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.

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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

The Heart of a Comprehensive Mindset

It would be beneficial to lay out all the aspects of thinking, feeling, and acting that make up the lens through which we perceive and interact with the challenges of competition. But it would be too complex and impractical. It is far better to work with foundational beliefs that make up a competitor’s mindset— principles and values that provide support, motivation, and perspective for the journey. Then we have:

  • The internal sense of simplicity enabling us to meet the moment
  • A way to understand our choices–short and long-term
  • A framework with the integrity to keep us from fooling ourselves.

This latter statement comes from the importance of understanding our choices when things do or do not go our way. It is the only path that leads to the arc of development. For without knowing the source of progress and setbacks, we stunt our growth at the point of understanding.

Today we start with three of the principles of developing a comprehensive mindset: Attitude, improvement, and effort.

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Attitude: Having a positive attitude is important, but it is not the whole picture. Attitude is also a compass. It is the guiding force keeping us in alignment with values and goals. Refining attitude is a lifelong process for we have to know what to give our full attention and energy—and what to say, “no” to. There is much to do and time is precious. Attitude sets the tone and provides a sense of clarity. The proper attitude allows for progress, keeps us in process, allows for adjustment, and is not deterred by setbacks. Deep down attitude reveals beliefs and expectations. When we approach practice or an event with a purposeful and positive attitude, our poise and determination are evident. Attitude is the manifestation of our motivation, intent, and vision.

Improvement: With a bent on continuous improvement, you have the means to make the most of every situation, every event, and every interaction. Each time you play, practice, or reflect you have the resources necessary to grow and develop. Improvement need not be compartmentalized. Working on improving in all aspects of development creates a synergistic effect. We grow in one area and find that it influences another. One of the key factors of long-term growth and success is balance. We can’t neglect certain areas and focus entirely on others. We are not wired that way. Our fundamental motivation is to fulfill needs in key areas in a self-determined manner. Neglect one area and you will experience the misalignment in some way, whether it be a sense of distraction, dissatisfaction, loneliness or feeling unfulfilled. In the comprehensive mindset, growth is global and thought out carefully for body, mind, spirit, and relationships.

Effort: Nothing reveals more to oneself than the honesty of effort. At the source, only you will know the true level of effort given to a task, practice or competition. Once we have a vision of our future selves, the effort we give in the present is the greatest leverage towards development. People in your sphere can offer you information, tools, and resources, but only you can give the effort. And the integrity to give your best in the moment is something only you can measure. Again, the right and consistent effort creates synergy and momentum. In giving your best, you realize you can be your best, and this magnifies and resonates our deepest sense of motivation. Giving our best inspires, as well as softening the blow of outcomes not in our favor. And then we can build and plan on something certain and not a vague sense of what went wrong.

Next time we will take a look at the fundamental beliefs making up a comprehensive mindset.

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

Mindset (Part 2)

In the last post, we talked about two possible ways to consider mindset. If a competitor’s mindset is situational in terms of competing, then what could be the overarching mediator of this type of mindset? And is that a source of such contradictory behaviors on and off the field of play? Is this the source of inconsistency in events? Careers?

If you listen to coaching or teaching most of the content is on skill development and execution of strategy. In other words, there are distinct skills and a playbook for every sport. Then, how can similar skills and similar strategies produce such disparate outcomes? Is it talent? Temperament? There are many factors, but the question is: What is not happening?

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A targeted and balanced approach to growth and development.

Two things are happening at every moment when it comes to learning to compete: the player’s development and the coach, mentor or teacher’s development. When most players are learning their sport they are far from independent and highly influenced by authority figures. This is a powerful source of mindset for at this stage young athletes are learning by observing, modeling, and the culture of the environment. And given that coaches can be at different developmental stages, four things can happen (for simplicity sake, we will use “coach” to describe whoever is guiding the competitor’s growth process):

  • The coach will be centered on their own program or personal needs and goals. Players are told what their goals should be both overtly and covertly.
  • The coach will teach what they have learned based in the organization (Academy, etc.) they represent or their own experiences of being coached.
  • The coach will teach based on a clearly defined coaching philosophy with the athlete’s individual goals and needs in mind.
  • The coach will see the developmental trajectory of a player as a process and adapt to the needs of the player in all developmental realms. The player is seen as a whole and unique individual.

The system the athlete learns in matters. A system that looks at only competence and not character and the interpersonal is to look at development as one-dimensional. This becomes the roots of a situational mindset, and performance and outcomes are often determined by its weakest link (such as the inability to adapt, handle pressure, etc.). Simply put, a comprehensive mindset does not compartmentalize experience, therefore every experience can be used to mature and learn.

 

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

Mindset

Over the next few posts, I would like to bring the important concept of mindset into full view. It is a widely used term, but like many words, it may carry different meanings depending on who is speaking. Some have used the term along with high performance, mental toughness, and in the popular book by Carol Dweck, she proposes growth or fixed mindsets. There are also connections with mindset when self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-efficacy are discussed.

I’d like to offer a slightly different take based on research, clinical, and coaching experience. A good portion of this experience comes from listening to athletes process before, during, and after competitive events—from professional to amateur, as well as listening to parents talk to their sons and daughters. Language is connected to thinking, and for many, depending on developmental stage, language accurately reflects an individual’s mindset. In other words, what you say, the quality of your self-talk, and how you process experience will reflect so many aspects of mindset including locus of control, optimism, resilience, development, expectations, and belief systems.

kick chess piece standing
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Speaking generally about mindset,  I would like to present one major idea to frame your thinking. Depending on the individual, either: 1) a mindset is a subset of a way of thinking and is situationalor 2) a mindset reflects the overall quality of thinking.  Regarding the former, psychology and language have a quality of labeling and compartmentalizing experience and concepts. Boundaries and rationalizations place process and product into neat little packages as if they are separate from the whole. Interestingly, psychological defenses have this very quality with the goal of reducing stress and anxiety.

Consider how many times we find athletes in the news or in an event acting in a way that flies in the face of professionalism or codes of fair play. Even sportscasters offer commentary solidifying that mindset can be placed in brackets depending on circumstance:

“Athletes are not role models.”

“Just appreciate their skills and athletic ability rather than their personality, attitude or behaviors.”

“He’s got a temper, but he’s really a nice guy off the (field, court, diamond, golf course).”

“Player X has some problems off the field, but shows up to play.”

The main point is that if one is using a particular mindset in one situation, and a different one in another, then there must be some overall mindset governing the most important actions: choices based in values. For choices govern consequences. If a mindset is “a subset of a way of thinking” then manipulation and self-deceit on or off the field are as likely as any positive outcome. I can think of no other factor that more significantly stunts the trajectory of an athlete’s growth and development.

In the latter explanation of mindset, one that reflects the overall quality of thinking, who you are on the field of play is who you are in life. There is no separation between the player and the person. Who you are in life is who you are on the field of play. There are no boundaries or artificial separations to make. There is a consistency of being that aligns with development and the determination needed to stay with the process of achieving long-term goals.

Next time we will take a closer look at this overarching concept of mindset, its benefits, and how to begin to “think” this way.

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 2)

Performing, executing, competing is challenge enough without bringing the weight of a cluttered mind along for the ride. As athletes, part of developing a clear mental approach is untying unproductive knots in our mindset. And if we are developing, we always feel the pull within the gap of where we have been and where we are going. As mentioned in the last post, negative and debilitating stress arises from:

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

Today, we will deconstruct the first four, and I will offer some suggestions for constructing a cleaner approach to your best performance.

person jogging near soccer goal during sunrise
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A dominant focus on outcome: Regardless of the sport, in the end only one gets to be the last one standing. So, in a field of dozens of competitors or teams, one outcome goal is common among each: Winning it all. If this is the dominant focus the path will feel heavy and stressful. Consider the most successful baseball team in history, the NY Yankees, have won 27 World Series. Despite their success, they have been also-rans nearly 80% of their existence. During the 2017-18 season of the PGA tour, players ranked 75-150 amassed a total of only 4 tournament wins. 12 NFL teams have never won a Super Bowl. We can go on, but I think you get the drift.

The bigger and further out the goal, the more stress you will feel internally of you have no defined pathway. It is absolutely fine to have long-term goals but a sense of control comes from the moment-to-moment process of effort and execution in the moment. If you are heading somewhere you have never been, you need good directions. The straightaways, turns, and unexpected roadblocks can be managed with a plan heavy in the short-term with a focus on process. Which leads to:

A lack of process goals: If the outcome is the “what” in our plan, then the process goals are the “how” we get there. Over the years of competition, the biggest loss of potential happens in practice. While many work hard and give effort, often there is no direction or purpose to the practice. Doing the same things over and over is only part of the path. Process goals help to identify and focus on specific areas of improvement. Each practice, each hour (and each event!) is an opportunity to get better. But you must first have purpose (a process goal) in place to guide the intentional and deliberate practice.

An identity fixed to outcome: Here we make the connection to mindset. If your sense of self is tied to winning and losing then you will be on shaky ground and never get a sense of stability. A fixed mindset focuses on the black and white of outcome and talent. It is full of excuses when things do not work. A growth mindset focuses on the key elements of effort, attitude, and improvement and derives stability in that we are always a work in progress.

Unrealistic expectations: Our perception is our reality. When there is a big gap between our expectations and what the moment of truth presents us, then it is time to examine expectations. This does not mean you shouldn’t have high expectations. But, these need to be focused on what you can control. The bigger the goal, the more moving parts exist outside of your ability to control them. If you expect to give your best effort, adapt to circumstances, and compete your best, then these expectations are realistic for they are within your control. If you expect to be the best all of the time and this is your only expectation, this is not realistic and more importantly, the focus of energy is flawed. Notice how things continually return to having the mindset that allows you to be the best you can be in the moment. More on that in future posts. Next, we look at the final four sources of internal stress.

 

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

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.

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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.