Performance Consistency

Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret argues that ‘Performance Consistency’ should be the most highly valued goal for all elite athletes and performers.

Performance Consistency Is The Holy Grail of Competitive Sport

Of all Usain Bolt's many achievements, maybe the most impressive was how consistent he was in major competitions.
Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.

With a few notable exceptions there seems to be a ‘HOT or NOT’ element to many sporting performances. Across all sports and levels it is common for great performances to be followed by relatively poor ones. This has generally left participants and onlookers perplexed and asking why and how questions for the rest of the week. How is is possible for these players to play so well one week, then so poorly the next? Why am I only excellent some of the time?

This short article will explore some of the reasons behind Performance Consistency and Inconsistency. I will conclude with a few tips on how to attempt a move towards The Holy Grail of Competitive Sport; Performance Consistency.

The Holy Grail

We call Performance Consistency the Holy Grail because it’s the ultimate sport and performance outcome goal. For non-Monty Python fans the Holy Grail was the cup Christ used at the Last Supper which has been the quest by various pilgrims for centuries.

The Real Holy Grail
The Real Holy Grail

Every athlete knows what it’s like to hit that ‘purple patch’ where everything just seems to click into place. This, of course, is not Performance Consistency as it always comes to end (often a sudden and ugly one). Performance Consistency occurs when you can extend this purple patch to a few weeks, a whole season, or even an entire career.

What Causes Performance Inconsistency?

I would suggest the number one cause of Performance Inconsistency is the overuse or misuse of performance reviews. In particular, athletes and coaches misunderstanding the amount of influence they have on their performance results (outcomes). In its simplest form ‘a performance’ is the consequence of about 25 to 30 areas of effort. One such area of effort might be (should be) Mental Toughness. On top of these areas of effort we also have many less influenceable elements aspects such as genetics.

After a particular performance it’s very common for the performer to ‘assign’ reasons for the result. For example, “I played really well because I have a new coach.” Or “I played poorly because I have been out injured.” This then often leads to doing more of the things that you thought caused the ‘good performance’. You might also do less of that which you believed caused the performance decline. And so begins the Performance Rollercoaster – the very opposite of Performance Consistency. Effort becomes reactive (emotional) rather than premeditated (rational) and up and down you go like a Yo-Yo.

The reality is, you will never know exactly what ingredients went into making up a performance. At best you might be able to develop a hunch that links some elements of effort to some variations in results, with a whole heap of unknowns leftover. Thoughts and beliefs are just that – thoughts and beliefs – and although they can feel incredibly reliable the truth is they are perceptions, not facts. So when you say “the reason why my performance was so great was due to X, Y or Z,” ask yourself if this is a fact or a thought that seems factual. They are very different.

Failure to Plan is a Plan to Fail

Instead, plan your effort without factoring in results. Just consider what you believe might be worth spending time on. Spare yourself the distraction of strengths and weaknesses or good and bad. Second, ensure the effort is broken down into very clear categories. Try not to end up with too many of them nor too few. Finally, make sure you ‘buy into’ the 4 laws of effort below.

  • Improvement is never ending. You will never reach a point of mastery and be ‘good enough’ to then move on to something else.
  • The number of ways to improve is unlimited. But the time and resources we have in order to get better are very limited.
  • Improvement is best achieved through the focus on training and practice. This basically boils down to EFFORT.
  • Effort is fundamentally a combination of Quality and Quantity into the areas you are targeting for improvement.

The above article was written by performance psychologist Chris Pomfret in 2019 and updated in 2020. The below article, on the same general topic of Performance Consistency, was written by his colleague David Barracosa. Both psychologists have worked for Condor Performance for almost 10 years and can be contacted by email at info@condorperformance.com.

What Is Performance, Really?

I love jumping online and examining statistics and reading about new ways to understand and analyse the sports we love. There are endless amounts of data available, which are used to evaluate an individual or team’s performances. These statistics are often seen to be of high importance. They are considered factual because they are quantifiable measurements of performance. Comments such as “it’s hard to argue with the numbers” may help me make my point here. Despite my interest in statistics, I intend to challenge these notions from a sport psychology perspective.

In the current sporting climate statistics are used by people involved at all levels. From front office personnel to coaches, players, fans and especially commentators during broadcasts. Due to this saturation of statistical information it becomes difficult for performers to ignore these numbers. This is particularly the case when they are not trending in a direction they are happy with. But what if statistics only painted a narrow view of the story? What if they didn’t portray the bigger picture when it comes to performance?

A Common Mental Conflict

One of the conflicts I have noticed for clients during my time with Condor Performance is the battle between statistics and strategies. Motivated athletes and coaches are keen to monitor their progress in both skill acquisition and skill maintenance. As performance psychologists we encourage this through our version of goal setting and goal getting principles. We are always cautious of being entirely dependant on statistics for feedback. Results (another word for statistics) are only influenceable after all. This means lots of other variables and factors can impact the result or outcome of your performance. Many of these are outside your bubble of responsibility.

When we begin working with our athletes and coaches we often enquire about their goals and expectations. One of the things I notice in these early conversations is that many of the shorter term expectations are based around statistics. Soccer players will talk about scoring a goal or how many chances they create. Basketball players will discuss points, rebounds and assists. Swimmers and runners can put a lot of focus towards completing their race under a certain time. Sporting officials will often determine a game’s quality by the number of errors they made.

Now before I go any further I want to say that goals are important and we are always in favour of people having them. But sporting success is a little like cooking.

Hmmm, Something Smells Good

The goal of cooking is usually to produce a tasty mean or dish. The goal of high performance sport is to produce consistency good performances. The best chefs and home cooks know the key is to focus on the process and high quality ingredients. The best athletes and coaches do exactly the same.

When we become reliant on statistics to measure our performances it can also significantly impact our mental toughness. The uncertain nature of statistics means areas such as our confidence and emotional state can go up and down like a yo-yo. Think of a cricket batter who has recent scores of 24, 4, 14, 1, 43, 3. Or a tennis player who is knocked out in the early rounds of three tournaments in a row. What about a goalkeeper in soccer for a team on a losing streak. Statistics alone paint a certain picture about their performances. However we need to understand more than just the numbers in order to properly evaluate these individuals.

Author: Chris Pomfret

Chris "The Gun" Pomfret is an exceptional performance psychologist who has helped boost the Mental Toughness of many a sporting client since joining Condor Performance in 2012. He lives in Brisbane, Australia with his wife and two daughters.

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