Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance
Painting A Complete Picture of Performance
By David Barracosa (PSY0001733584)
“My theory is to strive for consistency, not to worry about the numbers. If you dwell on statistics you get shortsighted, if you aim for consistency, the numbers will be there at the end”
– Tom Seaver (retired Major League Baseball pitcher)
As a lover of sports, I’m a huge fan of 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, considered factual because they are quantifiable measurements of performance and lead to comments such as “it’s hard to argue with the numbers”. Despite my interest in statistics, I intend to challenge these notions from a mental toughness 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. Because of this saturation of statistical information it becomes difficult for athletes and/or coaches to ignore these numbers, particularly when they are not trending in a direction they are happy with. But what if statistics only painted a narrow view of the story and didn’t portray the bigger picture when it comes to performance?
One of the consistent mental conflicts I have noticed for athletes and coaches during my time with Condor Performance is the battle between recognising a place for statistics and implementing some of our core mental toughness skills and strategies. Motivated athletes and coaches are keen to monitor their progress in both skill acquisition and skill maintenance and we encourage this through our unique goal setting and goal getting principles. However, we are cautious of being entirely dependant on statistics for this feedback as we know, and you may as well if you have been reading these digests, that results (another word for statistics) are only influenceable. Essentially this means a thousand and one other variables and factors can impact the result or outcome of your performance and many of these are outside your bubble of responsibility.
When we begin working with our athletes and coaches we are quick to enquire about their goals and expectations in both the short and long term. One of the things I notice in these early conversations is that many of the shorter term expectations, i.e. what they are looking to achieve in an individual match, 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; rugby league forwards will talk about how many hit ups and tackles they make, whereas backs may discuss tries scored or set up; and swimmers and runners have a huge amount of their focus dedicated to completing their race under a certain time. 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 just like with cooking dinner where the goal is to eat a tasty meal, you need to understand the ingredients being used and the processes (recipe) you need to execute effectively in order for the end product to be as good as you would like. The same goes for sporting performances.
When we become reliant on statistics to measure our performances it can also significantly impact our mental toughness because the uncertain nature of statistics (remember they are only influenceable) 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; or a goalkeeper in soccer for a team on a losing streak. Statistics alone paint a certain picture about their performances, but we need to understand more than just the numbers in order to properly evaluate these individuals.
This is where understanding what is controllable becomes truly important. From a mental toughness perspective, if we can develop ways of evaluating our performances through things we guarantee and control (which means that if it doesn’t happen it was because we lacked the motivation, mental toughness and/or simply didn’t want to), then we have a reliable source of feedback that can positively influence us as athletes and coaches. To do this we look no further than the idea of effort. I want you to take a second and consider in your sport or performance area, what is 100% effort? How do you know if you have given 100% effort? What does it look like to give 100% effort?
These answers are significant in your search for mental toughness. If you can compile a short list of ideas that represent 100% effort you give yourself a solid way of evaluating your performances to complement any statistics you may compile. What you are now starting to see is a more complete picture of your performances. If we refer back to the cricketer mentioned above then it is extremely useful to know if they were dismissed for those low scores due to a lack of application, laziness to consistently apply their pre-delivery routines and poor tactical awareness versus being dismissed by a brilliant delivery that bounced more than usual or turned out of the footmarks. For the tennis player it provides us the opportunity to see if those early round losses were due to poor concentration and an inability to stick with a game plan versus meeting a highly ranked opponent who they were able to challenge each step of the way. Finally for the goalkeeper who was unable to keep clean sheets we want to understand if this was due to a break down in their communication, mishandling of crosses into the box and poor positioning versus their defenders making costly mistakes or shots deflecting in when they would have covered the ground to make the save originally. Each of these examples show that while the statistics paint an ugly picture, understanding the why is crucial in order for us to progress. Just knowing we lost or didn’t accumulate statistics is not helpful from a development and training perspective. What is more useful is understand what areas of my performance need fine tuning in order to apply effort (both mentally and physically) consistently for a greater chance of success.
On the flip side it’s also worth mentioning that it’s not just about recognising times where your statistics don’t support a good performance, but also when they may cover up a below average one. I know there are a lot of times where an individual or team has been below their best but were able to still achieve success within their sport. From a mental toughness perspective it is not the win or loss that matters the most, but rather the way we performed to get there. In these cases I still want to critique my performances and explore opportunities for improvement knowing that this is not me or my team performing to our full potential.
So, I want to challenge you to look differently at your own performances. Take the ideas that you came up with when asked about 100% effort earlier in this digest and begin to evaluate your performances through this lens. Use these ideas in association with any statistics you may be able to compile and let yourself see the complete picture of your performances.