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)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Aligning Development for Players and Programs

(Note: A version of this article appeared in the November/December publication of Tennis Pro)

Whether you’re a player, a coach or you direct a major program, there is a simple method to assess alignment—to see if all the parts are heading in the same direction. The method is simple in theory, but hard in practice. Hard because it requires an enormous amount of honesty, vision, commitment to quality, and a willingness to adapt. Over the years I have often observed that individuals in certain settings, programs or teams do not improve despite having clear goals. Sometimes, as is the case in high school and college teams, entire teams do not improve during the season. On a larger scale, some programs fail to evolve despite the investment of effort and resources. Why is this so?

There are many factors underlying the stunted development of a player, team or program, but most of these reasons follow a common theme: misalignment. While a systems or program analysis is costly in time, energy, and resources, a simple and informative way of examining alignment is to consider three major factors: people, process, and product. How a system functions, whether it is a single player, a team or program of hundred players, reveals the value and investment in each of these factors. More importantly, how these three factors relate to each other reveals beliefs and expectations of what truly matters—the motivation for choices and actions over time.

Looking at people, process and product within a system, either a horizontal or vertical picture emerges:

process alignment graphic

Figure 1. Horizontal: People, process and product heading in the same direction, integrated and valued.

hierarchy in system graphic

 

Figure 2. Vertical: One part of the system may be valued more; system is not integrated.

Most misaligned programs or systems appear in the horizontal form (Figure 2). A hierarchy exists that is implicit beneath the explicit vision, mission, and core values. The outward message or motto may be “All in” but the meta-message is something different. As a player or coach, if you step back and reflect on experience, on some level you understand where you are in the hierarchy. Again, this scrutiny requires a great helping of honesty to admit there may be a misalignment between beliefs and actions.

The misaligned program typically puts the product or outcome above all else—because it is measurable. That outcome may be the number of college players produced. Or there might be a secondary outcome beneath the advertised goal, such as income and profit or recruiting. None of these outcomes are inherently bad and they do matter. But if the product comes without regard for the process and the people, then trouble is on the horizon.

What might this type of misalignment look like? Here is a sample tennis program (and can represent any organized system):

  • A few players receive the most coaching and attention on the “top” courts, while the rest of the players flounder on the outer courts.
  • Players receive the same instruction without emphasis on their unique talents and abilities.
  • Personal player goals (if they are even created and documented) are slanted towards outcome with little or no emphasis on process.
  • Little regard is given to the process of practice. Players do the same training or some variation every practice (The what is the same but the how and why are not emphasized).
  • Lesson plans are either missing, minimal, or general and without differentiation for individuals.
  • The focus is more on recruiting top players to the program then developing the ones already present.
  • The 80/20 principle (more like 95/5) applies and the lack of progress of majority who do not produce is explained away by competition or personal deficits.
  • Programmatically there is an emphasis on managing rather than leading.

Notice that Figure 1 has an arrow that aligns people, process, and product towards a specific vision. No such arrow is possible in misalignment (Figure 2.). Instead, the product is the arrow and the measure.

A system is designed to achieve the results it gets—intentional or not. So, how can misalignment be addressed?

  • Players can make an honest assessment of their goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. Are there process and outcome goals in place to address all these aspects? Ask if the environment supports this plan. Take a step back and notice if there is misalignment, if product is the center of attention. Consider If process matters, if people matter. Can you describe how you improved in a practice session (intentional practice) or do you just describe what you did in the practice session?
  • Coaches can make an honest assessment of goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. What type of relationship do you have with the players you coach? Are you aware and encouraging of their personal plans? Do you stress process and quality? Do you have a way of measuring and focusing on intentional practice? Do you consider, above all, the value of getting a little better each day (process)?
  • Directors can make an honest assessment of the people, process, and products of the program. Where is the emphasis focused? Is one of these factors valued more? Is there a process in place to evaluate quality and the standards of the program? Do individuals meet their personal goals? Is there a process in place to help players develop in all realms? Do players and coaches enjoy coming to work?

Putting it all together, each of the factors relate to each other and this informs the alignment process. First, people (players) matter and inform programmatic goals for without them you have nothing. A player’s basic motivation comes from a sense of freedom, connection, and competence. In an aligned program (for individuals, teams, and programs) these boxes are all checked.

Second, process produces product. Poor processes lead to a lack of desired results. Process pays attention not only to what’s important, but also the how and why of choices and actions. Product is an outcome (in the future) and process is everything else (how we invest time and effort the present). If individuals, teams, or programs are not improving, they are going backwards in context for nothing stands still. Process is the place to look for misalignment and the source of greatest leverage.

Finally, this is not a one-shot deal. The image below is a model for development and the arrow is pointing somewhere into the future.

process alignment graphic

That point in time can be as near or as far as you choose, but movement and change will happen. Development brings new challenges and new opportunities. And it’s much easier manage these when the most important factors are aligned to a specific vision.

 

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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Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Dark Side of Coaching

In this post I would like to take a wide lens to coaching and some embedded assumptions about power, systems, and leadership. While it is not mentioned much or part of the dialogue of sports talk shows, people, players, and coaches are at different developmental levels. This is reflected in beliefs, styles, relationships and theories about team and player development. Sometimes it is explained away as “personality.”

Years ago, a controversy surrounding a legendary basketball coach (and personality) brought these different perspectives and beliefs in full view. Presented in many forms of media as if for a jury, both sides of the argument received attention regarding the coach’s questionable behavior. One had to take a leap to discern the coach’s motivation as the situation was offered “objectively.” Some former players saw the coach as a flat-out bully. Others saw his hard-nosed, win at all cost, profane and degrading treatment of players as “that’s just coach.” No big deal.

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Can both be true? Absolutely, just as it is easily justified in a certain light—or darkness. That is the wide frame of developmental levels. And over the years we witness similar stories—sometimes with not-so famous coaches, GM’s or team doctors, but it’s simply a variation on a theme. Most recently a chapter is being written in the National Hockey League, one that is quite disturbing when leadership is considered. But with a wider lens, one that accounts for principles of growth and stewardship, something different than the “that’s what I know, that’s the way it is, the way it’s always been” emerges.

There is a certain authoritarian approach that looks at players as pawns to be manipulated. The conditions include an imbalance of power and negation of the player as a complete human being. The player is their number, uniform, role, skill-set. “It’s a business.” This approach does not back away from fear and humiliation. It comes from a place of demanding respect… But…

At a certain level, respect can’t be demanded. It must be earned in a reciprocal manner—in a relationship. The principal behind the different levels of being is that you can’t give what you haven’t received. So, coaches who were coached in a fear-driven and belittling manner bring this forward to their new role. And players who were brought up in authoritarian homes in fear of punishment find it matter of course for coaches to punish, degrade, and direct from fear.

What this approach misses is the reality of how difficult it is to do anything complex and precise from a place of fear (hence the term “choke”). It is difficult to build chemistry when players are pitted against each other. Vision and purpose are blurred by intimidation and chaos. Motivation from fight or flight is short-lived, draining, and meant to engage a serious and imminent threat to life. Athletes in most sports do not fair well in such a state of stress, arousal and tunnel-vision. Even athletes (such as boxers and MMA fighters) where impairment or even death loom maintain a centered alertness that allows them to process and adapt.

All emotions come from a personal source and require awareness and insight. While these emotions exist in relationship to the greater surround, on a deep level they are very personal. Anger, the most powerful and volatile, requires a good deal of up-front work. Its message is private: I don’t like what is happening. The internal feeling is not a passport to violate, destroy, humiliate, intimidate or deceive because things are not going the way you wish. This is immaturity in adult clothes though its wrath is far from childlike.

While this may seem preachy or judgmental, the truth is we, in the name of safety, are always sizing things up. Just as the athlete you coach is seeing if you are for real. If you are going to facilitate growth, teamwork, and the conditions that must be present before you can even start to contemplate success in any form—the first things are personal and principled in nature. You have to be worthy and trustworthy before you can build trust and worth.

In your heart, what would you want for your son? Your daughter? Demanding, yes. Abusive, no. While the John Woodens and Tony Dungys are few and far between, we should stop making excuses and finally commit to what brings out the best in all. Because it matters.

 

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: Carolina Pimenta, unsplash.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.

cover shot

photo credit: Diana Parkhouse (unsplash.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.

stefan-cosma-0gO3-b-5m80-unsplash focus

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.

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photo credit: Stefan Cosma (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.

cover shot

photo credit: Matthew Lejune (unsplash.com)