Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Reframing

One of the key skills in the mental performance toolbox is the ability to shift perspective. From being completely immersed in the moment to making space for a long-term vision, each perspective informs and can transform.  In the ups and downs of improvement and growing as an athlete and an individual, there will be times when the challenge or obstacle is daunting. It is in these moments when choices can shape the next leg of the journey and alter the future in unexpected ways.

When we meet these moments, the energy and the emotion we experience can reach unmanageable levels. Maybe this moment occurs within an event, or it might be an extended losing streak or during a stretch when nothing seems to be working. Regardless, such moments are inevitable. Self-awareness is vital to creating the space to witness how these moments are processed. Under such stress it is natural to engage in fight or flight types of choices, choices tainted with negativity and pointing away from what we truly want.

seedling

Many careers have turned in such moments—some not for the better. There are a few important ideas to consider when meeting this moment. Understanding the psychological basis to these ideas beforehand can help you to reframe the challenge you are facing, and bring the intention of your journey back into focus.

  1. Mental states matter: Under duress, we have thoughts that align with the state. Typically, these are not thoughts that directly align with our goals, but simply validate that we are experiencing a high level of stress. Resilience and managing these states is important to unlocking potential.
  2. The edge of our capabilities is always uncomfortable. The evolution of any mental or physical structure or capacity brings large helpings of discomfort. The confusion you feel is literally the fusion of two mental schemes that are trying to occupy the same space. One has to go—the one of lower capability.
  3. Opportunity is on the far side of safety. The only security we have is in our intention, commitment, resilience, and belief in ourselves. Like the seedling breaking through rock in unlikely circumstances, each level of success requires a sense of adventure—and courage.
  4. Expect the unexpected. The edge of our awareness shares this boundary with what we are not aware of. Awareness and unawareness exist side by side, but we are gifted with the greatest learning entity in the universe.
  5. Beware of rationalizations. These mental tools are only meant to ease stress. Logic can explain away lack of progress or outcomes, but you end up in the same place. Own the experience completely—success or failure. This opens the door to the next experience. Remember point number 1 for mental states matter, and states can become traits. Rationalized states can lead to traits of “I can’t” and “It doesn’t matter.”
  6. Stages can’t be skipped. You can’t jump from beginner to elite. And most of the time we are in some transition along the growth curve. This means that on some level we are different each day. Just as our body requires movement, challenge, and proper training principles to improve and endure, the same is true of our mental capacity. Breaking through is often a break away from what we know or can presently do. If we are heading someplace we have never been, we can have the best plan but we still don’t know how it feels and who we will be until we get there.

 

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

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

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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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

Stress and its Source (Part 3)

In this final entry on internal stressors, let’s examine these sources:

  • Unclear goals
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents

Note, again, that all of these stressors are really made up of beliefs and expectations within a competitive mindset. If these internal maps are clear, aligned, and connected to powerful sources of intrinsic motivation, stress is manageable and productive. For “just right” stress is required for growth.

sport computer runners athlete
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Unclear goals: Why do you do what you do and why do you want what you want? The clarity of these answers is the intention of your future self. Unclear goals provide unnecessary stress because they do not connect the present and the future in a precise and meaningful way. The source of unclear goals is unclear thinking and external influence. In other words, you haven’t figured out what you really want, why, and how to get there. The external influence is committing yourself to the approval or design of others in your camp. This will never work. Others can help you clarify your goals, but the goals need to be defined and owned solely by you.

 

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
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Lack of resilience: A mindset that accepts adversity and the ups and downs that are a natural part of growth and development will be more resilient than one that avoids, fails to adjust, minimizes or makes excuses in the tough times. Any competitor can be strong when all is going well. But history shows that momentum shifts and down follows up. A resilient mindset handles the pressure of challenge and actually becomes stronger, smarter, and more flexible within this downturn. Our ability to adapt becomes more diverse as we pick up more physical and mental tools for our toolbox, and widen our perspective.

Inflated sense of self and ability. This is closely tied to resilience because of a fixed mindset that ignores data that does not fit with your present identity. Chances are the people around you inflate you, make excuses with you, and have a sense of their own selves tied too closely to you. Chances are those who have been honest with you are no longer in your sphere of influence. And the stress you feel is from maintaining a false sense of self and fighting the forces of change, adaptation, and flexibility. The stress here is tied to knowing deep inside that you are not getting any better and have nothing in place to change this notion. In other words: denial.

Minimizing opponents. This is one of the biggest mistakes a competitor can make and informs the difference between confidence and cockiness. There are fewer factors within your control than beyond your control—and your opponent is a major form of the latter. The source of stress you feel from minimizing your opponent derives from a lack of respect, a lack of preparation, and a lack of awareness. In defeat, the catchphrase is “They were so lucky!”

Developing a mindset that allows an athlete to execute optimally during the ups and downs of competition is an active process—one that always needs to be reflected upon and refined. All competitive experiences are, in some way, new and unique ones. Being clear and untying the knots of internal sources of stress allows you to make the most of practice and play.

 

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

Stress and its Source

While many performance psychology texts address stress and composure, information that is not readily available or discussed is what lies at the very root of stress. In practice leading up to an event most energy is spent on physical skills with some time devoted to executing plans, sizing up opponents or the venue, and decision-making. Most of this occurs in an environment not quite as stressful as the actual performance. Yet, stress and interpretation of challenge enter all areas of performance, particularly decision-making within the processes of executing and adjusting. Handling the pressure is a point of leverage between making the right moves, finding balance, and keeping in the zone of optimal performance.

sport united states of america ball jump
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The roots of stress are beneath our actual assessment of the situation once we sense the pressure. Often athletes enter the fray only with tools to cope with stress rather than to understand the source. In other words, on some level stress is always one up.

So, what is that source? Very simply: Meaning. Regardless of your sport, you have a purpose for competing and this is embedded in motivation. The source of stress both beneficial and detrimental is in the connection to meaning in the moment. The good stress is created in the improvement gap created by well-crafted goals. Negative and debilitating stress arises from:

  • A dominant focus on the outcome
  • Unclear goals
  • A lack of process goals
  • An identity fixed to an outcome
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents
  • Poor decision-making

 

This list is not exhaustive, but at the core is a lack of alignment between the athlete, time and place. And all of these are connected to meaning. We will get to this list in the next post, but for now, let’s take a look at the last point: poor decision-making. The decision-making process sounds fundamentally like a cognitive task, but there is much more to it. You can have a plan, a decision tree, and all the data in front of you and still make a poor choice because of the veil of emotion. Some will even say you have to take emotion out of the decision-making process. But that doesn’t work. We aren’t wired that way. There are more neural pathways from the emotional and arousal centers to the thinking centers, then the other way around. On a practical level, it means you can’t talk yourself into something you don’t believe. For at the heart of belief is meaning.

When you meet the moment you are constructing your perception based on meaning. If there is a mismatch between what you want and what is happening, stress ensues and on a deep level, you feel threatened. This is the reason that coping is not enough. You can’t de-activate or self-talk your way out of fear. You can only survive long enough to get through it—and by that time you have lost your way, gotten swept up by negative momentum.

You have to deconstruct the fear to develop the true sense of meeting the moment. Fear derives from loss. And if you have done the work and are really clear on purpose, you realize fear is connected to an illusion. In other words, the fear feels real and signals trouble, based on the points above. But in truth, you have nothing to lose because you actually have nothing. Play it out in any sport and you sound like the guy in the booth with the microphone:

Here’s Jack with the birdie putt. (Birdie is an outcome pulling away from the process. Focus on the putt.)

Here’s Jill serving for the match. (That’s 4 points, minimum, away. Focus on this serve.)

Here’s Jack at bat with the winning run on third. (Focus on the pitch, not the win, the score or the runner on third. The only control is making contact with this pitch.)

Here’s Jill with the free throw for the win. (You only have control of your process on the foul line. Once the ball is out of your hands, it’s gone.)

The illusion is the outcome you have created. It does not mean that you do not visual, practice and prepare for the outcomes you want. And it is ok to want the outcome. But if you bring the outcome into the process, it is an illusion because it does not exist in the present. The illusion creates an unnecessary sense of stress. Performing at high levels is challenging enough. No need to create more.

Catch yourself creating the illusion and bring yourself back to the present. That illusion is seductive and it‘s different for everyone, but it is very much like the horizon. It looks real—but it is not the end of the world.

dawn sky blue ocean
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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.

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Distraction

Over the next two weeks, some of the year’s most exciting tennis will happen in New York at the U.S. Open. It is a brand, an experience different than any of the other Grand Slams. Having been to several Opens over the years, one of the striking features is the “feel” of the event. Not only is it one of the majors, there are some major distractions that the players will have to cope with to get through the draw.

people sitting on bench watching tennis event on field during daytime
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In Flushing Meadows, the country club atmosphere is truly, well, flushed. While each court has its own unique environment, the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple abound. On the outer courts, fans can get right on top of the action. Movement, phones, cameras, and the smell of concessions are all a part of the player’s sensory experience. Something is always happening in the periphery of a player’s sight. Focus is at a premium.

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Even on the show courts and the stadium venues, the hum of the city is evident. While some sense of structure is kept at courtside, in the middle and upper tiers spectators carry on conversations as if it were a coffee shop, cell phones ring, and bored children race up and down the stairs. The silence and decorum of Wimbledon is out the window.

And the city never sleeps here. No curfew exists and matches can carry on until the wee hours.

First-time competitors will notice the enormity of the grounds, the city-street feel of bobbing and weaving as they make the walk from the player’s facility to the courts. And what it will come down to is how quiet they can make the experience inside their minds. The distractions will not go away. They will ebb and flow in different flavors.

There is nothing subtle about the US Open. How players fare will be, in part, a function of the ability to tune out what is irrelevant. To make such a public and busy space quiet in your mind is the challenge. One that requires both the ability to focus on the matter at hand and to keep the distractions outside the lines. Those who do not prepare beforehand may be heading to LaGuardia sooner than expected.

The process of coping with distraction needs to be a part of your mental approach. How do you work on this as a part of your mental training? How do you consider what drives your best performance and what may be an obstacle–internal and external? Failing to plan for this comes with a great cost…

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.