Commitment (also know as motivation, perseverance) is arguably the most critical aspect of Sport Psychology
“Desire is the key to motivation, but it is determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”
It’s That Time Of Year …
This New Year’s shorter-than-normal edition of the Mental Toughness Digest is an edited/updated version of an article I published exactly two years ago. Time of year should have nothing to do with various mental aspects of performance. But it tends to. One of the most significant is this. At the start of the year – now – motivation for improvement tends to be higher than at other times. Why? Most likely, the start of new periods (weeks, months, years, seasons) implies new energy and new opportunities. It shouldn’t but it does. The mentally strong can conjure this same energy at any time.
So it’s appropriate that this first article of this New Year is about motivation and commitment. About getting started, about finally closing the gap between yourself and your best self.
Committed Performance / Sport Psychologists
Since starting Condor Performance back in 2005 I have given many psychologists a chance to join our team. I don’t keep a count but I would suggest the number is close to 40 or 50. Yet only ten remain (are still working for us). What is it about my current team that separates them from the dozens that have come and gone? Only those that remain have shown a real commitment to the sport psychology work we do. Due to the client focussed monthly options that our clients choose from, whereby our clients are encouraged to have shorter, more frequent sessions at times that suit them (not necessary us) real commitment gets tested from the get-go. Nothing questions commitment in our line of work quite like sitting in traffic for an hour to deliver a 20-minute session or getting up at 4 in the morning due to a time zone difference. The cracks tend to start appearing early for those who are not really committed to helping others improve.
Commitment Is The Same As Motivation
Commitment is essentially a synonym of motivation. The scientific literature correctly suggests that a healthy mixture of both internal and external motivation is required to reach optimal. External factors, which refer to rewards or praise from others only get you so far. Ideally, we’d want more than half of the drive to come from internal factors. These are factors such as enjoyment, self-worth/efficacy, passion and seeing the bigger picture (short term pain but long term gain).
It’s this magical combination of internal factors being backed up by external ones that only a few have and becomes quite obvious pretty quickly. I remember once calling a staff meeting on a Sunday and the person who lived furthest away (who shall remain nameless) wasn’t very well so I gave him the option of not coming. Yet 5 minutes before the meeting was due to commence he arrived coughing and sneezing. He wanted to be there – for himself (internal) and for his colleagues (external) and didn’t see why a runny nose and a 90-minute drive should get in the way. It should be no surprise therefore that this performance psychologist is still working with us. He is a key member of our team and recently passed the milestone of having started working with his 450th monthly client.
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.
Motivation is about more than a subcomponent of sport psychology and mental toughness. This article looks at delayed gratification and more.
Too Many Theories
I have long held the view that most areas of psychology are blighted with too many theories. Don’t get me wrong, I know we need research to support our professional decision making. But in my view there are simply too many below par theories, models and papers out there. Google Motivation and sport psychology theories and you’ll see what I mean.
This then blows out the work load of applied sport psychologists such as myself. I try to read as many peer-reviewed journals on sport psychology as possible. Unfortunately have to sort through the mountain to find the gems.
Oh, and there are some real gems.
One of these is the work done around Delayed Gratification via The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments. Starting in the 60s Walter Mischel did a series of studies that gave us with a huge clue about the motivational requirements of successful people.
One Marshmallow Now Or Two Later?
In these studies, children between four and eight years of age were offered a choice. Each child, in turn, could pick between one small reward immediately or two later. One marshmallow now or two later, you decide? If the child decided to have two marshmallows later then it would be on the condition that the single treat was still there when the experimenter returned. This was normally after about 15 minute.
Remarkably in the majority of the testing about half the children gobbled down the one marshmallow almost immediately. The other half would exercise great will power and wait for the experimenter to return. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to “delay their gratification” tended to have better life outcomes. For example, these high will power youngsters went on to get better exam results. They were happier and more likely to have good relationships. They ended up with much better jobs than the lower will power kids.
Below is a 6 minute Ted talk which explains the concept and experiments in more details.
Although I am assume that Professor Mischel had little interest in the specific field of sport psychology I can’t imagine another branch of psychology whereby the concept of delayed gratification is more relevant.
Delayed gratification is really just “doing something difficult now in the hope that it will be prove worth it later on”.
Of all the hundreds of theories on motivation pertaining to sport psychology this is most useful. Quite simply put, one of the chief explanations about why so few succeed is because they can’t link their short term struggle with their long term aspirations.
Most athletes and coaches try and find shortcuts. They throw in the towel when the rewards for their effort are not immediate and obvious. They gobble down the single marshmallow instead of waiting for two. Very few people actually love getting up at 4am in order to do laps under floodlights. But the champions and champions-in-the-making do it anyway.
In the defence of ‘most athletes’ it’s unlikely that anyone has taken the time to carefully explain to them that improving is all about patience. Doing the hard yards in the preseason so the rewards can come during the season.
What If The Kids Had Been Coached First?
What would have happened had all the Marshmallow experimentees been coached beforehand. Imagine a performance psychologist had been allowed to spend time helping the kids mentally prepare first. How about the impact if a performance psychologist shows pictures of other kids succeeding. Imagine if all the subjects has been taught proper mindfulness techniques thus allowing ‘urges’ to just be noticed.
But of course elite sport, especially at the highest level, requires a little more delayed gratification than 15 minutes. On many occasions the truly meaningful “payoff” for effort might only be 10 or even 20 years down the track. That’s a long time to wait for that second marshmallow! Think about the young athletes who sacrifice time with friends and family whilst they are teenagers only to see the rewards in their twenties and thirties.
Remember, the experiments centred around one marshmallow now or two later. The children were not left with a brussell sprout for 15 minutes. This is a super important point. There was nothing mean about leaving the kids alone in a room with one marshmallow. The only difficultly some of them experienced was the tussle between their own strength of mind and their own temptations.
Applied Sport Psychology
At Condor Performance one of the ways we help those we work with to embrace delayed gratification is by encouraging them to keep track of their progress.
Key Performance Indictors can “bridge the gap” between the daily and weekly grind and possible moments of glory. These monthly checks act a little like licking the marshmallow but not eating it. They help remind us about what we might get later on down the track. They remind us about why we’re doing what we’re doing even if it’s uncomfortable. MCs are, in my opinion, the most powerful motivators available when you can’t actually use marshmallows!
Easier said than done? If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.
Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.
The Term ‘Comeback’ Is An Interesting One
What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?
What are some of the most memorable comebacks that you have been involved in as a coach or athlete? How about as a sports fan? Is it the size of the deficit that was overcome or the amount of surprise caused?
Last year, in 2019, we were treated to two of the most remarkable comebacks I can ever remember. But each earned the label epic comeback for very different reasons.
Tiger Wood’s Comeback Win at The 2019 US Masters
Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.
Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him! Roger had to share most of the spoils with Rafa and Novak.
Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during his glory years.
The Decline …By His Standards
Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following ten years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.
The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sport psychology, comebacks are all relative.
Tiger’s win at Augusta in April 2019 will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat. Then he didn’t for a while. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) getting ignored, dismissed or underplayed. Let me say it again. Most pro golfers would give their left leg to have achieved what TW did during his “slump years”.
Sporting Success Is About So More Than Trophies and Medals
I advise my athletes and coaches to be mindful of not letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as success. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of stats not just wins.
Our Metuf model suggests there are five major areas that all contribute to performance success. Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as four ‘engines’ on a performance plane. The rest of the aircraft is like their health and wellbeing. To increase your chances of winning anything you’re better of focussing on there five areas. Sport psychology stalwart Dr Chris Shambrook says it best. “Focus on the input, and let the output take care of itself”.
Tiger is now known to have had a number of physical and personal challenges for most of the previous decade. Maybe these were enough to result in him “only” coming 2nd and 3rd in the hardest golf events in the world. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.
What Tiger had to endure from a physical point of view (injuries and surgeries) would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement. But most athletes don’t have the mindset (grit?) of Tiger Woods.
The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance to dominate if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury-free at least) but whose Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised. If this sounds like you please get in touch, we can help, it’s what we do.
The Rest of the Plane
The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. We could refer to this as mental health and wellbeing. In my work as a sport psychologist I prefer to think about this from a solutions point of view. For example, sleep, nutrition, relationships, rest and purpose to name some of the most common.
It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so. I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.
During the famous green jacket ceremony Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’. This suggests how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.
Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me the two are heavily linked.
Genuine sport psychology will only become mainstream when sporting decision makers realise that happy athletes win more – a lot more.
Another Epic Comeback in 2019
Some comebacks take much less time that the ten years it took Tiger to win another major. Some only take 45 minutes in fact.
Lets fast forward a few weeks and move from the greens of Augusta to the floodlit nights of Champions League football (soccer). The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.
Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all examples into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs. This means that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.
In last year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid. Barcelona took a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London. So they would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.
Yet Despite All The Odds …
Yet despite all the odds both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way and worthy of the label comeback. But the Liverpool comeback would have to go down as one of the comebacks of the century. Especially given that it resulted in them going onto to lift the trophy a couple of weeks afterwards.
There are some lessons to be learnt here from the men who orchestrated these comebacks. For a start, both the managers (head coaches) of these two famous English team appear to take the mental side very seriously. The have created a ‘never give up’ attitude with their respective playing squads. I suspect that their comebacks are always less of a surprise to them than their fans.
In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback semi final win as ‘mentality giants’. This is a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.
How about you? Have you been involved in a sporting comeback? If you have add the details to the comments section below. Better still, describe your mindset before and during the comeback for others to read and benefit from.
Goal Setting is one of the best known of all mental skills – but we have come a very long way since the old days of S.M.A.R.T. goals.
This article was originally written in 2019 but has recently been updated. It now includes examples pertaining to the Corona Virus and associated challenges.
There are roughly 5000 separate searches for the term ‘goal setting’ every 24 hours around the world. This is the same number of searches for the term ‘sport psychology’. This suggests that athletes, coaches, students, bored teenagers and performers have heard of goal setting, want to do some but don’t really know how.
Before we help you out with this let’s remind ourselves of something important. It’s useful to seperate processes (methods) and their intended outcomes. In other areas of sports science, this is much easier. For example, in physical training one of the intended outcomes is cardio fitness. I assume you could list dozens of activities (processes) that would help improve cardio fitness. Moreover, you would never confuse skipping (for example) with the outcome of cardio fitness.
The Same Applies For Mental Training
The same framework can and should be applied to mental training but rarely is. Goal setting is the method. It’s a process but what are the intended areas we’re trying to influence when we do some goal setting? Furthermore, just like skipping which can be done well or poorly not all goal setting is the same. Most of the goal setting I have seen in the skipping equivalent of doing it once a year and hoping this will have a long last impact on cardio fitness.
Many sport psychologists will tell you that goal setting is all about improving motivation. But I would argue that it’s much broader than that. In fact, if done properly goal setting can become the entire foundation of your personal and sporting/performance endeavours.
Goal setting the Condor Performance way is really Goal getting. Setting long term outcome goals is actually rather easy. It’s the stuff required to get you there were the magic happens – so to speak.
Start With Your Preferences
The scientific literature refers to them as outcome goals, performance goals and process goals. It also suggests that ideally you’ll have all three types as part of your “goal setting” plan. I would agree.
Preferences are a much better label than outcome goals. The hard reality of elite competitive sport is that very few will actually achieve their long term goals. Preferences will soften the blow if you don’t make it without impacting on your motivation. Preferences want to be long term; between one and five years from now. They also want to be about both life and sport (performance). A simple 5 x 2 table of future preferences is ideal.
This is nothing revolutionary. The highly overrated S.M.A.R.T Goals might get you to the same place as the above exercise. One of the key aspects missing from many goal setting systems is the concept of influence. It’s essential that the person coming up with their long term preferences knows this. We only have some influence on these futuristic outcomes.
I am updating this blog in the midst of the 2020 Corona Virus and associated challenges. I will use it to prove my point from the above paragraph. Almost every sporting goal set at the start of 2020 will not happen. Is it your fault? Of course not, you only have some influence on these preferences.
When doing goal setting / getting with my clients I normally start with preferences. But not always. If I feel that for the individuals in front of me (on the screen) ending with preferences will be best then I do just that.
Progress – The Key To Effective Goal Setting
Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that you have started with your long term preferences. You have done your 5 x 2 table and have ten sporting and personal achievements clarified on paper. What next? The research calls them performance goals, we call them monthly checks.
Monthly Checks are typically performance aims and indicators that we have more influence on compared with our long terms preferences. Normally, we have a lot of influence on these key performance indicators. And here one of the secrets of many of the world’s best athletes. Due to having more influences on their KPIs compared with LTOGs they value the former more than the latter. Most competitive athletes do the opposite and wonder why they spend so much of their time frustrated.
Examples of monthly checks might be statistics from competitions. For example, maybe you’ll track ‘greens in regulation’ for all rounds of golf for the month of February and compare that with March. Or maybe you focus on training progress instead. Maybe you see if all that skipping is actually doing anything by repeating a heart rate recovery test at the start of each month.
Processes – How Champions Are Really Made
The final piece of the goal setting / getting puzzle is arguably the most important. What processes (activities) are best right now for you? By ‘right now’ I mean today and this week. There are two keys in doing this effectively. First, realise (know) that you have even more influence on your processes that you do on your progress and preferences. I would say ‘a huge amount’. You have a huge amount of influence on how to spend your time. Secondly, focus on what you can do. Good process planning doesn’t even consider what you can’t do not what you used to be able to do.
The current Corona Virus is a great example of this. Most athletes and coaches around the world are spending too much time thinking (talking) about what they can’t do right now. This common but unhealthy mental habit then makes it harder to think about the thousands of ways around challenges like lockdown.
If you’d like some professional help to set and then get some goals then get in touch. You can request a Call Back (form to the right on computers, below on smaller devices). Even better (as it gives us more background on you) is complete one of our questionnaires in which you can ask for info on our 1-on-1 sport psychology services.
Raising young elite athletes is no walk in the park. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole, a 15 year veteran of working with sporting teenagers, provides some tips to Mums, Dads and Guardians.
A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians
A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes. Some are the guardians of current or previous youngsters we’ve worked with. Others are just Mums and Dads who have realised that good psychology can help the whole family. Raising young elite athletes (well) is no walk in the park. This blog is an amalgamation of advice that I have provided the parents of my youngest sporting clients over the years.
With very few exceptions I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably. By this I mean they have helped us help their son or daughter. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship. Most mums and Dads tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy.
In fact if I think back to all the young athletes that I have assisted myself over the last 15 years I can only think of one bad egg. Only on one occasion with one client did a parent ‘block’ my attempt to help their child. Basically the toxic relationship between parent and child trumped by attempts to help the youngster. I followed the career of this promising young athlete and was saddened but not surprised when they quit at age 19.
The Relationship Is Key, Sacrosanct
What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and their parent(s) to benefit from some ‘spit and polish’. In other words, it’s fine and functions but it could – like most things – be that little bit better. Remember parents are not qualified experts in complex concepts such as emotions and motivation.
Here are a couple of humdinger questions that I have had from some of my young sport clients.
How do I explain to my father that I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?
I would like to have a boyfriend but I know that Mum would see this as me getting distracted from my long term sporting goals. Can you help me with this?
My folks put so much pressure on me. I don’t think they mean this but they do. Should I tell them to take it easy?
When it comes to providing advice to these types of difficult but important questions we rarely try and change the parents’ way of thinking. Let’s take the “win-at-all-costs” question above as an example. It’s unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might not be ideal. For more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018.
For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with / on the athlete. Although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent we do not have the luxury of extensive conversations with anyone else outside of the well defined consulting process. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time.
So the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:
Genuine mental tests come in many packages. One of the most common is that the people you spend time with will not always make what you’re trying to do easy. Sometimes on purpose (e.g. hyper criticism) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships is tough. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete until this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with.
If family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process this provides us with a golden opportunity to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words – instead of having to try and make a situation mentally harder on purpose we can use the “issues” to practice our new found mental skills. Real confidence only really happens when you have seen it work in actual, real life situations.
How Much To Push?
Maybe the hardest part of raising young elite athletes is knowing how much to push. One of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on this. In other words given the added demands faced by young athletes how much pushing, nagging, cajoling is necessary? And when does it become too much? This is an excellent question.
I have had a few weeks to think about this since the question was sent to me and now that I have this is my response.
Many of the clues to a lot of psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme can be useful. A analogy of water temperature can be useful here. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter we take huge care of making sure that the water is neither too hot nor too cold.
In fact, when my daughter and son were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was always close to 37.0 degrees. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.
Degrees of Freedom
From my point of view this analogy is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are the more I’d suggest that you reduce the possibility of extremes. For example too much practice and too little. Or too many competitive situations and not enough. But as they grow older we’d want to allow more and more degrees of freedoms. In other words, although you still try and motivate them to do their homework the acceptable range becomes bigger and bigger. You might insist on them doing some homework each day but you become flexible with when this takes place and the duration.
In other words, if you’re the Mum or Dad of a 10-year-old athlete who is inclined to overtrain then I’d suggest making it virtually impossible for this to take place due to their age. However, if your child is almost an adult and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service.
Sometimes simple little strategies such as helping take the training equipment out before some home training and helping them pack away can do wonders when it comes to helping teenage athletes find the “sweet spot”.
8 ‘Quick Wins’ for Sporting Parents:
Communicate with your child in a way that shows you are more interested / invested in their effort (highly influenceable) than their sporting results (somewhat influenceable). Accept that raising young elite athletes comes / will comes with its challenges.
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.
Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole argues that athletes from less developed nations might have higher levels of organic mental toughness.
This article, The Problem with Privilege, was first written in 2018 and then updated in 2020.
Given the nature of the internet, I have no idea which country you’re from if you’re reading this article. But, given you can afford a device to access the World Wide Web then it’s reasonable to assume you are not currently below the poverty line.
So I suspect you have probably never considered there to be any downside of being privileged. Well from a Mental Toughnesspoint of view, there can be.
The problem with privilege, especially in younger athletes, is there is less “organic” mental conditioning taking place. By organic I mean the natural way a place produces challenges thus forcing locals to “find a way” to overcome them.
Many of the best long distance runners of the past fifty years have come from Central or Northern Africa. The simple theory is that as young school kids from Kenya and Ethiopia they had to travel long distances to and from school without any form of transport. So they started running there and back from a young age. Obviously there are tremendous physical benefits to this. But what about the psychological gains due to doing something so hard from such a young age? All of a sudden, a 5000 meter Olympic final isn’t that big a deal. Just another 5 km stretch to be completed as fast as possible!
Mentally Harder Practice
At Condor Performance one of the ways in which we try to overcome this is via what we call Mentally Harder Practice (MHP). If done correctly this mental method can be very effective at boosting mental aspects of performance. No studies yet exist comparing MHP with growing up in a harsh environment. But my guess is that it would reduce the organic mental toughness gap between the first and the third world.
Mentally Harder Practice (MHP) is about doing anything that makes practice psychologically more challenging. I empathise mentally harder as it’s easy to incorrectly assume that physically harder means mentally harder. I recall once asking a high profile Rugby League coach what he did to make practice mental harder. He replied “to make the guys run up sand dunes in 35 degree heat”. I later asked his players about these sand dune drills and more than half said they loved them. If you love it, it’s not mentally harder. In other words MHP is basically manipulating your daily training environment to be less comfortable. On purpose, for your own benefit.
One easy way to do some MHP is to play with the thermostat in training. In hot places, instead of cooling down the facility either do nothing or heat it up. Or when it’s freezing cold just let it be that way or cool it down even more!
There are three huge benefits to this type of mental training. I will use the above temperature example to explain. First, it varies training. We know the fastest way to demotivate an athlete is by having the same kind of training week after week. Second, if during an actual competition it was to become much hotter or colder than expected – this mental method will lessen the impact. Finally, MHP helps with two of the five aspects of mental toughness; [handling] emotions and [improving] focus. It helps with emotions as it makes training more emotional. This way you can really put your mental skills (like Mindfulness) to the test. Mentally Harder Practice helps to improve focus in the same way. It is much harder to focus when you’re too hot so you will get a genuine mental work out.
Word Of Warning
A double word of warning before you get too excited and ask your coach to start throwing rotten eggs at you. First, make sure that none of your MHP ideas put you in physical danger and/or increase the risk of injury. Using the example of practising in the cold on purpose. It would be essential to properly warm up your body before such a training session. Second, make sure your ideas don’t put you in psychological danger either. By psychological danger, I mean creating an environment that is so hard it actually causes some kind of long term mental scarring to take place. The safest way to do this is by only adding small mental demands to training. Not dissimilar to increasing the overall weight of a dumbbell slowly in certain physical training exercises to reduce the risk of tearing a muscle.
Reduced Consulting Rates For The Less Privileged
Speaking of privilege – did you know that at Condor Performance we charge less to work 1-on-1 with those from less wealthy countries. Yes, that is correct. Despite the fact that all of our sport psychologists and performance psychologists are from Australia are fees are one third less for certain clients. We use The Big Mac Index each year to work out the 15 most prosperous nations in the world. Sporting and non-sporting clients from these countries pay full rate. For all other clients from the rest of the world we offer a 33% discount.
This has allowed us to work with hundreds of athletes from around the world who would not have been able to afford our full rates. But one country has and is really taking advantage of this like no other; India. That’s right, we work 1-on-1 with more Indian performers than almost any other country. Why? For a start there are 1.3 billions of Indian. Think about that for a second. How many table tennis players in India compared with New Zealand? Next, culturally Indian regard psychology as an essential building blocks to success and happiness. Furthermore, there appears to be very, very few qualified sport psychologists in India. So it should come as no surprise that they look beyond India to work with a performance psychology expert.
The Problem with Privilege was written by legendary sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole. Gareth is one of the psychologists who works for Condor Performance. He can be contacted directly via his email which is email@example.com.
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.
Post Sporting Career Depression (PSCD) is common and it’s not going away. Performance psychologist David Barracosa looks into this issue.
The processes and challenges of adjusting to life after sport for elite athletes is starting to get some limelight. These issues were highlighted in a 2017 episode of 4 Corners called After The Game that is really worth watching. The episode made it clear that vast improvements are needed in this space. Not only during the period after retirement, but also with athletes during their career in order to prepare them for the inevitable. Yes, that’s right all sporting careers will come to an end. But not all athletes will suffer from what we call Post Sporting Career Depression (PSCD). Unlike other depressions that can follow events such as birth (Post Natal Depression) PSCD is yet to be officially recognised.
Juggling Life and Sporting Goals
Elite athletes often struggle with the juggling act between their sport and their life. How much time and energy for sporting goals versus the years following “the glory days”. This is a common concern for anyone chasing a significant and challenging goal, not just athletes. Think about the young medical intern who also has small children at home.
When setting goals it can be a good idea to make them more holistic rather than just focusing on sport. So, instead of “to sign a professional contract with an EPL club” it might be more meaningful to target “life satisfaction” for example. After all it’s likely that these sporting goals are being targeted as a means to be happy.
Sporting Successful Without Happiness is Not A Win
We are in no way ignoring the importance of an individual’s sporting goals. But maybe these achievements are better “KPIs” to be reviewed. To ensure that progress is made and is leading towards life satisfaction or happiness. This is a valuable adjustment because it acknowledges that sport is a key contributor to your overall well being. But it also asks the question of what else contributes to this experience. Examples of other KPIs might be improving health, building stronger relationships. Or even the concept of TOTIWBEA.
The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At
TOTIWBEA stands for The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At and it can be anything you want it to be. It can be another sport, an alternate career, pathway of education, relationship, or anything else you can come up with. The reason it’s so important is that it prevents an athlete or coach from being defined solely by their sport. This is dangerous because when the sport is gone, so to is an individual’s identity unless they have other meaningful areas in their life.
To use an old cliche, we simply don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.
The balance that can be created through a pursuit of TOTIWBEA can be critical to on-field performance. People who have multiple passions and gain meaning from different areas are less likely to be significantly impacted by pressures from one of these areas.
Think about it for a second. If you are a cricketer who only has cricket in your life how will you feel during a ‘form slump’ compared with a more balanced teammate going through the same?
Or you are struck down by injury or are on the cusp of being dropped from the first team? And sport is the sole focus and contributor to your well being? The stress of this is going to have a more significant impact than on an individual who places importance on building relationships or their pursuit of education.
These other areas can provide support and structure for you to manage the stress while still moving in a positive direction in your life. A lot of people do have these other areas but if they aren’t given the recognition or highlighted as important then their benefits can be missed.
Off Field Areas Impacting On Field Performances
Another factor linked to on-field performance is stress. Stress experienced through a lack of balance can impact on an athlete’s quality and quantity of effort. What we tend to notice in individuals is that when their stress becomes significant their training output drops. When this happens they start to increase the quantity that they are putting in to make up the difference. This unfortunately leaves less time for the other areas of their life. This creates further imbalance and makes it more difficult to achieve satisfaction in these other meaningful domains. It’s a classic viscous cycle.
The final suggestion about managing this important area of an athlete’s performance is not for them but actually for coaches, administrators and potentially other psychologists. While our role is to help athletes work towards creating the best opportunities to achieve their sporting goals, we can’t ignore the fact that it is not forever. In a lot of sports, playing professionally at 40 years of age is an anomaly. There a lot of years post-retirement for an athlete to continue to have a meaningful life. We need to have honest conversations and point out the importance of balance because this may be lost for an athlete in their pursuit of excellence. They aren’t easy conversations, but they may prove to be the most important.
If you’d like to email me personally regarding any of the above or any other performance psychology topic then feel free to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to reply as quickly as possible. Cheers, David.
Please note that this post was originally published in 2017 but was recently updated and improved. Since then an amazing book called Range by David Epstein has been published which I’d highly recommend.