Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Focus on Attention

Attention is complex and there is more to the process than the ability to simply “pay attention.” Focused and integrated attention requires the training and discipline that affords the simplicity of process at the point of performance. At any sporting event, you can hear someone on the sidelines (coach, friend, fan or parent) urge a competitor to “Focus!” The truth is the average attention span is less than 8 seconds and we can process only a small percentage of the sensory (internal and external) information presented each moment. So, where we place our focus and attention becomes more and more important and influential to performance.

spotlight shining down into a grunge interior

Competitive performance requires the self-awareness to focus on the critical elements of execution, and the ability to regulate and shift focus as required. And this is a dynamic process with many factors that test the limits of our abilities. Each event is singular by nature, therefore these abilities must be practiced beforehand.

First, to pay attention requires the clarity of purpose to filter out what doesn’t matter. Basically, three systems have to be in sync to make this happen:

  1. Activation Levels (Energy for the task)
  2. Emotional or Limbic centers (Meaning)
  3. Executive functions managing attention (Focus)

Each of these represents different areas of the brain that must be integrated towards a way of being in the moment, a state that allows one to perform in flow and the Zone of Optimal Performance.

Questions often help us to get to the source of what we can’t sense or feel. Considering the three areas represented above, try these questions to bring each of these centers into awareness.

  1. Do I have a sense of my level of energy (activation or arousal levels) while I am executing? Using a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) decide which number or range of numbers represents a good level for performing during a competition or practice. For example, someone standing over a 5-foot putt will have a different activation level (low arousal, alert) than a middle linebacker in football (high arousal, alert).
  2. Do I have a clear sense of meaning and purpose for practice and competition? Do I have goals that represent the vision I have for myself over time of what matters most?
  3. Do I practice focusing and refocusing both in practice and in isolation as a distinct skill set?

These questions clarify the key aspects of attention and focus. Make this important function of the mental game part of your daily routine.

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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Photo Credit: Created by Kjpargeter – Freepik.com

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

One Way

While mature relationships are a two-way street, the relationship you have with yourself and your sport is fully realized if it points with certainty in one direction. In the modern world of options and backup plans, there are certain sacred spaces that deserve and require our full attention and commitment. Interestingly, research has uncovered associations between too many choices and anxiety. And I have found time and time again that fear lurks at the source of the “backup plan.”

We as human beings seem to have a problem with “What if?” Rather than seeing the openness as the portal to imagination and creativity, many skip the possibilities and go straight to the door that says “I have to know.” But the truth is a plan is just a plan and you don’t know all that life will place along your path.

The point here is one of quality. If I commit fully to what is right in front of me and part of my path, I not only can grow as an athlete, but levels of competence and character are opened in the pure and intentional process that is not available to one who does not take the risk. The principle of risk-reward comes down to how one feels and defines a sense of security. You can’t have the reward of opportunity while you have one foot in Plan B. It doesn’t work that way and never will. No risk, no reward— and you can’t have the gaping chasm of opportunity and the security of what is known only in the present. By definition, opportunity is a direction, but the outcome is unknowable in the present.

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This concept is eloquently spoken by an all-time great in November/December 2018 issue of Tennis magazine. Rafa Nadal referencing an intensely battled five-set win reflects: “I lost in Wimbledon in a match like this. Today was for me. In some way when you give everything you have, win or lose—is just that someone have to lose, someone have to win, that’s part of the game. But the personal satisfaction when you give everything and you play with the right attitude is the same.”

In other words, on some level playing with all you have and with the right attitude is winning. Not everything that matters can be measured for its form exists in an internal quality—“ a personal satisfaction” that resonates from the integrity to a purpose, the commitment to the “Only Plan.” For there is no Plan B.

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

Tension Connection (Part 2)

Going right to the connection between the player and the equipment, a major source of tension can be understood where these two meet. This connection is vital to another important connection, that of impact or as we have called it, “the moment of truth.” Again, this is true of any sport that requires one to grip the equipment. For simplicity sake, I am going to use the visual of the moment of truth in tennis.

novak fh contactrog fh contactcontact tennis

For the most part, if we consider the impact of a ball at the common strike zone (not too high or low) a pattern presents itself. You will notice that the racquet is perpendicular to the ground or nearly so. The only thing that matters here is that this is the position of the connection to the equipment at contact while playing without pressure—in other words, “just right tension.” If we use the scale previously mentioned where 1 is loosest, and 10 is the death grip, then we can say that these connections represent a grip tension of less than 5. It allows the fluidity of release while keeping the structure of the swing path. And for your personal use, just consider what your grip tension is (1-10), and then consider the next point:

Within a competition, you have fallen out of the sweet spot of performance and are experiencing stress. You feel tighter, and mentally feel a sense of pressure. For all competitors in these situations, things shorten. Muscles tighten, grips tighten, and swings get short and less fluid. Maybe your grip pressure goes from a 3 to a tense 7. What happens at the point of impact?

With the change of pressure, you change the connection with the equipment and the moment of truth. If you employ a semi-western forehand grip and tighten from a 3 to 7, the diagram below will likely happen. Notice the bottom edge leads and the sense of squaring up to the ball is now off. Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try it. Maybe your racquet or clubface or bat will move differently. Subtle or not, it will move. And because things get shorter, you are often out of tempo as well. Tightness and lateness go together because when you are out of the Zone of Optimal performance time has a different quality.

tension connection 1

What’s the most important effect? The outcome of the impact… Process produces product—and now it gets really interesting. Competing is about executing and adjusting. If you adjust based on the product, you may get even more lost. Many times in error analysis, I will ask simply “What happened?” The reply says it all for it speaks to process or outcome. If the moment of truth is off square, you will feel it—or not. I often ask, “What did you feel?” Again, the answer says it all. If the tension changes contact and produces and off-center strike, without process data (your sense of “feel”) you may adjust by firming up your grip. Now you are really going down a dark road.

This is why it is important to adjust based on the process, not the outcome. You play like you practice—which is why practice must reproduce the conditions of play. You have to create tension and a just right feel. And you have to know how to adjust based on the feel—not just the outcome. The outcome is data, it is the product, but working backward to the source of control, you come to the connection: you and how your process got you to the moment of truth.

Bottom line: develop your awareness of self, your kinesthetic awareness of your movements, your process for producing and executing in a repeatable manner. It matters because you maintain a sense of power and control. Adjustment without awareness does not build capacity. Without awareness and the feel of how you get to the moment of truth, you reduce your outcomes to: good days and bad days.

That leaves way too much to chance.

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

Stress and its Source (Part 2)

Performing, executing, competing is challenge enough without bringing the weight of a cluttered mind along for the ride. As athletes, part of developing a clear mental approach is untying unproductive knots in our mindset. And if we are developing, we always feel the pull within the gap of where we have been and where we are going. As mentioned in the last post, negative and debilitating stress arises from:

  • A dominant focus on outcome
  • Unclear goals
  • A lack of process goals
  • An identity fixed to outcome
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents
  • Poor decision-making

Today, we will deconstruct the first four, and I will offer some suggestions for constructing a cleaner approach to your best performance.

person jogging near soccer goal during sunrise
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A dominant focus on outcome: Regardless of the sport, in the end only one gets to be the last one standing. So, in a field of dozens of competitors or teams, one outcome goal is common among each: Winning it all. If this is the dominant focus the path will feel heavy and stressful. Consider the most successful baseball team in history, the NY Yankees, have won 27 World Series. Despite their success, they have been also-rans nearly 80% of their existence. During the 2017-18 season of the PGA tour, players ranked 75-150 amassed a total of only 4 tournament wins. 12 NFL teams have never won a Super Bowl. We can go on, but I think you get the drift.

The bigger and further out the goal, the more stress you will feel internally of you have no defined pathway. It is absolutely fine to have long-term goals but a sense of control comes from the moment-to-moment process of effort and execution in the moment. If you are heading somewhere you have never been, you need good directions. The straightaways, turns, and unexpected roadblocks can be managed with a plan heavy in the short-term with a focus on process. Which leads to:

A lack of process goals: If the outcome is the “what” in our plan, then the process goals are the “how” we get there. Over the years of competition, the biggest loss of potential happens in practice. While many work hard and give effort, often there is no direction or purpose to the practice. Doing the same things over and over is only part of the path. Process goals help to identify and focus on specific areas of improvement. Each practice, each hour (and each event!) is an opportunity to get better. But you must first have purpose (a process goal) in place to guide the intentional and deliberate practice.

An identity fixed to outcome: Here we make the connection to mindset. If your sense of self is tied to winning and losing then you will be on shaky ground and never get a sense of stability. A fixed mindset focuses on the black and white of outcome and talent. It is full of excuses when things do not work. A growth mindset focuses on the key elements of effort, attitude, and improvement and derives stability in that we are always a work in progress.

Unrealistic expectations: Our perception is our reality. When there is a big gap between our expectations and what the moment of truth presents us, then it is time to examine expectations. This does not mean you shouldn’t have high expectations. But, these need to be focused on what you can control. The bigger the goal, the more moving parts exist outside of your ability to control them. If you expect to give your best effort, adapt to circumstances, and compete your best, then these expectations are realistic for they are within your control. If you expect to be the best all of the time and this is your only expectation, this is not realistic and more importantly, the focus of energy is flawed. Notice how things continually return to having the mindset that allows you to be the best you can be in the moment. More on that in future posts. Next, we look at the final four sources of internal stress.

 

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, Sports Psychology

Stress and its Source

While many performance psychology texts address stress and composure, information that is not readily available or discussed is what lies at the very root of stress. In practice leading up to an event most energy is spent on physical skills with some time devoted to executing plans, sizing up opponents or the venue, and decision-making. Most of this occurs in an environment not quite as stressful as the actual performance. Yet, stress and interpretation of challenge enter all areas of performance, particularly decision-making within the processes of executing and adjusting. Handling the pressure is a point of leverage between making the right moves, finding balance, and keeping in the zone of optimal performance.

sport united states of america ball jump
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The roots of stress are beneath our actual assessment of the situation once we sense the pressure. Often athletes enter the fray only with tools to cope with stress rather than to understand the source. In other words, on some level stress is always one up.

So, what is that source? Very simply: Meaning. Regardless of your sport, you have a purpose for competing and this is embedded in motivation. The source of stress both beneficial and detrimental is in the connection to meaning in the moment. The good stress is created in the improvement gap created by well-crafted goals. Negative and debilitating stress arises from:

  • A dominant focus on the outcome
  • Unclear goals
  • A lack of process goals
  • An identity fixed to an outcome
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of resilience
  • Inflated sense of self and ability
  • Minimizing opponents
  • Poor decision-making

 

This list is not exhaustive, but at the core is a lack of alignment between the athlete, time and place. And all of these are connected to meaning. We will get to this list in the next post, but for now, let’s take a look at the last point: poor decision-making. The decision-making process sounds fundamentally like a cognitive task, but there is much more to it. You can have a plan, a decision tree, and all the data in front of you and still make a poor choice because of the veil of emotion. Some will even say you have to take emotion out of the decision-making process. But that doesn’t work. We aren’t wired that way. There are more neural pathways from the emotional and arousal centers to the thinking centers, then the other way around. On a practical level, it means you can’t talk yourself into something you don’t believe. For at the heart of belief is meaning.

When you meet the moment you are constructing your perception based on meaning. If there is a mismatch between what you want and what is happening, stress ensues and on a deep level, you feel threatened. This is the reason that coping is not enough. You can’t de-activate or self-talk your way out of fear. You can only survive long enough to get through it—and by that time you have lost your way, gotten swept up by negative momentum.

You have to deconstruct the fear to develop the true sense of meeting the moment. Fear derives from loss. And if you have done the work and are really clear on purpose, you realize fear is connected to an illusion. In other words, the fear feels real and signals trouble, based on the points above. But in truth, you have nothing to lose because you actually have nothing. Play it out in any sport and you sound like the guy in the booth with the microphone:

Here’s Jack with the birdie putt. (Birdie is an outcome pulling away from the process. Focus on the putt.)

Here’s Jill serving for the match. (That’s 4 points, minimum, away. Focus on this serve.)

Here’s Jack at bat with the winning run on third. (Focus on the pitch, not the win, the score or the runner on third. The only control is making contact with this pitch.)

Here’s Jill with the free throw for the win. (You only have control of your process on the foul line. Once the ball is out of your hands, it’s gone.)

The illusion is the outcome you have created. It does not mean that you do not visual, practice and prepare for the outcomes you want. And it is ok to want the outcome. But if you bring the outcome into the process, it is an illusion because it does not exist in the present. The illusion creates an unnecessary sense of stress. Performing at high levels is challenging enough. No need to create more.

Catch yourself creating the illusion and bring yourself back to the present. That illusion is seductive and it‘s different for everyone, but it is very much like the horizon. It looks real—but it is not the end of the world.

dawn sky blue ocean
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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.

low angle view of woman relaxing on beach against blue sky
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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.

rope jumping ropes human training
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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, Self-help, Sports Psychology

Motivation

At the heart of peak performance, we find the energy source for the demands that are an inherent part of the day to day challenges. Doing, playing, and competing at your best all flow from who you are in the moment and are pulled by the vision of who you are becoming. This is a dynamic process and simply writing a few goals will not get it done.

For many, motivation appears to ebb and flow evident in the ebb and flow of results. While focusing solely on results is a dangerous game, outcome does give a hint of the level of motivation. At the core of this, there is an important word I do not often hear as frequently when listening to competitors: passion.

brown and white track field
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When we take apart motivation we find words like motive, motion, emotion. The energy source for all of these words, fundamentally, is passion. It’s the why in what we do. And when we dive down into the why of what we do, we end up at a place where the answers are often very simple: love, fun, enjoyment, challenge… At the core, the motivation comes from a basic part of who you are and who you are becoming. Like the feeling of being with a best friend, when you enter the practice or competitive arena, it feels like home.

Keeping passion high is a difficult task if you don’t center on a compelling “why?” If you focus on what the sport or performance will get you, then the expectations do not align with your motivation. On some level, it won’t feel right.

We will talk quite a bit about motivation in the days to come, but for now, go back to the start. Why am I doing what I am doing? Does my plan reflect a path that I can simply feel good about? Is it exciting? Fulfilling? See what you come up with.

 

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 book: Above the Field of Play. Or visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.