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

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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.

CrossFit Psychology: Training For The Unknown

CrossFit is the ultimate test of an athlete’s physical, technical and mental abilities.

CrossFit Psychology: It’s Mentally Brutal!

It has been incredible to watch the progression of CrossFit over the past twenty years or so. From its humble beginnings as a young, modern, up-and-coming form of fitness training to its recent status as a globally recognised competitive sport. CrossFit or Cross-Discipline Fitness has become an incredibly popular form of training for individuals of all fitness levels, and a versatile competitive sporting avenue for those wanting to push themselves beyond what they know they’re capable of. 

What draws many people to CrossFit is its brutal nature. It incorporates virtually every form of training that you can imagine. CrossFit athletes have an incredible level of athleticism, discrediting the idea of “Jack of all trades, Master of None” through training to compete at the highest level they can in as many styles of training as possible. Swimmers swim, runners run, cyclists cycle – CrossFitters do it all and more.

It’s clear that CrossFitters need an extreme level of mental toughness to compete in such a physically demanding and versatile sport. In what other sport can you be asked to perform absolutely anything from gymnastics to swimming, plyometrics to powerlifting, high-intensity interval training to distance running and everything in-between? What other sport assesses virtually every physical capacity humans are capable of training, including strength, power, flexibility, coordination, endurance, agility, speed, accuracy and balance? Very few other sports have such element of the unknown as to what physical capacities you’ll be asked to demonstrate on competition day

CrossFit is Uniquely Challenging

CrossFit is uniquely challenging in terms of its variety and unpredictability. For athletes competing at qualifying rounds for the CrossFit Games (World Championships), competition workouts are gradually revealed in the weeks leading up to the event. The final workout is often revealed as little as a week before the event, allowing athletes only a limited amount of time to prepare for the specific workouts they’ll be asked to do. Athletes who then qualify to compete at the CrossFit Games are tasked with the challenge of rocking up to the competition venue having no idea what they’ll be asked to do. 

Every year the workouts are different, and arguably more challenging than the last. So for CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental toughness a lot of this boils down to knowing how to answer this simple question; how do you mentally prepare for the unknown?

Welcoming Discomfort with Open Arms 

The first thing to acknowledge about preparing for the unknown is that we are hardwired to mentally thrive in settings of certainty and predictability. This often works against athletes in competition settings, particularly for CrossFitters due to the uncertain nature of competition. Going into an event pre-empting the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel is the first step in being able to manage them. Take some time to think about how you’re likely to be feeling on competition day:

  • What sort of emotions do you expect to experience – Nerves? Worry? Excitement? Fear? 
  • When are these emotions likely to kick in – the morning of? The day before? The week before? 
  • Are these emotions likely to become more apparent and harder to ignore the close you get to the start time?

After taking some time to predict the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel, it’s important to have a think about how you would like to physically respond to these emotions. If I followed you around with a video camera the morning of competition right up until start time:

  • What would your body language suggest to me about how you’re feeling?
  • What would you like your body language to suggest about how you’re feeling? 
  • How would you like this to be different to the last time you competed?

Accept The Emotions, Don’t Fight With Them

Finally, it’s important to preempt our subsequent emotional response to these normal competition day emotions. Athletes often get caught up in the amount of worry they are experiencing on competition day. Due to the inbuilt fight and flight response feeling such as worry generally are uncomfortable. Rather than focusing on the competition itself, they find themselves worrying about their emotions.

Predicting ahead of time when you expect to feel certain emotions heighten our ability to notice them on competition day, and empowers us to reduce their impact on our actions or behaviour. When we acknowledge that competition day is full of emotions and learn to embrace them with open arms rather than wrestling with them on competition day, they often seem a lot less threatening. 

In 2021 Tia-Clair Toomey (blue shirt) made history as the most dominant CrossFit athlete to date with five consecutive championships to her name.

CrossFit Psychology: Setting Expectations

It’s important for CrossFitters to think about what kind of training and performance expectations they set for themselves. More importantly, for these to align with their actual competence, that is, their physical capabilities as measured through objective and reliable forms of measurement. CrossFit takes place mainly in a group setting which has the potential to foster an environment of comparison, making it very easy for individuals to compare themselves to others. For beginners or those working their way to the elite level, it’s easy to compare your abilities against those who have been training for much longer. For those coming back from injury, it is easy to compare yourself to where you were pre-injury, or to those uninjured athletes around you. In terms of prolonged motivation and athlete mental wellbeing, establishing a helpful point of reference becomes really important. 

A helpful point of reference is one that is recent and is a comparison to something that we have influence over. For example, an unhelpful point of reference for an injured athlete could be what they were pre-injury, as to reach that level took many months or even years of training. A more helpful point of reference would be anything post-injury. For example, “I can lift X amount of weight since I returned to training”, rather than “I can lift X amount of weight now, but this isn’t as much as Y which I could lift before my injury”. It’s important to recognise any progress no matter how small after an injury, in light of what you have been able to do since the injury rather than comparing this to what you were about to do pre-injury. 

Data Destroys Doubt

Sport Psychologist Harley de Vos brilliantly explains the concept of tracking progress in his article Confidence Before Competence. There is a certain level of trust we need to place in our training program, but by measuring and tracking progress athletes are able to see their physical gains through an objective lens. Measuring competence is essential in prolonging motivation, particularly in an environment where comparisons are so easy to make. Come competition day, rather than relying on how confident we feel in our ability to perform certain workouts (as this is subjective and unreliable), we can instead rely on what we know we can do

Take It One Workout At A Time

For CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental performance, my advice would be to embrace discomfort and learn to preempt and welcome it, and set realistic expectations and recognise any improvements made. In the world of CrossFit athletes often look at the end product and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they’ll have to do to get there, often making it even more difficult to start. However, we don’t get results without taking each of the small steps required to get there. A great way to think about the journey is like crossing a river; with each workout, we jump across to the next stepping stone. Only through taking it one workout at a time will you be able to see what you’re truly capable of.  

If reading this article has piqued your interest in terms of improving the mental aspects of what you do then get in touch with us now so we can send you some detailed information about our sport/performance psychology services. If you are just curious but would like to find out more before making an official enquiry then we suggest you browse the answers to our frequently asked questions.

Mental Resilience: What Is It and How To Get Some!

Mental Resilience is a term that is getting used more and more at the moment both in elite sport and everyday situations. In this short article by Condor Performance sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole he unpacks the concept of Mental Resilience for the education and enjoyment of the followers of the Mental Toughness Digest.

Mental Resilience is about the mostly ‘mental skills’ required to bounce back for setbacks.

What Exactly is Mental Resilience?

Mental Resilience is a term we hear a lot at Condor Performance but actually don’t use that much. Those who enquire about and use our sport and performance psychology services will often ask us to help them boost their ‘mental resilience’.

So we will oblige without actually uttering the words ‘mental resilience’ that much. One of the reasons for this, which I feel will inspire a whole new blog on the subject in the near future, is that you don’t need to talk about an outcome to get there. There is no need to talk about winning to increase the chances of it happening. Mentioning team unity is optional in the work we do in boosting it. And there is no need to actual talk about mental resilience whilst developing and implementing process to develop it.

The other reason we don’t use the term ‘mental resilience’ that much is that from our point of view ‘mental toughness’ is a slightly better description of the work we do. My elevator pitch when anyone asks me what I do and I say I’m a sport psychologist is something like this. “We help performers improve their mental toughness and mental health. When combined this goes a long way to allowing them to fulfil their potential as people and as performers”.

Mental Resilience vs. Mental Toughness

So our psychologists are basically using ‘mental toughness’ as a synonym of ‘mental resilience’. Note this is a major issue with modern day sport psychology. There are dozens of terms that get used by different practitioners that have a lot in common or are exactly the same as other terms. For example, focus and concentartion refer to exactly the same psychological concept. One thing, yet two words (labels) at least.

But maybe mental toughness and mental resilience are not exactly the same.

For readers who are either current or past Condor Performance clients or just avid followers of our regular Mental Toughness Digest posts may know we try to keep mental toughness as simple as possible. This is another ‘issue’ with sport psychology in 2021 which we are trying to do something about. It can often be too complex for its own good. The research is often highly academic and theoretical in nature, something forgetting that the end users almost always need and want really simple, practical solutions to common performance challenges. Again, a whole article could be created on this very topic.

The Metuf Big Five

Our team of psychologists (ten at the time of writing) generally break mental toughness down into five smaller, more manageable areas to work on. These are motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus and spell out the word Metuf. With this in mind, how does resilience fit into the Metuf Big Five? Is it something seperate? Have we stumbled across a sixth? Should it be Metuf-R?

Will will come back to these questions later.

It’s hard to find anything close to a consistent definition for either mental toughness or mental resilience but if we ditch the ‘mental’ part beforehand here is what the words ‘toughness’ and ‘resilience’ mean according to Cambridge’s free online dictionary.

Toughness refers to “the quality of being not easily defeated or made weaker”.

Amazingly the two examples listed are: 1) She has a reputation for toughness and resilience and 2) He demonstrated the skills and mental toughness that are crucial for a goalkeeper.

Resilience means “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”.

And the origin of the word is even more interesting and revealing.

resilience (n.)

1620s, “act of rebounding or springing back,” often of immaterial things, from Latin resiliens, present participle of resilire “to rebound, recoil,” from re- “back” (see re-) + salire “to jump, leap” (see salient (adj.)). Compare result (v.). In physical sciences, the meaning “elasticity, power of returning to original shape after compression, etc.” is by 1824.


So resilience, it appears, required someone unfortunate to occur before the bounce back. Whereas toughness doesn’t. In sport and performance the five most common setbacks are probably these:

1. The Mental Resilience required to come back from injury

The physical effort needed to recover from a serious sporting injury is obvious. But what about the role the mind plays in this often overwhelming task? Consider motivation alone. That rehab program, which is so important but can be so frustrating (as it reminds you of your injury moment by moment) doesn’t get done without strong internal commitment. For more on the psychology of injuries read this blog by my colleague David Barracosa.

2.  responding after getting dropped

By ‘dropped’ I refer to not being selected for reasons other than an injury. In team sports this has become more common as more and more coaches use rotation policies. Regardless, it’s not easy to be told that you’re not playing this weekend after a week of solid effort. The message we often give our sporting clients in these situations is to use the disappointment to your advantage. In others words emotions are ‘energy in motion‘ so use the frustration of being deselected to improve your preparation. Take your emotion out on the rowing machine, not your coach.

3.  Keep training during a pandemic

Most people will agree that the current Covid-19 pandemic and related issues very much count as a setback. I have been quite shocked at the number of athletes and coaches who have down tooled during the pandemic. “There is no point in me working hard when I don’t know when my next competition will take place” is something we are hearing a lot at the moment. Really? So you don’t want to get the jump on your rivals during a time when you have a lot more influence over all aspects of your preparation? The most challenging of times allow those with the best mental toolkit to raise to the top. And boy, these are the most challenging times.

4.  The Mental Resilience required to perform well when life gets in the way

When life gets in the way refers to what happens to your immaculate training program for the week when your get gastro, for example. This phrase was first coined by our colleague Chris Pomfret. The ideal response to this kind of challenge is to focus as quickly as possible with what you can do. What you can’t do is typically obvious and unchangeable. Using the example of a sudden stomach bug, maybe you need to switch from actually ‘hitting balls’ to ‘visualising hitting balls’. If you have not idea how to visualise then watch this free 25 minute short video. And make sure to add some comments below about how to adapted the ideas for your sport and performance area.

5. Immediate psychological recovery – Bouncing Back whilst competing

There is one kind of setback that is especially common in competitive sport. To my knowledge it’s doesn’t have an offical name so let’s just call in In Game Setbacks. Although I’m very respectful that many sports don’t actually use the word game to refer to their competitive situations. In Game Setbacks refer to something going wrong in the heat of battle. Imagine a fullback in rugby league or union dropping the first high ball they try to catch. Imagine the ice hockey player missing an open net with 5 minutes to do whilst her team are one goal behind. Imaging a clay target shooter missing the first four targets are the day.

The mental skills that are most effective in these situations are the ones related to allowing the performer to ‘move on as quickly as possible’. Accept and act, basically. The best way to go about this will depend on your sport and just how much your performance is actually impacted by setbacks. This is where we come in …

If you are an athlete, sporting coach, sporting official or non sporting performer and would like the assistance from one of our growing team of sport psychologists / performance psychologists then the best place to start is by completing the applicable Mental Toughness Questionnaire at here. Once done, one of our team will then get back to you with your results and, if you have asked for it, detailed information about our sport psychology services.

Conclusion

Earlier I posed the question is mental resilience a part of mental toughness or seperate? At this stage, I feel it can fit under The Metuf Big Five. If you look at the suggestions above you’ll find all of them are versions of motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. And maybe a good way to think about the fact that resilience needs setbacks is both sport and life a full of setbacks.

Psychology of American Football / Gridiron / NFL

Psychology of American Football. Picture from Big Stock Photo. LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 03 2019: Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback, Gardner Minshew during the NFL game between Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium

The Psychology of American Football – An Introduction

American Football is one of those sports that goes by different names. The official name is gridiron but most of those in the United States refer to it as NFL despite this just being the name of the highest league. For this article I shall simply refer to it as American Football.

American Football is a sport littered with inspirational quotes and messages. Some are from real life whilst others are from television and/or films. One that is applicable to everyone in a competitive situation came from Cincinnati Bengals running back Archie Griffin. He famously once said “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog”. When you start to sift through them (a quick Google of “American Football quotes” is a worthwhile exercise), you soon realise a large portion are related to the mental side of the game.

Not Just Brutality And Physical Aggressiveness

American Football is known for its brutality and physical aggressiveness but as soon as I started to work with these athletes, from the professional level to high school footballers, it became clear that without the right mental processes talent and physical aptitude wouldn’t lead to the success these individuals desired. They needed mental skills that promoted acceptance, resilience, patience and a mindset that not only recognised their performance but also how it fits into the bigger picture of the offensive or defensive schemes coaches are drawing up. American Football is nuanced and it’s the mental challenges of the sport that take an individual from being good to great to a ‘hall of fame inductee’.

What Are Some Of These Mental Processes?

Let’s look at some of these mental processes and mindsets that can begin to improve the American Football psychology of players who participate on Fridays (high school football), Saturdays (college football) or Sundays (the NFL). 

One of the first things about American Football that will stand out to anyone participating or observing is the structure of the game. Every play called is meticulously considered in order to create an advantage for the team and each player has a very particular role to play to execute the play successfully. Aside from trick plays, players fill very individualised roles and this is where we begin to see why good mental processes are important for optimal performance. 

As with any team sport one player cannot do everything and this is even truer in American Football. For example, a quarterback can’t snap the ball, drop back and then pass it to themselves. They need the assistance of their teammates to be able to not only have time to throw the ball but also to see a pass completed. To manage the challenge of this, a player needs to have a good practice of acceptance where they can understand their role and focus on completing their given task instead of being distracted by what others on their team are doing.

A large part of The Psychology of American Football is knowing what your role is.

In speaking with an American Football coach, we used the analogy that for each play, we need to imagine the 11 players on the field are on a boat with 11 leaks. If each player deals with their leak then the boat continues to sail. However, as soon as one person starts focusing on the other leaks or even tries to go and stop the leak somewhere else then they expose themselves. A great example of this is on the offensive line where we need to trust our teammates to hit and stick their blocks rather than trying to block all of the oncoming pass rushers and being found out as a result. This is not the same for less pre-rehearsed sports like soccer whereby from time to time you need to help your teammate fix his or her leak.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance (being good at it) comes from the field of psychology in the form of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. At Condor Performance, we look at this by focusing on the level of influence we have in any given moment. We want athletes to channel their energies and efforts into making sure the things that are highly influenceable are what they are taking responsibility for in a sporting context. To put it simply, our own actions are highly influenceable while the actions of others are a much lower level of influenceable. When we accept this, we let go and allow others to do their job while we do ours. We are better focused, can more effectively judge our own performance and are a more complimenting fit within the structure of the team. We can also use this mentality to reset between each play and make sure we know our role and are locked in on accomplishing it while also motivating and encouraging others with theirs where possible.

Another element that stands out is the flow of the game between plays. The stop-start nature of the sport provides the players with a chance to huddle together and reset their intentions on the next play. It also provides the opportunity for each player to reset themselves to ensure that they are fully committed to what comes next – irrespective if previous plays went their way or not. In a sport like American Football it doesn’t matter whether you missed an assignment or ran the wrong route the previous play because it can’t be undone. All we can do is know what is being asked of us this play and look to execute to the best of our abilities with 100% effort. To make this reset work consistently it can be worthwhile to think about different actions that we use to settle, such as taking a deep breath, clapping as we come out of the huddle, redoing the velcro on our gloves, the way we get set in our stance, etc. Having this reset action helps remind us to start again and be committed to what we are trying to execute.

Psychology of American Football For Coaches

If you’re the coach or a leader on the team and you want to be able to take this idea of resetting one step further, then you can look at how the the offensive and defensive teams retake the field following a change of possession. When the unit goes back out onto the field it is an important opportunity to have players focus on landing the metaphorical first punch and creating some momentum on this particular drive. Even if previous possessions resulted in a poor outcome the other team does not have any advantage when this one starts unless we let them by focusing on the past which we cannot change. Just like a boxer coming out for the next round we want to establish ourselves and perform to our plan and create some ascendency that we can build on with each play. This is achieved through communication and the way we look to motivate and create energy in our athletes and teammates. We want to ensure we aren’t placing unnecessary pressure on their shoulders and instead highlighting that the ultimate goal of each possession is exactly the same: to have committed players on the field who know their roles and are giving 100% effort on each play. If you can get 11 players all buying into that philosophy and letting their actions do the talking we know we’ve got them in the right headspace. 

For individual players, one thing we also want to keep in mind is that the football we play wants to ignore any element of what I term the “fantasy football headspace”. What I mean by this is that we don’t want to judge our own performances the way we judge players in fantasy football, i.e. stats are the most important thing and highlight good performance. For every player, regardless of position, I would encourage you to develop ways of defining good performance that don’t have anything to do with the stats or outcome. If you’re a quarterback, how do you know you’ve had a good game without referring to touchdowns/interceptions thrown or yardage in the air? If you’re a wide receiver, how do you know you’ve had a good game without referring to receptions or yards? If you a defensive player. how do you define a good game without referring to interceptions, passes deflected, tackles made or points given up? The answer to this question will help you understand effort and take your performances to an even higher level of consistency because we aren’t reacting to previous plays and instead are locked in on recommitting to the next one. I will say that if you are struggling to answer that particular question, another way of answering it would be understanding what it looks like to compete out there on the field. How you compete has nothing to do with your outcomes and everything to do with the way you try to breakdown your opponents with movement, footwork, decision making, energy and competitiveness.

While each position in a game of American Football is different the mental elements of performance highlighted in this blog provide insight into how we can begin to get the most out of ourselves and our abilities. They are universal for all players and by making some adjustments you will better play your role for the team and leave the game having made a greater influence on how proceedings played out.

If your are an American Football player or coach and would like the assistance from one of our growing team of sport psychologists / performance psychologists then the best place to start is by completing the applicable Mental Toughness Questionnaire at here. Once done, one of our team will then get back to you with your results and, if you have asked for it, detailed information about our sport psychology services.

Baseball Psychology

Baseball Psychology Is A Ten Minute Read by Performance Psychologist David Barracosa On The Mental Aspects Of Baseball

There Is A Lot Of Psychology In The Sport Of Baseball

Introduction

When I applied for a position at Condor Performance a little over 10 years ago one of the first questions that Gareth asked me was which sports I considered to be the most mentally challenging. It’s a difficult question because every sport has its challenges which Madalyn and Morgan have outlined in their excellent recent blog articles. However, after some consideration and debate with my family the two that that I landed on were Baseball and Biathlon. The focus of this blog is going to be on the mental side of baseball (or Baseball Psychology) by exploring what these challenges are and different approaches we can take to best manage them and allow our performances to thrive.

Why Is Baseball So Psychologically Challenging?

Now I will say that the answer of baseball as one of the most mentally challenging sports might have a touch of bias to it as I spent most of the afternoons and weekends during my youth toiling away trying to be the best first basemen and clean up hitter that I could be. I love the sport and everything about it including its unique challenges that for me add to the excitement and spectacle that is America’s pastime. Since working for Condor Performance (Gareth must have liked the answer to the previous question amongst others during the intake process haha) I have had the chance to work with a number of baseball players at all levels of the sport and this has given me the opportunity to see how individuals react to the challenges that are thrown their way (literally and metaphorically) and also determine what works and does not work in terms of strengthening performance.

Analysing baseball performance and determining player strength is something that for a long time has come under the microscope of sabermetrics. If you are not familiar with this term it was coined by Bill James to evaluate in-game performances of players and something that was brought to Hollywood via the movie “Moneyball”. Through these practices baseball has become obsessed with statistics and this has filtered down into the mindset of a lot of players I have worked with who are more focused on box score performance rather than the actions and intentions that make up their time on the field. What this means is that a significant part of any improvement to a baseball player’s mindset is about shifting their attention away from being statistically motivated to being process orientated. Statistics muddy the waters and focussing on them essentially means we are trying to control too much of what happens in the game which leads to overthinking, self-doubts, knee jerk changes to our approach and a greater level of emotional variability. All of these factors are the kryptonite to process consistency which wants to be the goal that we are all striving for. Of cause this is true for many sports but baseball is particularly susceptible to an obsession with outcomes (both large and small).

It’s How You Handle The Stats!

Now I know a lot of people might be reading this and thinking that statistics are important especially if you’re a player trying to earn more playing time or generate college offers. To an extent this is true. They are important but they don’t want to be the focus or the way we judge our own performances. They assume too much and don’t represent the cog in the machine that we have control over. To me statistics are the taste of your favourite meal whereas processes and tactical wisdom is the recipe that allows you to produce that taste. I am much more interested in knowing whether we executed the recipe correctly because this will go a long way to determining the taste of the meal. In baseball terms I’m more interested in knowing that you took an aggressive mindset at the plate and followed your pre-pitch routine which resulted in hard hit line drives that might have been caught in the outfield than being distracted by what happened in your last at bat, worrying about getting on base safely and therefore you’re not locked in but managing to bloop a couple of safe hits. The former of these scenarios represents process and performance consistency and that drives confidence even if the statistics don’t align.

If we take a statistics only (mostly) frame of mind I believe we get distracted from the essence of baseball (and any other sport to be honest) which is the competitiveness between two opponents. Whether you are the pitcher, batter, fielder or base runner you are engaged in a contest and in order to put our best foot forward in the contest we want to be focused on the present moment, be routine based and active with our processes. Strengthening these three mental skills will help take any baseball player’s performance to the next level.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Baseball Psychology

Being focused in the present moment aligns itself with the approach of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If you look at being consistent in terms of thoughts and emotions we need to observe how a focus on different points in time affect us. Focusing on the past can generate an internal experience of frustration, disappointment and regret whereas focusing on the future can generate an experience of stress, anxiety and excitement. When you put these ingredients into the performance pot what I have found is that it either distracts or causes an individual to rush, not the mindset we want to have. Baseball (like volleyball, golf, cricket, American football and tennis) is a stop-start sport which means that there is a clear distinction of what the present moment is, i.e. this pitch.

This pitch is the only one I can actually do something about from any position on the field. As a pitcher its the only one I have control over throwing, as a hitter its the only one I can look to hit and as a fielder it is the only one I can make a play on. All the pitches that were previously thrown are done and cannot be changed even if we made a mistake or missed an opportunity to have an impact. All future pitches are irrelevant because we have no idea what is going to happen. It’s this pitch (and only this pitch) that I can contribute on and therefore we want to be locked in on ensuring it gets our full attention.

Repeatable Routines Are Key

The way that we can increase that present moment focus is by being routine based. When the play pauses while the ball is thrown back to the pitcher and they reset before going again is a really good opportunity to make sure we lock back in for the next play. I remember a junior coach that I had who would always say that each pitch when you’re in the field you need to expect the ball to be hit to you so you’re ready to make a play. Having a routine can help with this by making sure that we know the game situation, are walking in with the pitch to ensure we are on our toes and are ready to be active if the ball is hit our way.

The same applies at the plate or on the mound where we can go through a routine (think David Ortiz at the plate or Craig Kimbrel on the mound as exaggerated but effective examples of having a routine before every pitch). Irrespective of what has happened the routine is exactly the same and ensures that when they are set and ready to go. The only thing we are focusing on is this moment and the opportunity to contribute. If you are designing your own routine then the thing that is important to keep in mind is that it is very action based because no matter the situation we want to be confident that our routine can hold strong. If it is too mental (e.g. reminder words etc) there’s a chance we lose it to distraction whereas no matter what circumstance we can execute a series of small behaviours to ready ourselves for what’s to come next.

Once we have readied ourselves and have that focused locked in we give ourselves an opportunity to land a punch in this contest. Baseball is made up of split second decisions so being primed for the moment is essential to playing on the front foot proactively rather than being reactive and chasing the moment. I mentioned earlier that each pitch is a chance to contribute and this is absolutely true. I see too often players will have altered intentions based on what’s occurred previously and the most common of these is a tendency to play it conservative when things have not gone their way, e.g. let a ball drop in the field instead of laying out for it, not throwing an off-speed pitch when there’s a runner on third or waiting for the pitch rather than looking to attack it at the plate. In each of these situations we have drastically reduced our chances of showcasing our strengths and skillset and if you are too statistically minded we have also reduced the chances of being successful in that way as well.

Staying True To Our Processes

Staying true to our processes is designed to help us be aggressive and look to command the moment whereas getting caught focusing on something out of the present moment means we lose that command. We begin to play like we have something to lose instead of playing like we have something to win. We play to avoid mistakes instead of creating success. We catch ourselves worrying more about the opinions of others than the pride we have in ourselves.

The strength of our processes ultimately comes down to how we practice. If we are reinforcing our processes and routines in that space then they are likely to show up in a game. Think about throwing a bullpen or taking batting practice and often it’s about volume and repetitions. What you might like to think about is slowing it down and making sure there is a space for your routine which I think can also increase the quality of the work you are putting in. The application of processes in practice also means that we can create a sense of confidence and test ourselves in that forum so that we have trust that in pressure moments the same version of ourselves is going to show up to compete. In other words the pattern of how we practice is the pattern of how we will compete.

A Final Thought …

The final thought I have is that the pace of baseball ultimately means there is a lot of thinking time. The ideas presented in this blog will help ensure that the thinking time actually turns into a bit more doing time and allows you to stay consistent over the course of nine innings and see the best version of yourself showing up to compete.

Psychology For Endurance Sports And Pursuits

What are these endurance athletes thinking about and focus on? There is a lot of psychology to endurance sports such as long distance running.

An Introduction To The Psychology For / Of Endurance Sports

There is something incredibly inspiring about watching runners finish a marathon. The mental toughness required to sustain such a performance despite fatigue over long distances and durations is undeniable. It can be the difference in seconds between elite athletes, or the defining factor in finishing your first ultra. In my eyes, it’s one of the most enchanting things about endurance sports and one of the main factors that motivated me to pursue a career in performance psychology.

Whether your goal is to run 100 miles, chase a sub 3-hour marathon, or finish your first Ironman triathlon, you know you’re going to suffer for a long time. You can expect discomfort and fatigue from pushing yourself, regardless of how physically well-prepared you are. In the context of endurance sports, that’s the point. This is what athletes sign up for, especially if they want to be able the sense of achievement that comes from realising their capability. Relative suffering from maximum effort is the same lived experience for both elite and recreational endurance athletes. One of the unique challenges for all athletes in endurance sports is developing the mindset to be able to suffer ‘better’, and for longer. 

Suffer ‘Better’, And For Longer

Extended feelings of physical exertion and associated discomfort are accompanied by a constant stream of helpful and unhelpful thoughts. Some might make us feel strong and capable in our efforts, others tell us to cut corners or simply give up. Becoming aware of the relationship between your thoughts and feelings and actions is the key to being able to get the most from our training processes and push ourselves on race day.

One of the core frameworks we like to borrow from in our approach to thoughts and feelings is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This framework has recently gained a lot of traction in sport psychology and performance psychology. Unlike many traditional approaches, it is founded upon the idea that our thoughts and feelings do not need to impact our behaviour and therefore do not need to be changed or ‘fixed’. This does not mean that we simply ignore our unhelpful thoughts and discomfort. It’s actually quite the opposite. Observing thoughts for what they are, ‘just thoughts’, can help us to accept them and focus instead on the way we choose to engage with them.

Be Present And Aware

Before we can accept unhelpful thoughts and feelings of discomfort to our performance advantage, we need to become fully aware and familiar with them and the context. It is very difficult to be open to accepting something you are not noticing. Learning to openly observe our thoughts, bodily sensations and surroundings is a great way to stay focussed on the present moment. It also provides a strong foundation for developing effective mental strategies to engage with thoughts and feelings in helpful ways. Here are some strategies for increasing openness to our internal experiences and awareness for external factors in the context and environment.

Checking In

  • Practice noticing sensations in different parts of your body as a type of routine. Check in with the pressure you feel under each foot, engagement of specific muscles with each movement, the feeling of breeze on your skin, and your breathing rhythm. It’s important that you simply notice these sensations and do not overlay any interpretation like ‘I must be tired’.

Checking Out

  • Work through your senses one at a time to focus on the present environment and how you’re interacting with it. Note things you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste, focussing on smaller things you might normally miss. If you listen to music, this can be a great way to engage with it differently.

By Feel

  • Leave your watch at home and experience your own levels of ‘perceived effort’. That is, what you can better observe about your bodily sensations and fatigue when you can not use your pace or heart rate as a cue to expectations like ‘this is an easy pace for me’.

Once Step At A Time

  • One of the most confronting things in a long run or ride is the realisation early on of how far you still have to go. A common strategy used by many athletes is breaking the distance up into smaller sections by what you see around you – trees, traffic lights, lamp posts etc. Notice what these are, their characteristics, their physical relationship to you as you travel toward them.

Train of Thought

  • Just as you notice your physical sensations, observe any thoughts that pop into your mind as occurrences. Note them for interest’s sake as ‘I’m having a thought that…’. There is no need to label them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Notice what you are physically experiencing when they occurred, and when they come and go.

Obviously these experiences will be highly personalised for every athlete. The most important part is not the content, but creating openness and awareness to the experience for exactly what it is in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness in this way can be challenging at first, and these types of strategies are best served alongside clarity for why you’re out on that long run in the first place.

Embrace Your ‘Why’

Consider this apparently paradoxical scenario. Ask anyone who identifies as an elite or recreational runner, if they enjoy running. Almost all will say something like ‘Absolutely, I love running!’. They might even try to recruit you if you’re not already a runner. Follow up with ‘doesn’t it hurt though?’. And almost all will agree. At face value, why would anyone love to participate in an activity that they expect will cause them to suffer? 

Anyone who has ever been for a run can probably relate to realising the above ridiculousness at some point while running – ‘Why on earth do I do this?’. Training for endurance events also requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline. The reason we persist is likely because it represents a core set of values – our ‘Why’.

For some, the ‘Why’ might be the feeling of challenging yourself, feeling of connectedness to the running community or as way to practice gratitude for mental health. There are no correct answers. Values are far more vague than goals – they can never be fully achieved. This is the beauty of them – values persist where goals might expire, and living your values is independent of your performances or race outcomes.

If you are in touch with your values and how you found yourself here, they become easier to draw on when required. When training is tedious, and it feels easier to just hit the snooze button. Acting consistently with our values may not always be enjoyable, but we recognise that it is important, so we follow through. It’s that 4am training session in the rain when ‘no-one is watching’. Being intentional about noticing, documenting and monitoring your values-driven processes can bring a greater sense of enjoyment and commitment to your training. 

You Don’t Have To Stop

From the ACT perspective in endurance sports, why fight unhelpful thoughts and feelings of discomfort if we can expect them and know they are a core component of the sport we love? The personal strength that is associated with conquering discomfort in endurance sports even forms part of the ‘Why’ for many athletes. It’s important to note here, I am referring to discomfort from maximum physical effort and fatigue – like running an interval at threshold, pushing your bike up a steep incline, or those last couple of miles. The approach I recommend for managing these experiences is to be open and accepting when we inevitably meet them, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them.

Putting cognitive effort into trying to change or suppress unhelpful thoughts such as ‘I’ve had enough’, or ‘I don’t think I can do this’ might cause more distress in the situation. It can also distract from putting effort into the essential physical processes that are simply turning the legs over. This can be illustrated in a silly way as, ‘Whatever you do, DO NOT think about an elephant, it will harm your performance’.

Look at this picture and try as hard as you can not to think about elephants.

Of course, an elephant immediately pops into your mind, and trying to remove it dominates our attention. Shifting the focus away from trying to control or change thoughts and feelings creates room for more productive engagement with the situation and growth from living these experiences fully, and in line with our values above.

There are plenty of thoughts we have in a day that we do not act upon. These thoughts occur, and we simply do not do anything about them. Similarly, just because you may think you need to stop running, does not mean you have to if you recognise it as avoiding the discomfort that comes from effort.

In the familiar example above, a feeling of fatigue generates a thought – ‘I need to stop’.  If you’re a new runner, this might hit close to home. When these enter our awareness, we make a choice to act or not. In fact, if you did choose to stop, you have reinforced the very thought-behaviour pattern in question. We want to de-couple this relationship if we are to manage fatigue and continue to perform as close as we can to our physical capability.

For example, there is a subtle but very important difference between ‘I need to stop’ and ‘I’m having a thought that I need to stop’, as per our earlier example. The first is a command to action, the second is just noticing that a thought popped into your mind. This simple exercise in reframing unhelpful thoughts can help us to accept them for what they are – thoughts. When conceptualised this way, it is easier to adopt strategies for dropping them or letting them go along your way – like taking a weight out of a backpack every so often. By practicing accepting thoughts, we leave more room in our mind to trust our training and past commitment to our physical processes.

From a different point of view, this approach might also bring new meaning to infuriating statements from supporters and coaches such as ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other’, ‘You’re really holding your form’ or ‘You look great!’. These comments are about actions – behaviours they can see. You’re acting as if you were an athlete with no feelings of fatigue in that moment. At the end of the day, only actions get us to the finish line. Regardless of feelings of fatigue, discomfort, or any unhelpful thoughts, these comments celebrate the evidence of your ability to persist despite them.

Plan To Show Up

Athletes in any sport are quick to recognise the importance of a physical training plan to prepare for this. In a typical endurance training program, there are a mixture of session types targeting different physical performance aspects – long runs, interval sessions, targeted strength training etc. to build aerobic and anaerobic capacity, improve lactate clearance and Vo2 Max.

The different challenges that a diversity of physical training sessions present is the ideal opportunity to create a foundation for mental training plan to match. Like any training, mental training comes from the deliberate repetition of our actions, processes and routines. Failing to plan our mental training processes is leaving this essential component of endurance to chance. This may be as simple as going for a run with the commitment to practicing a specific mindfulness strategy (like the examples above). Here are some recommendations for both athletes and coaches.

Routines

  • Creating a routine to document your observed experiences against the function or purpose of the session. Use this to reflect on what you might have noticed about the thoughts and sensations that occurred to you under different efforts and conditions. You might use these insights to build visualisations to prepare for difficult periods in a race with sessions of comparable challenge. For example, those designed to simulate the physical experience of fatigue in the latter stages of a race.

Alone Time

  • If you typically complete your long run or ride socially, create opportunities to practice becoming more open and aware of your experience alone. This is especially important if you will be racing alone. 

Mental Flexibility

  • If you are naturally drawn to either monitoring internal states or external awareness, plan sessions to engage deliberately in one or the other throughout. Mental flexibility from engaging with both approaches can be useful at different points in a race, or for different types of endurance events.

Summary

To summarise, endurance sport creates special opportunities for us to realise the great sense of personal strength that comes from conquering discomfort and suffering over an extended period. For many, this experience forms part of our ‘Why’ for engaging in these sports from the start. If we want to be prepared to ‘show up’ fully for this experience – including the discomfort, fatigue – it’s essential we take advantage of training opportunities to rehearse mentally. Thoughts and sensations do not need to interact with the repetitive sequence of actions that’s been the focus of our physical training. Embracing this perspective can bring more enjoyment to the process and the inspiring challenge of endurance.

If you are an endurance sports competitor or coach and would like to expand on these ideas then Morgan is available for private performance psychology coaching either in person in Brisbane (QLD, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Morgan Spence”.

Competence Before Confidence

Canberra based Sport Psychologist Harley de Vos muses about how overstated CONFIDENCE is as a performance predictor in most sports and other performance domains.

Surely it is better to be excellent at taking corner kicks rather than be confident without the ability to execute a skill consistently.

Are You Competent Or Just Confident?

“I just need to feel more confident, and I will be able to perform at my best. Can you help me to build confidence?”

This is one of the most common reasons why athletes and performers reach out to us at Condor Performance. This article will seek to debunk some common misconceptions about confidence. It may even help you to be more confident when you are performing! Probably not in the way that you would imagine.

Confidence Vs. Competence

Confidence is simply the belief in one’s ability to perform a particular behaviour or action. What confidence is not is some magical state that will guarantee you perform at your best. If only! Ultimately confidence is a feeling or a thought (or a combination) but it is definitely not an action. In other words, it is quite possible to lack confidence in something you are excellent at as well as be very confident in something that you suck at.

Competence, on the other hand, is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. Competence is what we develop over time, at training and practice, through hard work and repetition. And in the long run, competence is far more useful from a performance perspective than confidence will ever be. Competence for the most part is permanent, reliable, and predictable. Confidence on the hand can be fleeting and unpredictable.

Consider The Following Scenario

You are an experienced driver and you are driving your car on your way to training. In this scenario, your ability to drive the car, to use the brakes and accelerator as you need, to indicate when you are turning, to change gears, and so forth is your competence. In other words, you are a competent driver. And so where does confidence fit in? You may be feeling confident about your driving ability, but you may not. Perhaps the weather conditions are challenging for driving. Maybe it is dark. Perhaps there is a lot of traffic, or the roads are unfamiliar. Regardless of the circumstances, you don’t need to feel confident in your ability to be able to drive the car in order to drive it well.

And the same is true when it comes to performance. 

Basically, consistent motor execution (i.e., actions) is possible regardless of how you are feeling. We don’t need to feel confident in order to be able to perform. Most athletes and other performers have experienced this at least once; the “Suprise Performance”. A situation where the performance was excellent despite all sorts of self-doubt. Sometimes our clients describe this as being surprised at their ability to perform so well whilst lacking confidence. As evidence-based sport psychologists and performance psychologists, this is not surprising to us in the slightest.

Hmm, Tell Me More …

As a performance psychologist, part of my approach to consulting is to focus on learning to accept our thoughts and feelings whilst still committing to our actions. It is an approach shared by several of my colleagues at Condor Performance, including our founder Gareth J. Mole. With this approach, I focus on using our actions to generate the thoughts and feelings that we want and not the other way around.

If we take the view that we need to feel confident in order to be able to perform, we are relying on our feelings and feelings to influence our actions. The pitfall of this approach is that we are (highly) unlikely to wake up one day suddenly filled with confidence and ready to perform. So, by holding onto the belief that confidence is the key to performance, we are actually likely to undermine our ability to perform in situations when we do not feel confident.

So, it is more effective to focus on our actions (i.e., what we are doing) and use these to generate our feelings. When it comes to confidence, we want to be focusing on actions that help to develop our confidence and let the feeling follow. These actions can include our body language and displaying confidence even if we’re not feeling confident (“Fake It Til You Feel It”) as well as our preparation, and performance routines. By focusing on our actions, what we are doing is focusing on our competence. Focus on actions first, feelings will follow. In other words, competence before confidence.

Not Convinced Yet, Then Read On …

Another reason why focusing on competence before confidence will help you to perform better is that competence can be measured easily and directly, whereas confidence can’t. If we take the driving scenario from above, we can measure our competence as a car driver with a driving test or the number of speeding fines we get. In order to be able to drive a car, we need to get a license. Passing a driving test is evidence of our competence as a driver, not our confidence. But how can we measure our level of confidence when it comes to driving? The answer is that we can’t, not objectively anyway. We may feel confident as a driver, and then we find ourselves in a challenging and unusual environment (such as driving at night on unfamiliar roads in the rain), and all of a sudden, our confidence has gone.  

Focusing on our competence, which we can easily and directly measure, helps to guide us in practice. We can focus on developing and refining our skills, and we can measure our progress.

Competence Before Confidence – Conclusion

One common misconception about elite athletes and performers is that we often overestimate their level of confidence. We assume because of how skilled and experienced they are that they must feel supreme confidence. But this is far from true. Some performers never feel real confidence. Some performers are so plagued by self-doubt and performance anxieties and insecurities that they cannot feel confident before and when they are performing. Yet they can still produce exceptional performance despite not feeling confident. How are they capable of this? Because they focus on competence instead confidence.

So to help feel more confident, focus on just getting better. How? Through the right amount of high-quality practice. After all, as detailed in this excellent article by my colleague Gareth, Practice Makes Permanent.

If this article has encouraged you to consider going about your performance from a more psychological point of view then get in touch and be guided by Harley (author) or one of our other psychologists. Even better complete one of the free, online Mental Toughness Questionnaire via this link here, and one of the crew will get back to you ASAP.

Exercise Psychology

This article by psychologist James Kneller is about “Exercise Psychology”. This topic is related to both the mental health benefits of human movement but also the psychology of getting started.

Exercise psychology is related to the mental health gains of physical activity

Before I began working with Condor Performance in 2019 as a performance psychologist (and soon to earn the title of sport psychologist) I was working with a mixture of athletes and the general public. This work leant towards traditional mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and life stressors. In a traditional psychology setting, I am often asked what the best thing to do is to help with these sorts of issues. My answer, after the colloquial “laughter is the best medicine”, is always exercise. 

I take clients through what I call the basic five things to be taking control of to give them the best opportunity for optimal mental health.

These five areas are: 

  • Diet – an appropriate and relatively healthy diet provides the nutrients and energy to deal with daily requirements 
  • Water – adequate hydration of our bodies is vital for both physical and mental health. As I tell my clients our brains transmit their signals through electrical currents, these move more effectively through water than air
  • Appropriate use of drugs – this means taking any medications or supplements required in the way that they were designed and instructed to do along with limiting or avoiding potentially harmful substances such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal substances
  • Sleep – good sleep is a very close 2nd to my top answer of exercise. In sleep, the body, and particularly the brain is restored, cleaned, and reset to face the next day
  • Exercise – our bodies are designed to move and when we deny them this, they tend to crumble a little including our brains. Modern-day exercise psychology is all about not letting this happen.

Exercise Psychology Basics

It is well known that exercise has numerous physical benefits. For example, physical activity is known to reduce the risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. It has also been shown to reduce the likelihood or onset of neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have had a stroke recover faster. It also improves or maintains muscle mass and bone strength. Exercise is a key component in maintaining or losing weight which leads to a longer life expectancy and likely higher quality of that longer life. 

What is sometimes overlooked is the value of exercise to the brain directly, and to mood and wellbeing associated with this. Studies of the impact of exercise on the brain have found that it improves blood circulation in the brain which helps clarity of thought. It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily responsible for memory. It also improves the connections within nerve cells in the brain improving function and protecting against disease. 

When we exercise the brain releases feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. Many of us have heard of “runners’ high” which is this process, but the benefits are not only felt by those who run great distances. Just getting a sweat up will help the brain produce and release more of these chemicals.

The Right Amount of Exercise

When recommendations are made for how much exercise we should be getting it is just 30 minutes per day for five days a week. This does not need to be gut-busting. It does not have to come in one block of 30 minutes and can be broken down into two or three sessions of 10-15 minutes each. 

I mentioned earlier that enough good quality sleep is my 2nd best action for better mental health, and another benefit of exercise is the strong link between increased exercise and improved quality of sleep. The actions of getting a sweat up through the day help the body feel tired and allow it to more effectively regulate itself to have a sleep period and an active period through the day rather than being confused over which is supposed to be the active one. 

One of the most frustrating things that often happens when clients struggle with depression (for example) is that it can rob them of motivation and our belief that they can achieve anything in life. Regular exercise decreases stress hormones which has a beneficial impact on dealing with life stressors and anxiety. When they begin doing some exercise, even one session a week, they begin to develop a sense of achievement and they begin to break the inertia hold of being sedentary. 

I hear clients say they are waiting for some motivation to hit them, but motivation needs to be created it does not just arrive. But like a snowball, once they take one step and do one session it makes the next easier to achieve and so on. As they continue, they can see the benefits for themselves. They might start receiving comments from friends or family on their progress and their self-esteem rises. For some it is the thrill of looser clothing or making it all the way around the block without stopping. The goals do not need to be massive, and neither do the results. The sense of empowerment for a client to see that they can take some charge over their life can be truly life-changing. 

A Pathway To Social Connections

Exercise can be done in isolation, and with the world currently dealing with pandemics and lockdowns this is both relevant and necessary, but it can also provide a pathway to social connections. This is another important component of strong mental health. Whether walking at the local park and simply seeing others doing the same, or joining a community such as weekly park runs, or getting involved with a team sport. When we exercise with others we can get, and provide, motivation and encouragement from them to simply show up when we are not feeling like it. Teams allow us to work on social skills and leadership skills that are transferable to all aspects of life. 

While exercise psychology is not a focus of Condor Performance, and we would expect our clients are already doing much more than the minimum recommendations each week, many of the skills we work on with clients are transferrable. Planning and setting appropriate structured and incremental goals with clients gives the greatest chance of achieving an end goal or dream. Assisting them to find their motivation and focus assists them to break the inertia of stillness. The accountability of someone who is checking in with them regularly and the support through setbacks allows them to know they are not alone. 

In writing this we would hope that even if it does not apply to you, it is something that you might be able to use to start a discussion with family or friends that you have seen struggling with their mental health and point them in the direction of a local psychologist to assist with getting them back in better mental, and physical, shape.