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Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Dealing with Fear: 3 Concepts to Master

In the last post we raised two questions about practice and performance. The essence of the inquiry is the sense and feel of these two activities. Both are a form of playing. You could argue that the outcomes may differ as we aim to improve in practice, and we aim to win at the end of performance.

But maybe there is more to it. Maybe an expectation or idea underneath the activity changes the way it feels. Maybe fear or lack thereof changes the feel in the moment and effects performance. With that idea, here are 3 important concepts to master when dealing with fear.

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Valence: Our mindset reacts to experience very quickly and on a deep internal level. Our sense of safety is always activated and for good reason. Therefore, we assign a valence—first unconsciously—to what we are experiencing as either positive or negative. On a very primal level and in the blink of an eye this sense evaluates whether to approach or avoid what is confronting us.

We rarely notice subtle positive experiences because of the alignment with our expectations of how the world should work. A feeling of being OK or content doesn’t garner much awareness. Not typically true for subtle negativity which activates our awareness to assess the situation. The problem with this reaction during performance is that it impacts sustained focus and attention. Past experiences or negative pieces of narrative can come into mind and now you are no longer in the present, no longer in flow.

The required skill is emotional mastery. This involves self-awareness and the ability to sense shifts in states, to make sense of the emotional message, and to regulate the energy of the emotion (more on this later). We can’t turn off our connection to the environment. We have emotions, otherwise we would be numb. Understanding valence allows us to quickly make sense of shifts in states without pushing beyond the stress we can tolerate.

Loss: Fear is an intimate friend of loss. Yet in competition, loss (just like a win) is an outcome at some time in the future. Performing is a process, linking together actions in the present. A competition is the process of competing and the outcome is determined by this process. While this may seem a play on words, it’s critical to learn to be engaged in the present.

When loss seeps into the mind, fear engages the fight, flight or freeze response by ramping up the sympathetic nervous system. This energy is not the state of calm alertness required for fluid execution. The skill is to allow thoughts of loss to come and go without engaging, judging, or fighting them. The mind is a master storyteller always trying to weave a coherent narrative. Learning to let go of losing, losses, and projections of future outcomes is critical to maintaining flow states within the sweet spot of performance.

Regulation: Part of emotional mastery is the ability to manage states. But understanding comes before managing—a process that cannot occur in the reverse order. Emotions, feelings and thoughts ebb and flow. You can’t stop thinking. You can’t stop feeling. And the source of this is experience—and you can’t stop experiencing. Experience lives at the intersection of our inner and outer world, the connection between out mindset and the environment. This reveals why we first have to understand the process before we can manage it.

One of the most important aspects of mental toughness is the ability to regulate the cognitive load between our situation and our inner resources. Emotions can overload our capacity and wreak havoc with attention and focus. Composure is paramount and the ability to regulate the flow of information and energy requires self-awareness and emotional mastery. Like a regulator, we downshift or upshift our intensity, accelerate or brake in order to meet the moment. We emote, make space, make meaning, and move on.

Staying within the Zone of Optimal Performance requires regulating the ebb and flow of experience, a process that fear distorts and upsets. Emotional mastery requires this regulation summed up by:

  • Emote: acknowledge and allow the arc of the feeling
  • Make space: do not become the feeling, rather keep it as object distant enough to observe (you will still feel the emotion)
  • Make meaning: what is the message and purpose of the emotion? What actions and decisions follow based on what you value?
  • Move on: return actively to the process in the moment

Like all psychological tools, they require practice. Just like performance skills, the muscle memory builds and becomes efficient over time–and part of the performance process.

 

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.

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photo credits: Photo by Felipe Giacometti) on Unsplash (unspash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Dealing with Fear: 2 Questions

Part One:

  1. What’s the difference between practice and performance?
  2. Do they feel different?

These questions may seem simple or obvious, but the answers point to many disappointments for many athletes. Somewhere along the athlete’s growth curve, the quality (feel, tone, engagement, intention, and intensity) of both practice and performance begin to take on a similar character. If you are an elite performer, then you are being this quality whenever you are engaged in some form of your endeavor. This represents the essence of aligned motivation meaning all your arrows are pointing in one direction.

This sense of being is a perspective that we will explore in greater depth in part two of this post. But for now, it is enough to say that in this stage of development the elite athlete has a sense of gratitude and purpose that is extremely fulfilling. Practice and competition are enlivened by the sense of uniqueness and connectedness of the activity, experiencing both change and continuity. This has been called “flow” by some, but the critical aspect is the true integration of being and doing in the present. In other words, you are simply being yourself and accepting who you are in that moment.

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Even for those just starting the competition journey in their sport, this critical component of performance begins to make sense. If not, something may be lurking beneath the surface and hindering your growth and the ability to execute at your best come “game time.” A sense of being “restrained” hinders the ability to fully immerse into the experience. The athlete in these moments will psychologically compartmentalize or have the past intrude upon the present and upset the balance required to execute.

Typically, fear lives at the bottom of not performing your best. Whether it’s at one end of the continuum, “Getting tight,” “Choking” or the subtle end that enters the mind as a “What if?” fear is the culprit. Fear gives rise to sensations, thoughts, actions, and feelings that veer one off the track of composed performance.

Most times athletes do not experience this during practice. There is more of a light and playful flavor to practice or training even in the most intense moments. Why? Because practice tends to be much more process-oriented in a safe setting and not necessarily focused on winning or losing.

The leap here is to realize each experience along the developmental arc—practice or play— is unique regardless of what seems to be at stake. When attitude (the arrows of motivation) is oriented on growth there is a far greater chance of being in the moment and owning the experience. Simply, big things are made up of little things. If the little thing feels bigger during competition, chances are fear is speaking to you and telling you that you have something to lose.

The truth is you have nothing to lose for you started with nothing. You may think you are losing something because of all you have put into the experience up to the point of performance. But the process is the reward. And this perspective begins to untie the knots of fear…

Next time we look at three concepts in dealing with fear.

 

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.

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photo credits: Photo by x ) on Unsplash (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Away From the Field

In these uncertain times, many voids fill our day. Like store shelves, emptiness is a reminder of what was there only a moment ago. We can live without sports and without competition. But that is not the point. In the void we can see all the things we take for granted, all the actions and choices that bring richness and fullness to life.

First and foremost, distance is a great teacher. Insight, hindsight, foresight and empathy all require distance in time and space. Without time and space and the reflection it offers, our perceptions would remain the same. So, in this separation from the playing field, make a pact that you will have a ritual to remind yourself of the blessing of play and the vehicle to grow.

Second, make a sincere and honest inventory of where you have come from and where you are going, who you are traveling with–and why.

Finally, notice we cannot make the journey alone. Appreciate those who help you, push you, and cooperate so that we can develop a sense of competence—the very source of competition. We need connection and we need to grow. Without these developmental processes we feel the emptiness that cannot be filled by any substance. For nothing replaces love, community, and passion.

 

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.

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photo credits: Max DiCapua, Francisco Gonzalez, Marvin Ronsdorf, Huy Phan (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Sports Psychology

Coaching Young Children

Recently I started coaching a middle-schooler who was new to the game of tennis. I did my usual assessment of skills and was pleasantly surprised given his lack of on-court experience. He’d taken a few lessons at another club and about halfway into the lesson he started sharing some of the negativity that came his way during that time. These were global comments on his ability based on what seemed to be a small sample size.

Criticizing other coaches is not helpful. But this boy was simply doing something very human—dealing with the confusion of experiences. In this case, his venting helped clear the space for a fresh start which is important to the learning process. You can’t have two competing self-concepts (“I am not very good” and “I am learning and improving”) in mind and expect to be present.

I have enjoyed coaching him and, interestingly, what started as a “just a couple of lessons” turned into a “We’d like to continue.” I offer this piece of information because it speaks to his parent’s tentativeness based on the previous experience. No different than any other relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever answered more questions prior to a first lesson. It felt like an interview for a defense department security clearance. And for good reason!

Because everyone is someone’s son or daughter.

And making that connection helps you to make some space between your plan, your needs, and to see that you are responsible for someone’s child.

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Notice that the title of this piece is “Coaching Young Children” and when we use this term we often think of little ones— four, five, six, seven-year-olds… But the point is we all share the same emotions and express the same feelings. They are child-like and nearly entirely nonverbal. Sure, the expressions may seem more mature as we age, and the context may be more complex. But there is a good reason why the emotional areas of the brain develop first and before we can even use words. Because it all comes down to meaning, something we feel and something very hard to explain. Every experience has meaning even if we deem it to be meaningless.

Coaching a young child, a middle-schooler or an adult may look different on the surface, but at the core it’s pretty much the same. It’s an experience based on understanding and connection. You can’t learn, grow or develop without meaning. In other words, changing anything whether it is wiring muscle memory or rewiring the idea you have of your potential as a tennis player, is expensive. It’s costly in terms of effort and time, and it’s fueled by motivation—the core of which is emotion in motion. Notice that motivation, emotion, motion, and motive all share the same root. The source is the same and nothing happens unless emotion fuels the process. We like to think that logic dictates. But the hard challenges we take on don’t often make sense from the outside. And it’s because the motivation will always be a unique fire and a singular experience for the individual.

 

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.

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photo credits: Kelly Sikkema (unspash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

What Do You Hear?

An important part of performing under pressure is to make sense of the voices in your head. In certain situations, they may seem louder that others. When things are going well, they can be particularly encouraging. Maybe not so when things are not going well.

Such is the nature of self-talk, and important aspect of self-regulation during performance. If you haven’t worked on making self-talk positive and productive, you are missing a key aspect of elite performance.

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Simply put, your self-talk needs to serve you. You get to decide whether your thoughts are facilitating or hindering the pursuit of excellence. Without doing the up-front work, there can be many characters up there telling you different things at different times.

Starting off, self-talk can be much like handling the trash-talkers in any sport. They try to push your buttons, get you thinking of things that you shouldn’t be thinking of. A change of state ensues, and focus is gone. But a resilient competitor finds the way to make sense of this one way or another so that nothing effects your composure.

So, what do you hear? And when do you hear it? Consider the guideline of: positive and productive. First, positive is not necessarily the cheerleader’s voice. Positive means clear, affirming, and without negatives. Our mind does not do well with negative commands or prompts (Example: Don’t think of a purple rabbit… what happened?). And productive means moving along the proper path or process towards a goal or objective. Thinking about failure is not productive.

Self-talk affects state. It can be your internal coach, guide, and friend. Or it can cause chaos and degrade performance. Here are three ways to improve self-talk during practice and competition.

  1. Notice any negative self-talk. Don’t fight it– notice it and take it apart. What is it that you want in that moment? Consider how you would coach a good friend in that moment. What would you say?
  2. Script particularly stressful situations. Have a stock phrase that keeps you composed and on track. Keep it short and sweet.
  3. Don’t get caught up in outcomes. Self-talk is about the process such as effort, focus, guiding, planning in the moment, etc. Avoid shoulda, woulda, coulda conversations in your mind.

Then…practice, reflect, and refine!

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: Morgan Sarkissian (unspash.com)