Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Mindset (Part 2)

In the last post, we talked about two possible ways to consider mindset. If a competitor’s mindset is situational in terms of competing, then what could be the overarching mediator of this type of mindset? And is that a source of such contradictory behaviors on and off the field of play? Is this the source of inconsistency in events? Careers?

If you listen to coaching or teaching most of the content is on skill development and execution of strategy. In other words, there are distinct skills and a playbook for every sport. Then, how can similar skills and similar strategies produce such disparate outcomes? Is it talent? Temperament? There are many factors, but the question is: What is not happening?

black dart pink attach on yellow green and red dart board
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A targeted and balanced approach to growth and development.

Two things are happening at every moment when it comes to learning to compete: the player’s development and the coach, mentor or teacher’s development. When most players are learning their sport they are far from independent and highly influenced by authority figures. This is a powerful source of mindset for at this stage young athletes are learning by observing, modeling, and the culture of the environment. And given that coaches can be at different developmental stages, four things can happen (for simplicity sake, we will use “coach” to describe whoever is guiding the competitor’s growth process):

  • The coach will be centered on their own program or personal needs and goals. Players are told what their goals should be both overtly and covertly.
  • The coach will teach what they have learned based in the organization (Academy, etc.) they represent or their own experiences of being coached.
  • The coach will teach based on a clearly defined coaching philosophy with the athlete’s individual goals and needs in mind.
  • The coach will see the developmental trajectory of a player as a process and adapt to the needs of the player in all developmental realms. The player is seen as a whole and unique individual.

The system the athlete learns in matters. A system that looks at only competence and not character and the interpersonal is to look at development as one-dimensional. This becomes the roots of a situational mindset, and performance and outcomes are often determined by its weakest link (such as the inability to adapt, handle pressure, etc.). Simply put, a comprehensive mindset does not compartmentalize experience, therefore every experience can be used to mature and learn.

 

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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Mindset

Over the next few posts, I would like to bring the important concept of mindset into full view. It is a widely used term, but like many words, it may carry different meanings depending on who is speaking. Some have used the term along with high performance, mental toughness, and in the popular book by Carol Dweck, she proposes growth or fixed mindsets. There are also connections with mindset when self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-efficacy are discussed.

I’d like to offer a slightly different take based on research, clinical, and coaching experience. A good portion of this experience comes from listening to athletes process before, during, and after competitive events—from professional to amateur, as well as listening to parents talk to their sons and daughters. Language is connected to thinking, and for many, depending on developmental stage, language accurately reflects an individual’s mindset. In other words, what you say, the quality of your self-talk, and how you process experience will reflect so many aspects of mindset including locus of control, optimism, resilience, development, expectations, and belief systems.

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Speaking generally about mindset,  I would like to present one major idea to frame your thinking. Depending on the individual, either: 1) a mindset is a subset of a way of thinking and is situationalor 2) a mindset reflects the overall quality of thinking.  Regarding the former, psychology and language have a quality of labeling and compartmentalizing experience and concepts. Boundaries and rationalizations place process and product into neat little packages as if they are separate from the whole. Interestingly, psychological defenses have this very quality with the goal of reducing stress and anxiety.

Consider how many times we find athletes in the news or in an event acting in a way that flies in the face of professionalism or codes of fair play. Even sportscasters offer commentary solidifying that mindset can be placed in brackets depending on circumstance:

“Athletes are not role models.”

“Just appreciate their skills and athletic ability rather than their personality, attitude or behaviors.”

“He’s got a temper, but he’s really a nice guy off the (field, court, diamond, golf course).”

“Player X has some problems off the field, but shows up to play.”

The main point is that if one is using a particular mindset in one situation, and a different one in another, then there must be some overall mindset governing the most important actions: choices based in values. For choices govern consequences. If a mindset is “a subset of a way of thinking” then manipulation and self-deceit on or off the field are as likely as any positive outcome. I can think of no other factor that more significantly stunts the trajectory of an athlete’s growth and development.

In the latter explanation of mindset, one that reflects the overall quality of thinking, who you are on the field of play is who you are in life. There is no separation between the player and the person. Who you are in life is who you are on the field of play. There are no boundaries or artificial separations to make. There is a consistency of being that aligns with development and the determination needed to stay with the process of achieving long-term goals.

Next time we will take a closer look at this overarching concept of mindset, its benefits, and how to begin to “think” this way.

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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Tension Connection (Part 2)

Going right to the connection between the player and the equipment, a major source of tension can be understood where these two meet. This connection is vital to another important connection, that of impact or as we have called it, “the moment of truth.” Again, this is true of any sport that requires one to grip the equipment. For simplicity sake, I am going to use the visual of the moment of truth in tennis.

novak fh contactrog fh contactcontact tennis

For the most part, if we consider the impact of a ball at the common strike zone (not too high or low) a pattern presents itself. You will notice that the racquet is perpendicular to the ground or nearly so. The only thing that matters here is that this is the position of the connection to the equipment at contact while playing without pressure—in other words, “just right tension.” If we use the scale previously mentioned where 1 is loosest, and 10 is the death grip, then we can say that these connections represent a grip tension of less than 5. It allows the fluidity of release while keeping the structure of the swing path. And for your personal use, just consider what your grip tension is (1-10), and then consider the next point:

Within a competition, you have fallen out of the sweet spot of performance and are experiencing stress. You feel tighter, and mentally feel a sense of pressure. For all competitors in these situations, things shorten. Muscles tighten, grips tighten, and swings get short and less fluid. Maybe your grip pressure goes from a 3 to a tense 7. What happens at the point of impact?

With the change of pressure, you change the connection with the equipment and the moment of truth. If you employ a semi-western forehand grip and tighten from a 3 to 7, the diagram below will likely happen. Notice the bottom edge leads and the sense of squaring up to the ball is now off. Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try it. Maybe your racquet or clubface or bat will move differently. Subtle or not, it will move. And because things get shorter, you are often out of tempo as well. Tightness and lateness go together because when you are out of the Zone of Optimal performance time has a different quality.

tension connection 1

What’s the most important effect? The outcome of the impact… Process produces product—and now it gets really interesting. Competing is about executing and adjusting. If you adjust based on the product, you may get even more lost. Many times in error analysis, I will ask simply “What happened?” The reply says it all for it speaks to process or outcome. If the moment of truth is off square, you will feel it—or not. I often ask, “What did you feel?” Again, the answer says it all. If the tension changes contact and produces and off-center strike, without process data (your sense of “feel”) you may adjust by firming up your grip. Now you are really going down a dark road.

This is why it is important to adjust based on the process, not the outcome. You play like you practice—which is why practice must reproduce the conditions of play. You have to create tension and a just right feel. And you have to know how to adjust based on the feel—not just the outcome. The outcome is data, it is the product, but working backward to the source of control, you come to the connection: you and how your process got you to the moment of truth.

Bottom line: develop your awareness of self, your kinesthetic awareness of your movements, your process for producing and executing in a repeatable manner. It matters because you maintain a sense of power and control. Adjustment without awareness does not build capacity. Without awareness and the feel of how you get to the moment of truth, you reduce your outcomes to: good days and bad days.

That leaves way too much to chance.

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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Tension Connection

In the next few posts, we will dive deeper into the connection between tension and performance. While all athletes experience some sense of tension in performance, the points of connections have similarity depending on the sport. For this article, we will explore sports that require the use of a handle. While I may reference the most popular sports, the connection works regardless of the equipment you are holding: a bat, a club, a racquet, etc.

man in white denim pants and black sandals playing golf during daytime
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In an earlier post, I talked about moments of truth, when preparation, anticipation, and execution meet at a point in time: the batter connecting with a pitch, a golfer driving a tee shot, the tennis ball meeting the strings on a cross-court forehand. One of the key connections in all of these moments of truth is the athlete’s grip on the handle. While the type of grip on the equipment of choice is important, the quality of the grip at the moment of truth is a significant factor between the expectation and the execution. Any competitor can tell you the type of grip they employ, how they hold the club,etc., yet how well they can describe the connection is a better indicator of consistent performance. I use a 10-point scale to describe this quality, where 1 is so loose the club or racquet flies out of your hand, and 10 is so tight that blood flow is cut off and parts of the hand turn white.

Everyone is, to some extent, unique. For example, if a tennis player uses the popular semi-western grip, the actual output will be different if her grip pressure is 2 versus 8. Studies have confirmed these unique grip signatures. One such study of golfers collected data from nearly ten thousand grip sensors and found that golfers “had their own unique grip force ‘signature’” which were repeatable but different than the signatures of other golfers.

Why is this important? The grip represents the balance of structure and fluidity. Not enough structure in the connection and it’s hard to repeat the swing path and the moment of truth. Too much structure and the anatomy can’t perform in a fluid, repeatable manner. This is the diminishing effect of tension. More important is the tension that resides out of the athlete’s awareness.  Coaches will talk about “feel” and this starts to get to the root of the tension connection. Under pressure, our awareness contracts and we lose some of the internal capacity that allows us to sense this “feel.” Thus, chips fall short or are skulled long. Second serves find the middle of the net. Bats can’t catch up to fastballs that, under less pressured circumstances, are ripped into the gap.

It all starts with self-awareness and a mindset of curiosity, imagination, and continuous improvement. While equipment matters, in the end, it is the connection to the equipment that matters most. Developing this awareness of self, and the awareness of self in space needs to be an integral part of practice. Start today. Take the time each practice session to become more aware of this connection to your equipment. Give yourself the internal feedback you need to raise your sense of connection. Use the 10-point scale. It’s arbitrary but effective if you use it consistently. You will notice, over time your connection to your unique grip signature. And you will find your ability to repeat that “just right” feel increases.

Next time, we get a close “look” at the tension connection.

 

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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Reference:

Komi, E. R., Roberts, J. R., & Rothberg, S. J. (2008). Measurement and analysis of grip force during a golf shot. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology222(1), 23-35.

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Stress and its Source (Part 3)

In this final entry on internal stressors, let’s examine these sources:

  • Unclear goals
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents

Note, again, that all of these stressors are really made up of beliefs and expectations within a competitive mindset. If these internal maps are clear, aligned, and connected to powerful sources of intrinsic motivation, stress is manageable and productive. For “just right” stress is required for growth.

sport computer runners athlete
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Unclear goals: Why do you do what you do and why do you want what you want? The clarity of these answers is the intention of your future self. Unclear goals provide unnecessary stress because they do not connect the present and the future in a precise and meaningful way. The source of unclear goals is unclear thinking and external influence. In other words, you haven’t figured out what you really want, why, and how to get there. The external influence is committing yourself to the approval or design of others in your camp. This will never work. Others can help you clarify your goals, but the goals need to be defined and owned solely by you.

 

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Lack of resilience: A mindset that accepts adversity and the ups and downs that are a natural part of growth and development will be more resilient than one that avoids, fails to adjust, minimizes or makes excuses in the tough times. Any competitor can be strong when all is going well. But history shows that momentum shifts and down follows up. A resilient mindset handles the pressure of challenge and actually becomes stronger, smarter, and more flexible within this downturn. Our ability to adapt becomes more diverse as we pick up more physical and mental tools for our toolbox, and widen our perspective.

Inflated sense of self and ability. This is closely tied to resilience because of a fixed mindset that ignores data that does not fit with your present identity. Chances are the people around you inflate you, make excuses with you, and have a sense of their own selves tied too closely to you. Chances are those who have been honest with you are no longer in your sphere of influence. And the stress you feel is from maintaining a false sense of self and fighting the forces of change, adaptation, and flexibility. The stress here is tied to knowing deep inside that you are not getting any better and have nothing in place to change this notion. In other words: denial.

Minimizing opponents. This is one of the biggest mistakes a competitor can make and informs the difference between confidence and cockiness. There are fewer factors within your control than beyond your control—and your opponent is a major form of the latter. The source of stress you feel from minimizing your opponent derives from a lack of respect, a lack of preparation, and a lack of awareness. In defeat, the catchphrase is “They were so lucky!”

Developing a mindset that allows an athlete to execute optimally during the ups and downs of competition is an active process—one that always needs to be reflected upon and refined. All competitive experiences are, in some way, new and unique ones. Being clear and untying the knots of internal sources of stress allows you to make the most of practice and play.

 

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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Stress and its Source (Part 2)

Performing, executing, competing is challenge enough without bringing the weight of a cluttered mind along for the ride. As athletes, part of developing a clear mental approach is untying unproductive knots in our mindset. And if we are developing, we always feel the pull within the gap of where we have been and where we are going. As mentioned in the last post, negative and debilitating stress arises from:

  • A dominant focus on outcome
  • Unclear goals
  • A lack of process goals
  • An identity fixed to outcome
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents
  • Poor decision-making

Today, we will deconstruct the first four, and I will offer some suggestions for constructing a cleaner approach to your best performance.

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A dominant focus on outcome: Regardless of the sport, in the end only one gets to be the last one standing. So, in a field of dozens of competitors or teams, one outcome goal is common among each: Winning it all. If this is the dominant focus the path will feel heavy and stressful. Consider the most successful baseball team in history, the NY Yankees, have won 27 World Series. Despite their success, they have been also-rans nearly 80% of their existence. During the 2017-18 season of the PGA tour, players ranked 75-150 amassed a total of only 4 tournament wins. 12 NFL teams have never won a Super Bowl. We can go on, but I think you get the drift.

The bigger and further out the goal, the more stress you will feel internally of you have no defined pathway. It is absolutely fine to have long-term goals but a sense of control comes from the moment-to-moment process of effort and execution in the moment. If you are heading somewhere you have never been, you need good directions. The straightaways, turns, and unexpected roadblocks can be managed with a plan heavy in the short-term with a focus on process. Which leads to:

A lack of process goals: If the outcome is the “what” in our plan, then the process goals are the “how” we get there. Over the years of competition, the biggest loss of potential happens in practice. While many work hard and give effort, often there is no direction or purpose to the practice. Doing the same things over and over is only part of the path. Process goals help to identify and focus on specific areas of improvement. Each practice, each hour (and each event!) is an opportunity to get better. But you must first have purpose (a process goal) in place to guide the intentional and deliberate practice.

An identity fixed to outcome: Here we make the connection to mindset. If your sense of self is tied to winning and losing then you will be on shaky ground and never get a sense of stability. A fixed mindset focuses on the black and white of outcome and talent. It is full of excuses when things do not work. A growth mindset focuses on the key elements of effort, attitude, and improvement and derives stability in that we are always a work in progress.

Unrealistic expectations: Our perception is our reality. When there is a big gap between our expectations and what the moment of truth presents us, then it is time to examine expectations. This does not mean you shouldn’t have high expectations. But, these need to be focused on what you can control. The bigger the goal, the more moving parts exist outside of your ability to control them. If you expect to give your best effort, adapt to circumstances, and compete your best, then these expectations are realistic for they are within your control. If you expect to be the best all of the time and this is your only expectation, this is not realistic and more importantly, the focus of energy is flawed. Notice how things continually return to having the mindset that allows you to be the best you can be in the moment. More on that in future posts. Next, we look at the final four sources of internal stress.

 

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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Stress and its Source

While many performance psychology texts address stress and composure, information that is not readily available or discussed is what lies at the very root of stress. In practice leading up to an event most energy is spent on physical skills with some time devoted to executing plans, sizing up opponents or the venue, and decision-making. Most of this occurs in an environment not quite as stressful as the actual performance. Yet, stress and interpretation of challenge enter all areas of performance, particularly decision-making within the processes of executing and adjusting. Handling the pressure is a point of leverage between making the right moves, finding balance, and keeping in the zone of optimal performance.

sport united states of america ball jump
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The roots of stress are beneath our actual assessment of the situation once we sense the pressure. Often athletes enter the fray only with tools to cope with stress rather than to understand the source. In other words, on some level stress is always one up.

So, what is that source? Very simply: Meaning. Regardless of your sport, you have a purpose for competing and this is embedded in motivation. The source of stress both beneficial and detrimental is in the connection to meaning in the moment. The good stress is created in the improvement gap created by well-crafted goals. Negative and debilitating stress arises from:

  • A dominant focus on the outcome
  • Unclear goals
  • A lack of process goals
  • An identity fixed to an outcome
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents
  • Poor decision-making

 

This list is not exhaustive, but at the core is a lack of alignment between the athlete, time and place. And all of these are connected to meaning. We will get to this list in the next post, but for now, let’s take a look at the last point: poor decision-making. The decision-making process sounds fundamentally like a cognitive task, but there is much more to it. You can have a plan, a decision tree, and all the data in front of you and still make a poor choice because of the veil of emotion. Some will even say you have to take emotion out of the decision-making process. But that doesn’t work. We aren’t wired that way. There are more neural pathways from the emotional and arousal centers to the thinking centers, then the other way around. On a practical level, it means you can’t talk yourself into something you don’t believe. For at the heart of belief is meaning.

When you meet the moment you are constructing your perception based on meaning. If there is a mismatch between what you want and what is happening, stress ensues and on a deep level, you feel threatened. This is the reason that coping is not enough. You can’t de-activate or self-talk your way out of fear. You can only survive long enough to get through it—and by that time you have lost your way, gotten swept up by negative momentum.

You have to deconstruct the fear to develop the true sense of meeting the moment. Fear derives from loss. And if you have done the work and are really clear on purpose, you realize fear is connected to an illusion. In other words, the fear feels real and signals trouble, based on the points above. But in truth, you have nothing to lose because you actually have nothing. Play it out in any sport and you sound like the guy in the booth with the microphone:

Here’s Jack with the birdie putt. (Birdie is an outcome pulling away from the process. Focus on the putt.)

Here’s Jill serving for the match. (That’s 4 points, minimum, away. Focus on this serve.)

Here’s Jack at bat with the winning run on third. (Focus on the pitch, not the win, the score or the runner on third. The only control is making contact with this pitch.)

Here’s Jill with the free throw for the win. (You only have control of your process on the foul line. Once the ball is out of your hands, it’s gone.)

The illusion is the outcome you have created. It does not mean that you do not visual, practice and prepare for the outcomes you want. And it is ok to want the outcome. But if you bring the outcome into the process, it is an illusion because it does not exist in the present. The illusion creates an unnecessary sense of stress. Performing at high levels is challenging enough. No need to create more.

Catch yourself creating the illusion and bring yourself back to the present. That illusion is seductive and it‘s different for everyone, but it is very much like the horizon. It looks real—but it is not the end of the world.

dawn sky blue ocean
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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, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.