Sport Psychology Myths

Some of the most common myths about sport psychology and mental toughness are debunked by leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Sport Psychology Myths potentially outnumber the facts due in part to a lack of consensus and unity from the custodians of the profession until this point.

Sport Psychology Myths – Where To Start?

I am sure all professionals feel like this to some degree. That their working world is full of myths and half-truths. But due to the nature of the work we do and how relatively new our profession is I believe sport psychology is surely up there when it comes to a number of misconceptions. Below are some of our favourites – in no particular order. I use the word favourite due to both a combination of how often we come across them and the potential benefits of debunking them.

Myth 1: Sport Psychology Is Like Counselling, Therapy

This is a classic half-truth in that it is literally half correct. Some elements of the work we do have similarities to the work of counsellors, therapists or clinical psychologists. For example, the confidential nature of the relationship and we can help with mental health issues. But the other half of the process is much more likely to resemble a coach. For this part of the process, we’re more likely to be talking about goals and how to achieve them.

Obviously, some performance psychologists will tend to be more like a therapist whilst others will lean more towards the coaching approach. This is one of the biggest advantages enjoyed by our clients. With such a strong and varied team of psychologists, we can literally allow our clients to tell us what they’re looking for. And with very few exceptions, we can ensure their psychologists has these preferences. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 2: The ‘Natural Talent’ Myth

This is a humdinger of a myth. The notion that we are born to be potentially excellent at something regardless of the amount of effort we put in. In my view, people confuse what they regard as “natural talent” for biological and genetic variation.

The classic example is when young athletes hit puberty and some of them suddenly become taller and heavier than their peers. Although there is no doubt these growth spurts play a role in influencing the outcomes of sporting contests, they should not (yet often are) be regarded as natural talent as there is nothing talented about your genetic makeup.

In fact, I try to get my sporting clients to stop using the word “talent” altogether. Quite simply there are performance variables that are either controllable, influenceable or uninfluenceable. What you inherited from your parents falls into the last of these three categories. Simply put you cannot influence your genetics, and therefore they should occupy as little of your attention as possible. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 3: The ‘Best Time to Start is’ Myth

Mondays, or the 1st of the month or the old favourite January! Don’t get me wrong, in much of the work we do we use time as reminders. For example, using Sunday night as a cue to plan the next seven day. However, these time point myths are often used as an excuse to delay effort.

We know this first hand by the number of enquiries we get for our Sport Psychology services based on the time of year. We still get about the same number of enquiries in December compared with any other month. However, unlike other months most people who decide to start working with one of our sport and performance psychologists delay it until January.

This is despite the fact that we continue to be available to our current and future clients right through the Christmas and New Year period. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

The best time to do/start something that is going to benefit you is now, today – no exceptions.

Myth 4: The ‘Thoughts Can Be Controlled’ Myth

As current and past Condor Performance clients will know we’re often encouraging our clients to consider the amount of control or influence they have on different aspects of their performance. Just over 10 years ago, when clients of ours added ‘thoughts’ to the controllable column we didn’t challenge it. But recent research suggests that although we can influence our thoughts we can never control (guarantee) them. This is not to suggest that traditional thought improvement strategies (such as reframing) are a waste of time. It suggests that thoughts (as opposed to actions) should not be relied on as an essential ingredient of your performance plans.

A classic example of this is the work we do around Pre Performance Routines in start-stop sports. In the old days, we constructed short routines with both actions (put on my glove) with thoughts (“focus on just this shot”). But in recent times we have removed the thought component so our clients’ routines are now all actions based. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 5: The ‘You Have To Feel A Certain Way To Perform Well’ Myth

Same as the above basically. In fact, as humans, we have even less influence over our emotions than our thoughts. Consider extreme emotions like grief. Sure, there are a number of things that you might be able to do to lessen experiences of grief if you lost a loved one. But these kinds of interventions are only going to make a small difference. Those that imply you can control your emotions (an unfortunate number) or suggesting that you can actually make the grief go away entirely through your own volition. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 6: That ‘sport psychologists’ are similar to ‘mental skills coaches’

Possibly in terms of ability, this might occasionally be true. However, in terms of formal training and regulation, they couldn’t be further apart. Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologist (in Australia at least) are all registered psychologists. So what? This link does a better job than I ever could at explaining the benefits of choosing to work with a highly qualified and regulated professional. And this article from The Age highlights a possible ‘worst-case scenario’ of allowing unqualified individuals to “work on” the emotions of athletes. If the link doesn’t work it’s because the article has been removed but the basic details should now be permanently available via Wikipedia here. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 7: That a ‘sport psychologist’ only work with athletes

Not true. We have been operating for long enough now and have tracked enough data to be able to answer this categorically. Yes, the majority of our monthly clients are still athletes (70%). But the rest are a multitude of different kinds of performers. From politicians to dancers to students to emergency workers. One of the most significant group of non-athletes we work with a sporting coach. A lot more detail about this kind of work can be provided in this separate blog post and this one. It is my hope and belief that as time passes, a greater percentage of our work will be with coaches. Helping mentally astute coaches become even better they working with someone genuinely qualified in this area. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 8: The ‘Face To Face Session Are More Effective’ Myth

At Condor Performance we have been delivering sessions via video conference technology well before the Corona Virus hit us. Furthermore, we measure client satisfaction and can say with empirical confidence that there is no difference between “face-to-face” and “telehealth” sessions. In fact, according to our numbers, the clients who have all sessions via video conference do slightly better in terms of mental health and mental toughness outcomes. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 9: The ‘Experience Is Everything’ Myth

This sport psychology myth is the easiest to believe or understand. But it’s still wrong. The issue with the concept of experience is that it assumes the superior number of hours was done in the right way. It also assumed that the performer has the ability to learn from mistakes. As both of these assumptions are rare (in my experience) then in actual fact experience is overrated at best and quote often detrimental. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

If you’d like to bust some more sport psychology myths have a listen to the answers to our FAQs here. Do you know of any other common sport psychology myths that are not covered above? If you do please add them to the comments sections below and we’ll then add them when we update this blog. If you disagree with any of these sport psychology myths please present your argument in the comments below.

Decision Making In Sport

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the often overlooked role that decision making plays in the outcome of sporting contests.

Decision Making in Sport
Decision Making in Sport

One of the core concepts of our Metuf model is that we break “performance preparation” down into five parts. There is some debate about the pros and cons of separating performance like this. After all, they’re all related to one another. For example it takes a certain level of motivation – a mental state – to improve muscle strength – a physical component. Our argument is that if you focus on each part as a separate entity then any “crossover” benefit that rubs off onto another area is a bonus to your improvement. Whereas lumping them all together can result in incorrectly assuming you’re doing more than you are. Decision making in sport is a great example of this. In my experience ‘in the trenches’ as a sport psychologist for the last 15 years decision making is rarely targeted by itself.

Specificity is Special

I often tell the anecdote of the coach who once told me he used to get his players to run up sand dunes in extreme temperatures in order (in his mind) to improve their mental toughness. Risky, risky, risky. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some nice mental benefits of doing this (the most obvious to come to mind is an improvement in the confidence of being able to ensure extreme conditions while exhausted) but that’s a very, very small part of good mental performance.

Those familiar with our Metuf model will know that we use an analogy of the competitive athlete being like a 4 engines aeroplane. In this analogy, the actual main body of the plane is like health and wellbeing. Attached to this are the four engines. Each of which is a key aspects of sports performance. The two on the left wing are ‘below the neck’ in Technical Wisdom and Physical Capabilities. To two on the right wing are ‘above the neck’. They are Mental Toughness and Tactical Wisdom.

Tactical Wisdom is Decision Making in Sport Contexts

Recently a number of our 1-on-1 clients have been asking us for more and more input into their Tactical Wisdom. ‘TW’ is very tricky as in theory it’s entirely mental yet the coaching of these “in the moment” decisions is, and always wants to be, the domain of sporting coaches not a sport psychologists. This is one of the many reasons why it makes so much sense for us to work more directly with coaches.

I’m going to use two examples from different sports here to emphasise my point. First, the decision faced by a golfer whether to “lay up” short of a creek located just before the green or “go for it” by attempting to hit the ball directly over the creek onto the green. Second, the decision by a striker in football (soccer) when near the penalty area to “have a shot” or pass the ball to a teammate.

Risk Versus Reward

Both of these scenarios have what we call a “risk and reward” assessment to them. None of the four options mentioned are obviously terrible and therefore the goal is to train your mind to “make the best decision according to the specifics competitive situation”. Most decision making errors take place when the emotion of the moment trumps the competition situation. Here’s a clue about how to not let that happen (and yes, it requires a bit of hard work).

First, you’re much more likely to make an unemotional decision if it’s a scenario that’s been “mapped out” already. The more often it’s been mentally rehearsed beforehand, the better. This is best done by what we call the “If Blank Then Blank” exercise. Let’s go back to our two examples above.

Although there might seem like an overwhelming number of scenarios, if you really think about it there are probably only half a dozen or so. For example:

“If stroke play then lay up”.

“If match play then go for green”.

But maybe that’s too simple so these might be better:

If stroke play and a par 5 then lay up”.

If stroke play and windy then lay up”.

If stroke play and leading then lay up”.

If stroke play and less than 3 shots within the lead then lay up”.

If any another situation then go for the green”.

And for the other example, the footballer:

“If ball is on / near my right foot with no defender near then shoot”.

“If any other scenario then pass”

If Blank Then Blank”

Human brains are remarkable at learning these “If Blank Then Blank” right from when we’re newborns. Think about it; “If hungry then cry”. And it carries on all the way to adulthood. “If red or amber light then slow down and stop”. Certain commentators have and continue to object to the fact that this exercise appears to bring “thinking” into what really want to be instinctive actions.

Our answer to this is simple. There’s no escaping the fact that certain moments in certain sports require a lot of decision making. The “If Blank Then Blank” exercise simply decreases the chances of a brain explosion while under pressure. In our experience, the greatest benefit of this is the reduction of one of performance excellence’s biggest threats – indecision.

I’m not sure if I’m taking the word too literally but indecision means a slowing of a decision due to being “in the decision”. Basically the decision making process (risk versus reward) is taking longer as it’s new.

In fact, indecision is so damaging to performance it would be fair to say that you’re better off making the wrong decision quickly and with confidence rather than the right one slowly and full of self-doubt.

Gareth J. Mole (sport psychologist)

If you’d some help to improve the decision making aspects of what you do please contact us by filling in this form. We typically reply in less than 24 hours.

Cricket Psychology

The sport of cricket is particularly demanding from a psychological point of view – which makes for some mentally very tough cricketers

Jonty Rhodes - Cricket Psychology
This image courtesy of the Mumbai Indian IPL franchise

I think it’s reasonable to say that there is no sport quite like cricket. Certainly from a psychological point of view. Of course all sports are mentally challenging. Many require only certain kinds of mental skills for performance consistency.

Cricket, on the other hand, requires the entire array of mental techniques. We, as sport psychologists and performance psychologists, typically use the whole toolkit during our consulting with cricketers and cricket coaches.

Cricket Psychology Defined

Let’s breakdown the psychology of cricket a little. It is both a team sport and an individual sport. Due to this cricketers need psychological skills that would apply both to team and individuals athletes. Imagine rugby league and golf had a baby! For example, cricket batters requires very specialised forms of communication. The kind normally only applicable to those who play “doubles” in sports. The communication between two batsmen whilst out in the middle is very similar to a doubles pair in tennis. Is this type of communication rehearsed in training? Not a lot in my experience, even at international level.

Communication is a psychological skill even if the communicating is about something very tactical. That is why we have dedicated an entire module of our online, self-guided Mental Toughness Training program for cricket (“Metuf for Cricket”) to team unity and communication skills.

Cricketers execute their skills as individuals but do so as part of a team. Therefore concepts such as team unity and the culture of the dressing room are all pivotal. Without these success will be hard to find.

Team Dynamics Are Key

Kevin Pietersen was statistically the best batsmen to play for England between 2005 in 2014. Yet despite this he has not played for England since being dropped in 2014. It was a controversial decision at the time. However the fact that England’s performances across all three formats since then have improved suggests than team unity might be more important than previously thought.

A Self-Guided Mental Training Program for Cricketers and Cricket Coaches looking to get the Mental Edge

Cricket Psychology – Focus is Essential

Even the shortest forms of cricket last longer than many other sporting contests. Therefore cricketing mental toughness requires extraordinary abilities to focus. To switch on and off (or to switch up and down). Cricketers need to learn patience and focus when it really matters.

I had some great cricket coaches during my school days at Oundle School. But I can’t recall any of them teaching me how to switch on and off effectively for either my keeping nor my batting. Oh, if I could only send a message to my 15-year-old self about Pre Ball Routines.

Recent Examples of Cricketing Mental Toughness

In 2019 there were some amazing examples of cricket psychology at play. Some remarkable displays of sporting mental toughness that have been seen on the cricket pitch for quite some time.

The World Cup Final Over

In case readers do no follow cricket then let Wikipedia summarise what happened at the end of the Cricket Wolrd Cup that took place in England early this year. The final took place between New Zealand and England (hosts) on 14th July 2019 at Lords (the home of cricket):

The two teams were tied on 241 runs at the end of the match, resulting in a Super Over being played to break the tie. On the final ball of New Zealand’s Super Over, after equalling the 15 runs England managed in their over, Martin Guptill attempted to score the winning run but was run out by wicket-keeper Jos Buttler, meaning the Super Over was also tied. England won on the boundary countback rule, having scored 26 boundaries to New Zealand’s 17, thus becoming Cricket World Cup winners for the first time.

What was remarkable from a cricket psychology point of view was just how well all of the players and the umpires handled the extreme pressure of the situation. Huge credit needs to go into those who were assisting with the mental side of preparation of both the Kiwi and Pommy cricket teams.

The Ben Stokes Miracle

Again, in case you were not following the Ashes let me summarise. Ben Stokes scored 135 not out on the final day of the third test to deny Australia the win. From a cricket psychology point of view, the most commendable aspect of Stokes’ innings was just how ‘in the moment’ he was through the whole day. The past and the future of mostly distractions in high-pressure situations and Ben Stokes was the embodiment of relaxed and present-focused.

Steve Smith Stats’

In 2018 Steve Smith was banned for 12 months for the role he played in the ball-tampering incident that shook the world of cricket. Although as performance psychologists we are mindful never to judge everything on the results the fact that Smith scores 333 more runs than any other player in the series (both side) is truly incredible. Obviously we’re biased but it would be hard not to suggest the reason for Smith’s dominance with the bat is due to his amazing cricketing mental toughness.

But don’t take my word for it – have a read of what the current Australian coach wrote about Mental Toughness back in 2010:

View the original article here on the Cricket Australia website

Cricket Psychology Is Part Of Our DNA

As some of you will be aware at Condor Performance we prefer to use psychologists with an excellent knowledge of most sports. This has been one of our core values since 2005. The result is a team of psychologists who between all of us know a lot about most major sports. However there are a few sports which for some reason we are particularly familiar with.

In other words, if you were to score our collective knowledge across all major sports then some will rank much better than others. Cricket currently ranks slightly above all other sports. This is helped by a few lucky coincidences. For example, James Kneller is actually a former elite bowler. Gareth (me), was a child growing up in South Africa when greats like Rhodes, Donald and Cronjé were allowed back from international bans. And of course, our whole team comes from Australia or New Zealand. Two countries that have a long love affair with the sport of cricket.

If you are a cricketer, cricket coach or cricket administrator of any level and would like help with your consistency and performance please get in touch. We would be delighted to assist you in your journey to the next level.

The Best Sport Psychologist You Can Be

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole makes 5 suggestions on how to be ‘the best sport psychologist you can be’ and in turn lift the entire profession.

I believe that I am currently the best sport psychologist that I can be.

At what stage in a career do you have enough enough experience to start giving advice? Some might suggest that it’s best to wait until the very end or even into retirement. The issue with that is you’re likely to be making suggestions well after you were at your best. In my view, the ideal time to be given advice is when you’re at your peak.

Meant with confidence, not arrogance I feel that I am currently at the peak of my powers as a sport psychologist.

I started working as a sport psychologist shortly after completing my Masters from the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2005. I was 28 and very keen to start working with sporting clients – some would say I was too keen.

Can You Be Too Keen, Motivated?

Of course you can. Motivation, like most performance desirables is best somewhere in the middle. In other words, being too motivated and not motivated enough are both issues. Been too keen can lead to poor decision making. Maybe a better label for to motivated is desperate. In 2005 I was desperate to start working with sporting clients.

Condor Performance came about due to the lack of jobs out there for qualified sport psychologists. My mindset was simple. Instead of getting frustrated by the lack of opportunities if I haven’t tried to create some for myself.

I am now 43, not 28 so officially middle aged. I am now married to a ‘legend’. We have two amazing kids and live near Moss Vales (New South Wales). Oh, and Condor Performance has grown from a one-man band with a few clients to a growing team of nine sport psychologists and performance psychologists.

Between us we have hundred of sporting clients from all around the world.

Lesson From The Journey So Far

With all of this in mind, I have put together a short list of suggestions. Of course, if you are either a sport psychologist or trying to become one then these will be both immediately and obviously useful. But as I look down at the list that I jotted down on paper earlier it’s already obvious to me that many of the ideas are likely to be handy for sporting coaches too. In particular sporting coaches who are already aware of the huge role that sports psychology plays in terms of helping athletes become the best that they can be.

Quite frankly, I am over trying to convince anyone that the mind (the brain) is an important aspect of human performance and that it can and should be targeted for improvement.

Tip One: Know Your Sports

Having an in-depth understanding of as many major sports as possible is, in my view, the foundation of being an excellence sports psychologist. There are many reasons for this but the most prominent are:

  • A good understanding of how sports works will allow you to build rapport with clients of those sports in a way that nothing else will
  • If you work less on mental health issues and more on performance challenges (like I do) then it’s likely the conversations will become very “sporty”. From sessions with golfers that are 100% dedicated to improving different types of pre-shot routine for various types of golf shot to workshops with gymnastics coaches who want views on the different mental demands of the different types of gymnastics disciplines and apparatus

My own knowledge of sport comes mostly from my childhood. I remember watching every ball of every cricket test match during my long school holidays. I remember creating my own tennis scoreboard using an old whiteboard so I could play umpire during Wimbledon matches. So you could say that I have been studying the sports side of sports psychology since I was about five or six years old. And South Africa during the 1980s was a great place to feast on live sport – as the bans from international competitions meant that regional and interstate rivalries were at there most frequent and engaging.

Familiarity With Sport Is How We Build Rapport

Over the years I have employed and supervised dozens of sports psychologists. I have, at times, been dumbfounded by the lack of passion and knowledge that many of them have when it comes to sport. And we’re not talking about boutique sports here like dragon boating or synchronised swimming. We are talking about major sports that at certain times of year are everywhere like golf, tennis, football and basketball.

In fact, so important is sporting expertise for me that I include it as part of the interview process. Nowadays, I am less intense but still require incoming sport and performance psychologists to self-asses their own sporting knowledge.

Universities with sport psychology courses take note – include sport as part of the student’s requirements and thank me later.

Can you learn a passion and proficiency for sports even if your childhood was not like mine? Of course. If mental challenges like managing emotions and improving motivation can be overcome then so too can your understanding of sports. But it’s not going to happen by accident – you’d better get to work.

Tip Two: Personality Counts – Big Time

I know this is a controversial one but I am writing an opinion piece here so hear me out. The best sports psychologists I have met – some of whom I am very fortunate to have to work for me – have all been very likeable and very intelligent. By likeable I mean you’d almost prefer to be their friend instead of their boss. By intelligent, I mean super smart. The kind that doesn’t require a calculator when going through some of the numbers we gather once a month to monitor our own performance as “performance psychologists’.

You would imagine that in order to complete a university degree – the step before pursuing a career as a sports psychologist – you’d need to have at least some degree of mental quickness and people skills. Alas, this doesn’t always happen which of course makes my job of finding suitable candidates when we’re looking to expand so much harder. 

Tip Three: Never Stops Improving

The Japanese have a lovely word for it Kai-zen – which loosely translated into English means ‘constant improvement’. Maybe all professions fall victim to this. Once fully qualified is can be frightfully difficult to get some sports psychologists to actively continue their professional development. At Condor Performance we decided that prevention was always better than a cure and have, for as long as I can remember, paid for our psychologists to attend relevant conferences and other CPD events. By paid for I mean we both purchase their accreditation and allow them to attend during working time – not as part of their own leave.

I suspect some of my team think we’re doing it for their benefit but in actual fact, we’re doing is for ours. The best athletes and coaches in the world will only want to work with the best support staff in the world. It’s a horse and cart or chicken and egg thing.

Tip Four: Convert Frustration into Fuel

At the time of writing (2019), if you get a fancy sign with the words “Local Sports Psychologist” and stick it up by your front gate or door very, very few potential clients will come knocking. In the same way that some sports are organically very frustrating (golf and cricket are the first two to come to mind) so too is the profession of ‘sports psychologist’. In other words, nothing comes easy.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying there are professions out there without challenges and roadblocks but ours would have to rank inside the top 10% of ‘most difficult to convert years spent studying into take-home pay per week’.

I have had many conversions with sports psychologist colleagues (not Condor Performance employees) where the frustration was so much that it felt like I was in a session with a golfer who just couldn’t win his first tournament regardless of how hard he tried.

In fact, one chat over coffee in particular really sticks in my memory where I used such a golf analogy. Golf is frustrating ‘on purpose’ so that only the mentally tough would ‘find a way’. If it’s too hard for you, take up jogging instead.

Tip Five: Become A Sporting Coach Yourself 

Ok, honesty time. This is the only one of my tips that I currently don’t do myself. But it’s not due to a lack of motivation but a lack of time. I would like to be around as much as possible whilst my children are still young.

If so much of coaching is actually sport psychology under a pseudonym put your money where your mouth is. Start using your training to help your local sports teams. Of course, three barriers are likely to stop you.

  • Few decision makers will let you have a go. That’s right, despite 6 or 7 years of formal training towards how to make humans perform better your local netball team is still more likely to pick a former player as their head coach
  • You don’t want the accountability that comes with being Head Coach. Rightly or wrongly when we help sporting clients to improve their mental toughness there is rarely, if any, accountability if we don’t actually get the job done. But ask any coach at any level what will happen if they can’t produce results – they’ll know the answer

Last But Not Least

  • No time to do both. This is my excuse. With less work (the majority of my working time at Condor Performance is on essential admin tasks) one of the first things I’d do is offer my services pro bono at one or two of the local clubs near me. By I know that doing a good job – or the best job possible – would take up a lot of time and so this will have to wait until my kids and my company are all a little bit older.

Looking for work (more work) as a sport psychologist? Check out our jobs page here.

Over Analysis In Elite Sport

Tim Webster, from Macquarie Sports Radio, talks to one of our Senior Sports Psychologists about over analysis in elite sport.

Radio Interview:

Transcription:

Narrator:                                Live on air and online at sportsradio.com.au. Weekend nights with Tim Webster.

Tim Webster:                       Now the psychology of sport and the man we love to talk to about all of this from Condor Performance, Gareth J. Mole, who joins me on the line. G’day mate.

Gareth J. Mole:                      Hi Tim.

Tim Webster:                       Look, very interesting article by one of your colleagues, Chris Pomfret, on post competition reviews. Now the subject this year of course, is Cricket Australia, you know how Cricket is. But in a general sense, post competition reviews would be commonplace, would they not?

Gareth J. Mole:                      They’re very commonplace Tim. And I would probably sum what I would say as they’re far more commonplace than they should be.

Tim Webster:                       Okay. So in other words, do we examine performance too much?

Gareth J. Mole:                      Absolutely. And it’s basically comes down to a bit of a flaw. And that is … I meant the intention of a post competition review is well intended. It’s to say look, we’ve just gone out there and we’ve tried our best or we just performed in the cricket match or in the golf tournament or whatever it is. And we want to improve. We want to find the areas we weren’t very good at and we want to improve. Now the fundamental flaw in the mindset Tim, is that the number of different things that go into a performance, particularly a team performance could run into the tens of thousands if you really break it down to what was that player thinking in that moment and how much time did that player spend practicing his kicking technique for example.

Gareth J. Mole:                       And so the idea of watching a cricket match back, or watching any sporting performance back is a little bit like eating a cake and trying to work out what was wrong with the cake by the actual cake. It’s just an impossible task.

Tim Webster:                       You can’t do it.

Gareth J. Mole:                      And in our experience, often when we just say to people, just focus all your energy into optimal preparation and just let the cookie crumble, it’s amazing how big an impact that often has.

Tim Webster:                       Yeah. Look as far as team sports are concerned, it’s all good in my view. And I know technology plays a very large part in all of this now. If you’ve lost a game, to have the Monday off and go and have a look at the video on Tuesday and the coach says well, have a look at that, that’s where we want wrong, that’s all good. But when I talk about over examining it, have we got into that realm now. And we’ll talk about Pat Howard and Cricket Australia in particular. Are we getting too precise with athletes?

Gareth J. Mole:                      I think so Tim. I think we spoke about it last time from memory, the idea that one of the underpinning factors of successful sporting performances is enjoyment. You know this element that we seem to have when we’re young and it can easily be eroded by the high performance system, where basically everybody in the high performance unit is really only results focused. And therefore you get this knock on effect with leads to examining every single thing. To the point of stupidity to be honest.

Tim Webster:                       Yeah and when you’re winning, you are going to having fun, aren’t you. And I wonder how often coaches actually say to players, hey listen above all else, just got out there and have fun because really Gareth, that’s what sports about.

Gareth J. Mole:                 Yeah. And the mentally astute ones, the ones who actually track the sports science into the psychology of the optimal performance. And there are some out there. Those are the ones that are quite likely to do it, because those are the ones who have seen case studies like Usain Bolt for example, during his obviously amazing athletic career, where he was intentionally injecting fun into what you would expect to be the most pressurised situations. And of course, seeing the results of that.

Gareth J. Mole:                 So I think if we were to have a look at the coaching landscape at the moment, you’ll find the number of coaches who are saying to their athletes, you know what, at the end of the day your primary objective is to enjoy yourself. I think they’re still in the minority. And I think the main reason for that is they incorrectly assume that that kind of advice is actually going to result in a decline in performance, in that people will clown around and sort of be larrikins, when it actual fact, it’s the total opposite. The “Relaxed Competition Mindset” is often the one that is necessary for you to play your best sport.

Tim Webster:                       What about a situation where, and god you hear this often, the team, the athlete are incredibly well prepared. They’re fit, they’re healthy, they’re feeling great. All of the tactics are in place. And it all falls apart and you get flogged. I mean as you say, there could be 10,000 reasons for that, and sitting around analysing forever, how much does that help?

Gareth J. Mole:                 Yeah, it doesn’t help at all. You’ll never be able to successfully unbake the cake. That’s the term that we use in my work. You can’t unbake the cake. Eat the piece of cake and go tell me about the quality of the eggs that went into that cake. It’s just impossible. You are completely correct. One of the things that is very common … and if we look at the basic pillars of sporting performance, there’s really four that underpin everything. So there’s the physical, so strength, fitness, flexibility. There’s the tactical, which is decision making. There’s the technical so literally how you hold a cricket bat. And there’s the mental.

Gareth J. Mole:                  So two of them are brain related and two of them are body related. And often what happens at the highest level is that athletes tend to very similar in three of those areas. They tend to physically, technically and tactically very similar, but it’s quite normal for some of the best athletes still to be mentally only average. And of course your example there is a classic, whereby the coach says you know we did everything in preparation. What they really mean by that Tim, is they did everything technically, physically and maybe tactically. They assumed the mentally side would take care of itself.

Gareth J. Mole:                   And the reason they got flogged is because their opposition took the mental preparation very seriously.

Tim Webster:                       Yeah right. Now Chris’s article is very interesting actually. And it’s worth a read. And it goes on to talk about and we hear these often. Commitment and concentration and confidence get that creativity, communication and then consistency. And the last one, culture. Now that’s where Cricket Australia has been highly criticised in that report. We can’t go through the whole thing. I think you’ve probably read all of it and I’ve read parts of it. The salient bits if you like. And everyone’s taking the fall. The chairman’s gone, the CEO’s gone, Mark Taylor’s resigned. Pat Howard was going to go, the high performance manager, and he’s gone early. And the guy that was involved in broadcasting.

Tim Webster:                       So it’s pretty much the lot. And I said on the air two or three weeks ago, that probably needs to happen because there’s something wrong with that culture. There has to be.

Gareth J. Mole:                  Yes it looks like that is the case. And what we don’t know is how much of those cultural issues where down to those individuals and their personalities, their preferences. And how much was it related to the bigger picture. The Argus review for example, which essentially said, it was a very much performance based review. In fact Pat Howard’s role was conceived via the Argus review. In other words, tied to the review, his particular role didn’t actually exist. So it’s a tricky one. There’s no doubt that his departure sounds like it’s a good thing. That’s what I’ve heard on the ground. But in terms of blaming, I’m not sure if it was him or whether he was simply going by the playbook that was created during the Argus review.

Gareth J. Mole:                     Which of course, if you remember, sort of happened when England successfully retained the Ashes over here.

Tim Webster:                       Yes that’s right. Yeah. Look we all know that you have to have a corporate entity running something like Cricket Australia, it’s very big business due to broadcast rights and player contracts, that sort of thing. But when you’ve got … bowling coaches, fitness coaches, batting coaches, do you need a high performance manager? I’m just wondering how Pat Howard would have dealt with somebody like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson in the ’70’s and tell them that they had to have an app and tell Pat what they were going to eat that night.

Gareth J. Mole:                      Yeah look, it’s a really good question Tim. I, for a long time, had a bit of an issue with the actual term high performance. I sometimes jokingly say where’s the low performance unit?

Tim Webster:                       You don’t want them.

Gareth J. Mole:                  In fact, jokes aside of course, as you’re talking about a conversation we had many months ago about how to invest in sport for … ironically there is an argument to say that that bowling coach who knows so much about how to make the ball reverse swing, maybe he should be spending his time not with the five best bowler’s in Australia, who probably already know more or less how to do that. But with 50,000 young cricketers, all around the country, who have absolutely no idea where to start when it comes to how to hold the ball appropriately to make it swerve in the air.

Gareth J. Mole:                 So the whole concept of high performance I think is one that probably wants to have a little bit of examination. To answer your question directly, does cricket or another sport need a high performance manager? Obviously my vote only counts as one, but I was in a boardroom and we we’re voting on this, I would be voting no, it’s completely unnecessary. What you just just said there, the coach by his or her very definition is kind of the high performance manager anyway.

Tim Webster:                       Of course, that’s right.

Gareth J. Mole:                   The performance manager. In fact, if you think about the English Premier League, the coaches there are not actually referred to as coaches, they call them managers.

Tim Webster:                       That’s right.

Gareth J. Mole:                  You know, so the manager of Manchester United, the manager of Liverpool. So I think if we’re talking about structural preferences to benefit Australian sport, I would certainly recommend that there be a lot more of the high performance decision making taken place through the coach and therefore, completely remove the idea of a high performance manager entirely. Or certainly change the nature of what they do, so that they’re not asking athletes to record the amount of carbohydrates they ate on the flight for example, which is what has happened.

Tim Webster:                       Yes, that’s exactly what’s happened. Look, I don’t how much time … and Pat Howard comes from a rugby background of course. I don’t how how much time he actually spent on the field with the cricketers or if it was done technically via an app. And I don’t want to just stick the boot to Pat Howard, because a lot of people have done that. I think there’s a lot more wrong with Cricket Australia than just him. But as a broad point, it just seems to me that all of these people taking a salary from Cricket Australia, and do we need all of them to get a high performance out of our cricketers?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah I don’t think so. And maybe one of the causes is the fact the Cricket from a profitability perspective is one of the most successful sports in Australia. If you look at it from a business perspective, it’s profit, etc., is incredibly strong. And therefore, one of the knock on effects of that might be they have a lot more money to spend on stuff. And therefore, what they’ve ended up with is many too many chefs, simply because they can afford to pay for too many chefs. In many, many, many situations, because of the organic simplicity of sport, often the best policies are the simplest ones. And sometimes that means reducing stuff, simplifying their roles and just letting the guys got out and do what they love to do and do best.

Tim Webster:                       You know I’m going to come back to Brad Fidler and the success he had with the New South Wales state of origin site. Now there’s plenty of technicality around that. But you know, things like the captain’s run, when all they really do is go for a wander with the football in hand, and try to relax coming up to a big game. So my question to you is, on occasion, do we put too many things into an athlete’s head?

Gareth J. Mole:                 Absolutely. Absolutely, without a doubt, and I can say this with a lot of confidence, because it’s what I do six days a week, discussion with athletes and coaches about things like what are you doing in the 60 minutes or in the day before you go out and you play cricket or you go out and compete. And a big chunk of the work that me and my colleagues do at Condor Performance is about actually just reducing the amount of clutter that is in their mind. And sometimes that is difficult work Tim, because it means actually going against their official coach.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Sometimes we literally are required to say your coach is very well intended, but he or she doesn’t have any formal training in psychology and obviously we do, that’s what we do, and therefore, on this occasion, you’re just going to need to trust me that the best thing for you to do, and this is where Brad Fidler deserves a huge amount of credit, huge amount of credit, is just, on the day of a competition or the day before a competition, just relax. Do the same things you do on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you’re on holiday. If you like going for a coffee, great do that. If you like walking, going for a walk, do that. If you like listening to music, do that.

Gareth J. Mole:                 A lot of the things … a lot of the advice might be coming from very serious coaches or high performance type of personnel, may be in complete contrast to that.

Tim Webster:                       Yeah. Absolutely. Gareth, it’s always terrific to talk to you mate and thank you very much for you time again.

Gareth J. Mole:                    No worries Tim.

Tim Webster:                       Gareth Mole, sports psychologist and all of his stuff’s worth a read at Condor Performance.

This Thing Called Culture

David Barracosa, Performance Psychologist from Condor Performance, discusses ‘culture’ in the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal in Australia.

The "Culture" of Aussie Cricket was tested and questioned in 2018.
The “Culture” of Aussie Cricket was tested and questioned in 2018.

Note: This article was written and published before major improvements were made in late 2018 to Metuf – the name given to the collection of mental skills that we use with our sporting and non-sporting clients. Due to this, the 5th paragraph mentions Commitment, Confidence, Communication, Concentration, Creativity and Consistency. In the latest version of Metuf, these have been replaced by Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. For more information about Metuf please visit The Metuf Online homepage.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to read the previous edition of the Mental Toughness Digest would have been introduced to the story of Thomas, the young fisherman. The interesting part of Thomas’ story from a Mental Toughness perspective was that despite him not catching any fish for 14 days straight he maintained motivation for the sport due to his focus on and enjoyment of the process. Reading this got me thinking about how this story of an individual would relate on a bigger scale to either a sporting team/organisation or even for an individual sports athlete training within their camp. It’s my belief this is where one of the biggest buzzwords in sports at the moment comes into the discussion – ‘culture’.

The idea of culture has been spoken about extensively recently due to the ball tampering saga that came over the Australian Cricket Team during their recent tour of South Africa. After the dust had settled and the individuals who were responsible for the act were handed down their punishments, a lot of questions were still being asked about how a group of highly regarded / paid professional athletes could have ended up in a predicament such as this?

What was going through their minds and through the locker room that led them to making such a decision? The talk switched from individual motivations to team culture and the importance of this mental element within the fabric of sport was, and potentially still is, being debated in social and professional sporting circles. Before I go on I wish to acknowledge that not every Australian cricketer was involved in the act of ball tampering and their names should not be smeared as a result. However, every Australian cricket player, coach, official and any other support staff has a role within and a responsibility to the culture within the team.

Culture is the collective mentality and values of a particular organisation and group of people.

It is something that can be inherited from those who were previously members of the said organisation but can also be quite fluid as some individuals depart and new individuals join. The right culture should never be “assumed”. A culture of sorts will always exist when a group of people come together and form a team whether they’re active in creating it in their preferred way or by letting it happen naturally. I’m of the opinion that it is something that should be named openly among everyone and worked on actively so each individual associated with the organisation can have a sense of ownership and pride over what they have created. Not only this but a strong and positive sense of culture also gives the organisation an identity; provides a guiding light to the individuals that can both be used as a motivator as well as creating a sense of accountability for everyone’s individual actions; can promote the wellbeing of an individual as they can feel accepted and belong; and, maybe the biggest thing of all, gives everyone the chance to develop a strong sense of each of Other Cs of Mental Toughness (Commitment, Confidence, Communication, Concentration, Creativity and Consistency).

If you are a leader of a team, or even a member of one, I hope as you read through the list of consequences that come from creating the right culture it gets you thinking about your organisation and what you can be doing to create an environment where all of this is possible. If this is the case, then my recommendation is that you waste no time in creating a situation where people can begin to contribute to a discussion and the shared values of the organisation can be formalised. From our perspective, one of the key things that should be kept in mind and included within the process is that we can only control our efforts and therefore the culture and pursuits of the organisation should focus on giving people the opportunity to achieve consistent and high quality effort, rather than having an obsession with results. People often talk about a “winning culture” within a team but for us, if this idea of “winning” is only focusing on the results you attain then you leave yourself and your organisation vulnerable when things are not going to plan, something it’s fair to say occurred for those individuals within the Australian Cricket Team. The team can have goals that strive towards certain achievements but along the way the true reward and meaning comes from how the team and individuals within it worked towards their achievements, not what was reached at the end of the road. Think about Thomas and his fishing endeavours.

A big part of our role when we work with an organisation is helping them to create discussion and opportunities that drive the ideas of culture for themselves. Every organisation is different and if you wish to discuss how you can achieve the right things for culture within your organisation then we would love to hear from you.

This article was written several months before a review into the culture of Australian cricket was released. The full review can be viewed or downloaded below in PDF format.