Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Complexity

(estimated 2-3 minute read time)

One of the many questions I ask clients may sound borrowed from a job interview: “What do you see in five years…?” But really, it’s a question of an internalview. The answers range from rich to vague and confused. And that question helps frame the next one: “When you look back on your life over the past five years…?

The day-to-day and the year-to-year can have the flavor of familiarity. Patterns abound. But there’s a process below the surface that speaks to the complexity of life. As you move forward with an aim, you are steeped in complexity beyond imagination. The further out or bigger the goal, the more complexity factors in.

What that translates to is people, things, obstacles, and events that are not in your present experience. If you look back five years, chances are high (regardless of whether you set an ambitious goal or not) that there are people that are in or out of your life, and events and problems that occurred that you didn’t foresee.  

This is one of the understated reasons why individuals don’t set goals or don’t set them too far out. The complexity can be overwhelming. And the courage and imagination to set the vision high can be daunting. Security, safety, and the known will always whisper in your ear to stay put. But this process of imagining a future self is the way that we develop the inner qualities to rise to the goal or vision.

Setting long-term major goals and creating a vision of your future self is the essence of evolution. If you consider who you would be if you became this future self, you have tapped into a deeper process of self-realization. Then the key is to hold this vision both loosely and in the present. Loosely because complexity will emerge with your first step forward. Think of your vision as a point on the horizon. You see the point in the distance within the enormity of the whole perspective, but details are vague.

And holding this vision “in the present” provides an internal compass regardless of the complexity of the situation. Responding and adapting to complexity (demanding, growing), and holding your vision (devotion) in the present will inform your smallest goals, decisions, and the way you problem-solve through obstacles.

photo credit: Tim Johnson (unsplash)

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)

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.  

Coaching, leadership, 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