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

Dealing with Fear: 2 Questions

Part One:

  1. What’s the difference between practice and performance?
  2. Do they feel different?

These questions may seem simple or obvious, but the answers point to many disappointments for many athletes. Somewhere along the athlete’s growth curve, the quality (feel, tone, engagement, intention, and intensity) of both practice and performance begin to take on a similar character. If you are an elite performer, then you are being this quality whenever you are engaged in some form of your endeavor. This represents the essence of aligned motivation meaning all your arrows are pointing in one direction.

This sense of being is a perspective that we will explore in greater depth in part two of this post. But for now, it is enough to say that in this stage of development the elite athlete has a sense of gratitude and purpose that is extremely fulfilling. Practice and competition are enlivened by the sense of uniqueness and connectedness of the activity, experiencing both change and continuity. This has been called “flow” by some, but the critical aspect is the true integration of being and doing in the present. In other words, you are simply being yourself and accepting who you are in that moment.

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Even for those just starting the competition journey in their sport, this critical component of performance begins to make sense. If not, something may be lurking beneath the surface and hindering your growth and the ability to execute at your best come “game time.” A sense of being “restrained” hinders the ability to fully immerse into the experience. The athlete in these moments will psychologically compartmentalize or have the past intrude upon the present and upset the balance required to execute.

Typically, fear lives at the bottom of not performing your best. Whether it’s at one end of the continuum, “Getting tight,” “Choking” or the subtle end that enters the mind as a “What if?” fear is the culprit. Fear gives rise to sensations, thoughts, actions, and feelings that veer one off the track of composed performance.

Most times athletes do not experience this during practice. There is more of a light and playful flavor to practice or training even in the most intense moments. Why? Because practice tends to be much more process-oriented in a safe setting and not necessarily focused on winning or losing.

The leap here is to realize each experience along the developmental arc—practice or play— is unique regardless of what seems to be at stake. When attitude (the arrows of motivation) is oriented on growth there is a far greater chance of being in the moment and owning the experience. Simply, big things are made up of little things. If the little thing feels bigger during competition, chances are fear is speaking to you and telling you that you have something to lose.

The truth is you have nothing to lose for you started with nothing. You may think you are losing something because of all you have put into the experience up to the point of performance. But the process is the reward. And this perspective begins to untie the knots of fear…

Next time we look at three concepts in dealing with fear.

 

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 x ) on Unsplash (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Dark Side of Coaching

In this post I would like to take a wide lens to coaching and some embedded assumptions about power, systems, and leadership. While it is not mentioned much or part of the dialogue of sports talk shows, people, players, and coaches are at different developmental levels. This is reflected in beliefs, styles, relationships and theories about team and player development. Sometimes it is explained away as “personality.”

Years ago, a controversy surrounding a legendary basketball coach (and personality) brought these different perspectives and beliefs in full view. Presented in many forms of media as if for a jury, both sides of the argument received attention regarding the coach’s questionable behavior. One had to take a leap to discern the coach’s motivation as the situation was offered “objectively.” Some former players saw the coach as a flat-out bully. Others saw his hard-nosed, win at all cost, profane and degrading treatment of players as “that’s just coach.” No big deal.

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Can both be true? Absolutely, just as it is easily justified in a certain light—or darkness. That is the wide frame of developmental levels. And over the years we witness similar stories—sometimes with not-so famous coaches, GM’s or team doctors, but it’s simply a variation on a theme. Most recently a chapter is being written in the National Hockey League, one that is quite disturbing when leadership is considered. But with a wider lens, one that accounts for principles of growth and stewardship, something different than the “that’s what I know, that’s the way it is, the way it’s always been” emerges.

There is a certain authoritarian approach that looks at players as pawns to be manipulated. The conditions include an imbalance of power and negation of the player as a complete human being. The player is their number, uniform, role, skill-set. “It’s a business.” This approach does not back away from fear and humiliation. It comes from a place of demanding respect… But…

At a certain level, respect can’t be demanded. It must be earned in a reciprocal manner—in a relationship. The principal behind the different levels of being is that you can’t give what you haven’t received. So, coaches who were coached in a fear-driven and belittling manner bring this forward to their new role. And players who were brought up in authoritarian homes in fear of punishment find it matter of course for coaches to punish, degrade, and direct from fear.

What this approach misses is the reality of how difficult it is to do anything complex and precise from a place of fear (hence the term “choke”). It is difficult to build chemistry when players are pitted against each other. Vision and purpose are blurred by intimidation and chaos. Motivation from fight or flight is short-lived, draining, and meant to engage a serious and imminent threat to life. Athletes in most sports do not fair well in such a state of stress, arousal and tunnel-vision. Even athletes (such as boxers and MMA fighters) where impairment or even death loom maintain a centered alertness that allows them to process and adapt.

All emotions come from a personal source and require awareness and insight. While these emotions exist in relationship to the greater surround, on a deep level they are very personal. Anger, the most powerful and volatile, requires a good deal of up-front work. Its message is private: I don’t like what is happening. The internal feeling is not a passport to violate, destroy, humiliate, intimidate or deceive because things are not going the way you wish. This is immaturity in adult clothes though its wrath is far from childlike.

While this may seem preachy or judgmental, the truth is we, in the name of safety, are always sizing things up. Just as the athlete you coach is seeing if you are for real. If you are going to facilitate growth, teamwork, and the conditions that must be present before you can even start to contemplate success in any form—the first things are personal and principled in nature. You have to be worthy and trustworthy before you can build trust and worth.

In your heart, what would you want for your son? Your daughter? Demanding, yes. Abusive, no. While the John Woodens and Tony Dungys are few and far between, we should stop making excuses and finally commit to what brings out the best in all. Because it matters.

 

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: Carolina Pimenta, unsplash.com)

 

 

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

One Way

While mature relationships are a two-way street, the relationship you have with yourself and your sport is fully realized if it points with certainty in one direction. In the modern world of options and backup plans, there are certain sacred spaces that deserve and require our full attention and commitment. Interestingly, research has uncovered associations between too many choices and anxiety. And I have found time and time again that fear lurks at the source of the “backup plan.”

We as human beings seem to have a problem with “What if?” Rather than seeing the openness as the portal to imagination and creativity, many skip the possibilities and go straight to the door that says “I have to know.” But the truth is a plan is just a plan and you don’t know all that life will place along your path.

The point here is one of quality. If I commit fully to what is right in front of me and part of my path, I not only can grow as an athlete, but levels of competence and character are opened in the pure and intentional process that is not available to one who does not take the risk. The principle of risk-reward comes down to how one feels and defines a sense of security. You can’t have the reward of opportunity while you have one foot in Plan B. It doesn’t work that way and never will. No risk, no reward— and you can’t have the gaping chasm of opportunity and the security of what is known only in the present. By definition, opportunity is a direction, but the outcome is unknowable in the present.

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This concept is eloquently spoken by an all-time great in November/December 2018 issue of Tennis magazine. Rafa Nadal referencing an intensely battled five-set win reflects: “I lost in Wimbledon in a match like this. Today was for me. In some way when you give everything you have, win or lose—is just that someone have to lose, someone have to win, that’s part of the game. But the personal satisfaction when you give everything and you play with the right attitude is the same.”

In other words, on some level playing with all you have and with the right attitude is winning. Not everything that matters can be measured for its form exists in an internal quality—“ a personal satisfaction” that resonates from the integrity to a purpose, the commitment to the “Only Plan.” For there is no Plan B.

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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