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)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

What Do You Hear?

An important part of performing under pressure is to make sense of the voices in your head. In certain situations, they may seem louder that others. When things are going well, they can be particularly encouraging. Maybe not so when things are not going well.

Such is the nature of self-talk, and important aspect of self-regulation during performance. If you haven’t worked on making self-talk positive and productive, you are missing a key aspect of elite performance.

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Simply put, your self-talk needs to serve you. You get to decide whether your thoughts are facilitating or hindering the pursuit of excellence. Without doing the up-front work, there can be many characters up there telling you different things at different times.

Starting off, self-talk can be much like handling the trash-talkers in any sport. They try to push your buttons, get you thinking of things that you shouldn’t be thinking of. A change of state ensues, and focus is gone. But a resilient competitor finds the way to make sense of this one way or another so that nothing effects your composure.

So, what do you hear? And when do you hear it? Consider the guideline of: positive and productive. First, positive is not necessarily the cheerleader’s voice. Positive means clear, affirming, and without negatives. Our mind does not do well with negative commands or prompts (Example: Don’t think of a purple rabbit… what happened?). And productive means moving along the proper path or process towards a goal or objective. Thinking about failure is not productive.

Self-talk affects state. It can be your internal coach, guide, and friend. Or it can cause chaos and degrade performance. Here are three ways to improve self-talk during practice and competition.

  1. Notice any negative self-talk. Don’t fight it– notice it and take it apart. What is it that you want in that moment? Consider how you would coach a good friend in that moment. What would you say?
  2. Script particularly stressful situations. Have a stock phrase that keeps you composed and on track. Keep it short and sweet.
  3. Don’t get caught up in outcomes. Self-talk is about the process such as effort, focus, guiding, planning in the moment, etc. Avoid shoulda, woulda, coulda conversations in your mind.

Then…practice, reflect, and refine!

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: Morgan Sarkissian (unspash.com)

 

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Dark Side of Coaching

In this post I would like to take a wide lens to coaching and some embedded assumptions about power, systems, and leadership. While it is not mentioned much or part of the dialogue of sports talk shows, people, players, and coaches are at different developmental levels. This is reflected in beliefs, styles, relationships and theories about team and player development. Sometimes it is explained away as “personality.”

Years ago, a controversy surrounding a legendary basketball coach (and personality) brought these different perspectives and beliefs in full view. Presented in many forms of media as if for a jury, both sides of the argument received attention regarding the coach’s questionable behavior. One had to take a leap to discern the coach’s motivation as the situation was offered “objectively.” Some former players saw the coach as a flat-out bully. Others saw his hard-nosed, win at all cost, profane and degrading treatment of players as “that’s just coach.” No big deal.

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Can both be true? Absolutely, just as it is easily justified in a certain light—or darkness. That is the wide frame of developmental levels. And over the years we witness similar stories—sometimes with not-so famous coaches, GM’s or team doctors, but it’s simply a variation on a theme. Most recently a chapter is being written in the National Hockey League, one that is quite disturbing when leadership is considered. But with a wider lens, one that accounts for principles of growth and stewardship, something different than the “that’s what I know, that’s the way it is, the way it’s always been” emerges.

There is a certain authoritarian approach that looks at players as pawns to be manipulated. The conditions include an imbalance of power and negation of the player as a complete human being. The player is their number, uniform, role, skill-set. “It’s a business.” This approach does not back away from fear and humiliation. It comes from a place of demanding respect… But…

At a certain level, respect can’t be demanded. It must be earned in a reciprocal manner—in a relationship. The principal behind the different levels of being is that you can’t give what you haven’t received. So, coaches who were coached in a fear-driven and belittling manner bring this forward to their new role. And players who were brought up in authoritarian homes in fear of punishment find it matter of course for coaches to punish, degrade, and direct from fear.

What this approach misses is the reality of how difficult it is to do anything complex and precise from a place of fear (hence the term “choke”). It is difficult to build chemistry when players are pitted against each other. Vision and purpose are blurred by intimidation and chaos. Motivation from fight or flight is short-lived, draining, and meant to engage a serious and imminent threat to life. Athletes in most sports do not fair well in such a state of stress, arousal and tunnel-vision. Even athletes (such as boxers and MMA fighters) where impairment or even death loom maintain a centered alertness that allows them to process and adapt.

All emotions come from a personal source and require awareness and insight. While these emotions exist in relationship to the greater surround, on a deep level they are very personal. Anger, the most powerful and volatile, requires a good deal of up-front work. Its message is private: I don’t like what is happening. The internal feeling is not a passport to violate, destroy, humiliate, intimidate or deceive because things are not going the way you wish. This is immaturity in adult clothes though its wrath is far from childlike.

While this may seem preachy or judgmental, the truth is we, in the name of safety, are always sizing things up. Just as the athlete you coach is seeing if you are for real. If you are going to facilitate growth, teamwork, and the conditions that must be present before you can even start to contemplate success in any form—the first things are personal and principled in nature. You have to be worthy and trustworthy before you can build trust and worth.

In your heart, what would you want for your son? Your daughter? Demanding, yes. Abusive, no. While the John Woodens and Tony Dungys are few and far between, we should stop making excuses and finally commit to what brings out the best in all. Because it matters.

 

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: Carolina Pimenta, unsplash.com)

 

 

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

When Data Helps Sports Performance

Years ago, I performed the duties of Head Pro and Sports Director at a very large club. The facility featured racquet sports, handball, volleyball, and basketball, but the area that stood out to me from a performance perspective was the dance studio. Long before teams collected data and film on every aspect of the game, dancers had a simple effective form of feedback: mirrors. Over 40% of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to visual processing and equally important a dancer learning a performance could get the sense of the whole: how a move looked and felt from position to transition to position…

In a different vein, baseball crowned a new champion and data was as much a player as the athletes on the field. The broadcast was chock full of statistics, real-time measurements, and analysis. On a side note, I miss the days of “The Scooter,” Hall of Fame shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, who was the New York Yankees color analyst for years after he hung up his spikes. Rizzuto often talked about meals he had at different New York restaurants for innings at time. Spaghetti and meatballs flavored the broadcast. Today, conversation has been replaced by esoteric stats and games take nearly twice as long.

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Dancers, data, and plates of spaghetti all go together on some level. And that is the point. Data and stats are important, but not as much as the intuition developed by athletes and performers at the highest level. And sometimes the best coaching takes place over a meal.

More and more the mind is being managed from a laminated sheet beyond the playing field. Junior-varsity catchers wear armbands with codes so they can decipher the pitch called by the coach in the dugout. Sport is evolving and pushing down the technology and information-gathering to athletes yet to experience puberty. Perhaps we should take heed of other aspects of society, such as education, to see where data collection and pushing expectations down to those not yet developmentally ready has gotten us.

Data matters and it’s nice to know that the number four hitter in the lineup eats fastballs middle in. But it’s not the endpoint. It’s an intermediary in a larger context. Performance, whether team or individual, is equally (if not more) influenced by what cannot be measured. We can’t build a whole by putting parts together. Athletes aren’t cars or toasters. The whole, whether team or individual is always more and of a different quality than the sum of its parts. Many times have we heard, “That team looks good on paper” only to experience the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.

Fifty years ago, a team transformed from hapless to miraculous. The “Amazing Mets” changed my life and Tom Seaver became my hero. Data offered that Tom Terrific threw 150 pitches in a ten-inning, game four, World Series win. Data couldn’t measure his heart, his desire, his commitment, nor could it measure that elusive team intangible: chemistry.

I think of that dance studio every time I teach and coach. Performance is helped by data. But ultimately, it’s about relationships: with yourself, with teammates, with coaches. The mirror is ever-present in reflection whether it’s staring back or in your mind’s eye. It doesn’t lie for you see your execution. You see the many dancers or athletes you admired and showed you the way. You see the intuitive genius possessing immeasurable bits of the data of process and experience, creativity, failure and success. You see the shaping of performance. You see, even if symbolically, what you think and feel, which according to many a sage, is what you become.

 

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: freepik.com)

 

 

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.

cover shot

photo credit: Diana Parkhouse (unsplash.com)