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.