Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

What Makes it Tick?

In past posts I have talked about the concepts of process and product, and quantity and quality in relation to performance. I want to look a bit deeper at the reasons why we tend to “think” or focus on one or the other, and many times one more than the other. While process and product are related, they are not a continuum. In terms of attention, they are perspectives, and one (product) has gained far more attention over time—at a cost.

And attention is the key. You can find a lot of information about setting goals (SMART goals, etc.) and most plans point to something specific and measurable in the future. What is concrete and quantifiable, or what you can get a handle on is a product. This is a good start, but a small part of a broader picture. This approach focuses on the “What.” The diet industry offers an example of this approach selling the product of weight loss—a measurable outcome in the future. Billions are spent yet 90+% of individuals regain the weight they lost (and often more). Could there be something to this process?

The focus on product is outside-in, if-then, and is a mindset that has thrived with the advances of science and technology. Reduce something vast to something measurable and find out what makes it tick. Clockwork, predictable. Do this, get this. When in doubt, chunk it smaller and more tangible. Sounds good?

Maybe…

To use a few examples to further explain, consider the technical aspects of producing a swing in baseball, golf or tennis. Ultimately the tool (bat, club, racquet) reaches the target (ball) and produces an outcome. Video analysis allows a look at static points along the swing path and these data are drawn from the whole. But the snapshot says nothing about the how, the embodied feel of the swing. It says nothing of the transition from point to point or momentum—in other words, the process. This is no different than hearing a musical note in isolation and pretending it’s a song.

All these movements have timing in common. And rhythm is the feel of flow in time. When we confuse time with individual ticks, we reduce something that cannot be reduced because it must be felt in motion. And nothing kills motion, rhythm, and fluidity more than trying to feel or control the ticks—the very source of stress. Rather than isolating a point, performance is the art of feeling motion and when change occurs—feeling the angular momentum of the path, the acceleration of the barrel, club head or racquet as it moves along the path. And this is pure process.

Elite athletes feel and sense a good shot in the process—well before they witness the outcome. But sometimes the outcome doesn’t match the process. You make a smooth and rhythmic swing and the product is a fly out, a drive just in the rough or a serve an inch out. High quality in highly dynamic circumstances with little room for error sometimes turn out that way. This is the essence of trusting the process…

But something different happens when you judge the process solely by the outcome. Sometimes the process is not of the highest quality, yet the outcome works–at least for a moment or a short while. Despite flaws in the process, the drive ends up in the fairway; the baseball finds a hole in the defense; the serve hits the line. Feedback in this manner can lead an athlete down a dark alley without a compass. If you do not understand or sense the process—good luck trying to make adjustments based on the outcome. Where would you even start? It’s like trying to accelerate to the speed limit without noticing your car has a flat tire.

We circle back to the understanding that product consumes our attention because we have something to grasp. Something we can see and manipulate. We have a greater sense of control with outcomes because they can be captured. We feel we have something and can hold people accountable. This is much different when we consider that in process what we have is just feel—what we sense. Science and technology are not fans of intangibles for this reason. In process, the control lies in the motion and negotiation of space in time. It can be felt but not captured (and is very hard to describe) which is why when you change attention and catch yourself thinking you are playing in the zone there is a good chance you are about to lose that sense. It does not like to be placed in a box or considered a tick in time. The zone is flow. It is space not a point.

The mental side of performance requires an ever-increasing awareness, and this is an intimate learning process. And high-quality performance on the elite levels requires an ever-increasing desire to become more aware. And that is the point—both the driver and restrainer of the developmental process. A point not mentioned or discussed much in many realms because of the focus on outcomes and quantities. But it matters. We are always paying attention. But to what or how or why? The answers will lead you to back to process or product. Both matter—but performance and execution dwell in the realm of process—an athlete being an athlete in time and space and becoming more aware of the dynamic, more attuned to the flow of performing.

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: Eduardo Balderos, Zoe Reeve, David Goldsbury (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Aligning Development for Players and Programs

(Note: A version of this article appeared in the November/December publication of Tennis Pro)

Whether you’re a player, a coach or you direct a major program, there is a simple method to assess alignment—to see if all the parts are heading in the same direction. The method is simple in theory, but hard in practice. Hard because it requires an enormous amount of honesty, vision, commitment to quality, and a willingness to adapt. Over the years I have often observed that individuals in certain settings, programs or teams do not improve despite having clear goals. Sometimes, as is the case in high school and college teams, entire teams do not improve during the season. On a larger scale, some programs fail to evolve despite the investment of effort and resources. Why is this so?

There are many factors underlying the stunted development of a player, team or program, but most of these reasons follow a common theme: misalignment. While a systems or program analysis is costly in time, energy, and resources, a simple and informative way of examining alignment is to consider three major factors: people, process, and product. How a system functions, whether it is a single player, a team or program of hundred players, reveals the value and investment in each of these factors. More importantly, how these three factors relate to each other reveals beliefs and expectations of what truly matters—the motivation for choices and actions over time.

Looking at people, process and product within a system, either a horizontal or vertical picture emerges:

process alignment graphic

Figure 1. Horizontal: People, process and product heading in the same direction, integrated and valued.

hierarchy in system graphic

 

Figure 2. Vertical: One part of the system may be valued more; system is not integrated.

Most misaligned programs or systems appear in the horizontal form (Figure 2). A hierarchy exists that is implicit beneath the explicit vision, mission, and core values. The outward message or motto may be “All in” but the meta-message is something different. As a player or coach, if you step back and reflect on experience, on some level you understand where you are in the hierarchy. Again, this scrutiny requires a great helping of honesty to admit there may be a misalignment between beliefs and actions.

The misaligned program typically puts the product or outcome above all else—because it is measurable. That outcome may be the number of college players produced. Or there might be a secondary outcome beneath the advertised goal, such as income and profit or recruiting. None of these outcomes are inherently bad and they do matter. But if the product comes without regard for the process and the people, then trouble is on the horizon.

What might this type of misalignment look like? Here is a sample tennis program (and can represent any organized system):

  • A few players receive the most coaching and attention on the “top” courts, while the rest of the players flounder on the outer courts.
  • Players receive the same instruction without emphasis on their unique talents and abilities.
  • Personal player goals (if they are even created and documented) are slanted towards outcome with little or no emphasis on process.
  • Little regard is given to the process of practice. Players do the same training or some variation every practice (The what is the same but the how and why are not emphasized).
  • Lesson plans are either missing, minimal, or general and without differentiation for individuals.
  • The focus is more on recruiting top players to the program then developing the ones already present.
  • The 80/20 principle (more like 95/5) applies and the lack of progress of majority who do not produce is explained away by competition or personal deficits.
  • Programmatically there is an emphasis on managing rather than leading.

Notice that Figure 1 has an arrow that aligns people, process, and product towards a specific vision. No such arrow is possible in misalignment (Figure 2.). Instead, the product is the arrow and the measure.

A system is designed to achieve the results it gets—intentional or not. So, how can misalignment be addressed?

  • Players can make an honest assessment of their goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. Are there process and outcome goals in place to address all these aspects? Ask if the environment supports this plan. Take a step back and notice if there is misalignment, if product is the center of attention. Consider If process matters, if people matter. Can you describe how you improved in a practice session (intentional practice) or do you just describe what you did in the practice session?
  • Coaches can make an honest assessment of goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. What type of relationship do you have with the players you coach? Are you aware and encouraging of their personal plans? Do you stress process and quality? Do you have a way of measuring and focusing on intentional practice? Do you consider, above all, the value of getting a little better each day (process)?
  • Directors can make an honest assessment of the people, process, and products of the program. Where is the emphasis focused? Is one of these factors valued more? Is there a process in place to evaluate quality and the standards of the program? Do individuals meet their personal goals? Is there a process in place to help players develop in all realms? Do players and coaches enjoy coming to work?

Putting it all together, each of the factors relate to each other and this informs the alignment process. First, people (players) matter and inform programmatic goals for without them you have nothing. A player’s basic motivation comes from a sense of freedom, connection, and competence. In an aligned program (for individuals, teams, and programs) these boxes are all checked.

Second, process produces product. Poor processes lead to a lack of desired results. Process pays attention not only to what’s important, but also the how and why of choices and actions. Product is an outcome (in the future) and process is everything else (how we invest time and effort the present). If individuals, teams, or programs are not improving, they are going backwards in context for nothing stands still. Process is the place to look for misalignment and the source of greatest leverage.

Finally, this is not a one-shot deal. The image below is a model for development and the arrow is pointing somewhere into the future.

process alignment graphic

That point in time can be as near or as far as you choose, but movement and change will happen. Development brings new challenges and new opportunities. And it’s much easier manage these when the most important factors are aligned to a specific vision.

 

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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Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

The Practice-Performance Connection (Part 2)

When we think of transferring skills, habits, and knowledge from practice to performance, it’s good to take a look at the process. This transition plan needs to include aspects of all areas of performance. But, how do you create such a global plan? How do you practice focus? Frustration tolerance? Adaptation? Analysis? Decision-making? How do you know when you are at the edge of your development and what comes next?

The truth, on some level, is you are practicing all of these aspects of performance when you practice, but often your attention is on something different. Typically, awareness is external, or on a short-term performance goal and noticing the quality of outcomes. In other words, the mental skills mentioned above have an autonomous quality (like driving a car or tying your shoes) and one thing research tells us is that anything on automatic pilot tends to remain the same—because that is the very nature of its automatic quality.

It seems to me the missing piece is that no practice or performance, match or event is ever the same. So, if we put awareness on autopilot, we are, in effect, turning the uniqueness of the event into a pattern we already know, can perform, but most importantly, can control.

Sounds like a good thing, right?

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On some level, the control we feel reduces anxiety, stress, and allows the self-talk to run its prerecorded recordings. Again, even the pain of a poor performance is something of a pattern, something known, and we get over it. “I had a bad day.” “Nothing worked.” “He/She just played better.”

Still, a good thing, right?

Well, it turns out that this slice of experience is only a small part of a bigger picture. This compartment of a bigger, global perspective is structured to maintain the compartment and it resides a comfortable distant from the edge of your development. The bigger picture is where the more advanced version of yourself exists. In other words, in the bigger picture where your vision resides (a more evolved, capable version of yourself), your mindset is of a different quality. This is evident in thinking, processing, and in language.

The underlying principle is: You can’t solve problems on the level they were created.

This is the essence of goals. You can do something different because on a fundamental level, you are something different.

Why does this matter? This process of practice to performance, practice to performance, is the place of greatest leverage for player development. Unfortunately, it is also the place where plateaus are created, solidified, and become enmeshed in a player’s identity. It is the off-ramp to development, careers, and premature exits. Because a part of our mind innately rationalizes anything in this “compartment” to save us from pain, effort, and (here is the tricky part) to keep things the same (also known as a sense of “control”).

How do we prevent this? How do we keep the boundaries of the “compartment” malleable? How do we keep pushing the edges of development?

We’ll explore that in the next post…

 

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: Diana Parkhouse (unsplash.com)

 

 

 

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Three Practice Myths

The heart and soul of improvement is practice. But just having practice time scheduled and showing up is not enough. Often practice and performance are far apart, particularly when learning a new skill or strategy. We may be able to do things in practice that we are unable to execute in a match, game or performance. But the quality of effort, attitude, and motivation in practice needs to parallel our state on game day. Here are three practice myths that hinder the arc of development:

  1. Putting in the time. While hours of practice certainly matter, the quality of the practice matters more. Two hours of purposeful practice will produce more benefit than drilling without purpose for countless hours.
  2. Putting in the repetitions. Once again, quality matters more than quality. Repetition without a clear developmental plan, reflection, and feedback misses the opportunity to groove the neural nets of efficient response. The process of myelination—the biological foundation for muscle memory—requires clear mental representations, getting out of your comfort zone, and reflective feedback. Otherwise reps are truly just going through the motions.
  3. Giving the effort. Without intention effort is directionless. There are many athletes who have given 100% and not improved, and not reached their goals. I’m reminded of the analogy of climbing a tall ladder only to find out it is set against the wrong wall. Nothing is more devastating to an athlete’s sense of self knowing he/she gave all and failed—not knowing the major reason was the lack, in some shape or form, of high-quality information.

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What you can do:

  • Relate your practice goals to your outcome goals, breaking them down into relevant chunks. Then plan for practice and how to measure progress during that session. Simply put, when you leave the practice session you should know if you improved.
  • Intentional progress takes you out of your comfort zone. Expect and accept the challenge. Discomfort and frustration are a part of the change process. Importantly, allow time to recharge once you’ve hit a limit. The re-engage the process.
  • Have exceptional models of what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Use mental imagery to create blueprints of skills and performance.
  • Schedule time for reflection and feedback.
  • Get one-on-one coaching with someone who understands the process of purposeful practice.

 

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: Matthew Lejune (unsplash.com)

 

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Simple Question to Improve Performance

If you are a true student of your sport, you have noticed that no two events are ever the same. Truthfully, not even close. You may execute well in a similar way or make the same mistakes—but each event, practice, and every moment bring unique variables to the process.

For this reason, elite athletes possess a high level of flexibility and adaptability. They honor the principle of change. Nothing stays the same and in the living world you can bet on entropy or evolution.

To take this concept to the next level, make a simple question a staple of your pre-game and practice routines. Simply ask: Who am I today? As you are warming up, notice how you feel physically and mentally. Your body and mind are never the exactly the same as we are always teetering to and from equilibrium. Something is different as insignificant as it may seem. And if you are trying to improve mental and physical skills, there is always a growth curve on the way to better performance.

emily-morter-8xAA0f9yQnE-unsplash

As you get ready to compete, notice the connection between process and outcome. This is the true point of leverage of knowing who you are that day. Perhaps your three-point shot is a bit off. There are other ways to help the team rather than forcing miss after miss. Or maybe your putting or iron play is not as sharp. Ignoring this during the round can lead to big numbers. Maybe your missing your first serves. Rather than putting constant pressure on your second serves, spin some first serves in.

Rigidity in each of these cases does not lead to success. Worse still, you miss the opportunity to learn how to compete and succeed with less than your best. Shallow reasons for performance often follow rigidity: “I just didn’t have it today,” or worse, “Everyone has a bad day.”

The truth is: You had something, and you certainly had an opportunity. If you ask, “Who and I today?” you will find something to work with (and possibly discover something new about yourself). At the least, you will stay on the growth curve, for flexibility and adaptability foster the resilience required for long-term goals.

 

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 by Emily Morter (Unsplash.com)

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Back-Up Plans

What if Plan A doesn’t work? That’s a good question, and it applies to much of daily living. But there are a few spaces that require all the creative power we have in order to keep moving and to persist–and to resist resorting to Plan B. The value in the moment of devotion to Plan A is often lost in the challenge, obstacles, discomfort—and sometimes pain.

Einstein is credited for saying that we can’t solve problems with the same of level of thinking that we created them. Here is the space above the field of play that pulls us to creativity, capability, and movement. In other words, when faced with a challenge or obstacle, there is a developmental path that evolves from simplicity to complexity and back to simplicity—and we can become something more.

Consider the skills, habits, and knowledge required to play your sport. There is a wide gap between novice and expert, and this is the arc of growth and development. Each cycle you become something more—sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in leaps and bounds.

back up plan

Again, there are just a few spaces where a Plan B is not a good idea nor should it be a part of consciousness. Having an “out” taints the awareness required to grow, be resilient, and figure it out. This applies in the moment when things are not working and you want to retire, quit, or default. And it applies in the greater arcs on the path to your long-term goals.

If we look deeply, those spaces mentioned are ones with deep connections and meaning. You would wouldn’t enter any vital role in life with a Plan B

“Well, if this fatherhood thing doesn’t work out…”

“If this marriage doesn’t work out…”

In the moment you can’t have one foot in and one out literally or symbolically. Commitment is required and passion wanes without vision.

The true benefit of seeing a plan through to its natural end is the deepening of character and competence on a level you would never attain while having a back-up plan. You may or may not reach your long-term goals, but that is only part of the picture. The commitment and devotion to worthy goals changes us to the core. And these qualities spread into every aspect of life.

At Wit’s End, there is the lure of Plan B—but the option is only to ease the pain. Truthfully, Wit’s End is simply a crossroads, a turning point to a higher level and greater capacity…

And, as Albert implied, new levels of thinking and doing.

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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leadership, Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

Does Playing Sports Develop Character (Part Two)

Looking at the other side of the equation—playing sports may not be a vehicle for self-development. Why? There are many reasons, but I will speak to a few common ones:

  1. The player(s) never truly owns the experience
  2. The end is more important than the means
  3. A fixed mindset

In the first case, the driving need is one of approval. The individual lacks the autonomy to make their own decisions and the biggest payoff, most likely, is being in the good standing of another. The spectrum of how much freedom the individual surrenders is related to the power possessed by the one who actually calls the shots. While we may witness some success in such an authoritarian dynamic, the player does not own enough of themselves and their experience to develop an integrated and differentiated sense of self—the very stuff of character.

In the second case, the product or end-goal is the only thing that matters. Win at all costs, it’s a dog eat dog world, nice guys finish last, only the fittest survive… This is a very black and white perspective and it is hard to develop a sense of character when you see everyone as someone who can take something from you. As we have said many times in this venue, in competition you have nothing at the start and earn everything as you go. In any league or competition, only one gets the first-place trophy. While the ultimate prize is one of the goals, there must be other compelling reasons to play—the greatest being the opportunity and enjoyment of improving at what you love to do.

tournament brackets

The final case has to do with identity. One with a fixed mindset identifies with static qualities. This is the opposite of character which is developed over time and features many mistakes and re-aligning along the way.  According to Carol Dweck, a competitor with a fixed mindset avoids challenges, ignores negative feedback, sees talent as static and effort as fruitless, gives up easily, and is threatened by the success of others. This person identifies with a very rigid sense of success and does not seize the opportunity afforded in the process of overcoming challenges.

While there are different perspectives, one that focuses solely on competence and accomplishment and ignores the development of character seems limiting. After all, who you are at the core will be who you are in all your other roles. And there is no conflict between fierce competitiveness and fairness, intensity and sportsmanship, toughness and respect. Interestingly, those who look to be the best understand they need the best of others to help them get there. This goes back to the true meaning of the word compete: to strive together. For everything, at some level exists in a relationship. And you can’t develop competence without the consistent challenge provided by the best efforts in others.

 

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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