Athletes have been using music for sport psychology purposes for decades. But what type of music is best? Gareth answers this and more …
Music and Sport Psychology -Intro
Music is very emotional. So is the world of competitive sports. So it makes complete sense that they might be able to work together – and they do. Music and sport psychology have gone hand in hand also ever since the field was first invented over a hundred years ago.
Things really ramped up when athletes were able to listen to music via a portable playing device. For readers over the age of 40, they might remember the Walkman. Walkmans were then replaced by Discmans. MP3 players such as iPods (do they still make those?) took down Discmans. Fast forward to 2023 and the combination of a smartphone and platforms such as Spotify now allow us to listen to virtually anything at any time.
Technology And Sport Psychology
At Condor Performance we are big believers in taking full advantage of the wonders of modern technology.
We were delivering sport psychology consultations via Skype years before the term ‘Telehealth’ was coined. My very first session via webcam took place in 2006. Skype was only created in 2003! Obviously, nowadays we are spoilt for choice. Zoom is still the preferred option for most of our psychologists. But Google Meets and Microsoft Teams have both improved their features recently.
And it’s not just sessions themselves where technology is changing how sport and performance psychology services are delivered. Ever since moving to a monthly approach to our service delivery, we have allowed and encouraged our clients to contact us between sessions. Emailing, texting, and messaging via Whatsapp are ideal for small questions and reminders between sessions.
And of course, finally, there are the Apps. Such is the explosion of Apps designed to improve mental health and performance that we are currently working on a blog post dedicated to just this topic. If you are yet to get reminders after each new article is published then add your details here.
What Type of Music is Best for Sport Psychology?
Probably the most common mistake made in this area is the assumption that fast-paced energetic type music (such as rock and Punk) is naturally best to listen to before the big game. What if you are already very energised, for example by the organic importance of the competition that is about to begin? Do you really need to listen to Tina Turner’s Simply The Best when you’re struggling to keep down your breakfast?
One of the cornerstones of our shared consulting framework is that it is better to learn to perform regardless of your current thoughts and feelings. In other words, if you hold onto the belief that you can only play well when you are relaxed, then you’re in trouble. Why? Thoughts and feelings are not that influenceable.
But music can genuinely change feelings. So how about you try this instead? If you’re listening to music as part of a pre-competition routine, then just pick songs that you like. Keep it simple. Also, remember that because the music is coming through a device and that devices are not guaranteeable you need to have a backup in case the battery dies or you leave it at home.
But some music helps us relax and other types do the opposite. This is true. If you are looking to try and change your arousal levels (not that type 😜) then do so as part of training not before you compete or perform. Ideally, if you have embedded some form of mental training into your preparation then part of this wants to be learning to “do” whilst feeling a wide range of emotions. There are not too many better ways to do this than through music.
Calming Music Playlist
Recently I created a couple of playlists on Spotify for my monthly clients. The first is a collection of calming-type songs. These songs would be ideal for an athlete who feels like they need to be hyped in order to perform well. Listening to these songs before training, to lower arousal, might lead them to change that belief for the better.
Energising Music for Performers
The songs below are designed to do the opposite. They are fast-paced and upbeat so should increase arousal when listening to them. So these tunes are well placed to be used in training for those who feel like they need to be relaxed to do well but know that the chances of them always feeling like that are basically zero. So pump yourself up in training and become psychologically more flexible.
And as always, if you need a hand with any of this or any other mental aspect of your performance then get in touch. Our Intake Team will always try and get back to you within 48 hours.
Chris Pomfret explores the common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success.
Enjoyment And High Performance
A common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success. In other words, the higher up the ranks an athlete climbs, the more ‘serious’ things need to become in order to reach the pinnacle. Or to put it another way, pure joy gets lost as their passion becomes just a job. And this does happen.
Elite athletes are often instructed to “just have some fun”. Or “relax and enjoy yourself” during times of hardship or pressure or form slumps. You can imagine how confusing this must be for many athletes. One minute they are meant to be all business and the next it’s ‘party time’. The implication here is that it is easy to simply tap into the pleasure pot. Like turning on a switch. But how many top-level athletes actually practice the ‘fun factor’? Is learning how to approach ‘game day’ with a smile part of the overall process?
Some Applied Exercises You Can Do Now
Try to describe why you do what you do. What drew you into it in the first place? What is keeping you there? Why do you want to continue? Why is it important for you to perform well?
Enjoyment involves some form of fun. Typically, tasks that feel good and put a smile on your face. Enjoyment is also driven by some deeper concepts. For example, achievement, pride, satisfaction, growth, and progress.
Usain Bolt was a great example of someone who enjoyed what he did. He worked incredibly hard so that when a competition came around he could just chill. Take a look at the below video UB had a very relaxed competition mindset. Enjoyment doesn’t mean we are always smiling and laughing. But we need to stay in touch with the things we love about our sport or art or music or business or another performance area.
Quantification Is Essential
As with any concept in performance, quantification is essential. When we quantify something we can put structures, values, and measurements into play. If you can describe something you can start to understand it. This then means you can start to improve it. Enjoyment is typically a vague concept so we have to work harder to define it.
You might use the term ‘fun’ in conversation with your coach without actually talking about the same thing. Fun to one person could be fitness-related. While for someone else it’s beating people. Yet for another, there might be a certain social connection that needs to be really fun.
Regardless of your age or skill level, one relatively simple means of quantifying your experiences is to break things down into the following domains.
Mind, which includes thoughts (the words and pictures in my head), attitudes (the general ways I am looking at things), and beliefs (how I view myself, others, the future, and the world).
Feelings (your emotional energy and how intense it is).
Body (the messages you are receiving physically from head to toe).
Five senses (what your attention is drawn towards in the areas of sight, touch, hearing, smell as well as taste).
Actions (what you are doing, what you’ve stopped doing, things you are speeding up or slowing down, doing more of or less of, etc.).
Because enjoyment is a personal experience there are no universal rules to reignite your passion for the game. In a practical sense, however, you might benefit from any of the following.
Reward yourself with fun non-sporting activities before and after training/practice.
Separate performance into preparation and competition. Now take all your seriousness and push it into the preparation side. Blood, sweat, and tears want to be more related to practice than game day. As the great Jonty Rhodes once said “I got more bruises, grass burns, and cuts in practice than in match play”.
Create small windows of pleasure and light-heartedness during practices. This might be arriving early to mess around with teammates. Or getting pumped up during certain segments of training such as racing people in fitness drills.
Indulge yourself in relaxing or fun or special non-sporting activities on the morning of competitions. It’s too late to improve anything. You are better off just chilling and trusting the work you have done.
Emphasise interactions and activities with your teammates or peers after competitions to enhance a sense of community. Do you see your teammates as people or just athletes?
Four More Ideas …
Become more invested in the process (journey) and less in the results (destinations). Although having a ‘win at all cost’ mindset sounds useful. It’s not, trust us. Just ask Lance!
Look over your season schedule and break it into smaller chunks. Any tangible evidence of improvement can be celebrated as a reward for your dedication and passion. Months lend themselves very well to reviewing and planning. This then frees you up to focus on the processes in between monthly reviews.
Glance at your weekly schedule. Do you have enough balance between sporting and non-sporting activities? This a reminder quality and quantity are not the same. We want quality to be as high as possible. But quantity wants to be “somewhere in the middle”. Too much and too little are dangerous.
Enjoyment – and in particular a sense of fun – may not be as easily defined as other core components of performance such as physical capabilities, technical consistency, or tactical wisdom. However, if you are able to conceptualise what you love about your chosen sport and take steps to improve upon this you will give yourself every chance of climbing toward the top and staying there.
What is the key to being a good fielder? First and foremost you have to enjoy being out there. If you’re enjoying it, and you’re loving what you’re doing, even if it is 90 overs in a Test match, it never really seems like hard work. That allows you to stay sharp and focused. Commentators often complimented me on my anticipation, but I was expecting every single ball to come to me. In fact, I wanted every ball to come to me. Fielding can become hard work, but if you’re enjoying it then it doesn’t feel like work.
Another article – called The Fun Factor – by the same author and on the same general topic can be viewed here. Due to the very different way in which Chris addresses this sport psychology concept in the two articles we highly recommend that you read both.
Powerlifting Psychology is a free blog post by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of the sport of Powerlifting.
Not a powerlifter or vaguely interested in powerlifting psychology? Fear not for the below article mainly uses the sport of powerlifting/weightlifting as an opportunity to look at some classic sport psychology concepts from a different angle. Read it before judging it!
Powerlifting Psychology – Introduction
Powerlifters are on a constant mission to find out just how strong they are (or could be). For those who are not familiar with this sport let me give a quick overview. Powerlifters attempt to lift the heaviest weight possible on three different lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). The aim is to reach their one-rep max (heaviest they can lift in a single attempt) within 3 attempts.
The all or nothing nature of lifting creates a lot of mental challenges. At the end of the day, in powerlifting, you either make the lift or you don’t. This can lead to a lot of all or nothing / black or white thinking. Powerlifters often speak about the fear of “Bombing Out” (failing to make one successful lift in the three attempts). The impact of missed attempts are often exponential. In other words for the mentally vulnerable one missed attempt can often snowball into three.
Falling Down The Rabbit Hole
After missing the first attempt, lifters become vulnerable to “falling down the rabbit hole”. The first attempt often sets the tone for the following attempts. It shouldn’t but it does. There are many different types of pressure but one is ‘reduced opportunities’ pressure.
The stakes become much higher, and our perceived importance of having a successful next lift dramatically increases. This often leaves lifters focusing too much on outcomes/results. In doing this the processes they need to be focusing on to get those outcomes can be neglected.
Preempting Thoughts Ahead of Time
Getting “hooked” is where our thoughts and emotions hijack our actions in an unhelpful way. One of the best ways to prepare for the threat of getting hooked is to preemptively identify what these thoughts might be. Basically, what am I likely to think in these situations and what to do about it.
Our mind is a reason-giving machine, the best ever created. Because of this, we’re really good at surviving. But we’re also really good at talking ourselves out of doing anything outside of our comfort zone. To help a powerlifter preempt competition day thoughts, we might ask:
“As you enter the venue, how is your mind likely to try and talk you out of doing this?”
“What is your mind likely to tell you as you approach the bar?
“It is possible you might miss the first lift. What is your mind likely to say when that happens?”
“When you approach the bar for your third and final attempt, your mind is going to generate a lot of objections. What do you think it’s likely to say?”
Predicting the time and frequency of these competition thoughts can also be beneficial:
“How many times do you think your mind will tell you this before you approach the bar?”
“When will your mind start telling you all these things?
“How many times will your mind say this to you throughout the entire day?”
What To Do About This?
After identifying these thoughts and when we’re likely to experience them, we can take the final step which is to name them. Naming uncomfortable thoughts brings a sense of familiarity with them so they’re not as frightening on competition day, and creates a bit of distance between yourself and those thoughts. Some great examples include:
“There’s my mind reason-giving again”
“There’s the ‘I’m not good enough’ story”
“The ‘What if mess up” thought is back”
So a big part of the work we do at Condor Performance is in helping lifters handle these challenging situations and the associated thoughts more effectively. That is, by reducing their impact on performance.
Flow and Trusting Your Body
Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow. Flow State, by Csíkszentmihályi and is when we are so intensely present in what we are doing time and distractions appear to vanish. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform on autopilot. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would.
Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow, and it’s where one is so intensely present engaged in what they are doing, that they are in a state of hyper-awareness. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform in the way it has been trained to perform. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would.
Get Out Of Your Own Way
At Condor Performance we often talk about getting the head out of the way so the body can do what it already knows how to do, so we see a lot of value in the concept of flow. If you ask any elite lifter what they think about in the moments before a competition lift, you’re likely to get the response “absolutely nothing”. The best powerlifters in the world trust that their body knows what to do, and with enough training (and trust in their training program) they can go to competitions and consistently enter a state of flow right before they go to lift, through engaging in simple mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing.
Powerlifting Psychology: Visualisation
Visualisation in powerlifting is becoming more and more popular as athletes begin to see the benefit of mental rehearsal on performance. For this to work, mental rehearsal needs to be as specific as possible, covering as many details of the competition day as possible from the actual lift itself, to the sound and temperature of the venue, to the feeling/sensation of clothes and equipment on the body during the warm-up lifts.
When visualising it is important to both set the scene and engage all of our senses. Lifters might want to visualise the different aspects of their entire competition day, including weigh-in, waiting around, seeing the audience for the first time, loading and unloading weight, warm-up attempts and hearing the commands for their actual lifts.
However one trap lifters often fall into is only rehearsing successful lifts, often for fear of thinking about how things could possibly go wrong. This goes back to preempting – it’s important for lifters to preempt and visualise what an unsuccessful lift will look and feel like, how they’re likely to respond to this emotionally and cognitively, and rehearse how they want to respond to this and how they might coach themselves through it. This creates a sense of familiarity with unsuccessful attempts so that they don’t come as such a surprise on competition day, and allows us to pre-plan our response so we know exactly what to do in the case that it does happen.
One of the most challenging mental hurdles lifters talk about is getting “Stuck”. When a lifter sees no progress or doesn’t see progress at the speed they expected, they’ll often label themselves as being stuck. Something important to keep in mind is that there are many reasons why a lifter may physically plateau, but it is actually our cognitive and emotional response to this physical plateau that often exacerbates its duration. Our default response to seeing minimal to no progress includes thoughts of self-doubt, diminished confidence in our ability, and questioning whether or not all the work we are doing will be worth it. When a lifter becomes hooked by these thoughts, this often perpetuates the cycle of minimal progress.
How To Get “Unstuck”
It can be really beneficial for lifters who have become stuck, physically and/or mentally, to reflect on what life values they are fulfilling as a human being, (not necessarily as an athlete), that initially motivated them to pursue the sport and have kept them there up until now. Rather than looking at training through a purely athletic lens, we want to help them identify how lifting contributes to the individual living a rich and meaningful life, and through which of their life values this occurs. Many of the values that arise include:
Living a healthy lifestyle
Competing with Others
Learning new Skills
Attempting new challenges
Never giving up
Being responsible for my actions
Feeling good about myself
Having a sense of accomplishing
Striving to be a better person
Shifting the lens on training from better athletic to better human allows for the rediscovery of the things an athlete truly values in life, and how they live in accordance with these values through their training (regardless of their results). This can serve as an internal driving force through prolonged periods of a plateau (perceived or actual) and is a process that can certainly help a lifter become “unstuck”.
Powerlifting Psychology; Conclusion
Thinking about all the things that could go wrong isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, when we expect and embrace the full range of emotions and thinking competition day brings about, they often seem a lot less threatening, and we’re giving ourselves the best chance to respond in a more helpful way.
Acknowledge that we can’t significantly change the way we think and feel, and therefore the goal of the work we do is to minimise the effect of these experiences on performance. And if you (or someone you know) want some help with any of this, get in touch.
Not a climber nor remotely interested in the sport of climbing (rock climbing)? Fear not and read on for the below article simply uses this sport as an opportunity to look into an array of mental challenges and solutions common to many performance areas.
Reaching New Heights Through Mental Toughness Training
The motor skill of climbing is incredibly tough and equally enjoyable. Yes, these two concepts can and often do coexist. Relatively new to the competitive sporting domain, climbing has reached new heights in the last thirty years. It’s expanded to include three competitive disciplines (plus a combined event) in which athletes can compete against each other at the international level. Since the first Climbing World Championships in 1991, climbing has grown in popularity both as a recreational and competitive sporting avenue.
Lead Climbing and Speed Climbing have been around from the get-go, with the addition of Bouldering in the early 2000s. The Combined Event was then introduced in 2018. The Combined Event was (controversially) selected as the Tokyo Olympic Games format when the sport made its debut in 2021. Here, athletes are scored based on their performances across all three climbing disciplines. Climbers who were the best in their specific disciplines were therefore not favoured.
Nature of Competitive Climbing
Why was this controversial? Because the three disciplines test unique physical capabilities. In Lead Climbing the goal is to climb as high as possible (15m) within a set amount of time, testing power, endurance and technical problem-solving. At the elite level, the route isn’t seen until moments before starting, meaning climbers have to think on their feet and plan as they go. On the other hand, the goal of Speed Climbing is to climb this same wall as fast as possible. Here the route is always the same, testing speed, power and accuracy.
Bouldering is a little bit different. The wall is much shorter (4m) and climbers are given a time limit to solve a number of “problems” with the fewest moves possible. Bouldering tests flexibility, coordination, strength and technical problem-solving. Therefore, to be successful in the combined event, athletes must train to meet the demands of each climbing style and need to demonstrate competence across each of the three disciplines.
The Mental Challenges of Climbing
It is important to acknowledge that with the different physical requirements of each discipline come a set of unique mental barriers as well. For Lead Climbing and Bouldering, there is a huge element of “in the moment” problem-solving required. This means the climbers need to be able to engage in decision making under fatigue, overcome thoughts of self-doubt, and engage in appropriate risk-taking.
It’s arguable thatfocus is the most important mental component required for Speed Climbing. The top climbers in the world are reaching 15m in just over 5 seconds – that’s 3m per second! To be able to climb at this incredible speed athletes need to be completely focused, as one wrong move could completely disrupt their entire performance. The margin for error in speed climbing is so small, meaning attention to detail and accuracy of hand and foot placement are absolutely crucial.
Trust Your Body
One mental barrier common to all three disciplines is the need for climbers to trust their bodies. They need to trust that come competition day, their body will be able to meet the complex physical demands of the performance as a result of their training and preparation. When climbers lack trust they often hesitate and are unable to perform those more difficult, dynamic movements that require a higher level of risk. However, trust is a tricky thing to develop and maintain, especially when it’s been broken in the past.
If you watch any elite climber train or compete it is clear they place a huge amount of trust in their body to take them where they want to go. With trust being such a huge mental component of climbing it’s important to talk about why we find this so challenging. From a psychological point of view, a lot of this boils down to fear. Whether this is fear of falling, fear of taking a risk and it not paying off, or the fear of failure.
Fear And Trust
Fear of falling is often one of the first mental hurdles climbers overcome in their career, particularly in bouldering where there is no harness. With this fear of falling comes the need to trust our body to hold itself up, but this isn’t something that is developed overnight. Trust in our body is something that comes over time with practice, and it strengthens each time we push ourselves to do something we haven’t yet done before. Each time our body shows us it can do something we were unsure it could do, we learn to trust it a little bit more.
But each time we take a risk and our body is unable to physically cope, our trust is inevitably shaken and it’s normal for us to second guess our abilities. For climbers the journey to trust is a constant battle of pushing themselves beyond what they know they can do, celebrating when their body can cope and picking themselves back up when it doesn’t. In no way is the journey to trust smooth sailing – behind every successful climb are many unsuccessful ones. Trust is one of the many human concepts that is hard to build but easy to destroy.
Fighting With Our Mind
Hesitation is another common mental barrier to performance mentioned in the climbing sphere. This also has to do with trust in our body, but through understanding the mental processes that underlie hesitation we can learn to overcome it. Hesitation mainly stems from the fear that our body won’t be able to successfully perform the movement needed to progress in the climb. As a result of this, we often get into a bit of a fight with our minds. This is because our mind is really good at debating and intellectualising – it’s great at coming up with rational and logical reasons for us not to do something that might put us at risk of harm. It generates all the possible outcomes and potential (negative) consequences, and details any and every reason why we shouldn’t attempt that next move. Our mind is really just warning us that if we go ahead with the movement we might slip and fall, but our default response to this is often to try and convince it otherwise.
It is important for climbers to understand that their mind is not going to change its mind. Because its job is to warn us of the dangers of any behaviours we might engage in, arguing why you still want to engage in the behaviour isn’t going to change your way of thinking. Trying to convince your mind why it is a good idea to take this risk to progress in the climb isn’t going to necessarily stop it from telling you it might not be a great idea. Here, we need to remember that we don’t want to view the mind as the thing that tells us what to do. Rather, we want to try and view it as something that warns us, protects us, but still gives us a choice as to whether or not we proceed with those actions. But how can we learn to go against what our mind is telling us?
Mental Processes Underlying Hesitation
One of the most important mental tools a climber can develop is a heightened awareness of their inner private experiences. Private experiences include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and anything an individual experiences privately that has the potential to influence their behaviour. Because there is an extremely important technical aspect to climbing, particularly Lead Climbing and Bouldering, climbers need to be guided by their problem-solving minds. When the mind is in a problem-solving mode and we’re relying on it to make complex technical decisions, this leaves us vulnerable to overthinking and fosters the perfect mental environment for hesitation.
Because the brain by nature is a problem-solving machine, it will calculate as many routes as possible, the consequences of each of these, and will leave it up to us to weigh up the risks associated and make the best decision we can at the moment. This can be extremely challenging, especially once physical fatigue sets in, and the fear of making an error can often hold us back from progressing. Once we notice we’re starting to hesitate, it’s also easy for us to begin to worry about the fact that we’re hesitating, often perpetuating this behaviour.
By bringing awareness to our mind and what it is telling us in those moments, our body and how we are feeling in those moments, and any of the memories from the past that come up in those moments, we can minimise their impact on our behaviour and commit to the actions we want to take. There is a part of us that thinks, feels and remembers, but there is also a part of us that can take a step back and observe these thoughts, feelings and memories from a distance. By taking a step back in our minds (metaphorically speaking) we can bring awareness to these private experiences that often lead to hesitation and observe them from a more distant viewpoint. This distance provides us with the room to make a decision about our actions that are not influenced by these thoughts, feelings or memories. It is when we get caught up in these experiences that they have the biggest impact on our actions.
This is called mindfulness, and it’s where we bring awareness to our most inner experiences, separate ourselves from them and take actions in accordance with what matters to us.
Visualising The Climb
Visualisation is a mental strategy that can be used to enhance performance across virtually any performance domain. In competitive climbing, the way visualisation might be used would vary slightly across the different disciplines, but most of the benefit of this mental strategy lies in the practice effects it can produce. Technical consistency can be improved through pure and other forms of mental rehearsal, meaning we don’t necessarily need a wall or any equipment to improve our technical abilities.
Mental Rehearsal: Lead Climbing and Bouldering
For Lead Climbing and Bouldering, because the route isn’t known and cannot be practiced beforehand the best use of visualisation here would be to prepare for the most unideal scenarios. For visualisation to work, it needs to be as specific as possible, and must be a complete sensory experience meaning we need to go beyond just what we can see. Visualise yourself stuck, struggling to progress on the wall, and think about what you are likely to be seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting and hearing at this time.
Visualise how you would overcome this physical barrier, and what that would look like, feel like and sound like, but also visualise not overcoming this hurdle, and think about what you would want this to look like? What would you want your body language, facial expressions, and your interactions with others on the ground to look like? It’s one thing to plan for when things go our way, but how often do they? Visualisation is such a great tool because it allows us to familiarise ourselves with the worst-case scenarios and plan our response to them. And we can do this all from the comfort of the ground.
Mental Rehearsal: Speed Climbing
Alternatively Speed Climbers might want to use visualisation in accordance with unique demands of the discipline. Rather than placing complex and dynamic decision making at the centre of the exercise, here we would want that focus to be around speed and accuracy. Speed climbers might want to mentally rehearse their climb from different viewpoints, and vary between the first-person or third-person perspective. They might also want to vary the pace of their climb, visualising their climb in slow motion with more emphasis on technique. Or at real speed with a focus on arm and foot movement/placement.
Climbers may also want to engage in a variation of mental rehearsal known as Pure Shadow Practice, where they move their arms and legs while they mentally rehearse to mimic the movements they want to perform on the wall. Having our body go through the motions can provide additional benefit relative to Pure Mental Rehearsal alone. Finally, climbers might want to engage in another variation of mental rehearsal known as Video-Assisted Mental Rehearsal. Here, they might watch video footage of themselves or another climber on the course and analyse their movements, before using this knowledge to inform their Pure Mental Rehearsal and Shadow Practice. But again, it is important for speed climbers to integrate planning for the best and worst in their visualisation practice. How are you likely to feel if your foot slips on the wall? What are you likely to see as you make your way back down to the ground? And how do you want to behave?
The Aim of Visualisation
In addition to having actual practice effects, the goal of visualisation is to increase our familiarity with as many different scenarios of the same event as possible. Athletes often feel scared to think about what could possibly go wrong during their performance, and sometimes think that planning for the worst is setting themselves up for a bad performance. For climbers who feel this way it is important to acknowledge that although we might complete all of our processes correctly, this only increases the chance we’ll get the outcome we want. Our desired outcome is never guaranteed despite our best efforts, so it is important to prepare for when we don’t get the results we want as this helps us to bounce back and try again.
Reaching New heights
Climbers are constantly being asked to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, and must continue to push their own perceived physical limitations in order to see any progress. Through mindfulness and visualisation strategies, climbers can work towards a building a trusting relationship with their body to help them overcome fear, and helpful a relationship with their mind whereby thoughts and feelings no longer dictate their actions.
Condor Performance is one of the global leaders in applied sport and performannce psychology and we’d love to lend you a hand if you’re looking to lift your performance to the next level through a greater focus on the psychological. What is the best way to get in touch? We’d suggest completing one of our four intake questionnaires here as an inital step. Once done one of us will be in touch typically within two or three days.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the main reasons why many athletes can easily perform in training but struggle on competition day.
What Exactly is Choking in Sport?
Choking is one of those interesting terms which is commonly associated with sport psychology but not so common in the scientific literature. In other words it was first used colloquially to describe ‘falling apart under the pressure of competition’. Since then it seems to have ‘stuck’ as the term used most often to describe mental disintegration.
“In sport, choking under pressure is a negative athletic experience that may have psychologically damaging effects. The media recognises that choking is a dramatic drop in performance, whereas researchers have labeled choking as any decrease in performance under pressure. This discrepancy between the media’s and researchers’ perception of choking leads to ambiguity among terms and confusion among researchers, applied practitioners, and the general public.“
As a practising sport psychologist I typically don’t use the words choke or choking at all. I prefer to describe the same challenge in a little more details. For example, underperforming in competition due to pressure. Or maybe due to poor concentration?
Can You Help? I Keep Choking …
There are literally hundreds of reasons why people contact us here at Condor Performance. One of the most common, however, is the athlete/performer who excels in practice situations but struggles to reach anywhere near this level during actual competitions. Most of the time they’ll refer to this as choking. “I keep choking” or “I am a choker”.
It’s worth mentioning that there is always a risk when writing about the psychological aspects anything of oversimplifying matters. This is certainly the case here. Be aware of this when I suggest that although there are potentially hundreds of causes of choking most can be attributed to one or a combination of the below.
a practice environment that is mentally far too easy (for that person)
a competition mindset that is far too taxing (for that person)
the perfect storm – a combination of both of the above
And In This Lies The Solution
Quite simply most of those who are better at executing their skills in practice are better as they are doing so in a false environment. One where more often than not there are little or no consequences involved. Go to any golf driving range in the world and you’ll see dozens of golfers (if we can call them that) smashing balls into the distance without caring about where they end up. Take the same golfers and plonk them onto the first tee with three other golfers watching and see how suddenly smashing this particular ball into the distance makes them tighten up and duck hook it straight out of bounds.
Even those who practice smart and try to replicate the mental demands of competition in their preparation often struggle as they tend to fall short of being able to mimic feelings of extreme pressure. The result is that they then have to try and execute their skills in competition whilst experiencing feeling like extreme nerves or stress that were not there during practice. To add insult to injury, they then fuse with these feelings unaware that feelings and actions can be separated.
There are a number of tried and tested ways around. Although reading this blog should never take the place of working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist the below might be enough to at least get the ball rolling.
1. Make Your Practice Mentally Harder
By harder we mean mentally harder not physically harder. The easiest way to try and do this is by replicating situations that you don’t like or that you find hard. For example, you might prefer to practice in the morning so you intentionally switch some practice sessions to the afternoon. Or you might enjoy practising with others so you do more and more training alone. To get the sweet-spot is not easy. You’re looking for the practice session(s) to be psychologically demanding but not too demanding. A great analogy for this is weight training. If the weights are too light then not much will happen. If they are too heavy they might cause injury and long term harm. It’s the same with mental demands. Too little means no growth, too much means damage. British sport psychologist Dan Abrahams refers to this as stretch and support. Too much and too little stretch are what we’re trying to avoid here. If you are not confident at being able to create your own sweet-spot mentally harder practice session(s) then please contact us here and so we can lend you a hand.
2. Make Your Competition As Relaxed As Possible
Is it possible for an athlete to be too relaxed whilst competing? Not really (don’t confuse tiredness with being relaxed) so we suggest you do what the great Usain Bolt used to do. He only “worked” on things in training. This freed up his competitions to just exist, enjoy himself and let his training express itself without a worried mind getting in the way. In particular, he didn’t worry about being worried. Easier said than done many might say. I often use the analogy of driving a car (apologies to our younger readers). Manoeuvring a vehicle around safely is a difficult motor skill with huge consequences if you get it wrong. Yet, most of us (who drive) do a great job of trusting our muscle memory. We quickly get to a level of expertise behind the wheel were we don’t actually have to try hard to drive well, we just do. What if you approached sporting contests in the same way? Arrive, ready, relax, trust your training.
3. Use Performance Routines
Action-only pre-performance routines can be a great way to keep you grounded at certain key moments both in practice and during competitions. The reason they work so well is that they’re built using the most influenceable aspect of performance – present actions. This means they should remain both easy to do and consistent regardless of the thoughts and emotions of the current situations. You didn’t really think that Rafa Nadel actually sweated that much did you? Rafa’s use of the towel is a great example of a mentally astute athlete using the action of wiping as a reset between points.
If you’d like to read a lot more about routines then you can read this blog or this one. And as always, please use the space below to let us know your thoughts and/or questions on the topic of Choking in Sport.
Sport psychologists Coaching The Coaches is becoming more and more normal as competitive sport finally start to understand what we do.
One of the great professional delights for us here at Condor Performance is the opportunity to work alongside sporting coaches. We are privileged to work with coaches across many sports and levels of competition. Most of this consulting is 1-on-1 whereby we help them improve both their own mental toughness as well as their mental coaching skills. Of course these two areas are related but are far from one and the same. So coaching the coaches really means coaching the coaches mentally.
The process of collaborating with coaching staff provides a range of challenges and rewards distinct from working directly with athletes. It is immensely satisfying for us to help coaches redirect some of the vast amounts of time and energy spent on their players back into improving their own performance. That’s right, coaches are performers too even if they don’t actually strap on the boots.
An Unlimited Appetite for Learning
Increasingly at the elite level of sport there is a trend for coaches to take off-season trips. The idea is to ‘pick the brains’ of other organisations in order to bring new perspectives back home. “Study tours” are fascinating exercises with a host of educational benefits. However they’re not exactly cheap and that thing called ‘life’ can get in the way.
We are huge advocates for these study tours but accept they will not be possible for most coaches. Luckily there is a workaround. Start working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist from the comfort of your own home.
Of course when it comes to the practical application of coaching tasks and responsibilities it is the coaches themselves who are the experts, not us. But we become involved to provide mental skills training to the coach, not to start developing game plans or overhaul training regimes.
Five Key Questions
Below you will find five key questions for coaches directed at their own performance, not that of their athletes.
HOW ARE YOU PERFORMING OUTSIDE OF THE PLAYING ARENA?
Before we discuss the mental side of your coaching performance, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Improving your performance in areas which don’t at first appear to be directly linked to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of coaching will in fact directly benefit your work with your athletes. Attending to ‘off-field’ matters will help to increase your physical and mental energy. It will sharpen your focus when coaching. It will enhance your enthusiasm for your duties. Furthermore, it will promote enjoyment of your role and contribute to your general wellbeing. Finally, it will help to address (prevent) burnout in the longer term. The major targets for improvement for any coach, from a lifestyle perspective, are:
Nutrition. No doubt you’re encouraging your athletes to put the right fuel into their bodies? And while you may not be running around on the court with them it’s important that you do the same. This isn’t just necessary for general health but also for enhancing your mood and improving concentration. Taking care of your nutritional needs seems fairly obvious at first glance. But that’s why it often takes a back seat to other tasks which seem more urgent at the time.
Sleep. Unfortunately this is not an exact science and a great night of shut-eye can’t be guaranteed. There are various factors which can get in the way of sleep. So anything you can do to increase the chances of a good night’s rest will have flow-on benefits to life and sport. Taking basic steps to plan for and implement good sleeping habits sounds sensible enough. Like nutrition, sleep can be one of the forgotten components in the grand scheme of coaching performance. See this great PDF for more details.
WHAT DOES MENTAL TOUGHNESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
The mental qualities you hope to see in your players are easy enough to picture. But what does mental toughness actually look like for you personally? What are the skills you’re seeking to keep improving upon in order to perform at your best? Below are some points that keen-eyed readers will recognise fall along the lines of the Metuf model. These are all areas we often discuss when coaching the coaches.
What are your reasons for coaching and wanting to do it well? The immediate response to this may be that you love your chosen sport. However it’s helpful to clarify this passion further. Why exactly does coaching appeal to you and what are the rewards which you get in return for your efforts? Knowing what matters to us in terms of our chosen sport means that we can keep these values as non-negotiable aspects of our sporting lives.
How well are you able to manage your emotions? That term – manage – is used deliberately and is not a result of the growing ‘business-speak’ in modern society. Although the term ‘control’ is thrown around freely in sports, we cannot control our emotions as we cannot guarantee them. What we can guarantee are the actions that we pick in response to our feelings. Developing competency in recognising and better understanding one’s own emotions – and the impact of these emotions on performance – benefits the coach in their work and enables the coach to teach their athletes similar skills.
Do you spend the majority of your time worrying about aspects you have little or no influence on? For example, your opponents? Food for though, no?
How well are you able to get your message across to others? Are you able to receive and interpret messages well from others? How effectively can you get messages across to yourself? Communication is a hugely under-utilised skill. Normally this is due to lifelong habits which we have developed in everyday interactions. Even minor modifications can yield powerful changes in tasks such as teaching biomechanics or managing different personalities.
How well are you able to focus on what is most relevant and useful in your role as a coach? It is equally important to improve your attention in preparation as well as in competitioN. Are you prioritising one over the other at present?
DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR SPORTING IQ?
Out on the playing surface, tactical wisdom refers to knowledge about the sport. It’s about decision making skills and knowing ‘when’ to or ‘why’ to do something. There is an enormous difference between ‘how to’ shoot for goal (technique) vs. determining if a shot or a pass is best goal (tactics). Developing decision making skills is something which the vast majority of coaches I’ve encountered have revelled in. I enjoy helping them to teach their athletes how to become smarter and to read the play. How to be proactive rather than reactive.
Off the playing surface these same principles apply for coaches. We want to encourage them to continue learning, to seek new knowledge, and to gain deeper insights into their sport. Tactical wisdom for coaches isn’t restricted to coming up with new game plans. Instead, tactical wisdom is looking at the bigger picture and planning how to acquire and utilise knowledge for the benefit of your athletes. As a coach, if you can recognise what your strengths and weaknesses are knowledge-wise then you’ve immediately begun a process of filling in any gaps and strengthening the existing foundations.
IS YOUR BODY GETTING ENOUGH ATTENTION?
Improving the strength, fitness and flexibility of athletes is of course a key consideration for any coach on any given day. However, we are talking about coaches here and the risk with this group is that enhancing the physical capabilities of athletes will always take priority over your own needs. Taking the time to plan specific goals for improving your physical capabilities and implementing weekly effort towards these goals will benefit your work with clipboard and whistle. It may even help you to come up with some new ideas for punishing your athletes with torturous fitness drills!
ARE YOU REFINING AND UPDATING YOUR TECHNICAL SKILLS?
When discussing technical consistency with an athlete, we would be talking about their ability to execute movements and apply skills the way they want to over and over again across all conditions in competition. That is, ‘how to’ do something. One of the primary concerns of a coach is to help teach athletes these skills. So in order to improve your performance as a coach it is worthwhile considering ‘how to’ teach your charges. It is one thing to demonstrate to a javelin thrower the method for launching that piece of equipment. However, it’s another to be passing on that knowledge in a way that is effective and of most benefit to that individual athlete. It’s hugely useful for coaches to break from habit where possible and review how they go about executing their skills in their role as a coach. How effectively are you teaching your athletes and how satisfied are you in your current ability to pass on skills/knowledge/information to others? As with all the previously mentioned pillars of performance, ongoing improvement in the ‘how to’ of coaching players is the goal here regardless of which technical elements are areas of strength for you as an individual.
If you are a sporting coach and you’d like some info on how we can work with you please contact us via one of the below.
Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.
The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.
The skills are the outcomes not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.
When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side (engine) it’s quite easy to seperate the outcomes (ability) with the processes (how).
Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. If I compare myself with Leonel Messi you’ll see what I mean. Messi’s ability to dribble the ball is far better than mine. He has far better skills in this technical aspect of soccer than I do. But we can’t say the same about the methods (processes) that each of us use (have used) to work on this skill.
Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.
But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling.
As I explain in this recent visualisation video I created imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. The can and should include physical skills, mental skills and tactical skills.
The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.
Let’s All Use The Correct Terms
If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of method that good practice coaches use to hone this particular skill.
How This Plays Out For Mental Skills
There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than the psychical and tactical engines. Second, it’s a much more recent participant at the performance enhancement top table.
At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.
Think of emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better.
So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.
They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).
The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side.
Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …
I could improve my flexibility by …
To improve my cardio fitness I could …
I could improve my upper body strength by …
In these three examples, the word in bold is the target – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end. For example:
I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.
One target with many physical methods.
Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (also known as mental toughness).
I could improve my motivation by …
To improve my handling of emotions I could …
I could improve my thoughts by …
To improve the unity of my team I could …
I could improve my focus by …
Not Quite So Easy Is It?
Remember motivation is the mental skill here. So the question is what processes might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation?
Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here. Crucially goal setting is just one of hundreds of ways to target motivations. Just in the same way that skipping is just one methods to improve fitness.
How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ and we recently created this free VSM audio file that anyone can download.
What about thoughts and thinking? I bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you? The best method in my professional opinion is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on common performance factors. For example, do you instinctively know that you have more influence on your effort than your sporting results?
How about the mental skill of Team Unity? I would suggest doing some research into someone called the 10 R’s for more on this one.
Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? In my career so far as a sport psychologist I have had huge success in helping my clients improve their focus with the use of routines.
If you’d like to develop these ideas further then there a couple of options. First, you can reach out to us and ask about the process to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport / performance psychologists. Our hourly rate varies a little depending on location and monthly option but is roughly AUS$ 200 (US$ 150) and hour. If this is beyond your budget then consider doing one of our online Mental Toughness courses instead.
Are sporting coaches and competitive athletes amongst the more likely to benefit from the principles of positive psychology?
Recently I was cleaning out my filing cabinet and I came across an email from a previous coach of mine. The message contained some feedback on what he felt I needed to improve on after a recent tournament. I scanned through the email and felt a heaviness settle in my stomach. The emotions came back from the time I first received the email many years ago. The feedback was all negative but phrased as ‘the areas I needed to improve on’. Comments like ‘you need to do this more’, and ‘in this situation, you need to be doing this’. No traces of Positive Psychology anywhere.
None of the feedback was given to me during the tournament itself. It was all put in an email and sent when we got back and with no follow-up. What I noticed most was that there was no positive feedback at all. After reading his email, I felt unmotivated and deflated. I’m sure this is not what he intended but it’s what happened. Is this type of feedback going to make for better athletes and competitors?
Performance Psychology meets Positive Psychology
A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Perth. I was curious, engaged, and fascinated by the content and the vibe of the conference. During the even I was introduced to Positive Psychology, the science of flourishing. Dr Martin Seligman, one of the main researchers in this branch of psychology, believes that psychological practise should be as concerned with people’s strengths as their weaknesses. Positive psychology asks ‘what’s good in our lives’ compared to the traditional psychology approach which can focus more on ‘what’s wrong with us and how can we fix it’.
As a performance psychologist, I have always had a passion for helping people thrive in their work and life. So this theory sat well with me and aligned with my values. I started introducing positive psychology initiatives into my work in organisations. Later as my sporting clients grew I felt that they too would gain a lot from some simple positive psychology principles.
Too Much Deficit-Based Coaching
Sport is also often focused on ‘fixing weaknesses and problems’, called deficit-based coaching. How often do you come off the field at half time and a coach says “this is what we need to change because we’re not doing it right.” Strengths-based coaching, on the other hand, is about identifying, enhancing and exploiting athletes’ and teams’ strengths and focusing on what we do well.
Athletes, coaches and sporting organisations generally have the goal of excellence, both on and off the field. By using positive psychology strategies, performance psychologists are able to support athletes, staff and families develop resilience and coping skills in order to deal with setbacks, focus on strengths to achieve their goals. These mental skills are just as vital to success as being able to hit a hockey ball or shoot a basket. Talent and technical ability is not enough. Whilst important we all can name truly gifted athletes that never make it.
What sets most athletes apart is their mental toughness. It’s their character, their grit, their positive mindset and the belief that their ability can be developed through dedication and hard work. So what are the key factors of positive psychology that can be applied to sport?
Research has demonstrated that it is easier to promote a strength than it is to improve weaknesses and that our areas of greatest potential are our greatest strengths. This is not to say don’t focus on your weaknesses, but the best results will come when you are also working on your strengths. Research shows that those who use their strengths are more likely to have higher levels of confidence, vitality and energy, are likely to be more resilient, have higher self-esteem, and to perform better. Coaches and athletes are encouraged to know their strengths and the focus of development should be around their strengths. Many coaches have a negativity bias and need to train their brains to focus on the good things their athletes are doing.
The two key elements of a strength-approach are “delivering a high level of performance and experiencing a sense of energy when you are doing it” (Linley, Willars, et al., 2010). Spotting the energy is crucial to distinguish the real strengths from learned behaviours. So how do you know what your strengths are? Ask yourself these questions:
What do you love about your sport?
What’s your favourite role?
Which aspects do you get complimented on?
What are you most proud of?
What do you do in your spare time?
How can I harness my strengths?
Growth Mindset and Positive Psychology
In 2006, Carol Dweck introduced us to the notion of growth and fixed mindset. Those with a growth mindset are more comfortable with failure as they see it as a learning opportunity in comparison to those with a fixed mindset who believe their success is based on innate ability and talent. Athletes with a growth mindset are more likely to see challenges as opportunities rather than barriers and believe that they can improve, learn and get better with practice and effort.
The good news is, we can choose which mindset we want – we can choose to view our mistakes and setbacks as learning opportunities, or we can view them as limiting obstacles. Those choosing a growth mindset are more likely to persist in difficult times than those with fixed mindsets. And athletes know better than anyone, that if you want to achieve success, there are always barriers and obstacles in the way, including poor form, injury and confidence issues.
Sport is emotional – for athletes, coaches, and spectators. Many emotions are felt from elation, excitement and nervousness to fear, sadness, anger and disappointment. Emotions drive behaviour and often dictate how you perform as an athlete in competition. To become a high performing athlete, you need to understand and manage your emotions so they help rather than hinder your performances.
Many people falsely believe that positive psychology only recognises positive aspects of people and their performances, and ignores the negative. When viewing emotions, both positive and negative are considered, and the impact both these have on an athlete’s performances. Negative emotions like anxiety and anger can trigger our body’s “Fight or Flight” response to threat and these emotions affect our bodies physically. These physical effects can include increased heart rate, nausea, muscle tension, stomach aches, weakened focus, and physically drained. Positive emotions, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. Happiness can relieve tension, lower your heart and blood pressure, strengthen your immune system and help to combat stress. Staying calm, focused and positive can help you attend to what you need to minimise distractions, keeping you relaxed, and increasing your confidence. It also has the added benefit of being a pleasant person to be around!
Recent research has shown that one of the key factors in success is what is termed as ‘Grit’, defined as passion and perseverance in working toward significant long-term goals. Elite athletes across many sports are grittier compared with non-elite athletes. They also commit to their sports for a longer period of time. This concept pioneered by Dr Angela Duckworth (2007), explains why some people achieve success without being gifted with unique intelligence or talent. So, if you are an athlete or coach who feels like you missed the talent boat, then there is hope for you. How many of you can credit your successes to your passion, commitment, resilience and perseverance? The good news is that you can develop your grit to become grittier.
Ways To Do This Include:
Develop your passion – find what you love doing, and it will be easier to stick to it. Not many people stick to things they are not passionate about. Ask yourself, what do I like to think about? Where does my attention wander? What do I really care about?
Practice deliberately – don’t waste your time at training, practice deliberately. Set stretch goals, practice with full concentration and effort, seek feedback and reflect on what went well and what didn’t to refine for next time.
Consider your purpose – why are you doing what you do? In life and sport, there are bound to be setbacks and challenges along the way. If you have a purpose for what you are doing, then you are more likely to persevere and stay committed. When times are tough, always go back to your ‘why’.
Adopt a ‘growth’ mindset – athletes with a growth mindset know their abilities develop through hard work and effort rather than natural talent. Those with growth mindsets are much better at dealing with setbacks as they view them as learning experiences, rather than being directly related to their ability.
Grit in Practice
Is it not possible to developed Grit overnight; it is an ongoing process. What we do know is that it’s worth developing – the gritty athlete is not only successful, s/he is also more likely to be happier and more satisfied with his/her ability than other athletes.
The adoption and implementation of positive psychology hs a significant impact on sports performances by shifting the focus from negative (what’s wrong with you) to positive (what’s right with you).
Understanding your strengths and how to use them, adopting a growth mindset, using your emotions strategically and developing grit all contribute to building mental toughness, optimism, motivation and resilience. I know from firsthand experience how focusing on the positive can have a much greater impact on an athlete and bring out the best in us.
If you’d like more information about working with me on some of these ideas then get in touch by completing our Contact Us Form here and mention my name (“Mindy”) somewhere in the comments sections and I will call you back.
Positive Psychology Is Not Positive Thinking
The below is an old post from 2014 written by one of the interns at the time (sorry, can’t call which one). It was called The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking. Note, the below was not written by Mindy but it feels like this is the best place to add it.
The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking
It goes without saying that negative thinking can be unhelpful, particularly from a performance perspective. But have you ever considered that the opposite of negative thinking may also be unhelpful? Or even that trying to change how we think in the first place is where the problems lie?
How often do we hear people say that to overcome difficult situations we just need to think positively? Let’s start with a story about how our thoughts influence the way we feel and act.
Three Soccer Players
Imagine three soccer players each taking a penalty kick in a shoot out. They all miss the goal. The first player thinks: “I’ve let the whole team down. I’ll never get selected again.” She gets upset and feels really sad about missing the goal. The second player thinks: “It’s not fair that we had to go to a penalty shoot out! This is all because the referee disallowed our goal in the 88th minute!” This player kicks the ground on their way back to the team and feels angry about missing the goal. The third player thinks: “Well, that didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but overall I had a pretty good game today. I’ll have to practice those spot kicks a bit more in training.” She remains calm on her way back to the team, and even though they feel a bit disappointed about missing the goal.
So why did three people who were in the same situation experience such different cognitive reactions? They all missed the goal, but only the third player coped effectively with this stressful situation. As you may have noticed, these three players all had different thoughts going through their minds after they missed the goal. Their thoughts influenced their emotions (i.e. how they felt) and their behaviour (i.e. how they acted). This story highlights two important points for athletes and coaches to understand:
Our thoughts influence how we feel and act; and
We can’t change the outcome of our performance once it’s in the past, but we can certainly control how we react to this outcome.
Thoughts Influence How We Feel and Act
Over time our thoughts become more consistent and habitual. We develop our own unique way of making sense of situations. This is called our thinking style. There are three distinct styles of thinking. Negative and positive thinking sit at either end of a continuum. They are both extremes, like the colours black and white. Both of these extreme thinking styles have the potential to be unhelpful when it comes to coping with stressful situations. Negative thinking can lead to self-doubt, being hyper critical, blaming others and feeling guilty. Likewise, positive thinking (not grounded in reality) can be equally unhelpful and lead to over-confidence and under-preparation in some athletes and coaches.
This leaves us with the third (and most helpful) thinking style. Realistic Thinking is characterised by the shades of grey that fall between the extremes of negative and positive thinking. As the name suggests, realistic thinking is based on real life – and for most people, life consists of ups and downs rather than “all good” or “all bad” situations. Realistic thinking is a balanced way of thinking that acknowledges limitations or setbacks whilst developing and maximising strengths. Here are a few tips to help you develop a more realistic thinking style:
7 Quick Wins
Evaluate the validity of your thoughts. Don’t just treat them as facts. Try to find supporting evidence for thoughts that enhance your confidence and motivation and refuting evidence for thoughts that undermine your confidence and motivation.
Be careful not to over-generalise after a setback. Just because one shot, tackle, or game wasn’t your best, doesn’t mean that every performance in the future will be the same.
Focus on the controllables – What you are thinking and doing in the present moment. You can’t change the past, and the only way you can influence your future is by how you manage the present.
If your mind starts focusing on a worst case scenario, ask yourself “How likely is it that this scenario will actually come true?” and “Will the consequences be as bad as I’m predicting?”
Try not to use extreme words in your thinking, such as “should,” “must,” “always,” and “never.” These words lead to athletes and coaches putting unnecessary pressure on themselves. Think about what is reasonable rather than ideal.
Work with supportive people around you (i.e. coach, family, team mates, psychologist) to develop realistic performance goals. Expectations need to be in line with capabilities and logistics in order for goals to be achievable.
Accept that things sometimes don’t go according to plan and sport can be unpredictable and unfair. Use these stressful experiences as an opportunity to learn and build resilience for the future.
Some Free Sport Psychology Tips to help you perform better by leading performance psychologist David Barracosa of Condor Performance
26 Free Sport Psychology Ideas
Although sport psychology can be a complex and quickly evolving field it can still allow for some “quick wins”. With this in mind please enjoy these Sport Psychology Tips and don’t forget to add your comments below!
A is for Attitude
It may be surprising but in our work, as sport and performance psychologists we actually don’t refer to attitude much. Attitude is just one of many type of human cognition. When a coach refers to an athlete as having ‘the right attitude’ he or she is probably suggesting that this athlete’s values and beliefs are in line with their own.
For example, both might regard sporting results as important but not as important as hard work and effort. The most interesting aspect of attitude is it is often assessed via observations (a coach watching an athlete in training). Due to this it is probably body language that is actually being appraised. Attitude, if we take the term literally, is not directly observable as it’s occurring inside the mind.
B is for Body Language
Body language is a fascinating area of performance psychology. Research suggests that it dominates how we communicate compared with the actual words we use. In sporting contexts, this makes even more sense as it is quite normal for there to be little or no verbal communication. With maybe the exception of the captains or leaders of sporting teams, most athletes of most sports don’t say very much during both training and whilst competing.
For this majority, communicating with either teammates or opponents is taking place via the body. By the body, we mean entire body from facial expressions to posture to hand gestures and everything in between. How do you improve body language? I would suggest starting out by filming yourself in a variety of situations and then watch it back with the sound off.
Determination is very similar to the mental concept as motivation without being a synonym. Motivation, at least as defined by our coaching philosophy Metuf, is more about enthusiasm, enjoyment, desire and dreams. Determination might be a good word to refer to the actions we continue with during times in which the enthusiasm for our sport is not there. One of the most common examples of this is when the scoreboard is not in your favour (no way to win with time remaining). Yet, despite this you decide to preservative anyway. This is a great example of sporting determination.
E is for Enjoyment
The enjoyment we’re referring to in this instance is the kind that most kids tend to have towards their sport before it becomes ‘serious’. The fun of chasing the ball more than getting to it first. The issue is, this enjoyment tends to dissipate once the stakes increase. Far too many sporting coaches become far too intense during competitions due to a lack of sport psychology training during their accreditation. This is one of the many reasons why we have always wanted to work 1-on-1 with sporting coaches.
F is for Focus
Learning to improve focus is actually one of the easier mental skills. It really boils down to knowing when and how to switch on – and then practising this like any other skill. There are many great examples of how to do this but amongst the most effective are the short performance routines that I wrote about in our last blog article. I say easier in comparison to various other mental skills which although very effective can be somewhat critic in nature.
There is no getting away from the fact that training the mind is always going to be a trickier mountain to climb due to the investable nature of what we’re targeting for improvement. For example, areas such as focus.
G is for Grit
Grit is a term which has gained a lot of momentum recently due mainly to the works of Angela Duckworth (see YouTube video below). Grit is defined via it’s Wikipedia page as a “…non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state (a powerful motivation to achieve an objective). This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie on the path to accomplishment and serves as a driving force in achievement realisation. Distinct but commonly associated concepts within the field of psychology include “perseverance”, “hardiness“, “resilience“, “ambition”, “need for achievement” and “conscientiousness“.
Our monthly clients, as well as long-time readers of the Mental Toughness Digest, will rightly feel that many of these words – perseverance, effort, ambition are very familiar to them as they are cornerstone concepts of Metuf.
H is for Hard Work
There is simply no substitute for hard work.
I is for Influence
Knowing the amount of influence you have on some of the more common aspects of your sport (or performance areas) is mighty useful. A great little exercise you can do is to start a simple three-column table. The heading of the first column is ‘Lots of Influence’, for the second write “Some Influence” and for the final one label it “Little Influence”.
Now start to fill in the table with whatever comes to mind. For example, you might be spending a lot of time thinking about an upcoming competition combined with memories of how you did at the same venue last year. So you might decide to put the Future in the middle column and the Past in the right-hand column – for instance.
J is for Junior Sport
If I were in charge of sport in a particular state or country I would flip funding so that the vast majority of recourses went into the junior or developmental side of sports. In other words, the best coaches, equipment and facilities normally only accessible to the top 0.1% of athletes would be diverted to athletes under the age of 16.
For example, those regarded as the very best coaches – like Wayne Bennettin rugby league – would be invited to coach junior rugby league players instead. I would make sure that whatever position was created for this had the same or greater salary as top-flight professional coaches.
K is for Keeping Going
Maybe the most powerful cue words in sport. Your mind will virtually always quit on you before your body does. Tell it to Keep Going and see what happens.
L is for Learning
There is a reason why some of the very best sporting coaches of all time – for example, Jake White – are formers teachers. They treat the process of performance enhancement as one long learning experience for both themselves and their players. The most appealing aspect of this angle is that poor performances are used as learning opportunities. Errors, for example, are considered as invaluable elements of feedback – data that can be used to inform better choices moving forward.
M is for Monitoring
If you are not monitoring at least one aspect of your endeavours you’re missing out. At Condor Performance we encourage our sporting and non-sporting clients to record one or more “monthly checks”. As can be read in detail from this recent blog post these monthly checks are like our key performance indicators. As long as you know the right number of monthly checks to monitor (not too many) and the amount of influence you have on each of these results (not as much as you think) there is zero downsides to this kind of self-monitoring and plenty of upsides.
N is for Numbers
Whether you like it or not competitive sport – especially at the elite level – is full of numbers. In fact certain sports, like cricket and baseball are so mathematical in nature that the coaches of these sports would be forgiven for thinking of themselves more like statisticians from time to time. This is one of the reasons why we encourage our monthly clients to monitor their own progress – to allow them to function, even thrive in a results-oriented world. The other reasons have already been mentioned above in the M for monitoring.
O is for Objectivity
Both the M and the N above help with objectively but alone might not be enough. Objectively is roughly the opposite of subjectively with the latter being heavy on opinions with the former much more based on facts. For example, it’s quite normal for athletes and coaches to assess past performances based mostly (or only) on memory or even worse, based on the final result. This is highly subjective and a bit like any human pursuit we’d want to be careful about how much of our analysis is subjective. Objective analysis – for example, the number of missed tackles – will be more valuable as the numbers don’t lie.
Actually, this is not true – numbers can lie but are less likely to do so than opinions.
P is for Pressure
‘Pressure’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of sports psychology. For a start, it’s 100% internal – it’s a feeling with very real physiological sensations – a little bit like hunger. Because it’s going on inside it’s less tangible and therefore harder to manage. To start with, it’s really important not to consider pressure as being good or bad. Let me use hunger to explain. Hunger, for most of us, is simply a signal for us to go an eat something. Once we do, the hunger goes away. The food that alleviates the hunger that is pressure is practice. That’s right, high-quality practice is like a pile of organic veggies.
Of course, there is also a benefit to learning to deal with hunger/pressure in case there is no food/practice available. By far the best way to do this – in my opinion – is to work with a qualified sport/performance psychologist like one of the members of our team.
Q is for Quantity and Quality
This is how we break down practice or effort. Quantity is ‘how much’ and wants to be in the right amount. Quality is how good and wants to be as high as possible. We often find it useful to multiply these together. For example, if the highest score for each is 10 then combined the highest score is 100.
There are still a huge number of people out there whose beliefs about what sports psychologists or performance psychologists do get in the way of us being able to help them. The stigma comes from the word ‘psychologist’ which too many people still associate with having some kind of mental problem. The general premise of working with a psychologist being a sign of weakness needs to be broken. A band-aid solution to this is to refer to ourselves as a coach or performance coaches or mental skills trainers instead. The issue with this is it doesn’t help to remove the stigma. Also, it seems a pity not to be able to use the title psychologist that took us seven or so years to earn.
T is for Time Management
Being able to manage your own time, your needs and your wants is one of the most underrated of all mental skills. I work with a LOT of young elite athletes (teenagers on track to be the world’s best in their chosen sport) and on the whole, they come to me with either poor or non-existent time management skills. Sometimes, a simple suggestion like buying a $5 diary to start recording upcoming commitments can do wonders in terms of accountability, planning, knowing when to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to invitations and moving their mindset more towards effort and further from results. For more on Time Managment see this separate post.
Our values and beliefs guide our thoughts so if you’d like to update your daily thought processes then it can be a good idea to think about your values. By values, we really mean what you consider to be valuable or important. A nice little exercise to get the ball rolling is to simply list everything you consider to be important in your life and why. For example, you might write ‘8 hours of sleep a night’ and follow that with ‘because it helps me get the most of various training sessions the following day’. The ‘why’ part is very important as this links our endeavours to our internal motivation.
X is for eXcellence
Are you striving for excellence? Do you want to become excellent at what you do? How would you define and measure excellence? Is your training excellence? Do you know how to increase your chances of becoming the best possible athlete or coach you can be? If not get in touch and we’ll lend you a hand.
Y is for Yourself
One of the best ways of helping others is to look after yourself first.
Z is for Zest
Zest is one of the traits that we look for when we are interviewing psychologists looking to join our team of sport and performance psychologists. Do they have a passion for sports and helping athletes and coaches become better versions of themselves? If not, getting up at 5 am to deliver a Skype session to a monthly client from another country might just prove to be too hard.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the often overlooked role that decision making plays in the outcome of sporting contests.
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.