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.  

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Bad Day: What’s in a Name?

A level to aspire to as an athlete floats above dichotomous thinking. In the heat of execution, black and white thinking can turn the mental aspect of play into a pinball machine. And in the important growth activity of reflection, dichotomous thinking can stunt progress and leave the wheat for the chaff.

Above this good/bad mindset is one that acknowledges the reality of the continuum of complexity. Life and sports are open dynamic systems and to pin a result or situation down to a simple explanation ignores the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our sport. And both of these are open-ended in terms of growth.

Here’s a simple system to hold in mind regarding performance. If we use this 5-point scale…

  1. Low
  2. Below Average
  3. Average
  4. Above Average
  5. Superior

… and consider the possibilities between each interval (for example, the leap from level 3 to level 4 goes through 3.5, etc.) rarely will be at the same level of performance for long stretches of time. The numbers are arbitrary and simply a way to make sense of the moment and to make any adjustments. If you think of “who you are” in the moment, most of the time you hover around a 3. It does not mean that you are average.

As a matter of fact, if you are consistently a 3, you are performing pretty close to how you practice. Average means the average performance levels over a stretch of time, based on performance ability. It’s a self-comparison, not one compared with another. Aaron Rogers’ average performance will look different than a backup quarterback’s average. And Steph Curry’s will look different than the last guard on the depth chart.

Average, or the level we’ve called “3”, is the expectation we all have and what we refer to when we say, “I’m not playing my best,” or “I’m shooting lights out.” It’s a self-comparison based on the build-up of recent play and practice–your most recent sense of “who you are.” If you look back one or two years, you may notice your average level 3 is better than it was back then. That’s a sign of well-thought-out goals and attention to detail within practice sessions.

Anyone can execute well and win at a level 5. But it doesn’t happen often, a few times a year at best. Can you add value to a team at a level 1 or 2? Can you win an individual event at a level 2?

The title of this article refers to the dichotomous thinking of good days and bad days. This appraisal does not respect the truth that we are both change and continuity in all realms of being. With self-awareness, we can find out who we are at this time and on this day. All athletic endeavors require resiliency and a keen ability to adapt. Asking that simple question, “who are you,” allows you to get the most from the moment and to keep in the growth process—which includes the ups and downs of performance.

Try the simple system above. And adapt based on who you are (the inner sense of your performance) on any particular day, practice or event. You can always find resources within if you don’t cut off the source with the judgement, “It’s a bad day.”

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

photo credits: Jordan Rowland; Unsplash.com

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Breaking the Hold

An interesting example of cost-benefit (or coping versus growing) played out at the 2021 US Tennis Open in New York. In a match between Andy Murray and Stefanos Tsitsipas, a bathroom break became the center of controversy. Murray’s take on the moment, captured with a tweet the next day seems, well, interesting:

“Fact of the day. It takes Stefanos Tsitipas (spelling, Andy’s) twice as long to go to the bathroom as it takes Jeff Bazos (spelling, Andy’s) to fly into space. Interesting.”

Murray further emphasized his point by juxtaposing two emojis that I will leave to your imagination. I imagine the tweet sounds even more amusing (perhaps the source of spelling) when you hear it in your head with his Scottish accent.  

The source of the controversy has little to do with escaping the Earth’s atmosphere or movements of other kinds. It has to do with the assumption that Stefanos went into the stall for relief of a different kind in the form of texts from his father (and part of his coaching team) observing at courtside. You can’t get coaching in men’s tennis–although it happens. The point here is the use of the restroom and data plans. Tsitsipas allegedly has done this (the stall tactic and the stall text-ic) on other occasions. The reason we have to label this an “assumption” is we only have evidence of a missing player and a texting father courtside and the need for a change in game plan. Correlation? 

Here we meet the point of cost-benefit, and it’s where the overreach of coaches and parents becomes apparent. While the prohibited coaching might have influenced an outcome, the pursuit of the outcome became imbalanced in multiple dimensions. In other words, sacrifice the means for the ends.

And for what ends? What is lost when a player can’t think and adjust for himself, who needs to be told what to do? Who relies on coping via externals rather than developing internally? Who can’t self-regulate, be resilient, and handle the moment–in other words, has a process (means) that needs some upgrading?

Here’s where it gets a bit absurd. What’s the product? What are the ends? Titles? Money? Ol’ Stefanos has 7 singles titles and boatload of dough. So, what is the end that so overshadows the means? And, more importantly, is the end game clear? Winning at all costs is costly…

With a wide enough perspective, the ends do become transparent. Who remembers Pete Sampras and how often does his name come up in today’s conversation? Who remembers the products of his great career? Who among the thousands of fans attending the 2021 US Open even cares? Pistol Pete has 722 career winds, 64 singles titles, 14 major titles, and held the number one ranking for 286 weeks. If Pete wasn’t your hero, chances are you won’t know this. He was my tennis hero and I only knew that he won a lot and was number one for a long time. But I do remember how he played and represented himself. In other words, I remember the qualities–the means–that gave rise to his greatness.

My sons speak of Pete in the same time frame as Babe Ruth. Old! But tennis ends early for young men. Best to pay attention to the means…

The most important takeaway is: the process produces the product. If you gain the product, but the process is tainted in a manner that does not appreciate the quality of the process in the future, then chances are the cost is too high, the benefit cheapened. 

The moments when the process is refined to the level of the champion and the elite is done in the quiet moments of reflection and thoughtful dialogue, or under the fire of pressure and challenge. It’s an inward process that requires a structural change that can’t be accomplished from outside-in. It requires synthesis without the energy wasted on subterfuge. There’s a price to pay in both cases.

We don’t know the truth about what happened in the bowels of the stadium. But some do. And it’s worth talking about even if it’s in the form of just talking about the idea because you must choose to cope or develop at key points in time. If the stands-to-stall coach session isn’t true, I’m glad. If it is true, I wonder why at his age, father Tsitsipas doesn’t know better than to treat his son like he’s playing a 12 and under junior tournament. 

I have hope, though. After all, if we broke the hold of gravity and sent a ship into space…

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

cover shot

photo credits: Unsplash.com

 

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Signs and Signage of the Times

Every two years (it used to be four!) I find myself saying the same thing around bedtime. “Five more minutes,” which then turns into ten. And so on…The Olympics refuse to make it easy to say, goodnight, and I find my bedtime extended to hours not typically seen. But to lose a bit of sleep to witness some of the highest and best we have to offer seems like a very good deal.

Some of the greatest Olympic moments that filled me and inspired me are still with me like little notes in a lunchbox to “give your best.” Franz Klammer’s Gold Medal Downhill run in the 1976 Olympics at Innsbruck, a breathtaking 105 seconds on the edge of beauty and catastrophe. The 1980 USA Men’s Hockey team (boys versus men) taking Gold preceded by the question, “Do you believe in miracles?” in their semi-final game versus the USSR.

Many, many more each night over the years and they still give me chills. Awe is a need not so often fulfilled. To feel it and live it reminds that we are less than without a sense of awe at our center.

This year, in 2021, we experience the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. An asterisk will remind that the signage signifies a year of waiting. A year unlike any other. But awe still prevails. So many stories and conversations emerge and for many of us we find common ground in the joy of victory and the pain of falling a bit short. This year and years to come, I will remember Allyson Felix not just for her performance but for the person. In a time when role models and real heroes are veiled by celebrities and influencers, she is the real deal. As real and true as they come.

Since her first games in 2004 to the present, Allyson Felix has represented grace, humility, and a level of excellence unmatched.  The same can’t be said of a certain four-letter sports brand (rhymes with shnikey) who offered a major pay cut to Felix, negotiated while she was pregnant. But Allyson turned insult into opportunity and crossed the Olympic finish line with her own brand of shoes. Amen.

And while disrespected, Ms. Felix kept her eyes on what matters most to her—at home and away. She did it with her fierce will, boundless determination, and joy evident in her ever-present smile. I can’t imagine a better role model, a better representative of self, country—and her own enterprise.

Some come and go. And some are found out. It’s consistency over time that makes the true champion. Allyson Felix has been consistently great as an athlete and a person. We are blessed to be able to experience her greatness and steadfast integrity from a place so far away from home. Worlds away she is worlds above. Someone to look up to.  

Note: This post first published by this author on Afatherspath.org on 8/8/2021

Photo credit: dreamstime.com

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Reflective Coaching Practices V

The final reflective coaching practice examines space and time from a birds-eye view. We truly step back and search for patterns in the structure and quality of our coaching. Patterns that either move us forward toward short- and long-term goals—or create plateaus and stagnation. It is difficult to see these patterns from within. Making time to observe from a distance of time and space provides the practical point of view to see these patterns in action.

Reflect on Patterns. Was I aware of coaching patterns today? As we improve in areas, we become unconsciously competent in terms of skills and habits. This saves time and energy and allows for fresh experiences. The problem arises when we are working solely from these patterns that flow just below conscious awareness. Becoming aware of our teaching, language, and relational patterns helps to discover points of change and leverage. We can become aware of the autopilot mode and step back for a fresh perspective. Newness and novelty stimulate growth. So does fun! Going through the motions of a stale lesson plan may look outwardly active but is a passive approach to growth and can lead to the opposite of desired results.

Putting it all together, there are three very powerful reasons for incorporating these reflective practices. First, data and video offer externals—the content and products of performance, but reflective practices get deep into the process and context of the experience. First-serve percentage may be an important metric, but, in hindsight, you find that not all the serves were the same. Moments differ in intensity. The qualities of interoception, self-awareness, effort, and motivation are not evident in cumulative statistics. These important elements are captured in the reflective practice and are pivotal to next level performance.

Secondly, imagination, creativity, and vision require a different mental space than the immediacy of teaching, coaching, or practicing. Performance and deliberate practice require presence and attention to execution in the moment. The vision of a future and more highly evolved self flows from a deeper and more reflective space. One that includes past, present, and future selves. The blueprint may start from a blank page but provides the receptive space to the imagination and creativity we intuitively know as potential. Without engaging in this actualizing process, we simply get more of the same and are left to rationalize and wonder about the metrics generated from these “same” experiences.     

Finally, reflective practices respect the dynamic processes of challenge and support, of the developmental path of differentiation to integration. We learn, practice then incorporate. We challenge then repair. We push ourselves then rest. We challenge ideas and habits of thinking, then reflect.

The rhythm of this process is unique to the individual and is the lifeblood of development. Again, a product-focused culture is not fond of the reflective space required for this process. But without it, days and practices have a similar, mechanical tone. In these familiar routines we may know where we are and what we are doing—the ultimate in control— yet without employing these reflective practices where we are heading lacks the required vision and leadership. 

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

cover shot

photo credits: Unsplash.com