Sport Psychology Tips

Some Free Sport Psychology Tips to help you perform better by leading performance psychologist David Barracosa of Condor Performance

26 Free Sport Psychology Ideas

An A to Z Guide To SportsPsychology

Although sport psychology can be a complex and quickly evolving field it can still allow for some “quick wins”. With this in mind please enjoy these Sport Psychology Tips and don’t forget to add your comments below!

A is for Attitude

It may be surprising but in our work, as sport and performance psychologists we actually don’t refer to attitude much. Attitude is just one of many type of human cognition. When a coach refers to an athlete as having ‘the right attitude’ he or she is probably suggesting that this athlete’s values and beliefs are in line with their own.

For example, both might regard sporting results as important but not as important as hard work and effort. The most interesting aspect of attitude is it is often assessed via observations (a coach watching an athlete in training). Due to this it is probably body language that is actually being appraised. Attitude, if we take the term literally, is not directly observable as it’s occurring inside the mind.

B is for Body Language

Body language is a fascinating area of performance psychology. Research suggests that it dominates how we communicate compared with the actual words we use. In sporting contexts, this makes even more sense as it is quite normal for there to be little or no verbal communication. With maybe the exception of the captains or leaders of sporting teams, most athletes of most sports don’t say very much during both training and whilst competing.

For this majority, communicating with either teammates or opponents is taking place via the body. By the body, we mean entire body from facial expressions to posture to hand gestures and everything in between. How do you improve body language? I would suggest starting out by filming yourself in a variety of situations and then watch it back with the sound off.

C is for Consistency

Sometimes we refer to consistency as ‘the holy grail’ of competitive sport. As can be read in this extensive blog by our colleague Chris Pomfret improved consistency is really just the consequence of taking the mental side of your sport seriously.

D is for Determination

Determination is very similar to the mental concept as motivation without being a synonym. Motivation, at least as defined by our coaching philosophy Metuf, is more about enthusiasm, enjoyment, desire and dreams. Determination might be a good word to refer to the actions we continue with during times in which the enthusiasm for our sport is not there. One of the most common examples of this is when the scoreboard is not in your favour (no way to win with time remaining). Yet, despite this you decide to preservative anyway. This is a great example of sporting determination.

E is for Enjoyment

The enjoyment we’re referring to in this instance is the kind that most kids tend to have towards their sport before it becomes ‘serious’. The fun of chasing the ball more than getting to it first. The issue is, this enjoyment tends to dissipate once the stakes increase. Far too many sporting coaches become far too intense during competitions due to a lack of sport psychology training during their accreditation. This is one of the many reasons why we have always wanted to work 1-on-1 with sporting coaches.

F is for Focus 

Learning to improve focus is actually one of the easier mental skills. It really boils down to knowing when and how to switch on – and then practising this like any other skill. There are many great examples of how to do this but amongst the most effective are the short performance routines that I wrote about in our last blog article. I say easier in comparison to various other mental skills which although very effective can be somewhat critic in nature.

There is no getting away from the fact that training the mind is always going to be a trickier mountain to climb due to the investable nature of what we’re targeting for improvement. For example, areas such as focus.

G is for Grit 

Grit is a term which has gained a lot of momentum recently due mainly to the works of Angela Duckworth (see YouTube video below). Grit is defined via it’s Wikipedia page as a “…non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state (a powerful motivation to achieve an objective). This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie on the path to accomplishment and serves as a driving force in achievement realisation. Distinct but commonly associated concepts within the field of psychology include “perseverance”, “hardiness“, “resilience“, “ambition”, “need for achievement” and “conscientiousness“.

Our monthly clients, as well as long-time readers of the Mental Toughness Digest, will rightly feel that many of these words – perseverance, effort, ambition are very familiar to them as they are cornerstone concepts of Metuf.

H is for Hard Work

There is simply no substitute for hard work. 

I is for Influence

Knowing the amount of influence you have on some of the more common aspects of your sport (or performance areas) is mighty useful. A great little exercise you can do is to start a simple three-column table. The heading of the first column is ‘Lots of Influence’, for the second write “Some Influence” and for the final one label it “Little Influence”.

Now start to fill in the table with whatever comes to mind. For example, you might be spending a lot of time thinking about an upcoming competition combined with memories of how you did at the same venue last year. So you might decide to put the Future in the middle column and the Past in the right-hand column – for instance.

J is for Junior Sport

If I were in charge of sport in a particular state or country I would flip funding so that the vast majority of recourses went into the junior or developmental side of sports. In other words, the best coaches, equipment and facilities normally only accessible to the top 0.1% of athletes would be diverted to athletes under the age of 16.

For example, those regarded as the very best coaches – like Wayne Bennett in rugby league – would be invited to coach junior rugby league players instead. I would make sure that whatever position was created for this had the same or greater salary as top-flight professional coaches.

K is for Keeping Going

Maybe the most powerful cue words in sport. Your mind will virtually always quit on you before your body does. Tell it to Keep Going and see what happens.

L is for Learning

There is a reason why some of the very best sporting coaches of all time – for example, Jake White – are formers teachers. They treat the process of performance enhancement as one long learning experience for both themselves and their players. The most appealing aspect of this angle is that poor performances are used as learning opportunities. Errors, for example, are considered as invaluable elements of feedback – data that can be used to inform better choices moving forward. 

M is for Monitoring

If you are not monitoring at least one aspect of your endeavours you’re missing out. At Condor Performance we encourage our sporting and non-sporting clients to record one or more “monthly checks”. As can be read in detail from this recent blog post these monthly checks are like our key performance indicators. As long as you know the right number of monthly checks to monitor (not too many) and the amount of influence you have on each of these results (not as much as you think) there is zero downsides to this kind of self-monitoring and plenty of upsides.


N is for Numbers

Whether you like it or not competitive sport – especially at the elite level – is full of numbers. In fact certain sports, like cricket and baseball are so mathematical in nature that the coaches of these sports would be forgiven for thinking of themselves more like statisticians from time to time. This is one of the reasons why we encourage our monthly clients to monitor their own progress – to allow them to function, even thrive in a results-oriented world. The other reasons have already been mentioned above in the M for monitoring.

O is for Objectivity

Both the M and the N above help with objectively but alone might not be enough. Objectively is roughly the opposite of subjectively with the latter being heavy on opinions with the former much more based on facts. For example, it’s quite normal for athletes and coaches to assess past performances based mostly (or only) on memory or even worse, based on the final result. This is highly subjective and a bit like any human pursuit we’d want to be careful about how much of our analysis is subjective. Objective analysis – for example, the number of missed tackles –  will be more valuable as the numbers don’t lie.

Actually, this is not true – numbers can lie but are less likely to do so than opinions.

P is for Pressure

‘Pressure’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of sports psychology. For a start, it’s 100% internal – it’s a feeling with very real physiological sensations – a little bit like hunger. Because it’s going on inside it’s less tangible and therefore harder to manage. To start with, it’s really important not to consider pressure as being good or bad. Let me use hunger to explain. Hunger, for most of us, is simply a signal for us to go an eat something. Once we do, the hunger goes away. The food that alleviates the hunger that is pressure is practice. That’s right, high-quality practice is like a pile of organic veggies.

Of course, there is also a benefit to learning to deal with hunger/pressure in case there is no food/practice available. By far the best way to do this – in my opinion – is to work with a qualified sport/performance psychologist like one of the members of our team.

Q is for Quantity and Quality

This is how we break down practice or effort. Quantity is ‘how much’ and wants to be in the right amount. Quality is how good and wants to be as high as possible. We often find it useful to multiply these together. For example, if the highest score for each is 10 then combined the highest score is 100.

What number did your last training session get?

R is for Routines

See my recent blog post for a full break down on routines.

S is for Stigma

There are still a huge number of people out there whose beliefs about what sports psychologists or performance psychologists do get in the way of us being able to help them. The stigma comes from the word ‘psychologist’ which too many people still associate with having some kind of mental problem. The general premise of working with a psychologist being a sign of weakness needs to be broken. A band-aid solution to this is to refer to ourselves as a coach or performance coaches or mental skills trainers instead. The issue with this is it doesn’t help to remove the stigma. Also, it seems a pity not to be able to use the title psychologist that took us seven or so years to earn.

T is for Time Management

Being able to manage your own time, your needs and your wants is one of the most underrated of all mental skills. I work with a LOT of young elite athletes (teenagers on track to be the world’s best in their chosen sport) and on the whole, they come to me with either poor or non-existent time management skills. Sometimes, a simple suggestion like buying a $5 diary to start recording upcoming commitments can do wonders in terms of accountability, planning, knowing when to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to invitations and moving their mindset more towards effort and further from results. For more on Time Managment see this separate post.

U is for Unity

If you’d like to learn more about how to improve the team unity of your team then watch the Unity video from the Metuf online program by clicking here.

V is for Values and W is for Why

Our values and beliefs guide our thoughts so if you’d like to update your daily thought processes then it can be a good idea to think about your values. By values, we really mean what you consider to be valuable or important. A nice little exercise to get the ball rolling is to simply list everything you consider to be important in your life and why. For example, you might write ‘8 hours of sleep a night’ and follow that with ‘because it helps me get the most of various training sessions the following day’. The ‘why’ part is very important as this links our endeavours to our internal motivation.

X is for eXcellence

Are you striving for excellence? Do you want to become excellent at what you do? How would you define and measure excellence? Is your training excellence? Do you know how to increase your chances of becoming the best possible athlete or coach you can be? If not get in touch and we’ll lend you a hand.

Y is for Yourself

One of the best ways of helping others is to look after yourself first.

Z is for Zest

Zest is one of the traits that we look for when we are interviewing psychologists looking to join our team of sport and performance psychologists. Do they have a passion for sports and helping athletes and coaches become better versions of themselves? If not, getting up at 5 am to deliver a Skype session to a monthly client from another country might just prove to be too hard.

Music for Sport Psychology

Athletes have been using music for sports psychology purposes for decades. But what type of music is best? Gareth answers this and more …

Music for Sports Psychology
Music for Sport Psychology

Music is very emotional. So is the world of competitive sport so it makes complete sense that they might be able to work together – and they do. So music for sports psychology purposes will be the focus of this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest.

Athletes have been using music to get a psychological edge ever since songs were available via a portable playing device. For readers who were born during or before the 1970s, this might have been wit a The Walkman. Walkmans were then replaced by Discmans and Discmans in turn by MP3 players (such as the Apple iPod). Finally, all of these have been made obsolete by smartphones of course. At the time of writing an iPod is still available but it’s essentially a smartphone without the internet/phone connection.

Fast forward to 2020 and the combination of a smartphone and platforms such as Spotify now allow us to listen to virtually anything at any time.

Technology is Changing Sport Psychology Forever

At Condor Performance we are big believers of taking full advantage of the wonders of modern technology. We were delivering sport psychology consultations via Skype three years before the term ‘Telehealth’ was coined. Our very first Skype session took place in 2010.

See this definition of telehealth on the Australian Department of Health’s website added in 2015.

I personally am not a big fan of the term telehealth for two reasons. First, we very rarely use telephones to bridge the gap between us and our sporting clients. Maybe it’s just me but when I hear ‘tele’ I think telephone. The odd phone session still takes place but most sessions are via webcam. The platforms we use most often are:

  • Skype
  • FaceTime video
  • Zoom
  • WhatsApp Video
  • Google Hangouts

The second reason I am not loving the label ‘telehealth’ is due to the ‘health’ part. From a psychological point of view when you combine mental with health and get ‘mental health’. This evokes images of fixing problems whereas we’re more about building on existing strengths.

A better name in my opionion would be ‘webcam consulting’.

And it’s not just sessions themselves where technology is changing how performance psychology services are delivered. We not only allow our sporting clients to contact us between sessions via features such as WhatsApp (text, not voice snippet) we actively encourage it.

A Glimpse Into the Future

I like to think that the way we deliver our sport psychology services is a glimpse into the future of how all psychologists may choose to operate in years to come.

The context in which music is most frequently discussed during the mental training consultations we have with athletes, coaches and sporting officials is when we are looking into their pre competitions preparations or routines. I have always dedicated time to helping my clients optimise their competition mindset by looking at how they spend the time beforehand.

Quite simply what do they, or you, do one hour before kick-off? What is the best way to spend the rain delay during a cricket match? Have you ever thought about the ideal way to use the morning and afternoon when your semi-final only starts after 7 pm?

Before we talk about types of music it is important to accept one important fact. Unless you’re including playing songs in your own head listening to music is not something that you can control nor guarantee. In other words as useful as it is, and it is, it ought to have a backup. I recall once getting a call from a rugby union player I was working with just 20 minutes before kick-off. He told me he’d just dropped his iPod (common in 2013) into the toilet and was not working. In a semi-panic, he asked me what he should he do as he couldn’t listen to his pre-match tunes.

Rather than let you know what I told him I invite you to add your best guess to the comments section at the bottom of this page.

Now that we have clarified this we can get to the exciting part of actually deciding on what type of music might assist us. And this is where it gets tricky because like so much in sports psychology it depends on the individual and their preferences.

What Type of Music is Best for Sport Psychology?

Probably the most common mistake made in this area is the assumption that fast-paced energetic type music (such as rock and Punk) is naturally the best type of music to listen to before the big game. What if you are already very energised, for example by the organic importance of the competition that is about to begin? Do you really need to listen to Tina Turner’s Simply The Best when you’re struggling to keep down your breakfast?

One of the cornerstones all our therapeutic model – Metuf – is that it is basically impossible to be too relaxed before a sporting contest. In other words the more relaxed the better. For years I resisted the temptation to actually recommend particular songs to help with this because I know first hand what one person finds relaxing another person can find very energising. However, over the years enough clients have suggested enough songs to me to be able to identify a select few which tend to be fairly calming for most people.

Calming Music for Performers

Recently I added these to a Spotlight playlist and have included the link below if you would like to save it:

Calming Music for Sports Psychology

So what about that heavy metal and the music from Rocky? How does that fit in? Again, with complete respect to individual differences, I feel like this kind of energising music is better placed before or during practice and training. Think about a workout at the gym which you feel you get more from when some upbeat tunes are thundering in the background. This playlist is easier to put together because generally speaking what most people will find energising very, very few people will find relaxing.

Energising Music for Performers

With this mind, I’ve included the second playlist below designed to help “psych you up”:

Energising Music for Sports Psychology

Maybe the only exception of using the second playlist before competition would be when you’ve lost all motivation to compete. For example, an athlete who is about to retire but still has to play a dozen games before then end of the reason.

If you’re reading this and you use music as a psychological tool in any context (not necessarily just sport) please add details below. Use the comments section to add names of song you have used. We will then add the most popular ones to the above playlists over time.

What Is Mental Toughness?

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

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

No Agreement At This Time

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

Defining Sporting Mental Toughness

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

Mental Toughness Is Not The Same As Mental Preparation

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

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

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

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

The Aeroplane Analogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Careful Of Synonyms!

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

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

How Do We Improve Mental Toughness

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

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

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

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

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


Enjoyment and Sport

Chris Pomfret explores the common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success.

The Serious Business of Keeping Sport Fun At The Highest Level

Enjoyment and fun want to be part of all sports and at all levels.

A common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success. In other words, the higher up the ranks an athlete climbs, the more ‘serious’ things need to become in order to reach the pinnacle in their chosen sport. Or to put it another way, the pure joy a child experiences get lost as their passion becomes just a job. And this does happen.

Elite athletes are often instructed to “just have some fun”. Or “relax and enjoy yourself” during times of hardship or pressure or form slumps. You can imagine how confusing this must be for many athletes. One minute they are meant to be ‘all business’ and the next it’s ‘party time’. The implication here is that it is easy to simply tap into the pleasure pot. Like turning on a switch. But how many top-level athletes actually practice the ‘fun factor’? Is learning how to approach ‘game day’ a little less seriously part of the overall processs?

Some Applied Exercises You Can Do Now

Try to describe why you do what you do. What drew you in to it in the first place? What is keeping you there? Why do you want to continue? Why is it important for you to perform well?

Enjoyment involves some form of fun. Typically, tasks that simply feel good and put a smile on your face. Enjoyment is also driven by some deeper concepts. For example, achievement, pride, satisfaction, growth and progress.

Usain Bolt was a great example of someone who enjoyed what he did. He worked incredibly hard so that when a competition came around he could just chill. As can be seen by the below video UB had a very relaxed competition mindset. Enjoyment doesn’t mean we are always smiling and laughing. But we need to stay in touch with the things we love about our sport or art or music or business or other performance area.

q

Quantification Is Essential

As with any concept in sport, quantification is essential. When we quantify something we put structures, values and measurements to it. If you can describe something you can start to understand it. This then means you can start to improve it. Enjoyment is typically a vague concept so we have to work harder to define it.

You might use the term ‘fun’ in conversation with your coach without actually talking about the same thing. Fun to one person could be fitness-related. While for someone else it’s beating people. Yet for another there might be a certain social connection needs to be really fun.

Regardless of your age or skill level, one relatively simple means of quantifying your experiences is to break things down into the following domains.

  • Mind, which includes thoughts (the words and pictures in my head), attitudes (the general ways I am looking at things), and beliefs (how I view myself, others, the future, and the world).
  • Feelings (your emotional energy and how intense it is).
  • Body (the messages you are receiving physically from head to toe).
  • Five senses (what your attention is drawn towards in the areas of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste).
  • Actions (what you are doing, what you’ve stopped doing, things you are speeding up or slowing down, doing more of or less of etc.).

Practical Suggestions

Because enjoyment is a personal experience there are no universal rules to reignite your passion for the game. In a practical sense, however, you might benefit from any of the following.

  • Reward yourself with fun non-sporting activities before and after training/practice.
  • Seperate performance into preparation and competition. Now take all your seriousness and push it into the preparation side. Blood, sweat and tears want to be more related to practice than game day. As the great Jonty Rhodes once said “I got more bruises, grass burns and cuts in practice than in match play”.
  • Create small windows of pleasure and light-heartedness during practices. This might be arriving early to mess around with teammates. Or getting pumped up during certain segments of training such as racing people in fitness drills.
  • Indulge yourself in relaxing or fun or special non-sporting activities on the morning of competitions. It’s too late to improve anything. You are better of just chilling and trusting the work you have done.
  • Emphasise interactions and activities with your teammates or peers after competitions to enhance a sense of community. Do you see your teammates as people or just athletes?

Four More Ideas …

  • Become more invested in the process (journey) and less on the results (destinations). Although having a ‘win at all costs’ mindset sounds useful. It’s not, trust us. Just ask Lance!
  • Look over your season schedule and breaking it into smaller chunks. Any tangible evidence of improvement can be celebrated as a reward for your dedication and passion. Months lend themselves very well to reviewing and planning. This then frees you up to focus on the processes in between monthly reviews.
  • Glance at your weekly schedule. Do you have enough balance between sporting and non-sporting activities? A reminder quality and quantity are not the same. We want quality to be as high as possible. But quantity want to be “somewhere in the middle”. Too much and too little are dangerous.
  • Consider getting some expert assistance. If you can’t afford to work with a qualified sport / performance psychologists then consider our one of our Metuf programs. If budget is less of a concern then get in touch with us and request details about our 1-on-1 performance psychology services.

Final Thoughts

Enjoyment – and in particular a sense of fun – may not be as easily defined as other core components of performance such as physical capabilities, technical consistency or tactical wisdom. However, if you are able to conceptualise what you love about your chosen sport and take steps to improve upon this you will give yourself every chance of climbing towards the top and staying there.

We will leave the final word to Jonty Rhodes. legendary South African cricketer and fielder. The below is taken from this full article.

What is the key to being a good fielder?
First and foremost you have to enjoy being out there. If you’re enjoying it, and you’re loving what you’re doing, even if it is 90 overs in a Test match, it never really seems like hard work. That allows you to stay sharp and focused. Commentators often complimented me on my anticipation, but I was expecting every single ball to come to me. In fact I wanted every ball to come to me. Fielding can become hard work, but if you’re enjoying it then it doesn’t feel like work.

Two Weeks of Fishing – The Power Of The Process

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

Young boy fishing with his father.
The young fisherman is more focussed on the process of fishing rather than his results – the number of fish he catches.

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

So you can imagine my delight when at a recent social event I was part of a conversation that contained one of the best examples of a Mental Toughness “cornerstone” I can remember in a long time; the unwavering commitment to the process regardless of the outcome. 

The father of a five year old boy told of his son’s sudden interest in fishing having watched some Netflix fishing shows. So the father decided it would be a great idea to take young Thomas fishing despite neither of them knowing nothing much 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 to the fishing spot suggested by the guy in the tackle shop. 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 were not able to pull any fish from the water. This continued for 14 days straight. On each day they’d wake before the sun came up and tried their best to catch fish (actually, anything alive that lived in the water) only to return home empty handed.

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 before explaining that Thomas seems to be almost entirely motivated by the actual process of fishing (sitting on a river bank holding a fishing rod with his old man) rather than the outcome of task at hand (the number, size and type of fish successfully caught).

There is an incredible lesson to be learnt here for those in both sport and performance situations. Although “results” are important and probably spoken about like they are the most important aspect of high performance 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 influenceable (imagine the number of factors beyond your control in trying to get a fish to bite a tiny hook or to get a small white ball into a four and quarter inch hole in the ground) yet your enjoyment of the process can be controlled / guaranteed (with the right approach).

Australia is currently learning this the hard way as it approaches the end of a 10-year high-performance sporting model called “The Winning Edge” which obsesses about results. Yet ironically, the outcomes of the program are well off the benchmarks set eight years ago. Their goal for the 2016 Summer Olympics was to come in the top 5 yet Australia finished 10th on the medal table. The Winning Edge’s benchmark for the recent Winter Olympics was to come in the top 15 but when the final medal tally was produced Australia was a lowly 23rd.

Those in charge of the next 10-year high-performance sporting cycle in Australia would do well to replicate young Thomas the fisherman’s mindset if they really want results. And if you’re reading this and concerned about how to implement this across an entire club, sport or even nation – head straight to Metuf Online.

The Off Season is Really the On Season

‘The off season is one of the best times for elite athletes to be working on their mindset’ says International Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Early morning training session
The best athletes in the world are also mentally the strongest

Note: This article was written and published before major improvements were made in late 2018 to Metuf – the name given to the collection of mental skills that we use with our sporting and non-sporting clients. Due to this, the article below mentions ‘pillars’. In the latest version of Metuf, the pillars have been replaced by an analogy of an aeroplane. For more information about Metuf please visit The Metuf Online homepage.

The “Off Season” is an odd sporting term implying almost that athletes and coaches from around the globe only have two gears – “On” during pre season and the competitive months were they give everything and then “Off” for the rest of the year whereby they go and hibernate like bears in the winter time.

This Black and White / Either Or / Binary way of conceptualising the sporting year is counterproductive – certainly from a mental standpoint. Almost without a doubt the origin of the term Off Season comes from a bygone era when training was regarded as almost entirely physical (strength and conditioning plus motor skills) and therefore there was probably some logic – particularly in physically demanding sports  – to a few months of allowing the body to recover before “going again”.

However, this whole idea falls apart pretty quickly when you look at high performance preparation through the lens of 21st century sports science whereby more than half of the areas of improvement require little or no physical movement whatsoever.

As anyone who has completed our online Mental Toughness program – Metuf – will know and current and former monthly clients of ours will know even better we like to “Simplify” and “Complete” preparation into the following five pillars Physical Capability (PC), Mental Toughness (MT), Tactical Wisdom (TW), Technical Consistency (TC) and LifeStyle Choices (LC).

If we assume these 5 pillars are of equal importance then really only Physical Capability (PC) requires more body than mind with the other 4 pillars being dominated by “above the neck” processes.  So for highly demanding physical sports (for example CrossFit, rugby union, rugby league, American Football, AFL and endurance sports – to name the first few to come to mind) then it’s really only Physical Training that might want to be reduced during the gaps between the end of the competitive season and the start of the next preseason.

In terms of time frames at Condor Performance we are strong believers that the sporting year / season is not a particularly useful “performance” concept when compared with months and weeks. We encourage our 1-on-1 client to use months in order to monitor progress (through the use of what we call Monthly Checks) sometimes known as Performance Goals or Key Performance Indicators in academic and business circles respectively. Then, we urge them to switch their attention to arguably the most valuable unit of time of them all – the week – in order to plan and then complete the highest possible quality training across all five pillars. As a general rule, when this is done well it frees up large amounts of time (as the higher quality reduces the amount of quantity/time required for equal or greater improvement) and typically results in 52 weeks of “the right amount” of effort instead of 40 weeks of overdoing it followed by 12 weeks of undergoing it (oh, how very common this is).

One of the biggest clues is how you feel mentally and physically at the end of the competitive season. If you are desperate for the break then there is a good chance you’ve been overextending yourself and would benefit from exploring one of the best kept performance secrets out there – you don’t get to the top by doing more you get there by being smarter. 

It’s A Long Way To The Top

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

Riding down the highway… stop in all the byways…Gettin’ had, gettin’ took, I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks….If you wanna be a star of stage and screen: look out! It’s rough and mean.It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ’n’ roll.Well it’s a long way, such a long way.

ACDC
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.

Classic tune, yes, but what does this have to do with mental toughness in sport? I’m often reminded of these lyrics when discussing the challenges of the touring circuit with tennis players, parents and coaches. One story capturing a lot of attention in sports media in recent weeks involves professional Australian player Bernard Tomic and his comments following his elimination from the prestigious Wimbledon tournament. Like a rock star exhausted by the endless gigs, hotels and hours on the road, Tomic appears to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seems so unappealing.

To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court and 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 lengthy period already (he is 24 years old and joined the professional tour around age 17) but stated that he plans to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”

In later interviews Tomic said that he feels “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.” Tomic has come in for some very strong criticism from the tennis world and in the Australian community as a result of his comments – not all of it constructive. There has been a genuine concern expressed for Tomic’s mental health off the tennis court by some observers, however given that I have never spoken to him it would be inappropriate to offer comment on that front except to wish him well during this difficult period. Purely from a tennis perspective there are clearly some hard questions being asked on and off the public record.

If nothing else, I’m impressed by Tomic’s brutal honesty. Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us to improve their mental toughness, a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the ‘top 3’ (performance anxiety tends to be ranked #1, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked #2). Bernard Tomic is obviously not enjoying the sport he has dedicated his life to. He is certainly not alone in this regard! If we compare Tomic at this stage of his career 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 is his love of racing. It’s remarkable to observe how every time he competes he treats it as a celebration of his passion for running, and I’m sure this has been one of the reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete. Now please be clear that I’m not saying that Tomic needs to suddenly become the most enthusiastic tennis player in the world. What I would say is that enjoyment is a necessary ingredient for anyone to perform well and at the moment it’s sorely lacking for him (if it was ever really there in the first place).

Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify and 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 and wherever possible we encourage clients to identify then tap in to that 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 challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment and often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them in to their sport or performance area in the first place. A lack of suitable sport/life balance or performance/life balance is detrimental to the fun factor and in turn to 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.

At the time of writing this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest, Bernard Tomic recently indicated he does not ever expect to truly love the sport of tennis and that for the foreseeable future it will simply be a job to him. Whilst he doesn’t need to love the game, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits on and off the court. Tomic did express a sense of hope that he can one day win a major tournament such as Wimbledon and experience the joy that would come with such a feat. With the best years of his career ahead of him this remains possible, but only time will tell.

It’s a long way to the top, indeed.

The Psychology of Sports Injuries

The Psychology of Sports Injuries is a short article exploring the mental aspects of a very common physical challenge faced by athletes – getting injured

The Psychology of Sports Injuries is one of the most common mental challenges
Sporting injuries are understandably regarded as the exclusive domain of physiotherapists yet there is growing evidence that the challenges are just as psychological in nature.

Introduction

The psychology of sports injuries is not exactly the same as the ones that can occur in non-sporting situations. For a start, they are much more likely to occur. High contact sports such as AFL, both rugby codes and American football are fraught with injuries. Secondly, the impact on goals and dreams of injuries for athletes are greater than for non-sporting performers. I am very mindful hat serious injuries can, of course, derail all types of dreams. However a dentist can still go to work with a torn ACL, a soccer player can’t. Hence the title of this article is The Psychology of Sports Injuries and not The Psychology of Injuries.

A large portion of what we write for the Digest is aimed at athletes who are in top physical condition. So what happens when you are get an unexpected injury and suddenly you are struggling both physically and mentally? This can be one of the most mentally challenging experiences athletes and performers face. Having a handful of tools and strategies to help you manage the journey can truly make a significant difference.

The Psychology of Sports Injuries is one of the most common of all mental challenges

I know first hand the mental pain and frustration athletes go through. In 2016 I ruptured my ACL for the second time and did 9-months of rehab. It’s interesting, though, because this frustration and emotion can come from a number of different places.

  • Disappointment and regret that the injury has occurred
  • Wondering what you could have done differently to prevent it
  • Watching your teammates still competing while you’re in a cast or brace
  • The setbacks or bad news you may receive along the journey
  • The fear that when you’re allowed to play you will find a way to injure yourself again.

With all of these thought patterns it’s crucial you have space where you can express these emotions. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the way you do – if fact it normal. After all, one of the major aspects of your life has just hit a major speedbump. As psychologists, our job is to help injured athletes turn that frustration into motivation.

One way we help our sidelined sporting clients do this is to talk about effort more than results.

All the statements I mentioned earlier exist outside of our bubble of responsibility because they are either influenceable or uninfluenceable.

They revolve around things such as the past, other people and the future. When we’re committing to our rehabilitation process we want to be sure our mind is focused on what we can control. This typically is our effort to our intended actions in the present moment.

By being injured we are restricted in our movements and achieving certain results – but we are not dead.

Developing An Optimal Mindset

The rewards and satisfaction from applying yourself to a gym or physiotherapy session can be just as motivating. It’s worth remembering that when you got the injury it was only your body [part] that was actually hurt – not your brain.

This development of confidence is also a key part of the rehabilitation process. It is important both in regaining skills confidence and in the part of my body that had been injured. We want to be able to trust that once we start competing again, our bodies will hold up. We don’t want to become distracted about the possibility of reinjury.

There are many mental strategies we can use that help us develop this confidence. They often revolve around the way we mentally map out the rehabilitation journey.

Baby Steps

A good way of viewing the situation is by seeing it as a process of stepping stones. Some of these stepping stones are going to be about our physical capabilities (strength, fitness and flexibility). Others are going to be very skill-set related.

The combination of these provides the complete picture of what is required for us to be at full capacity again. Each time we jump from one stone to the next this is another achievement and boost in our confidence that we’re heading in the right direction and further strengthens the trust we have in our body. This way of breaking things down doesn’t mean the journey won’t be challenging but allows it to be much more realistic and achievable. It also allows us to problem solve at a much more manageable level when things aren’t going our way.

Once we have successfully completed this rehabilitation journey and are ready to step back onto the field, we may be faced with new mental challenges. We may ask ourselves “Can I still compete at this level?”, “Am I ready?” or even “Have I done enough to be here?”.

You Don’t Have To Do It Alone

In taking the time to break down the journey into smaller parts and continually keeping the focus on the controllables, it allows us not only to develop the physical readiness to step out onto the field but also the mental readiness. Each stage along the way has allowed us to mentally keep track of the work we are doing and the achievements we have made.

Keep our expectations of the match focused on the controllables and not expect ourselves to do what we could the last time we were here but rather thinking about what the work we have done off the field has positioned us to do. In other words, applying our best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. Taking care of this ensures we remain in touch with ourselves throughout the match and play to the level we have prepared for.

Are you an athlete with an injury? If you are and wish to discuss the mental side of your rehabilitation then please get in touch. You can email me directly and confidentially at david@condorperformance.com. I would love to help and be a part of your journey back to full fitness.

Note that ‘The Psychology of Sports Injuries’ was first written in 2016 but updated twice in 2019.