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)

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

The Tension Connection

In the next few posts, we will dive deeper into the connection between tension and performance. While all athletes experience some sense of tension in performance, the points of connections have similarity depending on the sport. For this article, we will explore sports that require the use of a handle. While I may reference the most popular sports, the connection works regardless of the equipment you are holding: a bat, a club, a racquet, etc.

man in white denim pants and black sandals playing golf during daytime
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

In an earlier post, I talked about moments of truth, when preparation, anticipation, and execution meet at a point in time: the batter connecting with a pitch, a golfer driving a tee shot, the tennis ball meeting the strings on a cross-court forehand. One of the key connections in all of these moments of truth is the athlete’s grip on the handle. While the type of grip on the equipment of choice is important, the quality of the grip at the moment of truth is a significant factor between the expectation and the execution. Any competitor can tell you the type of grip they employ, how they hold the club,etc., yet how well they can describe the connection is a better indicator of consistent performance. I use a 10-point scale to describe this quality, where 1 is so loose the club or racquet flies out of your hand, and 10 is so tight that blood flow is cut off and parts of the hand turn white.

Everyone is, to some extent, unique. For example, if a tennis player uses the popular semi-western grip, the actual output will be different if her grip pressure is 2 versus 8. Studies have confirmed these unique grip signatures. One such study of golfers collected data from nearly ten thousand grip sensors and found that golfers “had their own unique grip force ‘signature’” which were repeatable but different than the signatures of other golfers.

Why is this important? The grip represents the balance of structure and fluidity. Not enough structure in the connection and it’s hard to repeat the swing path and the moment of truth. Too much structure and the anatomy can’t perform in a fluid, repeatable manner. This is the diminishing effect of tension. More important is the tension that resides out of the athlete’s awareness.  Coaches will talk about “feel” and this starts to get to the root of the tension connection. Under pressure, our awareness contracts and we lose some of the internal capacity that allows us to sense this “feel.” Thus, chips fall short or are skulled long. Second serves find the middle of the net. Bats can’t catch up to fastballs that, under less pressured circumstances, are ripped into the gap.

It all starts with self-awareness and a mindset of curiosity, imagination, and continuous improvement. While equipment matters, in the end, it is the connection to the equipment that matters most. Developing this awareness of self, and the awareness of self in space needs to be an integral part of practice. Start today. Take the time each practice session to become more aware of this connection to your equipment. Give yourself the internal feedback you need to raise your sense of connection. Use the 10-point scale. It’s arbitrary but effective if you use it consistently. You will notice, over time your connection to your unique grip signature. And you will find your ability to repeat that “just right” feel increases.

Next time, we get a close “look” at the tension connection.

 

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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Reference:

Komi, E. R., Roberts, J. R., & Rothberg, S. J. (2008). Measurement and analysis of grip force during a golf shot. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology222(1), 23-35.

Performance psychology

Moments of Truth

In all sports there are moments when preparation gives way to execution at a specific and vital point: In baseball, it may be the contact of the bat to ball or the pitcher’s release point. In tennis, it is the connection of the racquet’s sweet spot to the felt of the tennis ball. In golf, it may be the impact of the putter or the driver to dimples of the golf ball. In hockey, the one-timer off of a perfect pass. Or in basketball, the release of the jumper or free throw. And in soccer, the penalty kick. What all of these events have in common is an inner trust—or distrust in the process.

contact tennis

In my work, I help players to understand the power of language to influence the mindset. Listening to players reflect on performances tells you exactly where they are in their developmental trajectory. It’s either up or down for there is no such thing as standing still in development. These moments of truth in execution have meaning and significance because they reveal:

 

  • The connection between trust and the moment of truth.
  • The connection between confidence and process. This is internal—not one based in results. Because of other factors in competition, you can not trust the process but still execute and win— but this will lead to a different trajectory, one with limitations.
  • The connection between moment and momentum in the continuum of moments.
  • The connection between trust and self-talk.

contact baseball

It has been my experience that teaching methods, coaching, and media influence (among other factors) have led to an over-emphasis on outcomes and externals. So much so that when I ask if players experienced the moment of truth (Did you see the ball? Did you feel the swing? Contact?) their answers run from silence to a confused stare. They can tell you what the outcome was, but have no recall of the extended process that leads to the result.

man in white denim pants and black sandals playing golf during daytime
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Further, constant focus on the externals not only dampens intrinsic motivation but can lead to an external locus of control. In other words, the results of a match or performance are based on conditions beyond the athlete’s control (“That’s just the golfing gods.” “The weather was really tough.” “I had a bad day.”) But, most importantly, this attitude puts our attention on aspects we cannot control. And the result of an external focus is a consistent and unnecessary internal pressure.

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

Media and the Message: Sounding Off on The Final Round of the PGA Championship

Being at your best for a performance, regardless of the sport, is not something that just happens. There’s a lot of preparation prior to the event. And it’s never been more difficult for young athletes to keep focused on what matters. Why?

Part of it is the environment, and a good part of it is what we are now immersed in but barely notice. Let me explain. I did not grow up with ESPN’s Top Ten, or the type of sports coverage and commentary that we witness daily. YouTube did not exist, nor did cell phones, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I grew up playing in the streets of New York, and the radio or being in the cheap seats was as close as I could come to the “inside” of the process of sports development. And youth sports was managed by volunteers until the pinnacle which back then was representing your high school on the field of play. Showcase teams and paid coaches were not the centerpieces in most sports for most of the time.

grass green golf golf ball
Photo by tyler hendy on Pexels.com

This is not good or bad, it just is— and what you do with it matters. Technology is neutral, but it is all how you use it. Any tool has tremendous value if used in the right manner. Having the information and resources can be the difference along the arc of developing as an athlete.

Today at the PGA championship, several golfers are bunched at the top and have the opportunity to win one of the year’s four biggest prizes. If you are watching and a fan or a competitive athlete, there is a lot that can be learned today as a spectator. One of the gifts of human experience is the ability to use other’s triumphs and mistakes as part of our learning. Today, someone will be just a bit sharper, a bit more centered on and aware of what matters most. This is more mental than physical and a place of great leverage.

But there are two stories unfolding and this is where it is much different today. Unless you are at the Bellerive Golf Course in Missouri taking it in up close and personal, you will receive the experience through technology. The announcers will tell a story, directed by a producer pointing cameras where the drama is. That is one story, one that does an athlete no good at all for the lens is focused on the drama that is scripted by those who are spectators on this day.

In the trenches, there is another story—one with a very different script, one that unfolds in the moment. The athlete who does not tell stories in his head on this day will be focused on playing and executing. On the other hand, the golfers telling stories in their head will be creating unnecessary pressure for the narrative is in the past or the future. Execution is in the present.

So, the greatest leverage an athlete has is awareness. Awareness of who they are in the moment and what the moment requires. Try watching this last round with the sound off–at least for a while. While it may not feel as dramatic, you will get glimpses of the competitors who are prepared, playing, and saving the stories for after the round.