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

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, 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, 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, Self-help, Sports Psychology

The Practice-Performance Connection

 

In the next series of posts, we will look deeper into the mental aspect of the practice-performance connection. You may have heard sayings such as “You play how you practice” or “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and the like, yet the connection and feel between practice and performance has subtle threads beneath the surface that players may not be able to hold in awareness.

For the sake of simplicity, there are two processes occurring during practice and performance. One (1) is very linear, logical, and limited. It comes in parts and is sequential. There is a sense of order and the need for control because B follows A. The second (2) is wider, intuitive and contextual. It’s the whole which the parts are made of—but there is more to it than just the parts. A may follow B and A is related to C and many other interconnected variables. The first (1) makes use of words, the second (2) is wordless and has a global feel to it. For the latter, think of a time when you were in flow (or in the Zone) and then later tried to describe it. The words do not quite capture the experience. There is so much more, and you can tell just by watching the face of the describer as they appear to be elsewhere. And they are.

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Let’s take a deeper look into this second flow-like process and the practice-performance connection:

Lightness. Even when performance is intense there can be a lightness to the experience. Why? Chance are “outcome” is out of the picture. There is nothing at stake—or so it seems and autonomous abilities flow. If you are truly practicing, what is at stake is improvement. Yet, improvement is possible only with a focus on quality—which is subjective. It is something more sensed than measure. Challenge: Notice the lighter quality of practice and allow it to flow in performance. Focus on quality and sensing the performance.

Awareness. Even team sports have an individual skill-set and this connection is something to try on your own. Whether you are practicing a skill or a pattern or a play, center your awareness on something different. Shifting awareness and focus is a crucial performance skill and often our practices are so scripted we do not get enough practice at shifting. As our attention span is shorter than most would believe, re-focusing is an extremely important capacity. Challenge: Consider the connection you have with the ground (footwork, movement) or the connection with your center of gravity (somewhere around your bellybutton) and notice your sense of balance. Both of these are valuable internal cues and provide important feedback. Widening awareness and shifting awareness are keys to unlocking higher levels of performance.

More to come 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: Stefan Cosma (unsplash.com)