When playing within a team sport having freedom and creativity are vital aspects of successful performance. This style can transform teams who are rigid and playing within their boundaries into fearless teams who are ambitious and have a desire to take calculated risks in pursuit of victory.

Paralysis by Analysis

We have all been in that situation where peers/friends/colleagues have come together to try and think of a new and innovative idea. However, the more we bang our heads together the more uninspiring and unoriginal the proposed ideas become. This is not only reflected in my own experiences but a good example lies with the reality TV show “the apprentice”. Consisting of contestants who are undoubtedly capable, committed and talented are required to group together and complete a task.  So why is it that their initial ideas lack both inspiration and imagination? Habitually, we stumble across complex problems; we think and then again think about thinking (stay with me!) which can lead to a “paralysis by analysis”. Ironically, in most situations it is a relaxed state of mind which allows thoughts to wander freely which facilitates creative ideas and resolutions

The Wandering Brain

From an evolutionary perspective this phenomena of mind wandering is unproductive and a majority of research will agree that it disrupts the performance on working memory and intelligence.  Though, it is this mind-wandering state which may influence thoughts and ideas which are not so clear cut (Mooneyham & Schooler, 2013). Indeed, research has shown that daydreaming maybe pivotal in creatively resolving complex problems. Such moments can occur when an individual commutes to work, eating lunch, nodding off to sleep and gazing out of a window. Consequently, it is such situations where we give less conscious thought which allows our mind to wonder and explore, thus more often than not providing moments of clarity and sudden realisations.


Within Sports

Transfer this concept within a team sports such as football; a midfielder during a game is presented with a puzzle, with numerous options of how to complete the puzzle and expectedly some solutions will be more effective than others.  Most will agree that a player daydreaming during a game would not make for a great performance, happy manager or fans for that matter. Furthermore, there are points in a game such as defending a set piece which will tactically require more purposeful thought.

Nevertheless, there exists scope for players to fully harness the power of a brain on auto-pilot and enter a free flowing state whilst still consciously being involved in goal directed behaviour. For instance a boxer going into a ring will not want to be overwhelmed with inner thoughts about what should and should not be done, moreover, to be allowed the freedom of letting the weeks of training and accumulated experience take over whilst applying a few trigger words to stick to a given game plan.

How does it work?

Furley and Memmert (2012) present the idea from a motor skills perspective proposing the “Working Memory Capacity”.  This is the attentional process which allows individuals to achieve goal directed behaviour by being able to access all the relevant information a sports performer will require, yet will be performed outside of conscious thought. Simply put, this system will help sports performers make better tactical decisions by not over thinking yet being aware of what is required from them. It is this happy medium which may play a pivotal role in reaching an “optimal state” or the “flow” which simply describes a state of complete immersion in the activity.

What Flow Feels Like?


  1. A distinct lack of self-consciousness.
  2. A distorted sense of time and as a consequence of being focused on the present.
  3. Little awareness of physical needs.
  4. Have strong concentration and focused attention.
  5. Set clear simple goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  6. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  7. Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  8. Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  9. Having complete focus on the activity itself.

(Csíkszentmihályi, 1997)

Managing an Optimal State

Notably from personal and anecdotal experience it is during these moments of high pressure which can place detrimental effects upon this optimal state. Especially at the top level it is how sports performers manage such pressure and approach competition which can be the deciding factor between winning and losing.

Two notable theories can to some extent explain this phenomena. The ‘constrained action hypothesis’ explains when anxious our attention will become fixated on irrelevant pieces of information. In addition ‘reinvestment hypothesis’ notes that our focus will become overly internalised when anxious. Nevertheless, both will hinder performance. As Sport Psychologists there are numerous methods which can be harnessed to ensure a performers potential is achieved.

–        Concentration Cues

–        Trigger Words

–        Pre-competition Preparation

–        The use of Implicit Instructions

–        Imagery (Experiences of mastery, What if’s?)

–        Restructuring Negative Thoughts

–        Positive Self Talk

Similar to practicing a technique or completing strength and conditioning work, without continuous repetition and practice the mental skills learned to manage pressure will not develop and become forgotten. To ensure successful mental skills utilisation both coaches and sport psychologist can also create varied degrees of pressure upon the athlete which can imitate and mimic the competition environment. 

Take Home Message

  • A relaxed state of mind will allow thoughts to wander freely which facilitates creative ideas and resolutions.
  • Players can fully harness the power of a brain on auto-pilot and become fully immersed within the activity whilst still being conscious of tactical responsibilities.
  • These states can be managed using various techniques to ensure athletes can perform at their full potential.
  • Mental skills must be individualised, practiced and developed regularly under competition conditions to aid its effectiveness.


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