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

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photo credits: Photo by Felipe Giacometti) on Unsplash (

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Aligning Development for Players and Programs

(Note: A version of this article appeared in the November/December publication of Tennis Pro)

Whether you’re a player, a coach or you direct a major program, there is a simple method to assess alignment—to see if all the parts are heading in the same direction. The method is simple in theory, but hard in practice. Hard because it requires an enormous amount of honesty, vision, commitment to quality, and a willingness to adapt. Over the years I have often observed that individuals in certain settings, programs or teams do not improve despite having clear goals. Sometimes, as is the case in high school and college teams, entire teams do not improve during the season. On a larger scale, some programs fail to evolve despite the investment of effort and resources. Why is this so?

There are many factors underlying the stunted development of a player, team or program, but most of these reasons follow a common theme: misalignment. While a systems or program analysis is costly in time, energy, and resources, a simple and informative way of examining alignment is to consider three major factors: people, process, and product. How a system functions, whether it is a single player, a team or program of hundred players, reveals the value and investment in each of these factors. More importantly, how these three factors relate to each other reveals beliefs and expectations of what truly matters—the motivation for choices and actions over time.

Looking at people, process and product within a system, either a horizontal or vertical picture emerges:

process alignment graphic

Figure 1. Horizontal: People, process and product heading in the same direction, integrated and valued.

hierarchy in system graphic


Figure 2. Vertical: One part of the system may be valued more; system is not integrated.

Most misaligned programs or systems appear in the horizontal form (Figure 2). A hierarchy exists that is implicit beneath the explicit vision, mission, and core values. The outward message or motto may be “All in” but the meta-message is something different. As a player or coach, if you step back and reflect on experience, on some level you understand where you are in the hierarchy. Again, this scrutiny requires a great helping of honesty to admit there may be a misalignment between beliefs and actions.

The misaligned program typically puts the product or outcome above all else—because it is measurable. That outcome may be the number of college players produced. Or there might be a secondary outcome beneath the advertised goal, such as income and profit or recruiting. None of these outcomes are inherently bad and they do matter. But if the product comes without regard for the process and the people, then trouble is on the horizon.

What might this type of misalignment look like? Here is a sample tennis program (and can represent any organized system):

  • A few players receive the most coaching and attention on the “top” courts, while the rest of the players flounder on the outer courts.
  • Players receive the same instruction without emphasis on their unique talents and abilities.
  • Personal player goals (if they are even created and documented) are slanted towards outcome with little or no emphasis on process.
  • Little regard is given to the process of practice. Players do the same training or some variation every practice (The what is the same but the how and why are not emphasized).
  • Lesson plans are either missing, minimal, or general and without differentiation for individuals.
  • The focus is more on recruiting top players to the program then developing the ones already present.
  • The 80/20 principle (more like 95/5) applies and the lack of progress of majority who do not produce is explained away by competition or personal deficits.
  • Programmatically there is an emphasis on managing rather than leading.

Notice that Figure 1 has an arrow that aligns people, process, and product towards a specific vision. No such arrow is possible in misalignment (Figure 2.). Instead, the product is the arrow and the measure.

A system is designed to achieve the results it gets—intentional or not. So, how can misalignment be addressed?

  • Players can make an honest assessment of their goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. Are there process and outcome goals in place to address all these aspects? Ask if the environment supports this plan. Take a step back and notice if there is misalignment, if product is the center of attention. Consider If process matters, if people matter. Can you describe how you improved in a practice session (intentional practice) or do you just describe what you did in the practice session?
  • Coaches can make an honest assessment of goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. What type of relationship do you have with the players you coach? Are you aware and encouraging of their personal plans? Do you stress process and quality? Do you have a way of measuring and focusing on intentional practice? Do you consider, above all, the value of getting a little better each day (process)?
  • Directors can make an honest assessment of the people, process, and products of the program. Where is the emphasis focused? Is one of these factors valued more? Is there a process in place to evaluate quality and the standards of the program? Do individuals meet their personal goals? Is there a process in place to help players develop in all realms? Do players and coaches enjoy coming to work?

Putting it all together, each of the factors relate to each other and this informs the alignment process. First, people (players) matter and inform programmatic goals for without them you have nothing. A player’s basic motivation comes from a sense of freedom, connection, and competence. In an aligned program (for individuals, teams, and programs) these boxes are all checked.

Second, process produces product. Poor processes lead to a lack of desired results. Process pays attention not only to what’s important, but also the how and why of choices and actions. Product is an outcome (in the future) and process is everything else (how we invest time and effort the present). If individuals, teams, or programs are not improving, they are going backwards in context for nothing stands still. Process is the place to look for misalignment and the source of greatest leverage.

Finally, this is not a one-shot deal. The image below is a model for development and the arrow is pointing somewhere into the future.

process alignment graphic

That point in time can be as near or as far as you choose, but movement and change will happen. Development brings new challenges and new opportunities. And it’s much easier manage these when the most important factors are aligned to a specific vision.


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

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