Performance Psychology

What I learned by winning – a LOT – this year

I have been fortunate to work with some great coaches and players this year.  On the professional level the team I work with made it to the finals of the WNBA championship. On the Division 1 collegiate level I have 3 teams that will be playing in the NCAA tournament this week.  However, I would bet you that if you asked any of these coaches about the number of wins they have they’d be hard pressed to give you an accurate number. Don’t get me wrong they are each highly, highly competitive people, but the numbers themselves are not the measurement of success they use.

 

It would be easy for me to sit here and write about all the reasons that these teams won because of the massive impact of sport psychology – my work and role within each team. But that isn’t the direction I am going to go at all. In fact, it may be the opposite of that. There is no way to quantify the impact of my role in helping these teams to reach really high performance success. I know that it’s there it’s just really difficult to find a metric that could measure it.

 

However, what I have started to think about is why are they so successful?  Here’s what I know – all four coaches are very different – age, years of experience, tactical style of play, what they emphasize, how they teach, etc. Yet, what they do share is that each of them believes that we coach humans and not jersey numbers. They believe that they must equip their players with everything they can within their resources to help develop them as a whole person.  This includes training on recovery, nutrition, hydration, sleep, strength, and giving back to those that are less fortunate than them. It also includes teaching them about mental and emotional growth.

 

I believe that they don’t feel that any one of these areas specifically is THE reason for the success. Instead they believe that EACH of these together helps their players to find their ultimate potential. And if they can help them reach their own individual potential then it places them in the best position to reach their highest collective success.  They believe that there is no single easy path to achievement, but instead a dedication to effective and healthy skills and habits done over and over again.

 

Essentially, just by feeling that the role of sport psychology is an important enough role to include within their programs/franchise that they are telling their players about what their culture is about. That EVERYTHING matters, and that THEY matter.  As cliché as it may be – that investing in the individual pays the greatest dividends. And that they trust that a dedicated focus on the process of success is way more important than focusing ON the success itself. A culture of success isn’t always about what you preach, but instead what you give your attention to.

 

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Stuart Singer, M.Ed., and PsyD (ABD) is the Director of WellPerformance, a Mental Performance Coaching and Consulting practice, and the creator of the DoSo app https://t.co/R61vbpda4X . For more information regarding this topic he can be contacted at ssinger@wellperformancecoach.com or follow him on twitter @wellperformance, or instagram: wellperformance

 

 

The One Simple Truth

One Simple Truth:

 

I have the answer. You have the answer. There are skills that can be learned. There are skills that can be implemented when you need them. You may be bad now, but you can get better. You may be good now, but you can get better. You may be great now, but you can get better.

However, there are no “hacks”, quotes, 7-step systems, pump-up songs, or YouTube videos that create a sound, repeatable, and consistent “mental-game” that over and over allows you to be resilient, focused, confident, and calm. If someone promises you a “hack” to mental strength – don’t just walk away – run away!

There are fundamentals just like any and every other skill set you can imagine. Like those skills they take time, repetition, perseverance, and willingness to learn.   But, lets more specifically define what we mean by “learn” – what I really mean is that we need to be willing to listen, try, fail, correct, try again, fail again, fine-tune, and finally get better.

After we do this process once, we start it again, but this time we are building off of the prior improvement (even if it was incremental) and using that as the starting point. You see the road to learning and developing anything of importance is not straight, short, and flat, but more typically, winding, extended, and up and down.

However, here is the “one simple truth” – you can’t change your habits of thought, until you’re ready to invest in the entire experience of it. That you actively decide you want to explore this. That you choose to listen, and that you choose to ask questions that give you a more in-depth understanding. That your investment is in experiencing it enough and as often as it takes to create that moment of realization…”There it is”!!

Just like you don’t get physically stronger in a single workout session, or in better cardio-vascular shape on a single run, the mind can’t become significantly stronger with a single one-hour session.

When you are willing to work at your mental skills in the same way you are the physical than it will come to you…simple as that. Not to say you’ll become mentally “perfect”, but simply to say you’ll become better, and more consistent.

But are you willing to dive in, to trust, to try, to fail, and then to try again? Are you willing to jump on the path, while not being 100% sure of where it takes you? Until that point the “one simple truth” understands that you already have one foot out the door, and it’s really hard to get better at something when you aren’t already committed to doing it.

In the growth of the mind you can’t physically SEE the growth. You won’t feel “better” immediately. You may feel like the skill work is impossible to do on the court or field. You may want to say, “it’s not working”. But, you must continue to do the mental workouts. You must continue to try the skills.

Here’s what the “one simple truth” understands…that it is literally impossible for someone to tell another to just simply have a mindset. Instead we do the workouts and the repetition and after a period of time the mindset reveals itself. It’s there for you to use when you need it.

Mental strength is really all about attention. If your attention is stuck on the last mistake, predicting a future error, or your imperfections you’ll feel pressure, anxiety, or stress. However, if you work on paying a specific type of attention it will be on the things that you do control, that are process oriented, and that are within the present moment. If so, you’ll feel empowered, in control, and composed. The ability to RESPOND and not REACT with emotion will become yours.

The “one simple truth” is that having a resilient, strong, and consistent mental approach is within your reach, and your control. There are fundamentals that you can “workout”. There is no hack, there is no 7-day program, and there is no YouTube video that will create and sustain the growth you truly desire and need. Invest authentic, committed, and daily focus and the strength you want will be there.

 

 

Performance enhancement through the mind-body connection

Yoga isn’t just about the body, it’s also about the mind and it’s a technique that has really helped me. You do have to focus because there’s some positions that can really hurt you at times if you aren’t focused and breathing right.”Lebron James

 

Concept: How you can use Yoga and Mindfulness in order to maximize your performance.

First we need to understand how and why these practices work?

Yoga serves a number of extremely important purposes for a competitive athlete. First, yoga increases flexibility and core strength. Increased flexibility and core strength are associated with increased speed, wider range of movement, balance, explosiveness, overall strength, and injury prevention.

Secondly, yoga serves to detoxify the body and add in deeper and faster recovery. Intense training and competition take a toll on the body. While we often think of intensity of competitive training and movement as the “important” part of performance development it is actually in recovery where muscle growth occurs. If the athlete doesn’t engage in high-quality recovery they will never maximize the benefits of their training.

Yoga also connects deeply with the mind. Yoga has moments of deep discomfort. During these moments it is easy to have the mind suggest to “escape” the discomfort. Instead what yoga teaches is how to use deep breathing techniques, which allow us to relax and work with the discomfort instead of against it, as Lebron James mentioned in the quote above. Too often when something is uncomfortable or even painful (as in losing a big game, or having a poor performance when it matters most) we look to want to avoid or escape those feelings.

However, the mentally strongest athletes understand that discomfort and painful moments are an inherent part of competition. When we look to avoid them at all costs we actually end up playing it “safe”, which doesn’t allow us to play to our maximum. Yoga trains our mind to be highly aware of those moments and how to overcome them when we need to most.

Now, lets look at the mind and the use of mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation teaches our minds to be completely aware of “The Moment”. Many coaches preach for their players to “just stay in the moment”, but never do any training at all to help teach their players the skill of blocking out the last mistake, or how to prevent “predicting” the next mistake if the player is already struggling that game. Mindfulness is literally the practice of training the mind to be present and aware of what is happening right NOW, in THIS moment. The natural outcome from this practice is a more calm and composed athlete.

Additionally, mindfulness teaches us to become highly aware of what the mind does. No one – the novice athlete all the up to the Olympian – can avoid moments of doubt, fear, anger, lack of motivation, or frustration. These are all real emotions and what make us human. So, instead of denying that these things even enter our minds, it’s more important that we learn to recognize them, and then learn to implement skills to move beyond them if they are holding us back. Mindfulness is literally the most powerful skill that any athlete can learn in terms of the mental-game!

Yoga and mindfulness can be designed in way that enhances ultimate athletic performance. The mind and body are one system that are in constant connection (sometimes battle) with one another. If we are looking for maximum performance we must train the entire system as the interconnected unit that they are.

 

 

Coaches often Misuse “Growth Mindset” and “Grit” Theories

I’m jumping into this blog respectfully because I do feel that Angela Duckworth’s research on Grit, and Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset are extremely important in our quest to the answer for the psychology behind success. However, neither go far enough. Again, respectfully, neither are really earth shattering. Boiled down, they both suggest that students (or athletes, employees, CEO’s, etc) are most successful when they work hard, have passion, persevere, and are motivated for the long run. While I don’t argue these beliefs we’ve pretty much always known this.

 

The real question is CAN we develop these characteristics in kids/athletes/employees that don’t seem to inherently have them already? It would be really nice to say to our students/athletes, “hey, success is really about hard-work, perseverance, passion, and motivation…so…HAVE these things!”, and then miraculously they have them. Sadly, it doesn’t happen that way though.

 

My experience, and the research that I’m beginning, is that these characteristics are built from the environment that we (parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and business leaders) create. It’s not the students/athletes’ job to just “have” these characteristics, its our job to create a teaching/learning environment that builds these characteristics.

 

It’s actually a bit of a cop-out to blame the student or athlete for not having them. We should be pointing the finger towards ourselves for not having helped them to develop these characteristics. We’ve failed them and not the other way around.

 

This doesn’t mean that the individual doesn’t have responsibility to work and invest towards their own learning and growing – they do. Very much so in fact. It is just to say that Grit and Growth-Mindset are more about the environment and teaching and valuing these characteristics more than its about simply telling the individual to go about doing them.

 

In real life practice here’s how we’ve fallen short. I see coaches/teachers all the time talk about growth-mindset. As in, “you MUST HAVE a growth-mindset. Take risks, challenge yourself, don’t fear failure!” This sounds great. They are spouting off the newest and greatest lingo. And, then the reality hits. In order to “take risks”, “challenge” oneself, and “not fear failure” is to feel extreme vulnerability. This is a reality that we simply can’t skip over. If the coach, teacher, parent, leader does not create an atmosphere where that vulnerability is rewarded, nurtured, valued, and maybe even celebrated than the mindset simply isn’t going to happen. Period.

 

Students/athletes/employees will value what we track, collect data on, grade them on, and reward them on. If we want an individual to work hard and persevere we better be tracking and rewarding perseverance more than we track or reward the wanted outcomes. I get it – we all want to win and succeed. Unfortunately, the W doesn’t always happen, and is almost always out of our control. But, what is within our control are our actions and behaviors. If we teach and reward great actions and behaviors – success is the highly likely bi-product.

 

Why do we think kid’s cheat on a test? The simple reason is that THE GRADE is what we show value for and not the LEARNING process. A good grade does not necessarily show learning, but we track the grade so that is where the student’s attention goes – some do it by really learning the material, some by memorizing only long enough to put it on paper for a test but don’t actually learn the material, and others may do it by cheating. Point being is that what we really want is that they learned. By tracking the number of correct answers ONLY we absolutely are placing the value on the number and that alone. Fast forward – why do you think big-time athletes risk their reputations and their health by taking PED’s?

 

If LEARNING is what we really want than the student actually NEEDS to make mistakes, have correction, discussion, maybe given some more explanation or demonstration, and then attempt to get it right again – this is how learning occurs. How many of us take the time to do this process? Even further, how often do we patiently and with great enthusiasm show value for that process? Think this isn’t possible? Watch this US Women’s Volleyball team video as Coach Kiraly preaches the Growth-Mindset, lives it, and believes that it is his and his staffs responsibility to create it. He places the responsibility on himself and his staff and then on his players.

 

To wrap up – I love the ideas of Grit and Growth-Mindset and teach them within my work. However, lets not get the sequence confused – it is not the students, athletes, child’s, or employees job to simply HAVE these mindsets, but more specifically, it is the teachers, coaches, parents, and leader’s job to create the environment that fosters and supports these mindsets.

 

What are your thoughts? I’m interested to hear. Whether you agree or disagree I get a chance to learn and grow!
Stu

 

 

“Sink or Swim” is a Bad Idea For Developing Mental Performance

Would we ever think it makes sense to teach a young child to swim by literally throwing them into the deep end of a pool and see if they learn? True enough, a small percentage would probably figure it out. However, the vast majority would drown. Harsh visual I know. More so, even for the few that do make it to the side without drowning, it doesn’t mean that they would have learned the solid fundamentals of the swim stroke, but instead simply how to survive. Seems like a pretty dangerous and ineffective way of finding and developing solid swimmers.

Unfortunately, too often I see coaches, teams, parents, etc using the “sink or swim” method for the mental part of competing. What I observe are adults that just WANT their athlete to simply HAVE mental strength. We are just going to throw them into competition and see what happens – either they’ll have it or they won’t. If they do – great, but if they don’t I guess we’ll just have to leave them behind.

As with every aspect of performance there are attributes that each individual has a natural predisposition for. Some athletes are more balanced, coordinated, faster, stronger, have better vision, cardio-vascular strength, etc. than others. However, we would always continue to work on those strengths, and also, maybe more importantly, find the weakness areas and develop those as well. Sometimes our weaknesses, if properly trained, can become our strengths.

The “sink or swim” technique for developing mental strength seems an odd approach considering that we train every fundamental detail of the physical skills of our sports. We also repeatedly go over the tactical aspects of performance – positioning, timing, when to move, where to move, style that we play, etc. There isn’t an aspect of either these performance phases that we don’t work on day in and day out within the training/coaching of our athletes.

However, this isn’t to say that coaches and parents have bad intentions when it comes to valuing these mental skills. Typically there are two major reasons for this lack of attention to building mental performance fundamentals. First, a lack of true training in the psychology of performance. Most coaches aren’t trained psychologist, nor do they have to be in order to do their part of the job successfully. Second, they have such limited time with their athletes. There are so many things that need to be practiced and attended to each day that it doesn’t leave much time for the coach to work individually with each athlete on the mental aspect.

However, I do think that performance psychology is misunderstood. We often are doing the “shotgun approach” to mental performance. Throw in this book or that book, this quote or that quote, this story or that story, and we hope by using this big blanket of different ideas something sticks and works for them. The idea seems to be that there really aren’t solid fundamental skills, but rather “tricks” that may hit home, so we’ll throw everything out there and hope that something works. Additionally, these quotes don’t create an athlete that can apply the skill the quote promotes. Quotes provide a concept, but practice, feedback, repetition, more feedback, and more practice creates the ability to apply the skills during the most important moments of competing.

The truth is that there are most definitely solid mental fundamentals that are research and science based that we can use consistently to make sure that our athletes are processing the stress and pressures of their sport in a healthy, repeatable, and applicable way that will certainly help to maximize successful performance.

What if we used those research and science based mental game fundamentals ourselves as coaches, discussed them everyday with our athletes, and allowed our athletes to practice them, make mistakes, receive corrections, and continue to practice them towards mastery just like all other aspects of their training? My experience is that this consistency creates a defined improvement in the psychological aspects of high-performance.

At WellPerformance we train individuals and teams in these fundamentals everyday, and solid improvement is what most typically follows. To the point, does it make more sense to train these skills, or simply see if they can “sink or swim”?

 

 

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