Archive for January, 2012

Athletes and Their Habits: How to Create Positive Mental Habits

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Can the outcome of a performance hinge on what colour undies an athlete choses to wear, or what they had for breakfast, the song they listened to or how many times they bounced the ball?

I have lost count of the number of times I have stood on a sideline, sat in a dugout, wandered up and down a poolside and heard coaches and parents criticise, cringe and even cry at the sight of their athletes conducting superstitious rituals before, during and sometimes even after they compete.

(One parent-coach once pleaded me to tell him what was mentally wrong with his daughter as she completed a complex sequence of foot movements before she competed her Gymnastics floor routine).

This is a scenario that is played out in every sport at every level. Some people perceive these unique rituals as something taboo, or something to be trained or beaten out of the athlete to discourage them from conducting this potluck performance behaviour.

A general armchair theorist may believe these athletes are just superstitious, or leaving their performance to luck, or perhaps appealing to a higher being to ‘bless’ them with a good performance.

So why would any athlete consciously choose to place their professional careers in the laps of the performance gods, rely on blind luck or even chance?

Would they truly allow their superstitious behaviours to determine the outcome of their performance that day?

If, like some, you buy into the theory of ‘luck’ then what is the point of conducting these rituals anyway? What are athletes training for if it is purely a game of chance?

A study recently released by Prof. David Eilam from Tel Aviv University found these rituals have a far greater importance than buying ‘luck’ credits from the performance gods! They instead allowed the athlete to ‘create’ their environment.

So the reality may not be OCD or leaving it to chance. Rather an attempt to follow a tried and trusted pattern, to create continuity and more importantly to gain a sense of control.

How to Make Habits Our Best FriendOne of the factors that makes a champion is the continuity and sustainability in their performance. This is the ability to create and follow a winning formula irrespective of the circumstances, the opponent or even their competition.

One of the factors that brings an athlete or coach undone is the initiation of their own self-crafted anxiety. Anxiety is an emotional response based on ‘what could happen’ not necessarily what has, or will, happen. So it is a purely manufactured worse-case outcome.

When working with an athlete and coach, the first step is to meticulously build a pragmatic, practical and replicable structure to their training, preparation and competition. Building a tried and trusted personalised formula gives them a higher percentage of preferred outcome probability. This uniquely manufactured structure takes much of the ‘unknown’ out of their performance, removing a huge amount of anxiety and destructive imagination that could affect the performance, thus allowing the athlete to do what they do best – and that is perform.

When an athlete creates a ritual they are in effect doing the same thing: building a predetermined performance structure, a pattern, something they know, trust and can rely on and know intimately. This in turn has the same effect of lowering the athlete’s anxiety, reducing the amount of defocused thinking and curbs an over-stimulated imagination.

It also allows an athlete a perceptual sense of personal control, often within situations where they have very little or no control at all outside of their own skill-set. Athletes are often placed into a situation where the coach has probably selected the play, the strategy, the team. The individuals in the team may have been selected to complete a certain dynamic or depending upon the sport, based on reaction rather than creation. A sense of control gives the athlete an edge over their competitors.

So as a mind coach, do I encourage rituals? Absolutely I do.

I actively encourage athletes and coaches to build specific positive behavioural patterns, or Neurological Points of Reference (NPRs) in their pre-game plan:

  • If they know what works for them and why, then repeat it habitually (ensuring, of course, they are not inhibiting performance or it being too intrusive on their life or sport).
  • Anchor positive emotion to that pattern and allow the athlete to build on confidence, focus and sustainability – all the signs of a champion!

So the next time you see an athlete jump and touch the crossbar or tie their bootlaces multiple times or touch the ball a specific number of times, just know you are probably looking at an athlete who is taking control of their outcome.

3D Coach: The Most Effective Sporting Results Can Be Found In Another Dimension

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

It’s only human to have good days and off days. And to most of us an off day isn’t such a big deal in the whole scheme of things. But to a professional athlete these off days could spell trouble.

3D CoachIf bad days become more and more frequent and the machine of expectation that surrounds a professional athlete has them completely derailed, it follows that their performance is likely to resemble a train wreck.

And this could mean the difference between being re-signed for the next season or dropped from a team and potentially losing millions of dollars in payment and endorsements. So once their attitude and synergy has turned festy and poisonous – these professionals look for something different.

Traditionally when athletes completely miss their mark and their performance begins to glide southwards their first instinctive response is to do more of the same – and that is physical training!

As a former athlete I myself have been put through the ‘traditional’ avenues coaches and athletes favour in an attempt to either avoid or turn a bad situation around – and it is within this tradition of reactivity that lies the systemic problem.

More gym work, more kicking practice, more hours of the same training… more… more… more… more…

The issue may be a technical anomaly or a physical inefficiency or even a lack of performance history and focus, but the head-down bum-up more, more, more approach typically perpetuates the emotional baggage and tainting of process that comes with these performances: the sense of desperation; the sense of expectation; the sense of anxiety; and ultimately the sense of failure.

On the surface I can see the thought process behind this traditional approach. Let’s face it, athletes are physical performers therefore focusing on the increase in physical response it ‘should’ in theory give them results.

3D CoachBut does it?

Stop for a moment and analyse this philosophy: if an athlete or group of athletes have just under-performed and experienced a poor result, irrespective of the cause, where is their mental and emotional objectivity likely to be focused?

Are they focusing on improving, correcting and moving forward? Or has the painful performance cemented in the mistakes made and the outcomes they delivered?

Like many dedicated humans their focus externally will be on correction, because that is what they consciously tell themselves, but in reality their mental and internal focus will be completely on the mistakes made and how NOT to repeat them.

If the mental focus is on NOT to repeat the mistakes, where are they likely to emotionally and cognitively end up? …  Repeating the same mistakes… and thus perpetuating the cycle of poor results, uncontrollable emotions, and more poor results.

It was reported that the Australian Rugby Union team went from one of their poorest performances at the Rugby World Cup 2011 straight into a training session the next day, trying to put right where they had gone wrong.

So if rushing from the competition venue to a training session is not the answer – then what is?

FOCUSED OBJECTIVITY

The two main reasons many athletes and coaches rush to do something active (and in their model of the world ‘actively’ deconstruct their performance) with more physical repetitions is because:

1. Athletes associate action with physical action not necessarily mental action and feel more in control if they are physically ‘doing something.’ So this is feeding their emotions rather than their technical issues.

2. Historically, it is what athletes have done. It has been traditionally handed down from coach to athlete. When things go wrong get back on the horse and just do it again. The legacy continues.

The solution lies in the ability to analyse.

Rather than embedding emotionally anchored physical repetition and doing something just because you have done it before, a more effective approach is to step back and analyse. Just analyse what worked, what didn’t work and how it can be mechanically corrected.

This level of objectivity allows an athlete to distance themselves from perpetuating the same result; to learn from the mistakes and to analytically correct the issues before they become embedded into their programme.

The 3D Coach™

The innovation of the 3D coach™ allows the athlete to analyse their performance in the following way:

First Dimension:
Look at their performance from their own perspective with all the emotions attached (associated to the event);

Second Dimension:
Look at their performance as another would see it mechanically, systematically and chronologically (dissociated to the event)

Third Dimension:
Once the athlete can see the performance for what it really was then they can see their performance from the perspective of how it would impact the long term outcome both corrected and uncorrected.

This process can deconstruct and reconstruct the event without the blurring of the facts with heavy emotion and allows the athlete to tweak and tinker with the skills without the fears associated with the past performance.

This all sounds very simple, and it is, but unfortunately under utilised. So the next time you or one of your athletes have an off performance, resist the urge to dive back in the gym and instead understand just where the improvements need to be!

Competition and Luck: It’s A Mug’s Game

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

In the Spring of 2010 I worked with an Ironman as his professional Mind Coach. He was preparing for the 2010 Coolangatta Gold, an event run every summer on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.

 

The Coolangatta Gold is one of the most iconic and physically challenging multi-discipline events on the world’s sporting calendar and is the longest race of its kind spanning 46 kilometres.

This test of human endurance comprises an ocean swim, surf-ski, board paddle and soft sand run… and all in the heat of an Australian summer… as a field of the world’s top athletes compete for the coveted title of ultimate Ironman.

We spent the off-season mentally preparing for the race with specific technical visualisation, targeted focus exercises, hypnosis, internal recognition to external application and a very detailed and structured race-day plan.

By the beginning of the season he had become a well-oiled machine.

Part of the race-day motivation plan comprised:

  • Mental compartmentalisation & performance accountability; and
  • A rewards process

These are designed to maintain sustained motivation and manage emotional stability.

Both these skill-sets encourage the athlete to break the performance down into specific ‘achievable’ and ‘acknowledgeable’ units.

As an athlete, when focus is on each specific unit, you can:

  1. Complete the unit;
  2. Learn from it;
  3. Reward it; and then
  4. Move on!

The power in this process is it removes emotional attachment, mental fatigue or overwhelm, a vital aspect of the endurance mental game.

I had not worked within the Ironman ‘world’ before this but I had many times worked in endurance-based sports, so understood the unique mental and physical challenges they present.

Race day arrived, I knew my athlete wasn’t a favourite to win and he was very aware he wasn’t as physically strong as the race heavyweights. However we knew the race would need to be run in his head, so we were ready!

As I stood on the beach and watched the field of 50 competitors complete their final warm up, they were indeed a spectacle of ultimate human machines. I watched these sporting elites conducting their own rituals., waxing boards, consuming energy gels, packing water into the ski and running the race in their minds and noticed:  physically, they were the fittest athletes I had ever seen… they represented the top 1% of athletes on the planet, an intimidating bunch by any standards.

I also became aware of a sudden, dark, nervous buzz. The confident strutting became edgy shuffles, the mind games instantly stopped. This invisible, negative buzz filling the beach was now spilling over into the crew tents and crowd.

What I had not seen when observing this change was the surf had grown. I had seen these modern-day warriors battle much larger waves, stronger currents and harsher beach conditions during training – so why on race day had it become an issue big enough to make them so wary? And, why did they now start talking up the surf and talking down their ability?

The more I watched and listened, the common theme appeared to be ‘luck’ – or the curse of ‘bad luck’ to be precise.

I heard the coach of one of the favourites to win telling the TV crew ‘if the big waves don’t get him he may still have a chance.’ I was shocked, I couldn’t understand why a wave would select one athlete out of 50 and go after him!

Luck: It's a Mug's GameHad I walked into the twilight zone… a place where the elements have objectives, held grudges?

Had this athlete upset the Water Gods at some point and this was his retribution?

Or was this all self manifested in their minds?

I asked the coach why he thought a whole years worth of preparation had come down to ‘luck’. He told me they couldn’t predict the surf and it was luck if they did or didn’t collect a wave that brought them back into shore or one that would stop them initially getting out.

But, I responded, doesn’t every athlete out there have the same opportunity to collect or not that same wave? Ultimately they manoeuvre themselves into the right position to collect the wave, and if they don’t it would be poor planning or poor execution– not luck!

I could see the blood drain from his face as his whole exit strategy had been exposed. The exit strategy of ‘Well, if I under-perform or under-execute the plan, I have an external force to lay the blame on.’

And the more I listened the more this cultural dependency on ‘luck’ as an excuse was evident. There was no denying these were fit guys, but mentally they had left themselves an out option. And it would appear it was part of the sport’s culture, rather than an individual athlete.

You see, psychologically having an exit strategy such as ‘luck’ lowers someone’s resistance to the physical and mental forces, and minimises their behavioural ability to keep on pushing through the tough times.

Given the option to bail out when the going gets tough becomes a very viable option when you have the ‘Bad Luck’ card to play.

Luck: It's a Mug's GameAfter working within various sporting disciplines, I had observed the exit strategy in many different forms on many different occasions. But never had I observed this phenomenon weaved within the culture of a whole sporting discipline, as this one.

In my opinion, luck isn’t a viable excuse for anything. If we allow ‘luck’ to have a hand in our performance then we hand over a large amount of control to an external force – one that only exists in our minds.

It is the athlete’s way of keeping one hand on the door handle, ready if the going gets too tough to mentally run and have an excuse to do so.

When I conduct Open Mind Nights, they are an opportunity for coaches, athletes and parents to come together and move forward as one efficient unit – I openly promote the removal of the word ‘luck’ from their vocabulary and actively hand back control of the performance to the athlete.

Despite the large seas, the race was run and my athlete got a top five finish which was a phenomenal result and one that was made possible by the mental strategies he had and utilised.