Performance Psychology

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”?

 

 

What’s wrong with RGIII?

What’s wrong with RGIII?  How has a career that looked so bright dimmed so quickly?  How has an incredibly talented, intelligent athlete not been able to continue to capitalize on the gifts he has been given?  First, let me say – I don’t know for sure, and I am definitely not suggesting it is all his fault or that he can’t get it back. Don’t know him, nor, have I ever had the chance to talk with him.  So, anything that I say is based on observation, and interviews that I’ve listened to. However, I do think that I may have some insight based on my experience working on the psychology of performance with other extremely talented athletes.

RGIII by most accounts has been an extremely hard worker during his athletic career, and has been a positive influence on his teams before all this adversity hit.  However, I also see that most athletes that have been the “stars” are often very solid mentally when things are generally going in their direction and are “feelin’ the love” from the fans and media.  RGIII came to the NFL having been very successful at Baylor, so much so that he was the Heisman Trophy winner.  Then he came into the league as the 2nd overall pick.  He literally had immediate success in the first game of the year and things seemed to be working out just the way they should.  Injury happened and everything began to go down hill from there.  The first true athletic adversity of his life had hit, and it hit on an bright stage with all the lights shining down on him.

This is how I describe the psychology that is the unseen foundation of performance.  Every athlete (EVERY!) will face adversity.  However, many – like an RGIII – were so far advanced physically that through talent and hard work on the physical aspects of competing could overcome any true deficiency in their mental strength (may never even have known that they had a weakness in it, because it was never really tested).  Picture flowing streams…they each have rocks, mud, stones, sticks, leaves, etc underneath, but if the water is high enough and flowing strong enough you’ll only see the beauty of the water on the surface.  But, what happens when the water starts to dry up, or starts to flow more slowly?  All of the sudden all the muck below becomes more evident.  Essentially the adversity that RGIII began to experience is the water drying up, and the fallout that followed are the stones, sticks, leaves and mud below.

My educated guess is that while it is clear that RGIII is an intelligent, hard working, and determined athlete he is now facing a level of adversity that he may have never faced before and, frankly, had not prepared for mentally.  While his physical injuries certainly have negatively impacted him, his performance has continued to decrease because he seems to be truly struggling mentally.

All of us love to be loved, but it is difficult when we feel that the same people that praised us are now the ones putting us down. He hears the whispers that he not only is part of the team’s problems, but that he may be THE problem. If an individual doesn’t prepare for adversity PRIOR to it happening it will be almost impossible to deal with when it does happen. RGIII got caught in a trap that the majority of all athletes do – he began to believe that the love he was feeling from “fans” was unconditional and his feeling of confidence was closely tied to the love and adulation he was receiving from outside of himself and based purely on the outcome related successes he had had.

While this is completely natural – of course it will always feel great to perform well and receive a ton of praise for it – it is not effective to establish a long-term authentic confidence from external praise, and purely from outcomes.

“Why – what else is there?” I am often asked. Here’s why – if we only build our confidence from what praise others heap upon us we will always be beholden to their praise or criticism. It’s great when it is favorable, but it is miserable when they are going against you. This creates a rollercoaster of up and down emotions and confidence. The goal I teach is to never get caught up in either. It’s cliché, but we are never as good as others say when things are going well, and never as bad when things aren’t working out. Instead I try to help my ahtletes “lock-in” to the process of success. We visualize our preparation, our work, the small fundamentals, our leadership, our ability to focus each practice and performance. Essentially, we mentally and physically obsess the details of which we control.

It will always FEEL better to win games, and rack up good statistics, but these things are the end result of the work behind the scenes. Our focus should be in taking our pride, comfort, and confidence from the processes of becoming our “best-self”. We control these things and can always rely on them if we commit to them. If we only see the outcomes and the external praise of others, which we do not control, we are at the mercy of indicators based beyond our power. Either consciously or sub-consciously we recognize these to be out of our control and this allows for doubt to creep in. When we feel doubt the concept of “fear of failure” occurs and we begin to perform to not make a mistake, instead of to make a play. We become less than our “best-self”.

It may sound boring but by committing to these mental habits before, during, and after our successes, and our challenges, we insulate ourselves from the outside fans and critics. Its not that they don’t have a right to their opinion, its just that their opinions – good or bad – have no real connection to our performance, so they are worthless to place our focus or energy towards. We must get rid of the mental habit that we have to sometimes listen and buy-in to their words.

If I were working with RGIII I would direct our work towards getting him into a routine of creating the mental image of what makes him a special athlete. We would begin to obsess over the details that allow for him to exhibit those skills. And, we would spend a good deal of time on him understanding how praise and criticism are worthless to listen too in terms of performance, so we pay little to no attention to it. Our quest is one of continual growth of developing his “best-self”, and that will always be the best focus and the only one that he controls.

I hope he calls soon…

Mental-Game “warm-up”

From the competitive youth levels up to professional athletes we now use what is known as dynamic warm-up/stretching prior to practice or competition. A dynamic warm-up is a series of sport specific movements that are designed to prepare the muscles for performance and are performed in a safe and controlled fashion. However, many of us that are coaches today can remember the days that a pre-game “warm-up” meant to break a little sweat and do some static stretching. This sports science progression in how we prepare athletes for the stressors put on their bodies during training or competing makes all the sense in the world, and is a very effective use of focus and time pre-performance (training or competing). Essentially, this type of pre-performance warm-up improves body function and helps to prevent injury.

At the youth level this warm-up is coach led, and at the collegiate and professional levels a strength and conditioning coach typically will lead this process. Regardless, of who is leading this process the fact that a coach has scheduled this time for the activity, explained the purpose, and is monitoring it sends the message to the athletes that it is important that they follow this routine in order to maximize performance.

However, it often strikes me that our pre-game mental warm-up has not evolved in any significant way to keep up with what we know about how the psychology of performance is impacted by mindset. I often work with athletes on how to create and implement a pre-performance mindset that allows them to get rid of any negative or unhelpful self-talk, and specifically creates a “best-self” mindset for competing. Most of these athletes never thought about how to get into an effective mindset pre-performance. Further, some not only didn’t know how, but actually had very detrimental thoughts going on just before competitions.

I equate the need for this pre-performance mindset routine to that of the pre-shot routine you’ll see all basketball players do before a foul shot; golfers before their drive; tennis players before their serve; kickers before a field goal; baseball players as they get into the batters box; or sprinters as they get set in the blocks. We use these routines to key our athletes into specific technical fundamentals, to create a sense of calm within our physical systems (breathing, muscles, and heart rate), and to create ease in repetition of the skill that follows. You may have other ways that using these routines help you.

I help many of the athletes that I work with to create a pre-performance routine in order to get into the mindset that allows them to perform at their best, and prevents them from getting in their own way. I call this the “best-self” mindset and it will include about 3-5 keywords or short phrases that cue the athlete into a specific vision of the “process behaviors” that they perform, feel, experience, and exhibit when they are at their best. These keywords guide them through every performance.  Even (or maybe especially) those performances where things are not working out for them or their team.

Note: “process behaviors” represent the habits and characteristics that the athlete has control over and can perform regardless of how the competition is going. Words like aggressive, attack, head-high, focus on the field/court, having fun, communicating, being positive with teammates, are examples of “process behaviors” as the athlete can stay committed to these habits and characteristics at all times during performance, and are not only possible to perform when getting the results they want.

However, only the athlete that may be working with a sports psychologist already, or those that have potentially learned a similar system through another resource implements this process. It is often not enough to just put on some head-phones and listen to your favorite “pump-up” music in order to get into the right mindset.  Further, athletes can often feel rushed before practice or competition and may not utilize this strategy if the coaches don’t actively make time for this to happen.

Instead, what I recommend is that this process becomes a coach led pre-game routine. Coaches first begin by utilizing the expertise of a sports psychologist to help his or her team members to create their specific individualized “best-self” mindset, as every athlete is unique and will have their own needs in terms of mindset. The next step is to take a few minutes to make sure that their team has a carved out, focused moment to allow them to get into this pre-performance mindset routine before each practice or game. The coach sets the expectation that the athletes get their mind prepared during this “warm-up” time. The more often the athletes complete this process the more easily and effectively they will be able to utilize the mindset.

We’ve made great progress in terms of how we warm-up our bodies for competing, why not take the next logical step to create mental game warm-up time as well?

What’s Your Story?

One of the most common mental game errors that I see in my work is that athletes get too caught up in their own story, and that story creates their “prediction” of what will or will not happen for them in their future performances.

For instance, if an athlete comes to me with a belief (story) that they are not quite as talented as other teammates they tend to defer to the other players on the team, or not play “on the edge” with an attack mindset and willingness to go for it. This creates performances that are less than what the athlete is capable of, and often that comes across as unconfident or safe. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with playing smart, but the way to differentiate between smart and playing it safe is that the athlete COULD perform the task, but they CHOOSE to back away for the easier way out.

The problem starts with the core belief, which leads to the story that they tell themselves, which ends with them predicting they aren’t good enough to play “on the edge” because if they do they’ll make a mistake. This plays out in the athlete looking for the safer pass/play instead of the attacking mindset that it often takes to play at their maximum potential.

My work with the athlete allows them to understand their “story”, that it is simply that – a story, that it often has little to no real “evidence” of truth, how to replace it with a more effective belief, and how to replicate and practice the new belief until it becomes habit.

When the athlete makes this realization and turns the corner on it their performance begins to take off. The greater impact is not only the improvement, but greater consistency in performance as well.

Athletes, if you want to have a boost in your performance, or coaches, if you’re looking to enhance your own tools in the mental game, or would like me to work directly with your team please contact me directly for the details.