Performance Psychology 2.0 (Part 3): Self-Refection

Previously in this Performance Psychology 2.0 series, we explored the applied training of self-awareness (deeply understanding what your own default coaching tendencies happen to be, especially when triggered by pressure). Additionally, in Part 2, we explored the applied training of self-regulation (the ability to adapt your behavior due to context-specificity, intended outcomes, and the interplay between the two). Put simply, self-awareness gives us insight, while self-regulation helps us to take appropriate action. In this third post in the series, we’re advancing to the final stage of our logical progression in performance psychology: self-reflection. This topic might conjure an image of Auguste Rodin’s statue The Thinker which is probably the most famous artistic manifestation of the concept. It also brings to mind the Latin phrase cogito, ergo sum, which René Descartes proposed in his book Discourse on the Method and is commonly translated as “I think, therefore I am.” 

Yet self-reflection doesn’t just apply to French sculptors or philosophers – it’s also a powerful tool for coaches, athletes, and anyone looking to improve their performance. Before we begin to look at how to apply self-reflection alongside the concepts previously discussed in this series, let’s first define it. Self-reflection is the filtering process through which you make meaning out of what has occurred by assessing, evaluating, interpreting, and then eventually organizing your thoughts and feelings in an integrative way.

Like breathing, self-reflection is happening all the time unconsciously. Our brains are wired to assign causality to make sense out of what you experience as a means of influencing your future behavior. However, it’s by bringing a higher degree of consciousness and intentionality to how we derive meaning from our experiences that we can increase the probability that we will have significant performance improvements. In As a Man Thinketh, James Allen says it best: “You will be what you WILL to be.” A self-reflection practice helps you to act with more agency. 

Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, specifically whether you have a fixed or growth-oriented one, can prove useful in framing any discussion on self-reflection. First, let’s be clear about what mindset is referring to: It’s a combination of what one believes, how one focuses on tasks, and how one attributes traits and causes to what one experiences. We’re going to concentrate primarily on the latter. At its essence, attribution is the filtering process of what has occurred. But while it does consider the past, attribution also looks to the future because how we think about a particular event, its outcomes, and what these circumstances say about ourselves has more impact on the next occurrence than we might assume. How you make meaning out of what has occurred is going to influence your beliefs and your focus during the next iteration of an experience

A growth mindset has more of a mastery orientation than a fixed mindset, and is more concerned about the long-term process than individual results along the way. Someone who is dedicated to the pursuit of mastery views each event as merely a blip in time, rather than the reflection of an infinite reality. In contrast, the fixed mindset can be thought of as more of an outcome or ego orientation, where it’s not about the journey as much as each event’s tangible results. Someone who has a mastery orientation would likely be pleased about their effort in spite of an undesirable outcome, whereas the person with an ego orientation would probably catastrophize a loss and view it as a negative referendum on their character and/or skill level. 

The former filters mistakes as opportunities to do better the next time and improve in the meantime,  while the latter tries to gloss over or ignore any flaws that came to light. Because they’re unwilling to draw attention to their deficiencies, they’re less likely to take risks that might reveal their shortcomings again during subsequent experiences, and they also don’t take the opportunity to improve their skillset. Meanwhile, the person pursuing mastery will not have such fears, will continue to take risks, and will resolve to relentlessly minimize their limiting factors by becoming more skilled and/or extending their work capacity. 

Problem Or Opportunity?

When you have a growth mindset, you consider setbacks as potential wake-up calls, sources of more information, and motivators. If you look at an objectively negative or less than ideal result as a way to gain greater feedback about your craft, then it leads right into self-efficacy, which we covered in the post on self-regulation. However, when you have a fixed mindset, you look at that same setback as a label. In this case, in every situation you’re desperately seeking reassurance about your character, skill level, and capability. And when the result isn’t what you’ve hoped for, it’s a threat, a defeat, or an indication that you’re unworthy. This is much different to the person with a growth mindset, who considers the event to be a worthy challenge and vows to be better prepared the next time. 

Think about the aftermath of a tough training session that leaves you huffing and puffing. Do you despair, curse your lack of conditioning, and question whether the effort was worth it? Or do you recognize that while it was a hard workout, it gave you the opportunity to test yourself and showed that you need further work on your cardiovascular fitness? If you’re a coach, do you avoid seeking out such positives and get defensive every time someone offers constructive criticism? Or are you open to your players, your athletes, and fellow coaches giving you feedback on your performance, and then go away and work on your weaknesses? Both are simple but telling examples that illustrate the difference in outlook between fixed and growth mindsets. 

Stability And Instability

Bernard Weiner was one of the pioneers of Attributional Theory. One of his key concepts involved stable and unstable causes for events and how we process these. Here’s a helpful graphical summary: 

InternalExternal
StableAbility – I have the talentTask Difficulty – This is hard
UnstableEffort – I worked hardLuck – I got lucky

For our purposes in this article, the difference between a fixed and growth mindset comes into play when making an internally stable or unstable attribution. If someone is constantly seeing things from an internal stable perspective, he or she might always view their performance and potential as fixed. This means they’re unlikely to actively look for ways to improve. On the contrary, someone who has a growth mindset recognizes that results will inevitably fluctuate, acknowledges that competition is inherently chaotic, and tries to find clues for how to build their skillset no matter whether they win or lose. 

There are also two different ways to look at external stability and instability. The person with a growth mindset may identify external stability and recognize the need to work harder or smarter to create positive change. Whereas the individual with a fixed mindset might think that because the external conditions are never going to change, their goal is unachievable. If you’re quick to discount positives and merely believe you just got lucky, then your outlook is fixed. Conversely, if you celebrate your hard work and skill development before getting back to work, then your outlook is indicative of a growth mindset. Similarly, we need to consider how you view potential negatives. Are they an indictment of your character and confirmation that you’ll never be good enough, or merely acceptable bumps in the road that allow you to redouble your efforts? It’s all a matter of perspective. 

If you get to the point of throwing up your hands and saying, “What’s the point in even trying anymore?” it can lead to a feeling of learned helplessness that will inevitably become a self-fulfilling prophecy for your next event. If your mindset is fixed, you’re more likely to blame external factors like the weather, surface conditions, and refereeing decisions. But if you have a growth mindset, you take ownership of your mistakes, consider your effort level and preparations, and use the outcome as fuel to up your game. 

No Use Crying Over Spilled Nails

When evaluating your own attribution or explanatory style (or those of our athletes), context is a crucial component of finding better ways to make meaning from your experiences. This isn’t just a theoretical matter, but has a direct impact on your confidence, the technical aspects of your skillset, and how your beliefs impact your future performances.

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck gives a great example of causality. Imagine you’re working on a home improvement project and spill a bucket of nails. Would you think, “Gosh, I’m so clumsy/such an idiot” or chuckle to yourself, think, “Oh well,” pick up the nails, and move on? The former is an indicator of a fixed mindset and someone who magnifies their flaws. They’re describing a trait rather than a state. In contrast, the latter demonstrates a growth mindset of a person who considers situations more objectively and responds with the appropriate action. Assigning causality might seem like an instinctive reaction, but it can actually be trained. So if you’re likely to consider yourself a clumsy idiot the next time you make a minor mistake, try to catch yourself, make no self-judgment, and just get on with putting those nails back in the bucket. The more you’re able to avoid confusing a temporary state for a permanent trait, the more you’ll be able to change a fixed mindset into a growth one

Locus of Control is another concept related to Attributional Theory that’s worth mentioning. First introduced by psychologist Julian Rotter in the mid-1950s, this concerns how responsive and controllable we view our environment to be. Being able to accurately identify what you can and cannot control is a critical piece of self-reflection. If you have a growth mindset, you’ll probably be better at distinguishing between the two, which will allow you to take ownership of those factors you can impact and not waste mental energy on the factors you can’t. A fixed mindset often confuses controllables and uncontrollables, and so is likely to make errors in attribution that not only distort their impressions of past events, but also negatively impact future ones. 

The Power of the Three Ps

So what are you supposed to do if you have trouble objectively assessing what has happened and often let your faulty assumptions set you up for failure? One of the simplest and most useful filters to deploy is the 3 Ps, which comes from Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. Consider whether or not you’re considering the outcome of an experience to be:

Permanent –

Growth mindset: Recognizing that even if you lose, you’ve still got the skills you’ve worked hard to acquire.

Fixed mindset: Extrapolating a loss to the bigger picture – “It’ll always be this way, so why even try anymore?”

Pervasive

Growth mindset: Viewing your skills, mindset, and resilience as transferable to other areas of your life. Belief in transferability is a huge part of improving one’s self-efficacy. 

Fixed mindset: Seeing one defeat as confirmation that you’re a loser not just in sports, but in everything.

Personal

Growth mindset: The opportunity to celebrate your unique skillset, the work that you put in, and the way you view the world.

Fixed mindset: Over-personalizing a loss, believing that things are always your fault, and catastrophizing.

The 3 Ps explanatory styles can help you more objectively and accurately assess your past experiences, which in turn has a positive knock-on effect. A study conducted by Jordan Peterson and Victor Swift and published in PLOS One investigated the impact of false negative feedback on how participants performed their next task, and they found that undue negativity was directly related to higher levels of anxiety, lower expectations, and poorer achievement. How we reflect impacts how we act through either positive or negative feedback loops. If you consider permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization through a constructive lens, then a breakdown can actually become a breakthrough – but only if you let it.

There’s an ongoing interaction between our beliefs, and how we assign causality to our experiences that affects our actions and beliefs during the next go-round. It sometimes isn’t enough to merely have a positive outlook and growth mindset from the get-go – we need to work at rigorously protecting these and maintaining a mastery orientation. Say you started out with such a posture and focused on your next competition in a task-centric way. Then, for whatever reason, you didn’t achieve the results you’d hoped for. This will likely shake your beliefs to their core, and prevent you from having a growth mindset going forward. Then you have another poor performance, and reinforce a more negative and fixed mindset, as well as lowering your future expectations of success. My point here is that every moment of self-reflection matters because it feeds into either positive or negative loops that then self-perpetuate for good or ill. 

Bottom-Up and Top-Down Thinking

Daniel Kahneman is another psychologist whose work is relevant to self-reflection. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slowhe looks at the neuroscience of two different modes and speeds of thinking. The faster, more involuntary, automatic, and impulsive modes occur in the sub-cortical regions of the brain, and can also be referred to as “bottom-up” functions. The slower, more effortful, deliberative, and ruminative modes occur in the cerebral brain regions and can be thought of as “top-down” functions. Bottom-up thinking is vitally important during competition, when stimuli are bombarding you at such a rapid rate that you don’t have time to ponder your reaction. During practice you will have a greater opportunity to consider your response a bit more carefully as you engage in deep learning. 

Self-reflection comes into play here because when you set aside time to think slowly and assign meaning to events, such analysis is less likely to begin when you least want it to – i.e. when you’re in the heat of competition. Bottom-up processing is what’s needed to tap into intuitive flow and the unhindered execution of behavior that is required for peak performance. Yet if you are living most of your life in this way, you can get stuck in a fixed mindset and can be much more pessimistically swayed in an explanatory style of attribution. Your perception is largely based on bottom-up mental models, and if you don’t challenge your immediate assumptions, consider your instinctive reactions and the resulting emotions in depth, and develop more organized ways of understanding how the brain is making meaning, then you really don’t have an entryway to improving performance.

Deliberate self-reflection is the manner in which you improve upon these bottom-up processes and also build a more communicative bridge between the top-down and bottom-up modes of thought, feelings, and, ultimately, behavior. The book Opening Up by Writing It Down by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth gives you an easy way to incorporate meaningful self-reflection into your daily routine: journaling. “An efficient way to understand something is to translate it into words,” Pennebaker and Smyth write. “Our constant rumination, which is inevitable, is using up mental resources. The act of disclosure forces a rethinking of events, and it allows us to understand and assimilate that event in a more integrated way.” 

Simply spending five to 10 minutes a day considering events and looking at them with the 3 Ps filter can go a long way to becoming more self-aware and self-regulating your thought life and the actions and habits it drives more effectively. Also consider experiences in a reflective manner through the questions of what was good, what could have been better, and then (behaviorally), how would I go about making those things better? 

Remember, whether you want to or not, you’re reflecting and assigning causality, meaning, and significance to every experience. You can either let it happen in more of a bottom-up way that can be detrimental to your thinking and future performance, or take ownership over it with intentional self-reflection, and use it in your favor.

Performance Psychology 2.0 (Part 2): Self-Regulation

In last month’s post, we examined the need to start any elevation of your mental game with greater self-awareness. Once you’re more cognizant of your behavioral tendencies and how they either progress you toward or block you from achieving your goals, what’s next? Knowing how to better regulate yourself so you do more of the former and less of the latter, for your sake and the good of your athletes.

Self-awareness gives us insight, while self-regulation helps us take appropriate action.

Awareness of self is essential if high performance is important to you. Yet it’s only as valuable as the changes you’re willing to make in service of the outcome you seek.

We can define self-regulation as the ability to adapt human behavior due to context-specificity, intended outcomes, and the interplay between these two. As I often tell my students at Oak Park, situation x behavior = results.

Practice vs. Competition

The outcomes you want from practice and competition are rarely the same because contextually they are in service of different results.

Why do we practice? Most importantly, we do it in service of learning. Whereas the purpose of competition is to test ourselves against a previous version of ourselves or others. The behaviors that support a result in which learning is the highest priority are often going to be different from the behaviors that support testing our current level of ability.

Sports psychology is most often thought about in terms of someone who performs well in practice but consistently falls flat during games. This example points to how behaviors that serve well in one context may no longer be sufficient to do the same in a different context. To help people be their best, you have to guide athletes on how to adapt their behaviors and either indulge or suppress their natural tendencies accordingly.

One way in which you guide behavioral adaptation is by example, like adjusting your own behaviors depending on whether you are coaching during practice or competition. For example, during practice, I will provide a lot more feedback on someone’s efforts (“how to” guidance) to support the learning process. Whereas, during competition, I will provide more instruction than feedback (“what” guidance) to support the athlete accomplishing the task at hand without them getting bogged down in over-thinking.

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Two behavioral approaches worth taking a closer look at as they relate to situational specificity are the behaviors of analysis versus the behaviors of intuition.

  • When we’re in analytical mode, we have narrower bandwidth of focus and are concentrating on one or two measurables, prioritizing precision.
  • Whereas when we’re behaving more intuitively, our bandwidth becomes broader and we’re acting in a more spontaneous and improvisational manner.

While there are times that practice is intuitive, it leans toward the analytical side more often than not. In such a situation, we’re usually more risk averse and are trying to control the variables more tightly. Come game time, we’re usually more likely to take risks and express our skills in unexpected ways, as we problem-solve in real time and function in the dynamic chaos of competition.

The transition from practice to competition could be likened to an open ocean swimmer who does most of her training in a pool. She’s honing necessary skills and work capacity with endless laps, but when she gets out in the ocean, it’s an open, uncontrolled environment in which she must adapt in real-time to the tide, chop, and weather.

Another way to think of this contrast is that analysis is more like solving a puzzle using existing information to put the pieces together. Whereas intuition is analogous to solving a mystery where your clues present themselves randomly and a lot is unknown (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s cases in Sherlock).

People tend to prefer the nature of either practice or competition based on their behavioral tendencies. Those who have a greater inclination toward competition but disdain practice (think: Allen Iverson) often do well for a time but then plateau because they’re unwilling to continue developing their skills away from the court. Whereas those who favor practice can sometimes have trouble with the chaotic, pressure-cooker environment that competition puts them in.

Both groups can learn to modulate their default behaviors to thrive in practice and games alike.

4 Steps to Better Self-Regulation

How many times do we say to others or ourselves, “That’s just the way I am”? While we can’t deny that we have certain predilections, such talk can be very self-limiting and defeating. Our nature is a real thing, yet as human beings bestowed with the power of rational thought and agency, we have more say in how we act and perform than the confining narratives we construct might have us believe.

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1. Awareness 

This is the necessary first step that we outlined in part one of this series. But becoming more self-aware isn’t much use in isolation. It’s all very well to be able to assess ourselves and the situations that we find ourselves in, but we need to then learn how and when to adapt our behaviors.

2. Willingness

In his book Who Are You Reallypsychologist Dr. Brian Little describes self-monitoring as a trait that can be trained just as much as any physical skill. When we start to think about willingness to modify our actions in response to context and desired outcome, what we’re talking about is the balance between retaining fidelity to one’s self and adapting to the demands of any given situation like a chameleon.

3. Regulation

This is the act of adapting your behaviors in real time to best serve the result(s) you seek while considering the context of the situation.

4. Authenticity

Claiming that we’re this kind of person or that kind of player is often our attempt at being authentic and true to who we really are. On the contrary, Little says in his TED Talk, “Authenticity is not a singular thing. In fact, there are multiple ways to be authentic with flexible strategies for engaging ourselves and the world.” Altering your behavior to perform better in the moment isn’t selling out or being disingenuous – it’s pragmatism based on greater self-awareness and self-control, and often serves us better than if we just defaulted to the actions that come most naturally.

Me, My Environment, And I

Another self-regulation consideration is how to reconcile our own tendencies with the influence of the world we find ourselves in. I am going to refer to Dr. Little’s categorization of biogenic, sociogenic, and idiogenic factors to map the terrain of self-regulatory options.

  • Biogenic factors refer to one’s genetics and the associative personality traits, deeper levels of wiring and “doing what comes naturally.”
  • Sociogenic elements acknowledge social norms, societal conventions, and real or imagined expectations of others. In the case of the latter, a female coach might feel pressure to behave or communicate in a certain way that goes against her inbuilt tendencies. How she chooses to reconcile this disparity will largely determine her actions and self-regulatory modulation.
  • Then there are idiogenic elements. These revolve around what’s truly important to you, your values, and your short-term and long-term goals. Sometimes we can self-regulate so that we behave in a way that appears to defy what society expects and how we’d usually act, but doing so is the right course because it aligns with our ambition and sense of purpose.

We cannot discount biogenics, sociogenics, or ideogenics, but neither should we consider ourselves to be prisoners of their influence. Self-regulation involves being aware of all three, and then choosing (and it almost always is a conscious choice) how best to behave given the context.

Such adaptations require physical, cognitive, and emotional energy, so we do not have an infinite capacity to self-regulate in a way that goes against biogenics, sociogenics, and/or ideogenics all day, every day.

Think of a rubber band. It can stretch a bit and to a certain point, this provides elastic energy. But beyond this, the band will start to fray and eventually snap. Consequently, we must carefully pick and choose when and how to self-regulate in service of the situation, the intended result based on the situation, and the individual needs of our athletes.

Confidence, Agency…and Marshmallows

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Psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura is best known for coming up with the social cognitive theory, which involves the interplay between self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to achieve a specific goal, AKA: confidence) and self-regulation. Bandura’s research showed that people are not machines that merely react to a stimulus, but, rather, sentient human beings who can cognitively filter and interpret our environment and, based on such interpretations, take ownership of our resulting response.

Reciprocal determinism (interplay between personal and environmental factors) is another component of Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which helped to bridge the gap between cognition and behavior, two areas of study that had previously been siloed. Another pioneer during this time was Dr. Walter Mischel. He was best known for an experiment that offered children one marshmallow now or two later. He then correlated the desire for either immediate or delayed gratification with success later in life.

In reading about this study, many people have made the mistake of believing that it implies that we always default to our natural tendencies, and that these are fixed from birth. But Mischel actually concluded that people are fundamentally flexible.

“What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings, to not be the victims of their biographies — not their biological biographies, not their social biographies,” he wrote in his 2014 book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. “And to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.”

Another psychologist, Dr. Stanley Milgram (famous for the study in which participants were ordered to deliver a shock to a person they couldn’t see but could hear) has been cited as saying something similar to both Bandura and Mischel: “People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations, to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves.”

Self-Regulation and The DISC Method

We’ve explored some theoretical ways to think about self-awareness and self-regulation. To get a more objective view of yourself, your fellow coaches, and your athletes, you could undergo a formalized assessment.

At Oak Park, I’ve found the DISC Method to be particularly useful in this regard (I administer Athlete Assessments’ version of DISC). It was first proposed by William Marston in his book Emotions of Normal People in 1927. Industrial psychologist Walter Vernon took Marston’s concepts and developed them into a potent behavioral assessment tool that became popular in workplace culture in the 1950s and is still widely used today.

The acronym DISC has four main categories:

  1. Dominance – How directly you approach challenges and assert yourself
  2. Influence – How you communicate with people and facilitate social interactions
  3. Steadiness – Pace at which you act, how supportive you are, and the degree to which you actively listen to others
  4. Conscientiousness – How analytical you are and the degree to which you follow rules, systems, and processes.

The DISC assessment is useful for determining how we’re likely to act and can go a long way to developing better self-awareness. This in turn can help you self-regulate more appropriately given your increased knowledge of self and greater understanding of how your defaults either jive with or contradict the needs of specific situations and intended results.

However, as discussed above, the tendencies that a DISC assessment reveals are not set in stone. In fact, they’re malleable and you have the power to control how you speak and act. Even if you’re a “high” D, I, S, or C – meaning that you lean this way more often than not – self-regulation is all about balancing the four sets of tendencies so your behavior best fits the outcome you’re aiming for.

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Remember the Titans

One of the most powerful and vivid portrayals of self-regulation that I can recall is found in the film Remember the Titans.

When Coach Bill Yoast (played by Will Patton) is passed over for the head coaching job at T.C. Williams High School, he’s resentful of the man he believes took the role that was rightfully his, Coach Herman Boone (played by Denzel Washington). The school’s administrators and boosters – some of them fueled by racism – agree, and conspire with a referee to fix a game so the team loses. That way, they figure, Boone will be fired and Yoast can take over as head coach. At first, Yoast is content to go along – after all, he covets the job and still feels hard done by. But at a certain point, he can’t stand idly by and let the deception continue. So, he tells the ref to knock it off and rallies his players to stage a dramatic comeback.

This scene showcases two very different behavioral styles – the dominant Boone is a classic “high D” in the DISC Model and thus primarily behaves in aggressive, direct, blunt, and goal-oriented (as opposed to people-focused) ways. In contrast, Yoast is a “high S” who’s so supportive of his players that Boone accuses him of coddling them. Though this means they complement each other very well in some ways, it can also cause conflict.

In the case of the pivotal incident in the movie, Yoast is reluctant to speak up because he is more naturally inclined to be non-confrontational and doesn’t want to rock the boat. But he realizes the injustice of the conspiracy against Boone who, for all their differences, he has come to begrudgingly admire. Yoast also recognizes it’s in the best interests of the team and his players to win this game and have a successful season. Therefore, Yoast regulates his behaviors in opposition of his biogenic and sociogenic (what the boosters and administrators wanted) factors by adapting from his natural tendencies of behaving higher in Steadiness to behaving higher in Dominance in order to influence the result of the game. In doing so, he helps Coach Boone keep his job.

You might never get a movie made about your coaching exploits. But nonetheless, you have the opportunity to follow Coach Yoast’s example in how you self-regulate in response to your growing self-awareness. In doing so, you will not only advance your own coaching craft, but also become a better servant-leader to your coaching colleagues and athletes. 

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