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

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.

ball blur close up daylight
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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.

Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

Motivation and Effort

There is a connection between motivation and effort, one that requires a clear, honest, and personal vision. The connection is a dynamic current that only one person can truly express, explain, and observe. That person is you. Not the coach, the spectator, the parent or sports psychologist. As an athlete, competitor, or performer, only YOU know the health and vitality of this current.

low angle view of woman relaxing on beach against blue sky
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Why answers the compelling question of motivation. It fuels the passion required to do what many will not do. Clear motivation allows you to be truthful in the hard moments, in the seams of the day-to-day effort towards improvement. It’s what separates the good from the great. Only you know if you have given your best. Only you know if you are being honest with yourself.

This current between motivation and effort connects to the intrinsic nature of performance for it is the drive, the execution, and the output. On the deepest level, only you can want your vision the most—whatever it is, for it is your path and nobody can want it for you. To me, that is the incredible gift of being a unique being. You get the freedom to choose.

rope jumping ropes human training
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And it takes effort. There is no such thing as extra effort, for it means you are not giving what is required in those other moments. It matters. There is no such thing as 110%, but there is the honesty of giving only 90%. And only you will know—even when others assume you are giving your best. This is why the why is first and foremost. Your want to has to be compelling to fuel the drive through the not-so-glamorous moments along the path to worthy and meaningful goals.

So, today and at intervals along the way, ask:

Are you clear on your motives?

Are they true? And are you clear about your reasons for your goals?

These reasons have to be connected to what matters most—for you. Not for someone else although you will and must have relationships and support for the endeavor. But without clarity and commitment, you will not give the effort—your 100%. For you will leave some in the tank. And a little left in the tank each day leads to the off ramp, the plateau, and a feeling of being unfulfilled. This is dangerous territory for soon to follow are the thoughts that identify with and rationalize the feelings, all of which on a deep level explains, “I guess it doesn’t really matter.”

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

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
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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
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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.