The Performance Mindset

The Performance Mindset is a free e-book by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance

Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.

In early 2019 I wrote the better part of a book without a title. I felt it necessary to get down on paper some of the key mental strategies that we, at Condor Performance, use on a daily basis as a sport and performance psychologists. I’m not sure if I ever intended it to be published or not. So, rather than try and finish it (below is basically the first draft) and take it to publishers I thought I would simply add it here to the blog section of our website. For the time being, I am calling this e-Book The Performance Mindset.

Typo Warning: The majority of the below text was written using voice to text software. Although it has been proofread once it has not been professionally checked and therefore is very likely to contain a litany of typographical errors. These typos will in no way impact on the concepts I’m trying to communicate however they will bother both perfectionists and grammar-police alike.

Part One

In the world of competitive sport, the term ‘performance’ is used a lot. In my experience as an Applied Sport Psychologist who has been working at the coalface of elite sport since 2005, it is generally used more in reference to competitions than training.

For example, comments like ‘that was a great performance today’ and ‘I hope I perform well on the weekend’ are much more commonplace than ‘regular mindfulness practice is a key ingredient to the preparation side of performance’ and ‘my training performance has been very consistent for some time now’ for example. 

This bias has resulted in some confusion about the true definition of performance. Given the title of this book, is worth addressing this from the very start. Quite simply, performance means ‘an extended period of preparation interspersed by opportunities to execute what has been practised under the pressure of official events’.

Performance Equals …

Performance = Preparation then Competition the Preparation then Competition then Preparation and so on.

So although we could attempt to describe our Preparation and Competition separately it would be difficult and counterproductive to try and label our ‘performance’. Using our definition it would be impossible to know which aspects of performance you were referring to. Furthermore whatever word you decided to use (e.g. good or disappointing) would be far too simple to describe the vast range of variables of either side of performance.

Did you mean that your preparation was great but that you failed to execute under the pressure of the competition? Or was it the other way around? Was the work you did in the lead-up poor but you managed to do well come game day?

With this in mind, the first bit of psychological advice that I am going to give you (first of many) is to mentally separate the preparation side of performance from the competition side.

So, as performance psychologists, we help ‘performers’ improve by addressing both sides of their performance. We help them optimise their preparation directly and depending on what they do this preparation will often go by many other names. Training, rehearsals, practice, rehab, sessions, drills, pre-season, run-throughs, effort, process(es) and workouts are amongst the most used in my experience.

More Than Semantics

We also assist directly with the competition side of performance. Again, this often masquerades as other terms such as matches, rounds, races, trials, bouts, games, tests, events, exams, assessments, heats, contests and fights – for example.

Due to the mostly 1-on-1 nature of what we do, we can easily switch between focusing on the client’s preparation and their competitions making sure never to confuse one with the other. This, despite the fact that they are obviously related to one another. But the cause and effect nature of the relationship is vastly exaggerated by many to their detriment.

In other words, although it would be reasonable to suggest that an extended period of solid preparation can assist with favourable results in a particular sporting contest it would be completely wrong to say (as many do) that the former caused the latter.

What really helps me not to fall into this all-too-common booby trap is to actually avoid using the word performance altogether. Instead, I would advise using Preparation when talking about Preparation and Competition when referring to any and all types of Competition – from heats to rounds.

Regardless of your role within the wonderful world of sport, I would advise you to start doing the same from this point forward.

Mentally Seperate Preparation from Competition

The principal reason (motivation) for separating Preparation from Competition is down to the fact that each benefit from having a different mindset. In fact, so different are these mindsets for the two sides of performance they could almost be regarded as opposites.

We will first delve into the preferred mindset for competitive situations due to the fact that it can be addressed relatively quickly. After this, and for the remainder of this e-book, we’ll focus on helping you create the best possible mindset for preparation – whether it be your own or that of those you coach.

The Ideal Mindset for Competition

The Relaxed Competition Mindset

“I’ve learned over the years that if you start thinking about the race, it stresses you out a little bit. I just try to relax and think about video games, what I’m gonna do after the race, what I’m gonna do just to chill. Stuff like that to relax a little before the race .”

Usain Bolt

As this e-book is a guide I don’t want to spent too much time on the ‘why’ as I’d rather focus on the ‘what, when and how’. Having said that a bit of context can be beneficial. So there are two ‘why’ questions on the table. Firstly, ‘why’ is the default emotion of most sporting individuals and teams to be anything other than relaxed in the lead up to competitions – either intentionally or by accident? Secondly, why does aiming to be relaxed work so well? What’s the science behind the effectiveness of this counterintuitive mindset?

The answer to the first question could be summed up by something one of my coaching clients (a client who is a high-level rowing coach) repeated back to me during a session via Skype many years ago. She said, “they don’t hand out Olympics medals for great training sessions, do they”? That pretty much sums it up. 

Same, Same But Different

Competitive sport is like almost no other human pursuit in terms of how unfairly we judge it. Not only do we easily forgot about the huge amount of effort than went into the preparation for sporting competitions but we tend to zoom in on ‘number of wins’ as being the most meaningful of all performance indicators.

Can you imagine what it would be like to spend thousands of hours preparing for something over four years and the entire world determining your success by your finishing position in an event that lasted a few minutes (or less)? Now imagine that the entire world is watching you during these few minutes despite not even knowing your name before they switched on the television. 

Even sports whereby competitive opportunities are more frequent and take hours rather than minutes – for example, professional soccer – tend to default to a ‘pathological obsession over results and outcomes’.

Win At All Cost

‘The Win At All Cost’ attitude is still regarded as a ‘badge of honour’ in many circles. This, despite the fact that most of us saw what that did to Lance Armstrong.

At the time of writing the 2018/19 edition of the English Premier League just came to end with Liverpool Football Club finishing a single point behind the eventual champions Manchester City. Liverpool smashed many of their club records and a number for the competition itself but the fact that their 97 points would have won every single edition of the English Premier League except one is regarded as secondary – even irrelevant – compared to the fact they finished as runners-up.

Some of the Liverpool players at the end of the 2018/19 season.

Can you imagine having the best year of your life by far – professionally – and yet still be considered a failure in some circles due to the fact that you got second place in the annual ‘salesman of the year’ award?

Although I am optimistic that over time the culture of elite sport will improve and the concept of ‘winning is everything’ will slowly be phased out (due in part to books like this) the best short and medium-term approach for those not wanting to get beaten down by the highly results dominated environment they find themselves in is to put all their energy into changing their mindset.

But before that, what about the science behind why prioritising relaxation just before and at certain points during competitions has such a positive impact – sometimes overnight?

Part Two

The Law of Reverse Effect

The Law of Reverse Effect in non-psychobabble terms means that for most automated motor skills in naturally ‘high stakes situations’ the less we try the easier they become.

Another way to understand The Law of Reverse Effect is to understand and accept that automatic processes – such as kicking a ball, running, catching, throwing, jumping, pulling a trigger  – often experience a ‘reverse effect’ whereby “the more you think about them” the worse they end up.

It’s easiest to understand The Law of Reverse Effect via everyday situations. Most people can relate to this if they have been subject to getting a severe case of the giggles. The harder you try not to giggle (maybe due to a warning from the teacher, coach or parent) the harder it is not to giggle. This often results in uncontrollable laugher in situations where it’s obvious that this is not acceptable behaviour. The Law of Reverse Effect would suggest the most effective remedy would be to just relax and cease trying not to giggle so much! 

How many learner drivers have failed their driving test(s) not because they couldn’t drive but because they were stressed to the eyeballs before and during their test(s)? What about the fact that the harder you try to fall asleep the harder it becomes!

Motor Skills

The reason why The Law of Reverse Effect is particularly relevant to sport and therefore warrants such prominence here is due to the high motor skill nature of sports. The amount of human movement a professional baseballer will do, say compared with a professional politician, can’t be ignored.

As human movements become more natural (mainly due to repetition but genetics plays its part) they move from the very conscious part of the brain (the frontal lobe – above your eyes) to a subconscious area called the Basal Ganglia – which is located more towards the middle of the brain closer to the top of the brain stem. When this starts to happen the movements are becoming automated which is where the term ‘muscle memory’ comes from. Due to the fact that we can learn to do pretty much any complex set of movements on ‘autopilot’, it feels like the muscles involved in that set of movements have actually remembered how to perform the task. In fact, it’s the Basal Ganglia that’s doing all the work.

The Basal Ganglia is on the right, the limbic system on the left.

This is why a chicken will run around for few a minutes after having its head chopped off. The Basal Ganglia of a chicken is found below the neckline and therefore will often remain in place and functioning after decapitation. Running for the chicken has become an automatic process and therefore it’s able to do so even after its head has been removed – albeit only for a few minutes until it dies from loss of blood.

Fine Motor Skills More Impacted By Stress

If the motor skills are fine or complex in nature then they are even more vulnerable to stress. By fine we mean smaller movements such as throwing a dart or spinning a cricket ball with just our fingers. By complex we mean anything that is very different from what we learn to do by just being a human being. For example, running would be regarded as a simple motor skill due to the fact that most of us do this a lot as children. On the other hand, all the technical requirements of golf – such as attempting a bunker shot without allowing the club to touch the sand before the swing – would be seen in most circles as unnatural and therefore complex.

Finally, the gains of the Relaxed Competition Mindset are related to how competent the athlete is. This makes complete sense. For a novice (beginner) rower taking part in his / her first few regattas a certain amount of mental reminding might be helpful. But as the athlete becomes more and more proficient (as displayed in training) and the “autopilot” takes over thinking about the skill is no longer required or desirable.

Despite the fact that possibly the most successful individual athlete of the last 20 years – Usain Bolt – religiously adopted a Relaxed Competition Mindset – there is still very little published evidence related to the effectiveness of this method.

Usain Bolt had the ideal Performance Mindset. Hard work in training, relax before competitions. .

Luckily, not all scientific data is published in peer-reviewed journal articles. My colleagues and I at Condor Performance have been encouraging athletes and sporting coaches to adopt this philosophy for over ten years now and the feedback has ranged from small effect to “game-changer” with the occasional ‘magic bullet’. These are real athletes and coaches paying real money looking for real mental improvements and I am still waiting for the day that one of them says to me “sorry, I was far too relaxed before then competition”.

But not everyone that I mentioned The Relaxed Competition Mindset to ‘got it’ straight away. Athletes and coaches from high decision making sports often pointed out that despite Usain Bolt’s achievements his chosen sport of sprinting is very light in decision making. Is the Relaxed Competition Mindset just as applicable for high decision making sports – such as cricket, tennis and most of the traditional team sports?

The Answer Is Yes

Yes, because guess where decision making ends up after it’s been rehearsed a few hundred times? That’s right – the basal ganglia. This is why a squash player can often make excellent split-second decisions – such as to play a drop shot. As you will find out later in this guide when we put the spotlight on tactics a combination of simplifying our decisions (reducing the number of choices) and rehearsing them will allow decision making to become just as automatic as running is for a headless chicken.

Another hesitation to mimic Usain Bolt’s pre-race preferences often come from the concern that the actions of a Relaxed Competition Mindset might often look – to the untrained eye – like a lack of interest or professionalism or desire to do well. One only needs to look at the antics of Mr Bolt in the moments before some of this biggest races to empathise with this concern. Moments prior to the 100m final of the 2012 Olympic Games he gives one of the officials a fist pump.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jEQEGQYUuI

Looking relaxed and being relaxed are not one and the same of course. What this means is it’s entirely possible for you to develop a Relaxed Competition Mindset without anyone suspecting you’ve changed a thing. Which brings is nicely to the final part of this chapter – how to create one.

How To Develop An RCM

By far the most effective way to actually have a Relaxed Competition Mindset whilst competing is simply to strive for one. If I were your coach I’d basically be asking you to set that (trying to relax) as the main aim of your completive situations. Furthermore, striving (or aiming) to be relaxed is far more important than actually being relaxed.

Being relaxed is an outcome (result) and therefore not something we can guarantee. However, having the intention of being calm and having that as one of the ‘main aims’ of high-pressure assessment situations is something we have a lot of influence over. This frees us from the awkward situation where we know that being relaxed is important but we just can’t get anywhere close to feeling that way.

I have been lucky enough to be involved with a number of elite athletes who have shown remarkable gains by striving to be relaxed but only every showing small reductions in the actual amount of stress experienced in the lead up to competitions.

Part Three

The Ideal Mindset for Preparation

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of true preparation we need to understand what this practice time is designed to do. To do this I will introduce you to an analogy that is very dear to my heart. Why? Well, in part because I came up with it and in part because I use it with 100% of my sporting clients.

The analogy is that you are like a four-engined aircraft with five major “components”. Four of these components are the four engines themselves with the other component being ‘the rest of the aeroplane’ or ‘main body and wings’. 

The four engines represent what could be described as the traditional desirables of sports science; physical, technical, mental and tactical superiority. The rest of the aeroplane symbolises everything else that could be targeted for either improvement or maintenance in order to either directly or indirectly assist with our dreams and goals.

We could call these five major components Physical Capabilities, Technical Consistency, Mental Toughness, Tactical Wisdom and Personal Thriving.

Not only does this analogy include Personal Thriving as a key part of trying to be ‘optimal’ but it actually suggests that it might be the most important major component of all. In other words, there is not a lot of point in having four tip-top engines attached to an aircraft that is falling apart. It would make complete sense that if this were the case then the main body, wings and tail of the aircraft would get prioritised for improvement first. Although this may seem obvious in the aeronautical industry it certainly isn’t in competitive sport and other performance industries. 

Secondly, the professionals who typically look after and maintain fleets of aeroplanes are aeronautical engineers. I believe we could learn a lot about the way in which they go about their work. Actual aeronautical engineers have a mindset (due mainly to their training) that prevention is much better than trying to fix something after it has failed. In other words, they don’t sit around the hanger eating doughnuts waiting for one of the keys parts of their aeroplanes to blow up before trying to improve them. 

They are constantly checking all aspects of all of the aeroplanes they’re responsible for. Put this ‘aeronautical engineer mindset’ into the head of a young athlete then instead of waiting for an injury to happen, they start to include stretching in their weekly routines as a regular preventative measure.

Put this ‘aeronautical engineer mindset’ into a Head Coach then she quickly works out that it’s better not to assume that everything is fine, Instead go and measure it in some way. Furthermore, she understands that she is her own aeroplane and every single one of her athletes is their own plane too.

Finally, this analogy allows us to more easily see how “outcomes” (components and subcomponents) and “processes” (methods and tools) work together and why focusing more on the latter than the former is a ‘no brainer’.

Subcomponents

Now each of the five major components has a number of subcomponents that we could target for either improvement or maintenance. Of course, we could also choose not to target them.

For example, using Physical Capabilities as a quick example we might choose to target cardiovascular fitness for improvement, flexibility for maintenance and muscle strength might remain un-targeted for the time being.

Then, each of the subcomponents will have a set of “methods” that would be handy for just these purposes. Some of these methods will require some tools, whilst others will not. Some methods will have a definite impact on the associated subcomponent whilst others will only have a probable benefit. Then there are methods that do nothing for the subcomponent and even some that actually cause damage.

For example, if targeting cardiovascular fitness then two of the methods might be skipping and running whereby the skipping need a tool (skipping rope) and running don’t (you don’t need running shoes to run). Both have an obvious and direct impact on cardio fitness.

In other words, your plane has 5 major components, dozens of subcomponents and potentially hundreds of method and tools for ensuring your vessel is in the best possible condition and can fly as far as possible.  

Pomfret’s Paradox and Barracosa’s Law 

Pomfret’s Paradox refers to the fact that there is an unlimited number of ways to prepare but a finite amount of time to do so. With the analogy of the plane in mind by the time you have come up with all the many methods that can be used across the subcomponents, there will be far too many to squeeze into your week.

In my work as a sport psychologist, I work with many athletes of sports that can’t be done as a source of income. For example, most of the Olympic sports such as rowing and shooting. Many of these athletes have full-time jobs and families. Therefore the amount of preparation time they get during the week can be limited. Yet not once have I ever asked one of these clients to increase their preparation time. In fact, I’m more likely to suggest they decrease their overall training time.

This is due to Barracosa’s Law, sometimes called the Q10 x Q10 Principle.

Barracosa’s Law refers to the fact that the quantity and quality of preparation are separate concepts. It translates into a crucial mental skill as it allows the performer to mentally separate the amount of training from the effectiveness. All too often in high-performance situations, improvements are sought by trying to increase quantity whilst either ignoring or actually decreasing quality.

The first Q is for the quantity of preparation. Quantity is measured in units with the most common in sporting settings being minutes, hours, reps (repetitions), millimetres, grams and attempts. The ideal amount of quantity is somewhere in the middle with too many (much) and too few to be avoided.

Not for the last time, I will use examples away from sport to get my point across. In dental hygiene, for example, brushing one’s teeth once a week would be a Q1 (too infrequent), brushing them 10 times a day would be a Q3 (too often) but brushing them twice a day would be Q10 (also known as the sweet spot). In other words, a low quantity score occurs when either we are overdoing or undergoing it.

The second Q represents the other major element to preparation and that’s quality. Quality is very different from quantity due to the fact that it’s not possible to have something that is too high in quality. So for quality, a high score of 7, 8, 9 or 10 suggests really beneficial actions are taking place whereas below 4 implies what is being done during that time is not that effective.

Knowing the best way to brush your teeth and having access to the best possible toothbrush and toothpaste would be a 10. Inferior brushing techniques and poor quality toothpaste would lower this number even if the brushing was still taking place twice a day.

Another analogy to explain how quality and quantity really work is to think of water. There is not much to celebrate if you access to unlimited water but that water is contaminated. Likewise, although having access to the pristine waters of the New Zealand mountains might be nice it wouldn’t mean much if you only had a couple of litres that you brought down yourself from a hike you did years back. 

So the aim of preparation (all kinds) is to try and help all of the areas that we are working towards a score of 100 (10 x 10). To ensure we’re doing the right amounts of the highest possible practice across all the areas that are important to us. 

An extension of Barracosa’s Law is to actually do the maths. If you feel this would be of some benefit to you or your athletes. For example, if your current physical regime means that you attend a 90-minute hot yoga class once a month you might decide that in terms of quality this is a 9 / 10 activity. However, as you’d prefer to do it weekly then you give it a 4 / 10 for quantity. As 4 x 9 is 36 then you might like to think of you current physical choices are operating at 36% or 36 out of a possible 100.

It makes a lot more sense (to me at least) that we multiple the Qs instead of adding them together – to create a maximum of 100 instead of 20. The reason being is that although it’s useful to be able to mentally separate the quantity of quality of our preparation the fact is that whilst you’re actually doing that 10 minutes HIT activity the two sides are working together with more of a multiplication effect.

If you are not sure if doing the actual maths is going to help or hinder you then I would suggest giving it a go first and deciding later. They are just numbers after all – they can’t really hurt you. 


Part Four (Just Added)

Time To Get To Work

I will be spending the rest of this e-book going through each of the five major components. In doing so I will try clarify what the subcomponents are and the various method and tools that exist for each. The order I will be going through is as follows:

PC, TC, PT, MT and TW

I want to start with PC (Physical Capabilities) because it’s the most tangible of the components. Therefore it will be the ideal place to set the tone for how we then approach some of the less tangible ones later on.

I am mindful as I write this section that I am not a qualified expert in three of the five components (physical, technical and tactical). So I need to be somewhat careful about how much advice I give compared with Mental Toughness and Personal Thriving which fit completely with my formal credentials and experience as a performance psychologist.

But here is my justification for not entirely skipping over these three components entirely. Everything that humans do is partially psychological in nature. 

Although I am not a qualified dentist I would happily take on any qualified dental expert in getting – for example – people to floss more often due to my knowledge of motivation and what is required to form genuine habits. Although I am not a qualified physiotherapist my knowledge and experience around the mental impacts and solutions to injuries (physical setbacks) allows me to confidentially and without apologies contribute to the Physical Preparation of athletes. You get the picture.

Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Physical Preparation

[Mainly Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Mainly Physical Preparation]

For each part of the Preparation Plane there will be a number of subcomponents that could be targeted for either improvement or maintenance. For each of these there will be potentially millions of methods that help us do just that. To help us not get overwhelmed by the almost endless number of methods and tools for each of the subcomponents then we can – and will – stick to mostly the methods that we know definitely work. 

When applied to the first engine of the Preparation Plane – Physical Capabilities Being Targeted By Physical Activities – it might look something like this:

Physical Activities >> Subcomponents  vvIncreasing Heart Rate on purpose via HMStretching on purposeResisting on purposeBalancing on purpose
CardioDefinitelyProbablyProbablyMaybe
FlexibilityMaybeDefinitelyMaybeProbably
StrengthProbablyProbablyDefinitelyMaybe
BalanceMaybeProbablyProbablyDefinitely

By zooming in only on the “definitely” above we can quite easily start to create some lists of specific method and tools that will more than likely improve or maintain each of the four subcomponents of Physical Capabilities if they are done regularly and on purpose.


Subcomponents
MethodsUseful ToolsExamples
CardioIncreasing Heart Rate on purpose via HMskipping roperunning, skipping
FlexibilityStretching on purpose
stretching
StrengthResisting on purposeheavy thingsweight training
BalanceResisting on purposebalance boardbalancing 

You’ll notice that the word ‘on purpose’ appears alongside each of the Physical Preparation subcomponents. This is important. Intentionality (being deliberate or purposive) is one of the easiest ways to boost the effectiveness of the any activity (more sophisticated way to follow). 

It is particularly important for the ‘increasing Heart Rate’ subcomponent as there are many occasions where one’s HR will increase that we would not want to count towards as physical preparation – such as when we get nervous or consume too much caffeine.

Have we left out anything? 

Well I invite the exercise physiologists reading this book to contact me if they think I have but I am quietly confident that the four subcomponents above cover most if it.

Let’s put it to the test. 

What about speed? 

The kind that might help you run 100 meters as fast as possible. Correct me if I am wrong but all four physical preparation subcomponents will help you become faster at sprinting. The precise way in which they are combined may well be difference for a middle distance runner, long distance runner or sprinter but that can be addressed via the amount of time you spend on each one. Again, I am no expert here but I am guessing a sprinter will want to spend a lot more time on upper body muscle development that his Marathon running counterpart.

What about injuries?

Surely the kinds of exercises that a physiotherapist might ask us to do are vastly different from these four simple subcomponents? I spend a lot of time with injured athletes and their rehabilitation programs tend to always be made up of lots of stretching, weights, cardio and balancing activities simply adapted to gently improve the physical condition in a way that doesn’t risk further injury.

In other words the subcomponents are identical for injured and uninjured athletes – what might be different are the methods and the tools.

In fact, you could argue that terms such as ‘injury’ are unhelpful as they direct the mind towards the problem rather than the solution. With the exception of unexpected career ending injuries the ideal mindset for injuries athletes is simply to adjust their physical preparation accordingly. 

For example, before a ligament injury in the knee (such as an anterior cruciate ligament or ‘ACL’) a squash player might have been doing 2 x 30 minute of “shuttle runs” per week. After the ACL and with some advice from a qualified physiotherapist, she changes this to 2 x 30 minute of “shuttle walks” instead. The quantity has remained the same and the quality is also still very high as it refers more of a ‘best possible’ way of thinking as opposed to a ‘best ever’ one. More about quality and quantity later – what about the rest of the Preparation Plane.

This is the end of the latest instalment. The fifth part will be added here on Monday 15th March 2021.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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