Friday, October 27, 2017

The Athlete and Various Types of Vision

“Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”  - 
Muhammad Ali
In the context of mental conditioning and sports psychology, I have often discussed and written about and coached athletes about vision.  I want to spend some time identifying the various types of vision that I have found important to peak performance.

1.  Visual Acuity:  Let's be real.  You must start here, of course.  Most, if not all sports, require excellent visual acuity, or clarity of vision.  Physically, athletes must be able to see and also have excellent hand/eye coordination.  This ability allows a baseball player to hit a fastball, the quarterback to "thread the needle" when passing the football, or a ice hockey player to find his teammate for an assisted goal.  Think:  Ted Williams, Henry Aaron, Drew Brees, Wayne Gretzky.

2.  Mental Clarity:  Great athletes also have the gift of vision that refers to the concept of mental clarity.  As with any type of goal, the more specific and clear the goal is, the more likely it is to be worked on and achieved.   The clarity of the goal requires a high degree of specificity, "measurability," attainability, realism, timeliness and relevance.   These characteristics of clarity are often referred to as SMART goals.

3.  Long-Range - Seeing The Big Picture:  This type of vision refers to the ability to conjure up a long-range vision of yourself and your abilities.   It is what you strive for.  If you can't see it in your mind's eye, you won't be able to achieve it.  Some people call this the dream, the ultimate challenge or the end game.   Think Muhammad Ali, of course.

4.  Short-Range:  Desired goals/objectives:  this type of vision seems fairly obvious.  It is the big picture broken down into chunks.  However, I want to emphasize that it is an important part of any preparation that an athlete attempts.   Any time spent in serious preparation must be tied to a set of smaller goals.  This type of vision is associated with either developmental or performance goals.

Developmental goals are those that help determine practice or rehearsal activities.  Performance goals are those that are associated with game or match performance activities.

5.  Peripheral:  this type of vision involves the awareness of your surroundings, teammates, opponents.  It is the opposite of tunnel vision.  This type of vision sees the whole field or court in real time.  It goes beyond self-involvement.   With this type of vision, the athlete is oriented in the moment, he/she is fully present and totally engaged.   Think Leo Messi.

6.  Intelligent (Sport-Specific):  This type of vision requires the full understanding of the game itself, and an awareness of the need to identify, study and mastery various components of the game. With this type of vision, the athlete is able to conceptualize and have a mental model for their role and function as a teammate and the role and function of others.  This is the type of vision that turns data into information, awareness into action.  Think:  Peyton Manning or Tim Duncan.

7.  Anticipatory:   This type of vision provides the ability to predict and see the court, the field, or the ice beyond the present or real time.   It involves the skill of recognition.  This ability is what Wayne Gretzky, the Hall of Fame professional hockey player called Fast Forwarding.  The faster the recognition, the better the performance.

8.  Intuitive:  This type of vision requires a belief in the importance of tapping into consciousness, including the unconscious, preconscious and subconscious.   It involves the ability to be psychologically-minded.  This aspect of performance suggests that we have the ability to access seemingly inaccessible thoughts, skills, competencies, and abilities.  This belief allows great athletes to obtain mentally and emotionally what they need to achieve and be successful especially when they need to be.

9.  Instinctual:  The type of vision allows us the self-knowledge and awareness to access and use what is "pre-wired" into us whether it be genetic, biological, evolutionary, or developmental.  It helps us to access what we have inside of us.  It allows us to use the gifts that we have been given.  It taps into our athletic DNA,  Great athletes can quickly identify patterns that they have seen before.  It is an athletic sense of recognition.  

10.  Neural - Muscle Memory:  This type of vision is critical and complementary to instinct.  We can best utilize, develop and leverage our instinct by building our muscle memory.  By understanding the importance of deliberate practice and rehearsal we can leverage and unlock what is programmed within us.    This ability allows the athlete to recall and execute quickly and immediately perform what is required because it has been deeply encoded and learned fully.   Think:  Steph Curry.

11.  Centering - Quieting the Cognitive Mind:  This type of vision requires the development of mindfulness and the practice of sports-oriented meditation.  Great athletes are able to reduce or eliminate chatter as they perform. Great athletes understand the need for removing cognitive barriers to performance.  Quieting the chatter positions the athlete for success by establishing the requirements of being present and in the moment.  Think Michael Phelps.  

Can you see the importance of each of types of vision?   Can you think of other examples of these types of vision?  Can you think of other athletes that utilize each type of vision?   Let me know what you think about these ideas. I look forward to your comments.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Is There Any Difference Between Fear, Anxiety and Excitement?

Much of what we used to know about fear and anxiety, we can toss in the trash can.

It isn't that we need to rethink fear, it's that we need to re-experience fear. We need to change our relationship to fear. Rethinking fear gets us back in our head about fear. Being in our head about fear is what created the problem in the first place. 

For many people, the sensation that we call fear, anxiety or nerves (sometimes we call it stress), can stop us from proceeding with whatever we were doing at the time. Often, that sensation is experienced as something to avoid or something to stop. It's as if we can only resume what we were doing if that feeling of fear goes away (and stays away). If we resume the activity that produced that sensation and the feel comes back, we stop again. We wait for it to pass.  Sometimes, we try to fight through the fear.  

Rather than fighting, avoiding or stopping fear and anxiety, it is important to become curious (and more comfortable) about fear and anxiety.  We need to become students of fear. We need to understand that uncomfortable feeling.  We need to label that discomfort as a signal of excitement, alertness; a signal to pay attention, to activate.  It is not necessarily a signal to stop or freeze.

Here are some guidelines for experiencing fear in a new way:

1. Fear is not to be eradicated.

2. Fear is a human emotion derived from being alive.

3. Fear is not a sign of weakness or incompetence.

4. Fear is not a hinderance to be fought or defeated.

5. Fear is part of the natural order of things.

Performance Anxiety

In my experience, there are not too many athletes that use the words performance anxiety when discussing the challenges regarding their sport. However, the assessments that I have conducted over the years strongly suggest that athletes commonly experience many of the symptoms typically associated with performance anxiety.

Because ultimately the goal of mental toughness is to experience “no fear,” why would an athlete admit vulnerability and acknowledge performance anxiety?  It is more likely that athletes will allow themselves to talk about building mental toughness, than acknowledge the legitimate existence of fear of any sort.

Let's face it. If you are human and if you are required to perform, you will experience fear, otherwise know as performance anxiety.

Human evolution produced the midbrain including the Amygdala. The midbrain was responsible for our survival by sending fast messages from our senses through neural transmission. These messages effectively alerted us to possible danger. They activated us to perform a flight or fight response. They were simple and primitive, because they had to be. They were not very discerning. The midbrain signals "Danger" or "Run Away Fast" or "Bite" or "Attack," nothing more.

Do you really want to eliminate that important function? Of course, not.  

Most sports do not involve excessive danger.  Even when danger is involved, you need focus not fear.  

Many athletes try to not be anxious; however, this often backfires. Pre-competition  excitement is necessary for peak performance. Re-assessing the internal sensations you feel in a positive way is important – rather than saying or thinking you’re anxious, remind yourself that this excitement prepare your body to perform at its best. 

We humans have another part of our brain, the more complex pre-frontal cortex. That part of our brain does the thinking, complex problem-solving, long-term decision-making. The pre-frontal cortex interprets and evaluates more fully. However, it often interprets the "flight or fight" and it overreacts. Simply put, the cortex fears the fear.  Fearing the fear is the response that we need to regulate and manage. That is the response over which we have some control. That is what mental conditioning focuses upon.

Mental conditioning makes you perform better so that your response to fear is not over-activated. The process of mental conditioning helps you learn to be activated, but aren't over-activated when your cortex evaluates the situation. It slows down your fear responses so that you can perform as planned and rehearsed.  

One approach is to develop self-talk about what you are experiencing with statements like:  

"I enjoy the challenge of competition."
“This feeling means I’m ready and prepared for the task at hand.” 
“I’m excited about being able to play well today,” 
“This is not anxiety, this is excitement, which means I’m going to perform at my best” 

These types of statements help you reframe the fear and increase your focus. It also helps you manage your thoughts, rather than the thoughts managing you.

Other mental conditioning tools like mental imagery, visualization, breathing exercises and mindfulness approaches including relaxation techniques and meditation, are also very effective in activating our nervous system to perform without overreacting.  In other words, they allow us to act without over-reacting.  This conditioning dampens our fear reaction and produces the conditions for activation and excitement. 

Your ability to dampen your fear response and reduce your performance anxiety, is a key component of strengthening your mental core.

I will be talking more about your mental core in future blogposts.    

For more information about strengthening your mental core, self-talk, mindfulness, mental imagery, sports psychology, etc. download Mindfuel, the mental conditioning app:

Thursday, October 05, 2017

I Hate to Break It to You, but You've Got the Yips

Some call it "a pressure-induced involuntary muscle movement."   Others call it "a loss of control of your shot."  In most circles, it's called the yips.  

As you may be aware or you may have experienced, the yips are the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition seems to occur suddenly and without an apparent trigger, cause or adequate explanation.  It usually appears in mature athletes with years of experience.  It has been poorly understood and we have, to this point, no known treatment or therapy. Though rare, athletes affected by the yips sometimes recover their ability, which may require an overall or partial change in technique. However, many at the highest level of their sport are forced to abandon their livelihood.  Some are still at or near the peak of their careers.

The yips manifest themselves as muscle twitches, jumps, shakes, jitters, flinches, staggers, and jerks. The condition occurs most often in sports which athletes are required to perform a single precise and well-timed action such as in baseball, golf, tennis, bowling, darts, and cricket. 

There are many suggestions that it is a muscular problem or neurological issue.  However, technical solutions that focus on major changes in technique or motion are largely ineffective.

On a less severe but more frequent note, many athletes go through slumps, some that last longer than others.   For example, in basketball, jump shooters and free-throw shooters often go through periods of time where their shooting percentages decrease significantly or their shooting becomes streaky, or both.  In either case, their ability to successfully make their shots has been altered.  Likewise, tennis players can lose their ability to serve in a flash.  Golfers lose their ability to putt, or drive the ball off a tee.    

Whether you are experience the yips, or you are in a slump, it is clear to me that even a minor shooting, serving, putting, or pitching problem, has its source and/or is quickly exacerbated and maintained by an athlete's internal dialogue; their self-talk.

In my last blogpost, I talked about strengthening your mental core.  Your self-talk or internal dialogue is an important part of your mental core.  

If you take a look at slumps in putting and teeing-off in golf, shooting in basketball, or serving in tennis, self-talk or internal dialogue is crucial in understanding the beginning, middle and end of a slump, or more problematically, the development of the yips. 

The most successful athletes are often the best mentally conditioned.  Their self-talk is either positive or non-existent.   As I and many others involved in sports and performance psychology know, self-talk affects performance.  During competition or practice sessions, the ability of an athlete to eliminate harsh or negative self-talk can improve performance dramatically.  

Unfortunately, many athletes do not or cannot quiet their inner dialogue, particularly their inner critic.  Excessive self-talk, whether positive or negative, is like having fans (or one particular fan) in the stadium, the arena, or in the gallery yelling at you at various intervals right before and during your shot or serve.  A fan who wants to disrupt you might yell:  "Miss it!"    A supportive fan might yell:  "You can do this!"   Encountered at the wrong time (i.e., at the moment you are executing your task) either can disrupt. 

Your inner dialogue during competition, might sound like this: 

"I don't think I can make this."  "If I miss this, my coach is gonna bench me."  "This is a lot of pressure."  "It's all on me."  "What if I miss?"  "I should have practiced this shot more."  "Come on, you've got this!"  "Would you just relax?!"  

Now, your self-talk is not necessarily intended or designed to disrupt.  Often, as with a supportive fan, it is usually intended to calm you or focus you on the task at hand.  It might be meant to provide encouragement or motivation.  Unfortunately, like an enthusiastic parent yelling instructions (or encouragement) to you from the stands, the net effect is that it disrupts your concentration and focus.  Over time, it erodes your self-confidence because the message is that you need last-second help, encouragement and instruction.  It's not a good message, really.  More importantly, it interferes with deep muscle learning and disrupts muscle memory.  Self-talk can undermine all the hard work that you have put in.  

With these types of messages, your brain is interrupting your shot, and your muscles are saying, "Wait, what?"   Because of this sudden emergency interruption, your muscles are saying "I must be about to do something wrong, otherwise, why would my brain be talking to me right now?" 

So, while you are busy talking to yourself, your muscles are reacting to your inner message by either trying to adjust, overcontrol, restrict, or over-correct your shot.  In most circumstances, you will ever so slightly slow down, stop or inhibit your motion  (shorting the shot) or over-correct (by shooting long).  Once you begin to overcorrect during the shot, your regular motion is affected.   Sure, you might still make the shot, but the probability has been changed, often dramatically.  

With enough disruptive self-talk occurring on a regular basis in practice and during competition, an athlete's ability to effectively develop and firmly establish smooth fine motor movements is compromised.  Self-talk affects the encoding of muscle memory through a series of micro-disruptions. With a sufficient stream of micro-disruptions, small disruptions of fine motor movements occur, resulting in an inefficient, and often erratic set of fine motor movements.   As your motor movements are affected, so is your comfort with your shot.  Any ongoing discomfort begins to erode your self-confidence.  Eventually, your self-talk produces self-doubt which causes you to not only question yourself but to question the fine motor movements themselves.

That's the way you forget how to shoot, putt, throw, kick, serve.  It's your inner critic thats attacking your muscle memory.  This constant internal criticism can erode what you have spend hours trying to perfect.  It's a type of waterboarding.  Death by a thousand cuts.

The more that I work with athletes and look closely at their self-talk, it appears that self-talk is prevalent enough to cause physiological disruption in fine motor movements.  At first, it affects individual shots, causing enough disruption in the athlete to miss any particular shot.  If the athlete's self-talk is disruptive enough and frequent enough, it causes shooting slumps; and, if an athlete's self-talk is chronic enough will create a more severe disorder, the yips.

My experience is that many, if not all, athletes have, at least, a very mild case of the yips.  With enough practice, most athletes can overcome harsh, negative, and disruptive self-talk.  However, when self-talk is at it's most disruptive, it can affect even the most rehearsed shot.  

In fact, I contend that any missed shot has, at some level, been disrupted by self-talk.  A missed shot becomes a slump through increasingly negative self-talk, followed by increased self-consciousness about subsequent misses.  The yips are simply the extreme consequences of extreme self-consciousness.  At its worst and most frequent, negative self-talk could "metastasize" into the yips. 

So, what can you do about your early stage yips?  

Be aware that your self-talk is disrupting your deep muscle learning and memory.    Don't let the yips get to you.  Want to make your shot consistently, or serve with confidence?  Want to avoid slumps?  Quiet your self-talk.  Shut your inner critic down.  Your muscle memory will thank you for it.     

For more information about strengthening your mental core, self-talk, mindfulness, mental imagery, sports psychology, etc. download Mindfuel, the mental conditioning app: