Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Dealing with Fear: 3 Concepts to Master

In the last post we raised two questions about practice and performance. The essence of the inquiry is the sense and feel of these two activities. Both are a form of playing. You could argue that the outcomes may differ as we aim to improve in practice, and we aim to win at the end of performance.

But maybe there is more to it. Maybe an expectation or idea underneath the activity changes the way it feels. Maybe fear or lack thereof changes the feel in the moment and effects performance. With that idea, here are 3 important concepts to master when dealing with fear.

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Valence: Our mindset reacts to experience very quickly and on a deep internal level. Our sense of safety is always activated and for good reason. Therefore, we assign a valence—first unconsciously—to what we are experiencing as either positive or negative. On a very primal level and in the blink of an eye this sense evaluates whether to approach or avoid what is confronting us.

We rarely notice subtle positive experiences because of the alignment with our expectations of how the world should work. A feeling of being OK or content doesn’t garner much awareness. Not typically true for subtle negativity which activates our awareness to assess the situation. The problem with this reaction during performance is that it impacts sustained focus and attention. Past experiences or negative pieces of narrative can come into mind and now you are no longer in the present, no longer in flow.

The required skill is emotional mastery. This involves self-awareness and the ability to sense shifts in states, to make sense of the emotional message, and to regulate the energy of the emotion (more on this later). We can’t turn off our connection to the environment. We have emotions, otherwise we would be numb. Understanding valence allows us to quickly make sense of shifts in states without pushing beyond the stress we can tolerate.

Loss: Fear is an intimate friend of loss. Yet in competition, loss (just like a win) is an outcome at some time in the future. Performing is a process, linking together actions in the present. A competition is the process of competing and the outcome is determined by this process. While this may seem a play on words, it’s critical to learn to be engaged in the present.

When loss seeps into the mind, fear engages the fight, flight or freeze response by ramping up the sympathetic nervous system. This energy is not the state of calm alertness required for fluid execution. The skill is to allow thoughts of loss to come and go without engaging, judging, or fighting them. The mind is a master storyteller always trying to weave a coherent narrative. Learning to let go of losing, losses, and projections of future outcomes is critical to maintaining flow states within the sweet spot of performance.

Regulation: Part of emotional mastery is the ability to manage states. But understanding comes before managing—a process that cannot occur in the reverse order. Emotions, feelings and thoughts ebb and flow. You can’t stop thinking. You can’t stop feeling. And the source of this is experience—and you can’t stop experiencing. Experience lives at the intersection of our inner and outer world, the connection between out mindset and the environment. This reveals why we first have to understand the process before we can manage it.

One of the most important aspects of mental toughness is the ability to regulate the cognitive load between our situation and our inner resources. Emotions can overload our capacity and wreak havoc with attention and focus. Composure is paramount and the ability to regulate the flow of information and energy requires self-awareness and emotional mastery. Like a regulator, we downshift or upshift our intensity, accelerate or brake in order to meet the moment. We emote, make space, make meaning, and move on.

Staying within the Zone of Optimal Performance requires regulating the ebb and flow of experience, a process that fear distorts and upsets. Emotional mastery requires this regulation summed up by:

  • Emote: acknowledge and allow the arc of the feeling
  • Make space: do not become the feeling, rather keep it as object distant enough to observe (you will still feel the emotion)
  • Make meaning: what is the message and purpose of the emotion? What actions and decisions follow based on what you value?
  • Move on: return actively to the process in the moment

Like all psychological tools, they require practice. Just like performance skills, the muscle memory builds and becomes efficient over time–and part of the performance process.

 

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: Photo by Felipe Giacometti) on Unsplash (unspash.com)

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Stress and its Source (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Distraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.