Performance Psychology 2.0 (Part 1): Beginning Your Mindset Overhaul with Self-Awareness

In the world of sports performance, when advancing the art of coaching, it’s all too tempting to become mired in the minutiae of physical training. After all, the most evident outcomes for our athletes are those that we can observe with the naked eye, and many of the results our athletes seek are tied to how they express their physicality. This means that, too often, training the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of one’s psychology gets shortchanged.

Michael Gervais, performance and sports psychologist, is fond of saying there are only three main categories of skills that can be trained:

  1. The physical
  2. The specificity of one’s craft
  3. The mental 

In real time, there is no separating these three. However, in practice, it is our job as coaches to create artificial separations between categories of skills to help our athletes improve upon that which is less developed.

There is no question that mental attributes will be cultivated through a physical practice, especially physical tasks that test one’s will to endure in spite of the onset of fatigue. But do not confuse this with mental training. It does have a cognitive element, but the core focus isn’t on mental. To underscore this point more clearly, I am going to use the macronutrients carbohydrates, protein, and fat as a metaphor.

For example, the average egg is classified as a protein source, not because it has zero carbs and zero fat, but because its weight in grams is mostly comprised of protein. Similarly, as a coach, you need to be clear with yourself and your athletes which domain is the primary focus of training.

The same holds true when you break down the subcategories within each domain. For example, physical training can take the form of being more strength focused, conditioning focused, or mobility focused. Within the skill of Muay Thai, the craft-specific work can be more punching, kicking, elbows, knees, or clinch focused. Similar to the subcategories of physical fitness and the craft specificity of Muay Thai, the mental domain can also be understood through separate subcategories of skill development.

Over the next four posts, we’re going to thoroughly explore a framework that will bring clarity to how you can help yourself and your athletes directly train mental skills. We’ll give it the working title of Performance Psychology 2.0.

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Like with nutrition, if I advise you to eat more fat, I have to also help you understand which foods are primarily high in fat. As such, what are the metaphorical foods to digest and absorb in order to fill up on mental skills? Just like carbohydrates, protein, and fat, there are three main categories of mental skills development:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Self-reflection

In part two, I will address self-regulation, which enables you to adapt your behaviors to better align with the stated goals and intentions. In part three, I will tackle self-reflection, which empowers you to derive meaning from your past experiences and use this insight to improve future performance opportunities. In part four, I will address self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-reflection working in conjunction with one another.

Before we rush headlong into these concepts, we must back up and start with the initial category of this logical progression that underpins the other two: self-awareness.

With the widespread popularity of yoga and the ever-increasing propagation of mindfulness and meditation, this has become something of a loaded term. But let’s dispel any “woo-woo” connotations that we might attach to self-awareness. This series is not going to be all squishy, I promise.

The way I want you to think about self-awareness is in the context of your behavior both as an athlete and a coach. While athletes’ behaviors are important and highly relevant, you first need to better understand your own behavioral tendencies and how these impact the communication, teaching, and learning that you facilitate.

In turn, your preferred instructional style and default habits impact the quality of your athletes’ experiences, their outputs, and whether they achieve what they set out to. This is directly tied to their overall health and wellness, the vitality of your business, and your job satisfaction.

You can impact everything I just listed here and more by simply increasing your own self-awareness. As Mark E. Young writes in his brilliant book Learning the Art of Helping“The journey of learning the art of helping others is a personal one, requiring you to know yourself.” When you know yourself more deeply and understand how you’re likely to act in any given situation, you can better gauge whether you’re hitting the target or missing the mark more often than not. And if it’s the latter, begin to develop some strategies to correct your course while still staying true to who you are.

Under Pressure

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Performance psychology can be defined as, “The study and application of the psychological principles of human performance in order to help people consistently perform in the upper ranges of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoy the process,” (Portenga, Aoyagi, and Cohen, 2017).

What gets in the way of humans consistently performing in the upper ranges of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoying the process?

The answer: pressure and the inability to thrive under it, as opposed to just survive. When we start to consider how we’re likely to act, it’s important to remember that our behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Sure, there might be those sessions in which you know all of your athletes well, have all your preferred equipment on hand, are coaching a workout you’ve run many times before, and you’re not under scrutiny.

But we all know it often doesn’t play out this way. Maybe your boss or a new head coach for the football team is watching you like a hawk. Or perhaps there are a few clients who you don’t know as well or at all. You might be pinch hitting for a fellow coach because they’re sick or at a kid’s school event, and thus, you might not know anyone you are about to coach. Perhaps another group is using some of the gear, or you’re visiting another gym that doesn’t have the same stuff you have access to at your own place.

In all of these examples, your behavior might be different than if you were operating in an ideal, pressure-free situation in which you had plenty of information on the clients you were about to instruct and all the equipment you desired at your fingertips.

Gilbert Enoka, the mental skills coach for the New Zealand All Blacks, defines pressure as experiencing internal feelings of scrutiny, consequence, or expectation (sometimes, all three at once). Becoming cognizant of how such pressures – be they real or perceived – alter our actions is a key part of becoming a more self-aware coach.

Remember also to consider if and how you are triggered by pressure differently when you are behaving as an athlete. In both contexts, what do you default to and how do external factors manifest themselves on you internally? And from there, is how you act while bearing the burdens of scrutiny, consequence, and expectation beneficial or detrimental to your success and that of your athletes? These are not easy questions to answer, but the very act of asking them in the first place can go a long way to improving your self-awareness.

Your Actions vs. Your Athletes’ Expectations

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Sometimes you can become a victim of your own success. If your natural modus operandi has proved to be effective with some clients in the past, then it’s easy to form the impression that the way you do things will work for everyone (particularly if your athletes or teams have won championships and medals).

Similarly, just because your default tendency when you feel pressure while performing is to behave more aggressively, do not assume that this is the same tendency of all your athletes. Such assumptions, while common because of the “treat others the way you want to be treated” projection, run the risk of limiting you to only being able to affect change for people who think, feel, and act like you.

This isn’t to say that you’re doing everything wrong – it just means that you might be self-limiting your positive impact because you’ve become stuck in your ways and aren’t willing to meet your athletes where they are.

Allow me to share a case study from a volleyball team I worked with as their mental skills coach.

The head volleyball coach had been a great player in her own right and expected a lot from her players. She was very direct, blunt, and dominant, and wanted to see quick results. In contrast, most of her players tended to have a softer, quieter demeanor and took a more gradual approach to learning. This created a delta in expectations, communication, and how outcomes were appraised. The coach was often frustrated because the girls weren’t getting better at taking risks during game time. The way she expressed her frustration left many on the team feeling brow-beaten and demoralized.

She wasn’t a bad coach by any means, but while her intensity and demand for rapid progress might have worked well for a few players, they limited the development of the majority of her squad.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the knowledge back then that I do now, so while I made some of these observations at the time, I didn’t possess the know-how to make the correct intervention.

This would’ve started by sitting down with the coach and pointing out the difference in styles, tendencies, and concerns/needs when triggered by pressure between her and the athletes of the team. Then I would have explained why this mattered – because the delta was not only limiting results on the court, but also leaving a lot of the girls feeling guilty. The coach believed they were unwilling to take risks, when, in reality, none of them were unwilling – they were unable. Because taking risks was more of a default behavior for the coach, particularly as a former Division 1 college volleyball player herself, she misjudged her athletes.

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For the majority of the players on the team, taking risks was a skill to be developed within the category of self-regulation. Coaching others in the self-regulatory skill of risk-taking is contingent upon understanding their natural tendencies and the default ways in which they appraise and feel about risk.

The head coach missed the opportunity to understand the potential mismatch between her natural tendencies of behavior and thus projected expectations (i.e. self-awareness) versus her players’ tendencies.

Holding up a Mirror

Quite often, we have similar blind spots in our coaching game. It can take us asking a fellow coach or outsider for their honest opinion to illuminate these and offer suggestions on what we can do differently. Then we can use our newly-enhanced self-awareness to better self-regulate.

Another way to shine a light on areas of possible improvement is to take a DISC and/or Market Force (an organization that provides human dynamics tools) behavioral assessment.

At the gym where I coach, Oak Park, owner Kenny Kane puts a high premium on developing his coaching craft and that of the rest of the team. Because of this core value of constantly growing our coaching abilities, I have administered both DISC (from the company Athlete Assessments) and Market Force Styles Indicators for myself, Kenny, and the rest of the team.

These have shown us how we’re likely to behave. Equipped with this objective information, we then looked at our member base to see where the gaps, disparities, and conflicts might be between what our clients want/expect and what we actually deliver. Next we applied self-regulating strategies to close the distance.

When it comes to developing your own self-awareness, you only know what you know, and we all have misconceptions about ourselves. That’s why such quantitative assessments and honest qualitative appraisals from others are so important – they provide the kind of clarity it’s almost impossible to obtain alone.

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Burt Giges, an OG in the field of sports/performance psychology, has a very succinct way of talking about the practical application of investing in the mental skill of self-awareness. The following is what he refers to as “The Alphabet of Change” to simplify the steps needed to positively alter habits (self-regulation). Can you guess what the letter A stands for?

A – Awareness before…

B – Behavior…

C – Creates a choice for a…

D – Decision to apply…

E – Effort and…

F – Focus on a…

G – Goal

Again, better coaching of others begins with awareness of self. Once you know yourself and how you’re likely to behave, you’ll be in a much better position to apply your expertise and help the athletes who depend on you.

Intentional Sustainable Growth: Autonomy (Part 2)

This blog is part 2 of a larger post on the ingredients for cultivating and practicing intentional, sustainable growth: 

  • Autonomy: Freedom to be who you are
  • Purpose: Utilizing your autonomy in service of your WHY
  • Context: Acknowledgement of needing to adjust your behaviors given environmental specificity 
  • Mindset: Attitudinal willingness to adapt
  • Adaptability: Ability to adapt given what best fits the specifics of context. 

In this post, I am going to discuss the concept of autonomy more deeply. 

Autonomy refers to the idea that people need to feel willingly engaged in their behaviors and feel a sense of ownership over their actions. In essence, people need to feel like they have a say in what they do and that their perspective and their feelings actually matter to others. Put more simply (as listed above), autonomy is the freedom to be who you are. This is in contrast to behaving in response to external/internal pressure (external: behaving in order to achieve a reward or avoid punishment), (internal: I “should” or I “have to” to maintain self-worth or avoid feeling guilty). 

The practical application and full expression of this can be seen as represented with these four domains of autonomy: 

  • Self Respect: Becoming clear (intent) about who you are 
  • Self Esteem: Becoming content (mood) with who you are
  • Self Responsibility: Behaving in accordance (alliance) with who you are
  • Self Confidence: The feedback (calibration) you get from your environment about how you behave. 

Remember, in the gym, your growth is contingent upon you taking ownership over your experience. Taking ownership over your experience assumes you are thinking about and engaging in conversations with your coach about what motivates you, why you are motivated by the things you mention, and how you are behaving to actualize your motivations. What is written on whiteboard is not meant to put pressure on you but to be a tool to help you on your unique journey of intentional, sustainable growth. The manner in which you utilize that tool depends on you. Well, who are you… really

Purpose Is A Performance Enhancer

In his book “Conscious Coaching”, Brett Bartholomew writes that PURPOSE IS A PERFORMANCE ENHANCER, and I love the succinctness of that statement. 

There is a lot of buzz nowadays about knowing what your “why” is, and, in my opinion, similar to the buzz surrounding mindfulness, any buzz around getting clear about why you do what you (your sense of purpose) is warranted. 

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” –Friedrich Nietzsche 

Why are you a member of Oak Park? Why do you choose to invest in your health and wellness? Who are you and what do you believe in, why? 

I am of the opinion that these questions are iterative–answering them is an ongoing process. That being said, I do not believe these questions are context-dependent. Your why/purpose is your internal operating system. You’ll run an infinite number of apps off of that one operating system. However, you have to have some ongoing awareness, knowledge, and reflection of what that operating system is in order to run the apps effectively and efficiently. In real life, your behaviors are the equivalent of computer software applications. 

If you want to achieve greater levels of performance and personal fulfillment, you will have to wrestle with these questions. Lucky for you, you are part of a community of coaches that relish the opportunity to support you on your journey to tackle these questions, one rep at a time. 

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” -T.S. Eliot

New Year’s Resolutions: AKA Rebirth

As a society, we welcome and celebrate New Year’s Resolutions because…

New beginnings are emotionally comforting.

New beginnings more easily show us possibilities of enacting positive change in our lives than “old beginnings”.  Old beginnings usually reflect insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results.

We love to watch the rebirth/hero’s journey archetype infinitely reappear in our favorite films, TV series, and novels. New Year’s Resolutions are one way we can all connect with our OWN rebirth stories in which we are the heroes. We say to ourselves, “this year will BE DIFFERENT BECAUSE I resolve to…”

In this post, I will explain…

  • How your resolutions can go from THEORY to PRACTICE to MANIFESTATION by highlighting the psychological needs for motivation, and…
  • How you can work on your resolutions in an ongoing manner without them needing to be isolated “to do’s” that cause more stress than peace of mind.

Motivation

Self Determination Theory argues that every human has basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These needs serve to support our motivation for behavioral change both in the short term AND the long term, i.e., initiation and maintenance of change (La Guardia, 2017).

A core reason that New Year’s Resolutions die out is because they were “pressure oriented”. “Pressure Oriented” decisions can be both externally and internally generated.

  • External examples involve: Feeling pressure to achieve a reward or avoid punishment.
  • Internal examples involve: “I should” or “I have to” in order to maintain self-worth or avoid feeling guilty.

“Pressure oriented” motivators can initiate and effectively jump start behavior change. However, they will NOT support the maintenance of those behaviors. On the contrary, when your needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are being met it is because you are driven to act based on what you perceive to be of value, interest, and enjoyment.

Autonomy:
  • Ask yourself: Are my resolutions personally relevant and meaningful? “When people deeply value the behaviors they are engaging in, they feel interested and energized and are more likely to actively engage in those behaviors without even being prompted” (La Guardia, 2017, p. 18).
Competence:
  • Ask yourself: Are my resolutions realistic? Who can help me grow the skills/abilities that are the focus of my resolutions? How will I measure my growth?
Relatedness:
  • Ask yourself: Do my social circles support my pursuit of growth unconditionally? If not, how can I adjust my environment in ways that are increasing my interactions with family and friends that help me to feel close, connected, and valued?

BEING your resolutions Vs. DOING your resolutions

BEING your resolutions is contingent upon self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-reflection.

Self-awareness:
  • Start noticing how your thoughts influence your feelings which influence your behaviors.
Self-regulation:
  • The more aware you can become of your thoughts and feelings as they are happening and influencing one another, the better you get at behaving proactively in alignment with your resolutions, as opposed to reactively, which usually is in conflict with your resolutions
Self-reflection:
  • Self-awareness is primarily cultivated in the present moment in order to intentionally self-regulate our behaviors. However, we are not perfect and are always a work in progress (this is the reason we make yearly resolutions). Therefore, self-reflection is the act of reviewing and evaluating what occurred, so we can behave more effectively in the future.

Body, Craft, MIND

Performance Psychologist Michael Gervais is fond of saying: “You can only train three things: your body, your craft, and your mind.” This post gives you some guidance on how to prepare and train your mind, so you can manifest your health and wellness resolutions.

“If an egg is broken by outside force, life ends. If broken by inside force, life begins. Great things always begin from inside” -Jim Kwik

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