Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

Mindful of Mindset

The Performance Mindset (PM) can be a sturdy structure, built purposefully on fundamentals, experience, good coaching, mentoring, and intentional learning. But the Performance Mindset is not static. Given the dynamic and open system that life is, the mind and its structures continue to shift, evolve—but these structures can also become static and rigid. While habits are automated, neural networks—the source of these habits— can be developed or changed. And certain aspects of the mindset are more sensitive to change than others. One of these is attention.

While decision-making and reaction differ in each sport, many mistakes within competition are errors of attention and focus. An elite Performance Mindset requires careful attention to the quality of attention. Within the range of optimal performance, we must be able to regulate attention smoothly and efficiently. And within the attentional field, we need to be able to sharpen and shift focus as needed. To develop the capacity to regulate attention, there are things to do as part of training—as well as activities to avoid.

paul-skorupskas-7KLa-xLbSXA-unsplash in focus

To Improve Attention:

Sleep. Having a consistent sleep pattern in routine, quality, and quantity is paramount. Alert, energized, and attentive states require the reset, consolidation, and recharging of good sleep.

Balance: Consistent attention to all needs and roles reduces overall stress, and feeds motivation (a critical component of attention). Balance does not mean equal parts; it’s a sense we have when we feel whole, connected, aligned with goals, and not neglectful of important areas of life. Daily reflection on roles and goals, as well as taking appropriate actions to grow and adjust is a must for maintaining balance.

Rhythm: Your day and your practices require some sense of structure. This doesn’t mean a rigid list of things to do. It does mean you align with major goals, responsibilities, and biological rhythms. While every athlete is different, nothing is as dysregulating as being out of attunement with time, space, mental, and bodily rhythms.

Intentional practice: Having a process goal for the practice of regulating attention on and off the field provides the space for improvement. Training attention within the rhythm and timing of your sport during practice is key to the Performance Mindset. Shifting focus, being aware, re-focusing are all a part of practicing skills and strategies. Being mindful of your mind is the process. Awareness of attention requires planning and practice, and when you commit the effort within practice time, the ability will grow. Importantly, focused work off the field such as meditation, mindful breathing, or directed attention work (focusing and re-focusing intently on a specific target) is part of a comprehensive approach. Isolating this skill off the field deepens the ability to apply it on the field.

Things NOT to do:

Over-planning: When practicing intentionally, less is more. It’s better to consider a wide and long view of improvement, and then practicing deliberately on just a few aspects. The nature of intentional practice is intense. Training attention is demanding. Over-planning can be stressful and counterproductive. Decide on the most important aspects of training and give it full attention.

Over-training: Just like over-planning, not knowing when to enter the rest, reflective phase stalls development. Rest and reflection may seem passive, but we need physical rest to restore and recharge, and reflection to make sense and make meaning of experience. Making sense and making meaning consolidates intentional practice—and strengthens neural networks.

Bad fuel: Energy burns cleaner when the source is high quality. Yes, this means good nutrition—but it also covers your relationships and what you allow to enter your mind. Unhealthy relationships and low-quality information are the highest forms of attention disruptors.

Unbalanced needs: A significant attention drain happens when we are unbalanced in our approach to life. Again, balanced does not mean equal, but there is a proportion that works for the individual. Deny this and an inner sense of longing drains motivation. This can be felt as drifting, daydreaming, burnout, lack of engagement, or a subtle sense of longing for something unnamed.

Too much time with entertainment: Many forms of entertainment hijack the attentional system. It’s well noted that media exists to keep you engaged. The technology is exquisite at keeping your attentional system passive, doing all the shifting and engaging for you on deep levels. This does not mean “No entertainment” but it does mean to pay attention to when, how much, and whether your consumption is getting you off track. Ask: Can I truly disengage?

Being mindful of mindset is fundamental to growing as an athlete. It is not a passive process and requires consistent effort. It is hard work that pays great dividends. Attention is a valuable asset within the Performance Mindset and training it is a top priority to leverage the leap to your next level.

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 Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash (unsplash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Dealing with Fear: 2 Questions

Part One:

  1. What’s the difference between practice and performance?
  2. Do they feel different?

These questions may seem simple or obvious, but the answers point to many disappointments for many athletes. Somewhere along the athlete’s growth curve, the quality (feel, tone, engagement, intention, and intensity) of both practice and performance begin to take on a similar character. If you are an elite performer, then you are being this quality whenever you are engaged in some form of your endeavor. This represents the essence of aligned motivation meaning all your arrows are pointing in one direction.

This sense of being is a perspective that we will explore in greater depth in part two of this post. But for now, it is enough to say that in this stage of development the elite athlete has a sense of gratitude and purpose that is extremely fulfilling. Practice and competition are enlivened by the sense of uniqueness and connectedness of the activity, experiencing both change and continuity. This has been called “flow” by some, but the critical aspect is the true integration of being and doing in the present. In other words, you are simply being yourself and accepting who you are in that moment.

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Even for those just starting the competition journey in their sport, this critical component of performance begins to make sense. If not, something may be lurking beneath the surface and hindering your growth and the ability to execute at your best come “game time.” A sense of being “restrained” hinders the ability to fully immerse into the experience. The athlete in these moments will psychologically compartmentalize or have the past intrude upon the present and upset the balance required to execute.

Typically, fear lives at the bottom of not performing your best. Whether it’s at one end of the continuum, “Getting tight,” “Choking” or the subtle end that enters the mind as a “What if?” fear is the culprit. Fear gives rise to sensations, thoughts, actions, and feelings that veer one off the track of composed performance.

Most times athletes do not experience this during practice. There is more of a light and playful flavor to practice or training even in the most intense moments. Why? Because practice tends to be much more process-oriented in a safe setting and not necessarily focused on winning or losing.

The leap here is to realize each experience along the developmental arc—practice or play— is unique regardless of what seems to be at stake. When attitude (the arrows of motivation) is oriented on growth there is a far greater chance of being in the moment and owning the experience. Simply, big things are made up of little things. If the little thing feels bigger during competition, chances are fear is speaking to you and telling you that you have something to lose.

The truth is you have nothing to lose for you started with nothing. You may think you are losing something because of all you have put into the experience up to the point of performance. But the process is the reward. And this perspective begins to untie the knots of fear…

Next time we look at three concepts in dealing with fear.

 

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 x ) on Unsplash (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Sports Psychology

Coaching Young Children

Recently I started coaching a middle-schooler who was new to the game of tennis. I did my usual assessment of skills and was pleasantly surprised given his lack of on-court experience. He’d taken a few lessons at another club and about halfway into the lesson he started sharing some of the negativity that came his way during that time. These were global comments on his ability based on what seemed to be a small sample size.

Criticizing other coaches is not helpful. But this boy was simply doing something very human—dealing with the confusion of experiences. In this case, his venting helped clear the space for a fresh start which is important to the learning process. You can’t have two competing self-concepts (“I am not very good” and “I am learning and improving”) in mind and expect to be present.

I have enjoyed coaching him and, interestingly, what started as a “just a couple of lessons” turned into a “We’d like to continue.” I offer this piece of information because it speaks to his parent’s tentativeness based on the previous experience. No different than any other relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever answered more questions prior to a first lesson. It felt like an interview for a defense department security clearance. And for good reason!

Because everyone is someone’s son or daughter.

And making that connection helps you to make some space between your plan, your needs, and to see that you are responsible for someone’s child.

kelly-sikkema-WRByZhruW6o-unsplash girl with racket

Notice that the title of this piece is “Coaching Young Children” and when we use this term we often think of little ones— four, five, six, seven-year-olds… But the point is we all share the same emotions and express the same feelings. They are child-like and nearly entirely nonverbal. Sure, the expressions may seem more mature as we age, and the context may be more complex. But there is a good reason why the emotional areas of the brain develop first and before we can even use words. Because it all comes down to meaning, something we feel and something very hard to explain. Every experience has meaning even if we deem it to be meaningless.

Coaching a young child, a middle-schooler or an adult may look different on the surface, but at the core it’s pretty much the same. It’s an experience based on understanding and connection. You can’t learn, grow or develop without meaning. In other words, changing anything whether it is wiring muscle memory or rewiring the idea you have of your potential as a tennis player, is expensive. It’s costly in terms of effort and time, and it’s fueled by motivation—the core of which is emotion in motion. Notice that motivation, emotion, motion, and motive all share the same root. The source is the same and nothing happens unless emotion fuels the process. We like to think that logic dictates. But the hard challenges we take on don’t often make sense from the outside. And it’s because the motivation will always be a unique fire and a singular experience for the individual.

 

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: Kelly Sikkema (unspash.com)

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)

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)