Posts Tagged ‘peak performance’

Mental Strategies to Coach Sporting Professionals into Sporting Champions

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The Secret of Success is Achieving More With the Mind.

I was recently asked to visit a newly constructed sporting facility as it proudly opened its doors to the sporting elite. It was billed as the best of it’s kind and I was exceptionally excited to see it in action.

I arrived and met with the other invitees, the press, the sponsors and us technicals. When we saw the building for the first time it was indeed impressive. Even from the outside it looked ultra modern and eerily menacing.

As we walked through the front doors we were greeted by a pristine, clean and busy hub. A state-of-the-art strength and conditioning gym; a lecture theater that would rival most major universities; a rehabilitation clinic many hospitals would sell a patient or two for (or at least their spare parts); a nutritionally managed canteen; a wade pool heated to optimise recovery; and lastly, a team meeting room that would make Google HQ jealous.

However, as we were lead around and proudly shown just what it was capable of, I was struck by just what it wasn’t doing. The more that opened and shut the more it was apparent to me it had been created looking from one aspect only. It was only catering to one discipline of the athlete’s preparation and competitive sustainability – there were gaping holes (in my opinion) in the thought process behind creating this athlete haven.

The physical aspect was truly outstanding, it came with everything: bells, whistles and even the kitchen sink. But so much more mental stimulation could have been built in to enhance and support the physical focus, to craft a more rounded environment for these sporting gladiators to prepare.

At the end of the tour I was asked my thoughts on the facility, and of course I willingly gave them. The centre truly was outstanding – however I do remember saying it was like entering into a 100m race with Usain Bolt having only one shoe on!

I am not too sure if they took my thoughts on board or not, it will be interesting to see!

When you look around at your own training environment, are you taking full advantage of what it has to offer, or is the vital ‘mental game’ missing.

I suggest conducting a walk-through of your facility with fresh eyes, even if you walk through it every day. Look at it with a different perspective. Does your centre:

–       cater to your athlete’s physical and mental needs

–       stimulate practical problem solving

–       condition left and right hemispheres independently and collectively

–       utilise peripheral learning, and

–       create an environment that motivates

The rapid expansion in our understanding of the brain and its capabilities through neural science has uncovered some of its amazing complexities and the more we understand the more we can utilise its natural powers. One such way is through our visual stimulants, those subconscious and peripheral learnings that sneak into our unconscious minds constantly. We know we only acknowledge a small amount of what our eyes can see yet our minds take so much more in.

Here are a couple of the ‘missing’ pieces from my tour:

In the reception there was no behavioural stimulation, no motivational triggers like posters of past champions, current champions, relevant video or stimulating audio. The clinical environment did nothing to lower anxiety or create a sense of calmness or belonging.

The Strength and Conditioning gym had no mental development exercises at all, no hemisphere stimulation games, coordination skill development, spacial awareness or cognitive patterning exercises or even strategic problem solving. When mixing physical and cognitive stimulation a greater degree of development can be obtained in both physical and mental areas.

Our right eye feeds into our left hemisphere of our brain and our left eye feeds into our right hemisphere of our brain so by placing stimulating imagery along the left hand side of a wall (just above eye level) will feed directly into our right spatially aware and ‘global’ side of the brain, whilst placing motivational phrases, or systematic strategies along the right hand side will feed directly into our left, more language and pattern oriented, hemisphere. These will be absorbed and categorised without us having to consciously process them.

This subtle layering has proven to covertly improve the cognitive stimulation and learning process. This strategy could be employed in the lecture theater, the team meeting room, the reception and even the canteen.

The rehabilitation centre was amazing, however little was geared towards the major role neural science plays in rehabilitation both physically and emotionally. I recently worked with a chiropractor who is taking this connection to a whole new level. Our mind controls our actions and so by stimulating the right neural receptors we in turn stimulate the correct body part.

One other area where I feel a great deal of emotional and communicative management benefit occurs is during peer interaction. Creating an open communication environment where team captains, managers and coaches are all on an equal standing with athletes, including juniors, allows different perspectives to add depth to the process. It also engages more productive and targeted communication.

Due to tradition this last aspect is often frowned upon by older players and avoided by organisations as they can feel threatened by the younger players. When handled correctly however it can add multiple dimensions to their influence and produce more targeted outcomes.

So take a look at what you have created and ask yourself, ‘Have I built-in the mental game here?’

The Assassination of a Sporting Performance: Have you been Implicated?

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

If you are a professional coach or a coach at any serious competitive level, you may have experienced this.

You have spent years physically and technically preparing an athlete for the ‘big competition’, the one stand out event that will synergistically bring all that hard work together; set them apart from the crowd; and cement their name in sporting contention.

Only to find on the day they implode and choke!

Bearing witness as their minds spontaneously combust into a scrambled mess, a coach can only watch the athlete’s precision-controlled limbs take on a zombie-possessed life of their own. Their ability to problem-solve appears left in the trunk of the car along with that old gym sock, sweaty towel… and maybe now their hopes and dreams.

As a coach at this point you begin to wonder who the hell is this athlete?

Where is my athlete, the one I have spent all that time and effort in building?

Why did I not see this coming, how could I have got it so wrong?

What do I do now?

Relax…

… This is a very common scenario.

However, it is a scenario that frequently spawns a reaction that involves a complete re-evaluation of the whole process, the training schedule, the fitness structure and the technical application of the core skills!

This overhaul is time-consuming, disheartening and quite frankly probably totally unnecessary.

STOP – before you begin to unravel years of work and your coaching philosophy built up over a lifetime, first understand what has really happened here by following this simple process:

1. Was it really a train-crash or simply just a wrong turn?

Lets start by taking the high level emotions out of the situation and looking at it clinically.

2. From a disassociated perspective, ask “What could I do differently next time?”

Think backwards to the point where the wheels on the track first began to wobble and before the athlete careered out of control!

3. Did the wobble initiate weeks ago or was the first major wobble on competition day?

I often hear coaches speak of the athlete letting the pressure of the competition moment get to them or they allowed their competitors to get inside their heads or their confidence was shattered by their performance as they lost focus and objectivity.

As much as these may be contributing factors to the final derailment of the athletes performance the reality is the real core inefficiency is probably in the approach, for specifically the lack of structured approach.

The Competition Approach

The competition approach, is just that – the days leading into the competition and the day of the competition right up to where the athlete takes to the spot to perform. I refer to this as the 7-2 funnel process.

I have been working with coaches and athletes my whole adult life and it’s the most rewarding profession I can imagine. And after all these years, I would consider the ability of a coach to ‘effectively’ mentally prepare their athlete for their performance day as one of their most valuable skills. On competition day and in much of what an athlete does, educating an athlete how to be responsive rather than reactionary is all in the planning.

Humans are creatures of habit, we are also by nature essentially quite lazy (although we ‘sell’ it as being efficient) and will follow a well-trodden and established path when faced with no obvious solution rather than assess and innovate a new tailored path. In fact, we are hardwired to seek out such established patterns and to be an early and loyal adopter.

Because of this most coaches follow the same system for competition – blindly applying time after time, athlete after athlete.

However these final steps before their performance is such a critical time for the athlete, a crucial time where they need to be focused, emotionally neutral, clear, concise and precise about their objective, confident that they can deliver what is required and comfortable in knowing that all the boxes have been ticked and that everything that could have been done has been done.

Often the reality is we see two polarities, where coaches and athletes are either completely disengaged or wholly consumed by the moment, following no obvious structured and designed approach, they are emotionally charged thus reactionary to everyone else’s movements and unable to apply what they have trained for or know to be the right move for them.

I also see coaches correcting intricate technique or even teaching the athlete new skills just before they take to the competitive arena.

This disorganised approach is a mental minefield as it is widening of the athletes focal aspect not a narrowing of their focal precision.

Last minute hurdles placed into their path is not beneficial to the athlete and in fact greatly inhibits them from performing at their optimum as it splits and defocuses their ability to mentally reproduce and apply.

Instead of emotionally loading them up, sludging their thought processes and giving them little opportunity to build confidence (a history of success), the key to preparing an athlete to perform efficiently and effectively involves funnelling the athlete into a heightened state of awareness and specificity of focus, ticking boxes and disengaging what isn’t needed to make them mentally leaner and more efficient.

So when you think about how YOU currently approach competition, are you mentally weighing them down? Do you have a replicable system that is prepping your athlete for success?

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.

Athletes and Confidence: The Uncle Nobody Talks About

Friday, December 30th, 2011


Confidence is a hot topic in a coach or athlete’s world and something we intimately associate with both our success and our stumbles in life.

ConfidenceOften our greatest moments are attributed to our unshakable confidence in the face of competition, our belief in ourselves and the focus in our preparation and performance. Our domination and drive is celebrated and we become the self-appointed poster child for success.

On the flip side, when we stumble, our confidence is the first to feel the emotional bruises and cop the full brunt of the blame. ‘I didn’t feel confident’ or ‘I wasn’t confident in my skills I had prepared’ – and even ‘I didn’t have the confidence in my coaches choices for the routine or play.’

So clearly our confidence is a vital aspect of our behaviour and therefore our performance. It is something to be managed just as pragmatically as our physical fitness, technical skill-set and diet.

However, some coaches and athletes treat the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde  ‘confidence’ like the uncle no one talks about, hiding it away – viewing the psychology of confidence as a taboo subject, thinking if they don’t mention the word ‘confidence’ then it won’t break, fall down or behave inappropriately!

The truth is confidence is not a fragile or embarrassing entity to be tip-toed around – it is a system.

Confidence is simply a replicable pattern of specific neurological triggers and chemical stimulants in our bodies. It is robust and predictable. Being aware of this allows us to harness it and maximise on it for our own ultimate good.

And for this reason it deserves our full attention and respect!

In my experience, performance confidence issues are merely a lack of, or a stalling of, the positive forward momentum of recognition process.

What I mean by this very long term is – our confidence and motivation (intimately linked) is fuelled by consistent, periodic injections of acknowledgment and recognition of success – it needs to be fed in order to survive.

Like eating healthy foods, the results are not instant but gradual and cumulative. Like all sustainability – little and often is the key ingredient here for behavioural endurance.

I liken this to the frog jumping across the pond from one bank to another. In order to succeed the frog must select the path and hop from one Lilly pad to the next. This frog is unlikely to succeed by bounding all the way across in one leap, and with a couple of failed attempts may perhaps give up and settle for one side of the bank, believing it cannot reach it’s objective.

Each and every time we succeed at something (our lilly pads) – no matter how small – we are neurologically rewarded for our effort. We are rewarded with generous doses of serotonin and dopamine – this unique concoction of naturally-derived happy drugs are supplied to us by our own bodies as recognition and reward for achievement. This makes the successful action pleasurable, memorable and sustainable.

Serotonin and Dopamine, like many other natural chemicals are highly stimulating and exceptionally addictive. Our brain likes this reward system we have created and wants more and more of it, so urges and nudges us forward to the next success and reward point – eagerly waiting for the next hit. This forms a natural foundation for forward momentum.

Whilst it is our subconscious brains that have the higher understanding of what we are actually capable of – it is our conscious filtration system that normally ‘plays it safe’ and pulls us back into a conservative line. It is our conscious mind that also focuses on the failures rather than the successes, turning our attention to what we have NOT achieved rather than what we have achieved.

We know we get what we focus on – so if we continuously focus on our lack of success then our perception will be that we continue to fail more frequently, stemming the flow of rewards and thus killing off our motivation to succeed – and thus actually succeeding more infrequently.

If I asked you to turn up for work every day for the next 5-10 years and give 100% but you would never be paid or recognised for your effort how long could you sustain your motivation? If we do not recognise and reward our internal successes then we too tune out and have no reason to excel.

This natural reward high feeds our confidence, and sometimes fools our conscious mind into thinking we could, and should, take on more and more challenging tasks to gain the higher reward.

Many top athletes speak of being caught up in the moment, feeling un-stoppable and almost superhuman when at their peak. The reward driven highs becoming ‘the norm’ and a constant flooding of neural stimulants keeps them there.

(This is also part of the reason why retiring athletes struggle to maintain the stimulation in their life after sport – but that is a whole other topic we will cover in another post!)

Where the wheels fall off this neurological and emotional system is if we STOP or lose this positive forward momentum of natural rewards.

If we stop acknowledging our successes, we begin to suffer withdrawal from our happier days – like a drug addict without the next fix this begins to reinforce our subconscious doubts over our ability to ever again ‘score’ or succeed and be rewarded. The next logical step eludes us as we lose direction, focus and perspective.

The longer this period of time where our reward cravings are not met the bigger the desire is to have that ‘hit’ and the more important that next success becomes. All this does is increase our anxiety levels and feeds the emotional monster who has been focused on our failures.

This emotional cloud distorts our skill-set, our cognitive clarity and our perception in our ability to succeed.

And so a perpetual cycle of perceived failure is born – we have all witnessed it and maybe even lived it.

Breaking this slippery downward cycle and restoring forward upward momentum is a systematic process – just as the creation of the focused problem was in the first place.

After all, our confidence is fuelled by our success, acknowledgment and our neural-reward! And as this feeds the motivation engine, the strategy is simple:

1. Start setting small achievable goals, acknowledging them along the way, outwardly celebrating them and focusing on the success of what you did achieve not what eluded you.

2. Reward yourself again and again – it gains traction in the motivation game, like stoking the fire of a steam engine the more fuel you put in the better the results that come out.

Rewards do not have to be tangible, so set aside those flat screen TVs for now and focus on internal recognition, acknowledging yourself for your achievements in your session, day, week, season objective.

Begin a performance journal to enable you to follow your journey of achievement and see the patterns of success you create and duly reward them.

Confidence really is just an emotional measure of success and once we understand and respect that it can only serve us in our grander objectives.