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)

 

Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

The Practice-Performance Connection: Putting it All Together

There is never a simple way to become more complex—as an athlete or a person. It takes imagination, time, and intentional effort. But at each level complexity becomes a simplified, automated process in order to reach the next level of complexity. And that is the spiral of development in any sport. Oddly, you have to keep each step simple in order to build a complex structure because of the nature of learning. Symphonies, hip-hop, jazz, and rock all start with the same 12 tones. The greatest works of literature or a mindless social media post are born of the same 26 letters. But what you can create, even with the simplest of building blocks, is infinite…

Here are some effective ways to enhance the practice-performance connection:

Follow success. In every sport there are models of excellence for every part of development. We are gifted with the opportunity to learn from others’ experiences. Watching others do something at the level we are trying to reach is a powerful source of learning. Pick an area that needs work and find someone in your field that does it at a superior level. Then follow success with your unique touch. In other words, follow the principles (form and function) not the personality.

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Make practice a place for research development. Taking from leading edge businesses, resources are dedicated to the future in R&D. Our resources include time, effort, aptitude, and creativity. This bracket of time within practice (but outside the box) can be fun, adventurous, and truly playful. Ask: “What if?” And enjoy what flows…

Consider your maps. At each level of progress, the maps of performance differ. Maybe you need to recognize and respond quicker or differently to a situation. Or your technique needs smoothing out. Regardless of the physical or psychological nature, we have mental maps (schemas) that we have previously constructed that dictate our motions, emotions, movements, and responses. Ask: “Are they still working?” and “What isn’t working?” Then, edit, polish or discard.

Work on the mental game. Notice your language, expectations, and assumptions. Notice how you process experience and use it to inform you, and for continuous improvement. These all provide leverage for the next level. A journal or coach (or both) can help you with these important internal dialogues.

Start whole and master the parts. Working from a wider perspective can help create a more focused developmental plan for practice. Knowing what the end-product looks like, you can better isolate the areas to attend to. Another benefit of taking this route is how it primes and feeds motivation.

Reframe frustration. A first response to frustration may be avoidance or to soothe the feeling. But frustration’s value is the energy it gives to the change process. It is the fuel of disequilibrium and lives at the edge of growth and new skills. A major change is embracing the frustration as a normal part of growth— and pushing yourself to that tipping point of change.

Hire a Mental Game Coach. Acknowledging the need to focus on regulating states of mind, increasing awareness, and developing more complex mental maps during practice are key factors in the practice-performance connection. Reflecting with and learning from a coach adept in the mental side of the game can be the pathway to new levels of performance.

Putting it all together, the practice-performance connection is the pathway to improvement and goes above and beyond the edges of your current level. Seeing this opportunity makes practice a place not of rote repetition, but of vision and intentional development.

 

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: Austin Chan (unsplash.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.

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photo credit: Diana Parkhouse (unsplash.com)

 

 

 

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Three Practice Myths

The heart and soul of improvement is practice. But just having practice time scheduled and showing up is not enough. Often practice and performance are far apart, particularly when learning a new skill or strategy. We may be able to do things in practice that we are unable to execute in a match, game or performance. But the quality of effort, attitude, and motivation in practice needs to parallel our state on game day. Here are three practice myths that hinder the arc of development:

  1. Putting in the time. While hours of practice certainly matter, the quality of the practice matters more. Two hours of purposeful practice will produce more benefit than drilling without purpose for countless hours.
  2. Putting in the repetitions. Once again, quality matters more than quality. Repetition without a clear developmental plan, reflection, and feedback misses the opportunity to groove the neural nets of efficient response. The process of myelination—the biological foundation for muscle memory—requires clear mental representations, getting out of your comfort zone, and reflective feedback. Otherwise reps are truly just going through the motions.
  3. Giving the effort. Without intention effort is directionless. There are many athletes who have given 100% and not improved, and not reached their goals. I’m reminded of the analogy of climbing a tall ladder only to find out it is set against the wrong wall. Nothing is more devastating to an athlete’s sense of self knowing he/she gave all and failed—not knowing the major reason was the lack, in some shape or form, of high-quality information.

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What you can do:

  • Relate your practice goals to your outcome goals, breaking them down into relevant chunks. Then plan for practice and how to measure progress during that session. Simply put, when you leave the practice session you should know if you improved.
  • Intentional progress takes you out of your comfort zone. Expect and accept the challenge. Discomfort and frustration are a part of the change process. Importantly, allow time to recharge once you’ve hit a limit. The re-engage the process.
  • Have exceptional models of what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Use mental imagery to create blueprints of skills and performance.
  • Schedule time for reflection and feedback.
  • Get one-on-one coaching with someone who understands the process of purposeful practice.

 

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: Matthew Lejune (unsplash.com)