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leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Coping and Developing

There are two important processes happening when you move towards a goal. The goal may not even be explicit as you make choices based on value all day long. And the goal could be to not have a goal. But these processes are even more noticeable when you do have an idea where you are heading.

Coping represents management in the short term. Developing represents leadership in the long term. Coping without developing can be a lifestyle. Same problems come round and round managed in some fashion in the moment. Same frustrations. The unspoken goal here is for things not to change, to get a different result for the same choices and behaviors. Tools and strategies have become buzzwords in this vein. “I need some tools to handle this.” “I use this strategy when…”

Problem is when you stay in this type of loop, it becomes a closed system. “I know my triggers” but neglect the possibilities of becoming something more. States become traits and you get stuck avoiding or coping with the same situations. Development, in this case, presents as the edge of discomfort and something to avoid.

Intention at the leading edge of growth is doing, being, or having something new and better. It has to be of higher value, or you wouldn’t call it a goal, wouldn’t be motivated to pursue the outcome or quality in the future. This is the essence of development and represents an open system. One that embraces the complexity of the flow between the internal and external qualities and experiences of life.

In an open system of development, frustration or dissonance is not a signal to stop or avoid. These emotions are just messages to tell you where you are in the development of a skill or mental capacity. You can only handle so much change and stress at one time, so coping in this case is regulating the process. You regulate the thoughts, feelings, and sensations without losing sight of the path ahead. You cope with frustration, confusion, or loss and know that if you continue to adjust, learn, and practice, you will develop. Every stage is like this. Every plateau is just a message that a rise (or fall) is ahead. It is up to you to interpret the experience from a future self.

With both processes working towards a future goal, obstacles are seen in a different light. In an open system they are assumed. You will meet challenges. You can handle them and use them to become smarter and stronger. That is the purpose of the problems faced on the path of development. Growth requires resilience and learned, embodied experience with the pull of the future guiding.

Finally, control feels quite different when you are open to the challenges of developing. In a closed system you avoid, discount, or dismiss experiences beyond the edge of control. While developing in an open system, a sense of control comes from trust in your ability to learn and adapt (smarter) and regulate the dissonance (stronger). It’s comfort with the discomfort at the edges of chaos.

photo credit: Jametlene Reskp unsplash.com

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Scattered

It can be argued that the most important quality for performance is the fidelity of attention. Attention connects focus to motivation, all our mental models of performance, and goals. It’s the process of attending that taps into intention, learning, informing, decision-making, and growth.

Try this experiment. Take a ball and toss it in the shape of an arc above eye level and completely across your body to the other hand. When you get a rhythm, add another ball, tossing the second one higher or lower than the first. Now add a third.

There’s a reason it’s called “juggling.” The inexperienced juggler is trying to meld multiple tasks—one ball and one toss at a time. The experienced juggler is aware of the three balls in space and focused on the process as a one activity. If one of the balls goes offline, his hand “finds” the ball. The juggler has a sense of space and rhythm that makes the movement experience whole.

Likewise, the dancer is aware of the dance yet not the mechanics which have been internalized in rehearsal. There’s a sense of quality held together as a whole by rhythm. And the chess master sees patterns, not one move at a time, and sees checkmate well before the moves are made.

These skills and aptitudes are trained, honed with the highest quality of attention.

Training attention is a process. And multi-tasking is not a thing. Doing unrelated tasks, or marginally related tasks at the same time simply means you are shifting attention in time, focused on a single task at one time. Then shifting to the next task. It’s linear and not effective. And it scatters attention.

Try videoing the experience of multi-tasking. You will notice things you do not notice in real time. Stops and starts. Hesitation and noticeable pauses. Changes in rhythm and breathing. Like the first time you tried rubbing your belly and patting your head.

We live in a world that has compressed the time envelop. We want things now. Waiting doesn’t seem optional. And the competition for your attention increases noticeably—in shorter time frames. And sometimes without you noticing.

If you’re scattered when you are not competing, practicing, or performing, there’s a good chance the quality of your attention is less than in the important time frames of executing. Chances are you spend most or a good portion of your day not training, learning, practicing, or competing in your sport. But you are always attending. Because attending is a process and how well you attend is a quality.

Natural processes require fidelity. Fundamentals work this way. Try scattering your sleep, your eating, your relationships, your learning, or your trust…

It doesn’t work. The quality suffers as does the process (and, therefore, outcomes).

Intention informs attention. While each day has a rhythm and a structure that includes the highest priority activities, don’t underestimate the power of “paying” attention during the “in-betweens” or activities of seemingly low importance. Do what you are doing. And be present. And limit activities that scatter attention.

Over time you will notice a difference in attention in everything you do.

Photo credit: Oliver Hihn (unsplash.com)

leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Ghost

One truism for athletes is “Father time always wins.” How long you get to play or compete in your field is both under your control– and not. The latter is very complex. But one thing I’ve learned is, for most athletes, the slope curves steeply downward towards the end of a competitive career. While knowledge and understanding grows, the physical capacity declines. With the decision to move on, a void opens wide and loud, and demands that you pay attention…

Well, 2022 will be remembered in some fashion as the year one of the greatest tennis players of all time bid farewell. Roger Federer left with a grace and class matching his career and manner on court. He offered a two-page letter to his fans that I urge you to read. If, rather than a good-bye, you consider his words as a vision for a fulfilling future, not a single box remains unchecked.

Even when they leave, the spirit of all the players and performers are out there with you above the field of play. Their memory exists in a wordless fashion as a part of history. Space has memory, and when you get down to it, it really is all connected.

There are enough salutes and well wishes for Federer out there. I would just like to share the impression I had of him when all the tumblers clicked, and I had the unlikely opportunity to see him front row at the US Open in New York City during his incredible run of five straight Open titles.

I’ll spare all the self-evident superlatives. What struck me was that Federer was like a ghost on the court. In an era of high decibel grunts, squeaky sneakers, and loud exhales, Roger moved about without a sound. Sure, you heard him stop, make subtle adjustments and, and at the time, the unparalleled explosion of the ball off his racquet. But in the process, Roger just seemed to float above the court and hover in graceful turns and purposeful lines as sublime and beautiful as any form of dance.

His face serene, not a muscle tense. One purposeful move flowed to another without a hitch in the transition. For the entire match my jaw hung slack. Truly I saw a ghost. I would look up to the huge stadium screen to see if the flat, digital version matched the true experience. Nope. How could it?  

While Federer was on his run of winning majors, over 100 other titles, and sitting at number one in the world, what I will remember most is how he played and competed. His grace and elegance belied the work and effort required to “make it look easy.” In a sports world growing in postures and chest-pounding, Federer offered no seam between the player and the playing.

He inspired the ephemeral and much-needed sense of awe. And, like most artists, left his mark extending the arrow of time in both directions.

photo credit: the author

Performance psychology

Above the Fields

Above the Field of Play turned four years-old on August 4th. One of the many things I’ve learned from sports (and life) is that you can have a well-articulated plan that becomes worn, incomplete, or obsolete. Or sometimes it evolves to something more than you anticipated. Since starting this adventure of trying to capture what is hard to express, but needs to be heard in, on, and above the fields of performance, well…I’ve changed. I’ve met many people, had many teachers in many forms, and been through life challenges that I never saw coming. And I’ve come to realize that my plan needs upgrading. 

With that said, moving forward, this space will be about providing information truly above the field of play, but also above the important life spaces that require the same knowledge, character, commitment, and dedication.

Originally, when I considered the space above the field of play, I thought of all the development that occurs in body and mind in to improve and perform in a way that honors the essence of growth and competition. And by competition, I refer to the origin of the word: to strive together. We can’t develop competence of any form without relationship. It doesn’t happen in isolation.

Yet information continues to explode, and lists, systems, and programs arise as if there is a template for the development of expertise. Not so. There are principles and guides that inform the endeavor. And the process is sacred ground that starts with a very clear idea of what you are willing to do, to give, and to give up on the rise to the rare air—the higher reaches above the field of play.

So, I will refer to the fields of play from here on. For if you go deep enough, the process of development and mastery within the whole of relationships is very much the same.  

Photo credit: Melanie Panepinto

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Price of Not Paying Attention

At any competitive level, attention, focus, adaptation, and resilience decide who moves on and who is left behind. They are the mental qualities and skills that are difficult to quantify and missing from the analytics. On paper, two teams or two individuals could look like a toss-up when you consider the measurables. Yet on game day, results reveal that intangibles can never be overlooked. And, therefore, intentional or otherwise, the unquantifiable qualities are an aspect of every training experience. In other words, you are moving forward because you are intentionally getting the most out of experience (learning, reflecting, adapting, improving)—or you are stuck in a headspace governed mostly by past patterns and mood (see the previous post, Bad day: What’s in a Name?). In this “stuck” pattern, others with similar physical skills and abilities are moving ahead. So, you really are never in the same place.

Attention is the cornerstone of development and performance. While this may sound like a bold statement, attention connects to every aspect of preparation and execution. We pay attention to what we value. We attend to what is meaningful and what we are aiming at. It can be no other way as our mind is goal-directed. Deeper, there is a nuance to attention that recent studies have helped to clarify. While this is very simplified, there are two modes of attention, representing different networks in the brain: The Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Task-Positive Network (TPN).

The Default Mode Network is where the mind goes when not involved in a task. The DMN activates during mind-wandering, thinking of self and relationships, episodic memory, other forms of mental time travel such as to-do lists, thinking of the trophy or thinking of losing in the middle of the event, or craving a cheeseburger. In other words, DMN is steeped in the narrative of the past or the future.

The Task-Positive Network activates during specific tasks in the present such as hitting a baseball, shooting a free throw, hitting a drive off the first tee, or writing an essay. TPN requires focus and alertness in the present, moving step by step through the process.

While this, again, is an oversimplification, you can say when one system is dominant the other takes a back seat. Why does this matter?

Attention to a task is expensive. And some research finds that our mind wanders nearly half our waking life (DMN). These major brain systems are part of an architecture that dates back millenniums. Best to work with them rather than make believe we can outsmart them.

Some coaches preach “the process” and “being present.” Sounds like the TPN and sounds like a great idea. But the DMN is termed the “default” for good reason. This system qualifies who we are and how we are over time—a necessity for survival and making sense of our story. Best to establish a rhythm to these modes, and best to engage awareness of the systems within the process.

The practical application of these networks during practice and competition starts with these building blocks:

  • Developing the skill: Awareness can be developed above these networks. In other words, we can notice whether our attention is not in the present (DMN) or is engaged in the process of a task in the here and now (TPN).
  • Noticing and Shifting: The rhythm of the sport will decide the ebb and flow of these networks. The important mental skills then become noticing and shifting based on this flow. Football, tennis, golf, and baseball are examples of sports having natural “breaks” between action and inaction (this does not mean that you aren’t processing or strategizing). A gymnast must practice engaging the TPN for longer time spans which vary (floor exercise versus the vault). You have the important task of identifying this rhythm for your sport.
  • Flow: The feel of “flow” is different in each of these modes. The DMN can be a space of great creativity, insight, and immersion. And the flow of TPN can be developed between and within practice sessions with mindfulness, visualization, and mental rehearsal.

Attention is a valuable resource intensified by clarifying goals and values. Understanding these modes and their place in mental processing can lead to leaps in your mental approach. Awareness of attention and “where” it’s aimed, can help you to continuously develop the ability to shift, reflect, and shift once more. Most importantly, these skills are not just required to develop sport-specific skills—but also resilience.