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 DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Photo by Felipe Giacometti) on Unsplash (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.

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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)