Coachability

How Coachable are you? Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the mental concept of coachability in this brand-new feature article.

Coachability might just be one of the most important mental components of team sports.

Preamble

I recently volunteered to assist with the training and game management of my son’s Under 9 soccer/football team. I will likely write a whole feature article on the entire experience later (a must-read for those involved in developmental or junior competitive sports). But for now, I’m only mentioning it to provide some context for this blog on coachability.

During the first game of the season, one of the other fathers and I were chatting on the sideline. By the end of the match, we basically agreed that the team could do better. Rather than grumble from the stands we felt it appropriate for us to lend a hand. Fortunately, this offer was accepted and Coach J and Coach G (me) got to work.

As I write this we are midway through the season. So far, two of the most common words during pre and post-training sessions have been coachable and coachability. As these young seven, eight and nine-year-old boys and girls learn to deal with competitive sports for the very first time some of them are highly coachable whilst others are less so. As you would expect.

So What Exactly Is Coachability?

While researching for this article the first thing that I realised is that coachable and coachability are not actually official words yet. The Cambridge Dictionary shows up nothing when you punch them into their online search. However, it does show up in The Britannica Dictionary suggesting they are trying to officially make it into the English language.

Their definition of coachable is “capable of being easily taught and trained to do something better.”

Focus And Motivation Come First

One concept that is obvious when it comes to the range of coachability is that some of them struggle to be coachable because they lack focus. Whilst others struggle because they don’t really, really want to be there. It is mid-winter here in Australia and La Niña has made for some pretty challenging training conditions. Which of course I love.

As a practising sport psychologist, this is a timely reminder that in psychology things aren’t always as they appear. Although on the surface it appears as if we have inherited a group of soccer players whose overall coachability is not great I am confident that this is most effectively addressed by helping them with their focus or motivation or both. 

And of course, this is my bread and butter. This is literally what my colleagues and I do five days a week, most weeks of the year.

Low Levels Of Coachability Are A Symptom

It is tempting to try and work out which players are struggling due to an inability to focus and which ones lack motivation but this is actually an unnecessary step. Regardless of how motivated and focused they are they can always improve. Improvement is a never-ending process. You never reach the finish line where it is no longer possible to improve.

Do I Know Too Much?

One of the challenges of being so qualified and experienced in sport psychology when assisting with your own child’s sporting team is not getting carried away. This is one of the main reasons why I insisted on doing it with somebody else. Coach J, a Scotsman, is a vital cog because not only does he have a great understanding of the sport but he also helps me to remember that these are youngsters at the very, very start of their sporting journey. They are not Premier League players. Not yet, anyway.

So the two of us have regular meetings whereby his knowledge of the technical and tactical gets mixed with my knowledge of the mental. And then we come up with a unified approach to training and games. What is apparent is how effective this is compared to the way that sport psychology is so often done.

Often the sport psychologist will come in and run a series of workshops without any involvement with the coach(es). Some professionals call this Working In Silos. Even more common is when the sport psychologist only helps with mental health issues. He or she is basically a therapist who happens to work with sporting individuals. For anyone who has watched the Ted Lasso TV series the way the work of Dr. Sharon Fieldstone is portrayed is more or less what I am referring to here.

But Back To Coachability

We need to acknowledge when coachability is an issue that it could be caused by poor coaching. Let’s be honest here. Not all coaches are equal and not all coaches are at the top of their game. 

If you are reading this and you are heavily involved in the running of a sporting team where you feel like coachability is an issue then I would suggest you start with an examination of your coaching staff. Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • What are the qualifications of our coaches? Do they have some kind of formal training or are they just former players or mates of one of the decision-makers?

and/or

  • Are any processes in place that allow them to develop professionally? Or are they doing exactly the same this year as they were four years ago? 

and/or

  • Are the players given an opportunity to provide feedback about the coaches? It seems so one-sided that the coaches provide feedback to the players but rarely the other way around?

Coaching The Coaches

Once you’re happy that the coaching staff are not the primary cause of poor coachability then of course it’s time to help the players. Obviously, I am heavily biased but dispatching your coaches off to retrain as qualified sport psychologist (a six to eight-year process in most countries) is impractical and ridiculous. But what if sporting organisations give their coaches the opportunity of working alongside a sport psychologist or performance psychologist? Not because they too need therapy like Ted does in the Ted Lasso series. But because one of the most effective ways of improving the mental toughness of a sporting team is for it to come directly from the coaches who have the right mentors.

More and more of the work we do at Condor Performance is to mentor sporting coaches. Below, to finish off, I have listed of few recurring suggestions that come up over and over again in the 1-on-1 work I do with sporting coaches. If you want more, you know how to find us.

  1. Processes are more important than outcomes.
  2. Treat athletes as people first, performers second.
  3. It’s very difficult to help others if you are not looking after yourself first.

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.

Motivation In Sport And Performance

“Motivation In Sport And Performance” is a 15 minute read by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito. Please enjoy and share responsibility.

  • As Sport and Performance Psychologists we’re often asked about ways to improve or enhance motivation – so how do we do this?
  • The M in Metuf stands for motivation, and it’s apt that it comes first in our mental training model.
  • The best way to measure you motivation is by completing one of our four MTQs via this link. Your results will be emailed to you within a day or two.
  • Other words (synonyms) that are very similar to motivation are commitment, desire, passion and determination.
We are only just starting to realise just how big a role motivation plays in sport and performance situations. What will this mountain cyclist need to pass the athlete in front of her? Motivation obviously plays a part.

Why Is Motivation So Important?

The simple answer is motivation improves longevity both in sport (Sarrazin et al. 2002) and other performance domains (Grant, 2008). The higher the motivation, the longer (in years) you’ll want to do it for. There are a number of reasons an athlete or performer might struggle with motivation at some point in their career. Barriers can be physical, biological, social-environment or psychological. In terms of psychological barriers, what we know about motivation is that it is fostered by meeting three basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000):

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

For motivation to flourish, a performer first needs to be able to do the task. Then they have to have the freedom to choose to do the task, and finally, in some way feel a sense of connectedness with others. We know that by meeting these needs the likelihood of burnout is reduced significantly, keeping performers in their performance domain for longer.

The Role of Performance Psychology in Motivation 

What we also know about motivation is that the type of motivation a performer possesses is another extremely important factor to consider. One of the first questions we ask our clients during their initial free Kick Start Session is, “why do you do what you do?”. Understanding the reasons why an individual engages in something is a vital bit of information to have.

The most crucial bit of information we want to extract from this answer is around whether their motivation is intrinsic, extrinsic, or a mix of both. It’s important for both the Psychologist and the Performer to understand which of the two are at play, due to the fact that they work in different ways and can provide the performer with different motivational outcomes. 

Intrinsic Motivation

An athlete or performer who is intrinsically motivated does what they do for their own sense of personal satisfaction. Individuals who are internally driven will often say the reason for doing what they do is because it brings them a sense of:

  • Achievement
  • Purpose
  • Challenge 
  • Personal Reward 
  • Belonging 
  • Enjoyment

Performers who are intrinsically motivated participate in the performance domain because they enjoy learning and improving their skills, and have made a self-determined choice to participate. 

What makes intrinsic motivation so useful is the fact that it’s completely dependent on the individual. That is, the performer’s motivation isn’t based on anything or anyone else, and therefore isn’t reliant on things the individual doesn’t have a huge amount of influence over. The performance psychology literature claims that intrinsic motivation has the largest and most positive impact on performance quality (Cerasoli, Nicklin & Ford, 2014), and is the better of the two for more stable, long-term motivation. 

Not Just In Sport …

In alternative performance settings such as workplaces, intrinsic motivation is also associated with greater worker satisfaction and commitment, self-reported performance, company profitability and lower emotional and exhaustion burnout (Deci, Olafsen & Ryan, 2017). If you’re wanting to stick around in your area of performance for the long run, I definitely suggest sitting down and figuring out whether or not you are intrinsically motivated to put in the work. I don’t think just because you don’t love your sport at the moment that you can’t learn to love it.

Think about certain foods that as a kid you hated but that as you got older you learned to enjoy them (Brussel sprouts, dark chocolate!). One of the simplest exercises to boost intrinsic motivation is to write a list of your five favourite aspects of your involvement in the sport or performance area. Now, really “go to town” with these. For example, if you love the health benefits of running then keep a track of these benefits as objectively as possible.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsically motivated performers put in the work for some external reason or benefit. An individual who is very extrinsically motivated may feel obligated to do what they do as a result of external pressure (parents, coach, peers), or for financial or social benefit. 

The issue with extrinsic motivation is that it is reliant on things we don’t have a huge amount of influence over. For example;

  • What if one day mum and dad decide they’re not interested in your athletic career anymore? What if something else becomes more important to them than your athletic pursuits? Would you still want to continue?
  • What if I told you that you would never go on to earn lots of money, never land any sponsorships, and no one outside your local sporting community ever learns your name? Would this have an impact on your motivation?

For performers who are extrinsically motivated, it’s happy days when all the external factors we base our motivation on are present. The issue here is when they’re gone, you can expect to experience a real dip in your motivation.

Intrinsic or Extrinsic Motivation

The simplest way to determine whether or not a performer is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated is through a simple listing exercise – in the same format as a pros and cons list. What we would hope to see is that the performer lists more reasons they are intrinsically motivated than extrinsic. In-session, the discussion around this generally tends to serve as a time for realisation, and in some cases rediscovery:

  1. The athlete/performer may not have acknowledged the value of enjoyment, sense of reward and challenge they get from doing what they do, and how this can actually serve as an internal driving force during prolonged periods of training.
  2. The athlete/performer may also come to a realisation that they are doing what they do for the wrong reasons. A discussion around whether or not they’re taking committed action towards living a rich and meaningful life (as defined by their values) might follow this.

Visualisation for Motivation

Following discussions around the types of motivation that may be driving performance pursuits, we then have an opportunity to discuss some more practical skills to enhance it. Visualisation or Mental Rehearsal has many different purposes, of which technical practice and motivation are the two main uses. 

Visualisation for motivation is particularly important during times of prolonged intense training with limited competition (did someone say pandemic?). Visualising intentions (the actions or processes we wish to perform) from the first-person perspective can have a positive effect on motivation (Ouellette et al., 2005; Knauper et al., 2011; Johannessen, Oettingen & Mayer, 2012), and therefore process-based mental rehearsal from the mind’s eye is going to provide the best motivational outcomes. 

Understanding Your Motivation Fluctuations

Motivation tends to fluctuate (and sometimes for no obvious reason). This is particularly likely during a period of intense training or preparation. We often like to remind our clients that they are not robots and that doing the same thing over and over again is very unlikely to always be highly satisfying and enjoyable.

Having an understanding of what factors influence your levels of motivation is important. Knowing why you’re not that keen to go to training is far better than just having that feeling. Keeping note of motivation levels in response to known hormonal changes, level and intensity of training, presence of upcoming competitions and stressors outside of your performance domain is an important part of managing your mental wellbeing as an athlete or a performer. This allows for us to acknowledge we may need to engage in some self-compassion practices during those particularly challenging times. Try and track your motivation in a diary or similar format in order to link certain events so you can understand your motivators better.

Exploring Motivation Further

If you’re an athlete or performer and would like some tailored insight on how to boost your motivation then please get in touch by completing our Contact Us form and one of our team will get back to you to discuss how we might be able to assist you in this crucial performance area.

References

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 980–1008. http://dx.doi.org/10 .1037/a0035661

Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108

Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychol. Inquiry 11, 227–268. doi: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01

Grant, A. M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, performance, and productivity. J. Appl. Psychol. 93:48. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.48

Johannessen, K. B., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2012). Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behaviour. Psychology & Health, 27(sup2), 43-58.

Knäuper, B., McCollam, A., Rosen-Brown, A., Lacaille, J., Kelso, E., & Roseman, M. (2011). Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption. Psychology and Health, 26(5), 601-617.

Ouellette, J. A., Hessling, R., Gibbons, F. X., Reis-Bergan, M., & Gerrard, M. (2005). Using images to increase exercise behavior: Prototypes versus possible selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(5), 610-620.

Predoiu, R., Predoiu, A., Mitrache, G., Firancescu, M., Cosma, G., Dinuta, G., Buchroiu, R. A. (2020). Visualisation techniques in sport – The mental road map for success. Physical Education, Sport and Kinetototherapy Journal, 59 (3), 245-256. https://doi.org/10.35189/dpeskj.2020.59.3.4 

Sarrazin, P., Vallerand, R., Guillet, E., Pelletier, L. G., and Cury, F. (2002). Motivation and dropout in female handballers: a 21-month prospective study. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 32, 395–418. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.98 

Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9, 78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-9-78

Process Goals and Two Weeks of Fishing

This article by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole is about the beauty of having an unwavering commitment to the process (effort) regardless of the outcome (results).

Father and Son fishing – Family Time Together. Happy father and son fishing in river holding fishing rods

What Are Process Goals?

The best examples of real Mental Toughness happen well away from the spotlight. But we rarely hear about them. Even as sport psychologists and performance psychologists the bulk of the time we spend with our clients is focussed on their potential mental improvements not so much on their past achievements.

At a recent social event, I was part of a conversation that contained one of the best examples of Mental Toughness I can remember in a long time. And I will use this anecdote as a way of explaining what might be the most important ingredient of performance success ever discovered.

The father of a five-year-old boy told of his son’s sudden interest in fishing. So the father decided it would be a great idea to take the young lad fishing. This, despite neither of them knowing anything about the sport. After buying some basic equipment and getting some tips from the guy in the tackle shop the plan was to head out the very next day to see what they could catch.

So the father and the son woke before dawn and headed out all excited. All-day they fished, improving their casting technique and enjoying each other’s company as the hours ticked by. But no fish were caught that first day. So they decided to try again the following day. But once again they didn’t pull a single fish from the water.

This Continued For 14 Days Straight

Each day they’d wake before the sun came up and tried their best to catch fish. And at the end of every single one of these 14 days they came home empty-handed. Well empty-handed from a number of fish point of you.

When the father finished telling the story the obvious question had to be asked.

How did you maintain your enthusiasm/motivation day after day despite catching no fish?

The father thought about this for a while. After some careful reflection, he replied. His son seemed to be almost entirely motivated by the actual process of fishing. In other words, sitting on a riverbank holding a fishing rod with his old man. He quite literally was not doing it to take home a whole of dead fish. Any potential outcomes to this magical process would be considered is a bonus or just an occurrence. This young five-year-old boy, without anyone teaching him, had what we would call an Extreme Process Mindset.

A Lesson for Performers

There is an incredible lesson to be learnt here for those involved in sport and performance. Although “results” are important if you’re not enjoying the actual process then ultimately you’re not going to get very fast. The reason for this is rather simple. Results are only somewhat influenceable. Imagine the number of factors beyond your influence in trying to get a fish to bite a tiny hook. It is even possible that the fishing location chosen by the youngster and his father contained no fish at all.

Results are only somewhat influenceable. Imagine the number of factors beyond your influence in trying to get a small white ball into a four and quarter-inch hole in the ground. If you are unable to get some level of pleasure from the process in attempting to get the little white ball into the hole then you are in trouble. If this sounds like you get in touch as helping athletes with these kinds of mental challenges is exactly what we do.

Examples of Process Goals

There is a subtle difference between a process and a process goal. A reasonable explanation of a process is just an action or a task. Brushing your teeth is a process. Doing some visualisation is a process. Preparing your meals ahead of time is a process. Taking an ice bath is a process. But none of these examples qualifies as process goals. Having an intention of brushing your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes in the way the dentist showed you. Now that, my friends, is a process goal.

Process goals are slightly different. They essentially take these actions and tasks and asked the question how are you going to commit to them?


Repetition is the essence of success. Stop expecting miracles from activities you only do once or twice

Imagine a soccer goalkeeper. She has identified a desire to improve her ball distribution. She knows what processes are required. Practice hitting targets through both throwing and kicking the ball. A commitment to one weekly 60-minute ball distribution session is scheduled into the goalkeeper’s calendar. This is the process goal. The goal or aim is to spend 60 minutes trying to improve this particular motor skill. If this session is forgotten or done poorly then the goal is unsuccessful. If the goalkeeper manages 60 minutes of very high-quality practice in this area then this process goal is achieved.

Even if her actual ball distribution does not improve the process goal is still achieved!

Be Careful of Outcomes

Let’s be honest, a highly motivated goalkeeper who spends an hour a week specifically trying to improve ball distribution is very likely to actually improve their ball distribution. But as we learned from the young fishermen this cannot be the main reason behind the exercise.

If this goalkeeper was one of my clients I would try to make sure that the actual process itself was rewarding. Rewards can come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe she just loves the idea that she is working on something important. It might be that she is particularly fond of the person who is feeding the balls back to her. Or maybe she is just one of those people who would much rather be outside on a sunny day than sitting in front of a screen.

If your performance landscape is dominated by an obsession with outcomes then have a go at putting processes and process goal first. Put the horse before the cart so to speak. As the great Bill Walsh said, “let the score take care of itself”.

It All Starts With Commitment …

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.”

Mario Andretti
Commitment mind map, business concept for presentations and reports

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.

If you’re interested in learning more about your own levels of motivation (commitment) then click here to access our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Once completed one of the team will be in touch with your results.

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.

Motivation, Sport Psychology and Marshmallows

Motivation is about more than a subcomponent of sport psychology and mental toughness. This article looks at delayed gratification and more.

Child eating two marshmellows
“If you don’t eat this marshmallow, you’ll get two later on”

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.

Here is the video link to Joachim de Posada’s TED talk in 2009 that we keep banging on about in the context of delayed gratification as a key mindset for peak performance. Enjoy.

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

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 – A Mental Perspective

Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

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.

Tiger won most of his golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

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.

Mohamed Salah’s ‘Never Give Up’ T-shirt epitomises Liverpool’s mindset in Barcelona victory in the 2019 Champion League semi final.

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 – Done Right

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.

Did you set some goals at the start of 2020 and then have them scuppered by the Corona Virus? Did you think to adjust your goals accordingly? Goal setting is actually the easy bit, it’s the getting that’s tricky.

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.

People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going! Do you know where you want to get to a year from now? What about five years from now?

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

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 Very Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians

Trying to be the best parent you can be to you elite athlete son(s) or daughter(s) requires a lot more than just remembering to pack the fold-up chairs.

Introduction

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 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.

Why Not?

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 sport psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist without using 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. hypercriticism) 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 a 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 newfound 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. An 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Get them to complete the free Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Athletes here and go through the results with them.
  3. The relationship you have with your son/daughter will always be more important than their sporting success. Try not to sacrifice the former for the latter.
  4. Be there for them during the good times and the not-so-good times. Let them ride the ups and downs that come with elite sport.
  5. Try not to assume what is best for you is best for them. Telling them what to do all the time with few / no choices should be a red flag.
  6. If you want to be a parent-coach (both their Mum / Dad and their coach) then first discuss the pros and cons with them. When all parties are happy clarify the dual role on paper before you jump in.
  7. Get Angela Ductwork’s ‘Grit’ then discuss the book as a family.
  8. Read this blog post from 2018.
  9. Download the below guidelines from the Western Australia Department of Sport and Recreation – Clubs guide to encouraging positive parent behaviour: