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.

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