Performance Psychology

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.

Understanding and Overcoming the Fear of Failure

My latest article discussing the Fear of Failure:  http://www.stack.com/2014/03/02/overcome-fear-of-failure/

Often understanding why we do something is all that is needed in order to take control of it.  This article explains why we sometimes have a fear of failing, and also how to overcome this unhelpful focus.

Understanding the Player/coach relationship

Athletes can learn an effective mind-set for hearing and understanding their coach’s criticism.  Coaches can learn how to most effectively communicate what they want from their players.  Using these mental fundamentals will allow each to maximize their performance.  Here is the link to the article in stack.com:  http://www.stack.com/2013/01/04/coach-player-relationships/