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.
What's important to you? Have you ever stopped to think about that? I am going to talk here about how values can and should be an anchor with which you can guide your behaviour and achieve your own version of success in every moment. I'll start this off with a bit about nerves, because I love how Dr Steven Hayes introduces values in this quote:
"Life is a choice. Anxiety is not a choice. Either way you go, you will have problems and pain. So your choice here is not about whether or not to have anxiety. Your choice is whether or not to live a meaningful life." - Steven C. Hayes (2005)
The above quote really helps summarise the intentions of value based work. We don't choose the way our mind operates, how it responds to pressure and what can trigger certain uncomfortable reactions. It is important to recognise this. The way our brain reacts to certain situations is a culmination of the experiences we have had, and our genetics. It is not our fault.
When working with clients, I want them to understand themselves and understand their triggers so they can develop the ability to be able to choose the RIGHT action, and to do so decisively.
The right actions are chosen by examining what you value. Values are a way of putting into words all the things that we live for, what gives our lives meaning. I once asked an audience in a workshop I was doing what they thought values were, and someone said: "Values are what we stand for..." That's a great, simple definition of values! It's the things that we really hold as important, not the goals or the dreams we have, but the ideals and the core beliefs about what we hold to be important in this world.
"When living by our values becomes the definition of success, it means we can be successful right now." - Russ Harris (2011)
How great is that! Hopefully that's a new way of looking at success that isn't based on goals. You can be the best you in any moment!
In this blog, I am deliberately talking a lot about values in terms of your whole life. Because, ultimately, although I am geared towards helping people perform better, the values you hold for yourself and your life outside of your sport will likely transfer. So unless you transform into a completely different person when you perform, its probably beneficial to begin thinking about values in terms of your life as a whole.
KEY POINT: Values are actually about DOING not about feeling.
It is really important to look at your values in terms of actions, not feelings or specific states of mind. When you uncover your values during this week, you will think and feel certain ways but it is the actions that those values make you think of, that are important.
For example: Suppose you have already recognised that you really do value being a hard worker. That's great! But this shouldn't be something that makes you feel good or bad about yourself, the point of identifying this is to help you then go and find opportunities to work hard. So when you've come up with some good values, always ask yourself: what actions will bring this value to life, what things could I go out and do right now that would be valued actions. If you can't think of any actions that a value might require, then it may not be a good one!
Feeling a certain way is not a value.
Another thing to be aware of is that thinking or feeling a certain way is not a value. For example, if you had the value of: "I want to be more confident" or "I want to feel calm" or "I want to feel relaxed"....then you have got it wrong.
These feelings are great but they're not something we can realistically get in touch with, they're not a direction or a way to live your life. They are not something we stand for. You can't go out and do something NOW to live those values, although you can go and do something that is intended on trying to create those things. That's different, and if we do that, we are going to live our life chasing certain feelings, which is a difficult roller coaster to ride!
The pattern of avoidance behaviours can then come into play, people will chase good feelings but in doing so not actually achieve their goals. Think about it, if you wanted to run a marathon and your ultimate "value" and goal was to feel good whilst running, then as soon as the going gets tough and the fatigue sets in, you'd stop! Of course you would, because your goal was to feel good and as soon as discomfort arrives, we are naturally going to look for the easiest ways to get rid of it...we avoid the situations that bring on the discomfort!
Having a values based approach might be different. You might value "persistence" and during those times of stress and discomfort, you can definitely get in touch with that and carry on!
Get in touch if you want to talk more about how a values based approach could help you!
So what about those people who are somehow able to perform spectacular feats of athleticism in high risk environments? How can people seem to manage their fears to be able surf 50ft waves, hang precariously off cliff faces and fly down spectacular gorges. For most of us, the fear that we might experience in these situations is difficult to even imagine. In extreme sports, the most common emotion that these athletes have to deal with is fear. That hugely unpleasant emotion that paralyses so many. The emotion that President Roosevelt famously addressed with: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…” Fear can be crippling and devastating when it comes to high performance in extreme sport, so how can these people still perform when death is a realistic consequence of poor performance?
Well researchers have examined these types of athletes and found some interesting findings. Firstly, fear is often spoken about as a healthy and productive experience. If these people are feeling fear, then in many ways, they know they are doing something worthwhile (in their eyes). Not only that, they felt like fear, in many ways, kept them alive! Feeling fear is a natural human experience, and for many extreme sports people, they welcome, and often accept that if they are NOT feeling it, then something is wrong. Either they are doing something not worthwhile or challenging enough or they have lost touch with the reality of what they are doing, a dangerous place to be.
What’s important is that slogans such as “no fear” and adjectives such as “fearless” may convey the wrong message. Everyone experiences fear (yes it is true, some people more strong than others) so pushing the message that if you want to be good at something risky, you have to be able to “get rid of” the fear would cause many people to hold back and avoid anything that has risk. Believing that fear should be gone before you accomplish something primes you for an avoidance mindset, because avoiding the activity obviously gets rid of the fear that you are supposedly not meant to be feeling. So we get stuck, we live safe lives where we don’t do things that are important to us because we think that fear is a bad bad thing.
We can learn a lot from extreme sports people, even if we don’t want to go free climb a mountain face.. We can learn that if you can develop a mindset that embraces fear, create some space to be able to have it, and still do what you need to do, then you can truly develop the courage to go out and do amazing things.
Confidence is the best isn’t it? We all love the feeling of absolute belief in what we are about to do. When we work with clients at FlowSport the most common complaint we get from athletes and performers is that they have a lack of confidence. Sometimes it’s a general sense and sometimes it’s a small part of their role as a performer. Helping athletes with low confidence is big part of what we do.
Confidence does make performance all the more satisfying, comfortable and usually makes it more successful. The problem is, how do we get this magical feeling of confidence? And can we actually create it? Can anyone?
At FlowSport we are all about standing out from the self-help “quick-fix” crowd. The type of people who use techniques or interventions that have no scientific evidence. The people that promise you the world but don’t want to acknowledge that change actually takes time. These people rely on things like the placebo effect. They make people feel good and those people may experience some temporary improvement, but they will not experience lasting change.
These con-artists will probably try and trick you into thinking they can give you confidence by encouraging you to think a certain way. They might promise you that confidence can be gained from looking into your own mind and “treating” it with some sort of cure. I wish it was that simple…. We all do!
Unfortunately, these people out there telling you that it IS that easy! Please don’t believe them. Anything in life that is important and worthwhile TAKES TIME. It takes work and effort and there is no quick fix…..OK…..rant over….
To start you on your journey to gaining confidence you need to be aware of certain facts. Once you understand these you can begin the journey to improving your performance in whatever the situation…..But notice how we said that? Improving performance is the goal! The goal is not improving a “feeling” …feelings are fickle and change rapidly. Feelings are not permanent. Feelings shouldn’t have a place in our goals. We want to focus on what’s important, and that’s improving our performance! Confidence is just a pretty nice by-product to get along the way And it can happen and grow over time.
So here are our important facts about confidence:
1. Real, lasting confidence is not something someone can give you, YOU will have to take action. Don’t look to a coach, teacher, parent or friend for confidence, it can be a dangerous path. Relying on others for your confidence is relying on something not within your control. And don’t get me wrong, Encouragement from them is great! but if you’re giving the power over your confidence to someone else, then you’ll build an unhealthy reliance on other people.
2. You CAN perform well without confidence. And there are examples of this all over the world, in all performance domains. The belief that you can’t is likely to be the thing that is causing a lot of the problem! Just think about the power you give to your feelings if you believe that: “I must to FEEL confident to perform well.”
3. Confident feelings come AFTER the purposeful action (towards your goal) – not before. You gain confidence by doing. You don’t gain real confidence by concentrating on creating a feeling of confidence. Actions create confidence. Nothing else will increase your true confidence as much as taking positive steps towards your performance goal.
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Many of you may have watched or heard about Jordan Spieth’s collapse at the Masters golf tournament last year. Spieth was on target to win with a 5 shot lead with 9 holes to play. This meant all he had to do was play the same golf he’d played for the last three days and stay consistent on the way back in. Nothing special. He even could have made a few bogies and been fine. What eventually happened was an illustration of how important the mental aspect of sport is and how crucial a focused mind is, particularly in sports like golf. Spieth hit a seven on a par three which, even at a hard course like Augusta, was pretty extraordinary. Extraordinarily bad for a player of his quality.
So what happens to the human brain under pressure and why do people have a tendency to fail when it matters most?
Performance failure under pressure, or choking as its often called, can happen in any situation both on the sports field and off it. It could be that kick to win the match in the dying seconds of a rugby game or a three foot putt to win the Masters. Likewise it can happen in other parts of life, that important driving test, the crucial job interview or that vital sales pitch. Whatever it is, the situation obviously involves pressure because the outcome is highly valued and usually the cost of failure is significant.
So how come we have a brain so developed but yet has a tendency to let us down when it matters most? Like anything to do with the human brain there is no easy answer, but psychology researchers have developed several theories that help make sense of it all. As Sian Beilock, one of the leading researchers on choking under pressure puts it: We choke because we worry. Worrying about the outcome is thought to act as a distraction so that our skill execution and decision making under pressure is affected. This worry, might be accompanied by significant physiological symptoms of anxiety (think sweaty palms, racing heart, etc). All these take the athlete away from the moment they are in, and often their attention might be directed into controlling that anxiety or worry – rather than executing the particular skill or making the right decision! When this is happening, the ability to make a correct decision is likely to be affected.
The other side of it, which stems from excess worry, is the tendency for us to focus too much on what we are doing – especially when the skill is already a well-learned skill. As we learn a skill, it becomes automatic i.e. we do it without thinking about it while we do it: Have a think about how you tie your shoelaces, drive a car or even how you walk. This type of memory is called procedural memory, its implicit, which means we don’t have to monitor it at all, we just do it.
Because the execution of a skill is so important under high amounts of perceived pressure, the worry of failure may try force us to try and control and monitor our skill execution. We go back to explicitly monitoring how we do things and direct our focus toward executing a skill which normally we’d do on auto pilot. To put it simply it is, as they say: “paralysis by analysis.” The explicit monitoring happens in the pre-frontal cortex and this monitoring and conscious processing of a skill that is firmly locked in our procedural memory creates havoc with the execution.
Think about tying your shoelaces again, and now imagine yourself in a shoelace tying competition and having to do it with hundreds of people watching your technique. You could bet that some would slip up, freeze or take a lot longer than normal in that situation. Suddenly you start to think about how your fingers are moving, how big a loop to make and where you need to thread each bow.
The short golf putt is always a good example of a skill that golfers should be able to do without thinking. Ernie Els may have had too much self-focus thoughts as he messed up several incredibly short putts on the first hole at Augusta. This scenario also offers a paradox for the “process focus” talk we hear a lot these days. Focusing on the process is definitely important, but TOO much focus on the process, i.e. if we are over focusing on our technique of executing a relatively simple skill that we could normally do when drunk or half asleep, then we are in for trouble. As the late Yogi Berra, a baseball player famous for his bizarre and often amusing “yogi-isms” puts it: “ How can you think and hit at the same time?” Maybe he was on to something if what he meant was that we can’t think about hitting and hit at the same time?
So although this is by no means the whole story in regard to choking under pressure, what we can learn from this is that when we worry we have a tendency to want to exert even more control over our performance and this will cause problems when performing something already locked into our procedural memory.
So if you’re a basketball player on the free-throw line, a golfer lining up that crucial putt or even if you’re just someone who’s entered into an annual shoelace tying competition….what does this mean for you? One technique could be to actually distract the mind and the pre-frontal cortex, this might be singing a song in your head, reciting a poem or doing something that occupies your conscious thoughts. Another is to test yourself under stress. Exposing yourself to a pressure situation might decrease your anxiety reaction to it in the future, but most importantly, it’ll give you the chance to reflect on it, and learn about yourself. In saying this, everyone is different, which is why working with a qualified practitioner at FlowSport can help people overcome these embarrassing failures over time!
And lastly, for the coach, parent or support team…. advice such as “focus on your technique” and “Stay process-orientated” although well intentioned might not be the most beneficial at crucial times. I remember coaching kids rugby and during a potential match-winning conversion attempt, hearing parents on the sideline telling kids to “slow down and think about it!” Again, this is well-intentioned, but over thinking it can actually create even more problems!
The best advice might be to emphasise trust, they need to trust their ability to execute the skill and let the execution take care of itself.