leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Pull of Motivation

Most have considered their personal notion of great human achievements. And I am certain there are clusters of agreement around specific events. Depending on interests and culture, groups can sit around the circle and recall with wide-eyed wonder the greatness of an experience or event. Today I would like to offer one for consideration: Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite.

In June of 2017, Honnold made the nearly 3000-foot ascent in just under 4 hours—without a rope. No safety nets, just him and what climbers consider the most daunting face of granite on earth. This feat, captured in the documentary, Free Solo, is something to behold. Just hearing about it is not enough. To see some aspect of the climb makes the jaw drop and the inevitable “Why?” sighs from an open mouth.

But this is the pivot point of motivation. The question of, “Why?” There are only a few deep sources of motivation as it is fundamental to life. To live without some sense of principled motivation is to embrace entropy, a slow death spiral, or to place the digestive system at the pinnacle of effort. The pure moments described as flow or peak experiences are the essence of the feeling of “being alive.”

Honnold’s ascent, to me, represents a string of perfect moments in flow, a linked crescendo of peak experiences. How many and how long? It’s impossible to quantify, for in these experiences time disappears. The climber and the climb become one, as do granite and flesh.

green pine trees in front of a rock mountain
Photo by André Cook on Pexels.com

The documentary, Free Solo, comes at the event from a few angles to dig into Honnold’s persona and create cinematic tension, an arc to an amazing story. This is where we go above the field of play, in this case over a half-mile of steep granite. The backdrop of Honnold’s life, family, friendships, and his significant other makes for a good story, but in no way touches the “why?” Honnold attempts to explain the pull of motivation of such a momentous task, but it remains for the most part indescribable.

It doesn’t matter that on film Honnold comes across a quirky, at times insensitive (even to fear and death), awkward in love and relating, and a host of other adjectives that, also, do not matter. For the true depth of his motivation remains unplumbed by what is recorded on film. Only he knows the “feel”, the emotion that motivates for he is the first and the only. This probing into character will not reveal the essence of Honnold’s motivation or ability. Unfortunately it is a sign of the times that we seek simple formulas for excellence, and attempt to codify a process that is complex and becomes a part of the fabric of one’s being…

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It’s no secret that one of the stars of the event, the documentary, and the personal quest is Death. And it hovers ever so close, on some level, a feel quite like the curiosity of passing the scene of a gruesome accident. Death is imminent and present in every move along the climb, and in every nub, nook and cranny of El Capitan. And for those (which is over 7+ billion and counting) who do not have Honnold’s sublime gift, Death would be the last acknowledgement before the credits roll…

Motivation’s pull is an agreement with a vision, one that comes from deep within, at first formless just as the infinite from which we come. Over time, the vision takes form, but it is the feel that gives rise to power. Like opposite poles of a magnet the pull is real, and its ample force is felt in trying to deny the connection. Honnold’s ascent seems fueled by such a pull. A thing of art and beauty, wonderfully defying odds and logic—for his logic was a personal one.

But, we all can feel the pull on some level, in some space. And that is the point of aspirations and of being alive. To give birth, to raise a child. To comfort a friend. To bury a loved one with grace when your heart is broken. To love another fully and completely. To do good work. To play. To forgive flaws and trespasses. To get up off the floor one more time. To play a sublime melody and a melody sublimely. To listen with a beginner’s mind…

All of these could make someone somewhere sigh, Why? How? For Honnold, I imagine it was El Capitan whispering in his ear, Why? How? All the while offering subtle clues along the razor’s edge that is being and non-being. For a little under 4 hours he reminded us what it means to be fully committed to a vision, and that being fully alive acknowledges the brackets of time, markers we submit to in moments of clarity, despair, and awe.

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Focus on Attention

Attention is complex and there is more to the process than the ability to simply “pay attention.” Focused and integrated attention requires the training and discipline that affords the simplicity of process at the point of performance. At any sporting event, you can hear someone on the sidelines (coach, friend, fan or parent) urge a competitor to “Focus!” The truth is the average attention span is less than 8 seconds and we can process only a small percentage of the sensory (internal and external) information presented each moment. So, where we place our focus and attention becomes more and more important and influential to performance.

spotlight shining down into a grunge interior

Competitive performance requires the self-awareness to focus on the critical elements of execution, and the ability to regulate and shift focus as required. And this is a dynamic process with many factors that test the limits of our abilities. Each event is singular by nature, therefore these abilities must be practiced beforehand.

First, to pay attention requires the clarity of purpose to filter out what doesn’t matter. Basically, three systems have to be in sync to make this happen:

  1. Activation Levels (Energy for the task)
  2. Emotional or Limbic centers (Meaning)
  3. Executive functions managing attention (Focus)

Each of these represents different areas of the brain that must be integrated towards a way of being in the moment, a state that allows one to perform in flow and the Zone of Optimal Performance.

Questions often help us to get to the source of what we can’t sense or feel. Considering the three areas represented above, try these questions to bring each of these centers into awareness.

  1. Do I have a sense of my level of energy (activation or arousal levels) while I am executing? Using a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) decide which number or range of numbers represents a good level for performing during a competition or practice. For example, someone standing over a 5-foot putt will have a different activation level (low arousal, alert) than a middle linebacker in football (high arousal, alert).
  2. Do I have a clear sense of meaning and purpose for practice and competition? Do I have goals that represent the vision I have for myself over time of what matters most?
  3. Do I practice focusing and refocusing both in practice and in isolation as a distinct skill set?

These questions clarify the key aspects of attention and focus. Make this important function of the mental game part of your daily routine.

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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Photo Credit: Created by Kjpargeter – Freepik.com

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Developing a Mindset for All Seasons

In the previous post, we talked about the foundation of a Comprehensive Mindset: Effort (What we give), Attitude (Where we are heading and Why), and Improvement (How we get there). In this post, we delve into the principles of developing a comprehensive mindset. These are the beliefs that underlie the intelligence fueling motivation toward growth and driving peak performance. These beliefs are a crucial aspect of our psychological structure, but they are also demanding and indicators of where you are on the path. In other words, do you find these beliefs to be self-reinforcing and motivating? If so, you are more likely to continue and gain both enjoyment and a sense of purpose from an activity that others find too difficult.

In my mind, the previous statement is the biggest point of separation between levels of play: what individuals and teams at one level find to be too consuming and challenging, others on a different level will find in the investment of time a sense of freedom and fulfillment.  If the latter is the case, you are in the space of flow and intrinsic motivation.

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Let’s take a brief look at each belief:

  • Motivated by the process of consistently executing at the highest level: The athlete has a vision of oneself performing at high levels; has been inspired by someone who has been a model of excellence for them.
  • Is growth-oriented (versus talent is fixed): Believes that talent is only a starting point, and that directed effort along with consistency over time are the keys to development.
  • Is driven by learning, experiencing, and reflecting: Believes that each day provides ample opportunities to develop in all areas of self (mind, body, spirit, and relationships).
  • Is self-aware and continually seeks to learn more about self: Believes in the importance of questioning assumptions and expanding the limits of one’s current level of perception.
  • Seeks consistent improvement: Sets short and long-term goals, and measures backward in time answering the question: Am I better in any way than I was a week ago?
  • Allows the body’s intelligence (unconscious competence) to respond in the moment: While consciously competent of why things work, the athlete allows the process of being present at the point of execution.
  • Understands adversity is part of competition and can manage it effectively: Has structures in place that allow for the inevitable challenges and unknowns that keep one in the mental space for optimal performance.
  • Focuses on what can be controlled in the moment: Understands the intersection of reality and expectations; does not resist what the situation presents; understands the point of greatest psychological leverage.

 

These 8 points can be experienced concretely in any aspect of the athlete’s journey. Whether it is planning, practice, play or post-experience reflection, these beliefs are a part of the overall equation. The more you bring these beliefs into the open, the more you will sense how they factor into your developmental arc. Practice and competition bring diverse experiences and many possible outcomes because of factors beyond your control. These 8 beliefs account for effectiveness and efficiency along that continuum of experience because they underlie execution at the point of performance.

Finally, the goal of the comprehensive mindset is excellence, not just in competition but in every facet of living. Note that excellence is a quality of being and doing (and is not perfection), and a commitment to the process of improvement. This creates an alignment in all your roles and activities that enable the highest level of integrity and synergy as an individual. While performance is benchmarked at each level of each sport, often the mindset of each level is not so transparent. These 8 points help to bring out in the open the drivers of the process. Improving and excelling require a mindset of growth and resilience, and must receive the same intensity of focus and attention as the development of physical skills. Make a plan today…

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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