Performance

Article

Choking in sport is a topic which is widely discussed among sport psychologists because of its negative effect on athletic performance. Performing highly challenging skills under immense pressure and in situations which are important to athletes has been something which has affected many athletes throughout their careers . The explicit monitoring theory is a key […]

Choking in sport is a topic which is widely discussed among sport psychologists because of its negative effect on athletic performance. Performing highly challenging skills under immense pressure and in situations which are important to athletes has been something which has affected many athletes throughout their careers . The explicit monitoring theory is a key theory which has been used to help us understand this phenomena.

Before looking at the explicit monitoring theory it is important to understand how a skill is learnt.  When learning a new skill a person must progress through a number of different stages.  Fitts and Posner (1967) argued that in the early stages of learning, skill execution is supported by control structures which are stored in the working memory and are constantly consciously being attended to.  When a novice learns a new skill they will be continually testing out different hypotheses of how to perform.  By doing this the person will build a platform in which they have a better understanding of the movements that need to be performed which is encoded verbally through declarative knowledge.  Over time and practice conscious attention will not be needed to concentrate on the specifics and the knowledge that underpins the skill will have been combined into automated procedural knowledge.  Beilock and Carr (2001) used the term explicit monitoring to understand why people choke under pressure.  Baumeister (1984) argues that when an athlete is in a pressured situation this in term will increase their self-consciousness and anxiety about how they should be performing a skill.  This causes the athlete to focus their attention on their self and the specifics of how to execute a skill through explicit monitoring .

Many different studies have been conducted generating evidence for the explicit monitoring theory.  However it is important to acknowledge that there are large differences when studying this theory among expert and novice performers. Firstly compared to novices the procedural knowledge to perform at expert level is less accessible to verbal recall.  Secondly because experts devote less time and attention to performing a highly challenging skill, the memory for those components will be worse for those players.  Therefore because expert performers do not need to consciously attend to skills they have more attentional resources to process other information from external stimuli. Beilock, Bertenthal, McCoy, and Carr (2004) looked at differences in expert and novice golf performers under a skill focused and dual task condition.  In the skill focused condition, novice’s performance improved as it aided execution, whereas in the dual task condition it took the focus away from this. However because experts perform skills which are largely unattended the skill focus condition disrupted performance. These differences between novices and experts shows that explicit monitoring has little influence on the control of movements in the early stages of learning. Therefore paying too much attention to skill execution when taking a penalty will disrupt performance as well-learned skills are best performed without conscious awareness.

When taking a penalty not only can we relate choking to the explicit monitoring theory but there are also many other factors which can contribute and should be taken into consideration.  Baumeister (1997) associates choking as a type of self-regulatory breakdown under ego threat.  This can be described as a form of behaviour where a player would feel distressed in a situation and therefore do whatever they can to get it over with as quickly as possible.  To avoid this stressful situation a player will engage in escapist self-regulatory behaviours such as speeding up to take the penalty.  This can also be linked very closely to avoidance behaviours such as facing away from the goalkeeper when taking a penalty (Jordet & Hartman, 2008).  Research conducted has supported this theory by looking at the links between public status and performance in penalty shootouts.  From the study it was found that players with high current status performed worse in penalty shootouts than those with low status and engaged in more escapist behaviours.  As well as this Jordet (2009a) also looked at the effects of team status on choking in penalty shootouts.  He found that players from teams who had many international awards were quicker to take their penalties in comparison to teams who had low status. Therefore high public and team status can also be a factor which contributes to choking as it can cause the players to engage in more escapist behaviour.

Hopefully this article would have provided you with a deeper insight into what happens when an athlete chokes under pressure and other factors that can play a role within the process.

Article

…”although successful performance is the greatest influence on confidence, vicarious experience – imagining success or watching someone else achieve success – is also a consistent source of confidence.” – Albert Bandura  While there is always talk of repetition to master skills, there seems to be little regarding visualization on the mainstream stage up until the […]

…”although successful performance is the greatest influence on confidence, vicarious experience – imagining success or watching someone else achieve success – is also a consistent source of confidence.” – Albert Bandura

 While there is always talk of repetition to master skills, there seems to be little regarding visualization on the mainstream stage up until the last few years. Physical repetition alone will not get the job done in mastering a skill and taking an athlete or team to the next level; imagery is equally, if not more important. It’s actually a very simple concept that can have an enormous impact in any way it’s used. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking at it from an energy perspective and thus how your energy translates into action starting with the brain.

It’s safe to assume that we all know the human body is a complex machine, and as complicated as the body is, the brain is even more complicated. Look at your brain as the CPU (central processing unit) for your body; whatever is programmed into it will be directed to the necessary components of the body to be executed. Relying on electrical transmissions through neuro-pathways, these signals fuel our senses. Using imagery, primes our mind for what it will ultimately instruct our bodies to do, so being clear on what you want the outcome of your visualization to be is of great importance. Instructing athletes to do a ‘mental walk through’, visualizing their event and what they want to see happen is a great tool for success, and also helps them to feel more relaxed come game time. Shane Murphy, Doug Jowdy and Shirley Durtschi conducted a survey on imagery, asking Coaches at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO and found that 94% of them as well as 90% of the athletes used imagery in their sport. One hundred percent of the Coaches and 97% of the athletes surveyed agreed imagery DOES enhance performance. When the athletes were asked why they use imagery; 80% used it to prepare for competition; 48% used it for dealing with errors in technique; 44% for learning new skills and 40% used it for relaxation. Twenty percent of the athletes used it every day while 40% used it three to five days. So, as you can see, imagery is recognized as a powerful tool to aid performance at a high level.

It’s my belief, that, in order to culminate positive outcomes to a stress or task you have to start out with a positive attitude. No NFL Quarterback ever threw a football into an end zone hoping it was intercepted. They’re looking for a touchdown, and in their minds they’ve gone over those plays enough to truly feel as though it will happen. If that quarterback thinks for one second that he’s throwing an interception he most surely will or, at the very least, makes an incomplete pass. Setting the tone with positivity, the athlete should focus on controllability and vividness of what they are seeing in their mental dress rehearsal. Did they shoot the basketball but couldn’t ‘feel’ the ball; ‘hear’ the crowd?  That’s an issue regarding vividness of their imagery. Can they feel all of those things listed above, yet take the shot and miss? The athlete has controllability issues, which, can be addressed as can helping to make the imagery more vivid and helping them achieve success. Ultimately vivid and controllable mental imagery is optimal for the athletes’ preparedness.

The athletes harnessing of their mental energy is what will be key to their success. Most athletes have been playing their sport for some time; they have developed the necessary motor recruitment patterns for physical execution of their assigned tasks. This is the physical ‘repetition’ mentioned earlier, but these are also patterns that the brain recognizes as ‘natural’ or automatic’ over time. The skill has solidified the cognitive template which becomes stronger. This is a theory called “functional equivalence”, where parts of the brain used to visualize an action, are actually the same as those used to take the action itself. Sport Psychologist Richard Suinn did an experiment over 30 years ago about this. In it, he asked elite skiers to imagine different events while he had electrodes placed on their leg muscles to record any muscle activity as they lay in a supine position. He found that when they were asked to visualize certain courses, that their leg muscles were being slightly activated and that the timing of the muscle activity matched the description of the courses they were visualizing.

There is no denying the mind – muscle connection and the power of the human brain as it governs our every thought; move etc…When you can capitalize on how your mind works, you’ll truly have control over your performance.

“What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” – Napoleon Hill

Article

Athletes do not lose physical ability overnight. The reason for a change in performance is more likely to be related to fluctuations in cognitive processes, one of which being attention. Generally the terms attention and concentration can get mixed up, however attention is the umbrella term for concentration, selectivity of perception and/or the ability to […]

Athletes do not lose physical ability overnight. The reason for a change in performance is more likely to be related to fluctuations in cognitive processes, one of which being attention.

Generally the terms attention and concentration can get mixed up, however attention is the umbrella term for concentration, selectivity of perception and/or the ability to co-ordinate two or more actions at the same time. (Kremer et. al 2012)

Whether it be in the last ten minutes of play, the closing holes of a major tournament or the last mile of a marathon, an athlete needs to focus their attention on the correct things.

Focusing on the wrong stimulus can lead to lapses in concentration. An athlete’s focus of attention can vary from internal to external which, according to Wulf (2007) can have an impact on learning and performance of new skills. He found that having an external focus of attention was more effective in this area compared to an internal focus of attention. An athlete with an external focus of attention will direct their attention to the effects their movements have on the environment. An athlete with an internal focus of attention will direct their attention inwards on their own movements.

However external and internal factors can also lead to lapses in concentration and poor performance. For instance distraction theories suggests that perceived pressure (from outside forces such as parents, coaches or spectators) can cause an increase in anxiety crowding the working memory resources leading to inability to play at a high level.

Conversely self-focus theories propose that anxiety leads to an increase in athlete’s levels of self consciousness causing them to focus their attention inwards causing them to over think their own actions.

A beneficial way to combat concentration lapse is to create a stressful situation in training or practice which might normally lead to a sharp decline in performance. Having people watch you practice a specific aspect of your sport for example can help increase confidence to the point where an athlete is not phased anymore having spectators watch them.

Michael Phelps’ swimming coach admittedly broke his goggles during practice to enable the Oylmpic gold medallist to practice swimming without them should it ever happen during competition. Ironically it did during the last 100m of the butterfly in the 2008 Oylmpics and Phelps went on to win the race. (Whitworth, 2008).

Having a pre performance routine (PPR) is also a huge benefit when intense situations arise in competition. Having an individual task relevant set routine of thoughts and actions to stick to no matter what the circumstances can help an athlete to relax and prepare for whatever task they are performing.

Cotterill et.al (2010) studied amateur golfers use of PPRs and found they used it to help in attentional processes such as “switching on and off” and staying in the present.

Therefore attention would appear to be an extremely important aspect of mental preparation for competition. Using the strategies above may help you to perform that little bit better and stay in the present

Article

Elite athletes possess characteristics that resonate closely to mental toughness. Arguably, Usain Bolt epitomises mental toughness that has acquainted him with success. Key characteristics of mental toughness include: 1)    Ability to cope under pressure 2)    Desire 3)    Self-confidence 4)    Motivation 5)    Resilience Pressure in sport must be enjoyed and undoubtedly Usain Bolt loves pressure. Athletes […]

Elite athletes possess characteristics that resonate closely to mental toughness. Arguably, Usain Bolt epitomises mental toughness that has acquainted him with success.

Key characteristics of mental toughness include:

1)    Ability to cope under pressure

2)    Desire

3)    Self-confidence

4)    Motivation

5)    Resilience

Pressure in sport must be enjoyed and undoubtedly Usain Bolt loves pressure. Athletes who enjoy pressure have an ability to cope much better with competitive demands. The 100m Final is the Premier Event in the Olympics and carries with it immense pressure. The intensity of this pressure is what makes Usain Bolt a champion because he thrives on its very purpose.

Desire must evolve from within, is built over time and increases closer to competition. Training hard to develop perfectionism leads to increased desire. The 100m Final is what I would term the ‘Rainbow Effect,’ the final act in what is a four-year gap. In other words, elite athletes build this desire concurrently over time and train rigorously to compete in an event that lasts less than 10 seconds.

Self-confidence is a characteristic that elite athletes must possess. Although self-confidence can fluctuate, elite athletes seem to have abundance amounts and recover quickly from setbacks. Usain Bolt has enhanced levels of self-confidence and will maintain these levels consistently owing to in built self-belief.

Motivation comes in two forms, intrinsic and extrinsic. Becoming a legend is a great motive for elite athletes. Usain Bolt will want to repeat his Gold medal success in Rio 2016. To achieve this goal, Usain Bolt will be setting targets that concentrate on specific goals associated to technique, physical, process, performance and outcome.

Resilience is a formed characteristic that elite athletes require to combat competitive demands. A famous statement reads, ‘getting to the top is easy, staying there is difficult.’ Usain Bolt builds his resilience from continued achievement of positive results and coping with being the fastest man in the world.

Article

It is common to hear music blaring in sports stadiums and a frequent sight at events, such as the Olympics, is to see athletes ‘psyching’ themselves up with their headphones pre competition; but how useful is music in aiding performance? Music often evokes certain feelings or memories with people, for example, your first dance at […]

It is common to hear music blaring in sports stadiums and a frequent sight at events, such as the Olympics, is to see athletes ‘psyching’ themselves up with their headphones pre competition; but how useful is music in aiding performance?

Music often evokes certain feelings or memories with people, for example, your first dance at a wedding will always remind you of your partner and that day, or a song on an advert will remind you of that product the next time you hear it. Musical association with feelings and memories can help you prepare for competition.

Michael Phelps, 18 times Olympic Gold Medalist, is renowned for listening to music until just before diving in the pool. Not only will this allow him to listen to the music that mentally prepares him for competition, but it also allows him to block out the sound of the crowd and removes distraction from his ideal competitive mental state.

Music choice will ultimately depend on the individual, as a song that evokes the feeling of apathy in one individual, may inspire motivation in another. Athletes’ specific song choices are not directly important, it is the emotions and feelings they create that are key to producing the perfect competition mindset.

The perfect competition mindset will vary depending on the sport, but generally involves:

  • Confidence in ability
  • Positivity
  • Emotional stablility
  • Feelings of control
  • Mental alertness
  • Motivation

Listening to the same playlist before every competition should help to ensure that the correct competition  mindset is achieved everytime. The songs then will not just have their individual associations with certain feelings, but the whole playlist will induce the ideal feelings and emotions.

“In training build ups for major races, I put together a playlist and listen to it during the run-in. It helps me psych up and reminds me of times in the build-up when I have worked really hard, or felt good. With the right music, I do a much harder workout” – Paula Radcliffe, Marathon World Record Holder.

The type of music listened to pre competition will not only depend on the individuals’ personal choice, but also on the sport they compete in. For example, a golfer needs to be very calm and relaxed, where as a boxer needs to be confident and aggressive. The music that will create these contrasting states will more than likely be opposing genres; the golfer is more likely to listen to classical music, whilst the boxer is more likely to listen to upbeat rock music.

However, not all sports are individual. Whilst listening to headphones and blocking out distraction would work well for a tennis player, if the members of a football team all listened to different music on headphones, their team spirit would suffer. This could lead to a reduction in the quality of performance. To ensure team camaraderie prevails, speakers should be used for pre competition playlists; professional teams may benefit further by playing pre competition playlists over their stadiums’ loud speakers, which would also hype up the crowd. Used in the correct way, music can optimise performance.

Article

We are a society driven on ‘winning’, thirsty to attain a professional level status in our given sport and be praised as Demi-Gods by millions of fans and arm-chair quarterbacks the world over. The more we win, the more successful we appear, but how do we define ‘winning’? What is the path to do so? […]

We are a society driven on ‘winning’, thirsty to attain a professional level status in our given sport and be praised as Demi-Gods by millions of fans and arm-chair quarterbacks the world over. The more we win, the more successful we appear, but how do we define ‘winning’?

What is the path to do so? The power of psychology in sport is undeniable; it’s an internal process that each athlete undertakes in their own way and pace. Your frame of mind is the absolute bottom line in your success or failure as an athlete and developing your mental toughness starts with goal setting.

What is the result you’re looking for? What are you hoping to achieve today; tomorrow or even throughout your career? If you’re successful, you wouldn’t start down a road that you didn’t have it in your head where it ended up. You have to set clear and attainable goals that propel you to your success, whatever you may deem that to be. First, let’s check the ego at the door, because ego can be an incredibly self limiting device to you. An ego orientated athlete with a high task orientation accompanying it is a best case scenario; however, in real life the pressures of society and to win almost certainly drive and fuel an ego – involved athlete. So, it would benefit you to try and shift your focus more to your tasks. Keeping your drive to win is fine, but if you’re planning on playing or competing for a while, it would behoove you to focus on HOW you do what you do. You may have seen or heard quotes from various elite level athletes about how they “left everything out there” and that, regardless of the outcome; they felt good even in a loss. This is a highly efficient and dedicated athlete who says this. They give everything to the game and their team, literally doing the absolute best that they can and knowing the outcome of the game/ competition is not something they can control. They CAN control THEIR focus and THEIR effort. As Sports Psychology Consultant, Graham Betchart, preaches to his professional athlete clientele; “play present…focus on your process”.

So, let’s start by setting a goal of shifting the thought process to controlling what you CAN control, and that’s the work you put into becoming better at your sport. Putting in the work and choosing to master your skills, may also motivate teammates to do the same and put you in a leadership position. This becomes a win-win, in a sense, because that now fuels the ego. Greatness is infectious and, being most people are born followers and few are born leaders, motivating your team to master their skills is creating a positive environment. Only good things can come from that. So, what would you consider ‘winning’ now? Is the instant satisfaction of literally winning a game/ competition the end – all – be –all? Is knowing that you’re on track a straight path to evolve as an athlete is happening and you’ll live to fight another day, should the outcome not be what you want?

The reality of life is that you won’t win every game or every fight. You can only set small goals to be better for the next time…knowing there is ALWAYS a next time.

 

Article

In sports coaching, play and practice are said to be two of the key variables that influence skill acquisition. However knowing what is the more effective or what is the best combination of play and practice, as well as what age play and practice amounts should be integrated have proven to be a topic under […]

In sports coaching, play and practice are said to be two of the key variables that influence skill acquisition. However knowing what is the more effective or what is the best combination of play and practice, as well as what age play and practice amounts should be integrated have proven to be a topic under much debate. Research looking at the experiences of both people who went on to be expert athletes and those who did not go on to be experts in there sporting discipline have become extremely popular. According to the ‘theory of deliberate practice’ expert level in sport is the result of extended engagement in high quality training. This theory suggests that gaining expertise in sport is based on two key factors. The first of these is that previous sporting experiences of expert level athletes should be specific to the sport in which expertise is accomplished in (i.e. a sole focus on the sport that expertise is gained in). Baker, Cote, and Abernethy (2003) carried out a study with the aim of analysing the effects of sport specific practice in the development of expertise in sport. From 15 expert and 13 non-expert athletes it was found that experts had accumulated more hours of sport specific practice from the age of 12 than the non-experts did. The second and perhaps most dominant factors which makes up the deliberate practice theory is that expertise is attained by the amount of time/quantity that one engages in practice, it is important to point out however that this practice must be high quality. The characteristics that make up deliberate practice are, immediate access to feedback from coaches, a drive for perfection, high levels of repetition, maximum effort expenditure, complete concentration, long hours of practice, and performed for improvement rather than enjoyment. Again in research that distinguishes between professional athletes and non professional athletes deliberate practice theory has been well supported with Simon and Chase (1973) proposing the “10 year rule theory” which states that a 10 year commitment to quality practice is required before expert levels of skill performance can be achieved, Simon and Chase explain that during their study of chess players they observed that nobody had attained the level of international chess master “with less than about a decade’s intense preparation with the game”.

However, as influential as deliberate practice theory has been in the development of many coaching programmes, there are some key limitations that must be addressed. If we look to further psychological theories that impact on a player’s development, motivation can play a vital role. It is said that athletes who are extrinsically motivated to perform their sport through the expectation of trophies, titles, money, and status tend to experience lower levels of enjoyment in their sport, in time this leads to lowered motivation and fear of failure resulting in dropout from sport. Fear of failure often stems from extrinsic motives for success, that is that the enjoyment and fun of playing sport is long gone and success in sport is a direct result of winning and having social status, when an extrinsically motivated performer experiences negative results they can fear the social ramifications and threat to their status as a champion, this can often lead to a fear or underperforming. Vallerand and Bissonnetti (1992) discovered in a study on academic students that those who held external motives for achieving successful results in school, such as the expectation of increased money earning potential and other external rewards were more likely to drop out of school. This has been strongly supported in the world of sport. Pelletier et al (2001) found that from 396 swimmers those who were extrinsically motivated to take part in their sport were more likely to drop out over any other form of motivation due to a lack of enjoyment. It could be argued that for children and adolescents especially, there is often an external pressure to engage in deliberate practice from parents and coaches who play the role of dictator. Coaches and parents who do not create a healthy motivational climate whereby fun is of high importance and focus on results minimised can increase the chance of dropout in the performer. A final negative consequence to the deliberate practice approach to skill mastery that is often the alternative to dropping out of the sport is maladaptive behaviours. Research explains that external motives or a high drive for winning over enjoyment purposes can lead to the performer to engage in cheating strategies due to a strong need to impress the coach with good results aswell as to impress others by giving off the impression of being highly skilled.

A further limitation to the deliberate practice theory due to its nature of being focused on a singular sport, long hours of engagement, high level of repetition, low fun level, and lack of play time is the risk of burnout. If the athlete is performing a task through the enjoyment of it, a greater level of satisfaction is likely to be had. However a key characteristic of deliberate practice is the lack of enjoyment and focus on fun. The Investment model of burnout explains that a lack of fun makes an activity such as deliberate practice become entrapment, this soon leads to burnout which in turn can lead to withdraw from the sport.

With the limitations of deliberate practice in mind there is a contrasting theory of skill acquisition, this being the theory of deliberate play. Deliberate play can be seen as the opposite of deliberate practice as the focus here is of enjoyment and to try a range of sports which often tend to be “street sports” such as football, basketball, and cricket among others. A key characteristic of deliberate play is that it is intrinsically motivated and designed to foster high levels of fun and natural skill development. The motive for engaging in this style of play is not for skill development or performance improvement (although this can be a bi-product), and there is no specific outcome goals in mind such as playing with a view to enter in to competition, or to become a national champion. Furthermore deliberate play will tend to have rules which are more flexible, and  rules that would be present in the sport at a formal or competitive level are absent, for example smaller teams, no specific positions, and no referees/ umpires. In support of deliberate play for gaining expertise in sport Soberlak and Cote (2003) gathered previous sporting experiences from ice hockey players, between the ages of 6-12 it was found that the expert ice hockey players engaged in an average of six other sports. This supports claims that deliberate play is important for gaining expertise in an activity. As Soberlak and Cote also found, performers who engaged in deliberate play and who went on to become experts in their sport also reported the greatest levels on intrinsic motivation thus resulting in long term adherence, consistently high levels of motivation, and enjoyment from playing their sport. Finally Wall and Cote (2007) hypothesized that “young athletes who drop out will have sampled fewer sports, spent less time in deliberate play activities and spent more time in deliberate practice activities during childhood”. Finding from this study explained that players who engaged in deliberate practice for long hours with little amounts of deliberate play were at greater risks of negative implications in the long term. 

When considering the argument for each approach perhaps it would be more effective for a combination of the two theories to be used. This way enjoyment is maintained which in turn lowers dropout rates and burnout, but also deliberate focused practice helps to master the skill. In support of this combination Memmert, Baker and Bertsch (2010) looked at childhood and youth experiences of expert athletes aged and found that deliberate practice and deliberate play both played a crucial role in the development of skill and creativity of athletes.

 

Article

This may seem like a strange question. Surely, mankind would not have got where we are today without the focused and intense ‘brainstorming’ of our finest intellectuals forcing ideas out of their minds by hard concentration (what author Guy Claxton refers to as d-mode for ‘default’). D-mode is what we are conditioned to believe from […]

This may seem like a strange question. Surely, mankind would not have got where we are today without the focused and intense ‘brainstorming’ of our finest intellectuals forcing ideas out of their minds by hard concentration (what author Guy Claxton refers to as d-mode for ‘default’). D-mode is what we are conditioned to believe from a young age in schools actually allows us to achieve enlightenment. Why then have some of the most important discoveries/inventions been made by accident? Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin whilst researching the bacteria that cause food poisoning. Metallurgist Harry Brearley accidentally invented stainless steel whilst experimenting with alloys to eliminate erosion in gun barrels. Add microwaves, LSD, Viagra and Teflon (amongst others) to the list.

This blog has been inspired by a book I’m currently reading: “Hare Brain:Tortoise Mind” by Claxton. The book explores the idea that the best ideas come not when we are trying to wring our brain cells dry through conscious processing, but when we are in fact relaxed and the ideas just tend to ‘pop into’ our consciousness. This rings true from a couple of examples I can provide. Firstly, on my drive to work I realised I could name a lot of the side roads that I drove past without ever actually being conscious of looking at the signs. Also, being a puzzles geek if ever I struggle with a crossword, walking away and coming back later when less frustrated often leads to the answer just coming out of supposed ‘thin air’. Therefore, it appears that sometimes we can learn by ‘osmosis’ – something my high school biology teacher told me was impossible whilst I was daydreaming about playing football! The subconscious mind (according to one of Freud’s more believable theories is huge compared to the actual conscious apart that we are aware of. This would make sense as to be aware of all of our stored memories and knowledge at once would not only be terrifying but also lead to put ourselves in danger due to not focusing on what we are doing (although Freud’s interpretation was that the unconscious was full of repressed memories just waiting to pop up and spoil our day). Our consciousness exists for a reason: we need to be focused on whatever is important at a given time: survival, reproduction, etc.

Guy Claxton: ” Modern Western culture has so neglected the intellectual unconscious – the undermind… that we no longer know that we have it, do not remember what it is for, and so cannot find it when we need it. We do not think of the unconscious as a valuable resource, but (if we think of it at all) as a wild and unruly ‘thing’ that threatens our reason and control.”

The same then can surely apply to sport. If we over process what are the implications? And what are they if we simply just let things ‘flow’ (see blog on daydreaming) and can we learn from coaches without necessarily showing them that we have learnt something immediately. In my (modest) playing days it often took a few weeks for ideas presented in training to actually come to consciousness during matches. If I struggled with a certain aspect during match time I might try to think of a solution and it would be then that my mind would return to what information had been given in training. For example, as a centre forward who often stood behind a defender and expected a miracle pass from a defender/midfielder, I eventually remembered what I had been told about ‘showing for the ball’ taking the defender away and then dropping into the vacated space to receive a pass. When this became successful, it became stored and repeated. Next, I would keep giving the ball away, so my next remembered solution would be to make the right decision about whether to try to turn the defender (if space existed between me and them) or hold the ball up and bring others into play. So this was a gradual process and reflects the need for players to be able to make and learn from their own mistakes (see blog on mistakes) and be given the correct feedback in the correct way (according to their preferences – are they an ‘arm round the shoulder’ player or one that likes that metaphorical ‘kick up the backside’).

The important part of this is that the players (whether junior or older) are given the time to assimilate new information into their memories and aren’t forced to try and ‘over-think’ in D-mode. This way of thinking can be damaging. Using the conscious part of the brain (rather than the stored memories) can cause increases in arousal and anxiety (see blog on being in the zone for catastrophe theory and IZOF)  leading to a fear of failure and ultimately choking:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heew1UrJFao&list=UUbK5evJ4Q89E7Xk9iH8mlMw&index=20

Guy Claxton: “Thinking about what you are doing may introduce a kind of analytic self-consciousness which gets in the way of fluent performance – an effect reminiscent of the famous centipede who was rooted to the spot when asked which leg he moved first.”

The same can be said of coaches/managers in pressure situations. Shouting and bawling at players and becoming overly emotional can lead to poor decision-making and applying adverse pressure to players including blaming individuals for failures e.g.:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylftUmF-GSw

For me, Sven Goran Eriksson was a master of controlling himself in an intelligent way, which subsequently radiated to the players who remained calm and continued performing under stressful circumstances:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu4DaR7Q_Qk&list=UUbK5evJ4Q89E7Xk9iH8mlMw&index=18

 The latter approach would sensibly seem to be the way forward. The logic behind it being that athletes from any sport can make and learn from their own mistakes. It is only when the same mistakes are made repeatedly that the coach would need to step in with appropriate advice which would framed in the right way for the age and personality of the performer (some individuals prefer to be shouted at). Constant barracking shows incessant ‘over-thinking’ from the coach/manager and leads the athlete to question themselves or to consciously try to process what they are doing. One thing that we do know about peak performance is that it comes when we are in a state of ‘flow’ or the ‘zone’ which is characterised by a lack of processing, things are done on auto-pilot and without conscious thought – we ‘just do it’.

So how can we as athletes or managers allow this to happen and prevent ‘over-think’?

  • Encourage use of regular visualisation by athletes (and coaches) not only to pre-empt possible pitfalls in a performance, but also strengthening the pathways in the brain responsible for technical execution. The recommendation for top athletes is a minimum of 30 minutes structured (putting aside specific time) visualisation a day. Anything above this would be a bonus. This allows you to have a ‘memory before the action’ and the theory goes that you will simply refer to existing patterns stored in your memory banks.
  • Encourage performers to make mistakes – although this seems absurd, a paradox exists where we are told to be careful and not make mistakes we are more likely to do so. Encouraging mistakes should therefore mean they are less likely to occur as we are free from the anxiety associated with fear of failure.
  • Support athletes when they do make mistakes and don’t berate them whether you are coach/manager or team-mate. A blame culture quickly becomes toxic and those that perpetuate it should may be removed from the system. This is, however, different from being overly positive and ‘happy-clappy’ all the time and not acknowledging mistakes. By acknowledging them we can then learn from them i.e. what can we do better next time? And then move on – see section on the 3Fs (visualisation blog).
  • Focusing on ‘process’ goals rather than outcome goals is important. If we are thinking about the end product, we are probably not focusing on the task in hand meaning we are likely to switch off at key moments. Concentrating on what we are doing at any given moment is a better alternative and if we do it well enough “the score will take care of itself” (Bill Walsh – legendary San Fransisco 49ers coach).
  • Develop a developmental approach instead of ‘win at all costs’: support players through bad form or mistakes.
  • Develop pre-performance routines (see separate blog) that allow you to switch on certain groups of brain cells responsible for certain actions. These might be general in terms of pre-competition routines or ones that occur before initiating certain closed skills, such as set pieces in invasion games or a golf swing or throwing a dart, etc.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but each of the above place an emphasis on not thinking too much; switching off the conscious mind and letting theundermind take over – a vital pre-requisite for sport (especially for closed skills).

Article

We all have certain ‘anchors’ in life. We all have that particular sound, smell, taste etc. that takes us back to a certain place in our lives. I can still hear the creak in my living room door from when I was a child – a door that been at a landfill site for twenty […]

We all have certain ‘anchors’ in life. We all have that particular sound, smell, taste etc. that takes us back to a certain place in our lives. I can still hear the creak in my living room door from when I was a child – a door that been at a landfill site for twenty years! That smell of a particular food from a barbeque that takes you right back to the spot you were sitting that sunny afternoon. You hear the sounds and even feel the feelings you felt in that exact moment in time. In soccer you can anchor thoughts in players. You can do this by reminding them of past experiences – a particular game, goal, save, dribble, training session etc. when they excelled. Time these anchors right and you will get players playing at their maximum.

Whether we know it or not, but as soccer coaches, we are anchoring all the time. The question is whether we are doing it correctly or not; whether we are creating positive anchors in players, or negative ones. As a coach, you have the power to take a player back to their most significant moments; moments that they look back on fondly and will go on to inspire them. You also have the power, and maybe even the habit, of taking their memories and feelings back to occasions that you should not. For example, reminding them of missed penalties, poor tackles, misplacing passes etc. this can be a significant reason for further poor performance.

A number of years ago, I worked for a particular club whose goalkeeper coach used to watch the game in the stand and record various statistics in relation to his goalkeeper’s performance. At half-time, the coach would relay these performance indicators back to the goalkeeper. When I first heard of this I believed it to be a fantastic idea, envisaging the coach relaying information about where most of the opponents corners were placed, what runs the strikers like to make, or where the number 9 liked to place his shots – information that could really help the goalkeeper and give him a better chance of keeping balls out of the net in the second half. Instead:

“You dropped X number of crosses. X number of your goal-kicks went out of play. You failed to hold X amount of shots” This used to go on and on…

Let’s look at the impact this negative anchoring had on the goalkeeper. He has just come off from 45 minutes of hard work. If they are losing, moral is down and the player needs a lot of effort to get back in the game. The goalkeeper then has to re-live all of his negative experiences through his coach telling him, in explicit detail, everything he has done wrong. What we are forgetting is that he doesn’t really need to know this stuff, and certainly doesn’t need it reinforced. He then spends all of his recovery time reliving his errors, thinking about that cross he dropped or that goal-kick that went slicing out of play. In other words, he spends his break time getting agitated, and having negative thoughts anchored in his psyche. The coach firmly believed that he was doing a good job, but I suspect there was an element of “I told you so” involved. The player eventually confided in me that he hated it, that his confidence was never so low and that he was no longer motivated to play. All he could think about before and during games was how many mistakes he was going to make. In a soccer sense, this crippled him.

Positive anchoring is about doing the exact opposite. It is about embedding the positive things into his psyche. It is about picking his performance off the floor and helping him to perform to his best. Let’s look at ways the coach could have handled this situation differently, and actually improved the performance of the goalkeeper.

Even if his first half as bad as the coach thought, the goalkeeper will already know this! He will already be thinking about that cross he mishandled, that shot he fumbled etc. What the coach needs to do is get rid of those negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. It is these positive thoughts that will turn his form and his game around.

Why not ask him what is the best game he has ever played? What was his best ever save? Recreate in him those moments where he felt invincible between the posts. Tell him of times where you have seen him be outstanding – “remember that game where you caught that cross, then started a counter-attack which led to our winning goal”? You bet he remembers it – and you have just reminded him of how good he can be! What you have done is sent a struggling goalkeeper back out for the second half full of thoughts about how great he is. When that first cross comes in, he is now thinking of one caught months ago, rather than the one he dropped minutes ago. Trust me; he will catch it this time.

This situation has stayed with me vividly since then. I suppose the sights and sounds of that coach destroying the one player he is supposed to be improving, anchored in me. I vowed never to tolerate a colleague like that again, and keep players like him as far away from my team as possible.

This can be done for all players. It can be done for the whole team. Do you think Harry Redknapp miraculously saved Portsmouth from certain relegation in 2004 by telling them about all their bad performances? He did not. He called them “fantastic”, every time he could. He reminded players how good they were.  That is anchoring. That is coaching. And that is motivation.

Article

We all talk to ourselves it is something we do every day. However our own awareness of this varies. If we are aware of our self-talk then we can utilise it to our advantage and adjust the negative self-talk into something positive and useful. Self-talk has been shown to enhance motor skills (Johnson et al, 2004; Cutton &Landin, […]

We all talk to ourselves it is something we do every day. However our own awareness of this varies. If we are aware of our self-talk then we can utilise it to our advantage and adjust the negative self-talk into something positive and useful.

Self-talk has been shown to enhance motor skills (Johnson et al, 2004; Cutton &Landin, 2007), improve strength (Tod et al, 2009; Edwards et al, 2008; St Clair Gibson & Foster, 2007), improve concentration (Conroy & Metzler, 2004; Hatzigeorgiadis et al, 2009; Crust & Azadi, 2010), emotional control (Hatzigeorgiadis et al, 2004; Mamassis & Doganis, 2004) and drive(Hardy et al, 2001; Kress & Statler, 2007; Harwood et al, 2004).

These effects are well documented but how do you become aware of your own self talk if you are not already. The Paperclip Technique.

Put a handful of paperclips in your pocket before training. Every time you notice you are talking to yourself move a paperclip to the other pocket. At the end of the session you’ll see how often you talk to yourself. This can also be used to highlight negative self-talk, as you move the paperclips when negative self-talk is used.

Once you are aware of your own self-talk frequency, experiment with different forms of cue words and phrases to see what works and is meaningful to you. As with most psychological skills individualisation is at the heart and what works for you may not work for someone else.

Research by Hardy et al (2001) highlighted 2 main themes of self-talk;

  • Motivational self-talk, with sub themes of drive control, mastery and arousal control.
  • Examples  ’switch on’ ‘be aggressive’ ‘power’ and ‘never back down’
  • Instructional self-talk, with sub themes of skill development and skill execution.
  • Examples  ’drive through at the target’ ‘stay tall’ and ‘get low’

Both have been proven to improve performance in physiological testing, sprint performance, skill execution and increase focus.

As the examples above show phrases as well as cue words, this will obviously be an individual preference but also time dependant. Exercise psychology research has shown the use of another person’s voice, i.e. a coach or fitness instructor, can also increase motivation and performance.

Take home messages:

  • Beware of your own self-talk;
  • Paperclip technique to enhance awareness
  • Use your self-talk to your advantage
  • Structure cue words or phrases that are:
  • instructional or motivational
  • individual and meaningful to you

 

Article

Positivism is a framework in psychology that encompasses positive emotions in a re-evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. Researchers such as Eid and Larson (2008), and Lyumbomrisky and colleagues have focused on pursuit of well-being in the development of mentally balanced and happy individuals. Thus the area endorses the move to enable individuals, societies and communities […]

Positivism is a framework in psychology that encompasses positive emotions in a re-evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. Researchers such as Eid and Larson (2008), and Lyumbomrisky and colleagues have focused on pursuit of well-being in the development of mentally balanced and happy individuals. Thus the area endorses the move to enable individuals, societies and communities to flourish through increasing the quality of life in the face of life stressors. As such Duckworth, Steen & Seligman (2005) state that the focus on only the removal of negative emotions in traditional therapy does not take into account a individual’s need to further develop their quality of life in a realm of strength building post depression, anxiety or stress. According to Fredrickson (2001) the framework focuses on enabling flourishing whereby valued subjective experiences in the past, present and future influence what’s known as ‘affect’ as opposed to emotions. ‘Affect’ provides a more substantial free-floating evaluation of experiences, while emotions are brief yet emotionally meaningful. Therefore, negative emotions and possible resulting depressive states, which reflect immediate problems, can be reduced by the input of positivism by learning to cope with negative appraisals in life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Sin & Lyumbomirsky, 2005).

Therapeutic methods known as positive psychology interventions (PPI) are key in the development of positive feelings, behaviours and thoughts in the overall cultivation of well-being. Layous and collegues (2011) state that positivism teaches people to increase these elements without professional help thus creating a tool within the person to identify and prevent falling into a depressive state. With positivism the athlete can then be empowered with increases in independence in the face of stressors in sport or life. In an analysis of a wide range of published research Sin & Lyumbomirsky (2005) stated that the majority of studies investigating PPI’s observed an increase in well-being and a decrease in depression. This outlines the possible benefits in the highly evaluative environment of sport.

What comprises the term PPI and how adaptable is it to the everyday person and athlete?

Research has noted that PPI’s include practicing gratitude, optimism, acts of kindness, counting one’s blessings and reminiscing on one’s strengths. These can be materialised in sport through an approach know as ‘Three Good Things’ which involves writing down three good things every day or after a training session.  Research has shown that PPI interventions such as the ‘Three Good Things’ can bring about a larger and quicker benefit for depressed individuals compared to non-depressed individuals as anti-depressant drugs bring a slow and minimal level of relief (Sin &Lyumbomirsky, 2005; Layous et al., 2011). Furthermore those with extensive depression may benefit from both traditional therapy and PPI’s. This is of benefit to athletes struggling with self-confidence and negative evaluations of training and performance as they contain an eagerness to bring about change and improvement. Thus positivism and PPI’s, which focus on preventing the problem, enable more robust results than traditional individual therapy, which only concentrates on fixing the problem.

How do PPI’s and positivism manifest in athletes?

An individual’s ability to cope with threatening situations is amplified by positive emotions by what’s known as emotional resilience. According to Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh & Larkin (2003) traits of resilience such as gratitude, interest and positivity in the face of extreme stress disengaged depressive mood states. The authors found that observed resilience induced resources such as optimism or satisfaction due to frequent positive emotions. As such through resilience attention is broadened which subsequently broadens perspectives of the performance situation in both training and competition. Therefore, the ability to cope with life’s general demands lends resources and influence in training and competition.

How does resilience apply to sport?

In sport emotional resilience can be related to the common concept of mental toughness. This enables athlete’s coping mechanisms to maintain consistency during training and competition demands, consequently determining performance. This can manifest itself in the control of events, enjoyment of challenges, and commitment among elite athletes. Consequently the sporting champion’s the ability to cope derives from characteristics, which allow them to deal with larger psychological stressors such as injury or illness. In more scientific terms Denny & Steiner (2009) state that these abilities are invoked through internal personality factors over external personality factors, which are outlined and improved by the athlete through the identification of the contributing factors to happiness rather than a generic measure of happiness. For coaches this applied in the creation of valued experiences during and after training sessions in an environment, which enables the flourishing of athletes. Furthermore a system of support beyond the training and sport context is important with relationships with coaches, parents, spouses or friends manipulating athlete positivity and resilience (Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton, & Jones, 2008; Denny & Steiner, 2008).

The ability to cope with demands is derived from the ability to address both the problem and subsequent emotions that stressors initiate in sporting contexts. Research by Denny & Steiner (2008), found that athlete happiness is derived from, the maintenance of self-belief, lack of distress and mindfulness. In addition, Guccardi & Jones (2011) state that a further development of intelligence, desire to achieve, and attentional control are important to mental toughness and emotional relsilience, resulting in the flourishing of athletes. These elements of mental toughness and emotional resilience in sport can be achieved through interventions such as goal-setting, visualisation, relaxation and concentration in the elite environment. Therefore athletes are systematically grounded to the task at hand, managing their energy and attention, while being prepared for difficult situations with coping resources (Hammermeister, Pickering, McGraw & Ohlson, 2012). However emotional resilience in the realm of positivity is more important in the cultivation of optimal sport performance as ‘resiliance’ denotes that set backs are acceptable and an experience which can be overcome. ‘Toughness’ on the other hand is more intolerant of naturally occurring stressors in life indicating that athletes should engage in coping resources without indentifying the initial problem leading to possible failure to flourish and improve quality of life if the problem re-occurs. Yet the two terms are ambiguous in the overall realm of positivism. The key for the athlete is the ability to empower oneself in the face of regular obstacles in life and sport.

Key elements to remember for athletes and coaches

Positivism is not confined to positivity in the sport context as general well-being and ability to cope with life stressors plays a key role in increasing and maintaining the quality of life.

Interventions seek to empower and facilitate athletes independence prior to stressors throughpracticing gratitude, optimism, acts of kindness, counting one’s blessings, reminiscing on one’s trait strengths, control of events, enjoyment of challenges, and commitment.

Positivism is manifested in mental toughness but more specifically emotional resilience in sport.

The emotional resilience of athletes is further influenced by training environments and relationships with significant others.

Interventions with athletes can ground them to the task at hand preventing a lapse in attention and performance when faced with stressors such as injury or illness, or during performance and competition.

Article

“You never fail until you stop trying”. This is famous quote by Albert Einstein. It is used for motivation, for recovery from setbacks and, until recently, I loved the ‘never stop trying’ message it spreads. But what if trying actually leads to failure? What if we reworded the quote… “You’ll never fail IF you stop […]

“You never fail until you stop trying”. This is famous quote by Albert Einstein. It is used for motivation, for recovery from setbacks and, until recently, I loved the ‘never stop trying’ message it spreads. But what if trying actually leads to failure?

What if we reworded the quote… “You’ll never fail IF you stop trying.”

I know this sounds strange. Since we were kids we have been told to always try our hardest. BUT the word ‘try’ itself implies weakness in the face of challenges. It means we are resisting the natural process of our actions. We don’t ‘try’ to walk, we simply walk. We don’t ‘try’ to clean our teeth, we simply clean our teeth. We don’t ‘try’ to watch TV, we simply watch TV. And we are pretty expert walkers, teeth cleaners and TV watchers – all without ‘trying’.

It is only when we are faced with something challenging and self-doubt arises that we being to ‘try’. And this ‘trying’ causes tension. When dieters try to eat healthily, they only get stronger cravings for unhealthy food. When gym-goers try to stretch, they only get tighter (do it now – ‘try’ straightening your arm and you’ll feel both your extensor tricep and flexor bicep muscles tensing. You are fighting yourself). When a weightlifter ‘tries’ to lift the bar, they end up failing the lift. This is common in elite sport and is seen when athletes ‘choke’ under pressure – when they ‘try’ to consciously control a movement that is usually carried out automatically, negatively affecting performance (think Rory Mcllroy at the 2011 US Masters)

Less effort can create more results. By letting things happen and stopping the stressful approach of ‘trying’, we make natural progression by working right at the edge of our comfort zone. We flow with life rather than fight against it. We avoid the burnout.

If you are a tennis player, don’t try to hit the ball, just let the racquet swing. If you are a long jumper, don’t try to jump, find your resolve, and then let your body do the jumping. If you are yogi, envisage the pose, and then let your body move into it.

And this letting go of ‘trying’ is helpful in life as well as sport. Set your goals, prepare yourself, and then allow life to take its course. Let things happen naturally. Don’t resist the natural process of your life – this resistance of what is, is the root cause of stress and tension. Resist ‘trying’ and you will reduce stress, improve focus, enhance performance, learn from setbacks, and enjoy your growth and progression.