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.
Okay, I’ll admit it. We’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, and stretch and reach tests to measure flexibility simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.
In fact, assessing Mental Toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt it. Instead, we simply asked a series of meaningful questions during the Kick Start Session.
But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business. So over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with. Namely their mental health and mental toughness. I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.
Measuring Mental Toughness Will Always Be An Estimation
Fact: There is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.
The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which rely 100% on opinions and/or observation.
With The Luxury Of Time …
With the luxury of time, the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client as well. This is often called 360 Degree feedback. Observing athletes or performers in real-life situations can be a very valuable extra when attempting to measure mental toughness and mental health.
Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions. Then imagine having this video footage of the outburst to use in a session. In our work, we typically only get this kind of data when working with highly paid professionals who are already being televised.
But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindful of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.
“What exactly are we trying to measure here?”. This is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. Our psychologists consider the main purpose of the questionnaires to be time savers. Instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client to find out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move on to ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process. We’re mainly interested in these four general areas:
Mental aspects of training
Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
Other important stuff like age, sport and long-term goals
Five Major Subcomponents of Mental Toughness
The open and closed questions then generate scores for various aspects of mental toughness and mental health. It looks something like this when we get the email from Qualtrics.
Overall Training Mental Toughness = 72 %
Overall Mental Health = 63 %
Breakdown of Your Current Mental Toughness:
YOUR SCORE OUT OF 20
YOUR SCORE OUT OF 21
This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, using the above made-up example. This athlete or performer clearly needs to prioritise how they manage their emotions during training as well as their everyday anxiety.
Mental Health is screened for due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of all our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!
I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires has become misleading. Why? Well, they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).
Four Free Mental Toughness Questionnaires
The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.
How impulsive are you? Is impulsivity something that if you were to work on, would have a direct benefit on your life or performance? When something happens to you, especially if it’s something that produces a lot of emotion, do you tend to react or respond?
Reacting and responding are slightly different from one another. One is impulsive the other isn’t. Can you guess which is which?
Reacting basically implies the resulting action was more automatic, less considered. In a nutshell, the brain was less involved. Responding on the other hand is suggestive of a much more considered action. One which was selected from a series of options. Due to this a response almost always takes longer than a reaction. In some cases much longer. Reactions are more impulsive, responses are less impulsive.
Impulsivity Can Be Useful … Sometimes!
It would be tempting to say that due to the above that responses are better than reactions. But this is not the case. Reactions serve a really important purpose in threatening or dangerous situations. Think about the benefit of your hand pulling away from a scolding hot object without you having to think about it. The speed of this reaction will, in many situations, reduce the amount of burning that occurs. This same reflex action allows a motorsport driver to react so fast that they appear to pull off the grid at the same time the lights go green.
But what if you are so good at reacting that you always react? And what if some of these situations would benefit more from a response.
There are hundreds of examples where impulsivity can cause serious issues in competitive sports. Can’t think of any? Then take a look at this Bleacher Report blog of 25 of the most famous brain explosions in recent memory.
Think about the tennis player who can’t help but throw their racquet or abuse the umpire. How about the cricketer who is so upset about a catch being dropped off her bowling that she berates her poor teammate right there and then. ‘I couldn’t help it, my emotions got the better of me’. Really? Is that actually possible? I know it certainly feels like it but to reduce unhelpful impulsivity we first need to believe that our emotions have less power over our actions than they do.
But I Couldn’t Help It!
Blaming our emotions as if they are some invading alien life force that makes us act in a certain way is both inaccurate and very unhelpful. Just because it feels like we have no other option doesn’t make that true.
One of the best ways to start reducing unhelpful impulsivity is to establish if the person who did the reacting was still happy with their actions well after the fact. Ideally at least one full day later. Was Serena Williams still pleased with how she reacted in the 2018 US Open final? If Will Smith was given the chance to go back in time would he still decide that slapping Chris Rock across the face at this year’s Oscars to be the right call? I can’t be sure as I have not asked them but I suspect both would love a do-over.
The reason why we want to establish this is to try and get an idea if the issue is really about impulsivity rather than morals and values. And you can imagine, someone who 24 hours after the fact still thinks that keying up someone’s car who parked poorly was the best choice of action in that situation would be better off focusing on their morals and values instead of their impulsivity.
Most of the time, certainly in the work we do, the athletes or performers who reacted poorly realise this soon afterwards. Sometimes just seconds afterwards. Their morals and values are sound, they just need help converting certain reactions into more considered responses.
Fortunately, there are some tried and tested processes that when taken seriously can do just this. Here are three to whet your appetite.
Process A: Mindfulness
Regular Mindfulness, if you have chosen the right kind, is in part designed to help to reduce the overall power of thoughts and feelings. As some readers and many of my clients may know the best definition I have ever come across for Mindfulness is “increased awareness of the present moment with decreased judgement”.
One of the reasons why Mindfulness, if done regularly, is so effective in reducing unhelpful impulsivity is because it helps with both of these at the same time. When your awareness goes up you are basically using the information-gathering part of your brain and this shuts down the reacting part. By decreasing judgment, we are less likely to think that the umpire is doing a bad job and more likely to think he’s just doing his job.
In recent years there has been an explosion of apps designed to help with Mindfulness but at the time of writing, my top suggestion would be Balance available on most smartphones. Feel free to use the comments section at the bottom of this blog to make other suggestions of Mindfulness apps you recommend or don’t and why.
Process B: Increase The Gap Between Stimulus And Response
This is not exactly the same as the above suggestion but is similar. The concept of there being a stimulus (for example, seeing someone take a parking spot you’d be indicating for) and then a gap and then the response was the brainchild of Viktor Frankl; the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and Holocaust survivor. This approach, which I have always found is most effective when combined with the below process asks us to come up with methods to a) make sure there is a gap and b) increase the duration of the gap.
Classics examples include counting backwards from 10 to 1 or taking two big belly breaths or, where appropriate writing down the emotions.
Process C: Lists
The final process designed to help improve this particular type of decision making is to work out ahead of time which types of situations are most likely to produce a response versus a reaction. For example, I am typically calm when behind the wheel of the car so I would not include any driving related scenarios in my lists. But to this day, despite what I do for a living, I still struggle to respond ideally when I witness most forms of prejudice (sexism, racism etc) so it makes sense for me to have these kinds of situations/stimuli on my lists.
You can have different lists for different areas where you might be unhelpfully impulsive. Even better, clarify what your best response and most damaging reaction might be for each. Sometimes the mantra RESPOND DON’T REACT is the best way to increase the gap.
Keen But Need A Hand?
If this article has motivated you to improve either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance but you feel like you’d benefit from an expert helping hand then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at email@example.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.
As the 24th edition of the Winter Olympics draws to a close we felt compelled to rush through this special edition of The Mental Toughness Digest on the theme of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports / Snow Sports.
As is the case with all previous additions where we focus on a particular sport we highly recommend that even if you’ve never even seen snow before that you make your way through the below article as you will be surprised at how many ideas might be applicable for your particular sport or performance area.
In the realm of Snow Sports, we see what can only be described as some of the most extreme, dangerous and downright fantastic sports of the modern era. From snowboarding and skiing, figure skating to luge and everything in between, Snow Sports athletes are the pros at defying gravity, making the ‘impossible’ look like a piece of cake and leaving us as spectators speechless.
Of course, with any sport comes a cocktail of physical and mental challenges. But in sports where sticking the landing is in some cases a matter of “life or extreme physical injury”, the mental barriers to performance are on a whole other level. On another note, some snow sports test a very broad range of physical capabilities under one event, requiring athletes to both master and be able to shift back and forth between contrasting physical skill sets.
In this article, we’ll explore three popular Snow Sports in detail, and explore their unique mental demands. I’ll also run you through how you might be able to overcome a few of these performance barriers through evidence-based mental skills, starting with an event that sits on the extreme end of the Snow Sports spectrum. My last article was on Figure Skating which you can read here which when combined with the below hopefully provides a reasonable conceptualisation of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports.
In addition to being one of the fastest sports on the planet, Skeleton is also considered the world’s first sliding sport. Riders travel at speeds of up to 130km/hour head-first on a small sled (known as a skeleton bobsled) with their face only centimetres off the ice. It is the job of the rider to steer using their entire body, which involves careful manoeuvring of the shoulders, legs and toes. It’s pretty obvious from the nature of this sport that the margin for error is extremely small, and fair to say that one wrong move could potentially result in disaster.
So in order to succeed in the Skeleton event, one must be able to execute precise movements whilst travelling at incredible speeds, and you could argue that in order to do this the rider needs to be completely focused and present. A lot of staying focused and present boils down to the athlete’s ability to manage their thoughts, in particular overthinking (e.g. planning, problem-solving) or what we might call “difficult” thoughts (e.g. thinking about the worst-case scenario, “what if” thinking). In terms of overcoming this mental barrier to performance, the first thing to acknowledge is that in any situation perceived as important or threatening our mind is always going to look for a way out of it. Our mind is likely to perceive travelling headfirst on ice at 130km/hour as extremely threatening, so you can imagine all the things it’ll try and say to us to talk us out of doing it.
“I can’t afford a single mistake?”
“What if I crash and all that hard work goes to waste?”
“This is too risky, I don’t want to be here?”.
So the question here is how do we go about changing this – how do we go about making our thinking more positive so that it doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do? Well if you read my previous article on thoughts you’d know by now that the answer to this is “we don’t, because we can’t.”
If you think that elite athletes are the experts at thinking positive, we’re here to tell you that’s not really the case. It’s likely that the minds of the most elite Skeleton athletes are also trying to talk them out of doing what they love to do. Why? Because they’re human, just like you. And as humans, we have very limited influence over the things our mind tells us purely due to the fact that there is always some biological reason or survival instinct at play. The most elite athletes in the world don’t necessarily think the most positively, they’re just masters at not letting what they think impact what they do. Our job as Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists is therefore not to change the way athletes think, but to change the relationship athletes have with their thoughts and minimise the power their thoughts have over their actions. Please note that this might not be the approach of other sport psychologists but is certainly the case for our current team.
Noticing Thoughts, Making Room For Them And Coming Back To The Here And Now
So how exactly do we reduce the power thoughts have over our actions? Or in terms of Skeleton, how do commit to the slide when everything in our mind is telling us not to? At Condor Performance we take a mindfulness approach to this question, starting with the simple practice of bringing awareness to our mind and the way it speaks to us. One of the ways we can practice this is through a skill known as The Noticing-Self. When we tap into our noticing-self we ultimately ‘take a step back and observe’ what we are thinking and feeling in that moment. But the key here is to try to do this without judgement. That is, once we notice what our mind is telling us, the aim isn’t to argue whether or not the thought is true, false, right, wrong, positive or negative. All we want to do is notice the presence of this thought. For example, “I notice my mind is asking me what will happen if I crash.”
Once we have noticed our thought(s) without judgment, the next step is to make room for these thoughts in the sporting experience. Basically, we need to accept that this is what our mind is telling us. Part of this is appreciating the fact that our mind can have a mind of its own, and is hardwired to talk us out of engaging in dangerous or threatening behaviour. If we can learn to accept the way our mind speaks to us and acknowledge that it’s coming from a place of protection, we then have the power to choose whether or not we want to listen to it. To choose whether or not to let it influence what we then do next.
Last but not least, it is our job to redirect our focus back to the present. After bringing awareness to and accepting our thoughts, it’s useful we bring our attention back to what we need to be doing at this moment, right here, right now. If the Skeleton rider is getting ready to start then try to notice where their hands, arms and legs are, and where do they need to be. Bring awareness to what can you see, smell, hear, taste and feel in that moment, and remind yourself of what processes you need to be thinking about. Mindful (deep) breathing or action-based cues (e.g. adjusting equipment) can be used here to aid us in bringing our focus back to the present.
On the topic of sliding events, I’ll now bring your attention to the 4-Person Bobsleigh, the fastest snow event with riders reaching speeds of up to 150km/hour. You can imagine it’d share some of the same mental challenges as Skeleton, but there is a whole other dynamic at play in this event. Throw in the fact that it’s you plus three other riders, and now you have the added pressure of not messing up because doing so doesn’t just affect you.
Unity in Bobsleigh
We can’t ignore the role cohesion plays in this sport. Team members have to work together to execute a seamless start (where they essentially run with the sled, jump in and sit down within only a few seconds) as well as the entire run itself despite the fact that most of the steering is done by the driver (the person in the front). What a lot of us don’t realise is that a lot of planning goes into preparing for a run. Teams will walk, slide, re-walk and re-slide, to familiarise themselves with the twists and turns of the course and plan the details of steering.
Sticking To The Processes
Again, for those of you who have read my previous article on Unity, you will know that team cohesion goes beyond having a shared vision. To increase the chances of success the team needs to be on the same page in terms of A) how they set expectations or ‘goals’ for their performances and B) the way they evaluate (judge) their performances afterwards. Part of creating a winning culture is placing less emphasis on ‘winning’ itself, and instead placing a higher emphasis on processes and how to increase the chances of getting those things right both at the individual and group level. In a sport like Bobsleigh where Team Unity is so integral to success, it is important for team members to acknowledge the amount of influence they have over the outcome (and how little this actually is). If we were to breakdown the amount each factor in the Bobsleigh event contributes to the outcome, it might look something like this:
The Team – 40%
The Sled – 20%
The Ice – 15%
The Course – 15%
So we’re talking about an event where teams have less than 50% influence over the outcome as a result of all the other external factors at play (the sled, the ice, the course). If we break that down to the individual level, each team member is likely to contribute to about 10% to the outcome. That’s not a whole lot.
Processes, on the other hand, are all the actions that are performed out there on the ice that increase the chances of achieving that desired outcome (e.g. starting sprint, getting seated, steering, etc). It’s important for teams to not only have a shared vision but to share an understanding of the importance of setting process-based goals and essentially leaving the results to take care of themselves.
Note: In an attempt to get this article out before the Winter Olympics is over and forgotten we did not have time to consult bobsled contacts/athletes or coaches on whether the above breakdown of influence is correct. So if you are involved in the sport at any level and would like to share your thoughts on the accuracy of these numbers please do so by using the comment section at the bottom of this article.
Moving away from the sliding sports and onto something a little bit different. The Biathlon event is both unique and incredibly fascinating; a combination of Cross Country Skiing and Rifle Shooting. The cross-country ski of up to 20km for men and 15km for women are interspersed with shooting ranges in which biathletes have 5 targets and 5 attempts, with time penalties added for missed shots. The very nature of the event in that athletes are required to shift back and forth between contrasting physical capabilities creates some pretty significant mental barriers to overcome, the most obvious being the need to go from one physical extreme to another with efficiency. More specifically, to be still enough in the shooting section coming off the back of intensive cross country skiing that’ll inevitably elevate the heart rate.
Replicating Competition Stressors at Training
Only through physical conditioning can we increase the rate at which our heart rate returns to resting after intensive physical activity, but other than this we don’t have a whole lot of influence over this kind of thing as it’s physiological. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t use mental hacks to increase the likelihood we’ll be able to cope with this stressor come competition day. In order to cope with the stressor of an elevated heart rate during a time where stillness is required for accuracy, we need to practice doing so under exact or similar conditions. Replicating the competition environment (e.g. shooting practice with an elevated heart rate) or increasing the difficulty of practice through other means (e.g. increasing the shooting range, reducing the shooting target at resting heart rate) are some of the ways athletes can train to be more comfortable with these physiological and psychological stressors.
One Common Challenge…The Snow Itself
But although these sports have a series of unique mental barriers that separate them from one another, there is one thing they all have in common that separates Snow from non-Snow sports. That is – access to the right conditions. Snow is typically seasonal, and therefore present for only a portion of the year – and that’s just in the places where it does snow. One of the biggest barriers to Snow Sports preparation is snow itself. Its relative unreliability and short-lived lifespan often produce a whole bunch of challenges that we hear back from athletes of these sports during sessions. So how do Snow Sports athletes train and prepare all year round, even in places where there is little to no access to the good stuff?
Organic Versus Synthetic Practice
The concepts of Organic and Synthetic Practice become particularly important here. When we talk about Organic Practice, we’re referring to training that takes place in competition form (or as close as possible). For Skeleton and Bobsleigh, this would be sliding a course, and for Biathlon this would be sprint skiing interspersed with shooting practice. Synthetic Practice on the other hand includes all the practice that takes place in a modified competition environment (e.g. smaller/larger game environments, smaller/larger teams, artificial rules that raise the margin for success), any drills that are aimed at specific competitive techniques or tactics or any other training that takes place outside of Organic Practice.
It’s quite common for Snow Sports athletes to train without snow, during the warmer months of the year or for some pretty much all year round (in places without much snow). Synthetic practice is therefore a huge part of their preparation as access to organic practice in some cases is very limited. A lot of this takes place in the form of strength and conditioning training targeted to the specific demands of the sport, track and fieldwork, and using non-snow equipment replicas to get as close to organic practice as possible (as seen in the below videos). The same rules apply to Mental Training as per Physical Training. In other words in the absence of the ability to work on mindset in an organic fashion – in winter conditions – rather than throwing up your hands in frustration and not bothering try and see how you might be able to replicate some of the mental demands away from the conditions. If you have no idea where to start, get in touch as we can help.
However, one of the greatest things about the world of Sport and Performance Psychology is the fact that in order to enhance performance, all you need is your mind. One way Snow Sports athletes can rehearse their competition-day processes is through Visualisation or ‘Mental Rehearsal’. This type of practice can take place in various forms (with equipment, without equipment, video-assisted or pure mental rehearsal), and it works through firing the same kinds of neurons that would fire if we were to physically perform those actions leading to practice effects. In other words, no snow is needed!
But We Are Here To Help If You Need A Hand
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Figure Skating Psychology is a free article by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito. Even if you’re not a Figure Skater, it’s worth a read.
Figure Skating Psychology; Definitions
Whenever the Winter Olympics come around one of my favourite events to watch is Figure Skating. Whether it’s the Singles, Pairs Skating or Ice Dance, I can’t help but be in awe as these athletes perform what can only be described as superhuman-level stunts. But as I watch in amazement I can’t help but wonder how many times they had to fail in training in order to be able to execute their routines so well under competition pressure.
Not only are the physical skills they perform on another planet (see picture above), but the mental toughness they would need to be able to master them and be able to perform them with “ease” on the world stage is off the charts.
Of course, they don’t perform these skills with ease – it just looks like that. But part of a Figure Skater’s job is to perform intensely detailed and complex movements with speed, precision and artistry, whilst making it look easy. During a routine, you’ll see Figure Skaters perform a series of jumps, lifts, throws, spins and footwork, all in an effort to demonstrate their level athleticism and artistry to the judges. But behind every “good” performance sits the numerous unseen falls, injuries (or near-injuries), and the countless times their mind would’ve told them to hang up the skates and pick an easier sport.
Mental Demands of Figure Skating
It’s clear that Figure Skaters, particularly those at the elite level, require a certain mindset. At the end of the day, we’re talking about a sport where one of the first things you learn is how to fall properly on the ice without breaking a bone or getting a finger sliced off! But with learning to fall comes needing to learn how to get back up – and not just in a physical sense. The best Figure Skaters in the world are masters of picking themselves back up psychologically.
They have the ability to “move on very quickly” from parts of the routine that did not go perfectly. It’s arguable that the ability to do this is what separates the good Skaters from the great ones. They know that a 6/10 “double axel” without showing any disappointment is better than a 7/10 with a drop in body language.
It’s important for Skaters to understand that what makes their sport so mentally challenging is the fact that our brain is hardwired for survival. As humans, our default cognitive response (the things our brains immediately crank out in response to a situation) is always going to be a protective one rather than a performance-based one. After falling and bruising our hip, it’s normal for our brain to tell us not to try that again. ‘What if next time you break your hip?’.
If our partner almost drops us during a lift, again, it makes sense for our brain to say to us “what if he drops me next time and I fall flat on my face?”
The moment we step outside our comfort zone, our brain’s default response is to tell us all the reasons we should step back inside it.
In a sport like Figure Skating where the threat of slips and falls are constantly looming, it’s inevitable that our brain is constantly going to be on the lookout for all the bad things that could possibly happen.
Committing To The Jump
When our default response is to go straight to the worst-case scenario, it becomes a lot harder for us to commit to doing what we need to do. However, Figure Skaters who struggle to overcome these unhelpful thoughts are in short giving their thoughts the power to do so. When we discuss the power of thoughts with a Skater, there are a few questions we might ask to get the ball rolling in the right direction:
Do we have the ability to think one thing and do another?
Do we have the capacity to do the opposite of what our brain is telling us to do?
Can I perform a jump while my brain cranks out all the reasons I shouldn’t do it?
Does the thought, “I’m scared because I might get hurt” physically stop my body from moving?
Does this thought, these words in my mind, physically stop my arm and legs from moving and doing what I want them to do?
To have the mental skills required for Figure Skating athletes need to become seriously good at committing to the movement, in spite of any difficult thoughts or feelings they have. We need to understand that our response to fear is unique (a combination of predisposed sensitivity to fear and learnt experiences), and will be different to the person sitting next to us. It’s important for Figure Skaters to learn to recognise their fear in order to learn to commit to their actions regardless of it.
At Condor Performance we work with Figure Skaters through a mostly ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) approach. This psychology framework allows performers to notice and accept this natural fear as being a normal part of the human condition. For Figure Skaters who values new challenges, improving their skills and pushing themselves beyond their limits, taking action guided by their values would be to commit to the jump despite feeling fearful and hearing their mind tell them “you have got to be kidding”.
Swerving the Subjective Nature of Skating
Another mental challenge for Figure Skaters is the way that scoring is subjective, so there may be a gap between a Skater’s own subjective view of their performance and the view of the judges. Because the goal of Figure Skating is to score the highest possible mark from the judges, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on outcomes and not enough on processes. For example, getting caught up in whether or not they’re going to land that jump, rather than visualising the processes involved in executing that jump (e.g. foot and arm positioning, speed and direction of their movement, height of the jump, etc.).
This can be problematic as outcomes are something we have very little influence over. At the end of the day, we might perform every single process involved in the jump correctly, but with the slightest shift in movement as we’re travelling in the air we don’t stick the landing. Unfortunately, we can’t make our way over to the scoreboard and change the scores ourselves either – when it comes to outcomes, we have no place. The only thing we can influence is what we do on the ice, and we can’t commit to landing the jump if we don’t commit to the processes first.
This All Sounds Great But I Need Some Help …
We know, some of the above sport psychology suggestions are “easier said than done”. So regardless of whether you yourself are actually a figure skater or simply another competitor who has cleverly invested some time in reading an article on another sport (we call this mental cross-training) if you feel like you’d benefit from some professional guidance then we’re here to help. Get in touch via one of the methods below, our response time is normally around 48 hours.
If you are part of a team (sporting or otherwise) and you’re not actively trying to improve the unity of the group then you’re missing a trick.
In the world of team sport, we often talk about team unity as playing a vital role in success. But how important is unity to sporting success and how do we go about developing it?
Creating a Winning Culture
Coaches often talk about creating a “Winning Culture” as the key to success in team sports. When we talk about a winning culture, we’re usually referring to a team environment that fosters the best outcomes (that is, “winning”). But if we were to pull apart the training environment of a team with consistent success what would this look like? You would likely see a group of individuals with shared values (despite varying individual values), working towards a common goal and supporting each other to flourish in their own individual roles. Teams that are well known for establishing a winning culture place an emphasis on characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, ability to take on feedback and having a positive influence on the people around them, and through these factors a sense of unity is easily established. Without unity, it is arguable that a team limits their opportunity to get the results they want, as the nature of the team sport ultimately requires individuals to work together towards a common goal.
Process Goals In Team Settings
In an effort to develop team unity, it is important firstly to separate outcome-based goals from process-based goals. Sure, working towards establishing a ‘winning culture’ sounds good and might motivate players (initially), but placing such a large focus on results doesn’t guide anyone on the team to work on the processes that contribute to those results. With every outcome goal, there need to be process goals to complement it. Of course, it’s only normal to think about what outcomes we want out of the season, but we want to place a larger amount of focus on how we plan to give ourselves the best chance of getting those results.
Because how many factors contribute to the end result of a game? You’ve got your team, the other team, the officials, the spectators, the weather – all of these factors in some way contribute to the end result of a game. Let’s say 40% of the outcome is determined by your team, 40% the other team, 10% the officials, 7% the weather and 3% the spectator’s presence. Winning is therefore something we have less than 50% influence or control over. So why spend so much time focusing your efforts on it?
Processes (the things we do to get those results) on the other hand are something we have a lot of influence over and are the things we should be encouraging team members to focus their efforts on. Players who are asked to work towards these kinds of goals often leave training feeling empowered because they’re focusing their efforts on things that are within their individual reach. Some process goals you might want to set for your team to increase your chances of getting that win, might include communicating in a compassionate way, showing support for team members through verbal (spoken words) or physical (handshake, pat on the back) signs of support, and being authentic, genuine and respectful in your interactions with others (through tone of voice, choice of words, body language and eye contact). These communication process goals are one way of increasing the chances your team will get the outcome they want.
Having a Shared Vision
Integral to team sport success is having a shared vision. This is often outlined by the leader (e.g. coach) and should include the details of his or her expectations, and the role each individual on the team will play. The perspectives of each member around what they value in a team setting should also be heard, including what they’d like others around them to be doing to promote their best performance. You as the coach might want to ask some questions to initiate a discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training to help produce the best results for the team. For example, “What do you want to accomplish this season, and what will it take for us to get there?”, or “What would you like others to be saying about us at the end of the season?”.
It will be important for you to lead this conversation to ensure the brainstormed goals are both attainable and within your team’s influence (or control). That is, they are process-focused. Winning might pop up in the conversation which is fair enough, considering sport is often result-based, but exploring what exactly this might look like could prompt some discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training by each team member to help achieve this outcome. For example, “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to have effective communication; what does this look like?”, or “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to create a positive environment at training so individuals can push themselves; how can we do this?”.
Understanding Your Role
The trickiest thing about working in a team setting is that you basically have a group of individuals with different experiences and roles trying to work together towards a common goal. In a team setting it is vital each member of the team understands their own ability, role, the expectations and limits of their role and that of the others around them. Team members need to be able to make judgements around when to rely on others and when to step up and perform, and without an understanding of these fundamentals you’ll have multiple individuals trying to perform the same role on the field or worse, no one jumping in to do anything at all.
It is also important for individual players to separate the team outcome from their individual roles to evaluate their own performance. For the team to progress individual players need to progress, so it is important for players to recognise any progress they have made, examine how they contributed to the team outcome and highlight areas that need to be improved on an individual level. For example, how was your footwork, passing and communication regardless of the fact that we won/lost the game? The team outcome is not a reliable indicator of their individual performance, so it is important for individuals to reflect on their own performance keeping in mind that there are many things outside of their influence that may have contributed to the outcome of the game.
Culture, Atmosphere and Communication
For team unity to flourish it is well known that the team atmosphere needs to be a positive and cohesive one. A positive and cohesive team culture is made up of a whole range of factors, including player attitudes, team motivation, ensuring every team member feels valued and empowered, and most importantly team identity. Team identity refers to the distinct characteristics of the team the make it unique, and it flourishes when each team member takes pride in their membership in the group. Individuals also need to place the values of their team above their own individual values in working towards that common goal to establish a sense of cohesiveness.
Effective communication is also a huge part of establishing that positive team atmosphere. Open communication needs to be able to occur without fear of disrupting the relationship between coaches and players or the players themselves. One way individuals can provide feedback in a group setting without damaging those important relationships is through solution-focused feedback, as opposed to problem-focused feedback. Solution-based feedback involves highlighting what individuals could be doing instead, or should start doing differently. Problem-centred feedback on the other hand is where the problem is highlighted, and individuals are told not to do those things again. Pointing out what players have done wrong and asking them not to do it again might seem helpful, but in actual fact, this can lead to a lot of overthinking on their end around NOT making the same mistake. Keeping the feedback solution-focused helps guide their thinking towards how they can do that skill better, which indirectly prevents them from making the same error again. Helping players solve the problem rather than just highlighting the problem is one way of making them feel supported in their development, and this kind of feedback should extend to between-players to foster an environment of camaraderie and ensure team members feel supported by each other.
Finally, it is important to distinguish liking our team members from respecting them. In the sport and performance domain, respect plays a huge role in fostering an environment where team unity can flourish. Individuals might differ in their approach to the work and what they value, but agreeing with or liking the approaches and values of everyone we work with isn’t necessarily required for unity to thrive. Respecting them, however, is.
Respect is defined as demonstrating a high regard for someone or their ideas regardless of their differences and in order to create an environment where individuals push themselves beyond their limits each day they need to feel valued and respected by others around them. We can choose to communicate with others whose ideas we don’t like with complete disregard, or we can choose to show our appreciation for the strengths in those ideas and offer alternative ones. The team environment needs to foster non-judgement to allow individuals to take risks and step outside their comfort zones on an individual level as they work towards that common goal.
Forget About Winning To Build A Winning Culture
The take-home message from this piece is that in order to establish a winning culture, we should forget about winning altogether. Rather the focus should be on establishing supportive environments for team members where they feel valued and empowered to achieve their individual best for the good of the team, and the goal of their work should be more centred around the journey rather than the destination. That is, focusing on the here and now, what we can be working on that is within our influence to give ourselves the best chance of success later on, rather than working with success at the forefront of our minds. In the performance world, we often see the best results achieved by those who don’t focus on results at all.
Yukelson, D. (1997). Principles of effective team building interventions in sport: A direct services approach at Penn State University. Journal of applied sport psychology, 9(1), 73-96.
Through mindfulness-based strategies, we can learn to reduce the impact of our thoughts on our performance.
At Condor Performance, one of our main goals is to help our clients develop a more helpful relationship with their mind so they can perform at their best.
The T in Metuf stands for thoughts / thinking, in case you didn’t already know that.
Can’t be bothered to read the article but really want some help around your thoughts and overthinking? Get In Touch by clicking here and give us the basic details of what you’re struggling with and one of the team will get back to you within a couple of days.
Psychology in a general sense is the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviour. As Performance Psychology experts our work is centred around these same three areas but with one eye always on their impact (or lack of) from a performance standpoint. One of our main consulting goals is to help athletes and performers understand how thoughts, emotion and performance really interact. This is often very different from how most of them believe that they interact.
Thoughts and Performance
Reflecting on my own experiences as an athlete and now working for Condor Performance, I would argue that the most challenging mental aspect of any performance is trying not to overthink it. It is clear that our thoughts have the capacity to be a barrier to performance, but through psychological research and practice, we also have the capacity to overcome this mental barrier.
All of us have experienced our minds going into overdrive. As soon as we’re faced with something important or threatening, our mind goes into a state of overthinking. Overthinking is not a comfortable mental state to be in, making it a lot more difficult to do the things we train to do on a daily basis. We often hear athletes and performers say that during training they perform at quite a high level but find it difficult to perform well on competition day, often stating that their thoughts get in the way. Most competitors associate a higher level of importance with competition than training, so it makes sense why they overthink during this time.
Out of all of the sport psychologists that I’ve met, the most process focussed is my primary supervisor Gareth J. Mole – the founder of Condor Performance. In fact, so process-focused is he is that the majority of the focus in his work is around practice, preparation, training and effort. The logic behind this is very sound. He wants his clients to overthink concepts such as getting the most from training, planning training sessions and “what to do in a lockdown” but underthink the actual day of competition.
Thoughts Are Just Thoughts
Most athletes and performers don’t realise is that it is actually the relationship they have with their thoughts that gives them the power over their performance.
So why do we overthink? We think like this because our brain is hardwired to view the world in certain ways, and for a very important purpose. Like emotions, our thoughts play a huge role in our survival. One of our mind’s jobs through thinking is to generate all possible outcomes, predict and preempt the worst possible scenarios. In other words, problem solve its way through these potential events so that in the slight chance they do pan out we’ll be prepared. Our brain does a lot of the thinking in the lead up to something happening so that when it does, we can rely on the Limbic System (home of the fight or flight response) to help us survive this threatening or important event. Basically, our brains are the perfect overthinking machines.
Because of the important role that our thoughts play in survival, it’s something we don’t have a lot of influence over. Our default cognitive response to an event is always going to be one of caution. It is our mind’s job, as a reason-giving machine, to go straight to the “negative”, and list all the possible bad things that could happen. Our mind is never going to go straight to the positive, and because of this, the idea of changing the way we think is a hopeless and impossible one.
Thoughts Play A Role In Survival
Don’t get me wrong you can try and change a single thought or three with some success but the very notion of learning to think more positively as a habit is flawed. Imagine if our minds didn’t think in this way? Instead of stopping at the crossroads to check if traffic is coming because your mind is saying “better to be safe than sorry” imagine the carnage if our thought in this situation was “just go, peak hour is over, you’ll be right”.
We don’t step out onto busy roads because our mind tells us we might get hit by a car. We don’t stand too close to the edge of a cliff because our mind tells us we might fall. But we often hold back on performance day because our mind tells us we might get it wrong or we might not be good enough. Unfortunately, when this happens we’re letting our protective mind dictate our behaviour rather than our performance mind.
Postive Thinking … Good Luck With That
What you’ve probably gathered from the tone of this article (and my last one) so far is that trying to think more positively is a near-impossible task, and certainly not the goal of our work. In saying that, the first step we want to take in learning to manage difficult thoughts is to shift this near-impossible goal to one that is attainable. That is, rather than striving to think more positively, we instead aim to build an awareness of the mind that allows us to diminish the power of thoughts over our actions. We can achieve this goal through working under an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) framework, where we assume that thoughts cannot necessarily be changed but rather our response to them can.
Developing Psychological Flexibility
Through building an awareness of the mind our goal is to ultimately build what is known as “Psychological Flexibility”. This is basically the ability to engage in behaviour that is functional and congruent with one’s values irrespective of their private experiences (thoughts, emotions, memories, cravings, bodily sensations, etc.) (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010).
Through developing psychological flexibility, individuals have the capacity to let their actions dictate their thoughts and feelings, not the other way around. For an athlete who values challenging themselves and seeing what they’re capable of, the idea behind building psychological flexibility is to help them live out these values through their sport despite any difficult thoughts or uncomfortable feelings they have. For a performer who values creativity and bringing enjoyment to others, developing psychological flexibility means teaching them the skills to go out and perform in the presence of any yucky private experiences they might have.
“ACT” on Thoughts
Psychological Flexibility is the main goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an effective psychological intervention used across clinical and performance settings and a potent one in sport and performance. ACT is a multi-diagnostic approach to mental health, effective in reducing symptom severity in depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction (A-tjak et al., 2015; Berman, 2019). This intervention is also commonly used across multiple psychological and behavioural disorders among children to help improve quality of life and overall wellbeing (Fang & Ding, 2020).
ACT’s popularity in the sporting domain is also growing. This intervention has shown effectiveness in helping athletes manage thoughts, in particular thoughts of perfectionism (Watson et al., 2021) and worrying/ruminating (Ruiz et al., 2018). ACT’s effectiveness as an intervention has also been seen across many other performance domains, including the performing arts (Juncos et al., 2017; Juncos & de Paiva e Pona, 2018), academia (Scent & Boes, 2014; Wang et al., 2017) and the workplace (Flaxman & Bond, 2010; Moran, 2015, Kiuru et al., 2021).
Accept Most Thoughts, Then Let Them Go
Athletes and Performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to rid of their difficult thoughts. However, it is the attempt to get rid of that is actually the source of the problem. To get rid of difficult thoughts we need to focus on them, and when we’re focused on them we’re not focusing on what we need to be doing at the moment.
We call this becoming fused, meaning we’re so caught up in getting rid of the difficult though that we can’t focus on anything else. Before we know it, 10 minutes have gone past and we’ve been cruising through the game on autopilot, not really paying attention to what we’re doing and certainly now showcasing the best of our physical abilities.
Diminishing The Power Of thoughts
Through regular mindfulness, athletes and performers learn how to notice their thoughts, acknowledge andaccept their thoughts, and let their thoughts come and go without a struggle. Through developing a relationship with our thoughts in which we learn to observe and watch them come and go without engaging too much in them, the power of those thoughts are often diminished as a by-product.
In order to do this, we first need to acknowledge that there is a part of us that thinks, but there is also a part of us that notices that we think. A part of us that can take a step back and observe what we’re thinking. Through accessing this “noticing self” we can become aware of those thoughts without getting tangled in them, and give ourselves a choice regarding how we’d like to respond to them. We can either let the thought stop us from doing what we’re doing, or we can notice it and choose to redirect our focus back to what we’re doing.
The Power of Mindfulness
One of the best ways to practice bringing awareness to our thoughts is simply through meditation. Meditation is often associated with the idea of only thinking positively, or being completely free from thoughts altogether, but this is not the goal of the exercise. If done right, meditation should bring heightened awareness to any private experiences we have at that moment (thoughts, feelings, memories, bodily sensations, urges, cravings), so that we can practice observing them without necessarily engaging with them.
We can do this through simple visualisation exercises, one of the most common being ‘Leaves on a Stream’ where we visualise our thoughts on leaves floating down a stream. If leaves and streams aren’t appealing, you can instead visualise sushi going by on a sushi train, or a train going by as you watch from the platform, whereby you notice your thoughts going by on the carriages but don’t get on the train, even if it stops.
To bring awareness through meditation we engage in what we call mindful (deep) breathing, where we really focus on the entire sensory experience of breathing (what our breath feels/smells/sounds/tastes like). When our mind wanders away from our breathing, it is our job to then notice that, accept that our mind has wandered, and choose to bring our focus back to our breathing.
We Are Not Our Thoughts
We can add to this by developing a relationship with our thoughts whereby we view them as separate from us. Through noticing our thoughts and silently verbalising them (e.g. “I notice I am thinking…”) we can separate our thinking-self from our noticing-self.
Viewing our thoughts from our noticing self allows us to observe them as they come and go, and make a choice about whether or not to engage with them (try to get rid of them) or allow them to be there will we focus back on our actions. We can take this one step further by personifying our thoughts, or giving them an identity we know them by (e.g. “The ‘I’m not good enough’ thought is here). The idea here again is that we are stepping into the shoes of our noticing self. It is in this state of noticing and awareness that we can make more mindful decisions about how we respond to difficult thoughts (Assaz et al., 2018).
Changing Our Relationship With Thoughts
Ultimately our goal in the work we do with athletes and performers isn’t to change the way they think but to guide them towards a more helpful relationship with their thoughts. Sure, the thoughts we have about screwing up before going out on stage to perform are uncomfortable, but don’t those thoughts motivate you to prepare ahead of time? And yes, the thoughts we have about whether or not we’ll be good enough to pass that exam are frightening at times, but don’t they push us to study and revise for the test to ensure we’re as prepared as we can be?
A lot of this boils down to reframing the way we view our thoughts. Rather than evaluating them as positive, negative, true, false, right or wrong, we can instead look for their helpfulness. To overcome the mental hurdle thoughts create we need to understand that there is always a reason for thinking the way we do. And of course, if you feel like some expert guidance with all of this then Get In Touch and ask us about our 1-on-1 sport and performance psychology services – most of which now take place via Webcam.
A-tjak, J. G., Davis, M. L., Morina, N., Powers, M. B., Smits, J. A., & Emmelkamp, P. M. (2015). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 84(1), 30-36.
Assaz, D. A., Roche, B., Kanter, J. W., & Oshiro, C. K. (2018). Cognitive defusion in acceptance and commitment therapy: What are the basic processes of change?. The Psychological Record, 68(4), 405-418.
Berman, N. C. (2019). Treating taboo or forbidden thoughts: integrating mindfulness, acceptance, and emotion regulation into an exposure-based intervention. Journal of cognitive psychotherapy, 33(3), 196-212.
Fang, S., & Ding, D. (2020). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for children. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 15, 225-234.
Flaxman, P. E., & Bond, F. W. (2010). A randomised worksite comparison of acceptance and commitment therapy and stress inoculation training. Behaviour research and therapy, 48(8), 816-820.
Juncos, D. G., Heinrichs, G. A., Towle, P., Duffy, K., Grand, S. M., Morgan, M. C., … & Kalkus, E. (2017). Acceptance and commitment therapy for the treatment of music performance anxiety: a pilot study with student vocalists. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 986.
More References …
Juncos, D. G., & de Paiva e Pona, E. (2018). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a clinical anxiety treatment and performance enhancement program for musicians: Towards an evidence-based practice model within performance psychology. Music & Science, 1, 2059204317748807.
Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
Kiuru, N., Puolakanaho, A., Lappalainen, P., Keinonen, K., Mauno, S., Muotka, J., & Lappalainen, R. (2021). Effectiveness of a web-based acceptance and commitment therapy program for adolescent career preparation: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of vocational behavior, 127, 103578.
Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26-31.
Ruiz, F. J., Flórez, C. L., García-Martín, M. B., Monroy-Cifuentes, A., Barreto-Montero, K., García-Beltrán, D. M., … & Gil-Luciano, B. (2018). A multiple-baseline evaluation of a brief acceptance and commitment therapy protocol focused on repetitive negative thinking for moderate emotional disorders. Journal of contextual behavioral science, 9, 1-14.
Scent, C. L., & Boes, S. R. (2014). Acceptance and commitment training: A brief intervention to reduce procrastination among college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 28(2), 144-156.
Wang, S., Zhou, Y., Yu, S., Ran, L. W., Liu, X. P., & Chen, Y. F. (2017). Acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive–behavioral therapy as treatments for academic procrastination: A randomized controlled group session. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(1), 48-58.
Watson, D., Hill, A., Madigan, D., & Donachie, T. (2021). Effectiveness of an online Acceptance and Commitment Therapy-based sport psychology programme for managing trait perfectionism, perfectionistic thoughts, and emotions in athletes.
“Emotions, Sport And Performance” is another free article by our own Madalyn Incognito. Are you still trying to feel a certain way in order to perform at your best? Madalyn explains why you might want to consider another approach.
Through varitions of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we can learn to manage our emotions in more helpful ways compared with what society generally suggests.
At Condor Performance the goal of our emotion work is to teach athletes and performers how to perform at the highest possible level whilst experiencing the full range of emotions.
If you’d like more infomation above our sport and performance psychology services get in touch by completing the form on our Contact Us page.
Please Make Me Feel Better!
In our profession, we deal with emotions on a daily basis. Athletes and Performers often ask us how they can learn to feel better on performance or competition day. A day that is often riddled with a whirlwind of emotions from excitement to anxiety, to helplessness, guilt and everything in between. The work we do around emotions often begins with a deep dive into reality. We’re probably never going to feel great on most performance days. And we will certainly never feel great before and during all competitive situations.
Our first job as Fully and Provisionally Registered Psychologists is to help our clients to let go of the idea of wanting to control the way they feel. Emotions aren’t something we have a huge amount of influence over. Athletes and performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to get rid of the “negative” emotions and replace them with positive ones. Yeah, good luck with that!
In their defence, this is often what is taught to us from a very young age. “It’s not appropriate to feel anger in the classroom” or “you should feel excited by the chance to play in the biggest competition of the year”.
What they often don’t realise is that it is trying to get rid of the negative ones that is actually the source of the problem. Not the actual uncomfortable feelings themselves.
Emotions And Performance
Emotion plays a huge role in Mental Toughness purely due to the fact that it has the capacity to impact virtually everything else. During the initial Kick Start Session, we hear stories of struggle when it comes to feelings on game-day. Performers often describe to us the many ways in which they try to control the uncomfortable emotions that inevitably arise on performance day. We get remarkable insight into how much impact emotions and feelings seem to have on their performance. To understand how to manage emotions, we first need to understand exactly what they are.
Why Do We Feel Things?
It is important for athletes and performers to understand why humans experience emotion. In short, it plays a very important role in our survival, providing us with crucial social and environmental information:
Feeling betrayed by someone? The emotion of betrayal teaches us not to trust that person again, because they have the potential to harm us.
Feeling scared to jump out of a plane? The emotion of fear warns us that if we jump out of the plane, we could die.
Feeling happy you completed that task? The emotion of happiness reinforces the behaviour you just performed, increasing the likelihood you’ll do it again.
The Amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain) produces emotions mainly to warn us or reward us. The well-known fight or flight response is basically about our internal warning system. It’s hugely beneficial for there to be a surge in emotion and adrenaline when being attacked by a killer wombat, for example.
Survival vs Performance
So what we know about emotions is that within a survival framework they’re really good at keeping us alive. However, emotion in the performance domain has a reputation for often getting in the way of us doing the things we already know how to do. Our job as Sport and Performance Psychologists is to challenge the consensus that emotions have a direct impact on our performance. That is, to challenge the idea if I feel “bad” (i.e. nervous, anxious, doubtful) on game-day, I’ll inevitably perform “badly”.
Often one of the first questions I’ll ask a new client during the initial Kick Start Session is,
“How do you view the relationship between emotions and performance. If I were to draw an arrow between the two, which direction would the arrow be pointing and what would this mean?”
Nine times out of ten, the response I get is, “how I feel usually determines how I perform”. But if we rarely feel fantastic come performance day due to our Amygdala then we’re in trouble, no?
The Reality Of Emotions in Sport
Little do most people know that it is actually the power we attribute to emotions that makes them so problematic. If you had the opportunity to ask some of the more mentally astute athletes in the world (e.g. RF) how they feel going into important matches most of them (if being honest) will say nervous or very nervous. We think either they’ve been doing it for so long they just don’t get nervous anymore, or they’ve developed some ‘magic skill set’ where they can switch off those uncomfortable feelings. The fact is that even the best athletes in the world feel the full range of emotions we experience before an important event.
What has made them so good in their performance domain is their ability to welcome and embrace these emotions and perform at a high level with them present. The ability to do this is a skill that can be developed in virtually any performance domain, so how do we go about developing it?
The main therapeutic framework we work within at Condor Performance is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced “act”) for short. This approach assumes that trying to get rid of unwanted emotions (anxiety, depression, hopelessness) actually creates a lot of psychological distress, often having a maladaptive impact on our behaviour (or in this case, a negative impact on our performance). This is basically because we are trying to fight something we don’t have a lot of influence over.
Through the mindful nature of ACT, we can learn to reduce the impact of emotions through building awareness and actually making room for them in our lives (and on performance day) and learning to let these feelings come and go without a struggle.
ACT is an extremely effective therapeutic approach to mental wellbeing and mental performance. In terms of emotion management, ACT has built a reputation over the past 30 years in terms of its effectiveness in both clinical and performance settings.
In the sporting domain, mindfulness-based strategies within an ACT framework have assisted athletes in emotion regulation, particularly during challenging periods of post-injury rehabilitation (Bernier et al., 2009, Mahoney & Hanrahan, 2011, Gardner & Moore, 2017). The effectiveness of ACT has also been seen in other performance domains including the workplace, academia and the performing arts (Moran, 2015; Paliliunas, Belisle & Dixon; 2018, Pingo, Dixon & Paliliunas, 2020; Clarke, Osborne & Baranoff, 2020).
ACT is an umbrella term for a range of mindfulness-based skills, with acceptance being one of the most useful and important. Through the skill of acceptance, our goal for athletes and performers is to help them open up to the uncomfortable feelings they experience as part of the human condition, before accepting their presence and allowing them to be there, rather than trying to avoid them. The idea behind acceptance is that if we learn to make room for emotions in our lives (without trying to fight them off), their power is ultimately diminished. ACT assumes that it is the struggle with and fighting off of these emotions that give them their power over our actions.
The “Noticing Self”
There is a part of us that feels, and then there is a part of us that notices that we feel a certain way. It is important for performers to learn to notice their emotions as they arise and build more awareness of them – why? Because our default response to uncomfortable feelings is to turn away from them – try to suppress, avoid or escape them, or distract ourselves from them. This is catastrophic when it comes to the motor skills required in most sports. It quite literally stopped you from doing what you are naturally very good at (e.g. kicking a soccer ball etc).
A trap we often fall victim to in performance settings is getting sucked into this default response. Eventually, we become so caught up in trying to get rid of uncomfortable emotions (an impossible task), that it’s impossible for us to be intensity aware, present and focused on what we need to be doing in that present moment. To help athletes and performers develop the noticing skill, we ask them to practice intentionally and consciously noticing and acknowledging uncomfortable feelings. We might ask them to silently tell themselves what they notice they’re feeling. For example, “I’m noticing anxiety”, or “I notice I’m feeling worried”. Through accepting and noticing emotions, we can learn to sit with the discomfort and reduce its impact on our actions (e.g. kicking a soccer ball etc).
Without acknowledging the presence of uncomfortable emotions we can actually invalidate our own experiences. When our most inner and private emotional experiences feel invalid, we’re then at risk of falling victim to that unhelpful emotion default response (suppress, avoid, escape, distract). Following this, our default cognitive response is often “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I should be able to handle this better”.
Validating our emotions is a very technical term for comforting and reassuring ourselves (through some compassionate self-talk) that as part of the human condition, it is very normal to feel uncomfortable emotions when we encounter difficult situations. When we learn to notice, acknowledge and validate our emotions (in light of the important role they play in survival), this allows us to make room for them without feeling the need to struggle with them.
But at the end of the day, there is a choice to be made. The athlete or performer can choose to:
Feel these uncomfortable emotions and not commit to their actions, or
Feel these uncomfortable emotions and commit to their actions.
Through mental toughness training our goal is to empower individuals to choose the latter. With the help of skills such as acceptance, noticing and validation, the decision to commit becomes much easier.
Learning to Embrace Emotion
At Condor Performance, our goal is to guide athletes and performers towards a more healthy relationship with emotions. Because think about how boring would life be without them? The only reason we know happiness is because we’ve experienced sadness, so it is important as part of the human condition that we choose to welcome all emotions, pleasant and unpleasant. In the performance domain, we often view emotion in a negative light, but rather than looking at it as a sign of weakness we can choose to see it as a sign that we’re living. If you need help in doing this, then get in touch.
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It has been incredible to watch the progression of CrossFit over the past twenty years or so. From its humble beginnings as a young, modern, up-and-coming form of fitness training to its recent status as a globally recognised competitive sport. CrossFit or Cross-Discipline Fitness has become an incredibly popular form of training for individuals of all fitness levels, and a versatile competitive sporting avenue for those wanting to push themselves beyond what they know they’re capable of.
What draws many people to CrossFit is its brutal nature. It incorporates virtually every form of training that you can imagine. CrossFit athletes have an incredible level of athleticism, discrediting the idea of “Jack of all trades, Master of None” through training to compete at the highest level they can in as many styles of training as possible. Swimmers swim, runners run, cyclists cycle – CrossFitters do it all and more.
It’s clear that CrossFitters need an extreme level of mental toughness to compete in such a physically demanding and versatile sport. In what other sport can you be asked to perform absolutely anything from gymnastics to swimming, plyometrics to powerlifting, high-intensity interval training to distance running and everything in-between? What other sport assesses virtually every physical capacity humans are capable of training, including strength, power, flexibility, coordination, endurance, agility, speed, accuracy and balance? Very few other sports have such element of the unknown as to what physical capacities you’ll be asked to demonstrate on competition day
CrossFit is Uniquely Challenging
CrossFit is uniquely challenging in terms of its variety and unpredictability. For athletes competing at qualifying rounds for the CrossFit Games (World Championships), competition workouts are gradually revealed in the weeks leading up to the event. The final workout is often revealed as little as a week before the event, allowing athletes only a limited amount of time to prepare for the specific workouts they’ll be asked to do. Athletes who then qualify to compete at the CrossFit Games are tasked with the challenge of rocking up to the competition venue having no idea what they’ll be asked to do.
Every year the workouts are different, and arguably more challenging than the last. So for CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental toughness a lot of this boils down to knowing how to answer this simple question; how do you mentally prepare for the unknown?
Welcoming Discomfort with Open Arms
The first thing to acknowledge about preparing for the unknown is that we are hardwired to mentally thrive in settings of certainty and predictability. This often works against athletes in competition settings, particularly for CrossFitters due to the uncertain nature of competition. Going into an event pre-empting the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel is the first step in being able to manage them. Take some time to think about how you’re likely to be feeling on competition day:
What sort of emotions do you expect to experience – Nerves? Worry? Excitement? Fear?
When are these emotions likely to kick in – the morning of? The day before? The week before?
Are these emotions likely to become more apparent and harder to ignore the close you get to the start time?
After taking some time to predict the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel, it’s important to have a think about how you would like to physically respond to these emotions. If I followed you around with a video camera the morning of competition right up until start time:
What would your body language suggest to me about how you’re feeling?
What would you like your body language to suggest about how you’re feeling?
How would you like this to be different to the last time you competed?
Accept The Emotions, Don’t Fight With Them
Finally, it’s important to preempt our subsequent emotional response to these normal competition day emotions. Athletes often get caught up in the amount of worry they are experiencing on competition day. Due to the inbuilt fight and flight response feeling such as worry generally are uncomfortable. Rather than focusing on the competition itself, they find themselves worrying about their emotions.
Predicting ahead of time when you expect to feel certain emotions heighten our ability to notice them on competition day, and empowers us to reduce their impact on our actions or behaviour. When we acknowledge that competition day is full of emotions and learn to embrace them with open arms rather than wrestling with them on competition day, they often seem a lot less threatening.
CrossFit Psychology: Setting Expectations
It’s important for CrossFitters to think about what kind of training and performance expectations they set for themselves. More importantly, for these to align with their actual competence, that is, their physical capabilities as measured through objective and reliable forms of measurement. CrossFit takes place mainly in a group setting which has the potential to foster an environment of comparison, making it very easy for individuals to compare themselves to others. For beginners or those working their way to the elite level, it’s easy to compare your abilities against those who have been training for much longer. For those coming back from injury, it is easy to compare yourself to where you were pre-injury, or to those uninjured athletes around you. In terms of prolonged motivation and athlete mental wellbeing, establishing a helpful point of reference becomes really important.
A helpful point of reference is one that is recent and is a comparison to something that we have influence over. For example, an unhelpful point of reference for an injured athlete could be what they were pre-injury, as to reach that level took many months or even years of training. A more helpful point of reference would be anything post-injury. For example, “I can lift X amount of weight since I returned to training”, rather than “I can lift X amount of weight now, but this isn’t as much as Y which I could lift before my injury”. It’s important to recognise any progress no matter how small after an injury, in light of what you have been able to do since the injury rather than comparing this to what you were about to do pre-injury.
Data Destroys Doubt
Sport Psychologist Harley de Vos brilliantly explains the concept of tracking progress in his article Confidence Before Competence.There is a certain level of trust we need to place in our training program, but by measuring and tracking progress athletes are able to see their physical gains through an objective lens. Measuring competence is essential in prolonging motivation, particularly in an environment where comparisons are so easy to make. Come competition day, rather than relying on how confident we feel in our ability to perform certain workouts (as this is subjective and unreliable), we can instead rely on what we know we can do.
Take It One Workout At A Time
For CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental performance, my advice would be to embrace discomfort and learn to preempt and welcome it, and set realistic expectations and recognise any improvements made. In the world of CrossFit athletes often look at the end product and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they’ll have to do to get there, often making it even more difficult to start. However, we don’t get results without taking each of the small steps required to get there. A great way to think about the journey is like crossing a river; with each workout, we jump across to the next stepping stone. Only through taking it one workout at a time will you be able to see what you’re truly capable of.
If reading this article has piqued your interest in terms of improving the mental aspects of what you do then get in touch with us now so we can send you some detailed information about our sport/performance psychology services. If you are just curious but would like to find out more before making an official enquiry then we suggest you browse the answers to our frequently asked questions.
Mental Resilience is a term that is getting used more and more at the moment both in elite sport and everyday situations. In this short article by Condor Performance sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole he unpacks the concept of Mental Resilience for the education and enjoyment of the followers of the Mental Toughness Digest.
So we will oblige without actually uttering the words ‘mental resilience’ that much. One of the reasons for this, which I feel will inspire a whole new blog on the subject in the near future, is that you don’t need to talk about an outcome to get there. There is no need to talk about winning to increase the chances of it happening. Mentioning team unity is optional in the work we do in boosting it. And there is no need to actual talk about mental resilience whilst developing and implementing process to develop it.
The other reason we don’t use the term ‘mental resilience’ that much is that from our point of view ‘mental toughness’ is a slightly better description of the work we do. My elevator pitch when anyone asks me what I do and I say I’m a sport psychologist is something like this. “We help performers improve their mental toughness and mental health. When combined this goes a long way to allowing them to fulfil their potential as people and as performers”.
Mental Resilience vs. Mental Toughness
So our psychologists are basically using ‘mental toughness’ as a synonym of ‘mental resilience’. Note this is a major issue with modern day sport psychology. There are dozens of terms that get used by different practitioners that have a lot in common or are exactly the same as other terms. For example, focus and concentartion refer to exactly the same psychological concept. One thing, yet two words (labels) at least.
But maybe mental toughness and mental resilience are not exactly the same.
For readers who are either current or past Condor Performance clients or just avid followers of our regular Mental Toughness Digest posts may know we try to keep mental toughness as simple as possible. This is another ‘issue’ with sport psychology in 2021 which we are trying to do something about. It can often be too complex for its own good. The research is often highly academic and theoretical in nature, something forgetting that the end users almost always need and want really simple, practical solutions to common performance challenges. Again, a whole article could be created on this very topic.
The Metuf Big Five
Our team of psychologists (ten at the time of writing) generally break mental toughness down into five smaller, more manageable areas to work on. These are motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus and spell out the word Metuf. With this in mind, how does resilience fit into the Metuf Big Five? Is it something seperate? Have we stumbled across a sixth? Should it be Metuf-R?
Will will come back to these questions later.
It’s hard to find anything close to a consistent definition for either mental toughness or mental resilience but if we ditch the ‘mental’ part beforehand here is what the words ‘toughness’ and ‘resilience’ mean according to Cambridge’s free online dictionary.
Toughness refers to “the quality of being not easily defeated or made weaker”.
Amazingly the two examples listed are: 1) She has a reputation for toughness and resilience and 2) He demonstrated the skills and mental toughness that are crucial for a goalkeeper.
Resilience means “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”.
And the origin of the word is even more interesting and revealing.
1620s, “act of rebounding or springing back,” often of immaterial things, from Latin resiliens, present participle of resilire “to rebound, recoil,” from re- “back” (see re-) + salire “to jump, leap” (see salient (adj.)). Compare result (v.). In physical sciences, the meaning “elasticity, power of returning to original shape after compression, etc.” is by 1824.
So resilience, it appears, required someone unfortunate to occur before the bounce back. Whereas toughness doesn’t. In sport and performance the five most common setbacks are probably these:
1. The Mental Resilience required to come back from injury
The physical effort needed to recover from a serious sporting injury is obvious. But what about the role the mind plays in this often overwhelming task? Consider motivation alone. That rehab program, which is so important but can be so frustrating (as it reminds you of your injury moment by moment) doesn’t get done without strong internal commitment. For more on the psychology of injuries read this blog by my colleague David Barracosa.
2. responding after getting dropped
By ‘dropped’ I refer to not being selected for reasons other than an injury. In team sports this has become more common as more and more coaches use rotation policies. Regardless, it’s not easy to be told that you’re not playing this weekend after a week of solid effort. The message we often give our sporting clients in these situations is to use the disappointment to your advantage. In others words emotions are ‘energy in motion‘ so use the frustration of being deselected to improve your preparation. Take your emotion out on the rowing machine, not your coach.
3. Keep training during a pandemic
Most people will agree that the current Covid-19 pandemic and related issues very much count as a setback. I have been quite shocked at the number of athletes and coaches who have down tooled during the pandemic. “There is no point in me working hard when I don’t know when my next competition will take place” is something we are hearing a lot at the moment. Really? So you don’t want to get the jump on your rivals during a time when you have a lot more influence over all aspects of your preparation? The most challenging of times allow those with the best mental toolkit to raise to the top. And boy, these are the most challenging times.
4. The Mental Resilience required to perform well when life gets in the way
When life gets in the way refers to what happens to your immaculate training program for the week when your get gastro, for example. This phrase was first coined by our colleague Chris Pomfret. The ideal response to this kind of challenge is to focus as quickly as possible with what you can do. What you can’t do is typically obvious and unchangeable. Using the example of a sudden stomach bug, maybe you need to switch from actually ‘hitting balls’ to ‘visualising hitting balls’. If you have not idea how to visualise then watch this free 25 minute short video. And make sure to add some comments below about how to adapted the ideas for your sport and performance area.
5. Immediate psychological recovery – Bouncing Back whilst competing
There is one kind of setback that is especially common in competitive sport. To my knowledge it’s doesn’t have an offical name so let’s just call in In Game Setbacks. Although I’m very respectful that many sports don’t actually use the word game to refer to their competitive situations. In Game Setbacks refer to something going wrong in the heat of battle. Imagine a fullback in rugby league or union dropping the first high ball they try to catch. Imagine the ice hockey player missing an open net with 5 minutes to do whilst her team are one goal behind. Imaging a clay target shooter missing the first four targets are the day.
The mental skills that are most effective in these situations are the ones related to allowing the performer to ‘move on as quickly as possible’. Accept and act, basically. The best way to go about this will depend on your sport and just how much your performance is actually impacted by setbacks. This is where we come in …
If you are an athlete, sporting coach, sporting official or non sporting performer and would like the assistance from one of our growing team of sport psychologists / performance psychologists then the best place to start is by completing the applicable Mental Toughness Questionnaire at here. Once done, one of our team will then get back to you with your results and, if you have asked for it, detailed information about our sport psychology services.
Earlier I posed the question is mental resilience a part of mental toughness or seperate? At this stage, I feel it can fit under The Metuf Big Five. If you look at the suggestions above you’ll find all of them are versions of motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. And maybe a good way to think about the fact that resilience needs setbacks is both sport and life a full of setbacks.
The Psychology of American Football – An Introduction
American Football is one of those sports that goes by different names. The official name is gridiron but most of those in the United States refer to it as NFL despite this just being the name of the highest league. For this article I shall simply refer to it as American Football.
American Football is a sport littered with inspirational quotes and messages. Some are from real life whilst others are from television and/or films. One that is applicable to everyone in a competitive situation came from Cincinnati Bengals running back Archie Griffin. He famously once said “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog”. When you start to sift through them (a quick Google of “American Football quotes” is a worthwhile exercise), you soon realise a large portion are related to the mental side of the game.
Not Just Brutality And Physical Aggressiveness
American Football is known for its brutality and physical aggressiveness but as soon as I started to work with these athletes, from the professional level to high school footballers, it became clear that without the right mental processes talent and physical aptitude wouldn’t lead to the success these individuals desired. They needed mental skills that promoted acceptance, resilience, patience and a mindset that not only recognised their performance but also how it fits into the bigger picture of the offensive or defensive schemes coaches are drawing up. American Football is nuanced and it’s the mental challenges of the sport that take an individual from being good to great to a ‘hall of fame inductee’.
What Are Some Of These Mental Processes?
Let’s look at some of these mental processes and mindsets that can begin to improve the American Football psychology of players who participate on Fridays (high school football), Saturdays (college football) or Sundays (the NFL).
One of the first things about American Football that will stand out to anyone participating or observing is the structure of the game. Every play called is meticulously considered in order to create an advantage for the team and each player has a very particular role to play to execute the play successfully. Aside from trick plays, players fill very individualised roles and this is where we begin to see why good mental processes are important for optimal performance.
As with any team sport one player cannot do everything and this is even truer in American Football. For example, a quarterback can’t snap the ball, drop back and then pass it to themselves. They need the assistance of their teammates to be able to not only have time to throw the ball but also to see a pass completed. To manage the challenge of this, a player needs to have a good practice of acceptance where they can understand their role and focus on completing their given task instead of being distracted by what others on their team are doing.
In speaking with an American Football coach, we used the analogy that for each play, we need to imagine the 11 players on the field are on a boat with 11 leaks. If each player deals with their leak then the boat continues to sail. However, as soon as one person starts focusing on the other leaks or even tries to go and stop the leak somewhere else then they expose themselves. A great example of this is on the offensive line where we need to trust our teammates to hit and stick their blocks rather than trying to block all of the oncoming pass rushers and being found out as a result. This is not the same for less pre-rehearsed sports like soccer whereby from time to time you need to help your teammate fix his or her leak.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance (being good at it) comes from the field of psychology in the form of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. At Condor Performance, we look at this by focusing on the level of influence we have in any given moment. We want athletes to channel their energies and efforts into making sure the things that are highly influenceable are what they are taking responsibility for in a sporting context. To put it simply, our own actions are highly influenceable while the actions of others are a much lower level of influenceable. When we accept this, we let go and allow others to do their job while we do ours. We are better focused, can more effectively judge our own performance and are a more complimenting fit within the structure of the team. We can also use this mentality to reset between each play and make sure we know our role and are locked in on accomplishing it while also motivating and encouraging others with theirs where possible.
Another element that stands out is the flow of the game between plays. The stop-start nature of the sport provides the players with a chance to huddle together and reset their intentions on the next play. It also provides the opportunity for each player to reset themselves to ensure that they are fully committed to what comes next – irrespective if previous plays went their way or not. In a sport like American Football it doesn’t matter whether you missed an assignment or ran the wrong route the previous play because it can’t be undone. All we can do is know what is being asked of us this play and look to execute to the best of our abilities with 100% effort. To make this reset work consistently it can be worthwhile to think about different actions that we use to settle, such as taking a deep breath, clapping as we come out of the huddle, redoing the velcro on our gloves, the way we get set in our stance, etc. Having this reset action helps remind us to start again and be committed to what we are trying to execute.
Psychology of American Football For Coaches
If you’re the coach or a leader on the team and you want to be able to take this idea of resetting one step further, then you can look at how the the offensive and defensive teams retake the field following a change of possession. When the unit goes back out onto the field it is an important opportunity to have players focus on landing the metaphorical first punch and creating some momentum on this particular drive. Even if previous possessions resulted in a poor outcome the other team does not have any advantage when this one starts unless we let them by focusing on the past which we cannot change. Just like a boxer coming out for the next round we want to establish ourselves and perform to our plan and create some ascendency that we can build on with each play. This is achieved through communication and the way we look to motivate and create energy in our athletes and teammates. We want to ensure we aren’t placing unnecessary pressure on their shoulders and instead highlighting that the ultimate goal of each possession is exactly the same: to have committed players on the field who know their roles and are giving 100% effort on each play. If you can get 11 players all buying into that philosophy and letting their actions do the talking we know we’ve got them in the right headspace.
For individual players, one thing we also want to keep in mind is that the football we play wants to ignore any element of what I term the “fantasy football headspace”. What I mean by this is that we don’t want to judge our own performances the way we judge players in fantasy football, i.e. stats are the most important thing and highlight good performance. For every player, regardless of position, I would encourage you to develop ways of defining good performance that don’t have anything to do with the stats or outcome. If you’re a quarterback, how do you know you’ve had a good game without referring to touchdowns/interceptions thrown or yardage in the air? If you’re a wide receiver, how do you know you’ve had a good game without referring to receptions or yards? If you a defensive player. how do you define a good game without referring to interceptions, passes deflected, tackles made or points given up? The answer to this question will help you understand effort and take your performances to an even higher level of consistency because we aren’t reacting to previous plays and instead are locked in on recommitting to the next one. I will say that if you are struggling to answer that particular question, another way of answering it would be understanding what it looks like to compete out there on the field. How you compete has nothing to do with your outcomes and everything to do with the way you try to breakdown your opponents with movement, footwork, decision making, energy and competitiveness.
While each position in a game of American Football is different the mental elements of performance highlighted in this blog provide insight into how we can begin to get the most out of ourselves and our abilities. They are universal for all players and by making some adjustments you will better play your role for the team and leave the game having made a greater influence on how proceedings played out.