Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

What Makes it Tick?

In past posts I have talked about the concepts of process and product, and quantity and quality in relation to performance. I want to look a bit deeper at the reasons why we tend to “think” or focus on one or the other, and many times one more than the other. While process and product are related, they are not a continuum. In terms of attention, they are perspectives, and one (product) has gained far more attention over time—at a cost.

And attention is the key. You can find a lot of information about setting goals (SMART goals, etc.) and most plans point to something specific and measurable in the future. What is concrete and quantifiable, or what you can get a handle on is a product. This is a good start, but a small part of a broader picture. This approach focuses on the “What.” The diet industry offers an example of this approach selling the product of weight loss—a measurable outcome in the future. Billions are spent yet 90+% of individuals regain the weight they lost (and often more). Could there be something to this process?

The focus on product is outside-in, if-then, and is a mindset that has thrived with the advances of science and technology. Reduce something vast to something measurable and find out what makes it tick. Clockwork, predictable. Do this, get this. When in doubt, chunk it smaller and more tangible. Sounds good?

Maybe…

To use a few examples to further explain, consider the technical aspects of producing a swing in baseball, golf or tennis. Ultimately the tool (bat, club, racquet) reaches the target (ball) and produces an outcome. Video analysis allows a look at static points along the swing path and these data are drawn from the whole. But the snapshot says nothing about the how, the embodied feel of the swing. It says nothing of the transition from point to point or momentum—in other words, the process. This is no different than hearing a musical note in isolation and pretending it’s a song.

All these movements have timing in common. And rhythm is the feel of flow in time. When we confuse time with individual ticks, we reduce something that cannot be reduced because it must be felt in motion. And nothing kills motion, rhythm, and fluidity more than trying to feel or control the ticks—the very source of stress. Rather than isolating a point, performance is the art of feeling motion and when change occurs—feeling the angular momentum of the path, the acceleration of the barrel, club head or racquet as it moves along the path. And this is pure process.

Elite athletes feel and sense a good shot in the process—well before they witness the outcome. But sometimes the outcome doesn’t match the process. You make a smooth and rhythmic swing and the product is a fly out, a drive just in the rough or a serve an inch out. High quality in highly dynamic circumstances with little room for error sometimes turn out that way. This is the essence of trusting the process…

But something different happens when you judge the process solely by the outcome. Sometimes the process is not of the highest quality, yet the outcome works–at least for a moment or a short while. Despite flaws in the process, the drive ends up in the fairway; the baseball finds a hole in the defense; the serve hits the line. Feedback in this manner can lead an athlete down a dark alley without a compass. If you do not understand or sense the process—good luck trying to make adjustments based on the outcome. Where would you even start? It’s like trying to accelerate to the speed limit without noticing your car has a flat tire.

We circle back to the understanding that product consumes our attention because we have something to grasp. Something we can see and manipulate. We have a greater sense of control with outcomes because they can be captured. We feel we have something and can hold people accountable. This is much different when we consider that in process what we have is just feel—what we sense. Science and technology are not fans of intangibles for this reason. In process, the control lies in the motion and negotiation of space in time. It can be felt but not captured (and is very hard to describe) which is why when you change attention and catch yourself thinking you are playing in the zone there is a good chance you are about to lose that sense. It does not like to be placed in a box or considered a tick in time. The zone is flow. It is space not a point.

The mental side of performance requires an ever-increasing awareness, and this is an intimate learning process. And high-quality performance on the elite levels requires an ever-increasing desire to become more aware. And that is the point—both the driver and restrainer of the developmental process. A point not mentioned or discussed much in many realms because of the focus on outcomes and quantities. But it matters. We are always paying attention. But to what or how or why? The answers will lead you to back to process or product. Both matter—but performance and execution dwell in the realm of process—an athlete being an athlete in time and space and becoming more aware of the dynamic, more attuned to the flow of performing.

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: Eduardo Balderos, Zoe Reeve, David Goldsbury (unspash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

When Data Helps Sports Performance

Years ago, I performed the duties of Head Pro and Sports Director at a very large club. The facility featured racquet sports, handball, volleyball, and basketball, but the area that stood out to me from a performance perspective was the dance studio. Long before teams collected data and film on every aspect of the game, dancers had a simple effective form of feedback: mirrors. Over 40% of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to visual processing and equally important a dancer learning a performance could get the sense of the whole: how a move looked and felt from position to transition to position…

In a different vein, baseball crowned a new champion and data was as much a player as the athletes on the field. The broadcast was chock full of statistics, real-time measurements, and analysis. On a side note, I miss the days of “The Scooter,” Hall of Fame shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, who was the New York Yankees color analyst for years after he hung up his spikes. Rizzuto often talked about meals he had at different New York restaurants for innings at time. Spaghetti and meatballs flavored the broadcast. Today, conversation has been replaced by esoteric stats and games take nearly twice as long.

ballet dancer

Dancers, data, and plates of spaghetti all go together on some level. And that is the point. Data and stats are important, but not as much as the intuition developed by athletes and performers at the highest level. And sometimes the best coaching takes place over a meal.

More and more the mind is being managed from a laminated sheet beyond the playing field. Junior-varsity catchers wear armbands with codes so they can decipher the pitch called by the coach in the dugout. Sport is evolving and pushing down the technology and information-gathering to athletes yet to experience puberty. Perhaps we should take heed of other aspects of society, such as education, to see where data collection and pushing expectations down to those not yet developmentally ready has gotten us.

Data matters and it’s nice to know that the number four hitter in the lineup eats fastballs middle in. But it’s not the endpoint. It’s an intermediary in a larger context. Performance, whether team or individual, is equally (if not more) influenced by what cannot be measured. We can’t build a whole by putting parts together. Athletes aren’t cars or toasters. The whole, whether team or individual is always more and of a different quality than the sum of its parts. Many times have we heard, “That team looks good on paper” only to experience the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.

Fifty years ago, a team transformed from hapless to miraculous. The “Amazing Mets” changed my life and Tom Seaver became my hero. Data offered that Tom Terrific threw 150 pitches in a ten-inning, game four, World Series win. Data couldn’t measure his heart, his desire, his commitment, nor could it measure that elusive team intangible: chemistry.

I think of that dance studio every time I teach and coach. Performance is helped by data. But ultimately, it’s about relationships: with yourself, with teammates, with coaches. The mirror is ever-present in reflection whether it’s staring back or in your mind’s eye. It doesn’t lie for you see your execution. You see the many dancers or athletes you admired and showed you the way. You see the intuitive genius possessing immeasurable bits of the data of process and experience, creativity, failure and success. You see the shaping of performance. You see, even if symbolically, what you think and feel, which according to many a sage, is what you become.

 

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 credit: freepik.com)

 

 

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Team Mindset: No Folding Here

With the 2018 World Series in the books, let’s take a quick look at the mindset of a team. There are certain factors and qualities that are discernable Above the Field of Play for groups to be successful. The Red Sox as a team and an organization exhibit these qualities and can provide a model for any competitive team. I grew up in New York City, and while my original devotions are with some of these teams (Mets, Knicks, Giants) in terms of present cultural and mindset they provide a striking contrast to what the Red Sox have built in recent years. There are four qualities that stood out to me as I marveled at the complete commitment and execution of this team…

aerial view of sports stadium during daytime
Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Culture

There are fans now deceased who rooted for the Red Sox for decades under the motto “When are the Sox gonna fold?” And fold they did, for generations filled Fenway in vain from 1918 to 2004 without a World Series Championship. In contrast, a close family friend born in 1997 has celebrated 4 Red Sox Championships in her lifetime. Culture in most hierarchies starts with at the top with leadership. If that is the case, then it is no surprise a culture shift started in 2002 with new ownership, and with a change in perspective brought by the youngest GM in baseball history, Theo Epstein.

Adaptation

As far as systems, there is a maxim that if you do what you always do, you will get the results you always get. The Red Sox appear to understand the dynamics, the ebb and flow of building and developing and its unceasing need for attention and energy. Key pieces to the complex puzzle of “team” were added during the 2018 season, but the vision is one of both short-term and long-range. The Red Sox last won the World Series in 2013. Nearly the entire roster, including the manager, has turned over with only four players remaining from that team just 5 short seasons ago. It appears obvious that adaptation and evolution are a part of the organization’s overall mission, and they are not encapsulated by their own success.

All In

During the World Series, manager Alex Cora remarked during an in-game interview about the team’s two-strike philosophy. He commented that there is a trend to take the same approach regardless of the count (which produces an occasional blast, but lots of strikeouts—both of which have been trending upward), but he suggested an “Old School” approach. Get the bat on the ball. Use the whole field. The grit and relentless pressure were evident in that the Red Sox were never out of a game and many rallies started with two outs. They made Dodger pitchers work for every inch, and despite the top regular-season producers hitting well below their regular season average (Betts:- 129 points, Bogaerts: – 152, Martinez: – 52, Holt: – 110) others carried the load like Steve Pearce (batting .333, with 3 home runs and 8 RBI).

Identity

For teams to come together and be cohesive and resilient, they have to establish an identity. Some of this is witnessed on the field, some off. While the team’s motto “Do Damage” spoke of the on-field approach, watching the dugout during the game gives a sense of belief and commitment. Players that are stars and would be the centerpiece of most teams sat the bench following outstanding performances (Benintendi) or to put the best possible matchups on the field (Bradley, Jr., Kinsler). But, the engagement was apparent in the rituals and interactions. Witnessing David Price’s reactions in the bullpen following a dramatic hit and game-ending out was a testament to involvement. Or the celebratory rituals along the bench following a home run or big hit. True teams are evident in the quality and in the intangibles that matter deeply. And in a day and time of “super-teams” and when people follow stars more than the name on the front of the uniform, it was both informative and inspiring to watch what can be done when each player becomes a part of a collective identity.

 

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
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

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.