Performance psychology

Above the Fields

Above the Field of Play turned four years-old on August 4th. One of the many things I’ve learned from sports (and life) is that you can have a well-articulated plan that becomes worn, incomplete, or obsolete. Or sometimes it evolves to something more than you anticipated. Since starting this adventure of trying to capture what is hard to express, but needs to be heard in, on, and above the fields of performance, well…I’ve changed. I’ve met many people, had many teachers in many forms, and been through life challenges that I never saw coming. And I’ve come to realize that my plan needs upgrading. 

With that said, moving forward, this space will be about providing information truly above the field of play, but also above the important life spaces that require the same knowledge, character, commitment, and dedication.

Originally, when I considered the space above the field of play, I thought of all the development that occurs in body and mind in to improve and perform in a way that honors the essence of growth and competition. And by competition, I refer to the origin of the word: to strive together. We can’t develop competence of any form without relationship. It doesn’t happen in isolation.

Yet information continues to explode, and lists, systems, and programs arise as if there is a template for the development of expertise. Not so. There are principles and guides that inform the endeavor. And the process is sacred ground that starts with a very clear idea of what you are willing to do, to give, and to give up on the rise to the rare air—the higher reaches above the field of play.

So, I will refer to the fields of play from here on. For if you go deep enough, the process of development and mastery within the whole of relationships is very much the same.  

Photo credit: Melanie Panepinto

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Price of Not Paying Attention

At any competitive level, attention, focus, adaptation, and resilience decide who moves on and who is left behind. They are the mental qualities and skills that are difficult to quantify and missing from the analytics. On paper, two teams or two individuals could look like a toss-up when you consider the measurables. Yet on game day, results reveal that intangibles can never be overlooked. And, therefore, intentional or otherwise, the unquantifiable qualities are an aspect of every training experience. In other words, you are moving forward because you are intentionally getting the most out of experience (learning, reflecting, adapting, improving)—or you are stuck in a headspace governed mostly by past patterns and mood (see the previous post, Bad day: What’s in a Name?). In this “stuck” pattern, others with similar physical skills and abilities are moving ahead. So, you really are never in the same place.

Attention is the cornerstone of development and performance. While this may sound like a bold statement, attention connects to every aspect of preparation and execution. We pay attention to what we value. We attend to what is meaningful and what we are aiming at. It can be no other way as our mind is goal-directed. Deeper, there is a nuance to attention that recent studies have helped to clarify. While this is very simplified, there are two modes of attention, representing different networks in the brain: The Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Task-Positive Network (TPN).

The Default Mode Network is where the mind goes when not involved in a task. The DMN activates during mind-wandering, thinking of self and relationships, episodic memory, other forms of mental time travel such as to-do lists, thinking of the trophy or thinking of losing in the middle of the event, or craving a cheeseburger. In other words, DMN is steeped in the narrative of the past or the future.

The Task-Positive Network activates during specific tasks in the present such as hitting a baseball, shooting a free throw, hitting a drive off the first tee, or writing an essay. TPN requires focus and alertness in the present, moving step by step through the process.

While this, again, is an oversimplification, you can say when one system is dominant the other takes a back seat. Why does this matter?

Attention to a task is expensive. And some research finds that our mind wanders nearly half our waking life (DMN). These major brain systems are part of an architecture that dates back millenniums. Best to work with them rather than make believe we can outsmart them.

Some coaches preach “the process” and “being present.” Sounds like the TPN and sounds like a great idea. But the DMN is termed the “default” for good reason. This system qualifies who we are and how we are over time—a necessity for survival and making sense of our story. Best to establish a rhythm to these modes, and best to engage awareness of the systems within the process.

The practical application of these networks during practice and competition starts with these building blocks:

  • Developing the skill: Awareness can be developed above these networks. In other words, we can notice whether our attention is not in the present (DMN) or is engaged in the process of a task in the here and now (TPN).
  • Noticing and Shifting: The rhythm of the sport will decide the ebb and flow of these networks. The important mental skills then become noticing and shifting based on this flow. Football, tennis, golf, and baseball are examples of sports having natural “breaks” between action and inaction (this does not mean that you aren’t processing or strategizing). A gymnast must practice engaging the TPN for longer time spans which vary (floor exercise versus the vault). You have the important task of identifying this rhythm for your sport.
  • Flow: The feel of “flow” is different in each of these modes. The DMN can be a space of great creativity, insight, and immersion. And the flow of TPN can be developed between and within practice sessions with mindfulness, visualization, and mental rehearsal.

Attention is a valuable resource intensified by clarifying goals and values. Understanding these modes and their place in mental processing can lead to leaps in your mental approach. Awareness of attention and “where” it’s aimed, can help you to continuously develop the ability to shift, reflect, and shift once more. Most importantly, these skills are not just required to develop sport-specific skills—but also resilience.  

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Bad Day: What’s in a Name?

A level to aspire to as an athlete floats above dichotomous thinking. In the heat of execution, black and white thinking can turn the mental aspect of play into a pinball machine. And in the important growth activity of reflection, dichotomous thinking can stunt progress and leave the wheat for the chaff.

Above this good/bad mindset is one that acknowledges the reality of the continuum of complexity. Life and sports are open dynamic systems and to pin a result or situation down to a simple explanation ignores the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our sport. And both of these are open-ended in terms of growth.

Here’s a simple system to hold in mind regarding performance. If we use this 5-point scale…

  1. Low
  2. Below Average
  3. Average
  4. Above Average
  5. Superior

… and consider the possibilities between each interval (for example, the leap from level 3 to level 4 goes through 3.5, etc.) rarely will be at the same level of performance for long stretches of time. The numbers are arbitrary and simply a way to make sense of the moment and to make any adjustments. If you think of “who you are” in the moment, most of the time you hover around a 3. It does not mean that you are average.

As a matter of fact, if you are consistently a 3, you are performing pretty close to how you practice. Average means the average performance levels over a stretch of time, based on performance ability. It’s a self-comparison, not one compared with another. Aaron Rogers’ average performance will look different than a backup quarterback’s average. And Steph Curry’s will look different than the last guard on the depth chart.

Average, or the level we’ve called “3”, is the expectation we all have and what we refer to when we say, “I’m not playing my best,” or “I’m shooting lights out.” It’s a self-comparison based on the build-up of recent play and practice–your most recent sense of “who you are.” If you look back one or two years, you may notice your average level 3 is better than it was back then. That’s a sign of well-thought-out goals and attention to detail within practice sessions.

Anyone can execute well and win at a level 5. But it doesn’t happen often, a few times a year at best. Can you add value to a team at a level 1 or 2? Can you win an individual event at a level 2?

The title of this article refers to the dichotomous thinking of good days and bad days. This appraisal does not respect the truth that we are both change and continuity in all realms of being. With self-awareness, we can find out who we are at this time and on this day. All athletic endeavors require resiliency and a keen ability to adapt. Asking that simple question, “who are you,” allows you to get the most from the moment and to keep in the growth process—which includes the ups and downs of performance.

Try the simple system above. And adapt based on who you are (the inner sense of your performance) on any particular day, practice or event. You can always find resources within if you don’t cut off the source with the judgement, “It’s a bad day.”

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

photo credits: Jordan Rowland; Unsplash.com

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.

cover shot

photo credits: Photo by Felipe Giacometti) on Unsplash (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.

cover shot

photo credits: Eduardo Balderos, Zoe Reeve, David Goldsbury (unspash.com)