Posts Tagged ‘superstitious athletes’

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.

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.

The Role of a Coach in High Performance Sport

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010


As an athlete, we generally look to our coach for guidance, to nurture us and show us the trusted path to travel to our desired competitive destination. We trust them emphatically with our careers and often with our lives, certainly with our goals, aspirations and sporting futures.

So as a coach we have this huge responsibility placed in our laps, one that we should not take lightly nor for granted, one false move can have devastating consequences not only for the athlete but also for the reputation of us the coach.

My coach for example would say ‘whilst in my Gym I am your mum, your dad, your brother, sister and your best friend, everything you want and need goes through me.’ To people on the outside it must have appeared draconian, controlling, manipulative and maybe even a little psychologically abusive, especially considering we were young impressionable kids at the time.

To us however, it was a brotherhood, a secret society, this high performance – highly motivated gang of athletes. A gang who shared common goals, who appreciated discipline, hard work and respect.

We knew where we stood and what was expected of us, we also understood the concept of accountability with every single action equalling a consequence. If we didn’t perform we didn’t succeed, it was that simple.

If my coach had said jump I would have in a heartbeat, without thought or question, he commanded respect and discipline, needless to say he got them both. He certainly wielded a stronger motivation to succeed than anyone else in my life, even more than my parents. I never questioned his authority nor ability as a coach, why should I, he had produced most of Britains national squad members at one time or another.

After retiring from International competition and becoming a coach myself, I realised very quickly however, just how lucky I had been. You see I thought all coaches were as dedicated, well educated, motivated and pioneering as mine was. I could not have been any more disillusioned if I had tried.

You see my first job as a high performance coach pulled me up dead in my tracks. As I walked in as the new fulltime head coach to what I expected to be a professional sporting organization, they certainly had the reputations of being an industry leader; they produced results year after year, so why wouldn’t they be top-notch?

What I got however was an organisation that was subdued mentality, one where it was acceptable to slip into a groove and remain there, in fact it was expected.

A systemic mentality that appeared to be, hit and miss as to the direction of the tuition being given and where technique was the only consideration to achieving success.

Not because the coaching staff were unqualified, in actual fact the opposite was true in this case. They were very highly qualified technical coaches, they understood the sport inside out and in theory what an athlete was required to do in order to achieve. However they appeared to have forgotten the human factor, the idiosyncrasies that come with working with humans and their totally individual behaviour.

The coaches appeared oblivious to this and had no idea of the power they held in their hands and held over these young athletes. If they did it certainly did not occur to them the daily decisions they made could and would have affected the careers and possibly the lives of these young hopefuls.

Sure, the coaches worked hard, they were technically knowledgeable and they knew what was current and what was yesterday’s news for the athletes. They were groundbreakers in their technical application and would talk strategies until the cows came home.

But none of them spoke of the internal management of the athlete, no one spoke of what affects it would impose on their developing neurology and I certainly never heard anyone utter the words effective communication when discussing an individual.

Of course, I initially thought I had just made an unfortunate selection of employer, but as time went by and my exposure grew, I saw a pattern emerging, a pattern that was concerning and rather self-destructive to the coaching industry.

Coaches at all levels were not progressing commencery to that of their athletes; they were coaching the same way they had always done. Their whole focus was on the athlete’s immediate results and not their own understanding, development and long term prospects. No longer were they supporting a healthy growth they were hindering the athlete’s natural developmental progress by being a weight around their ankles and coaching them to learn the way they taught.

For years we would attend compulsory technical ‘up-dates’ time after time, we were taught new technical skills, conditioning programs and even routine construction, but never once were we taught better coaching techniques or coaching psychology and philosophy.  There was no self-development and as times changed, we did not. Being left behind, and even worse holding the athletes back due to our short falls as a coach, was a serious option.

I read a statistic once that stated over 70% of all National coaches (US) irrespective of sporting discipline primarily held the same coaching philosophy on their last day on the job as their first day.

For me this was horrendous, how can we as professional organisation of coaches expect our athletes to grow, mature and evolve with the times if we as their guides and mentors choose not to and stick with the tried and trusted?

When you take on a talented athlete what is the first thing that goes through your head? Is it ‘Do I have the ability and longevity to take this athlete all the way or at least the knowledge and ability to pass him / her up stream?’ or is it ‘What can I do for them today?’

I would suggest as professional coaches we need to ensure we have the ability or at the very least the opportunity to gain the experience to take the athlete all the way. I mean you wouldn’t buy a car knowing it will only get you half way to your destination, would you?

How much do you know about the athletes you manage? Their behavioural patterns, their training and competition strategies, their motivators, referencing  or even their values. Are you utilising the athletes optimum neurological system configuration, or is it just down to pot luck.

Whatever your coaching philosophy is – is it good enough for what you want to achieve? When was the last time you considered your athletes mental state, their neurological development or even their long-term mental welfare.

Over the years, I have changed my coaching philosophy from one of purely results driven to a more wholistic approach, developing, growing and nurturing not only the athlete but the coaching staff and parents too. Only then when the athlete has the collective supporting infrastructure can they achieve their desired goals sustainably.

So stop and look over your shoulder at the way you have approached your professional coaching career and ask yourself have you neglected the one truly stable influence in your athlete’s life? You! And if so what can you do today to bring yourself up to speed with the changing world of sport.

What would you advise your athletes to do? Think about it! I did!