The Fun Factor

‘Enjoyment Is One Of The Cornerstones Of Sporting Success’ argues Chris Pomfret. Without it, it’s a very long way to the top.

Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.
Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top. But one thing is for sure. He used enjoyment as a key mental skill for his amazing success as a sprinter. He had the fun factor.

This article was first written by Chris Pomfret in 2017, then slightly updated by Gareth J. Mole in 2022. Another article on the same subject by the same author – Enjoyment and Performance – can be found here.

The Fun Factor – A Key Mental Skill

There are so many questions regarding fun and enjoyment in the context of elite sport and performance. But the most pressing would be these two. Is it actually necessary for an elite athlete to love their sport? And can The Fun Factor be increased in situations whereby the mojo is gone?

To address the first of these I can’t help but think back to the 2017 Wimbledon Tennis tournament. And in particular, comments made by Aussie Bernard Tomic following his elimination. Tomic appeared to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seemed so unappealing. One thing is obvious when looking at this from the outside, The Fun Factor had gone. And this is assuming it was there in the first place.

To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court. That he was lacking motivation during Wimbledon and in his playing career more generally. He reported lacking a sense of fun. He described being happy with his life from a financial perspective but being dissatisfied with the sport of tennis and not caring about his results. Tomic acknowledged the difficulties of playing at the top level for such a long period but stated that he planned to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”

Include Mental Training From The Start

In later interviews, Tomic said that he felt “trapped” in the sport and that if he could go back in time he’d encourage his younger self to pursue another career. “Do something you love and enjoy” he would advise the 14-year-old Bernard, “because it’s a grind and it’s a tough, tough, tough life.”

Sporting results are a crude way to make conclusions about anything but sometimes this is the only data we have. When Tomic made these comments in 2017 he was ranked in the Top 20 in the world. As we update this article almost five years later his ranking is 260. And I would suggest this slide in the rankings is mostly due to mental health reasons. The lack of the fun factor is now taking its toll. And it wouldn’t surprise me that soon we’ll be referring to him as a ‘former tennis professional’.

All Athletes Have Mental Health Issues

Every single athlete will have some kind of mental health issues that they would benefit from addressing. This is particularly true for those competing at the pointy end whereby the psychological challenges tend to be much greater. Think about a professional tennis player who spends eight months of the year ‘on the road’. So rather than dividing athletes into those who are mentally well versus those who are mentally unwell, it’s more useful to separate them into those who are addressing inevitable mental challenges versus those in denial.

Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the top three. Performance anxiety tends to be ranked first, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked next. But the loss of fun. enjoyment, motivation is a close third.

If we compare Tomic to someone like the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt the differences could hardly be more extreme. Among the many contributing factors to Bolt’s success as a runner, his pure love of racing was right up there. It was remarkable to observe how every time he competed he treated it as a celebration of his passion for running. I’m sure this was one of the main reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete.

Enjoyment And Seriousness Can Coexist

Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify. As such it’s no wonder that so many sporting and non-sporting performers struggle to find it when it ‘goes missing’. The word ‘fun’ often gets used in this context. Wherever possible we encourage our clients to tap into the pure childlike thrill that comes with performing. One problem is that even something that seems as straightforward as fun is hard to define as a concept.

If you’re a tennis player reading this now, ask yourself what exactly is most fun about the sport? If your answer is that you just love hitting the ball, can you describe in words why that is? Is it movement-based, or the challenge of executing a successful shot, or the ‘feel’ of a clean stroke when the racquet and ball meet, or just being in the moment?

If you’re finding it hard to put into words why hitting the ball is such fun that’s entirely understandable, but what happens when you’re suddenly not hitting it well? Or when you’re injured? Or when you’re hitting it well but results aren’t going your way?

Enjoyment isn’t simply having fun (whatever that word means to you) and again most people find it difficult to define what the additional components are. Enjoyment also involves a challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment. This often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them into their sport or performance area in the first place. A lack of a suitable performance/life balance is detrimental to the fun factor and in turn to the performance itself.

Another common cause for reduced enjoyment is when our personal identity (who we are) becomes defined solely by our sporting/performing self (what we do). In fact, there are many reasons why enjoyment can suffer. People typically find it much harder to address these challenges because unlike technical issues (such as serving, volleying, or hitting forehands in tennis) they do not have a way to quantify what enjoyment means to them and therefore they don’t have a way of improving it.

Summary

Whilst you don’t need to love your sport, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits both from a performance point of view as well as overall mental health. Depending on where you are in your career this article might be a great opportunity to take a little bit of time to sit down and really consider the reasons why you spend so much time on your sport or performance area. Does it fit into your overall purpose or upon reflection are you doing it for all the wrong reasons. As always if you need a helping hand from a qualified professional that please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Focus for Sport And Performance

Focus for Sport and Performance
“Focus for Sport and Performance” – A Critical Mental Skill

Intro: Focus for Sport And Performance

Focus is arguably one of the most crucial components of sporting and non-sporting performance. High-performance realistically isn’t possible without it.  Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. Focus is what the f is Metuf stands for. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. Focus for sport and performance can be measured and improved.

As Sport and Performance Psychologists our clients often ask us for ways to become more focused, stay focused or refocus after. But to understand how to improve focus, we first need to understand exactly what it is.

What Is Focus?

In psychology, ‘focus’ is defined as mentally attending to something while tuning out any other irrelevant incoming information. And like every other mental process, it plays an important role in helping keep us alive. Our survival is ultimately aided by our ability to attend to stimuli and extract information from our social and environmental surroundings. The ability to focus is a mental process that is present from birth, indicating it’s something we’re hardwired to do. It plays a vital role in virtually every life domain.

Focus In The Performance Domain

There are many different types of focus. But the two most relevant to performance domains are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time, allowing us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. We might focus our attention on an external sensory stimulus, for example, something we hear, see, smell or feel, and in doing so can formulate a quick and immediate response to this stimulus if required.

The performance domains where one might need to engage in focused attention are those where individuals are required to respond with speed and accuracy. For example racquet, ball and combat sports as well as emergency service work (e.g. police officers, paramedics), security and defence work.

Sustained attention, or what is commonly known as concentration, is where we focus on a task for an extended period of time. Complete attention is given to the task until it is over. Any irrelevant sensory information is filtered out. This type of focus is crucial for long-distance and enduro-sports, musical and theatric performances or surgery. Basically, anything that requires an individual to concentrate for a prolonged period of time. A swimmer (left)) requires focused attention whilst on the blocks followed by sustained attention during the race.

Because focus plays such a large role in high-performance across the sporting and non-sporting performance domain, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus, starting with mindfulness. Focus for sport and performance is not identical to the kind of focus that might be required in the classroom for example.

Meditative Focus 

The benefits of meditation extend beyond the general health benefits it’s commonly known for. In the performance domain, meditation is commonly used to bring our attention to the present moment, and focus our mind on the task at hand. Meditation is in no way the production of more positive thinking or a way to stop thinking altogether. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.

Every single moment of the day we’re thinking, whether we want to or not. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment, including any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts), and to observe them without judgement. Or as little judgment as possible. This heightened awareness allows us to focus on the task at hand and fully engage in what we are doing, in spite of everything going on around us.

Focus for Sport And Performance: FAM and OMM

There are many different styles of meditation. Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) and Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM) are two of the most common in performance settings. During Focused Meditation, the individual attends to one single target and is aware of their wandering mind so they can bring their focus back to that target. Attention may be drawn to a visual stimulus, sound or any other sensory experience, and practising this form of meditation can improve our ability to filter out irrelevant sensory information and maintain attention to a single thing (Yoshida et al., 2020).

Open Monitoring Meditation on the other hand is where an individual observes any private experiences they have. These include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, urges and cravings. The aim of this exercise is to watch these inner experiences come and go without struggle or judgement. This heightened state of awareness increases our presence in the current moment. It allows us to attend to the task at hand and again, fully engage in what we’re doing. 

There has been some research into the effects of these types of meditation on attentional control and thought processing, with Focused Meditation resulting in more specific, solution-based problem solving, and Open Monitoring Meditation promoting broader thinking and the development of new ideas (Lippelt, Hommel & Colzato, 2014).

Screen Time And Sleep

Aside from the benefits of meditation on our cognition and focus, sleep also plays an important role in these mental processes. We know that sleep deprivation can severely impact our decision making, alertness, memory, learning and reaction time, as well as our mood states and stress regulation.

One of the biggest causes of sleep disruption today is screen time, particularly its proximity to bedtime.

Electronic device usage prior to sleep can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Research has shown that individuals who use their mobile phones right before sleeping experienced a decline in both focused and sustained attention the following morning (de Oliveira et al., 2020). To enhance your sleep quality and reduce the impact of screen time usage on your focus the following day, it is ideal for athletes and performers not to be on their phones right before bed. One way of giving yourself the greatest chance for a good performance is through switching off any electronic devices as early as possible before sleeping.

Flow And Focus for Sport / Performance

The word Flow is also thrown around in the sporting world when we talk about focus. Flow refers to a state where an athlete or performer is fully and completely immersed in what they’re doing. What we know about flow is that in this state physical performance is heightened, because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information. The benefits of flow on performance extend across the sport and performing arts domain (Swann et al., 2012; Martin & Bhattacharya, 2013; Csikszentmihalyi, Montijo & Mouton, 2018).

Based on Flow Theory, individuals who struggle to get focused or stay focused are probably experiencing one of two things – they’re either experiencing anxiety or boredom. The two variables at play here include the individual’s skill level and the difficulty of the task they have been asked to do. If an athlete’s skill level is relatively lower than the difficulty of the task, this often creates a lot of anxiety for them disrupting flow. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this often leaves them feeling bored and struggling to engage in the task as they’re not challenged. To create an environment where flow can occur, skill level and task difficulty need to be roughly equal. 

Flow and Focus are very closely linked

Matching Skill Level and Task Difficulty 

Matching skill level and task difficulty can be particularly tricky in a team or group setting where you have individuals of varying skill levels and experience. For athletes in a group training setting where the prescribed sets or drills are too “easy”, creating artificial constraints on performance or setting artificial thresholds for success to increase difficulty can help in keeping them engaged. For example, if a boxer is asked to spar against a less experienced opponent, setting higher point thresholds or introducing artificial rules to make the round more physically and mentally demanding might aid them in entering a state of flow. 

Throwing a minimum of three strikes per combo, only leading with a feint or a double jab, or starting a combo with anything but a jab are some artificial rules that can be introduced to increase the difficulty of the round and help the athlete engage in the task where their experience level isn’t matched. For a swimmer hitting well below the times they need to be hitting during an endurance set, introducing a more difficult breathing pattern or a higher dolphin kick benchmark off each wall might introduce some additional physical and psychological constraints to a relatively easy set. 

It is important for athletes and performers to shift their thinking from what they can’t get out of a session to what they can get out of a session. Through enhancing task difficulty in an artificial sense we can help them to better engage in the session, and this will increase the chance of them leaving the session feeling as though they’ve gotten something out of it.

Narrowing Your Focus

Sometimes we underestimate the value of setting objectives or targets for the session we’re about to do or the week of training we’re about to commence. Narrowing our focus to a small selection of focus areas when we train (and even compete) is an attentional style that promotes concentration and helps us filter out all the irrelevant information around us.

I often find that athletes, particularly those on the younger side, struggle to engage during training and even on game day because they don’t know what to think about. They’re often trying to focus on too many things at once, which can lead to a lot of overthinking. For players who just can’t get their head in the game, this is most likely the reason why. Particularly during the development stage where athletes are trying to learn a whole range of new skills, it can be difficult to see them engaged in what they’re doing because they’re having to think about and remember so many different things. Trying to focus on so many different skill areas isn’t always the most efficient way of working towards progress, and it can often be hard for us to physically see our progress and use this as motivation to keep going. 

Focus Goals

To see more engagement on the field, narrowing their focus might help. Focus areas can be changed on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Choosing one, two or three areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what they need to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wonders and then stay engaged in what they’re doing. Clarifying these focus goals ahead of the session, week or month also allows them to take ownership.

Focus goals allow athletes to recognise their progress more clearly and take accountability for their efforts during training and on game day. There is no real excuse for not knowing what the objectives of the session or game are. Increased accountability is a large part of the philosophy of my primary superior Gareth’s approach.

Do You Need Help With Your Focus?

It’s clear that focus is an integral part of any performance arena. If you’re an athlete or performer looking to develop some of these ideas further please get in touch by completing our Contact Form here. Focus for sport and performance can be improved and qualified psychologists are the ideal teachers.

References

de Oliveira, M. L. C., de Nogueira Holanda, F. W., Valdez, P., de Almondes, K. M., & de Azevedo, C. V. M. (2020). Impact of electronic device usage before bedtime on sleep and attention in adolescents. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(4), 376-386.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Montijo, M. N., & Mouton, A. R. (2018). Flow theory: Optimizing elite performance in the creative realm.

Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving-kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity–A review. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1083.

Marin, M. M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2013). Getting into the musical zone: trait emotional intelligence and amount of practice predict flow in pianists. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 853.

Swann, C., Keegan, R. J., Piggott, D., & Crust, L. (2012). A systematic review of the experience, occurrence, and controllability of flow states in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(6), 807-819.

Yoshida, K., Takeda, K., Kasai, T., Makinae, S., Murakami, Y., Hasegawa, A., & Sakai, S. (2020). Focused attention meditation training modifies neural activity and attention: longitudinal EEG data in non-meditators. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 15(2), 215-224.

Coaching The Coaches

Sport psychologists Coaching The Coaches is becoming more and more normal as competitive sport finally start to understand what we do.

Coaching the coaches

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.

Motivation.

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.

Emotions

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.

Thoughts

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?

Unity

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.

Focus

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 Etc.

Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.

Mental Skills
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mental Skills?

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.

What Is Mental Toughness?

What is mental toughness? What is it not? Is there a best practice way to improve it permanently? These are the main topics that are addressed in this article.

What is Mental Toughness? For us, it’s a bit like one of the engines on a four engine plane.

No Agreement At This Time

It is important to state from the very beginning that there is currently very little agreement within the sport psychology community about what is really meant by mental toughness. In fact many researchers and psychologists working in sport and performance don’t even like the term mental toughness. Some don’t like the actual label whilst others don’t believe it should be a seperate concept to mental health. With this in mind the below assertions are just my professional opinions. Not surprisingly they are shared by my colleagues at Condor Performance.

Defining Sporting Mental Toughness

What is mental toughness? What is it not? Is there a best practice way to improve it permanently? These are amongst the main topics that I will address below. Please use the comments sections at the bottom to let me know if you agree or disagree and why. And don’t forgot the why.

Mental Toughness Is Not The Same As Mental Preparation

Is the pursuit of more clarify we need to clear up the most common furphy first. Mental Toughness is the target, the outcome, the ‘thing(s)’ we’re trying to improve. Mental Toughness is not a process. Mental Toughness is the cake. It’s not the beating of the eggs.

A more accurate but less appealing label for mental toughness is actually ‘the mental aspects specific to performance’. But in the same way that you’d sell less Advil if you called it only by it’s scientific name (ibuprofen) mental toughness is both punchier and more appealing to the consumer. If you want to see the importance of getting the label right have a look at this.

Furthermore, mental toughness is the umbrella terms for ‘the mental aspects specific to performance’. What this means is that is refers to a complex interplay between a number of very different mental aspects. It works the same way as intelligence. Intelligence is now known to be made up of different types. So saying some is intelligent or not is less than usual. First up, it’s too black and white – where is the cut off? But more importantly it ignores the fact that someone can be high in visual-spatial intelligence and low in verbal-linguistic for example.

So a much more relevant question is what are the subcomponents of mental toughness? What are the common psychological outcomes we’re looking to improve as psychologists working in sport? After we have agreed on that, we can focus on the best methods, processes for improving them.

The Aeroplane Analogy

At Condor Performance we an use an analogy that the competitive athlete is like a four engined plane. This is best explained via this 15 minute video below.

Most human beings do not require super fitness, amazing physical strength nor excellent flexibility in order to function, thrive and be good at what they do. In fact, only relatively small amounts of physical activity may be needed in order for most people to experience the day-to-day benefits of exercise on their wellbeing. 

But if this person happens to be an athlete – and in particular an athlete of a physically demanding sport then these small amounts of psychical activity will not be sufficient. Especially if they want to go as far in their chosen sport as possible. 

If the purpose of the aircraft is simply to go for short 20 minute flights as part of a hobby group for amateur fliers then it still needs to function but the efficiency of the engines is less critical compared with an aeroplane that wants to fly as far as possible (safely).

After 15 years of helping mostly athletes with mostly their performance mental toughness, I believe that it is best broken down into these five key psychological subcomponents:

  • Motivation (towards training and competing)
  • Emotional Agility (before / during training and competitions
  • Thought Shaping through values
  • Unity (Team cohesion)
  • Focus on demand

Be Careful Of Synonyms!

Most of the other labels that you’d expect to be here are either synonyms of one of these words or a type of one of the subcomponents or a combination of the both of these. For example, the words concentration and attention are both synonyms of focus. I know from some of my academic contact that some don’t agree with this. In other others focus and attention are not actually the same. To them I say this. They are close enough, let’s not overcomplicate things just for the same of it.

Confidence, pressure. fear and feeling relaxed are all types of emotions. Flow, one of the most common words in modern-day sport psychology, is really just a blend of high focus whilst executing tasks that are not too easy nor too hard.

How Do We Improve Mental Toughness

As mentioned before trying to improve mental toughness as a whole thing is a waste of time. Much in the same way that trying to improve intelligence is. Once you start asking yourself the question how do I improve motivation or emotional agility then the magic start to happen. First, common sense and/or experience will produce a few ideas.

Try this experiment with kids. As them to brainstorm way to improve mental toughness. See what happens. Now repeat and ask them to come up with was to improve group unity. Bam!

If you type the word ‘motivation’ into Google Scholar you get 4,270,000 results. We know a lot about motivation and how to improve it. If you type ‘mental toughness’ in you get a mere 18,400 results. That’s more than 200 times the amount of knowledge on motivation compared with mental toughness.

If you are not happy with common sense alone then turn your attention to the research. Or better still start working with someone who has gone through all the research on your behalf. At Condor Performance I am blessed to have an amazing team of psychologists who do almost of the consulting. This allows me the time to get my geek on and consume performance psychology like a bear coming out of hibernation.

If you’d like to find our more about how to work with one of our team on your mental toughness then get in touch now.