Guess what? I'm sick of the way people talk about the F Word. We should friggin love the F word!!
But, ever since we were young we were told to avoid it. We’re told it’s bad. Really bad. DON"T SAY IT! It’s horrible to even think about without getting scared about it. We even get nervous about how it will make us feel!
But yet, in many ways it’s the key to success in pretty much EVERYTHING. Especially in Sport.
Failing is a really hard thing to embrace because a lot of the messages we are getting from the world is that immediate success is critical. To be good without putting in the effort is seen as admirable. To be a “natural” is much more highly valued that being a someone who tries hard - by those people who don't get it! We worry about doing things for the first time because we won't be "good" at them. Does that sound stupid? It does to me. But we do it all the time! Fill the gaps... "I don't do ....... because I am no good at...." We hear it constantly. We choose easier paths because "hard" takes longer and provides more failures, which we're told are all bad! Don't lose, Don't stuff up, Don't make a mistake! But failures can be so good! Imagine the freedom you can have if you truly believe (when you're not yet good at something, or just getting better) and say to yourself THAT'S OK. Who you are is not someone who needs to prove how naturally good they are something. You can learn, learn and keep learning so that you keep moving forward. So you can face and embrace setbacks and reflect and grow and get better.
"An expert is someone who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field"
Have you made all the mistakes in your journey to mastery ?
Do you have goals? New Year resolutions?
It's a nice time to think about these. I don't want to kill the positive thinking buzz you're on....but you should be thinking about your big ugly, self limiting barriers that have been holding you back from fulfillment.
If you have good, strong, big scary goals (the best ones) then you'll have some BIG obstacles and if you want to achieve them you'll have to plow on through some real struggle and growth.
So.... here's the reality:
- You won't fail because you can't "stay positive"
- You won't fail because you weren't "feeling good."
- You won't fail because you don't "want it enough"
You'll fail because you will undoubtedly encounter moments when you're NOT thinking positively, when you're NOT feeling good and when it seems like you DON'T want it anymore... and you'll let those temporary states of mind control the decisions you make in that moment and the next. You'll crave those positive feelings of comfort and confidence. Because they feel good!!! AND you probably THINK you need them to be your best. But that is so wrong.
So... you'll AVOID. Ah the secret pleasure of avoidance. You'll avoid the uncomfortable things required for you to achieve what you want to achieve in the long term.
Avoidance brings immediate pleasure. Comfort returns. Goals drift further away. We slump into our own default mode.
Before you know it...it will take over. I know, i've seen it every year in myself. It will come in the form of things like procrastination, lack of commitment, poor nutrition, avoiding difficult conversations and situations, choosing safety over courage, choosing comfort over valued direction, choosing the EASY path over RIGHT path....And most importantly you'll AVOID EVEN THINKING ABOUT YOUR OWN TENDENCIES THAT HOLD YOU BACK.
Because that feels uncomfortable too - to admit that we're imperfect, that we're "weak" or that we might need help. That means you'll have to admit that maybe you're not the person you try and bullshit yourself into thinking you are. That your discomforts are yours to now courageously confront. Compassionately accept and prepare for all those barriers that lie within you. Plan for those. Take those on - and you might just achieve your New Year Resolution ;)
“It’s all about the Journey”
“It’s the process, not the outcome!”
Seriously, I know you would have seen all the quotes and words of wisdom about how it’s all about focusing on the journey and not the destination. About how we need to focus on the process and not the outcome (this is the favoured sport psychology variety)
Even the recent quote I posted on the FlowSport Facebook page speaks of it (yes…guilty… I do love a good quote)
These things attract us because they make such logical sense! We read them and think: “yes! I need to do that!”
But do we ever actually make change? Sad to say, not usually. And If you’re struggling to put these words of wisdom into practice, then read on…
So how do we actually change our mindset from focusing excessively on where we want to be? How do we stop thinking about what we want and start focusing on what we are doing?
The answer is actually as simple as practice. Practice little moments where we can open up to the small journey’s of everyday life.
Unfortunately, this idea won’t sell books (just blog posts). It won’t fit the with quick-fix agenda that most social media self-help charlatans promote. It requires (oh the irony) a focus on the process of getting better at focusing on the process…
So how do we actually practice embracing the journey and stop focusing on the outcome?
Well, a good place to start is to take some small steps that you can implement every day. Because, like anything in life we need to start small and a way of doing this is to start with all the little “journey’s” that we take throughout the day. Those journeys that we do without thinking. Without actually noticing them. Once we have an idea of these, then we can make the deliberate intention to focus on the full experience.
Take for example, the mundane walk to the car in the parking lot, we need to look at it like we're not actually trying to get to the end result as quickly as possible. It’s not a case of distracting ourselves from the tedious situation of actually having to walk, so the goal appears to arrive quicker. We need to embrace that journey. We need to open up to it. We need to actually experience the little journey, love it or hate it, we need to practice actually experiencing that moment for what it is.
When we do it right, it means we are noticing the environment around us, absorb the smells and the sounds and noting the details and the expressions and behaviours of others around.
If you’ve walked this path a thousand times, try and notice something new about it. Treat the journey with curiosity. Look at the journey through the eyes of someone who has never done it before. Don’t avoid it by rushing it, by distraction, or by mind wandering.
By doing this deliberately, you are getting out of your head (where we are prone to "time-travel") and into the world. The desire to be somewhere quickly fades and you are learning to focus on the taking in all that the journey offers you. And guess what, if you practice it. YOU WILL GET BETTER.
So the goal is, if you can learn to do this more in your "mini journey’s", you can then learn to do it in "the big ones" and hopefully in those big competitions that require a relentless focus on the process.
So go ahead. Give it a try.
You might learn something.
You might notice something you’ve never seen before.
You might actually learn that the journey to the carpark is still part of life.
I would recommend taking one daily “mindful mini-journey” and make yourself fully open to experiencing that every day. Notice how the impulse to rush to the destination quickly comes up. Notice how you desperately try to distract your mind from experiencing the tedious nature of actually having to focus on what you are doing in that moment.
Now, I am off for a walk to the fridge. Mindfully and fully open to that journey ;)
Have you ever got frustrated with thoughts that keep popping into your mind? Have you ever said or thought to yourself, frustratingly: “arrghh stop thinking about that!!”
Stopping thinking is difficult. The mind is constantly thinking. The need to try and control it is well intentioned but difficult. And it is often the wrong way to go about things. It is also really, really hard to do!
We can often control our attention and bring our focus onto the things that we want to focus on, but sometimes the thoughts that we have and the fears of certain thoughts or feelings, keep coming back at us, and this can cause us to focus on them even more.
Imagine if you’re about to perform a really important task in a sporting situation. Maybe you’ve got to serve for the match or you’re on the free throw line. And it is a situation that makes you particularly nervous (maybe a “big” game). You don’t want negative thoughts about failure to come up, that’s true in some sense– since they aren’t exactly fun to have, but can we control our brain enough to completely get rid of these thoughts? I would say, not likely (although everyone is different).
Many (including me) would argue that level of thought control is really not possible. This is because, If you have already categorised thoughts as bad and that they are something that will lead to poor performance, then logically the fear that the negative thoughts will come up will be real. And it will then make it quite likely that they will. Your mind will start looking for them!
It’s like that time when you really, really need to get to sleep. You’re sooo tired that you must get to sleep straight away otherwise you’re not going to function the next day. So… you try really hard to quiet your mind. You try to stop thinking, to stop worrying about getting to sleep, but the worry train keeps chugging along and it doesn’t happen, definitely not quickly!
It’s a bit like that when are trying to find our flow-state in sport. Thoughts about how we are feeling and what we are thinking are just going to delay the chances of us dropping into the moment and performing with freedom.
This might be because of what Charles Baudouin in 1921 called “The law of reversed effort” when introducing this ironic process he stated: “The harder we try to think the good idea, the more violent will be the assaults of the bad idea…” Does this sounds like something you might be familiar with?
Have you ever tried to only think positively about situation only to have all the negative thoughts come back? It may seem to you like you lack the mental control and brain power to control your mind, and some people may even tell you this.
Don’t listen to that crap.
Your brain is doing what it is programmed to do. It’s looking for threats, worrying about what might happen, all in an attempt to keep you safe. To keep you alive.
We’re animals and that is what our brains are wired to do.
So, if the thought control battle is actually one we can’t ever win - then we are going to need to look at it from a different approach. Instead of being involved in the battle in our brains, maybe we step back and observe this battle that is going on. We can notice what are we saying to ourselves, almost step back and say aahh that is my mind doing it’s normal thing, its not actually me. It's not actually harmful.
This also means acknowledging and accepting thoughts, being willing to have them.
Then we need to go about performing the task without spending too much mental energy trying to win the battle in our minds. We need to connect to ‘The Now’ and perform in that space. Connecting with The Now is a skill as well, but its not about eliminating The Noise in our minds.
With this approach, over time, you can take away the power of thoughts, acknowledge that they are just thoughts and not let them be the controlling factor for your performance. The quote below talks about fostering understanding, but I think it fits perfectly with performance as well:
“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us”. – Aldous Huxley
I would say, what we can do is foster a state of mind in which flow will come to us. That comes from a state of mind that doesn’t fear fear. A mind that doesn’t worry about worries and a mind that doesn’t try to control itself.
When working with Athletes and Coaches the common misconception is that Sport psychology, and my role as a mental skills trainer, is all about getting people to start thinking positively. I actually get people say to me: "oh are you going to talk to them about positive thinking and stuff?
There is a belief that if we just think positive all the time, we're gonna always be happy and perform well. One problem! Life’s not always positive. Bad shit happens. What's more, our minds are programmed to constantly scan and look for threats and negativities. It's a reality. So, during those tough times, our brain is not going to believe that things are going so awesome when you say it is.
Actually, you could look at it in a different way and say that if someone isn’t experiencing a few negative emotions and thoughts, then they’re probably not doing something challenging enough! Because there haven’t been many people that have achieved something great without a few self-doubts and a bit of negative thinking along the way.
Further to this, there has been some popular advice out there that suggests you should imagine your goals happening to you. Just belief it will happen and happy day... it will! They say you should visualize yourself as a winner and having achieved everything you want. In actuality, this has been shown to potentially have a negative effect on the chance you’ll succeed at what you want to. It’ll just be a fun dream.
So here’s the tip for young aspiring young athletes. When setting yourself a goal, take a different approach. Set yourself a positive, realistic and challenging goal, but then write down all the things that are going to be extremely difficult about achieving your goal and then imagine yourself experiencing and getting through those moments. Make a plan for how you’re going to deal with all the obstacles and mental blocks along the way.
For an example, it could be getting up early for the gym in the middle of winter that might curb your fitness goals or avoiding alcohol when you’re out on the weekend or going through the process of having to learn a new skill and being prepared to fail at it and having to deal with that. Imagine yourself experiencing these difficulties and still moving forward!
Don’t kid yourself that it’s going to be all sunshine and rainbows. Think about the bad times, what it might feel like and how you’re going to get through them. You actually do want to imagine yourself achieving your goals as well, but we don’t want to trick our minds into thinking that it’ll come easy. That is the biggest worry. No great achievements are easy. Remember that and embrace the hard times by imagining yourself pushing through them!
So go ahead and dream big, but if you do, remember to contrast your dreams with some thinking about all the shit that you’ll have to deal with along the way.
The world of popular sport psychology is full of false beliefs. I want to share with you some of the biggest problematic beliefs. Some of these make my work difficult and some of them really do hold people back from getting better!
Myth 1: A couple of tips and techniques will have a significant long term impact on your performance.
Yes, this is a big myth that people cling to. The belief that a cue word, a little bit of visualization, a solid goal or a relaxation technique will have a significant impact on your performance is false. Here's an unfortunate truth: Real change takes time.
The human brain is wired in a certain way and it will ensure that you, more often than not, will respond in the same way you have acted in the past. Unless you consistently make systematic steps toward changing your habits. And you have to keep working on it!
You will need to work hard to change, but that will make it all the more satisfying when you do experience some success. It's true, even on this website you'll see some quick tips and strategies, but even those tips require practice and work to make them effective. Bottom line, if you want to change, you have to put in a bit of work, that's why having someone to work with you along the way is so effective.
Myth 2: Sport psychology is only needed for those who are mentally weak (or have a "problem")
Another myth is that performers should only seek support if it is to help them fix a certain problem or to make them “mentally tough”
It is a true that a lot of sport psychology practice helps people deal with certain issues. But, Sport psychology training and consulting is also about performance enhancement. You can enhance your performance no matter what level you are at right now or how "mentally tough" you already perceive yourself to be. After all, your mind is in control of your body so if you can train that to help you perform at an optimal level more often, then you are setting yourself up for consistent success.
A huge majority of the top athletes in the world get sport psychology support and this has been a huge factor in sporting success. It is NOT about mental weakness, it is about finding and developing existing strengths.
Myth 3: If I feel good, I’ll perform good.
A major problem in sport is the pursuit of consistent positive feelings. That’s right. The belief that we should be FEELING happy and confident all the time leads to significant mental distress in sport.
This is because when we find ourselves in times of stress and struggle, we tell ourselves it shouldn't be like this. We tell ourselves we're not going to play well. We try and fight off the bad feelings.
Then, we end up overthinking and focusing on what's going on inside our head, rather than focusing on our performance and what is important.
We all want to feel great all the time, but emotions arise in different situations for different people and that's how the mind behaves in normal human beings. How we feel is also a result of our own unique genetics, and our lifetime experiences that have shaped and moulded us to become who we are.
The best practice you can try to implement, is to practice focusing on what your are doing, rather than what you are feeling - something which you hear me saying a lot!
If you believe that you need to feel good to perform good, then it's going to be pretty hard not to focus on those feelings. So drop that myth and just be yourself.
Myth 4: Sport is 90% mental
I love this one. You will hear sports commentators, fans and athletes talk about the “top two inches” and that it is “all mental at the top level” or people may talk about how percentages like its 80% mental and 20% physical. All these sorts of numbers are fun, but obviously have no scientific thought behind them, they don’t even make sense if you look at it realistically.
Our brain is in control our entire body! Neural networks fire in a sequence that helps our bodies move in ways that enables us do amazing things in the arena of sport. Whatever we are doing, our brain is in control.
So in effect, it is all "mental"
Take learning a new skill as an example. When you learn a new skill you are rewiring your brain in ways that will enable that skill to be remembered and become automatic (proceduralised) so that in future it can be replicated without conscious thought. A simple example of this is walking. When you were learning to walk, you wont remember, but you no doubt had to consciously think a lot about how you would move your legs and balance yourself. Also, I’d bet you fell over a fair bit! (this wasn’t you "failing" at walking btw - which is how a lot of people see learning these days, it was you learning what didn’t work and improving as a result!)
Now just because the skill becomes automatic, doesn't mean that it's not "mental" any more. When something is in "muscle memory" it doesn't mean the brain is no longer in control. In fact, in pressure situations it is exactly that muscle memory that can be hijacked and cause us to fail at even the most simple skills .
This is another blog all together, but, I am against the current trend of needing to categorise an athletes' life in different areas of focus. Strength and conditioning, nutrition and skill learning.. etc. What might be called the "pillars" or whatever. ALL at stuff has important psychological elements because it is all human behaviour! The best method of development is based around integrating all this into a holistic athlete development programme, where various experts in different fields collaborate and work together.
Those are some of my big myths you'll hear about in sport and performance psychology, but there are plenty more. What I teach, and how I practice, comes from evidence based research (i.e. in danger of sounding like an informercial: it's been shown to work in scientific studies!).
I offer training and support that has been tried and trusted by athletes around the world. Hopefully by packaging it in a way that is easy to understand and not full of too much psychobabble!
How do we be where our feet are? How do we connect with The Now?
Connecting with The Now is the first stage of building a sense of presence and choice over your actions.
Have you ever performed in a couple of different competitions? There is the one in the outside world and then there is the one inside your head. The battle with your own thoughts and feelings. It is amazing how our minds can put as much focus on the competition inside our own head as much as we actually focus on playing it in the outside world. We worry, then worry about worrying. We look toward the future and what we are going to need to do, to get the result we want. We worry about what people think of us and how our image is affected by our behaviours. Or we think about the past, in a game of golf, we might think about that putt we missed or that unfair lie we had or other sorts of "if only" thoughts. We dwell on our mistakes.
Now the first thing to remember is that it's somewhat natural to have these thoughts. It's not your fault!
The truth is that we cannot control the past and we cannot control the future.
I know, I know, you've heard that before... But seriously, what we can do, is focus on the control of what we are doing in this moment. This can be a useful thing to remind yourself in any situation. Really!
The competition in our mind is the one where we have our harshest and most fearsome competitor. The competitor that knows our own weaknesses better than anyone else! So what happens when we get caught up in our mind and our own thinking, is that we naturally try and win. This is where we try and forcibly relax ourselves, we try and fight off our negative feelings and control everything that we are thinking and feeling, because we truly believe that will make us play better.
But there's a problem with that. If we are spending all our emotional and mental energy on trying to win this battle in our mind, then we are not really connected to the present moment. We are not really paying attention to what is happening now.
And what is happening right now is what's important. Surely!
Even if what you are doing is just preparing to perform, maybe warming up or just getting changed. That is a great opportunity to engage with the external environment and embrace the things around you. Get present.
You can do this my actually taking time to notice things outside of your own head. You might do this by taking a moment to notice the weather, the feel of the sun or the wind on your face, the stadium seating, the water...whatever! This moment is a moment in your life, like every other.
Or maybe notice something about the environment you haven't looked at before. Have what has been called: the "beginners mind" Treat your environment like you've never seen it before and be curious about it. This will give you a chance to get out of your head and into the world around you, an ideal scenario, because this is where we perform! This will prime your brain for the best sort of focus: external focus.
Anchor yourself to the present moment.
The act of doing this IS mental training and the more you do it, the better you will get. So go ahead and lift the weights, so to speak, and it'll become a habit.
There is a simple, but very powerful cognitive strategy which involves a word that can really hold us back. The word that primes us for an avoidance, rather than approach mindset:
An avoidance mindset is not going to enable great performance and the word "BUT" promotes exactly that... A 'go and get it' approach mindset however, has been shown to be one of the keys to peak performance in sport.
Going towards competition, going towards pressure, going towards the challenge, both physically and mentally, is the key to building resilience and the ultimate performance mindset.
Now, there may be times when you've heard your mind use this word and it has then subsequently held you back from performing as you want to, or performing at all. Let's look at an example, take the comment:
I want to play well today, BUT I am feeling nervous.
Take a minute to think how the word "BUT" is influencing someones mindset here...
What is it saying about the effect of these nerves on your performance?
If we say we would like to do something BUT we are feeling something else, then what we are saying is that because of the feelings of discomfort, we are now UNABLE to go forward and participate (or perform well) in whatever the action is.
We are saying, these feelings of discomfort are going to dictate my decision in this instance. We are letting the avoidance of difficult feelings take priority, rather than the action or performance level that we want to achieve. We are not using an approach mindset.
With this example of nerves if we say we want to do something but we are too nervous, we are surrendering to the nerves and letting them control the direction we want to go. If you really pay attention to your thoughts, you may notice that you give in to the "buts" many times in a day. I know that I myself notice this all the time. In fact, I even had the thought just now "I need to do some work on my blog but I am so tired!"
So what happens when we hear the "BUT" in the future
A lot of it is about learning the skills of understanding your mind and what it is saying to you. You need to get better at recognising these thought patterns. This is the first step. Make sure you continue to practice these skills.
The next step is to replace the but and re-think that sentence. What do we replace it with?
In doing this we say what we are going to do and what we are going to feel, but we never imply that we are not going to do something because of a feeling. Take our first example: I want to play well today AND I am feeling nervous.
This is a brilliant statement! I would be immensely pleased if someone I worked was able to say this. This is briliant because it implies that, yes, those uncomfortable feelings are there and it also implies that they are going to come along for the ride with us.
So for me: I should be writing my blog and I am feeling tired! becomes the replacement thought.
Look below at all the examples I have had of clients coming up with opportunities to replace the "BUT"
I want to speak to my coach AND I am scared of him
I would say something important AND I don't feel like saying it.
I am able to win today AND I get so nervous
I am meant to speak to a big audience tomorrow AND I am sh**ting myself!
Removing the but and replacing it with an "and" helps create courage, it stops that mindset that you might have that continually looks for many reasons to avoid something. That 'feel good always' mindset that is conditioned by society. Embracing the feelings that come with doing important things is so important and getting off the "but" is a great step along the way.
Acceptance: The active and aware embrace of private events that are occasioned by our history, without unnecessary attempts to change their frequency or form, especially when doing so causes psychological harm"
One of the most powerful tendencies of human behaviour is the want to avoid and get away from unwanted and unwelcome thoughts and feelings. This takes up so much of our mental energy. The act of trying to avoid being uncomfortable.
Now being uncomfortable physically is generally accepted as a means to grow, adapt and get stronger. People who want to get fit know that it's going to require a bit of a pain or discomfort. But that's not so accepted in the mental space. There is a belief that we should be thinking and feeling pretty good, ALL of the time, so we can perform well in sport. Now don't get me wrong, mood disorders exist and are a real problem and having a low mood for extended periods of the time can signal that it's time to get some help. But, in elite sport, feeling a bit stressed, anxious, pressured and uncomfortable is reasonably normal. These situations will still often make us want to AVOID this current state of mind. We may try and find ways to make ourselves feel better, in the moment. That's when it can become a bit of a problem.
We all do it from time to time, we analyse why "this" is happening to us, we complain about how it feels, we blame others for "making" us feel a certain way. We are focused on trying to "fix" our inner state of mind. And this problem solving nature of the brain is perfectly normal, it works for us in the outside world right? When there's a problem we need to solve, we work hard at coming up with solutions and try and solve it.
But...you will never be able to rid yourself completely of uncomfortable feelings in sport. Inner peace and tranquility doesn't really exist, not in that sense. Our brain reacts in a certain way due to a genetic influence and a lifetime of conditioning. That is a reality. It's not your fault.
The good news is that acceptance doesn't mean we are giving up. The key is that we can just be a little bit more compassionate toward ourselves and how we feel in this moment. It's OK. We can go toward these natural feelings. How we look at our situation and how much room we give these unwelcome feelings the chance to sit with us... can change our whole perspective.
Let's take a look at some of the classic culprits, say: embarrassment. fear, and self doubts. Those things can make us uncomfortable, but with each one of them, it is actually possible to feel them and yet STILL go out and perform your best (or just DO those things your don't really want to do, like speak in public, take a test, play a solo, or compete in sports).
If you are willing to accept and make room for the thoughts and emotions that don't feel good, you not only take away some of their power, but you become more powerful. By facing them and feeling them, you can become more resilient, more focused on what you want to achieve, and more conscious of what you can / can't control (and more compassionate toward yourself!!).
Not only that, but being uncomfortable can be a trigger for you to realise that your body is ready to perform. Even professionals get nervous. The difference is instead of saying, "oh, no", they say "let's go". The energy and adrenaline that can come from being uncomfortable can actually be a sign that you are "ready to go"!
Sounds easy right? Well in some respects it can be effective quite quickly! A study that involved just informing people about a willingness approach to dealing with cravings (people who had addictions to food or cigarettes) found that willingness increased their ability to go forward in what they were doing without feeling like they needed to satisfy the urge as often, they just sat with it and carried on and actually did better!
In other respects, it is very hard. It is often hard to accept that we have to "accept" certain emotions. So we are likely to engage in avoidance behaviours very often (yes that's ALL of us). Throughout the day you will chose actions that help you avoid discomfort, that's natural. When problems occur, however, it is when this avoidance gets in the way of us achieving what we want to achieve - When the tendency to want to control your internal state gets in the way of you actually performing well!
Just think, if you're spending all your energy trying to make yourself "feel good" you're actually putting all this mental energy into something that:
A: You can't fully control anyway
B: Is not what you should be focusing on! You're focused on yourself and not on the task! You're meant to be performing!
Quick Tip: if you find yourself focusing too much on "How you are feeling" then notice and accept the thoughts and feelings that exist, right now, and switch your focus to "what you are doing" bringing those gremlins along with you for the ride.