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

All this changed between 1930 and 1960 when exercise and physical activity were formally added to the definition of sport psychology – hence the more common modern description of ‘sport and exercise psychology’.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that this was the first collective error of the profession. Quite simply, a sedentary middle-aged couple who really would benefit from incorporating some walking into their weekly routine and a teenage basketballer who struggles with too much nervous energy before a game are simply too different to be best assisted by the same type of specialist – in my opinion.

At least here in Australia I can immediately think of at least two professions that might be better off assisting the sedentary middle aged couple – health psychologists and exercise physiologists.

Yet give my colleagues and me at Condor Performance a teenage basketballer who struggles with too much nervous energy before a game and we are in our element. It was we do, it’s what we’re best at.

The Importance of The Right Labels

If I had a time machine at least one of my trips would be to go back to Rome, (Italy) in 1965 and campaign hard at The First World Congress of Sport Psychology that our profession should be relabelled ‘sport and performance psychology’ and the experts within to be referred to as ‘sport and performance psychologists’ from that point forward.

Given the timing – it would also be tempting to hang around for a year and see if I could catch a few matches at the 1966 Football World Cup too! Oh to be able to have watched live some of the incredible saves made by Gordan Banks!

I understand the arguments from some quarters that sport is a type of performance so semantically the best label for the profession would actually be ‘performance psychology’ of which sport psychology would just be a subcomponent – and golf psychology or tennis psychology (for example) would be further subcomponents and specialisations.

But the very ‘sporty’ origins of sports psychology and the dominance of consulting within sport by modern performance psychologists would have me voting for the “locking in” of the terms ‘sport and performance psychology’ and ‘sport and performance psychologists’.

What do you think is the best label for the profession?

Recent History

Between about 1970 to early 2000s the professional enjoyed increasing recognition and growth across most of the developed world. In Australia this saw an all time high of four Masters program in ‘Sport and Exercise Psychology’ nicely spread across the country by the time Sydney was hosting the Olympic Games in the year 2000.

In fact, such were the impressive per capita options for budding sports psychologists in Australia at that time that it was regarded as one of the best places to covert a standard psychology degree into a vocation. For this very reason, I applied for a place on the Masters of Psychology (Sport and Exercise) at the University of Western Sydney intake of 2004 and was thrilled upon being accepted – despite it meaning I’d need to move halfway across the world.

Little did I know at the time that I would be joining the very last group to ever complete that particular program and the decline was about to start.

The Decline

Today, in 2019 there is only one final Sports Psychology masters program remaining in Australia (at the University of Queensland) and so it begs the question ‘what happened?’ and more importantly ‘what can we learn from the decline’?

As I have already implied the first ‘dropped ball’ was spreading our expertise too thinly by trying to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold. Of course, the very fact that there is thirty to forty times more sedentary folk out there than competitive athletes has resulted in confusion, distraction and a backwards step towards us being regarded as the ultimate ‘go to’ experts in the psychology of sport and performance.

Unique to Australia (I think) but a lesson that anyone interested in the ‘politics of professions’ would benefit from knowing is what happened in 2006. Medicare introduced a two-tier system, which essentially regarded the work of endorsed clinical psychologists as being more valuable to the system than all other psychologists. In other words, the out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less compared with all other psychologist types – for example, sports psychologists, performance psychologists and organisational psychologists.

With the gap between the cost of living compared and salaries in Australia at an all-time high then, of course, this legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other specialisations.

I often wonder how many clinical psychologists out there are ‘winging it’ and giving Google-based advice to mentally well athletes looking for a mental boost simply because it will cost these athletes less to work with a clinical psychologist (assuming they have a referral from their GP).

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

I for one am glad that in recent years sports psychology has started to really embrace the important of mental health and wellbeing both in terms of athletic performance and general life satisfaction. But I think we need to be very, very careful that it doesn’t become the final nail in the coffin for the profession.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement, mental skills training and coaching traditions if we aren’t careful.

In 50 years from now – if the profession still exists – what will the answers to these questions be: ‘what do sports psychologists do?’ and ‘what are sports psychologists better at when compared with others’?

Will the answers be …

  • ‘we mainly help athletes with mental health and wellbeing challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training when required’ or will it be
  • ‘we mainly help sporting and non-sporting performers to improve in their chosen sport or performance area and introduce mental health interventions for non-critical issues if and when required’

(I say non-critical as I for one believe that if the psychological issues of athletes present as very serious – for example, schizophrenia – then it might be better if they work with psychologists who specialise in those clinical areas).

I’m pretty sure if you were able to ask Coleman Griffith which answer he’d prefer 150 years after his efforts put sport psychology on the map in the 1920s he’d pick the second one in a heartbeat.

Pity I don’t have that time machine!

Can We Bounce Back?

Can we as a professional do what we’re supposed to be able to help athletes and performers with? Can we learn from our mistakes and bounce back?

This sports psychologist thinks it’s possible but only with some major structural changes. And that, my friends, will be the topic of a later blog post; Sports Psychology – Looking To The Future.

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole with The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health

Just after I wrote this article I bumped into the Minister for Health and former Minister for Sports; Greg Hunt – whilst on holiday with my family in Melbourne.

Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

We’re in the process of drafting a number of scientific and anecdotal articles that are specifically related to the mental health of competitive athletes. These articles will appear on this page as soon as they are ready with email notifications coming from The Mental Toughness Digest subscriber list via this link: eepurl.com/dIreYH 

In the meantime, as a taster – below find the Ted Talk by Victoria Garrick on the topic. Watch this space.

The Best Sports Psychologist You Can Be

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole makes 5 suggestions on how to be ‘the best sports psychologist you can be’ and in turn lift the entire profession.

I believe that I am currently the best sports psychologist that I can be.

So what stage in someone’s career have they notched up enough experience to start giving advice? Some might suggest that it’s best to wait until toward the very end of their career or even into retirement. The issue with that is you’re likely to be making suggestions well after you were at your best.

If your profession requires a lot of brain power then I am of the view that the ideal time to be giving tips is somewhere in the middle. I started working as a sports psychologist shortly after completing my Master’s degree in Sports Psychology from the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2005. I was 28 years old and very keen to start working with sporting clients – some would say I was too keen.

Condor Performance came about due to the lack of jobs out there for qualified sports psychologists. My mindset was simple – ‘I can’t get frustrated by the lack of opportunities if I haven’t tried to create some for myself’.

In the fifteen years since I have gone from being 28 to 43 year of age. I am now married to ‘the only one’, have two amazing kids and now live near Moss Vales (New South Wales) which is half way to Canberra. Oh, and Condor Performance has grown from a one-man band with a few clients to a growing team of performance psychologists who work with hundreds of athletes and coaches from around the world.

If I am right, that the best time to be waxing lyrical about ‘how to be the best sports psychologist you can be’ is about halfway through the journey – then for me, that would be about now. I have worked full time for 15 years and suspect I have about the same number of years left in me.

With this in mind, I have put together a short list of suggestions. Of course, if you are either a current sports psychologist or trying to become one then these will be both immediately and obviously useful. But as I look down at the list that I jotted down on paper earlier it’s already obvious to me that many of the ideas are likely to be handy for sporting coaches too. In particular sporting coaches who are already aware of the huge role that sports psychology plays in terms of helping athletes become the best that they can be.

Quite frankly, I am over trying to convince anyone that the mind (the brain) is an important aspect of human performance and that it can and should be targeted for improvement.

Tip One: Know Your Sports

Having an in-depth understanding of as many major sports as possible is, in my view, the foundation of being an excellence sports psychologist. There are many reasons for this but the most prominent are:

  • A good understanding of how sports works will allow you to build rapport with clients of those sports in a way that nothing else will
  • If you work less on mental health issues and more on performance challenges (like I do) then it’s likely the conversations will become very “sporty”. From sessions with golfers that are 100% dedicated to improving different types of pre-shot routine for various types of golf shot to workshops with gymnastics coaches who want views on the different mental demands of the different types of gymnastics disciplines and apparatus

My own knowledge of sport comes mostly from my childhood. I remember watching every ball of every cricket test match during my long school holidays. I remember creating my own tennis scoreboard using an old whiteboard so I could play umpire during Wimbledon matches. So you could say that I have been studying the sports side of sports psychology since I was about five or six years old. And South Africa during the 1980s was a great place to feast on live sport – as the bans from international competitions meant that regional and interstate rivalries were at there most frequent and engaging.

Over the years I have employed and supervised dozens of sports psychologists. I have, at times, been dumbfounded by the lack of passion and knowledge that many of them have when it comes to sport. And we’re not talking about boutique sports here like dragon boating or synchronised swimming. We are talking about major sports that at certain times of year are everywhere like golf, tennis, football and basketball.

In fact, so important is sporting expertise for me that I include it as part of the interview process. Nowadays, I am less intense but still require incoming sport and performance psychologists to self-asses their own sporting knowledge.

Universities with sports psychology courses take note – include sport as part of the student’s requirements and thanks me later.

Can you learn a passion and proficiency for sports even if your childhood was not like mine? Of course. If mental challenges like managing emotions and improving motivation can be overcome then so too can your understanding of sports. But it’s not going to happen by accident – you’d better get to work.

Tip Two: Be(come) Likeable and Smart

I know this is a controversial one but I am writing an opinion piece here so hear me out. The best sports psychologists I have met – some of whom I am very fortunate to have to work for me – have all been very likeable and very intelligent. By likeable I mean you’d almost prefer to be their friend instead of their boss. By intelligent, I mean super smart. The kind that doesn’t require a calculator when going through some of the numbers we gather once a month to monitor our own performance as “performance psychologists’.

You would imagine that in order to complete a university degree – the step before pursuing a career as a sports psychologist – you’d need to have at least some degree of mental quickness and people skills. Alas, this doesn’t always happen which of course makes my job of finding suitable candidates when we’re looking to expand so much harder. 

Tip Three: Never Stops Improving

The Japanese have a lovely word for it Kai-zen – which loosely translated into English means ‘constant improvement’. Maybe all professions fall victim to this. Once fully qualified is can be frightfully difficult to get some sports psychologists to actively continue their professional development. At Condor Performance we decided that prevention was always better than a cure and have, for as long as I can remember, paid for our psychologists to attend relevant conferences and other CPD events. By paid for I mean we both purchase their accreditation and allow them to attend during working time – not as part of their own leave.

I suspect some of my team think we’re doing it for their benefit but in actual fact, we’re doing is for ours. The best athletes and coaches in the world will only want to work with the best support staff in the world. It’s a horse and cart or chicken and egg thing.

Tip Four: Convert Frustration into Fuel

At the time of writing (2019), if you get a fancy sign with the words “Local Sports Psychologist” and stick it up by your front gate or door very, very few potential clients will come knocking. In the same way that some sports are organically very frustrating (golf and cricket are the first two to come to mind) so too is the profession of ‘sports psychologist’. In other words, nothing comes easy.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying there are professions out there without challenges and roadblocks but ours would have to rank inside the top 10% of ‘most difficult to convert years spent studying into take-home pay per week’.

I have had many conversions with sports psychologist colleagues (not Condor Performance employees) where the frustration was so much that it felt like I was in a session with a golfer who just couldn’t win his first tournament regardless of how hard he tried.

In fact, one chat over coffee in particular really sticks in my memory where I used such a golf analogy. Golf is frustrating ‘on purpose’ so that only the mentally tough would ‘find a way’. If it’s too hard for you, take up jogging instead.

Tip Five: Become A Sporting Coach Yourself 

Ok, honesty time. This is the only one of my tips that I currently don’t do myself but it’s not due to a lack of motivation but a lack of time (I would like to be around as much as possible whilst my children are still young).

If so much of coaching is actually sports psychology under a pseudonym put your money where your mouth is. Start using your training to help your local sports teams. Of course, three barriers are likely to stop you (excluding the barrier of you never thought about taking up coaching until now).

  • Few decsion makers will let you. That’s right, despite 6 or 7 years of formal training in how to make humans perform better your local netball team is still more likely to pick a former great as their head coach
  • You don’t want the accountability that comes with being Head Coach. Rightly or wrongly when we help sporting clients to improve their mental toughness there is rarely, if any, accountability if we don’t actually get the job done. But ask any coach at any level what will happen if they can’t produce results – they’ll know the answer
  • No time to do both. This is my excuse. If I didn’t need to work (the majority of my working time at Condor Performance is actually spent growing the business and on essential admin tasks) then one of the first things I’d do is offer my services pro bono at one or two of the local clubs near me in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. By I know that doing a good job – or the best job possible – would take up a lot of time and so this will have to wait until my kids and my company are all a little bit older.

‘Performance Consistency’ – The Holy Grail of Sport

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

Of all Usain Bolt's many achievements, maybe the most impressive was how consistent he was in major competitions.
Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.

As anyone who is participating in an office footy tipping competition can attest, trying to pick winners week to week in any sport often feels like an exercise in futility. With a few notable exceptions (that’s the topic of a whole other edition – so stay tuned) there seems to be a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ element to many performances which has many of the participants and onlookers perplexed and tearing their hair out. At the elite level, you don’t have to wait long in a post-match press conference to hear someone voice their frustration at the dramatic turnaround in fortunes as they have gone from ‘world beaters’ in practice to a ‘rabble’ on game day. This brief article will explore some of the reasons behind inconsistent performances and conclude with a few tips on how to attempt a move towards The Holy Grail: Performance Consistency.

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

The Real Holy Grail
The Real Holy Grail

Every athlete, coach or performer knows what it’s like to hit that ‘purple patch’ where everything just seems to click into place. It might only last for a few seconds or could last for a whole day or two and terms such as ‘in the zone’ or ‘flow’ might come to mind when describing this aligning of the stars. This, of course, is not Performance Consistency as it often comes to end (often a sudden and ugly one). Performance Consistency occurs when you can extend this purple patch to a few weeks, a whole season, or even an entire career.

But first, what causes Performance Inconsistency?

I would suggest the number one cause of Performance Inconsistency is the overuse or misuse of performance reviews. Specially, athletes and coaches misunderstanding the amount of influence they have on their performance results (outcomes). In its simplest form ‘a performance’ is probably the consequence of about 25 to 30 areas of effort (that we put into several categories, one being mental toughness) and at least the same number of uncontrollable elements such as genetics.

For a lot more detail on how we – as performance psychologists – break down ‘performance’ then sign up for the free Introductory Video at Metuf – Online Mental Toughness Training for Sport and Performance.

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

The reality is, you will never know exactly what ingredients went into making up a performance: at best (and this is assuming you record your training endeavours down to the minute) you might be able to develop a hunch that links some elements of effort to some variations in results, with a whole heap of unknowns leftover. Thoughts and beliefs are just that – thoughts and beliefs – and although they can feel incredibly reliable the truth is they are perceptions, not facts. So when you say “the reason why my performance was so great was due to X, Y or Z,” ask yourself if this is a fact or a thought that seems factual (they are very different).

Instead, plan your effort without factoring in results. Just consider what you believe might be worth spending time on without the distraction of strengths and weaknesses or good and bad. Second, ensure the effort is broken down into very clear categories and make sure you don’t end up with too many of them (a great analogy is the way the world is broken down: first continents, then countries, then states etc.). Finally, make sure you ‘buy into’ the 4 laws of effort below. If it were me, I’d copy and paste them into a Word document, max the font size so they take up the whole of an A4 sheet, print a dozen copies and then put them up as mini posters at home, where I study / work and where I train:

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

Please use the comments box below if you have any questions or comments about this article. For a full list of previous editions of the Mental Toughness Digest click here.

Recorded Radio Interview With Sports Psychologist

Tim Webster (Macquarie Sports Radio) and Gareth J. Mole (Condor Performance) chat on the radio about various Sports Psychology topics.

Radio Interview:

Full Transcription:

Tim:                                            All right, let’s talk a bit of psychology. They do say, sometimes, that sport can be 80 percent in your head and 20 percent ability. Or is it the other way around? Well, let’s find out.

Tim:                                            Well you hear often that our sports people turn to sports psychologists for help and you wonder how prevalent that is. Well let’s find out. I’ve got Gareth Mole from Condor Performance Sports and Performance Psychology on the line. Good date Gareth.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Hey, Tim, how are you doing?

Tim:                                            Good, how often do sports people turn to you?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Not as often as you would think. Tim. I suppose the peculiarity of our profession is that most people are completely aware that the mental side plays a massive role. The old cliché that golfers seem to use is that their sport is 90 percent mental. And yet for some reason, it doesn’t transfer in to a massive percentage of athletes and coaches using our services, to the degree where you would think they would. Based on what we specialise in.

Tim:                                            Yeah, interesting you should mention that because golf, I actually asked Greg Norman that question, some years ago. He didn’t say 90 percent, but he said 80. He said “Look we can all play on the tour, we can all shoot rounds of golf under par and then it becomes the mental side of it.” And you see golfers, don’t you, often, and they seem to implode. And that has to be, it can’t just be the ability to play the game. It has to be mental.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yes, absolutely. A good way of, my response to Greg’s 80 percent would be two things. One, as athletes improve, the mental side becomes more dominant. The fact is that an eight year old playing golf with his buddies, it is predominately technical. The guy who can chip the best is probably going to do the best. It is very technical at that level. But what happens, Tim, and there’s a growing amount of research for this is that as athletes improve, because everybody is good at the technical … let’s be honest, let’s look at tennis as an example.

Gareth J. Mole:                   If we look at the top 100 tennis players in the world, technically, they’re all very very good.

Tim:                                            Yes.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Physically, that means fitness, strength, cardio fitness and flexibility. They’re all very very good. So therefore, what’s making the Roger Federers of the this world consistently better than the guys ranked 100 or 500, given that physically and technically he’s not that much better than them. And really it boils down to what’s left if everybody is more or less even when it comes to those. And of course, what’s left is the mental side. And that’s a good way of, I suppose, adding a little bit of details to that 90 or 80 percent mental. The full answer is golf, becomes 80 to 90 percent mental when you get to the point where you can’t really improve your back swing. Or your fitness and therefore the remaining improvement need to come in things like concentration, confidence, motivation and the like

Tim:                                            There’s so many examples to use, currently. Novak Djokovic being one of them. Now, in a real bad patch with his form, and he was the dominant player in the game for many many years along with and Roger of course. And he’s only 30 and Roger is significantly older than him and Rafael’s about the same age. Now he’s coming back from an elbow injury, but you’d think he wouldn’t be playing if the injury was still plaguing him physically, so then is it plaguing him mentally?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Well, you would expect, yeah. The tricky thing when it comes to what we do is because we don’t have direct contact with those particular players. And so in many ways we’re just like tennis fans like the rest of us where we watch them in the Australian open and so on and so forth. And it’s tricky to know exactly who’s involved in the entourage, so to speak. For those kind of complications. The interesting thing about Novak is of course, couple of things happened, I think he got married and that massively improved his performance for a patch.

Gareth J. Mole:                   And there’s a reason for that. Which essentially is based on the distribution of pressure. If you’ve got a successful home life, suddenly, getting knocked out in a semi final of a grand slam isn’t the tragedy that you thought it was if you were obsessed, unhealthily obsessed as a single person. And then of course, the injuries … the changing of the coaches, very very frequently is quite another interesting thing to observe from afar. Because of course, at that level, the fascinating thing about the coach-athlete relationship at the highest level is, if we’re to be completely honest, the likes of Boris Becker for example, or Stefan Edberg, they’re not telling the likes of Novak Djokovic how to hit a back hand.

Tim:                                            No no.

Gareth J. Mole:                   They must be, predominantly coaching the metal side. And the fascinating thing from our perspective is, is being a former player a sufficient qualification for you to dispense psychological advice?

Tim:                                            Good question.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Now, my gut instinct is no. It’s not. With all due respect to somebody who has won five or six grand slams as Boris Becker may have. What mental strategies that have been, I suppose recommended by the scientific research which of course is what we use to make sure that there’s no guesswork involved in our work. Is being used. And therefore, what I think is going to happen over the next five to ten years, Tim, and we’re only just starting to see it, is, I think you’ll start seeing a much greater percentage of coaches consulting with sports psychologist. We’ve started to see a shift in the last couple of years. And the theory behind that is, you don’t want to send an ex-athlete off to university for seven years to get a psychology degree. Because by the time they’ve finished, everyone would have forgotten about them.

Gareth J. Mole:                   And you probably don’t want to force a psychology student to play 200 games in the NRL before you then allow him to help some.

Tim:                                            I’ve got you. Yeah I understand.

Gareth J. Mole:                   So the ideal combination is where you get the people who really know their stuff in this are, which of course is us. And you put them with a coach and the combination of our knowledge with their experience in sport, should be pretty useful when it comes to them coaching athletes at the highest level.

Tim:                                            Yeah, look there’s so many examples, currently to use, but I tell you one that worries me, and tell me if I’m being worried unnecessarily about a young ruby league player, in this instance, and there’s probably a few we could nominate. Jackson Hastings who’s had all sorts of dramas, mainly confrontation with his captain. Out at a night club. And he’s been flicked down to reserve grade four. Allegedly the rest of the year. Now, kids only 21. And the pressure that that places on him, mentally, worries me. Should I be worried about that?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah, look it’s a good question. Look, the short answer is no. He lives in Australia, this is one of the best countries in the world to be, if the wheels start falling of anything. Compared to so many other places. So, I don’t think so. There is a question of … and it’s a question that we’re constantly weighing up, me and my colleagues. Of, the overlap of mental health and what we call mental toughness. Just to very briefly go back to my initial comment about sports psychologist being used less than you would think. My gut instinct as to one of the major contributing factors to why that is, is the confusion between mental health and mental toughness. And a very simple way of separating them is: mental health is the stuff which, depression, anxiety, and stress for example. Which anybody could be suffering with.

Gareth J. Mole:                   It’s a real issue and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. And me and my four colleagues at Condor Performance are a tad controversial, Tim, in that we personally believe that sport psychologist probably shouldn’t be helping rugby league players with clinical depression. Given, that there are, I think 15 or 16,000 clinical psychologist in Australia …

Tim:                                            To deal with that, yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Who are very very very experienced at dealing with that. And therefore, we believe that mental health should be taken very seriously, but shouldn’t be confused with mental toughness. Now, mental toughness, we believe is like the technical side and the physical side. Would apply to all athletes of all levels. We’re talking about a basic concept such as concentration. Can someone who’s concentration is pretty good, be improved to be so that it’s excellent? So that it’s almost infallible? So in that example that you just mentioned with Jackson, where, are you concerned. My gut instinct, again, I don’t have anymore information that you probably have.

Tim:                                            No.

Gareth J. Mole:                   But my feeling is, there’s a lot of cases in many different sports where the first thing that they’d kind of want to work out, is, is this particular athlete … have some kind of a mental illness? In which case, they go down that path. Or, are they actually mentally fine, but some of the issues that they are struggling with, just due to the fact that no one at the club, the coach, is not particularly skilled when it comes to coaching mental aspects such as confidence and [crosstalk 00:11:02].

Tim:                                            Yeah, and they become ostracised. So.

Gareth J. Mole:                   That’s right.

Tim:                                            So when athletes come to you, what’s the main thing that they want? Improve performance, obviously, yes?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah, so it’s a whole bunch of words that start with the letter C. And it’s quite remarkable, because they kind of all start with the letter C. So typically when people first contact us, they fill in a mental toughness questionnaire. And it’s a self report measure. That’s one of the other weaknesses of psychology, unlike a fitness test, where you can’t fake it, you can’t fake a

Tim:                                            No.

Gareth J. Mole:                   You can totally fake a psychological test. Because you can give answers based on what your dad wants to hear for example. But it’s a self report measure and it generates a whole bunch of scores and those scores related to areas that we regard as critical for performance and entirely mental toughness related. And they are basically things like concentration, confidence, commitment, creativity, communication. So sometimes the term mental toughness is used like a single concept. Like “oh, can you help me with this particular athlete, because he’s mentally weak, can you make him mentally tougher?”

Gareth J. Mole:                   The term mental toughness is actually a little bit broad. Because it’s quite possible for someone to contact us who’s commitment levels, there’s one of the C words, the commitment levels is excellent. But their confidence is way down. And then someone else contacts us and it’s the exact opposite. In other words, they’re actually quite confident, when it comes to playing and training et cetera. But they’ve lost all their motivation. And one of the reasons why the, we insist on working with almost every body one on one, whether they be a team sport athlete or an individual athlete, is because of the fact that every body’s mental toughness profile is a little bit different. And therefore, you can imagine the work that’s getting done with someone who’s confidence is high, but who’s commitment is low, is very different from the work that’s done with someone who’s profile is the opposite.

Tim:                                            Yeah, and look it’s a fascinating discussion, it is. And thank you for sparing the time. And I could talk to you for a long time. But let’s just finish with this, and come back to golf. Because Jason Day has recently said, yeah he’d love to be the world number one again, but he had all of these things going on in his life last year, his mum became very sick, his wife had a miscarriage, and life was awful. Now, he says, “Life’s great at home and I’ve got nothing to think about but golf.” And he stopped going to the gym, because that was hurting him, he just concentrated on playing golf. But if it’s rugby league or rugby union or AFL, you’re playing for 80, 90 minutes. Golf is, you’ve got to concentrate, there’s that C word again. Over four days in a major championship. Surely that requires a lot of what mental toughness, focus, what?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah, look. Let’s be honest. Anything, any test cricket in golf, are pretty remarkable in that …

Tim:                                            Hours and hours. Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah. The way we do it very simple, and if there’s any cricketers or golfers listening they can absolutely implement this. During a four hour round of golf, Tim, you only really want to be concentrating for about seven or eight minutes. So the majority of the time, during a four hour round of golf, and this applies to test cricket as well, is not spent playing cricket or golf. Think about it, you hit a tee shot and you then have a …

Tim:                                            Then you walk for …

Gareth J. Mole:                   That’s right. Now walking …

Tim:                                            Hopefully 300 meters. Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   That’s right. Walking, even if you duff it, you probably still have to walk for about 45 seconds. So, the huge mistake made my most of those start-stop athletes that we call them. Any sport which involves attempt, stop, attempt, stop, attempt.

Tim:                                            Got you. Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   All of those table sports. The big mental mistake made by all of them, is they try to concentrate as best they can from the beginning and they aren’t aware that human beings just are incapable of maximum concentration for longer than about an hour. Most of us, will peak at about 45 minutes. It’s why school classes normally are around about 45 minutes or an hour. Because they know this kind of thing. And therefore, if your sport is something that goes for longer than an hour. And involves start, stop, start, stop, one of the simplest, easiest to implement mental strategies is the use of routines, pre-shot routines.

Tim:                                            Yeah, all of it. Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   For golf, whereby you are only starting your concentration about ten seconds before each attempt. And you are intentionally switching off about five to ten seconds after each attempt. So with the exception of putting, because there’s no walking involved. That virtually guarantees that you are resting your mind for a lot longer between the shots than you are using your mind just prior to each shot. And therefore, concentration levels could potentially be maximised day after day after day. Because you’re not concentrating for four hours, you’re concentrating for about 25 seconds and then resting for another few minutes.

Tim:                                            I’m with you. Yeah. God it’s a fascinating subject and that’s absolutely true in relation to golf, and I know I said it was the last thing, but just one more thing because it does fascinate me. You’ll see Jason Day do that. The pre-shot routine where he does that little flutter with his eyes, and it’s exactly the same thing every time. And then, you’ll often see him laughing and smiling with his caddy or his playing partner. Whereas, Tiger Woods on the other hand, looks like he’s focused and zoned in all of the time. Is he?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Well, yeah, again, another very interesting question and all I can do is, I suppose, comment based on what I’ve seen. My feeling is that Tiger wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he achieved at his peak if he wasn’t using some pretty effective switch on, switch off strategies like I’ve just mentioned. It’s just, we just know from the research, Tim, human beings can not concentrate for four hours at a time. So my feeling is that there was either, a little bit of gamesmanship going on with Tiger, whereby he was able to mentally switch off but have everyone else think he was not switching off. So that of course they would copy him and mentally burn out on the 12th hole. Which is what most people do.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Either he was doing that, or he was just switching on, switching off and we had no way of actually telling. What Jason’s doing there with the laughing and joking around with the caddy, that’s the much more obvious way to do it. Because by doing that and being overtly relaxed between shots, those actions, as a general rule, actions lead the mind. That’s the philosophy that we use. In other words, we don’t actually spend a whole lot of time trying to change peoples thoughts. We spend a lot of time helping people change their actions. Which leads to, generally, more useful thought.

Tim:                                            Yeah, right.

Gareth J. Mole:                   And the chances of you forgetting to switch off, if you are chatting to your caddy about the movie you saw a couple of days ago, are much lower, let’s be honest. There’s a much higher risk if you are only mentally switching off, but it still looks like you have laser focus throughout the entire full round.

Tim:                                            Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   It would be easy to forget.

Tim:                                            Yeah. It’s all very fascinating. So Condor Performance Sports and Performance Psychology. We’d find you on the net I’m sure if anyone wanted to get in contact?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yes, Tim, absolutely. And I look forward to speaking to you further whenever you guys want to have a chat about the mental side. As you could probably tell, we could probably talk on a weekly basis and I’d be more than happy to make myself available for that.

Tim:                                            Yeah, well that’ll be lovely because the whole subject fascinates me. Thanks Gareth, thanks very much.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Thanks, Tim.

Tim:                                            That’s Gareth Mole from Condor Performance.

What Does A Sports Psychologist Do?

What does a sports psychologist actually do? In summary we assist those involved in sport to improve both the mental side of their performance (mental toughness) as well as their overall mental health and wellbeing.

Sports Psychologists assist those involved in sport to improve both the mental side of their performance (mental toughness) as well as their overall mental health and wellbeing

Yes indeed – what a great question that is. What does a sports psychologist actually do? In summary we assist those involved in sport to improve both the mental side of their performance (mental toughness) as well as their overall mental health and wellbeing.

One thing is for sure – at the time of writing (February 2019) – a shocking number of those who use the protected title ‘sports psychologists’ are not actually qualified psychologists at all. A significant number of those working on the ‘mental side of sport and performance’ are embarrassingly under qualified. Most of these charlatans are taking advantage of the fact that far too many people involved in sport (parents, administrators) either don’t want to or don’t know how to check the credentials of their service providers.

Last year in Australia there was a shocking story about the organisation who were put in charge of the mental preparation of the Adelaide Crows AFL team during their 2018 preseason . To sum it up; not a registered psychologist in sight but plenty of pseudo-psychology taking place.

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself ‘but how do we know’ then this is what to do. Find out how to check if a psychologist is in fact a registered (chartered) psychologist in the country in which they’re located. In Australia this is a very simple two minute task using The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) online Register of practitioners tool. Most other countries in the developed world will have similar internet based checking systems.

Why is it more important for the psychologist to be registered in their country rather than that of the client? Psychologists are increasingly delivering sessions via videoconference technologies and due to this are becoming a profession Sans Frontières (without borders). At Condor Performance more than two thirds of our individual sporting clients are from other English speaking countries around the world. The fine print of our professional insurance is very clear that we’re allowed to work ‘worldwide’ as long as our clients know we’re registered psychologists in Australia and therefore would know which regulator to contact in the unlikely even they wanted to make a complaint.

One reasonable resulting question from all this might then be ‘why is making sure the sports psychologist is actually a registered psychologist so important?’ The answer to this question is both complex and controversial. But I would suggest the best response is similar to why your teeth would prefer you to see a qualified dentist and your children’s formal education are always better off in the hands of a certified teacher.

Another interesting observation from inside the ropes is the fact that the majority of sports psychologists don’t actually work with sporting clients after they become qualified. When I did my Masters of Sports Psychology at The University of Western Sydney (back in 2004, 2005) I was one of ten who graduated from the program. To my knowledge only two of us are currently focused on assisting sporting clients. That means that 80% are applying their sports psychology expertise to other areas. This begs the question – is there a better label than ‘sports psychologist’?

We think so and always have. Sport is a type of performance, in the same way that music is and many other non sporting purists (performance is not a type of sport). Hence if we were starting from the very beginning we’d likely be better off describing ourselves as either ‘performance psychologists’ or ‘sport and performance psychologist’. It should come as no surprise, then that these are the labels we chose for our exceptional team of psychologists.

For more on this topic have a listen to the answer to one of our Frequently Asked Questions “What Do Sports Psychologists Do?”

Motivation and Delayed Gratification

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments examined ‘delayed gratification’ in the late 1960s. The findings are very relevant to modern day Sport Psychology.

Child eating two marshmellows
“If you don’t eat this marshmellow, you’ll get two later on”

Don’t Eat The Marshmallow! Due mostly to having an excellent lecturer for the course “The History of Psychology” during my undergraduate years – I am a big fan of some of the “old school” psychological experiments that the academic community used to do in the middle part of the last century.

One of these was The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. 

In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (such as a marshmallow) provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period (typically around 15 minutes) during which the tester left the room and then returned. Remarkably in the majority of the testing about half the children (who were aged between 4 and 8) would gobble down the one marshmallow (many within seconds of the tester leaving the room) whilst the other half would exercise great “will power” and wait for the experimenter to return in order to get double the reward.

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by exam results and educational attainment.

Although I am sure that Professor Mischel had little interest in the specific field of sport and performance psychology when he was conducting his research I can’t think of another area of psychology whereby the concept of delayed gratification is more relevant that those trying to reach the top of their particular sport. 

Here is the video link to Joachim de Posada’s TED talk in 2009 that we keep banging on about in the context of delayed gratification as a key mindset for peak performance. Enjoy.

Delayed gratification is really just psychobabble for “doing something difficult now in the hope that it will be prove worth it later on”.

Of all the hundreds of theories on motivation and performance excellence I can’t help but feel this is one of the most relevant. Quite simply put, one of the chief explanations about why so few succeed (really succeed) is because most athletes and coaches try and find shortcuts and / or throw in the towel when the rewards for their effort are not immediate and obvious – they gobble down the single marshmallow instead of waiting for two. 

In their defence – and maybe this is where our job as sport and performance psychologists really comes into play – it’s unlikely that anyone has taken the time to explain to them that winning is all about patience, doing the hard yards in the preseason so the rewards can come during the season. And of course the amount of time before being rewarded for one’s effort is likely to be much, much longer than the 15 minutes used during The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. On many occasions the truly meaningful “payoff” for effort in the world of elite sport and performance might be 10 or even 20 years down the track. 

Think about the young athletes who sacrifice time with friends and family whilst they are teenagers only to see the rewards in their twenties and thirties.

At Condor Performance, through the use of our Mental Training processes Metuf – one way we help those we work with to embrace delayed gratification is by encouraging them to keep track of their own Monthly Checks. 

Monthly Checks are basically Key Performance Indictors which “bridge the gap” between the daily and weekly grind and those moments of glory that we’re all aiming for. The self satisfaction that can (should) come about after seeing a month by month improvement in focusing abilities or cardio fitness (for example) can go a long way to maintaining high levels of commitment when everyone else is finding it all too hard.


Mental Toughness vs Mental Health

Leading Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains the difference between Mental Toughness for Performance and Clinical Mental Health.

Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same.
Being Mentally Well and Mentally Tough are not the same thing.

There is a very encouraging change taking place behind the scenes in Australian sport whereby “Wellbeing” is starting to be considered an important part of sporting excellence. This is a welcome change from the win-at-all-cost Winning Edge program that thankfully has been disbanded. But it’s not all roses and bubblegum. With this “Wellbeing Movement” there are a growing number of people who mistakenly are being lead to believe that Mental Health and Mental Toughness are one and the same. But they’re not, and here’s why. 

As regulars readers of the Mental Toughness Digest will know the “model” that we use in our daily work as sport and performance psychologists is called Metuf. In very simple terms my colleagues and I work for Condor Performance but we use Metuf to guide our (mostly) 1-on-1 work with athletes, coaches, officials and non-sporting performers.

Because we’re all registered psychologists we are more than cable of assisting those we work with with any mental health issues that may present (e.g. severe depression) – but the majority of our clients are what might loosely be called the “mentally well”. These are individuals who do not present with any signs of a mental heath problem. In other words they function well and are happy but … 

…. they correctly believe that general wellbeing and happiness are probably not the complete psychological requirements needed to reach their many lofty goals and ambitions. There are other psychological ingredients that may not be that useful for normal, everyday people but are prerequisites when it comes to achieving consistent success in sporting competitions and the umbrella term for them is Mental Toughness. 

And although Metuf has always been and will always be about these latter psychological ingredients it’s evolved heavily along the way and undergone its most significant updates in years only towards the latter part of this year (2018).

One part of Metuf that’s changed recently is its “order” so to speak. We used to believe Metuf would only really work on the mentally well and therefore we often referred our clients to clinical psychologists for “fixing” (don’t think we used that word but you know what I mean) because passing them back to us for “lifting”. But eventually we worked out that many people where quite capable of working on their mental health and mental toughness at the same time. We also worked out that despite not being clinical psychologists as part of the process that all of us at Condor Performance undertook (are undertaking) to becoming fully registered psychologists meant we were pretty good at “the messy stuff”. 

The second batch of major, recent changes to Metuf resulted in a consolidation of exactly which psychological aspects of performance it was trying to assist with. Feedback from our current and past clients, lengthly internal discussions and a good, hard look at the most recent research (both sports science and sport psychology) resulted in an unanimous agreement that Metuf would target “The Big Five”. You can imagine our excitement when with only swapping in one or two synonyms the Big Five spell Metuf.

Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. 

If we look at these five words / labels we can see where the confusion between MH and MT comes from – the first three in particular look like they’d be pretty handy for anyone struggling with their mental health (think depression and motivation, or severe anxiety and emotions). 

But the M in Metuf that stands for motivation is from the context of performance more so than daily life. The kinds of interventions that a clinical psychologist might use to motivate someone with clinical depression don’t resemble the kind of Mental Methods we use to motivate mentally well athletes, coaches, officials and performers. And the same applies for the E, T, U and F.

The analogy that we have been using more and more recently is that you are like an aeroplane. Your overall wellbeing is like the main body of the aircraft – Mental Toughness is like one of the engines. In other words there is no point in having Rolls Royce engines if they’re attached to an aeroplane that is falling to bits.

So why bother working 1-on-1 with a sports psychologist if it’s possible to do an entire Mental Toughness Training Course online for only $20. Excellent question. The simple answer – the psychologist (if he or she is one of ours) will tailor the Metuf principles specifically to your challenges and goals. Another way to put it – as good as the self-help verion of Metuf is – you can’t ask it any questions.

Post Competition Reviews

Chris Pomfret, Senior Performance Psychologist from Condor Performance looks at the pros and cons of Post Competition Reviews.

The Game Is Over. What Is The Coach Saying?
The Game Is Over. What Is The Coach Saying?

Note: This article was written an published before major improvements were made to Metuf in late 2018. Metuf is the name given to the collection of mental skills that we use with our sporting and non-sporting clients. For more information about Metuf please click here.

This week I fielded an excellent question from one of our monthly clients regarding post-competition reviews. This person competes in an individual sport and had just finished a big weekend of racing… living the dream, essentially. A disappointing overall result was causing great frustration and they were second-guessing themselves as a racer and wondering exactly where all the hard work this season was actually leading them. They realised that this was in complete contrast to a competition only one week before, where a strong result prompted positive emotions and had them feeling optimistic about the rest of 2018 and beyond. Many of our discussions had been about taking a consistent approach before every competition, and their question was how they should approach the hours and days following a competition – win, lose, or draw.

The first thing we reflected on was enjoyment and ensuring that they did not lose sight of the things which drew them into the sport in the first place, the things that have kept them participating, and the things which they want to maintain in the long run. Given that it is a physically brutal sport they compete in, we distinguished between the fun elements (e.g. the things that elicit a big smile) and the deeper, more meaningful elements (e.g. the things that make them proud and challenge them).

Next we reflected on the nature of results themselves. No matter how easy or difficult, at the end of the day we can only influence results. That is, we can have an impact on the various outcomes in our chosen sport (a fast lap time, winning a heat, making a podium, being selected in a representative team) but we can never guarantee them. This isn’t to give ourselves an excuse for a disappointing performance or pretend that it doesn’t matter to us, but to bring our focus back to our weekly effort so that we can keep improving and ultimately shift results in our favour.

We then spoke about strategies for emotional release. As a reminder, emotions are neither good nor bad – they are just a primitive way of understanding our experiences. Of course I would rather feel happy instead of sad, but that doesn’t make happy ‘better’ than sad. The key thing is the intensity of the emotion and how we manage it. Most athletes do think about – and practice – regulating their emotions in the lead-up to a competition or when actually performing. Most athletes don’t consider how to handle intense emotions (desirable or unwanted) once they have finished competing. Whatever works for you in the lead-up to a competition is probably a good place to start in learning to handle yourself post-competition. As a general rule though, feelings are expressed through the body so often the quickest and easiest way to release that emotional ‘steam out of the kettle’ is by physical means such as deep breathing, movement, warm-downs, physical focus points such as stretching, or sensory stimulation such as showering. No matter the emotion you are experiencing, work on empowering yourself by releasing the emotion on your terms.

Next up, we discussed a specific framework for reviewing competitions from a mental perspective. Together we put aside important physical considerations such as fitness, strength and conditioning, training loads, flexibility, amount and quality of sleep the night before performing. Then we set aside non-sporting factors such as family, friendships, school, work, finances and life stressors. We also put aside technical aspects of the performance (the biomechanics and tangible skill execution within races). Finally we also set aside tactical considerations (decision making and bigger picture ‘smarts’ as an athlete) as these are issues constantly being reviewed with the coaching staff. This left us with the following categories, to which I posed the following questions:

  • Commitment:   how strong was your sense of desire to perform well in this particular competition? How much importance did you place on this weekend’s events? Looking back, what signs tell you that your heart was really in it? If we were to say this was just another set of races in a long career, why did you push yourself to do your best yet again? How are you rewarding yourself for putting in so much hard work? Can you put into words what makes weekends like this so special, especially when things do go to plan?
  • Concentration:   how well were you able to focus on what you wanted to focus on? What things captured your attention before, during and post-race? Were you aware of this happening? Have you practiced dealing with distractions? What are a few simple but relevant things you can turn your focus towards when next competing?
  • Confidence:   if confidence is know that you can do something before you try, where is the evidence (e.g. through practice and past competitions) that tells you what is possible? How well are you able to feel what you want to before and during races? What unwanted thoughts and emotions can you expose yourself to through practice so that you have faith in your ability to execute your skills by the time the next competition rolls around?
  • Creativity:   how flexible were you in your thinking? How well can you deal with the unexpected and think on your feet? How did you respond to the unpredictable?
  • Communication:   what messages were you sending yourself? What messages were you sending other people (verbally and non-verbally)? Were these deliberate? Have you practiced them and do you have a sense of how effective they are?
  • Consistency:   were your thought processes systematic, simple, clear and well rehearsed? Were you viewing external factors such as opponents, officials, weather conditions, equipment, facilities and spectators in a manner that suits you and your individual needs?
  • Culture:   how were you viewing your coaching staff, your support crew, your team members, and the wider group of athletes coming together? What was your sense of connection and belonging like? Are you feeling part of a broader community and does this need to be worked on in some way?

Finally, we took a moment to step back and view the competition from a big-picture perspective. As challenging as the weekend’s results were for this person, the competition represented just another step in a long journey towards a higher destination. Whether an outcome is considered a huge success or a major disappointment, there must be a means of learning from the experience and using it to drive further improvement. How, when and where this reflective practice occurs is up to you.