Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Reframing

One of the key skills in the mental performance toolbox is the ability to shift perspective. From being completely immersed in the moment to making space for a long-term vision, each perspective informs and can transform.  In the ups and downs of improvement and growing as an athlete and an individual, there will be times when the challenge or obstacle is daunting. It is in these moments when choices can shape the next leg of the journey and alter the future in unexpected ways.

When we meet these moments, the energy and the emotion we experience can reach unmanageable levels. Maybe this moment occurs within an event, or it might be an extended losing streak or during a stretch when nothing seems to be working. Regardless, such moments are inevitable. Self-awareness is vital to creating the space to witness how these moments are processed. Under such stress it is natural to engage in fight or flight types of choices, choices tainted with negativity and pointing away from what we truly want.

seedling

Many careers have turned in such moments—some not for the better. There are a few important ideas to consider when meeting this moment. Understanding the psychological basis to these ideas beforehand can help you to reframe the challenge you are facing, and bring the intention of your journey back into focus.

  1. Mental states matter: Under duress, we have thoughts that align with the state. Typically, these are not thoughts that directly align with our goals, but simply validate that we are experiencing a high level of stress. Resilience and managing these states is important to unlocking potential.
  2. The edge of our capabilities is always uncomfortable. The evolution of any mental or physical structure or capacity brings large helpings of discomfort. The confusion you feel is literally the fusion of two mental schemes that are trying to occupy the same space. One has to go—the one of lower capability.
  3. Opportunity is on the far side of safety. The only security we have is in our intention, commitment, resilience, and belief in ourselves. Like the seedling breaking through rock in unlikely circumstances, each level of success requires a sense of adventure—and courage.
  4. Expect the unexpected. The edge of our awareness shares this boundary with what we are not aware of. Awareness and unawareness exist side by side, but we are gifted with the greatest learning entity in the universe.
  5. Beware of rationalizations. These mental tools are only meant to ease stress. Logic can explain away lack of progress or outcomes, but you end up in the same place. Own the experience completely—success or failure. This opens the door to the next experience. Remember point number 1 for mental states matter, and states can become traits. Rationalized states can lead to traits of “I can’t” and “It doesn’t matter.”
  6. Stages can’t be skipped. You can’t jump from beginner to elite. And most of the time we are in some transition along the growth curve. This means that on some level we are different each day. Just as our body requires movement, challenge, and proper training principles to improve and endure, the same is true of our mental capacity. Breaking through is often a break away from what we know or can presently do. If we are heading someplace we have never been, we can have the best plan but we still don’t know how it feels and who we will be until we get there.

 

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

The Tension Connection

In the next few posts, we will dive deeper into the connection between tension and performance. While all athletes experience some sense of tension in performance, the points of connections have similarity depending on the sport. For this article, we will explore sports that require the use of a handle. While I may reference the most popular sports, the connection works regardless of the equipment you are holding: a bat, a club, a racquet, etc.

man in white denim pants and black sandals playing golf during daytime
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

In an earlier post, I talked about moments of truth, when preparation, anticipation, and execution meet at a point in time: the batter connecting with a pitch, a golfer driving a tee shot, the tennis ball meeting the strings on a cross-court forehand. One of the key connections in all of these moments of truth is the athlete’s grip on the handle. While the type of grip on the equipment of choice is important, the quality of the grip at the moment of truth is a significant factor between the expectation and the execution. Any competitor can tell you the type of grip they employ, how they hold the club,etc., yet how well they can describe the connection is a better indicator of consistent performance. I use a 10-point scale to describe this quality, where 1 is so loose the club or racquet flies out of your hand, and 10 is so tight that blood flow is cut off and parts of the hand turn white.

Everyone is, to some extent, unique. For example, if a tennis player uses the popular semi-western grip, the actual output will be different if her grip pressure is 2 versus 8. Studies have confirmed these unique grip signatures. One such study of golfers collected data from nearly ten thousand grip sensors and found that golfers “had their own unique grip force ‘signature’” which were repeatable but different than the signatures of other golfers.

Why is this important? The grip represents the balance of structure and fluidity. Not enough structure in the connection and it’s hard to repeat the swing path and the moment of truth. Too much structure and the anatomy can’t perform in a fluid, repeatable manner. This is the diminishing effect of tension. More important is the tension that resides out of the athlete’s awareness.  Coaches will talk about “feel” and this starts to get to the root of the tension connection. Under pressure, our awareness contracts and we lose some of the internal capacity that allows us to sense this “feel.” Thus, chips fall short or are skulled long. Second serves find the middle of the net. Bats can’t catch up to fastballs that, under less pressured circumstances, are ripped into the gap.

It all starts with self-awareness and a mindset of curiosity, imagination, and continuous improvement. While equipment matters, in the end, it is the connection to the equipment that matters most. Developing this awareness of self, and the awareness of self in space needs to be an integral part of practice. Start today. Take the time each practice session to become more aware of this connection to your equipment. Give yourself the internal feedback you need to raise your sense of connection. Use the 10-point scale. It’s arbitrary but effective if you use it consistently. You will notice, over time your connection to your unique grip signature. And you will find your ability to repeat that “just right” feel increases.

Next time, we get a close “look” at the tension connection.

 

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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Reference:

Komi, E. R., Roberts, J. R., & Rothberg, S. J. (2008). Measurement and analysis of grip force during a golf shot. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology222(1), 23-35.

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
Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

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
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.