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.
WATER POLO Psychology is an article that looks into some of the specific mental challenges of water polo and how to overcome some of them.
Water Polo Psychology: Giving Meaning to Mistakes
In the sporting world, there is a growing consensus that Water Polo is one of the most physically brutal and demanding sports around. To be a Water Polo player, you’ll need incredible core strength, endurance, and the ability to anticipate player movement based on visual cues in an extremely fast and dynamic competition setting. And – you’ll have to do all of that while keeping your head above the water.
Many similarities can be drawn between Water Polo and fighting sports such as Kickboxing and MMA. Cuts, bruises, knocked out teeth – it’s arguable that many of the principles that apply to Combat Sport psychology in terms of not getting hit also apply in the pool when you put two teams together in a body of water and ask them to fight over a ball.
Water Polo and Mental Toughness
What makes Water Polo so challenging mentally is the fact that it is a fast-paced and physically demanding team sport. At Condor Performance, one of the most common areas of concern brought up by the Water Polo athletes we work with is the desire to play at a high level consistently.
Like in many other team sports, in Water Polo, there appears to be some sort of pattern in performance, whereby individual playing ability is impacted by various external factors. For example, we often see player performance differ depending on which team they are playing against (for example, a highly ranked team, a team with older/more experienced players), and the perceived importance of the game (for example, a semi-final or grand-final match). When players are impacted by external factors such as these, we’re really seeing the impact of a diminished mental game on their physical game; fear of failure becomes a lot scarier, the consequences of letting the team down becomes more apparent, and the desire to win becomes even stronger.
Letting The Team Down
When playing as part of a team there is an element of safety in the sense that if the desired outcome is not attained it is not completely on any one individual. But with this, comes the idea of not wanting to let the team down – a commonly heard phrase with the work that we do.
My response to this is usually, “define letting the team down”. What I want to see here is how the player defines failure and mistakes so that they can be challenged. As is the case with a lot of mental skills it’s important for the water polo player to know the difference between a process and an outcome and the superior amount of influence over the former. In other words, it’s far better for mistakes to be used when referring to failures of the process whereas they tend to get used when talking/thinking about outcome failures. More on this later.
Humans Are Social Creatures
Something important to acknowledge here is that humans are social beings. From an evolutionary point of view, by living in groups and through reciprocity we give ourselves the best chances of survival. Because of this, we are hardwired to get others to like us; to do things that benefit others in our “groups” so that in situations where we need help, the favour will be returned. Unfortunately, this creates a lot of mental obstacles for athletes in team sports.
When we make a “mistake” (an occurrence in the game ultimately benefitting the other team) this often sends us into a bit of a panic. Something Water Polo players will often say to us after making a mistake is it’s hard to forget about it and move on. This increases the likelihood of them making a subsequent mistake. It makes sense why players are often so afraid to make a mistake in the first place, as often this seems to set the tone for the rest of the game.
With repeated mistakes, players often fall into the trap of generating possible ideas about what their team, their coach and others think about them (social hardwiring comes in here), and without being unable to “unhook” from this players have the potential to become fused with these thoughts. From our point of view, at this point, the game is pretty much over.
Challenging The Idea of Mistakes
For players who struggle to come back from “mistakes,” our goal would be to redefine their idea of a mistake. Society today has fostered a culture of perfectionism, so many of the athletes we speak with across both individual and team sports come to us with the idea that game errors are purely negative occurrences, often forgetting the importance of doing things wrong so that we can learn to get them right at a later time.
Rather than evaluating these game occurrences as positive or negative, we want to just notice them. Not necessarily judge whether or not they’re good, bad, helpful or unhelpful, but rather extract some piece of objective information. For example, “maybe my position in the water was too low; through kicking with a little bit more speed and power I can get my body a little bit higher in the water.” Rather than getting caught upin the nature of the occurrence, we can take the opportunity to correct our form and refine our skills.
It’s Those Skills We Mess Up That We Eventually Master
Reflecting upon my own training in the pool, it was those skills that I didn’t get right at times that I still remember today. There’s just something about making a mistake, identifying the issue, problem-solving and receiving feedback that creates a more in-depth and memorable learning experience, often leaving the skill to sink in a little bit deeper than those skills we never get wrong or get right straight away.
For Water Polo players or any team athlete, the goal of our work with relation to overcoming mistakes would be to reframe the way they perceive game day errors. Over time what we want to try and do is help them shift their cognitive response to one that views the occurrence as a learning experience rather than a mistake; an opportunity to learn a skill, refine technique and make us 0.1% better than we were yesterday. We usually like to start this work by having a discussion around the stats of professional athletes. One of our favourite examples is Michael Jordan:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
So we’re talking about the greatest basketballer of all time here, making countless “mistakes” – missing thousands of shots, some of which lost his team the game. So why is that we call Michael Jordan the best basketball player in the world, despite the fact that over the course of his career he’s missed thousands of shots – what makes him the best?
Crediting Successes to Mistakes
What makes him, and all the other elite athletes we know today the best is their response to mistakes. Rather than how they place when things are going their way, it is their response in the face of adversity that makes them the best at what they do. Anyone can play a good game when things are going their way, but what makes an athlete elite is how they play when things aren’t.
We do have a choice at the end of the day – to let the mistake define us or to give meaning to the mistake. With the assistance of some mindfulness-based exercises often this choice is a little bit easier. Something important to keep in mind is that our default cognitive and emotional response to a mistake is always going to be an uncomfortable one, but for those who are willing to learn to sit with those inner thoughts and feelings and take something away from the experience, you’re already halfway there.
How We Define a“Great Athlete”
If there’s one message I’d like you to take away from this piece, it is that a great athlete is defined not by their best game, but by how they respond to and learn from their worst game. The best athletes across all water sports and beyond credit their successes to the mistakes they made (and continue to make along the way), and that is what makes them the best.
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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Clarke, L. K., Osborne, M. S., & Baranoff, J. A. (2020). Examining a group acceptance and commitment therapy intervention for music performance anxiety in student vocalists. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1127.
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Liverant, G. I., Brown, T. A., Barlow, D. H., & Roemer, L. (2008). Emotion regulation in unipolar depression: The effects of acceptance and suppression of subjective emotional experience on the intensity and duration of sadness and negative affect. Behaviour research and therapy, 46(11), 1201-1209.
Mahoney, J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2011). A brief educational intervention using acceptance and commitment therapy: Four injured athletes’ experiences. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5(3), 252-273.
Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26-31.
Paliliunas, D., Belisle, J., & Dixon, M. R. (2018). A randomized control trial to evaluate the use of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to increase academic performance and psychological flexibility in graduate students. Behavior analysis in practice, 11(3), 241-253.
Pingo, J. C., Dixon, M. R., & Paliliunas, D. (2020). Intervention enhancing effects of acceptance and commitment training on performance feedback for direct support professional work performance, stress, and job satisfaction. Behavior analysis in practice, 13(1), 1-10.
Ruiz, F. J. (2010). A review of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) empirical evidence: Correlational, experimental psychopathology, component and outcome studies. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 10(1), 125-162.
The M in Metuf stands for motivation, and it’s apt that it comes first in our mental training model.
The best way to measure you motivation is by completing one of our four MTQs via this link. Your results will be emailed to you within a day or two.
Other words (synonyms) that are very similar to motivation are commitment, desire, passion and determination.
Why Is Motivation So Important?
The simple answer is motivation improves longevity both in sport (Sarrazin et al. 2002) and other performance domains (Grant, 2008). The higher the motivation, the longer (in years) you’ll want to do it for. There are a number of reasons an athlete or performer might struggle with motivation at some point in their career. Barriers can be physical, biological, social-environment or psychological. In terms of psychological barriers, what we know about motivation is that it is fostered by meeting three basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000):
For motivation to flourish, a performer first needs to be able to do the task. Then they have to have the freedom to choose to do the task, and finally, in some way feel a sense of connectedness with others. We know that by meeting these needs the likelihood of burnout is reduced significantly, keeping performers in their performance domain for longer.
The Role of Performance Psychology in Motivation
What we also know about motivation is that the type of motivation a performer possesses is another extremely important factor to consider. One of the first questions we ask our clients during their initial free Kick Start Session is, “why do you do what you do?”. Understanding the reasons why an individual engages in something is a vital bit of information to have.
The most crucial bit of information we want to extract from this answer is around whether their motivation is intrinsic, extrinsic, or a mix of both. It’s important for both the Psychologist and the Performer to understand which of the two are at play, due to the fact that they work in different ways and can provide the performer with different motivational outcomes.
An athlete or performer who is intrinsically motivated does what they do for their own sense of personal satisfaction. Individuals who are internally driven will often say the reason for doing what they do is because it brings them a sense of:
Performers who are intrinsically motivated participate in the performance domain because they enjoy learning and improving their skills, and have made a self-determined choice to participate.
What makes intrinsic motivation so useful is the fact that it’s completely dependent on the individual. That is, the performer’s motivation isn’t based on anything or anyone else, and therefore isn’t reliant on things the individual doesn’t have a huge amount of influence over. The performance psychology literature claims that intrinsic motivation has the largest and most positive impact on performance quality (Cerasoli, Nicklin & Ford, 2014), and is the better of the two for more stable, long-term motivation.
Not Just In Sport …
In alternative performance settings such as workplaces, intrinsic motivation is also associated with greater worker satisfaction and commitment, self-reported performance, company profitability and lower emotional and exhaustion burnout (Deci, Olafsen & Ryan, 2017). If you’re wanting to stick around in your area of performance for the long run, I definitely suggest sitting down and figuring out whether or not you are intrinsically motivated to put in the work. I don’t think just because you don’t love your sport at the moment that you can’t learn to love it.
Think about certain foods that as a kid you hated but that as you got older you learned to enjoy them (Brussel sprouts, dark chocolate!). One of the simplest exercises to boost intrinsic motivation is to write a list of your five favourite aspects of your involvement in the sport or performance area. Now, really “go to town” with these. For example, if you love the health benefits of running then keep a track of these benefits as objectively as possible.
Extrinsically motivated performers put in the work for some external reason or benefit. An individual who is very extrinsically motivated may feel obligated to do what they do as a result of external pressure (parents, coach, peers), or for financial or social benefit.
The issue with extrinsic motivation is that it is reliant on things we don’t have a huge amount of influence over. For example;
What if one day mum and dad decide they’re not interested in your athletic career anymore? What if something else becomes more important to them than your athletic pursuits? Would you still want to continue?
What if I told you that you would never go on to earn lots of money, never land any sponsorships, and no one outside your local sporting community ever learns your name? Would this have an impact on your motivation?
For performers who are extrinsically motivated, it’s happy days when all the external factors we base our motivation on are present. The issue here is when they’re gone, you can expect to experience a real dip in your motivation.
Intrinsic or Extrinsic Motivation
The simplest way to determine whether or not a performer is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated is through a simple listing exercise – in the same format as a pros and cons list. What we would hope to see is that the performer lists more reasons they are intrinsically motivated than extrinsic. In-session, the discussion around this generally tends to serve as a time for realisation, and in some cases rediscovery:
The athlete/performer may not have acknowledged the value of enjoyment, sense of reward and challenge they get from doing what they do, and how this can actually serve as an internal driving force during prolonged periods of training.
The athlete/performer may also come to a realisation that they are doing what they do for the wrong reasons. A discussion around whether or not they’re taking committed action towards living a rich and meaningful life (as defined by their values) might follow this.
Visualisation for Motivation
Following discussions around the types of motivation that may be driving performance pursuits, we then have an opportunity to discuss some more practical skills to enhance it. Visualisation or Mental Rehearsal has many different purposes, of which technical practice and motivation are the two main uses.
Visualisation for motivation is particularly important during times of prolonged intense training with limited competition (did someone say pandemic?). Visualising intentions (the actions or processes we wish to perform) from the first-person perspective can have a positive effect on motivation (Ouellette et al., 2005; Knauper et al., 2011; Johannessen, Oettingen & Mayer, 2012), and therefore process-based mental rehearsal from the mind’s eye is going to provide the best motivational outcomes.
Understanding Your Motivation Fluctuations
Motivation tends to fluctuate (and sometimes for no obvious reason). This is particularly likely during a period of intense training or preparation. We often like to remind our clients that they are not robots and that doing the same thing over and over again is very unlikely to always be highly satisfying and enjoyable.
Having an understanding of what factors influence your levels of motivation is important. Knowing why you’re not that keen to go to training is far better than just having that feeling. Keeping note of motivation levels in response to known hormonal changes, level and intensity of training, presence of upcoming competitions and stressors outside of your performance domain is an important part of managing your mental wellbeing as an athlete or a performer. This allows for us to acknowledge we may need to engage in some self-compassion practices during those particularly challenging times. Try and track your motivation in a diary or similar format in order to link certain events so you can understand your motivators better.
Exploring Motivation Further
If you’re an athlete or performer and would like some tailored insight on how to boost your motivation then please get in touch by completing our Contact Us form and one of our team will get back to you to discuss how we might be able to assist you in this crucial performance area.
Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 980–1008. http://dx.doi.org/10 .1037/a0035661
Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108
Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychol. Inquiry 11, 227–268. doi: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01
Grant, A. M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, performance, and productivity. J. Appl. Psychol. 93:48. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.48
Johannessen, K. B., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2012). Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behaviour. Psychology & Health, 27(sup2), 43-58.
Knäuper, B., McCollam, A., Rosen-Brown, A., Lacaille, J., Kelso, E., & Roseman, M. (2011). Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption. Psychology and Health, 26(5), 601-617.
Ouellette, J. A., Hessling, R., Gibbons, F. X., Reis-Bergan, M., & Gerrard, M. (2005). Using images to increase exercise behavior: Prototypes versus possible selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(5), 610-620.
Predoiu, R., Predoiu, A., Mitrache, G., Firancescu, M., Cosma, G., Dinuta, G., Buchroiu, R. A. (2020). Visualisation techniques in sport – The mental road map for success. Physical Education, Sport and Kinetototherapy Journal, 59 (3), 245-256. https://doi.org/10.35189/dpeskj.2020.59.3.4
Sarrazin, P., Vallerand, R., Guillet, E., Pelletier, L. G., and Cury, F. (2002). Motivation and dropout in female handballers: a 21-month prospective study. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 32, 395–418. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.98
Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9, 78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-9-78
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.
Baseball Psychology Is A Ten Minute Read by Performance Psychologist David Barracosa On The Mental Aspects Of Baseball
When I applied for a position at Condor Performance a little over 10 years ago one of the first questions that Gareth asked me was which sports I considered to be the most mentally challenging. It’s a difficult question because every sport has its challenges which Madalyn and Morgan have outlined in their excellent recent blog articles. However, after some consideration and debate with my family the two that that I landed on were Baseball and Biathlon. The focus of this blog is going to be on the mental side of baseball (or Baseball Psychology) by exploring what these challenges are and different approaches we can take to best manage them and allow our performances to thrive.
Why Is Baseball So Psychologically Challenging?
Now I will say that the answer of baseball as one of the most mentally challenging sports might have a touch of bias to it as I spent most of the afternoons and weekends during my youth toiling away trying to be the best first basemen and clean up hitter that I could be. I love the sport and everything about it including its unique challenges that for me add to the excitement and spectacle that is America’s pastime. Since working for Condor Performance (Gareth must have liked the answer to the previous question amongst others during the intake process haha) I have had the chance to work with a number of baseball players at all levels of the sport and this has given me the opportunity to see how individuals react to the challenges that are thrown their way (literally and metaphorically) and also determine what works and does not work in terms of strengthening performance.
Analysing baseball performance and determining player strength is something that for a long time has come under the microscope of sabermetrics. If you are not familiar with this term it was coined by Bill James to evaluate in-game performances of players and something that was brought to Hollywood via the movie “Moneyball”. Through these practices baseball has become obsessed with statistics and this has filtered down into the mindset of a lot of players I have worked with who are more focused on box score performance rather than the actions and intentions that make up their time on the field. What this means is that a significant part of any improvement to a baseball player’s mindset is about shifting their attention away from being statistically motivated to being process orientated. Statistics muddy the waters and focussing on them essentially means we are trying to control too much of what happens in the game which leads to overthinking, self-doubts, knee jerk changes to our approach and a greater level of emotional variability. All of these factors are the kryptonite to process consistency which wants to be the goal that we are all striving for. Of cause this is true for many sports but baseball is particularly susceptible to an obsession with outcomes (both large and small).
It’s How You Handle The Stats!
Now I know a lot of people might be reading this and thinking that statistics are important especially if you’re a player trying to earn more playing time or generate college offers. To an extent this is true. They are important but they don’t want to be the focus or the way we judge our own performances. They assume too much and don’t represent the cog in the machine that we have control over. To me statistics are the taste of your favourite meal whereas processes and tactical wisdom is the recipe that allows you to produce that taste. I am much more interested in knowing whether we executed the recipe correctly because this will go a long way to determining the taste of the meal. In baseball terms I’m more interested in knowing that you took an aggressive mindset at the plate and followed your pre-pitch routine which resulted in hard hit line drives that might have been caught in the outfield than being distracted by what happened in your last at bat, worrying about getting on base safely and therefore you’re not locked in but managing to bloop a couple of safe hits. The former of these scenarios represents process and performance consistency and that drives confidence even if the statistics don’t align.
If we take a statistics only (mostly) frame of mind I believe we get distracted from the essence of baseball (and any other sport to be honest) which is the competitiveness between two opponents. Whether you are the pitcher, batter, fielder or base runner you are engaged in a contest and in order to put our best foot forward in the contest we want to be focused on the present moment, be routine based and active with our processes. Strengthening these three mental skills will help take any baseball player’s performance to the next level.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Baseball Psychology
Being focused in the present moment aligns itself with the approach of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If you look at being consistent in terms of thoughts and emotions we need to observe how a focus on different points in time affect us. Focusing on the past can generate an internal experience of frustration, disappointment and regret whereas focusing on the future can generate an experience of stress, anxiety and excitement. When you put these ingredients into the performance pot what I have found is that it either distracts or causes an individual to rush, not the mindset we want to have. Baseball (like volleyball, golf, cricket, American football and tennis) is a stop-start sport which means that there is a clear distinction of what the present moment is, i.e. this pitch.
This pitch is the only one I can actually do something about from any position on the field. As a pitcher its the only one I have control over throwing, as a hitter its the only one I can look to hit and as a fielder it is the only one I can make a play on. All the pitches that were previously thrown are done and cannot be changed even if we made a mistake or missed an opportunity to have an impact. All future pitches are irrelevant because we have no idea what is going to happen. It’s this pitch (and only this pitch) that I can contribute on and therefore we want to be locked in on ensuring it gets our full attention.
Repeatable Routines Are Key
The way that we can increase that present moment focus is by being routine based. When the play pauses while the ball is thrown back to the pitcher and they reset before going again is a really good opportunity to make sure we lock back in for the next play. I remember a junior coach that I had who would always say that each pitch when you’re in the field you need to expect the ball to be hit to you so you’re ready to make a play. Having a routine can help with this by making sure that we know the game situation, are walking in with the pitch to ensure we are on our toes and are ready to be active if the ball is hit our way.
The same applies at the plate or on the mound where we can go through a routine (think David Ortiz at the plate or Craig Kimbrel on the mound as exaggerated but effective examples of having a routine before every pitch). Irrespective of what has happened the routine is exactly the same and ensures that when they are set and ready to go. The only thing we are focusing on is this moment and the opportunity to contribute. If you are designing your own routine then the thing that is important to keep in mind is that it is very action based because no matter the situation we want to be confident that our routine can hold strong. If it is too mental (e.g. reminder words etc) there’s a chance we lose it to distraction whereas no matter what circumstance we can execute a series of small behaviours to ready ourselves for what’s to come next.
Once we have readied ourselves and have that focused locked in we give ourselves an opportunity to land a punch in this contest. Baseball is made up of split second decisions so being primed for the moment is essential to playing on the front foot proactively rather than being reactive and chasing the moment. I mentioned earlier that each pitch is a chance to contribute and this is absolutely true. I see too often players will have altered intentions based on what’s occurred previously and the most common of these is a tendency to play it conservative when things have not gone their way, e.g. let a ball drop in the field instead of laying out for it, not throwing an off-speed pitch when there’s a runner on third or waiting for the pitch rather than looking to attack it at the plate. In each of these situations we have drastically reduced our chances of showcasing our strengths and skillset and if you are too statistically minded we have also reduced the chances of being successful in that way as well.
Staying True To Our Processes
Staying true to our processes is designed to help us be aggressive and look to command the moment whereas getting caught focusing on something out of the present moment means we lose that command. We begin to play like we have something to lose instead of playing like we have something to win. We play to avoid mistakes instead of creating success. We catch ourselves worrying more about the opinions of others than the pride we have in ourselves.
The strength of our processes ultimately comes down to how we practice. If we are reinforcing our processes and routines in that space then they are likely to show up in a game. Think about throwing a bullpen or taking batting practice and often it’s about volume and repetitions. What you might like to think about is slowing it down and making sure there is a space for your routine which I think can also increase the quality of the work you are putting in. The application of processes in practice also means that we can create a sense of confidence and test ourselves in that forum so that we have trust that in pressure moments the same version of ourselves is going to show up to compete. In other words the pattern of how we practice is the pattern of how we will compete.
A Final Thought …
The final thought I have is that the pace of baseball ultimately means there is a lot of thinking time. The ideas presented in this blog will help ensure that the thinking time actually turns into a bit more doing time and allows you to stay consistent over the course of nine innings and see the best version of yourself showing up to compete.
An Introduction To The Psychology For / Of Endurance Sports
There is something incredibly inspiring about watching runners finish a marathon. The mental toughness required to sustain such a performance despite fatigue over long distances and durations is undeniable. It can be the difference in seconds between elite athletes, or the defining factor in finishing your first ultra. In my eyes, it’s one of the most enchanting things about endurance sports and one of the main factors that motivated me to pursue a career in performance psychology.
Whether your goal is to run 100 miles, chase a sub 3-hour marathon, or finish your first Ironman triathlon, you know you’re going to suffer for a long time. You can expect discomfort and fatigue from pushing yourself, regardless of how physically well-prepared you are. In the context of endurance sports, that’s the point. This is what athletes sign up for, especially if they want to be able the sense of achievement that comes from realising their capability. Relative suffering from maximum effort is the same lived experience for both elite and recreational endurance athletes. One of the unique challenges for all athletes in endurance sports is developing the mindset to be able to suffer ‘better’, and for longer.
Suffer ‘Better’, And For Longer
Extended feelings of physical exertion and associated discomfort are accompanied by a constant stream of helpful and unhelpful thoughts. Some might make us feel strong and capable in our efforts, others tell us to cut corners or simply give up. Becoming aware of the relationship between your thoughts and feelings and actions is the key to being able to get the most from our training processes and push ourselves on race day.
One of the core frameworks we like to borrow from in our approach to thoughts and feelings is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This framework has recently gained a lot of traction in sport psychology and performance psychology. Unlike many traditional approaches, it is founded upon the idea that our thoughts and feelings do not need to impact our behaviour and therefore do not need to be changed or ‘fixed’. This does not mean that we simply ignore our unhelpful thoughts and discomfort. It’s actually quite the opposite. Observing thoughts for what they are, ‘just thoughts’, can help us to accept them and focus instead on the way we choose to engage with them.
Be Present And Aware
Before we can accept unhelpful thoughts and feelings of discomfort to our performance advantage, we need to become fully aware and familiar with them and the context. It is very difficult to be open to accepting something you are not noticing. Learning to openly observe our thoughts, bodily sensations and surroundings is a great way to stay focussed on the present moment. It also provides a strong foundation for developing effective mental strategies to engage with thoughts and feelings in helpful ways. Here are some strategies for increasing openness to our internal experiences and awareness for external factors in the context and environment.
Practice noticing sensations in different parts of your body as a type of routine. Check in with the pressure you feel under each foot, engagement of specific muscles with each movement, the feeling of breeze on your skin, and your breathing rhythm. It’s important that you simply notice these sensations and do not overlay any interpretation like ‘I must be tired’.
Work through your senses one at a time to focus on the present environment and how you’re interacting with it. Note things you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste, focussing on smaller things you might normally miss. If you listen to music, this can be a great way to engage with it differently.
Leave your watch at home and experience your own levels of ‘perceived effort’. That is, what you can better observe about your bodily sensations and fatigue when you can not use your pace or heart rate as a cue to expectations like ‘this is an easy pace for me’.
Once Step At A Time
One of the most confronting things in a long run or ride is the realisation early on of how far you still have to go. A common strategy used by many athletes is breaking the distance up into smaller sections by what you see around you – trees, traffic lights, lamp posts etc. Notice what these are, their characteristics, their physical relationship to you as you travel toward them.
Train of Thought
Just as you notice your physical sensations, observe any thoughts that pop into your mind as occurrences. Note them for interest’s sake as ‘I’m having a thought that…’. There is no need to label them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Notice what you are physically experiencing when they occurred, and when they come and go.
Obviously these experiences will be highly personalised for every athlete. The most important part is not the content, but creating openness and awareness to the experience for exactly what it is in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness in this way can be challenging at first, and these types of strategies are best served alongside clarity for why you’re out on that long run in the first place.
Embrace Your ‘Why’
Consider this apparently paradoxical scenario. Ask anyone who identifies as an elite or recreational runner, if they enjoy running. Almost all will say something like ‘Absolutely, I love running!’. They might even try to recruit you if you’re not already a runner. Follow up with ‘doesn’t it hurt though?’. And almost all will agree. At face value, why would anyone love to participate in an activity that they expect will cause them to suffer?
Anyone who has ever been for a run can probably relate to realising the above ridiculousness at some point while running – ‘Why on earth do I do this?’. Training for endurance events also requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline. The reason we persist is likely because it represents a core set of values – our ‘Why’.
For some, the ‘Why’ might be the feeling of challenging yourself, feeling of connectedness to the running community or as way to practice gratitude for mental health. There are no correct answers. Values are far more vague than goals – they can never be fully achieved. This is the beauty of them – values persist where goals might expire, and living your values is independent of your performances or race outcomes.
If you are in touch with your values and how you found yourself here, they become easier to draw on when required. When training is tedious, and it feels easier to just hit the snooze button. Acting consistently with our values may not always be enjoyable, but we recognise that it is important, so we follow through. It’s that 4am training session in the rain when ‘no-one is watching’. Being intentional about noticing, documenting and monitoring your values-driven processes can bring a greater sense of enjoyment and commitment to your training.
You Don’t Have To Stop
From the ACT perspective in endurance sports, why fight unhelpful thoughts and feelings of discomfort if we can expect them and know they are a core component of the sport we love? The personal strength that is associated with conquering discomfort in endurance sports even forms part of the ‘Why’ for many athletes. It’s important to note here, I am referring to discomfort from maximum physical effort and fatigue – like running an interval at threshold, pushing your bike up a steep incline, or those last couple of miles. The approach I recommend for managing these experiences is to be open and accepting when we inevitably meet them, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them.
Putting cognitive effort into trying to change or suppress unhelpful thoughts such as ‘I’ve had enough’, or ‘I don’t think I can do this’ might cause more distress in the situation. It can also distract from putting effort into the essential physical processes that are simply turning the legs over. This can be illustrated in a silly way as, ‘Whatever you do, DO NOT think about an elephant, it will harm your performance’.
Of course, an elephant immediately pops into your mind, and trying to remove it dominates our attention. Shifting the focus away from trying to control or change thoughts and feelings creates room for more productive engagement with the situation and growth from living these experiences fully, and in line with our values above.
There are plenty of thoughts we have in a day that we do not act upon. These thoughts occur, and we simply do not do anything about them. Similarly, just because you may think you need to stop running, does not mean you have to if you recognise it as avoiding the discomfort that comes from effort.
In the familiar example above, a feeling of fatigue generates a thought – ‘I need to stop’. If you’re a new runner, this might hit close to home. When these enter our awareness, we make a choice to act or not. In fact, if you did choose to stop, you have reinforced the very thought-behaviour pattern in question. We want to de-couple this relationship if we are to manage fatigue and continue to perform as close as we can to our physical capability.
For example, there is a subtle but very important difference between ‘I need to stop’ and ‘I’m having a thought that I need to stop’, as per our earlier example. The first is a command to action, the second is just noticing that a thought popped into your mind. This simple exercise in reframing unhelpful thoughts can help us to accept them for what they are – thoughts. When conceptualised this way, it is easier to adopt strategies for dropping them or letting them go along your way – like taking a weight out of a backpack every so often. By practicing accepting thoughts, we leave more room in our mind to trust our training and past commitment to our physical processes.
From a different point of view, this approach might also bring new meaning to infuriating statements from supporters and coaches such as ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other’, ‘You’re really holding your form’ or ‘You look great!’. These comments are about actions – behaviours they can see. You’re acting as if you were an athlete with no feelings of fatigue in that moment. At the end of the day, only actions get us to the finish line. Regardless of feelings of fatigue, discomfort, or any unhelpful thoughts, these comments celebrate the evidence of your ability to persist despite them.
Plan To Show Up
Athletes in any sport are quick to recognise the importance of a physical training plan to prepare for this. In a typical endurance training program, there are a mixture of session types targeting different physical performance aspects – long runs, interval sessions, targeted strength training etc. to build aerobic and anaerobic capacity, improve lactate clearance and Vo2 Max.
The different challenges that a diversity of physical training sessions present is the ideal opportunity to create a foundation for mental training plan to match. Like any training, mental training comes from the deliberate repetition of our actions, processes and routines. Failing to plan our mental training processes is leaving this essential component of endurance to chance. This may be as simple as going for a run with the commitment to practicing a specific mindfulness strategy (like the examples above). Here are some recommendations for both athletes and coaches.
Creating a routine to document your observed experiences against the function or purpose of the session. Use this to reflect on what you might have noticed about the thoughts and sensations that occurred to you under different efforts and conditions. You might use these insights to build visualisations to prepare for difficult periods in a race with sessions of comparable challenge. For example, those designed to simulate the physical experience of fatigue in the latter stages of a race.
If you typically complete your long run or ride socially, create opportunities to practice becoming more open and aware of your experience alone. This is especially important if you will be racing alone.
If you are naturally drawn to either monitoring internal states or external awareness, plan sessions to engage deliberately in one or the other throughout. Mental flexibility from engaging with both approaches can be useful at different points in a race, or for different types of endurance events.
To summarise, endurance sport creates special opportunities for us to realise the great sense of personal strength that comes from conquering discomfort and suffering over an extended period. For many, this experience forms part of our ‘Why’ for engaging in these sports from the start. If we want to be prepared to ‘show up’ fully for this experience – including the discomfort, fatigue – it’s essential we take advantage of training opportunities to rehearse mentally. Thoughts and sensations do not need to interact with the repetitive sequence of actions that’s been the focus of our physical training. Embracing this perspective can bring more enjoyment to the process and the inspiring challenge of endurance.
If you are an endurance sports competitor or coach and would like to expand on these ideas then Morgan is available for private performance psychology coaching either in person in Brisbane (QLD, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Morgan Spence”.