Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Mastery at the Masters

The even, consistent, and record-setting performance of Dustin Johnson over four days at the 2020 Masters is a tribute to the many little things he has done over a very long time. His first “Green Jacket” is proof that for the biggest goals we have in life, we can put in the effort, but the outcome has many moving parts beyond our control. In other words, despite the meticulous crafting and visioning of dreams and goals we don’t get to pick exactly “when” it happens.

In the fading light of the singular Autumn finish, Johnson described his childhood dream of winning the Masters, having grown up a short ride away in South Carolina. This brings to the light the second aspect of the dream turned major goal: While trying to describe the feeling of his accomplishment, Johnson paused several times to gather himself. He remarked that he didn’t know why he was having such a hard time remaining composed. He even compared his ability to remain even on the course in the heat of the world’s best competition to the moment which seemed, on the surface, just an interview.

The flood of emotions is in proportion to meaning. And meaning is proportional to the tireless pursuit, the victories and adversity, the effort given consistently and intently over time. This is the process, and it ensues for years before the outcome is realized. And when this goal is reached it becomes an inflection point in lives and careers, a timestamp of purposeful living. You feel alive.

I offer this in a time when many are struggling to find meaning, and live as if life is meaningless. And for this assumption, the individual feels less than alive. Take away the golf, the exquisite backdrop of Augusta National, and you have a father trying to find his way. I don’t know Dustin Johnson, but I find it interesting that 30 of his 49 top three finishes, 15 of his 24 wins, and his two major victories have come after becoming a father.

You can argue “an athlete’s prime” or “putting it all together” or “realizing potential” but history is filled with the same narrative—right up to that inflection point that changes a career from good to great. Then the stories are far fewer—the ones like Johnson’s.

As a father and for fathers, I can say that a growing family makes life more complex. But on a deeper level you find you have more and can give more. And the more you give, the more you can give. And it’s easier to let go, tune in, and tune out what doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Not when you look at your children, into the eyes full of life and potential you are now responsible for.

Perhaps it is there, in this gaze you find your own potential staring back at you.

Not sure if this is true for Dustin Johnson. Hard to say. And hard to find the words for something so transforming. Perhaps that’s how he felt when he struggled to do something as simple as speak about four rounds of golf. Maybe the hallowed grounds of Augusta framed the sacred space of a father and a professional overcome by meaning.  Maybe… 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

cover shot

photo credits: Marc Clinton Labiano (unsplash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Analytics or…?

A defining moment in the 2020 World Series (Dodgers versus Rays) will be the expression on Blake Snell’s face as he awaited the handoff to Tampa Bay manager, Kevin Cash. After pitching lights out and still under his pitch count, Snell understandably seemed upset at the lost opportunity to continue his gem.

While hindsight is a perspective available now but not in that moment (from which it all fell apart), an old argument calls to mind the blurring of boundaries that ruin so much of human resource, production, and expression: when to be guided by quantitative versus qualitative measures. Simply put, not everything that matters can be measured. Here are a few arguments for ignoring analytics and leaving Snell on the mound:

Management versus Leadership: Management is about systems and things, and leadership is about people. While numbers may inform decisions, the human element will always be beyond measurable. You have a Cy Young winner pitching at the peak of his ability. Unhittable is a feeling. The Dodgers would have attested to this.

Variability of performance: Even at the elite level, athletes need to find out who they are that day. The great Willie Mays said it best: “When I’m not hitting, I don’t hit nobody. But, when I’m hitting, I hit anybody.” (New York Times, April 25, 1976). Interestingly, on that day Snell’s fastball was more electric, and his slider and curve had more bite. All three pitches working at the top of his register. Athletes dream of these days… So who do you want on the mound? Your best pitcher at his best in the moment or someone who hasn’t thrown a pitch yet?

Analytics draws from a larger context: While data is useful and informs decisions, the production of numbers always draws from a larger context and remains an approximation. These probabilities are called “models’ for good reason as they do not represent a complete picture of the territory. Consider all the variables that have to be ignored, and all the assumptions that have to be made in an open-system of human beings. This is not to say, throw out numbers and analytics. They are good tools. But complete dependence upon tools denies some of the greatest gifts of being human: feel, creativity, and intuition.

History: Sports annals are full of stories of athletes going above and beyond. Michael Jordan in the “Flu” game. Willis Reed limping out on to the court in the finals for the New York Knicks during their 1969-70 Championship season. Lebron James running down Andre Igoudala in Game 7, bringing the Cavaliers all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit. And Tom Seaver throwing 150 pitches (yes, 150 pitches!) to lead the Mets in a Game 4 win on the way to the 1969 world championship. All these efforts derive from the intangibles of athletic performance. They are memorable for a reason. We show up as competitors and fans not for the benign and predictable, but for the sublime and unexpected.

So, Snell’s expression was more than the stock “I wanna keep playing” seen from little league to the Bigs. The athlete who knows when he is in the upper register of performance also knows it’s a feeling beyond words and logical explanations. Flow. The Zone. A sublime feeling you can bet on more than algorithms pretending that a Game Six is the same as a weekend series in Baltimore (sorry O’s fans).

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

cover shot

photo credits: Michael Dziedzic and Ben Hershey (unsplash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Talking About Sports and Life

Recently, I had the chance to spend some time with three amazing men on their podcast, The Oak City Sports Show. Eddie Carter, Dale Neal, and Anthony Robinson are more than experienced athletes. They are role models and men asking the tough questions and putting themselves out there. For me, it was refreshing to be able to share ideas and put our heads together to surround some challenging topics. On some level, who you are on the field is who you are in life. Eddie, Dale, and Anthony live that idea, and it’s inspiring to be able to dialogue on unique perspectives. And it seems to me that dialogue is something we need more of…

leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Word on Two Schools

There are two kinds of people: one who says that there are two kinds of people and one who says there aren’t. That’s a take on an old joke but it applies when people talk of Old School versus New School in the sports world.

But the divide is not so simple. If you take any sport and mention a contemporary versus a player in the past, you might end up in that age-old argument of how that old school athlete would fair today. It’s a fun idea that can also be combative. But the context is different. Motivation is different. The world is just plain different.

We recently lost two Hall of Famers and icons in their sports: In baseball, pitcher, Tom Seaver, and in football, running back, Gale Sayers. Their approach and demeanor may have hinted at Old School, but the metrics say otherwise. Today’s batters, no different than the ones Seaver whiffed in the past, don’t handle 95+ MPH fastballs any better than they did when he won the Cy Young in ’67. And todays’ combine scouts would drool at Sayers’ 40-yard dash, his sub 10-second 100-yard dash, his agility, and strength.

We could argue endlessly, but the point is there is no separation. Within the New School are Old School elements dressed anew. Evolution is Nature’s arrow. And within the Old School, the DNA was passed on to the New in essence, as rare and pure potential.

Greatness is greatness. No need to compare. But rather just appreciate for we are blessed to witness the sublime when athletes cultivate the gift in the context of the present. And we can appreciate, in pre-HD video, Seaver’s leg drive and unhittable heat, and Sayers breaking ankles before the expression existed.

Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

Mindful of Mindset

The Performance Mindset (PM) can be a sturdy structure, built purposefully on fundamentals, experience, good coaching, mentoring, and intentional learning. But the Performance Mindset is not static. Given the dynamic and open system that life is, the mind and its structures continue to shift, evolve—but these structures can also become static and rigid. While habits are automated, neural networks—the source of these habits— can be developed or changed. And certain aspects of the mindset are more sensitive to change than others. One of these is attention.

While decision-making and reaction differ in each sport, many mistakes within competition are errors of attention and focus. An elite Performance Mindset requires careful attention to the quality of attention. Within the range of optimal performance, we must be able to regulate attention smoothly and efficiently. And within the attentional field, we need to be able to sharpen and shift focus as needed. To develop the capacity to regulate attention, there are things to do as part of training—as well as activities to avoid.

paul-skorupskas-7KLa-xLbSXA-unsplash in focus

To Improve Attention:

Sleep. Having a consistent sleep pattern in routine, quality, and quantity is paramount. Alert, energized, and attentive states require the reset, consolidation, and recharging of good sleep.

Balance: Consistent attention to all needs and roles reduces overall stress, and feeds motivation (a critical component of attention). Balance does not mean equal parts; it’s a sense we have when we feel whole, connected, aligned with goals, and not neglectful of important areas of life. Daily reflection on roles and goals, as well as taking appropriate actions to grow and adjust is a must for maintaining balance.

Rhythm: Your day and your practices require some sense of structure. This doesn’t mean a rigid list of things to do. It does mean you align with major goals, responsibilities, and biological rhythms. While every athlete is different, nothing is as dysregulating as being out of attunement with time, space, mental, and bodily rhythms.

Intentional practice: Having a process goal for the practice of regulating attention on and off the field provides the space for improvement. Training attention within the rhythm and timing of your sport during practice is key to the Performance Mindset. Shifting focus, being aware, re-focusing are all a part of practicing skills and strategies. Being mindful of your mind is the process. Awareness of attention requires planning and practice, and when you commit the effort within practice time, the ability will grow. Importantly, focused work off the field such as meditation, mindful breathing, or directed attention work (focusing and re-focusing intently on a specific target) is part of a comprehensive approach. Isolating this skill off the field deepens the ability to apply it on the field.

Things NOT to do:

Over-planning: When practicing intentionally, less is more. It’s better to consider a wide and long view of improvement, and then practicing deliberately on just a few aspects. The nature of intentional practice is intense. Training attention is demanding. Over-planning can be stressful and counterproductive. Decide on the most important aspects of training and give it full attention.

Over-training: Just like over-planning, not knowing when to enter the rest, reflective phase stalls development. Rest and reflection may seem passive, but we need physical rest to restore and recharge, and reflection to make sense and make meaning of experience. Making sense and making meaning consolidates intentional practice—and strengthens neural networks.

Bad fuel: Energy burns cleaner when the source is high quality. Yes, this means good nutrition—but it also covers your relationships and what you allow to enter your mind. Unhealthy relationships and low-quality information are the highest forms of attention disruptors.

Unbalanced needs: A significant attention drain happens when we are unbalanced in our approach to life. Again, balanced does not mean equal, but there is a proportion that works for the individual. Deny this and an inner sense of longing drains motivation. This can be felt as drifting, daydreaming, burnout, lack of engagement, or a subtle sense of longing for something unnamed.

Too much time with entertainment: Many forms of entertainment hijack the attentional system. It’s well noted that media exists to keep you engaged. The technology is exquisite at keeping your attentional system passive, doing all the shifting and engaging for you on deep levels. This does not mean “No entertainment” but it does mean to pay attention to when, how much, and whether your consumption is getting you off track. Ask: Can I truly disengage?

Being mindful of mindset is fundamental to growing as an athlete. It is not a passive process and requires consistent effort. It is hard work that pays great dividends. Attention is a valuable asset within the Performance Mindset and training it is a top priority to leverage the leap to your next level.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

cover shot

photo credits: Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash (unsplash.com)