Team Unity and Culture

“Team Unity” works the same as all the other mental skills. They don’t become excellent accidentally. What are you and your teammates doing to intentionally improve this essential performance ingredient?

Team Unity. In team sports, we often talk about team unity as playing a vital role in success. But how important is team unity to sporting success? And how do we go about developing it?

Creating a Winning Culture 

In this article, I will mainly use the term team unity. But as is often the case in psychology there are often multiple terms to refer to the same thing. Other common ways to describe team unity include team cohesion, togetherness, chemistry as well as team culture. Note this article was originally written in 2021 but recently updated.

Coaches often talk about creating a “Winning Culture” as one of the keys to success. When we talk about a winning culture, we’re usually referring to a team environment that helps its individuals thrive. So what does the training environment of a team with consistent success look like?

You would likely see a group of individuals with shared values (despite varying individual values). A group working towards a common goal and supporting each other to flourish in their own individual roles. Characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, constructive feedback, and having a positive influence on the people around them would likely be commonplace. If team unity is not a priority then that team limits its opportunity to improve. The unavoidable nature of team sport is that it 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 is not that useful. With every outcome goal, we want process goals as well – preferably a whole bunch of them. We want to place more focus on how we plan to improve compared to how we want to end up. 

We have a lot of influence over our processes. Not only the planning of these processes but carrying them out as well. Outcomes on the other hand, not so much. Why? Because there are a lot of other contributing factors to results. The most obvious and common of these include other people, varying weather conditions, officials, and equipment.

Process goals 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).

Understanding Your Role

One of the trickiest aspects about working in a team setting is that you basically have a group of individuals with different experiences and roles trying to work together. In a team setting it is vital each member understands their own ability, role, and expectations. Team members need to be able to make judgments about when to rely on others and when to step up and perform. Without an understanding of these fundamentals, you’ll have multiple individuals trying to do the same thing. Or worse, nobody there at all.

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. It is important for individuals to reflect on their own performance as well as that of the team. Remember there are many things outside of their influence that may have contributed to the outcome.

Culture, Atmosphere, and Communication

For team unity to flourish then the group atmosphere needs to be a positive and cohesive one. Positive and cohesive team cultures are made up of a whole range of factors but here are the most common:

  • Player attitudes
  • team motivation
  • Individual empowerment
  • Team identity

Team identity refers to the distinct characteristics of the team that make it unique. It is strongest 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. Easier said than done, right?

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-centered 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 between players to foster an environment of camaraderie and ensure team members feel supported by each other.

Respect 

It is important to distinguish liking our team members from respecting them. In the sport and performance domains, 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 of those ideas and offer alternative ones. The team environment needs to foster non-judgment to allow individuals to take risks and step outside their comfort zones on an individual level as they work towards that common goal.

Let The Score Take Care Of Itself

The take-home message from this piece is that in order to establish a winning culture, we might want to focus less on winning. 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 centered 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. As legendary NFL coach Bill Walsh famously said “The score takes care of itself” (see right).

Get In Touch

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then get in touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services. We typically respond within 48 hours.

References

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.

Sporting Superstitions

Sporting Superstitions Versus Performance Routines. In this article Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance looks at both.

And How They Differ From Routines 

Sporting superstitions are surprisingly common. But do they cause more harm than good?

One of the lawn bowlers I work with recently asked me this question during a session. “What is the difference between a pre-performance routine and having some superstitions?” So good was the question that I decided to expand the answer that I gave her into this feature article on Sporting Superstitions.

Sporting Superstitions Versus Routines

In the work we do as sport psychologists and performance psychologists, we use routines frequently. I suspect I use them more often than my colleagues at Condor Performance due to my extreme “you can’t control your feelings/thoughts” approach to consulting.

For a much deeper dive into routines it’s probably better if you read these articles here and here but here is a quick summary. Routines are basically just premeditated series of actions. I tend to leave thoughts out of the equation. These action sequences vary mostly in terms of duration and timing. Some routines are very short (a few seconds) whilst others can take hours. 

And we try to name them accordingly. For example, the routine that tennis players might use to get themselves mentally ready to receive the ball might be labelled a Pre-Point Routine or Pre-Receiving Routine. However, the longer routine before the start of the competition might be called a Pre-Match Routine. The middle part of this can be changed depending on the sport. For example combat sports athletes might have a Pre-Fight Routine.

Guaranteeableness (Made Up Word)

But despite these differences, good routines have one thing in common. They are built around actions that are intended to be guaranteeable. I typically prefer the word guaranteeable to controllable. Because the actions are guaranteeable then they can be entirely relied upon in any and all situations.

This is especially true when they are practised frequently and become automatic. And it is here that the majority of the benefit is found for this particular mental skill. In highly pressurised situations knowing that you can execute these predetermined actions amidst the chaos is the biggest contributor to composure. And composure is the biggest contributor to consistency. And consistency is the biggest contributor to sustained excellence.

Whether or not to include premeditated thoughts such as cue words in these routines is a contentious issue at the moment in international sport psychology circles. My issue with including any cognitive steps in these routines is that they simply are not guaranteeable. It’s all good and well in the calmness of practice to say to yourself “watch the ball”. But can you guarantee to remember to think this when you are feeling nauseous from nerves?

Actions Are Far More Reliable Than Thoughts

Instead, I’d rather my clients include the more reliable step of “widening their eyelids” (not saying to themselves ‘widen eyelids’, actually completing this micro action) in this example.

This way the cue word “watch the ball” becomes a bonus and not a requirement. If it’s used then great. If it’s not used then no biggie.

In doing this, we avoid what is known as metacognition. Metacognition is the process whereby you start thinking about your thoughts. Basically worrying about being worried. And it can snowball. Worrying about worrying about being worried etc.

So for the above example metacognitive worry might look like this. “Oh bugger I forgot to think to myself watch the ball”. And suddenly attention for simply completing the actions is diverted to a cognitive process that is completely unnecessary in order to complete the motor skill. You don’t need to have any dental-related thoughts before, during or after brushing your teeth. You just need to complete the action. 

A Difference In Flexibility

One of the major differences between sporting routines and sporting superstitions is flexibility.

Most sporting superstitions are concerningly inflexible. Because good routines are designed (not accidental) flexibility can be embedded from the very start. For example in the longer Pre-Performance Routines there will not be a set order for the actions. So they may have a checklist of several activities they want (not need to, want to) to complete. For example, listening to some music, or maybe doing mindfulness. But the duration and order of these can change if required.

For sporting superstitions, not so much. If an athlete feels like they need to put the left sock on before the right sock to play well then there’s not a lot of wiggle room in that. In this example lies another clue about the difference between sporting superstitions and routines. Although routines are certainly designed as a performance optimiser we are quick to point out that they’re not magic. In other words, the routine doesn’t cause a good performance – there is simple a correlation. The difference between correlation and causation is brilliantly explained in this four minute video. Most athletes who use sporting superstitions do so because they actually believe it will result in a better performance. This is mentally damaging on all sorts of levels. If you are one of these performers then it might worth getting in touch with us.

Famous Sporting Superstitions

I thought it might be nice to wrap up this article with some of the most famous sporting superstitions of all time. These two Bleacher Reports articles go through 25 famous and 50 famous Sporting Superstitions. My favourites from these lists are:

Richie Ashburn Slept with Baseball Bats

Hall of Fame slugger Richie Ashburn had his own way of keeping a hot streak hot. Anytime he had a particularly good day at the plate, he would be sure to use the same bat for as long as the success would last. And Ashburn went to extraordinary lengths to remain in possession of his lucky bats. Concerned that equipment managers couldn’t be trusted to keep his bat separate from all the other bats, Ashburn would take his bat of the moment with him each night. He even made room in his own bed for his lucky bats.

Wade Boggs Pre-Game Chicken.

If you want to know the secret to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, 2005 inductee Wade Boggs might tell you it has something to do with poultry. In 1999 he revealed his entire career had been fuelled not by steroids, but by chicken! Legend has it that during his rookie season Boggs recognised some kind of correlation between his chowing down on chicken and games with multiple hits. He stuck to his superstitious diet religiously and his wife accumulated more than 40 chicken recipes for the 3,000 chicken meals she was tasked with producing each season. 

Are You Curious About Our 1-on-1 Psychology Services?

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.

Emotions, Sport And Performance

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.

Emotions – The ‘E’ in METUF

  • As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists we are often asked for ways to improve emotional management. So what exactly does this involve?
  • Through variations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we can learn to manage our emotions in more helpful ways.
  • At Condor Performance the goal of our work when it comes to emotions is mainly to teach clients how to perform at the highest possible level whilst experiencing the full range of emotions. It is not about helping them feel better.
  • If you’d like more information about 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. Most of the time this is a desire to feel a certain way on competition day. A day that is often riddled with a whirlwind of emotions from excitement to anxiety 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 these highly meaningful days. And we will certainly never feel great before and during all competitive situations. As fellow psychologist Peter Clarke mentions in this Podcast interview “we have this thing in our mind of I gotta feel perfect, calm and confident and THEN I’ll perform well. Mate, if that’s the case you’re going to perform well a very, very small portion of the time.”

Our first job as Psychologists is to help our clients 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 us wanting to learn how to get rid of the “negative” emotions and replace them with positive ones.

In their defence, this is often what is taught to us from a very young age. Remember this from the movie A League of Their Own? “There’s No Crying in Baseball.”

Emotions And Performance

During the initial Kick Start Session with new clients, we often hear stories of struggles when it comes to feelings on game day. Performers often describe the many ways in which they try to control these uncomfortable emotions. We get remarkable insight into how much impact 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 emotions. In short, they play a very important role in our survival. There are countless examples of this but the classic is the very natural human feeling of fear. Being afraid of snakes for example is jolly useful. This fear acts as a major deterrent to going anywhere near anything that vaguely resembles a snake. Despite the fact that most snakes are nonvenomous we typically leave them alone mostly thanks to fear.

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 in survival situations but not so much in performance scenarios.

Survival vs Performance

So what we know about emotions is that within a survival framework they’re really good at keeping us alive. However, emotions in the performance domain have a habit of getting in the way of us doing the things we already know how to do well. Our job as 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 “poorly”. One of the first questions I will often ask a new client is this one.

“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 something like this. “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. We assume greats like Roger Federer are all calm before and during matches. The fact is that even the best athletes in the world feel the full range of emotions we experience before an important event. Sometimes we forget that they are actually humans with a pumping amygdala just like the one you and I have.

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 by anyone. And just like learning the right technique the earlier this becomes a habit the better.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

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 suggests that trying to get rid of unwanted emotions actually creates a lot of psychological distress. In fact this psychological distress is often worse than the original feeling.

This often has 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. How? By building awareness and actually making room for them and learning to let these feelings come and go without a struggle.

ACT Works

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).

Acceptance

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).

Emotion Validation

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.

Commitment

But at the end of the day, there is a choice to be made. The athlete or performer can choose to:

  1. Feel these uncomfortable emotions and not commit to their actions, or
  2. 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.

“Fake It Till You Make It”

One of our Senior Sport Psychologists, Gareth J. Mole, takes a look at the concept of “Fake It Till You Make It” in this brand new feature article.

Elite poker players are particularly good at the skill of “Fake It Till You Make It”.

Fake It Till You Make It … or Till You Feel It!

As many of my clients and colleagues will know I’m a big fan of the concept of ‘fake it till you make it’. However, potentially due to the word fake, and what it implies, this catchphrase is often misunderstood. So am I glad that I have finally had the time to write something on the subject. As always I welcome your questions and comments at the bottom of this page.

It is worth mentioning that in my consulting as a sport psychologist I typically use the term ‘fake it till you feel it’ rather than ‘fake it till you make it’. I do this intentionally. Making it implies the reaching of a goal and in much of the work that I do continual improvement is the main aim. You may be surprised to read that often I am unaware of the goals of my clients.

Fake it till you feel it gets to the very heart of the main model that my colleagues and I at Condor Performance use to assist our clients to improve. Namely, an adaptation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) developed by Steven C. Hayes. The reason for the adaptation part is down to us wanting an even simpler framework. Below, is a Post It note drawing of what I would consider the bare bones of ACT.

“Fake It Till You Make It” when looking at just Actions, Thoughts and Feelings.

Human Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions

As you can see in the diagram our thoughts, feelings and actions are all separate from one another. The dotted line around actions is the key. Some of my clients will know this as a moat or a wall. We are trying to protect our actions from being railroaded by our very natural thoughts and feelings.

Note the varying amount of influence we have on each one. I’ve intentionally used the word influence rather than the word control as I find the word control can be very black or white. “I can control this but I can’t control that”, for example. In reality, we can’t really control much at all (maybe our effort but even then it depends on how you define effort) if the word control is used as a synonym for guarantee. We just have varying amounts of influence on stuff.

  • Quite simply, we have more influence on our actions than our thoughts.
  • In turn, we have more influence on our thoughts and our feelings.
  • Therefore logically we have much more influence over our actions compared to our feelings.

In other words, we have the least amount of influence over our feelings by far and by far the most amount of influence on our actions. And this is especially true when these same actions (e.g. a left jab in boxing) have been repeated a lot so that muscle memory takes care of the biomechanics. Basically, you don’t need to think about how to do it you just do it. Most adults who have been driving for a long time will be familiar with this feeling.

The Spectrum of Influence

Just to ram the point home, if we were to arrange thoughts, feelings, and actions into an influence ranking system actions would be at the top and feelings would be at the bottom. Thoughts would be in the middle, following?

So if we return to the fake it till you make it or fake it till you feel it concept this premise starts to become clearer as a form of psychological advice. The faking it part is actually all about body language. It is about portraying a certain emotion (or lack of) from the outside irrespective of what you’re actually feeling on the inside. Faking it, certainly by my interpretation, is not about pretending to feel something that you’re not.

So as explained in this previous article by my colleague Harley De Vos competence is far more valuable than confidence. Now in the work that we do this is most often in the context of the skill execution itself. But it can and should be extended to some of the less obvious actions pertaining to performance. One of these is body language. How competent are you at body language? Elite poker players seem to be the only performers who typically include working on this as part of their normal training. Maybe we all should?

Body Language Basics

One of the hidden bonuses about working on your body language is that you are effectively practicing one of the fundamental aspects of psychological flexibility. Because in working on your body language you will need to choose a way of looking – for example confident –and work out a way where your actual feeling – let’s say embarrassment – does not override your facial expressions, head position, posture, etc.

Often the most effective type of body language from a performance perspective is actually very neutral. I am not one for histrionics. Great body language should keep your opponents guessing. Hence the term ‘poker face’.

Conclusion

As I have become known for saying in recent years “they don’t hand out gold medals for who was thinking or feeling the best”. Very importantly thoughts and feelings needn’t have any impact on our actions. Especially if these actions are well rehearsed. However, it is quite acceptable and normal for our actions to have a one-way impact on our thoughts and feelings. And it is with this that the rest of that concept of fake it till you make it / feel it is complete. Basically, we fake it – we act confidently from the body language perspective without necessarily being confident and this often leads to increased feelings of confidence as a result.

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then get in touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.

How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

How To Measure Mental Toughness. It’s easier than it sounds. Basically, all you need is a device, an Internet connection and some honesty.

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates, Co Founder of Microsoft

Intro: How To Measure Mental Toughness

Okay, I’ll admit it. We’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, and stretch and reach tests to measure flexibility simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.

In fact, assessing Mental Toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt it. Instead, we simply asked a series of meaningful questions during the Kick Start Session.

But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business. So over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with. Namely their mental health and mental toughness. I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.

Measuring Mental Toughness Will Always Be An Estimation

Fact: There is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which rely 100% on opinions and/or observation.

With The Luxury Of Time …

With the luxury of time, the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client as well. This is often called 360 Degree feedback. Observing athletes or performers in real-life situations can be a very valuable extra when attempting to measure mental toughness and mental health.

Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions. Then imagine having this video footage of the outburst to use in a session. In our work, we typically only get this kind of data when working with highly paid professionals who are already being televised.

Relative Subjectivity

But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindful of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here?”. This is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. Our psychologists consider the main purpose of the questionnaires to be time savers. Instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client to find out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move on to ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process. We’re mainly interested in these four general areas:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long-term goals

Five Major Subcomponents of Mental Toughness

The open and closed questions then generate scores for various aspects of mental toughness and mental health. It looks something like this when we get the email from Qualtrics.


Summary Scores

Overall Training Mental Toughness = 72 %

Overall Mental Health = 63 %

Breakdown of Your Current Mental Toughness:

DURING TRAININGYOUR SCORE OUT OF 20PRIORITY
Motivation18 
Emotions9 **
Thoughts13 
Unity15 
Focus18 
MENTAL HEALTHYOUR SCORE OUT OF 21CATEGORY
Depression2 Normal
Anxiety12 E. Severe
Stress9 Mild

This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, using the above made-up example. This athlete or performer clearly needs to prioritise how they manage their emotions during training as well as their everyday anxiety.

Mental Health is screened for due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of all our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!

I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires has become misleading. Why? Well, they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

Four Free Mental Toughness Questionnaires

The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

The Best Sport Psychology Quotes

This blog has some of the best sport psychology quotes. It’s a smörgåsbord of quotes from coaches, athletes and psychologists.

There are millions of sport psychology quotes, we have sorted through as many as possible and only added the “good ones” to this page.

40 of The Best Sport Psychology Quotes

The right kinds of quotes punch well above their weight. For such short sentences, they can really make us think. The challenge is picking through them all to separate the good ones from the well-intended garbage (trash). So we have decided to put on the plastic gloves and do this for you. Below are some of our favourite sport psychology quotes. As you’ll see it’s a smörgåsbord of quotes from coaches, athletes and psychologists. Furthermore, we have unpacked each quote a little. Essentially, providing a quick explanation about why it has been included in this ‘best sport psychology quotes’ blog. A number of these quotes are from our very own team of psychologists. This might seem a little self-indulgent but if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

If you would like us to add your favourite sport psychology quotes paste them into the comments section below. Enjoy and please share with your networks. You have our full permission to copy and paste any of these to inspire or motivate or whatever.

Sport Psychology Quotes By Athletes

“There’s no way around hard work. Embrace it. You have to put in the hours because there is always something you can improve on”

Roger Federer

Comment: If you want to go after it in life and explore your full potential as an athlete or performer, you are going to need to put in the work. Accepting the difficulty that comes from doing hard work is essential. As one of the greatest tennis players ever highlighted here, we can all learn from Roger Federer by believing that we can always improve in some capacity. A concept is known in Japanese as “kaizen”.


“Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”

Dan Gable

Comment: This is such a great sport psychology quote. Maybe one of the best of all time hence why it’s at the top. So true. The medal, the trophy, and the prize money are just symbols. The real reward is the actual hard work. To this end, I am aware of many medal winners who don’t even bother to display them. They are in boxes collecting dust somewhere.


“It’s not who’s put up the fastest time in the world that year, or who’s put up the fastest time in the previous four years, but who can get their hand on the wall first today.”

Nathan Adrian

Comment: This quote perfectly sums up a lot of the early conversations we have with athletes. We have this idea that on game day we need to be feeling great and thinking positively, and that we won’t perform well if we aren’t. The reality is that no one feels great on game day. The athletes that come out on top are those that can put together the best performance despite how nervous they feel and how unhelpful their thoughts are. 


“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Wayne Gretzky

Comment: This could be the most famous sport psychology quote of all time. Why? Because it’s one of the best from one of the best.


“People say to me all the time, ‘You have no fear.’ I tell them, ‘No, that’s not true. I’m scared all the time. You have to have fear in order to have courage. I’m a courageous person because I’m a scared person.” 

Ronda Rousey

Comment: We have this idea that athletes are superhuman – they don’t feel nerves or fear, and never doubt their ability. This just isn’t the case – the top athletes in the world feel all the same things we feel before an important moment, but through years of experience have just become really good at performing with all of those unhelpful thoughts and feelings present. 


“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside of them; a desire, a dream, a vision.”

Muhammad Ali

Comment: Not sure ‘the greatest’ meant to infer the following but anyway. Far too many of the sporting pathways overemphasise physical and technical. There is far too little on mental, tactical and personal.

Even More Quotes From Athletes …

“It’s fun to be in a race with Ledecki. We love racing each other. We don’t get to do it often”.

Ariarne Titmus

Comment: Despite the pressure, hype and expectation, the main emotions Titmus felt in racing the legendary American swimmer Katie Ledecki at the 2021 Olympics in epic battles in the 200, 400 and 800-metre freestyle finals, were joy and excitement for the opportunity to do so. 


Dreams are free. Goals have a cost. While you can daydream for free, goals don’t come without a price. Time, Effort, Sacrifice, and Sweat. How will you pay for your goals?

Usain Bolt

Comment: This great quote gives us a possible sneak peek into why UB was one of the greatest of all time. He worked very hard in practice. He then relaxed (or tried to at least) on race day allowing that Time, Effort, Sacrifice, and Sweat to just bubble to the surface.


“I can only control my performance. If I do my best, then I can feel good at the end of the day”

Michael Phelps

Comment: One of the greatest Olympians of all time on the importance of focusing on your own performance and effort. At Condor Performance, we believe in the importance of focusing on process over outcome. A sentiment echoed by Michael Phelps.

“I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything.”

Michael Phelps

Comment: Michael Phelps on understanding the mind and how we can train it to help ourselves perform better. Phelps has always given significant credit to his mental conditioning as an overall factor for his success in competitive swimming.


“I was forced to learn a lot about psychology as a player, and as a captain to get the best out of others. There’s still a lot of scepticism about it in sport and the workplace, but dealing with fluctuations of form, and pressure, and being away from home is more important than your cover drive.”

Andrew Strauss

Comment: This quote is not one that we had not come across before researching for this blog. Coming from one of the great thinkers of English cricket. It accurately explains that technical abilities (such as hitting a cover drive) don’t mean much without the mental side. Our coaching model Metuf explains this via the use of an analogy of an aeroplane.


Preparation is everything and focus is the key. It’s easy to say you gave it your all out on the pitch. But the point is if you’d prepared you’d have had more to give and you’ve played better”.

Eric Cantona

Comment: This is such a great point from the Manchester United legend. What it sounds like he’s saying is there is only so much you can do on match day. Performers who take shortcuts in training hoping to “bring it” on match day are likely to be found wanting.


The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Gary Player

Comment: This quote was originally linked with Samuel Goldwyn but later popularised by Gary Player. What he/they are saying is actually 100% accurate. If luck is the random stuff in sports we have no influence over then we can reduce the role this plays in terms of results by ensuring high-quality effort. You can read more on the psychology of luck in sports here.


“I got more bruises, grass-burns and cuts in practice than in match play.” 

Jonty Rhodes
Jonty Rhodes

Comment: This quote is from legendary South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes. Despite retiring more than 15 years ago he is still considered one of the best fielders to ever play the same. The full article, from which the above was taken, can be viewed here. As can be seen from the profile page of our founder Gareth J. Mole, Jonty is a real favourite of his.


“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” 

Kevin Durant

Comment: There is an argument that the whole concept of talent is a bit of a myth. Essentially, when people refer to the talent they are basically meaning genetics. In other words one of the few factors of performance that we have no influence on at all.

The Michael Jordan Section:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael Jordan

Comment: This is arguably one of the best sport psychology quotes of all time. It helps us to understand that performances at all levels and all types are full of errors. Knowing that processes (effort) and outcomes (results such as winning) are separate is key here. And as performers knowing we have a lot more influence over the former also helps.

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

Michael Jordan

Comment: Again Jordan is showing us that it was his mindset that made him so special. Being able to distinguish between effort (“trying”) and results (“failure”) is so very important. One way to do this is to forget about being able to control anything. Instead, consider the amount of influence you have. The more influence the more mental value you might put on those areas.

“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Michael Jordan

Comment: This quote is all about creativity. For example, during the Corona Virus, which was full of obstacles, did you stop? Or did you find another way to do the tasks you value?

More Quotes From MJ …

“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, and others make it happen.”

Michael Jordan

Comment: Actions and desires are not as linked as you might think. In the work we do as sport psychologists and performance psychologists we don’t do as much work on thoughts and emotions as you might imagine. Why? At the end of the day, especially in sport, it all comes back to actions. Would you rather kick the ball in the right way whilst thinking negatively or kick it incorrectly whilst thinking positively?

“The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether its proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”

Michael Jordan

Comment: As knowledge of sport psychology and sport science explodes we are at great risk of getting away from the fundamentals. In other words, it is becoming harder and harder for athletes to stick to the basics. The great coaches can have it both ways. Their sport psychology knowledge can grow without letting this overcomplicate their coaching. Do you know what your fundamentals are?

Sport Psychology Quotes By Coaches

“It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that really counts.”

John Wooden

Comment: John Wooden is considered by many as the first real mental coach in sports. He was either the first or one of the first to really take the mental side of performance seriously. In this sport psychology quote, he highlights the importance of never-ending learning.


“Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We.”

Phil Jackson

Comment: Phil is most known for how we managed the tricky team dynamics of the Chicago Bulls team from the 1990s. If you are yet to do so we highly suggest you watch The Last Dance documentary.


“Comfort the challenged, and challenge the comfortable”

Ric Charlesworth

Comment: This quote is more or less about the concept of flow. Flow is basically trying to find the sweet spot between too easy and too hard. As coaches or psychologists, we’re trying to help those we work with to not only find this middle ground. But we also want them to have the skills to thrive once they find them.


“No judgment of your practice, just practice.”

Gary Olson, Yoga Teacher at The Ashram Yoga

“Self-talk is overrated. Don’t think about doing it … just do it”

Gary Olson, Yoga Teacher at The Ashram Yoga

Comment: I’m not sure whether Gary considers himself a coach but this feels like the most appropriate section for his two quotes. The above and the below. I came across these two quotes whilst doing one of his online hot yoga sessions and I instantly loved them.


Sport Psychology Quotes By Other Famous People

“Don’t wait until everything is just right. It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles, and less-than-perfect conditions. So what? Get started now. With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident, and more and more successful.”

Mark Victor Hansen

Comment: Perfectionism is a common mental block in sport and performance. You can have some of the motivational qualities of it without the ugly side with a simple reframe. Instead of striving to be perfect aim to just be better. And do this through the right quantity of high-quality preparation. This quote is similar to a bunch that are related to ‘great being the enemy of good.


“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Vincent van Gogh

Comment: You might be starting to sense a theme from some of these great quotes now. Doing and thinking are not the same. Focus more on doing and less on thinking. Would you rather be the best thinker of the doer in your sport or performance area?

Some Less Famous Ones …

“Confidence is a habit that can be developed by acting as if you already had the confidence you desire to have.”

Brian Tracy

Comment: Have you ever heard ‘fake it til you make it? Maybe a better version for sport psychology consulting is ‘fake it til you feel it’. This is so powerful. Waiting until you feel a certain way before you act that way is so very limiting. If you don’t know how then hire an acting coach and ask for them to help you. Or get in touch with us and we can include this as part of a larger mental training plan.


“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.”

William Arthur Ward

Comment: It’s hard to be sure about this one. Does it mean that challenges in life are invaluable mental training? What is certainly clear is the proposition that there is a choice about how we respond to adversity.


“Successful people have fear, successful people have doubts, and successful people have worries. They just don’t let these feelings stop them.”

T. Harv Eker

Comment: Similar message. Thoughts and feelings are not fused with behaviours. You can still do remarkable things regardless of how you might be thinking and feeling.


“The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you.”

William Jennings Bryan

Comment: In others separate feelings from the action. Accept the feelings but commit the actions. Then remember you did this so you can repeat the process later. For a lot more on confidence read this blog post by Harley de Vos.

Still More Quotes …


“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Mark Twain

Comment: This quote speaks for itself.


“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Comment: This is such a great quote. In sport, worrying about what others (teammates, coaches) think of you is so common. Yet, it happens so much less than we realise. Furthermore, this has been confirmed via a number of lab experiments.

Sport Psychology Quotes By Psychologists

“Multitasking is seriously overrated. Try to do one task at a time and learn to do it with more purpose. “

Gareth J. Mole

Comment: I could write a whole book on this subject. Maybe I will one day! By multitasking, I am not referring to doing more than one thing at a time. After all, breathing is doing. It’s about trying to complete more than one non-automatic task at a time. For example, eating your lunch and typing an email. In my view, these kinds of tasks are always best of being done separately. There are many reasons but the main one is this kind of multitasking means the quality of both tasks is compromised.


“They don’t hand out winner’s medals to those who were feeling the best on the day, nor to those who were thinking clearly and positively. The medals only go to those who did the best.”

Gareth J. Mole

Comment: I am not sure if I can claim this or not. If it’s not something that popped into my head then I am not sure where it comes from. Regardless this is my favourite sport psychology of all time. If you are reading this and you believe you know the origin of this quote please email me and I will be happy to change the credit above.


We have this thing in our mind of I gotta feel perfect, calm and confident and THEN I’ll perform well. Mate, if that’s the case you’re going to perform well a very, very small portion of the time.”

Peter Clarke

Comment: This quote is taken from the first few seconds of Peter Clarke’s interview on the podcast Under The Lid with Scolls, Buck & Burkey. Once again it points out that we don’t need to be feeling a certain way in order to execute our motor skills under pressure. And in fact waiting to feel that way will limit the number of chances you give ourselves.


“Listen to everyone because even an idiot will have a good idea once or twice in their life. Then evaluate and pick out what works for you and commit to it.”

James Kneller

Comment: Our own James Kneller reminds us about the importance of listening. In sport we so often talk about the importance of experience. Well, that experience is comprised if you’re always listening to the same people over and over again.


“A competition is a normal performance on a special day.”

Jonah Oliver

Comment: This is the first of a new set of great sport psychology quotes from Performance psychologist Jonah Oliver. This quote typically gets mentioned at least once in each one of his Podcast interviews. Far too many athletes try and do something special on the big stage. They forget that just doing what they do best is normally the best approach.

“Go out there and be boring …”

Jonah Oliver

Comment: If you search online for “Jonah Oliver podcast interviews” you should stumble across a few where he mentions this great concept. I’ll leave it to the GOAT to explain the psychological benefits of going out there and being boring.

Sport Psychology Quotes By Unknowns

You are NOT your thoughts.”

Unknown

Comment: This quote might not even qualify as a quote. Maybe it’s just a fact. And certainly, in the work that we do as sport and performance psychologists, it’s a fact worth remembering. These five words are so powerful that they are the ideal final sentiment of this extensive list of sport psychology quotes.

If you know of a quote that does appear above but feel it should then please add it to the comments section below and we’ll add it next time we update this page.

Impulsivity Explored

Impulsivity Explored is a blog by leading sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole on the impact that impulsivity can have in performance situations.

Impulsivity
Impulsivity Explored is all about brain explosions that take place in the heat of the sporting contest. This is potentially one of the least investigated areas of modern-day sport psychology. 

Meaning of impulsive in English (Cambridge Dictionary)

Showing behaviour in which you do things suddenly without any planning and without considering the effects they may have.

Impulsivity and Reacting Versus Responding

How impulsive are you? Is impulsivity something you would benefit from working on? Would it have a direct benefit on your life or performance? When something happens to you, especially if it’s something that produces a lot of emotion, do you tend to react or respond?

Reacting and responding are slightly different from one another. One is impulsive the other isn’t. Can you guess which is which?

Reacting basically implies the resulting action was more automatic, less considered. In a nutshell, the brain was less involved. Responding on the other hand is suggestive of a much more considered action. One which was selected from a series of options. Due to this a response almost always takes longer than a reaction. In some cases much longer. Reactions are more impulsive, responses are less impulsive.

Impulsivity Can Be Useful … Sometimes!

It would be tempting to say that due to the above that responses are better than reactions. But this is not the case. Reactions serve a really important purpose in threatening or dangerous situations. Think about the benefit of your hand pulling away from a scolding hot object without you having to think about it. The speed of this reaction will, in many situations, reduce the amount of burning that occurs. This same reflex action allows a motorsport driver to react so fast that they appear to pull off the grid at the same time the lights go green.

But what if you are so good at reacting that you always react? And what if some of these situations would benefit more from a response. 

In the work that we do as sport psychologists and performance psychologists this issue is most common under the general banner of helping our clients with what could be called ‘reducing unhelpful impulsivity’. 

There are hundreds of examples where impulsivity can cause serious issues in competitive sports. Can’t think of any? Then take a look at this Bleacher Report blog of 25 of the most famous brain explosions in recent memory.

Think about the tennis player who can’t help but throw their racquet or abuse the umpire. How about the cricketer who is so upset about a catch being dropped off her bowling that she berates her poor teammate right there and then. ‘I couldn’t help it, my emotions got the better of me’. Really? Is that actually possible? I know it certainly feels like it but to reduce unhelpful impulsivity we first need to believe that our emotions have less power over our actions than they do.

But I Couldn’t Help It!

Blaming our emotions as if they are some invading alien life force that makes us act in a certain way is both inaccurate and very unhelpful. Just because it feels like we have no other option doesn’t make that true. 

One of the best ways to start reducing unhelpful impulsivity is to establish if the person who did the reacting was still happy with their actions well after the fact. Ideally at least one full day later. Was Serena Williams still pleased with how she reacted in the 2018 US Open final? If Will Smith was given the chance to go back in time would he still decide that slapping Chris Rock across the face at this year’s Oscars to be the right call? I can’t be sure as I have not asked them but I suspect both would love a do-over.

The reason why we want to establish this is to try and get an idea if the issue is really about impulsivity rather than morals and values. And you can imagine, someone who 24 hours after the fact still thinks that keying up someone’s car who parked poorly was the best choice of action in that situation would be better off focusing on their morals and values instead of their impulsivity. 

Most of the time, certainly in the work we do, the athletes or performers who reacted poorly realise this soon afterwards. Sometimes just seconds afterwards. Their morals and values are sound, they just need help converting certain reactions into more considered responses.

Fortunately, there are some tried and tested processes that when taken seriously can do just this. Here are three to whet your appetite.

Process A: Mindfulness

Regular Mindfulness helps reduce the overall power of thoughts and feelings. As some readers and many of my clients may know the best definition I have ever come across for Mindfulness is “increased awareness of the present moment with decreased judgement”.

One of the reasons why Mindfulness, if done regularly, is so effective in reducing unhelpful impulsivity is because it helps with both of these at the same time. When your awareness goes up you are basically using the information-gathering part of your brain and this shuts down the reacting part. By decreasing judgment, we are less likely to think that the umpire is doing a bad job and more likely to think he’s just doing his job.

“Which Mindfulness apps are the best” is a question we get a lot. The boring but honest answer to this is – it depends. Our advice would be to test out the five free apps listed here and pick your favourite. Feel free to use the comments section at the bottom of this blog to make other suggestions of Mindfulness apps you recommend or don’t and why.

Process B: Increase The Gap Between Stimulus And Response

This is not exactly the same as the above suggestion but is similar. The concept of there being a stimulus (for example, seeing someone take a parking spot you’d be indicating for) and then a gap and then the response was the brainchild of Viktor Frankl; the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and Holocaust survivor. This approach, which I have always found is most effective when combined with the below process asks us to come up with methods to a) make sure there is a gap and b) increase the duration of the gap.

Classics examples include counting backwards from 10 to 1 or taking two big belly breaths or, where appropriate writing down the emotions.

Process C: Lists

The final process designed to help improve this particular type of decision making is to work out ahead of time which types of situations are most likely to produce a response versus a reaction. For example, I am typically calm when behind the wheel of the car so I would not include any driving related scenarios in my lists. But to this day, despite what I do for a living, I still struggle to respond ideally when I witness most forms of prejudice (sexism, racism etc) so it makes sense for me to have these kinds of situations/stimuli on my lists.

You can have different lists for different areas where you might be unhelpfully impulsive. Even better, clarify what your best response and most damaging reaction might be for each. Sometimes the mantra RESPOND DON’T REACT is the best way to increase the gap.

Keen But Need A Hand?

If this article has motivated you to improve either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance but you feel like you’d benefit from an expert helping hand then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.

 

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports

As the 24th edition of the Winter Olympics draws to a close we felt compelled to rush through this special edition of The Mental Toughness Digest on the theme of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports / Snow Sports.

The Winter Sports require a very special kind of Sport Psychology

Introduction

As is the case with all previous additions where we focus on a particular sport we highly recommend that even if you’ve never even seen snow before that you make your way through the below article as you will be surprised at how many ideas might be applicable for your particular sport or performance area.

In the realm of Snow Sports, we see what can only be described as some of the most extreme, dangerous and downright fantastic sports of the modern era. From snowboarding and skiing, figure skating to luge and everything in between, Snow Sports athletes are the pros at defying gravity, making the ‘impossible’ look like a piece of cake and leaving us as spectators speechless.

Of course, with any sport comes a cocktail of physical and mental challenges. But in sports where sticking the landing is in some cases a matter of “life or extreme physical injury”, the mental barriers to performance are on a whole other level. On another note, some snow sports test a very broad range of physical capabilities under one event, requiring athletes to both master and be able to shift back and forth between contrasting physical skill sets. 

In this article, we’ll explore three popular Snow Sports in detail, and explore their unique mental demands. I’ll also run you through how you might be able to overcome a few of these performance barriers through evidence-based mental skills, starting with an event that sits on the extreme end of the Snow Sports spectrum. My last article was on Figure Skating which you can read here which when combined with the below hopefully provides a reasonable conceptualisation of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports.

Skeleton

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports One – Skeleton

In addition to being one of the fastest sports on the planet, Skeleton is also considered the world’s first sliding sport. Riders travel at speeds of up to 130km/hour head-first on a small sled (known as a skeleton bobsled) with their face only centimetres off the ice. It is the job of the rider to steer using their entire body, which involves careful manoeuvring of the shoulders, legs and toes. It’s pretty obvious from the nature of this sport that the margin for error is extremely small, and fair to say that one wrong move could potentially result in disaster. 

So in order to succeed in the Skeleton event, one must be able to execute precise movements whilst travelling at incredible speeds, and you could argue that in order to do this the rider needs to be completely focused and present. A lot of staying focused and present boils down to the athlete’s ability to manage their thoughts, in particular overthinking (e.g. planning, problem-solving) or what we might call “difficult” thoughts (e.g. thinking about the worst-case scenario, “what if” thinking). In terms of overcoming this mental barrier to performance, the first thing to acknowledge is that in any situation perceived as important or threatening our mind is always going to look for a way out of it. Our mind is likely to perceive travelling headfirst on ice at 130km/hour as extremely threatening, so you can imagine all the things it’ll try and say to us to talk us out of doing it. 

“I can’t afford a single mistake?”

“What if I crash and all that hard work goes to waste?”

“This is too risky, I don’t want to be here?”.  

So the question here is how do we go about changing this – how do we go about making our thinking more positive so that it doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do? Well if you read my previous article on thoughts you’d know by now that the answer to this is “we don’t, because we can’t.” 

If you think that elite athletes are the experts at thinking positive, we’re here to tell you that’s not really the case. It’s likely that the minds of the most elite Skeleton athletes are also trying to talk them out of doing what they love to do. Why? Because they’re human, just like you. And as humans, we have very limited influence over the things our mind tells us purely due to the fact that there is always some biological reason or survival instinct at play. The most elite athletes in the world don’t necessarily think the most positively, they’re just masters at not letting what they think impact what they do. Our job as Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists is therefore not to change the way athletes think, but to change the relationship athletes have with their thoughts and minimise the power their thoughts have over their actions. Please note that this might not be the approach of other sport psychologists but is certainly the case for our current team.

Noticing Thoughts, Making Room For Them And Coming Back To The Here And Now

So how exactly do we reduce the power thoughts have over our actions? Or in terms of Skeleton, how do commit to the slide when everything in our mind is telling us not to? At Condor Performance we take a mindfulness approach to this question, starting with the simple practice of bringing awareness to our mind and the way it speaks to us. One of the ways we can practice this is through a skill known as The Noticing-Self. When we tap into our noticing-self we ultimately ‘take a step back and observe’ what we are thinking and feeling in that moment. But the key here is to try to do this without judgement. That is, once we notice what our mind is telling us, the aim isn’t to argue whether or not the thought is true, false, right, wrong, positive or negative. All we want to do is notice the presence of this thought. For example, “I notice my mind is asking me what will happen if I crash.” 

Once we have noticed our thought(s) without judgment, the next step is to make room for these thoughts in the sporting experience. Basically, we need to accept that this is what our mind is telling us. Part of this is appreciating the fact that our mind can have a mind of its own, and is hardwired to talk us out of engaging in dangerous or threatening behaviour. If we can learn to accept the way our mind speaks to us and acknowledge that it’s coming from a place of protection, we then have the power to choose whether or not we want to listen to it. To choose whether or not to let it influence what we then do next.

Last but not least, it is our job to redirect our focus back to the present. After bringing awareness to and accepting our thoughts, it’s useful we bring our attention back to what we need to be doing at this moment, right here, right now. If the Skeleton rider is getting ready to start then try to notice where their hands, arms and legs are, and where do they need to be. Bring awareness to what can you see, smell, hear, taste and feel in that moment, and remind yourself of what processes you need to be thinking about. Mindful (deep) breathing or action-based cues (e.g. adjusting equipment) can be used here to aid us in bringing our focus back to the present.

4-Person Bobsleigh

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports Two – Bobsleigh

On the topic of sliding events, I’ll now bring your attention to the 4-Person Bobsleigh, the fastest snow event with riders reaching speeds of up to 150km/hour. You can imagine it’d share some of the same mental challenges as Skeleton, but there is a whole other dynamic at play in this event. Throw in the fact that it’s you plus three other riders, and now you have the added pressure of not messing up because doing so doesn’t just affect you.

Unity in Bobsleigh

We can’t ignore the role cohesion plays in this sport. Team members have to work together to execute a seamless start (where they essentially run with the sled, jump in and sit down within only a few seconds) as well as the entire run itself despite the fact that most of the steering is done by the driver (the person in the front). What a lot of us don’t realise is that a lot of planning goes into preparing for a run. Teams will walk, slide, re-walk and re-slide, to familiarise themselves with the twists and turns of the course and plan the details of steering.

Sticking To The Processes

Again, for those of you who have read my previous article on Unity, you will know that team cohesion goes beyond having a shared vision. To increase the chances of success the team needs to be on the same page in terms of A) how they set expectations or ‘goals’ for their performances and B) the way they evaluate (judge) their performances afterwards. Part of creating a winning culture is placing less emphasis on ‘winning’ itself, and instead placing a higher emphasis on processes and how to increase the chances of getting those things right both at the individual and group level. In a sport like Bobsleigh where Team Unity is so integral to success, it is important for team members to acknowledge the amount of influence they have over the outcome (and how little this actually is). If we were to breakdown the amount each factor in the Bobsleigh event contributes to the outcome, it might look something like this:

  • The Team – 40%
  • The Sled – 20%
  • The Ice – 15%
  • The Course – 15%

= 100%

So we’re talking about an event where teams have less than 50% influence over the outcome as a result of all the other external factors at play (the sled, the ice, the course). If we break that down to the individual level, each team member is likely to contribute to about 10% to the outcome. That’s not a whole lot.

Processes, on the other hand, are all the actions that are performed out there on the ice that increase the chances of achieving that desired outcome (e.g. starting sprint, getting seated, steering, etc). It’s important for teams to not only have a shared vision but to share an understanding of the importance of setting process-based goals and essentially leaving the results to take care of themselves.

Note: In an attempt to get this article out before the Winter Olympics is over and forgotten we did not have time to consult bobsled contacts/athletes or coaches on whether the above breakdown of influence is correct. So if you are involved in the sport at any level and would like to share your thoughts on the accuracy of these numbers please do so by using the comment section at the bottom of this article.

Biathlon 

Sport Psychology for Winter Sports Part 3 – Biathlon

Moving away from the sliding sports and onto something a little bit different. The Biathlon event is both unique and incredibly fascinating; a combination of Cross Country Skiing and Rifle Shooting. The cross-country ski of up to 20km for men and 15km for women are interspersed with shooting ranges in which biathletes have 5 targets and 5 attempts, with time penalties added for missed shots. The very nature of the event in that athletes are required to shift back and forth between contrasting physical capabilities creates some pretty significant mental barriers to overcome, the most obvious being the need to go from one physical extreme to another with efficiency. More specifically, to be still enough in the shooting section coming off the back of intensive cross country skiing that’ll inevitably elevate the heart rate.

Replicating Competition Stressors at Training

Only through physical conditioning can we increase the rate at which our heart rate returns to resting after intensive physical activity, but other than this we don’t have a whole lot of influence over this kind of thing as it’s physiological. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t use mental hacks to increase the likelihood we’ll be able to cope with this stressor come competition day. In order to cope with the stressor of an elevated heart rate during a time where stillness is required for accuracy, we need to practice doing so under exact or similar conditions. Replicating the competition environment (e.g. shooting practice with an elevated heart rate) or increasing the difficulty of practice through other means (e.g. increasing the shooting range, reducing the shooting target at resting heart rate) are some of the ways athletes can train to be more comfortable with these physiological and psychological stressors. 

One Common Challenge…The Snow Itself

But although these sports have a series of unique mental barriers that separate them from one another, there is one thing they all have in common that separates Snow from non-Snow sports. That is – access to the right conditions. Snow is typically seasonal, and therefore present for only a portion of the year – and that’s just in the places where it does snow. One of the biggest barriers to Snow Sports preparation is snow itself. Its relative unreliability and short-lived lifespan often produce a whole bunch of challenges that we hear back from athletes of these sports during sessions. So how do Snow Sports athletes train and prepare all year round, even in places where there is little to no access to the good stuff?

Organic Versus Synthetic Practice 

The concepts of Organic and Synthetic Practice become particularly important here. When we talk about Organic Practice, we’re referring to training that takes place in competition form (or as close as possible). For Skeleton and Bobsleigh, this would be sliding a course, and for Biathlon this would be sprint skiing interspersed with shooting practice. Synthetic Practice on the other hand includes all the practice that takes place in a modified competition environment (e.g. smaller/larger game environments, smaller/larger teams, artificial rules that raise the margin for success), any drills that are aimed at specific competitive techniques or tactics or any other training that takes place outside of Organic Practice.

It’s quite common for Snow Sports athletes to train without snow, during the warmer months of the year or for some pretty much all year round (in places without much snow). Synthetic practice is therefore a huge part of their preparation as access to organic practice in some cases is very limited. A lot of this takes place in the form of strength and conditioning training targeted to the specific demands of the sport, track and fieldwork, and using non-snow equipment replicas to get as close to organic practice as possible (as seen in the below videos). The same rules apply to Mental Training as per Physical Training. In other words in the absence of the ability to work on mindset in an organic fashion – in winter conditions – rather than throwing up your hands in frustration and not bothering try and see how you might be able to replicate some of the mental demands away from the conditions. If you have no idea where to start, get in touch as we can help.

Mental Rehearsal 

However, one of the greatest things about the world of Sport and Performance Psychology is the fact that in order to enhance performance, all you need is your mind. One way Snow Sports athletes can rehearse their competition-day processes is through Visualisation or ‘Mental Rehearsal’. This type of practice can take place in various forms (with equipment, without equipment, video-assisted or pure mental rehearsal), and it works through firing the same kinds of neurons that would fire if we were to physically perform those actions leading to practice effects. In other words, no snow is needed!

But We Are Here To Help If You Need A Hand

If you’d like to get in touch please choose from one of the below methods:

Figure Skating Psychology: Overcoming Fear On Ice 

Figure Skating Psychology is a free article by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito. Even if you’re not a Figure Skater, it’s worth a read.

Figure Skaters exhibit an extreme amount of mental toughness – so how can we develop some of this ourselves?

Figure Skating Psychology; Definitions 

Whenever the Winter Olympics come around one of my favourite events to watch is Figure Skating. Whether it’s the Singles, Pairs Skating or Ice Dance, I can’t help but be in awe as these athletes perform what can only be described as superhuman-level stunts. But as I watch in amazement I can’t help but wonder how many times they had to fail in training in order to be able to execute their routines so well under competition pressure.

Not only are the physical skills they perform on another planet (see picture above), but the mental toughness they would need to be able to master them and be able to perform them with “ease” on the world stage is off the charts.

Of course, they don’t perform these skills with ease – it just looks like that. But part of a Figure Skater’s job is to perform intensely detailed and complex movements with speed, precision and artistry, whilst making it look easy. During a routine, you’ll see Figure Skaters perform a series of jumps, lifts, throws, spins and footwork, all in an effort to demonstrate their level athleticism and artistry to the judges. But behind every “good” performance sits the numerous unseen falls, injuries (or near-injuries), and the countless times their mind would’ve told them to hang up the skates and pick an easier sport. 

Mental Demands of Figure Skating

It’s clear that Figure Skaters, particularly those at the elite level, require a certain mindset. At the end of the day, we’re talking about a sport where one of the first things you learn is how to fall properly on the ice without breaking a bone or getting a finger sliced off! But with learning to fall comes needing to learn how to get back up – and not just in a physical sense. The best Figure Skaters in the world are masters of picking themselves back up psychologically.

They have the ability to “move on very quickly” from parts of the routine that did not go perfectly. It’s arguable that the ability to do this is what separates the good Skaters from the great ones. They know that a 6/10 “double axel” without showing any disappointment is better than a 7/10 with a drop in body language.

It’s important for Skaters to understand that what makes their sport so mentally challenging is the fact that our brain is hardwired for survival. As humans, our default cognitive response (the things our brains immediately crank out in response to a situation) is always going to be a protective one rather than a performance-based one. After falling and bruising our hip, it’s normal for our brain to tell us not to try that again. ‘What if next time you break your hip?’.

If our partner almost drops us during a lift, again, it makes sense for our brain to say to us “what if he drops me next time and I fall flat on my face?”

The moment we step outside our comfort zone, our brain’s default response is to tell us all the reasons we should step back inside it.

In a sport like Figure Skating where the threat of slips and falls are constantly looming, it’s inevitable that our brain is constantly going to be on the lookout for all the bad things that could possibly happen. 

Committing To The Jump

Figure Skating Psychology: Committing To The Jump

When our default response is to go straight to the worst-case scenario, it becomes a lot harder for us to commit to doing what we need to do. However, Figure Skaters who struggle to overcome these unhelpful thoughts are in short giving their thoughts the power to do so. When we discuss the power of thoughts with a Skater, there are a few questions we might ask to get the ball rolling in the right direction:

  • Do we have the ability to think one thing and do another?
  • Do we have the capacity to do the opposite of what our brain is telling us to do?
  • Can I perform a jump while my brain cranks out all the reasons I shouldn’t do it?
  • Does the thought, “I’m scared because I might get hurt” physically stop my body from moving? 
  • Does this thought, these words in my mind, physically stop my arm and legs from moving and doing what I want them to do? 

As a provisional psychologist currently undertaking supervision with some phenomenal sport psychologists and performance psychologists I know the answer to all of the above is “no”. But do you?

We need to recognise when our mind is playing the role of ‘protector’ and when it’s playing the role of ‘performer’, and develop the capacity to question the power of those thoughts over our actions at that moment. Remember, “they don’t hand out gold medals for who was thinking the best”.

Overcoming The Fear of Injury 

To have the mental skills required for Figure Skating athletes need to become seriously good at committing to the movement, in spite of any difficult thoughts or feelings they have. We need to understand that our response to fear is unique (a combination of predisposed sensitivity to fear and learnt experiences), and will be different to the person sitting next to us. It’s important for Figure Skaters to learn to recognise their fear in order to learn to commit to their actions regardless of it. 

At Condor Performance we work with Figure Skaters through a mostly ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) approach. This psychology framework allows performers to notice and accept this natural fear as being a normal part of the human condition. For Figure Skaters who values new challenges, improving their skills and pushing themselves beyond their limits, taking action guided by their values would be to commit to the jump despite feeling fearful and hearing their mind tell them “you have got to be kidding”.

Swerving the Subjective Nature of Skating

Another mental challenge for Figure Skaters is the way that scoring is subjective, so there may be a gap between a Skater’s own subjective view of their performance and the view of the judges. Because the goal of Figure Skating is to score the highest possible mark from the judges, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on outcomes and not enough on processes. For example, getting caught up in whether or not they’re going to land that jump, rather than visualising the processes involved in executing that jump (e.g. foot and arm positioning, speed and direction of their movement, height of the jump, etc.).

This can be problematic as outcomes are something we have very little influence over. At the end of the day, we might perform every single process involved in the jump correctly, but with the slightest shift in movement as we’re travelling in the air we don’t stick the landing. Unfortunately, we can’t make our way over to the scoreboard and change the scores ourselves either – when it comes to outcomes, we have no place. The only thing we can influence is what we do on the ice, and we can’t commit to landing the jump if we don’t commit to the processes first.

This All Sounds Great But I Need Some Help 

We know, some of the above sport psychology suggestions are “easier said than done”. So regardless of whether you yourself are actually a figure skater or simply another competitor who has cleverly invested some time in reading an article on another sport (we call this mental cross-training) if you feel like you’d benefit from some professional guidance then we’re here to help. Get in touch via one of the methods below, our response time is normally around 48 hours.

Overthinking In Sport and Performance

Overthinking is one of the most common mental challenges we deal with as sport psychologists and performance psychologists. Are you an overthinker?

Sport and Performance Related Overthinking

  • A large part of our work as Sport and Performance Psychologists is centred around the relationship between thoughts and performance.
  • 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.

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

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 and accept 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.

References

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.