President, Lefkoe Institute
October 19, 2010
In order to make this blog post personally valuable to you, I’d like to start by asking you a couple of questions. First, whatever sport you play, how often do you play up to your potential, in other words, if you rate your best performance a 10, how often do you play at a 10?
The next question I’d like you to answer is: If you can play at a 10 sometimes, why can’t you do it more frequently? You obviously have the physical skills and ability or you wouldn’t have been able to do it that one time.
I’d like to suggest that the reason your game isn’t consistent and you don’t play up to your potential most of the time is strictly mental—specifically, your beliefs, attitudes and feelings—all of which are within your power to change.
Obviously you need the appropriate skills for your sport but, as Jim Loehr (a sports psychologist who has worked with a number of successful professional athletes) points out, “the distinguishing trademark of great players in any sport is not so much their exceptional talent, but rather their exceptional ability to consistently play at the peak of their talent.”
Many others agree. For example, a story in USA Today pointed out: “For years, golf’s top players have agreed: little separates the physical capabilities of the world’s 100 or so best players. The difference between success and failure, they agree, largely depends on their approach, their handling of crisis situations on the course, their response to pressure, the ability to handle their emotions and fears and doubts. In short, it’s the mental side of the game.”
If you’re like most serious amateur competitors, you don’t complain very much about your physical limitations. Here is a list of some of the most common complaints. Which sound familiar to you?
- “It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know.”
- “The harder I try, the worse I seem to perform.”
- “I know exactly what I’m doing wrong on my forehand (or my putting, or my footwork, or my swimming stroke, etc.), but I just can’t seem to break the habit.”
- “When I concentrate on one thing I’m supposed to be doing, I flub something else.”
- “I’m my own worst enemy.”
Notice that every one of these complaints is a mental one. Moreover, all of them are the result of pressure you put on yourself.
In fact, Loehr contends, “If you can take the pressure off yourself, then winning will take care of itself.”
Why? What’s the connection between pressure and your ability to perform?
Tony Schwartz points out in a New York Magazine article that “Thoughts about losing or playing poorly may lead to fear and anxiety, which prompt an array of physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, muscle tightness, shortness of breath, reduced blood flow to the hands and feet, and even narrowing of vision. All of these reactions make it impossible to play up to one’s potential. ”
“The emotional downfall for most players is mistakes,” according to Loehr. “Mistakes can trigger strong emotional responses (disappointment, embarrassment, anger, temper, low intensity) that can cause inconsistent or poor play. For some players, nearly every mistake represents an emotional crisis. But it’s interesting to note that everyone manages mistakes the same way when they’re playing well. They simply turn and walk away confidently, as if nothing happened.
Ideally, the best emotional response to mistakes is to get challenged. A mistake is simply feedback to the mental computer that the shot wasn’t perfect, that some adjustment is necessary. And the simple fact is that without mistakes, the learning process would be permanently blocked. No mistakes, no progress. But negative emotion also blocks the progress and is a natural response to mistakes. So what’s the answer? The answer is that players must train emotionally so that mistakes produce the right emotional response.”
It might be possible to “train emotionally,” but ultimately emotions are the result of beliefs and conditionings. Eliminate the beliefs and conditionings and the emotions change automatically. Imagine the following: You have the belief that a ball being hit into the net (or into the water, etc., depending on your sport) is a mistake, and mistakes mean there is something wrong with you. Now imagine that the ball hits the net or goes into the water. What would you have to feel? Angry at yourself, annoyed, frustrated, hopeless, etc.
Now imagine this scenario: You have the belief that there is no such thing as a mistake, that every result that isn’t what you intended is an opportunity to learn how to improve your game. Moreover, you believe that not achieving your intended result means nothing about you. Now imagine that the ball hits the net or goes into the water. What would you feel in this situation? You might find it difficult to imagine right now that there are only outcomes and no mistakes, but just do your best to imagine the scenario I’ve just described. Okay? What would you feel? Challenged, calm, curious, or possibly nothing at all.
What happens physiologically when you think you’ve made a mistake? Too much negative energy, which gets translated into being too excited, too angry, too anxious. Some typical signs of over-arousal include:
- Legs feel weak and rubbery.
- Difficulty in concentrating and focusing.
- Everything seems to be going faster than it really is.
- Inability to think clearly and accurately.
- Attention gets focused on one thing and refocusing is difficult.
- Become fatigued very quickly.
Changing your belief about mistakes would minimize these conditions.
Stress is an interpretation
“The greatness of a Gretsky, a Connors, a Palmer, or an Evert is not that they perform well under pressure,” Loehr contends. “No one performs well under pressure. Their greatness is in their learned ability to take the pressure off. In the face of great external pressure, these