Sport Psychologists – Applied and International Since 2005
Category: Sports Science Stuff
From time to time some of our articles will look more it should have been appeared in a peer reviewed journal. Such feature articles will follow the same structure of a scientific paper – but without the politics of getting it published.
Mental blocks are common in sports like gymnastics. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole explores what they are and how to overcome them.
In this article we will explore the concept of mental blocks. Specifically the kinds of mental blocks that we commonly encounter in a sport and performance context. Without a doubt, some sports are likely to product more mental blocks than others. Which ones? Those that require manoeuvres such as gymnastics, surfing and all equestrian sports to name the most obvious.
For the rest of this article I will use gymnastics as an example. This is what the situation typically looks like when we find out about the mental block. A young gymnast is preparing for a major upcoming competition. For the uneven bars she is confident about the whole routine expect for the The Def (see below).
The Def (bars)
Description: The Def is a Gienger release move with an extra full twist. In simpler terms, the Def is a skill completed on the uneven bars where the gymnast releases the bar, completes a back salto layout with one and a half twists (540°) before catching the bar again.
In the mind of this hypothetical gymnast The Def is a mental block. It’s a skill that is so hard that she can’t imagine being able to do it in training; let alone in competition.
So how we know it’s a mental block as opposed to a different type of block? Is it enough to just take this athlete’s word for it? Not really.
What are the other kinds of blocks?
The main ones are physical and technical blocks. A physical block is when the body simply will not allow for the skill to be executed at this time. This might be due to injury, or literally the size of athlete. Think about a junior basketballer who wants to dunk the ball. She knows how but is just not tall enough (yet) to get anywhere near the ring.
A technical block, on the other hand, is when an athlete currently doesn’t have the “muscle memory” to execute a certain skill. A great example of this is when it golf, a few year back, they allowed long handled putters. For the non-golfing readers, this is a putter (used on the green) that is much longer than normal ones. The technique required to use this new type of putter is not the same as for a normal, shorter putter. So, many players tried it, had technical blocks and then went back to the old style.
Finally, We Have Mental Blocks
Or maybe we should call them genuine mental blocks. A genuine mental block is when the performer really believes that they will not be able to perform the skill. And it’s this belief, and nothing else, that is actually getting in the way of them doing it.
So here are no physical nor technical reasons why they shouldn’t be able to do this skill. One of the most compelling pointers it’s a mental block is if the performer has already done the skill in the past.
Let’s go back to our example of the gymnast. If she has executed The Def before but can’t anymore this suggests a mental block.
Some sport psychologists might like to find out if there is reason for this. Was there a bad fall once? Maybe she saw another gymnast try and fail? Maybe someone has told her it’s impossible. Personally, I prefer to spend the majority of the mental conditioning on how to help them overcome the mental block. And these suggestions, below, are likely to the same regardless of the cause. And remember, these is not always a cause. This is mainly due to the limited amount of time that we have without our sporting clients. On average, via our monthly approach to consulting, we spend between 90 and 120 minutes “in session” with our clients. So it’s not that we are uninterested in the causes of things (such as mental blocks) it’s that we don’t have time to really get into them.
Baby steps refers to simply breaking down the skill into smaller, more manageable parts. Of course this is normally the coaches’ domain but not all coaches are mentally astute. Competence (actions) before confidence (a feeling) is the key here. Competence before confidence means that an athlete needs to be able to do something competently in order to feel confidence. In other words telling them “you can do it” is not very effective. Baby steps are a great way to overcome mental blocks. If done right there is never a large leap in difficulty.
For example, let us imagine that The Def is a 9 / 10 in terms of difficulty. What does a 7 look like? And and 5 or 3? Once these have been established then the gymnast can go back to the number in which they feel competent. Let’s say 4/10. With some patience, they can then work their way slowly up through the numbers. Do not, under any circumstances, jump from a 6 to 9 for example.
Seperate Actions from Thoughts from Emotions
Another way to overcome mental blocks is by realising that actions, thoughts and emotions are not one and the same. By this I mean separate actions, emotions and thoughts into different types of stimulus. This can be done away from training to start with. Through processes like Really Simple Mindfulness anyone can learn to observe their emotions and thoughts and therefore not let them stop certain actions from taking place.
As some of my clients know I like to prove this during sessions. For example, I will ask them to tap their head whilst saying to themselves “I am tapping my thigh”. Once the athlete knows that action are genuinely independent of thoughts and emotions they can use this in training. Using the current example, this means accepting that thoughts such as “I will never be able to do this” are fine. Feelings of panic are to be accepted and they don’t have to stop you from taking the first step (literally).
And if you combine these two ideas, the combination tends to be very effective.
As always, if you’d like a helping hand let us know.
Sport psychologists Coaching The Coaches is becoming more and more normal as competitive sport finally start to understand what we do.
One of the great professional delights for us here at Condor Performance is the opportunity to work alongside sporting coaches. We are privileged to work with coaches across many sports and levels of competition. Most of this consulting is 1-on-1 whereby we help them improve both their own mental toughness as well as their mental coaching skills. Of course these two areas are related but are far from one and the same. So coaching the coaches really means coaching the coaches mentally.
The process of collaborating with coaching staff provides a range of challenges and rewards distinct from working directly with athletes. It is immensely satisfying for us to help coaches redirect some of the vast amounts of time and energy spent on their players back into improving their own performance. That’s right, coaches are performers too even if they don’t actually strap on the boots.
An Unlimited Appetite for Learning
Increasingly at the elite level of sport there is a trend for coaches to take off-season trips. The idea is to ‘pick the brains’ of other organisations in order to bring new perspectives back home. “Study tours” are fascinating exercises with a host of educational benefits. However they’re not exactly cheap and that thing called ‘life’ can get in the way.
We are huge advocates for these study tours but accept they will not be possible for most coaches. Luckily there is a workaround. Start working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist from the comfort of your own home.
Of course when it comes to the practical application of coaching tasks and responsibilities it is the coaches themselves who are the experts, not us. But we become involved to provide mental skills training to the coach, not to start developing game plans or overhaul training regimes.
Five Key Questions
Below you will find five key questions for coaches directed at their own performance, not that of their athletes.
HOW ARE YOU PERFORMING OUTSIDE OF THE PLAYING ARENA?
Before we discuss the mental side of your coaching performance, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Improving your performance in areas which don’t at first appear to be directly linked to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of coaching will in fact directly benefit your work with your athletes. Attending to ‘off-field’ matters will help to increase your physical and mental energy. It will sharpen your focus when coaching. It will enhance your enthusiasm for your duties. Furthermore, it will promote enjoyment of your role and contribute to your general wellbeing. Finally, it will help to address (prevent) burnout in the longer term. The major targets for improvement for any coach, from a lifestyle perspective, are:
Nutrition. No doubt you’re encouraging your athletes to put the right fuel into their bodies? And while you may not be running around on the court with them it’s important that you do the same. This isn’t just necessary for general health but also for enhancing your mood and improving concentration. Taking care of your nutritional needs seems fairly obvious at first glance. But that’s why it often takes a back seat to other tasks which seem more urgent at the time.
Sleep. Unfortunately this is not an exact science and a great night of shut-eye can’t be guaranteed. There are various factors which can get in the way of sleep. So anything you can do to increase the chances of a good night’s rest will have flow-on benefits to life and sport. Taking basic steps to plan for and implement good sleeping habits sounds sensible enough. Like nutrition, sleep can be one of the forgotten components in the grand scheme of coaching performance. See this great PDF for more details.
WHAT DOES MENTAL TOUGHNESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
The mental qualities you hope to see in your players are easy enough to picture. But what does mental toughness actually look like for you personally? What are the skills you’re seeking to keep improving upon in order to perform at your best? Below are some points that keen-eyed readers will recognise fall along the lines of the Metuf model. These are all areas we often discuss when coaching the coaches.
What are your reasons for coaching and wanting to do it well? The immediate response to this may be that you love your chosen sport. However it’s helpful to clarify this passion further. Why exactly does coaching appeal to you and what are the rewards which you get in return for your efforts? Knowing what matters to us in terms of our chosen sport means that we can keep these values as non-negotiable aspects of our sporting lives.
How well are you able to manage your emotions? That term – manage – is used deliberately and is not a result of the growing ‘business-speak’ in modern society. Although the term ‘control’ is thrown around freely in sports, we cannot control our emotions as we cannot guarantee them. What we can guarantee are the actions that we pick in response to our feelings. Developing competency in recognising and better understanding one’s own emotions – and the impact of these emotions on performance – benefits the coach in their work and enables the coach to teach their athletes similar skills.
Do you spend the majority of your time worrying about aspects you have little or no influence on? For example, your opponents? Food for though, no?
How well are you able to get your message across to others? Are you able to receive and interpret messages well from others? How effectively can you get messages across to yourself? Communication is a hugely under-utilised skill. Normally this is due to lifelong habits which we have developed in everyday interactions. Even minor modifications can yield powerful changes in tasks such as teaching biomechanics or managing different personalities.
How well are you able to focus on what is most relevant and useful in your role as a coach? It is equally important to improve your attention in preparation as well as in competitioN. Are you prioritising one over the other at present?
DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR SPORTING IQ?
Out on the playing surface, tactical wisdom refers to knowledge about the sport. It’s about decision making skills and knowing ‘when’ to or ‘why’ to do something. There is an enormous difference between ‘how to’ shoot for goal (technique) vs. determining if a shot or a pass is best goal (tactics). Developing decision making skills is something which the vast majority of coaches I’ve encountered have revelled in. I enjoy helping them to teach their athletes how to become smarter and to read the play. How to be proactive rather than reactive.
Off the playing surface these same principles apply for coaches. We want to encourage them to continue learning, to seek new knowledge, and to gain deeper insights into their sport. Tactical wisdom for coaches isn’t restricted to coming up with new game plans. Instead, tactical wisdom is looking at the bigger picture and planning how to acquire and utilise knowledge for the benefit of your athletes. As a coach, if you can recognise what your strengths and weaknesses are knowledge-wise then you’ve immediately begun a process of filling in any gaps and strengthening the existing foundations.
IS YOUR BODY GETTING ENOUGH ATTENTION?
Improving the strength, fitness and flexibility of athletes is of course a key consideration for any coach on any given day. However, we are talking about coaches here and the risk with this group is that enhancing the physical capabilities of athletes will always take priority over your own needs. Taking the time to plan specific goals for improving your physical capabilities and implementing weekly effort towards these goals will benefit your work with clipboard and whistle. It may even help you to come up with some new ideas for punishing your athletes with torturous fitness drills!
ARE YOU REFINING AND UPDATING YOUR TECHNICAL SKILLS?
When discussing technical consistency with an athlete, we would be talking about their ability to execute movements and apply skills the way they want to over and over again across all conditions in competition. That is, ‘how to’ do something. One of the primary concerns of a coach is to help teach athletes these skills. So in order to improve your performance as a coach it is worthwhile considering ‘how to’ teach your charges. It is one thing to demonstrate to a javelin thrower the method for launching that piece of equipment. However, it’s another to be passing on that knowledge in a way that is effective and of most benefit to that individual athlete. It’s hugely useful for coaches to break from habit where possible and review how they go about executing their skills in their role as a coach. How effectively are you teaching your athletes and how satisfied are you in your current ability to pass on skills/knowledge/information to others? As with all the previously mentioned pillars of performance, ongoing improvement in the ‘how to’ of coaching players is the goal here regardless of which technical elements are areas of strength for you as an individual.
If you are a sporting coach and you’d like some info on how we can work with you please contact us via one of the below.
Natural talent might just be one of the most unfortunate combinations of words ever. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains.
For those of you who know me professionally you’ll know that I am a bit of a word policeman. By this I mean I consider the genuine definition of words in more detail than do most people. Words or combinations of words, especially when spoken, are powerful and to be treated delicately. As a general rule I try hard not to dislike certain words. Instead I simply choose not to use certain combination myself. For example in performance psychology circles the word control is used prolifically. As my colleagues and clients know I prefer to use the word influence. It’s just a much better word for exerting an impact on something.
As a sport psychologist who doesn’t use direct cognitive therapy techniques I try not to correct my sporting clients when they use the word control. Instead I simply choose not to use it myself. I refer to the varying degrees of influence that we have on different aspects of our life and performance.
Two Words Not One: Natural + Talent
But there is one pair of words that I am particularly offended by; natural talent. Now before I go about pulling it apart and explaining why I feel these words should be banned let’s look at each word by itself.
The ‘natural’ part is referring to genetics, what we’re born with, our DNA. In other words it is the former in the Nature Versus Nurtureconcept/debate. Like most scientists I believe that most of our abilities are made up of a combination of nature plus nurture. Most experts now believe that it’s a fairly even contest between genetics and environment. And this may well be the case in many areas that I have little knowledge about. However in the world of sport, and in particular certain sports, I strongly believe that the role of genetics is vastly overplayed as a determinant of success. Let me be 100% clear here. I am not dismissing the role of genetics. I am simply saying that factors such as height and hand size play a much smaller part than many people believe they do.
The Word Talent By Itself
In doing some research for this article I decided to check what the definition of talent really is. I guessed it would say something like skilful or full of ability. But in fact the word talent even without the word natural before it implies a heavy dose of biological inheritance.
(someone who has) a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught. Examples; Her talent for music showed at an early age. His artistic talents were wasted in his boring job.
With such an inference of genetics one would have to ask whether it’s necessary to add the word natural before hand. I suspect it’s there to just emphasise the point. I for one and a little aggrieved at the fact that talent infers inherited. For me talent has always just meant ‘good at’ as in I am talented home cook, meaning that I am handy in the kitchen. No more, no less.
Not All Performance Areas Are The Same
As performance psychologists we work right across the multitude of performance domains that exist. Some of the most interesting work that I have done is with both male and female professional models. By models I’m referring to men, women, boys and girls who make a living from doing catwalks and photoshoots. It is hard to imagine a performance domain with a more significant genetic component to professional modelling. After all height is considered critical for adult models. And the last time I checked it doesn’t matter how hard you try you can’t make yourself taller. Yet even in this cutthroat you’ve either got it or you haven’t industry I still assert that success is more than 50% about non genetics factors. Chief amongst these non genetics factors is effort, or how you apply yourself. Suddenly natural talent isn’t feel that natural.
What About Sports?
Not too far behind professional modelling in the world of sport are sports that require very specific physical attributes. We are talking about factors such as height for basketballers, netballers and high jumpers. Given the high ratio of sprinters with ethnic links to Africa running fast would also appear to have genetic favourites. And even I will admit it. A snowy white sprinter might have to work harder and smarter than her Caribbean opponents. Especially if she wants a share of the medals.
But what about sports which are much less physical. Sports such as golf, dart, lawn bowls and figure skating. Are there some genetically predetermined characteristics that allow you to be good at golf? For these kinds of sports I would hypothesise that genetics are only playing between 10 and 15% of potential ability. As mentioned previously genetics is never completely relevant. For example eyesight is mostly genetic and this is certainly a factor in being able to see the ball well. But with the exception of some incredibly rare genetic traits I would say that the world’s best golfers have very little in common in terms of natural talent. So if I am correct then between 85% and 90% of success in many of the worlds most popular sports have nothing to do with your genetics.
So If It’s Not Natural Talent, What Is It?
In intentionally simple terms it’s about how you spend your time. In particular it’s how you spend your time in terms of quality and quantity after the very early years. Where things get complicated in terms of the nature versus nurture debate are around topics such as motivation. If a certain level of motivation is required for you to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go for a run before school there is a strong argument from some sectors that sheer motivation is largely generic. In other words although the 6 km runs is obviously ‘nurture’ the spark that got you to the start line could be very ‘nature’. Even if this is true, the comeback will always be the same.
There is nothing you can do to change the genetic part so you might as well ignore it.
One of the key aspects of our performance psychology framework Metuf is an increased awareness in the amount of influence you have on “stuff”. For example, learning that you have more influence preparing for sleep than the actual amount of sleep you get. Well guess which aspects are at opposite ends of this spectrum of influence? You guessed it. Genetics and effort. We have so little influence on our genetics that we call it uninfluenceable. On the other hand we have so much influence over our effort that we could almost call it one of the very, very few controllables (I still refer to effort as highly influenceable though). What does all of this mean?
Where To From Here?
For a start, get rid of all talent identification programs. Abolish them and replace them with development programs that allow anyone to have a go. Next, stop using the term talent or natural talent. Get rid of them and instead focus more on the quality and quantity of effort regardless of current abilities. Maybe we should start talking about unnatural abilities instead? Those who rose to the top despite the genetic odds being stacked against them.
For example, Muggsy Bogues and Emily Ratajkowski. Muggsy played 889 NBA games between 1987 and 2001. Emily Ratajkowski is considered to be one of the most successful supermodels of all time. Both of them thrive in industries that prefer tall people. Muggsy is 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) and Emily is 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m). Enough said.
Please use the comments boxes below to provide your thoughts on this fascinating topic. We would especially like to hear from those of you who have found success despite the natural odds
Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret muses about how off-field endeavours can actually help with on-field performances.
Has there ever been a better time to consider your work-life balance? The Corona Virus, although devastating, is a reset and rethink opportunity for many of us. Are you spending too much time on one area of your life to the detriment of another?
The parents of our younger athletes will often ask us how they might encourage their kids to take their schoolwork seriously. Understandably, young athletes can struggle to see what relevance of studying or exploring long-term work options has to achieve their sporting dreams.
It is here that the answers hides. What if you could prove to elite athletes and performers that sometime less is more. What if they knew that hitting the maths books was actually going to help them play better on Saturday morning?
Multiple Pursuits; A Key to Good Mental Health
Let’s start with a fact. Playing careers are short at most levels for most athletes in most sports. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the need for athletes be participating in a ‘dual career’. Or at least for them to be taking steps to prepare for their post-athletic life. Most competitive athletes retire at a young age. Think of gymnasts who are ‘over the hill’ in the twenties. This not only impacts on their lifestyle and their finances but also ‘bigger picture’ areas such as their sense of self, their social identity, and their sense of direction in life.
In US college sport, for instance, approximately 1% of collegiate athletes become professional athletes. And the average professional sporting career only lasts around 3.5 years (1). One area where the US college system ‘has it right’ is that athletes are required to maintain grades whilst studying in order to play. Traditionally this has not been the case elsewhere in the world, where club-based sporting systems are prevalent or professional development pathways are separated from the education sector.
Heading In The Right Direction
This has changed in recent times however, with athlete education and career guidelines now being set by national governing bodies across the globe.
In Australia and New Zealand many of the major sporting codes now require professional athletes to undertake vocational training as part of their contracts. Essentially a focus on health work-life balance is becoming compulsory like gym sessions. After all, many of these sports have very high injury rates. And some of these injuries, that can happen in seconds, can end sporting careers once and for all.
In the past, professional clubs have ‘paid lip service’ towards career, personal and welfare development. This was due to a belief that their athletes should be focusing solely on improving on-field rather than off-field. To be fair, this hasn’t been helped by a tendency for many athletes to prioritise their sporting activities above all other pursuits. Not surprisingly, athletes choosing to maintain a non-sporting activity achieve better jobs and are happiest with their life beyond sport than those who focus exclusively on sport (2).
Some research has suggested that engagement in dual career activities may actually lead to a performance benefit for athletes. That’s right, work-life balance is good for now and later! This may in part be due a sense of balance in life and a sense of security from preparing for the future (3). Interestingly, a recent study showed only 31.9% of elite Olympic athletes decide to follow the ‘sport only’ career path (2). A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League suggested that club culture supporting whole person development was associated with on-field performance rather than being irrelevant or even competing against performance (3).
In the work that we do in this areas we often use a made-up term called T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A.
T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. stands for ‘The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At.’ This essentially involves something outside of your chosen sport that provides you with:
A sense of reward
A purpose in life
Something to challenge and stimulate you
Something to develop skills and competencies for self-improvement
Activities to take your mind off training, practicing, playing or competing
In other words, T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. helps to provide that elusive ‘sport/life balance.’ We prefer this made-up label as it doesn’t imply it has to be obviously job related. For many of my sporting clients T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. has been a hobby. Or just trying to become a better father, brother or friend.
As the growing body of research shows, when T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. is defined by an athlete as an academic goal (such as completing a course of study) or as a vocational goal (such as working towards a long-term profession) there are significant rewards to be gained during their playing days and in the years that follow. What this research also shows, however, is that there are a range of barriers to successfully balancing sporting and non-sporting career progression. Chief of these is the issue of ineffective time management (2), along with a lack of understanding or support for dual career development at the family, club or organisational level (4).
With the above in mind it should come as no surprise that time management is organically woven into all the consulting that we do at Condor Performance. By this I mean it would be difficult to imagine us working 1-on-1 with an athlete over an extended period of time without us examining their schedule in detail. Often serious psychological challenges can be overcome by simply looking at what you do and don’t do on a weekly basis. Or by considering the quality of your time as a seperate concept to the quantity.
Would you like some help with your work-life balance? If you would like some professional assistance on anything raised in this article please reach out to us via one of the following ways:
Send a regular old email to firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure to include lots of background infomation. For example, your age, your sport, your location, your goals and your challenges.
Tshube, T. & Feltz, D.L. (2015). The relationship between dual-career and post-sport career transition among elite athletes in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 109-114.
Pink, M., Saunders, J. & Stynes, J. (2015). Reconciling the maintenance of on-field success with off-field player development: A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 98-108.
This blog has some of the best sport psychology quotes. It’s a smörgåsbord of quotes from coaches, athletes and psychologists.
The right kind of quotes punch well above their weight. In other words for such short sentences they can really make us think. The challenge is picking through them all to seperate the good ones from the well-intended garbage. So we have decided to put on the plastic gloves and do this for you. Below are some of our favourite sport psychology quotes. As you’ll see it’s a smörgåsbord of quotes from coaches, athletes and psychologists. Furthermore, we have unpacked each quote a little. Essentially, providing a quick explanation about why it has been included in this ‘best sport psychology quotes’ blog.
If you would like us to add your favourite sport psychology quotes paste them into the comments section below. Enjoy and please share with your networks. You have our full permission to copy and paste any of these to inspire or motivate or whatever.
This is a quote for the ages by one of the greatest [ice] hockey players of all time. It allows us to reflect about the risk and reward of taking chances. Mentally, many athletes prefer to play it safe when under pressure. To pass the ball or puck to a teammate instead of taking the shot. Players like Gretzky become great due mainly to their mental and tactical excellence at a time when it was not common for athletes to work on these areas.
“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
This quote is less well known but is no less inspiring. It correctly suggests that trying to feel more confidence without reason is limiting. At Condor Performance we sometimes say to our clients ‘competence before confidence’. What we mean by this is the best way to feel more confidence is by actually improving your skills and abilities. And the best way to do this is via the right quantity of high quality preparation.
“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside of them; a desire, a dream, a vision“
This great quote gives us a possible sneak peak into why UB was one of the greatest of all time. He worked very hard in practice. He then relaxed (or tried to at least) on race day allowing that Time, Effort, Sacrifice, and Sweat to just bubble to the surface.
“I was forced to learn a lot about psychology as a player, and as a captain to get the best out of others. There’s still a lot of scepticism about it in sport and the workplace, but dealing with fluctuations of form, and pressure, and being away from home are more important than your cover-drive.”
This quote is not one that we had not come across before until researching for this blog. Coming from one of the great thinkers of English cricket. It accurately explains that technical abilities (such as hitting a cover drive) don’t mean much without the mental side. Our coaching model Metuf explains this via the use of an analogy of an aeroplane.
“Preparation is everything, focus is the key. It’s easy to say you gave it your all out on the pitch, but the point is if you’d prepared you’d have had more to give and you’ve have played better”.
This is such a great point from the Manchester united legend. What it sounds like he’s saying is there is only so much you can do on match day. Performers who take short cuts in training hoping to “bring it” on match day are likely to be found wanting.
This quote was originally linked with Samuel Goldwyn but later popularised by Gary Player. What he/they are saying is actually 100% accurate. If luck is the random stuff in sport we have no influence over then we can reduce the role this plays in terms of results by ensuring high quality effort. You can read more on the psychology of luck in sport here.
“I got more bruises, grass-burns and cuts in practice than in match play.”
There is an argument that the whole concept of talent is a bit of a myth. Essentially, when people refer to talent they are basically meaning genetics. In other words one of the few factor of performance that we have no influence on at all. We will be writing a full blog post on this shortly, when done you will see the link here.
The Michael Jordan Section:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 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 and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
This is arguably one of the best sport psychology quotes of all time. It helps us to understand that performances at all levels and all types are full of errors. Knowing that processes (effort) and outcomes (results such as winning) are seperate are key here. And as performers knowing we have a lot more influence over the former also helps.
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
Against Jordan is showing us that it was his mindset that made him so special. Being able to distinguish between effort (“trying”) and results (“failure”) is so very important. Once way to do this is forget about being able to control anything. Instead consider the amount of influence you have. The more influence the more mental value you might to put on those areas.
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”
Actions and desires are not as linked as you might think. In the work we do as sport psychologists and performance psychologists we don’t do as much work on thoughts and emotions as you might imagine. Why? At the end of the day, especially in sport, it’s all comes back to actions. Would you rather kick the ball in the right way whilst thinking negatively or kick it incorrectly whilst thinking positively?
“The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether its proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”
As knowledge of sport psychology and sport science explodes we are at great risk of getting away from the fundamentals. In other words it is becoming harder and harder for athletes to stick to the basics. The great coaches can have it both ways. Their sport psychology knowledge can grow without letting this overcomplicate their coaching. Do you know what your fundamentals are?
Sport Psychology Quotes By Coaches
“It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that really counts”
John Wooden is considered by many as the first real mental coach in sport. He was either the first or one of the first to really take the mental side of performance seriously. In this sport psychology quote he highlights the importance of never ending learning.
“Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We”
This quote is more or less about the concept of flow. Flow is basically trying to find the sweet-spot between too easy and too hard. As coaches or psychologists we’re trying to help those we work with to not only find this middle ground. But we also want them to have the skills to thrive once they find it.
Sport Psychology Quotes By Famous People
“Don’t wait until everything is just right. It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles, and less than perfect conditions. So what? Get started now. With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident, and more and more successful.”
Perfectionism is a common mental block in sport and performance. You can have some of the motivational qualities of it without the ugly side with a simple reframe. Instead of striving to be perfect aim to just be better. And do this through the right quantity of high quality preparation. This quote is similar to a bunch that are related to ‘great being the enemy of good’.
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
You might be starting to sense a theme from some of these great quotes now. Doing and thinking are not the same. Focus more on the doing and less on the thinking. Would you rather be the best thinker of doer in your sport or performance area?
“Confidence is a habit that can be developed by acting as if you already had the confidence you desire to have.”
Have you ever heard ‘fake it til you make it’? Maybe a better version for sport psychology consulting is ‘fake it til you feel it’. This is so powerful. Waiting until you feel a certain way before you act that way is so very limiting. If you don’t know how then hire an acting coach and ask for them to help you. Or get in touch with us and we can include this as part of a larger mental training plan.
“Successful people have fear, successful people have doubts, and successful people have worries. They just don’t let these feelings stop them.”
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
This is such a great quote. In sport, worrying about what others (teammates, coaches) think of you is so common. Yet, it happens so much less than we realise. Furthermore, this has been confirmed via a number of lab experiments.
Sport Psychology Quotes By Psychologists
“Multitasking is seriously overrated. Try to do one task at a time and learn to do it with more intentionality”
From Gareth himself: I could write a whole book on this subject. Maybe I will one day! By multitasking I are not referring to doing more than one thing at a time. After all breathing is doing. It’s about trying to complete more than one non-automatic task at a time. For example, eating your lunch and typing an email. In my view these kinds of tasks are always best of being done separately. There are many reasons but the main one is this kind of multitasking means the quality of both tasks is compromised.
“They don’t hand out winners medals for those who were feeling the best”.
From Gareth himself: I am not sure if I can claim this or not. If it’s not something that popped into my head then I am not sure where is comes from. The full version is something like this. ‘They don’t hand out winners medals for those who were feeling the best. Nor do they for those who were thinking a certain way. They only give winners medals to those who did the best. Ran or swam the fastest. Jumped the highest or furthest. Threw the longest. Scores the most goals. Shot the most.
“We have this thing in our mind of I gotta feel perfect, calm and confident and THEN I’ll perform well. Mate, if that’s the case you’re going to perform well a very, very small portion of the time”
This quote is taken from the first few seconds of Peter Clarke’s interview on the podcast Under The Lid with Scolls, Buck & Burkey. Once again it points out that we don’t need to be feeling a certain way in order to execute our motor skills under pressure. And in fact waiting to feel that way will limit the number of chances you give ourselves.
“Listen to everyone because even an idiot will have a good idea once or twice in their life. Then evaluate and pick out what works for you and commit to it.”
Our own James Kneller reminds us about the importance of listening. In sport we so often talk about the importance of experience. Well that experience is comprised if you’re always listening to the same people over and over again.
Sport Psychology Quotes By Unknowns
“You are NOT your thoughts.”
This quote might not even qualify as a quote. Maybe it’s just a fact. And certainly in the work we do as sport and performance psychologists it’s a fact worth remembering.
If you have a great sport psychology quote you know of that is not shown above please copy and paste it below. Once we verify it we’ll consider adding it to the correct sections above.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses about where sport psychology is headed and guesses what the field will look like in 2050.
Back From The Future
Ok readers, I borrowed the Delorean and just got back from the year 2050. And you will not believe what I saw. Doncaster Rovers F.C. win the English Premier League for the second year in a row. And sport psychology is nothing like it is in 2020. It’s mainstream, it’s normal and it is regarded as the most important part of competitive sports.
I am of course kidding (wish I wasn’t). And in case some of you missed the Delorean reference let me context you. In 1989 the writers and producers of the classic movie Back To The Future 2 made some predictions about what life would be like in 2015. Marty McFly (pictured above) then went into the future in a Delorean time machine (also pictured above).
This Vanity Fair article actually shows how accurate some of these educated guesses turned out to be. Forecasting the future is one of the most remarkable aspects of being human. No other species can do it quite like we can. But it’s both a blessing and a curse. The upside is our ability to plan and things three moves ahead of our opponent. The downside is wasting mental energy such as “I just know I am going to play poorly tomorrow”.
Sport Psychology In 2050?
During a number of interviews between UK sport psychologist Dan Abrahams and his guests on the highly recommended The Sport Psych Show he asked them to imagine using a time machine to go back in time. I thought it might be fun and thought provoking to use it to go into the future instead!
In this article I will predict what the sport psychology landscape will look like thirty years from now. Just like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (creators of the Back To The Future Trilogy) I will make some educated guesses. Feel free to save a copy and then get in touch in 2050. Let me know how accurate or inaccurate they turn out to be. I will not, in this article, focus on the problematic aspects of future-based thinking. But I will say this. We now know that one of the key aspects of sporting mental toughness is being able to focus at will on the present moment. In others words there are many occasions in a competitive sporting situation in which we literally want to ‘turn off’ our ability to think about the future. More on this during another article (which when written I will link here).
3 Majors Changes To Sport Psychology Are Coming
I hypothesise three major changes in the coming decades to dramatically change what sport psychology looks like. I predict that by the middle of this century the following will be taking place or have happened already.
The phasing out of generic (non-sport specific) sport psychology.
The phasing in of much greater checks about qualifications (or lack of).
A spike in sporting coaches working 1-on-1 with sport psychologists / performance psychologists. And the first few head coaches who are in fact sport psychologists themselves.
I will now go into more detail about each of the above.
Phasing Out of Generic Sport Psychology
By the end of this decade it will be universally accepted that the ‘interventions’ used to help someone with clinical depression are different from ‘the mental tools’ used to motivate a mentally well athlete whose training enthusiasm has dropped. (For those of you who are reading this who think this has already happened trust me it hasn’t. But we are getting there).
This move towards more specificity will then continue past 2030, More and more will accept that snooker and boxing are too different to be aided with the same psychological tools. There are so many sports now and we can’t pretend they all have the same mental requirements and therefore solutions.
Let’s Consider A Couple Of Key Questions
How much do the general strategies used by most (non-sport) psychologists apply to athletes and coaches who are trying to improve the mental aspects of their performance or coaching abilities?
How ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another? Or even from one specific sport to a different sport?
When trying to answer the first question we need to be a little careful not to imply that all psychologists use the same models. But there are some well established models which are likely to be more prevalent than others. That is for sure. So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘about one third’ (see below for more on this).
For example, if the athlete is functionally well (without a recognised mental illness) then at Condor Performance we would not focus significant attention on a long and detailed history of the client’s mental health and wellbeing. We would most likely measure it via the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale every couple of months just to keep an eye on it. But the majority of the sport psychology sessions would be related to the mental aspects of the client’s sport.
This is not to say that some of the mental methods we often use from the get-go don’t have clinical origins. But the final versions which are presented to our clients would be largely unrecognisable to our non-performance focussed colleagues.
A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting. When we help our clients set goals we often introduce a level of accountability to these targets that some mental health practitioners might find objectionable. But from our standpoint, this level of accountability is a key ingredient in helping them get to the next level. If it is confronting for the client (‘you committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, what happened?’) then we will use that to further the discusses by asking lots of ‘why’ questions. A practitioner with more of a mental health angle might default to just making the client feel better about this type of non-compliance. (‘You committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, totally understandable given the current challenges’).
Another example might be mindfulness. Mindfulness looks rather different when you are doing some at home with few outside distractions to the version you might use on the golf course, for example. And the version you might use on the golf course is hopefully only partially the same as what a competitive tennis player might adopt.
So, how ‘transferable’ are mental skills from one performance area to another? Or even from one specific sport to another? In answering this question I often like to use the rule of thirds. Roughly a third of the mental ideas are due to generic sport psychology principles. Another third wants to acknowledge that although Olympic bob-sleighing and Clay Target Shooting are both sports they are bloody different pursuits. And the final third is further adapting the mental training program to that individual. To that person’s personality and learning styles.
In other words, the sports psychology services that we’d deliver to a competitive pro golfer with a drinking problem and a rugby league coach looking to improve their coaching abilities might only have a crossover of about 15 to 20%. One of the commonalities between these very different hypothetical client might be using some key aspects from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For example, educational processes around “we are not our thoughts” might be useful for both of them. I have found a Behaviour First (only) approach to be universally beneficial in my sport psychology work regardless of who I am sitting in front of.
Some Sports Are Mentally Very Similar
Although I predict a phasing out of generic sport psychology we need to remember some sports are psychologically very similar. When you put the technical and tactical aspects to one side the same kinds of mental tools should work just as well for certain sports. Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do around Short Performance Routines to aid with concentration and execution under pressure. In helping a golfer create or improve his or her Pre Shot Routine(s) the principles will be almost identical in working a snooker player on their PSR.
Greater Checks about Qualifications
This is how I think it will work in 2050. If you want to charge a fee for advice on X then you need some kind of approved qualification in X. No exceptions. So if you want to be a personal trainer that goes to people’s houses and gives fitness advice in exchange for a fee you’ll need to genuinely qualified. I gather the whole physical conditioning industry is trying to make this happen at the moment.
Psychology in sport is years behind our S&C friends and co-workers but we will catch up. Over the next 30 years there will be a gradual phasing out of entities charging a fee for psychological advice (even if they call it something else) who doesn’t have some kind of approved training in psychology. This is a very difficult area and I suspect that more than a few tears will be shed along the way. The hardest part will be to get everyone to agree on what ‘approved training in psychology’ is. And then afterwards educating the public in such a way to reduce assumptions that Mindset Coach and a Sport Psychologist are one and the same.
More Coaches Working 1-on-1 With Sport Psychologists
This has already started to happen. In 2005 I worked with no sporting coaches. In 2020 roughly a third of all my monthly clients are coaches. The premise is this. Coaching education programs the world over are lacking in highly effective mental toughness training elements. We could try and improve all of these coach ed programs or even ask the coaches to do ‘approved training in psychology’ but there is an easier and better way. All sporting coaches, especially at the elite level, will be working behind the scenes with a genuine expert in sporting mental toughness.
This coach-sport psychologist collaboration will eventually result in sport psychologists taking up positions as assistant coaches and then eventually getting the ‘top job’ themselves. When this happens, and these professionals are successful and they stick with the title sport psychologist over Head Coach or Manager whilst in the top job, we can say we’re made it.
If you are a sporting coach and would like to get ahead of the curve then start by completing this questionnaire. This questionnaire will assess, amongst other factors, your current mental coaching abilities. You will then be contacted by one of our team within a day or two.
How much does luck play a role in sport? Mentally, how do you deal with good and bad luck? Gareth looks at the psychology of luck in sport.
“The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get”
Luck in sport! I recently rewatched the 2006 Woody Allen movie ‘Match Point’. The film starts with slow motion footage of a tennis ball hitting the net and then going straight up. The voice over says ‘there are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win.’
During the days after I watched the film two of my sporting clients mentioned luck during the our Zoom sessions. One spoke about ‘good luck’ and the other about ‘rotten, filthy luck’. One even asked me ‘mentally, how should I deal with luck?’ The question came at the end of the session which luckily allowed me to do a little reading up before replying via email the following day.
First of all I wanted to consider the question of what exactly is luck. More specifically what is it in the context of competitive sport. And is there a healthy way to interpret what luck really is from a mental toughness point of view?
Before we go through some common examples let’s try to define luck in sports as a generic concept. Luck would appear to be the word most commonly used to describe the variances in outcomes most impacted by chance. Lexico define luck (the noun) as ‘success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions’. For sport I would adapt this to something like the following. Luck (the noun) is ‘success or failure apparently brought more by chance than than through one’s own actions’.
So some sports have a greater luck component than others then? And indeed this is the case. The below video shows the results from Michael Mauboussin’s research on this very question.
Examples of Luck In Sport
There are too many sports and too many examples to choose from to do any justice to the section. So I will simply go through three scenarios that I have found quite common in my work as a sport psychologist.
Let’s go back to the footage that was used at the beginning of the movie Match Point. But let’s make it more specific. You are a tennis player who is serving to stay in match that is of great importance to you. Having lost the first point of the game the second point turns into a slugfest from the baseline. An attempted cross court winner from you results in the ball smashing into the top of the net where it bounces right up. It then drops down millimetres onto your opponents side of the net. You win this point and the game. You then go on to win the set as well as the match.
You are a young baseballer who decided to specialise as a pitcher early on. You live for your fastballs and your curveballs. When you finally make it onto your Division One college squad you realise that this particular team has a much better pool of pitchers than batters and fielders. It feels like rotten luck that your place in the team will probably depend on others either getting injured or under performing in the upcoming season. Dirty, rotten luck.
You are a cricketer who picked up a significant ankle injury just before the coronavirus turned into an official pandemic. In normal years this injury would have resulted in you missing the first ten games of the season. However due to measures introduced to contain the virus you were able to complete a full rehabilitation program during lockdown. This resulted in you missing no games at all. The coronavirus turned out to be a very lucky break for you.
Spectrum of Influence
There are many ways that we can try and see the role that luck plays, not just in sport but in everyday life. But I have a favourite, a preferred way. For those of you who have seen the thought shaping module from any of the recent Metuf programs you will be aware that one of the “mentools” we use is all about influence. Basically, how much influence do you have on various different aspects of your sport? This involves two tricky considerations. First you have to be able to mentally separate things that don’t normally get separated. For example, the rain and putting up an umbrella or someone shouting at you and you walking the other way.
The art of mental separation is a vital pre-requisite in being able to manage Lady Luck in the most effective way. The second skill is knowing what aspects of training and competing you have lots of influence on and which you have little or no influence on.
Try It Now …
Go back and read through the three examples above once again. This time pick out which aspects are contributing to the good and bad luck scenarios. Now try and mentally seperate these from one another. And finally, put them into order from most influenceable to least. In doing this does it change the way you look at the situation in you mind’s eye? Let’s go through them together.
Example 1: The tennis ball hitting the top of the net.
So the main elements involved in this are:
the player (me)
the winner of the point (also me)
For the sake of simplicity let’s assume weather played no part at all. No breeze helped push the ball the right side of the net. In order of most influence to least I would suggest the following:
me ~ most influence
the result of the point
the net ~ least influence
So you could say I have a lot of influence over my shot (intended shot) and none over the net (the height, what it’s made of etc). With this in mind there is a strong argument that your mindset wants to be more orientated towards the yourself. In other words instead of thinking you won that point because of luck of a net consider the amount of power you managed to get on the ball that still allowed it to make it over – albeit by the smallest of margins. Maybe a better mental response in the moment is a change of game plan that would allow you to hit less shots so close to the top of the net.
Example 2: The baseball pitcher who is completing against other excellent pitchers for the first time.
In this vignette, the issue is mentally joining (fusing) the desired outcome (to be one of the starting pitchers) with the abilities of others and the decisions of the coach. Teammates, other baseballers and coaches are just other people. How much influence do you have on them? None, a little, some or lots? I would lean towards some for those you are close to and only a little for the rest. Although I can totally understand why the abilities of teammates can be perceived as a threat (bad luck) the data actually suggests it will have the opposite effect.
In others words, as you will have to work harder (lots of influence) due to the healthy competition it will likely make you even better. So it might easily be said that the above example (#2) is actually a good luck scenario rather than a bad luck one. Regardless, the best mental responses will always be similar. Direct your limited mental energy towards the “stuff” you have a lot of influence on. Elements such as your own effort, your own plans and your own actions. Don’t get too caught up in the abilities of others.
Example 3: The cricketers who got lucky due to Corona Virus.
This is the trickiest vignette as it seems the most innocent. But there is a mental gremlin hiding. Can you find it? Go back and read it and ask yourself what it the danger of this situation?
As a practising sport psychologist I can see the issue from a mile away. The player in the example is potentially giving too much credit to this once in a lifetime (we hope) pandemic. In fact the majority of the credit wants to go to how the player responded to the setback. This is different (mentally seperate) from the setback itself of course.
You can imagine, depending how how luck or chance is perceived two very different statements from this cricketer at the end of the season.
“I got really lucky you know. The virus gave me an extra ten weeks of rehab. In fact, due mainly to the pandemic I didn’t miss a match in the 2020 season.”
“At the start of 2020 I picked up ankle injury. As soon as I had my rehab program I was determined to stick to it no matter what. In the end I managed to actually regain full fitness by the start of the season. Oh, and the season started late that year from what I remember.”
Luck in sport and/or life is probably best thought of like the weather. Yes, it varies. Sometimes it will help and sometimes it will make things harder. Just get on with it.
Want Some Help With That?
If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.
Emotional Intelligence. Can we control our emotions? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole takes a deep dive into the topic of emotions.
Sport psychology and its big sister performance psychology are minefields when it comes to terminology. What I mean by this is that related terms gets thrown around often and easily. Some of these words are more common than others. For example, ‘mental toughness’ and ’emotional intelligence’ are used and misused more frequently than ‘team unity’ and ‘flow’.
Those of you who are familiar with Condor Performance (the psychologists) and Metuf (the model) will likely know that for a long time we have tried hard to define such terms. For example, for us mental toughness is an umbrella terms that pertains to the “Big Five” aspects of the mental side of sport / performance. In fact, the word Metuf is an acronym for motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. And of course, mental toughness is not to be confused with the other ‘
But what about the “Big Five” terms themselves. When we use the words emotional intelligence for example are we all in agreement about exactly what we are talking about? Not in my experience, not even close. In fact, I find emotions and related discussions to be the most confusing, and risky, of all the sport psychology concepts.
Some Recent Examples
Let me use an example to explain. Recently on social media I saw a screenshot of a presentation that contained the words “controlling their emotions under pressure”. It was a bullet point next to the words composure, one of “six keys to being resilient” (according to the slide). I added this comment “It is not possible to control emotions, only influence them. It is psychologically dangerous to imply you can”. I will not go into detail about the back and forth that took place after this initial comment except to say this. It would be very useful if there was a censuses on how emotions work and what we mean by emotional intelligence.
With that I will give my professional opinion and expand on my “it is not possible to control emotions” comment. As an applied sport psychologist it’s not really my job to prove that the below is correct, or scientifically robust. Having said that, at Condor Performance, we do collect a huge amount of internal data as part of our mission to be constantly improving. Some academics might argue that because our data is not converted into scientific articles and then submitted for peer review that it is meaningless. I will save my counterargument to that assertion for another time / blog.
Our Guide to Emotional Intelligence
First and foremost we want to agree on what emotions are. They are feelings. Many of these feelings are enjoyable like joy and excitement. Many are not that fun such as fear, nerves and frustration. Then there is the feeling of not feeling anything at all – often called apathy. Some recent studies suggest there are 27 main emotions that most humans experience. This “feels” about right. Especially if you remove the ones that sounds like emotions but are actually thoughts (like worry, for example).
In browsing the list of these 27 emotions I have picked eight as very common for athletes, coaches and other performers:
With these in mind we turn our attention to the question what is your relationship (as a person) to these and other feelings? Is it useful to find the cause of your excitement (for example) so you can replicate it at will? Are strong feelings of anxiety and fear bad – to be stopped like some kind of emotional disease? Do we control our emotions or do they control us or neither of these?
This Is How I Explain It To My Clients
Emotions are just part of the human experience. Internal feelings are one of seven sources of information (stimulus) available to most of us most of the time. The others are sight, sounds, smell, thoughts, touch and taste. All of these groups of stimuli vary in terms of their pleasantness. For example, drinking fresh and sour milk activate different taste buds but both are taste sensations nonetheless. You can apply the same to all seven. We experience fear and excitement very differently but both are emotions, nothing more, nothing less.
The first and most important part of being emotionally intelligent is just becoming better at noticing and experiencing different emotions. Yes, both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones. There are many ways to go about this but there are a couple of rules to ensure it’s helping. Don’t try and change the emotion directly. Wether it be via mindfulness, meditation or moonwalking your task is to “increase your awareness of your feelings with decreased judgment”. I often like to do this by going through all the senses so that there is no real difference between the internal two and the external five. Here is a link to 16 minutes “Really Simple Mindfulness” audio recording we created recently in case you want a helping hand.
Technology – Friend or Foe?
You can certainly use one of the myriad of Apps as well (too many now to list) but remember this. Mindfulness, like exercise, shouldn’t cost you anything. You do not need a gym membership to improve your cardio fitness. You don’t need to pay for the Premium version of an App in order to do mindfulness. Even our “Really Simple Mindfulness” audio recording above is only really designed as ‘training wheels’ until you get the hang of it by yourself.
So becoming better at observing your emotions is the first part of emotional intelligence. But it’s not the only part.
The second part is about realising that although you can never control your emotions you can sometimes influence them. And that choosing to do this might assist with what you’re trying to do (achieve etc).
For example, you might decide that you would like to feel as calm as possible before competitions (exams, performances etc). In your attempt to influence this (NOT CONTROL) you might design a Pre Competition Routine that is full of tasks they YOU find relaxing. With practice (repetition) the likelihood of you feeling calm the hour before kick off or tee off will increase. But real emotional intelligence comes with knowing that there will never be a guarantee (synonym for control) that you will in fact feel calm and relaxed.
Don’t Try And Change Emotions Directly – Ever
And not even here you are not trying to change your emotions directly. If you relaxation tasks are actions (preferable) then you’re really influencing your preferred pre game actions and hoping they make you feel calm. This is very different from trying to calm yourself down.
How do we deal with this? We just notice these unexpected feelings alongside all the other sights, sounds and thoughts of the situation. Which if you’ve been doing this on a daily or weekly basis (see above) as part of your training will be child’s play.
For those of you who stumbled across this article in search of an applied definition of emotion intelligence then copy and paste this.
“Emotional intelligence is the ability observe and label your own human emotions and to know when and how to influence them”.
Gareth J. Mole, Sport Psychologist @ Condor Performance
Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.
The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.
The skills are the outcomes not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.
When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side (engine) it’s quite easy to seperate the outcomes (ability) with the processes (how).
Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. If I compare myself with Leonel Messi you’ll see what I mean. Messi’s ability to dribble the ball is far better than mine. He has far better skills in this technical aspect of soccer than I do. But we can’t say the same about the methods (processes) that each of us use (have used) to work on this skill.
Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.
But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling.
As I explain in this recent visualisation video I created imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. The can and should include physical skills, mental skills and tactical skills.
The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.
Let’s All Use The Correct Terms
If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of method that good practice coaches use to hone this particular skill.
How This Plays Out For Mental Skills
There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than the psychical and tactical engines. Second, it’s a much more recent participant at the performance enhancement top table.
At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.
Think of emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better.
So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.
They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).
The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side.
Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …
I could improve my flexibility by …
To improve my cardio fitness I could …
I could improve my upper body strength by …
In these three examples, the word in bold is the target – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end. For example:
I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.
One target with many physical methods.
Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (also known as mental toughness).
I could improve my motivation by …
To improve my handling of emotions I could …
I could improve my thoughts by …
To improve the unity of my team I could …
I could improve my focus by …
Not Quite So Easy Is It?
Remember motivation is the mental skill here. So the question is what processes might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation?
Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here. Crucially goal setting is just one of hundreds of ways to target motivations. Just in the same way that skipping is just one methods to improve fitness.
How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ and we recently created this free VSM audio file that anyone can download.
What about thoughts and thinking? I bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you? The best method in my professional opinion is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on common performance factors. For example, do you instinctively know that you have more influence on your effort than your sporting results?
How about the mental skill of Team Unity? I would suggest doing some research into someone called the 10 R’s for more on this one.
Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? In my career so far as a sport psychologist I have had huge success in helping my clients improve their focus with the use of routines.
If you’d like to develop these ideas further then there a couple of options. First, you can reach out to us and ask about the process to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport / performance psychologists. Our hourly rate varies a little depending on location and monthly option but is roughly AUS$ 200 (US$ 150) and hour. If this is beyond your budget then consider doing one of our online Mental Toughness courses instead.
Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health issues compared with the general pollution? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole addresses this and other related questions.
As this previous article suggests at Condor Performance we consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.
Mental Health is ‘the condition of the mind’ as it relates to the individual and their ability to function. Genuine mental health issues will most likely have an impact across a number of aspects of the sufferer’s life.
So the severity of the mental illness is related to how they function as a person interacting with their society. If this person is an elite athlete then of course it might impact on their performances. However, it’s likely to hinder them in a number of other areas as well. By way of an example let’s consider a competitive athlete who has clinical depression. This serious mental challenge may well decrease their motivation to train in their chosen sport. But if it’s a genuine Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) then their motivation will be down across most (all) areas of their life not just their sporting commitments.
The most extreme cases result in the sufferer being institutionalised. For example, having to spend time in either a hospital or prison.
Sporting Mental Toughness, on the other hand, doesn’t work like that. It’s much more likely to be confined to performance aspects only. Let’s use the example of a team sport such as volleyball. One of the subcategories of Sporting Mental Toughness (SMT) is Unity (cohesion, group dynamics, culture). It’s very possible that the lack of team unity experienced by a volleyball team has no adverse affects away from training and games.
Mental Issues Common In Sport
If you’re looking for some cold, hard facts about mental health issues common in sport I have added a couple of articles to the bottom of this article. But this is how I see it. Athletes are human too so as humans they are susceptible to all the normal psychological risks of the general population. However, the world in which they find themselves might increase the chances of facing certain mental issues.
One great example is stress. Eloquently described in the below TEDx video by volleyballer Victoria Garrick. High performance circles are breeding grounds for stress. This is especially true for those involved in low or non-paying sports. The demands of training and competing on top of a job and/or study can be really stressful.
There are some excellent questions being debated at the moment around all of this. One is ‘surely everyone would want to be mentally tougher not just performers?’ Not really. First, building genuine mental toughness is very hard. So, although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.
Think of it as being similar to physical health and physical strength. Everyone could try and work towards being able to lift 150 kgs but how useful is it for most of us? Where is the ‘return on investment’? Maybe using the equivalent training time to practice mindfulness would be more sensible. But if you are a weight lifter, rugby player, bodyguard or defensive tackle – for example – then developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas. If you’re a librarian on the other hand, not so much. No disrespect to librarians intended. I am sure many librarians are elite performers in their field. But upper body strength is not that beneficial in pursuing librarian excellence.
Developing Mental Toughness works the same. Although everybody would probably be happy to process extraordinarily levels of focus (for example) is it worth investing the time required to get there if you’re never really going to need it?
Some recent publications have asked the question ‘Are Mental Toughness and Mental Health Contradictory Concepts in Elite Sport?’. In other words, do increasing levels of mental toughness have a negative impact on mental health? My contribution to this discussion would be as followers.
No, unless the individual is mentally ill and chooses to only improve their mental toughness. This is like the weightlifter ignoring their broken wrist and continuing to benchpress anyway.
What Does The Data Tell Us?
Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental issues compared with the general pollution? Luckily, work has been done to answer this question. As mentioned in this excellent article by Joshua Sebbens, Peter Hassmén, Dimity Crisp and Kate Wensley “A study of elite athletes in Australia reported almost half were experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, and the proportion meeting caseness cutoffs for mental illness were deemed comparable to community data (Gulliver et al., 2015). More broadly, Rice et al. (2016) conducted a systematic narrative review and also suggested the prevalence of mental illness in elite athletes was comparable to the general population”.
Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same nor is one a “part” of the other.
Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not opposites whereby when one improves the other goes down and vice versa.
Keeping an eye on mental health needs to be part of all sporting programs.
Improving mental health has a direct benefit to performance.
Free mental health advice should come from anyone. Paid mental health advice should only come from those with recognised qualifications.
It’s Not Just About Problems
The Positive Psychology movement exists because many psychologists wanted to do more than just fix mental issues. Traditional psychotherapy tends to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and that’s it. It’s like leaving someone mid way through their journey.
Sport psychology and her focus mental toughness were, in many ways, the original positive psychologies.
Additional Reading Related To Mental Health Challenges for Athletes