Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Talking About Sports and Life

Recently, I had the chance to spend some time with three amazing men on their podcast, The Oak City Sports Show. Eddie Carter, Dale Neal, and Anthony Robinson are more than experienced athletes. They are role models and men asking the tough questions and putting themselves out there. For me, it was refreshing to be able to share ideas and put our heads together to surround some challenging topics. On some level, who you are on the field is who you are in life. Eddie, Dale, and Anthony live that idea, and it’s inspiring to be able to dialogue on unique perspectives. And it seems to me that dialogue is something we need more of…

leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Word on Two Schools

There are two kinds of people: one who says that there are two kinds of people and one who says there aren’t. That’s a take on an old joke but it applies when people talk of Old School versus New School in the sports world.

But the divide is not so simple. If you take any sport and mention a contemporary versus a player in the past, you might end up in that age-old argument of how that old school athlete would fair today. It’s a fun idea that can also be combative. But the context is different. Motivation is different. The world is just plain different.

We recently lost two Hall of Famers and icons in their sports: In baseball, pitcher, Tom Seaver, and in football, running back, Gale Sayers. Their approach and demeanor may have hinted at Old School, but the metrics say otherwise. Today’s batters, no different than the ones Seaver whiffed in the past, don’t handle 95+ MPH fastballs any better than they did when he won the Cy Young in ’67. And todays’ combine scouts would drool at Sayers’ 40-yard dash, his sub 10-second 100-yard dash, his agility, and strength.

We could argue endlessly, but the point is there is no separation. Within the New School are Old School elements dressed anew. Evolution is Nature’s arrow. And within the Old School, the DNA was passed on to the New in essence, as rare and pure potential.

Greatness is greatness. No need to compare. But rather just appreciate for we are blessed to witness the sublime when athletes cultivate the gift in the context of the present. And we can appreciate, in pre-HD video, Seaver’s leg drive and unhittable heat, and Sayers breaking ankles before the expression existed.

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.

cover shot

photo credits: Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash (unsplash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Mental Stretching

One indicator of a Performance Mindset is how the athlete meets the moment in terms of change and adaptation. This would include development in any area of performance as well as to obstacles growth and execution. We could look at these situations as windows of opportunity in the present, short-term or farther out on the growth curve. There are two things to consider:

  1. Change and continuity
  2. Flow of energy and information

On some level, the moment is an expression of who we are and of our present mindset. It reveals what we are capable of right now. If improvement is simply doing the same thing better, we will hit a barrier to growth. A function of the Performance Mindset is to be equipped to adapt during times of plateau and challenge. For those who rely solely on resilience (getting through or toughing it out), the problem or situation re-presents itself and we continue to hit the same wall. We simply do not have the ability to “solve” the situation.

wesley-tingey-fWcmB3nTL9g-unsplash edited

Change and adaptation is about solving this problem on a new level. Yes, we change but we keep our sense of self and all the things that worked prior to meeting the new edge of growth. This sense of continuity is important and is how we can “tell the story” of our developmental arc. We look back and see “ourselves” and how we changed, how we improved.

Also, we see our sport in a new way. Our perspective changes. It includes where we have been (continuity) but allows us to go beyond the edges of our capability (change and adaptation) in a new form. This aspect of mindset speaks of openness and flexibility. We have to be open to the uniqueness of experience and the arc of growth—and to pursue to the edges of our awareness and skills. And we have to be flexible enough the bend, let go, and evolve with the demand.

Stretching routines are not just for the body. When we are not mentally open and flexible, we close the mind to the flow of energy and information. The required demands remain beyond the edges of our present mindset. Nothing flows. We keep rigid boundaries and ideas. We do not improve. We get similar results. We recycle the same processes.

We will look at the Performance Mindset in greater detail over the next few posts. For now, when you hit a wall or seem to be locked in the same pattern ask: Am I being open and flexible to the challenge?

 

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 Wesley Tingey on Unsplash (unspash.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.

felipe-giacometti-4i5ToPi4K_c-unsplash snowboard

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)