You may or may not have come across the concept of Mindfulness before. You might have heard about sports coaches encouraging their athletes to adopt mindfulness practices, or maybe you’ve heard about athletes learning and practicing meditation as part of their training. But what exactly is this thing called Mindfulness, and can it really improve sporting performance?
I love the NBA and, for me, the first round of the playoffs is all about expectations. Some teams have high expectations for themselves, while other teams have expectations placed upon them. Either way, these expectations can weigh heavy upon teams, and sometimes, on individual players. Some were able to shed this weight of expectation and perform to the best of their ability. Others felt the full weight of expectation upon them and their performances suffered as a result. So how do we deal with the weight of expectation?
Expectation vs Confidence
How do expectations affect performance? Well an expectation is just ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case’. Having strong beliefs that we’re going to perform well in our sport sounds a lot like having confidence. And having confidence is a good thing right?
Well yeah, of course having confidence in your own performance is great. But there are a couple of differences between confidence and high expectations.
The biggest difference is that expectations are generally results or outcome driven. At a team level, expectations might be about having to win the first two games of a series at home, or maybe sweeping a series against a poor opponent. At an individual level, players, might have expectations about being perfect from the free throw line, having no turnovers, or scoring 40 points.
So what’s the problem?
The first problem with having really high expectations is that they can be so demanding that it’s almost impossible to reach them. Scoring 40 points in a game doesn’t actually happen that often, so if that’s our expectation and we’re not reaching it, then we can feel like we’re failing, which has a negative impact on our confidence and motivation. We get anxious about making mistakes, get down on ourselves when we do, and then find it difficult to relax and enjoy the competition.
The second problem is that really high expectations take our focus away from the processes. If we have such high expectations about winning, we’re not concentrating on making the right passes, getting to the right spots, playing good defence, and taking good shots. If we focus on those things, the outcome will take care of itself.
It’s also important to consider where these expectations come from. Are they your own, or do they come from elsewhere? Fans? Coaches? Parents? Media? But whether they’re your own or whether they’ve been put upon you, these expectations can weigh you down and stop you from performing at your best. So how do you shed the weight of expectation?
So should I lower my expectations?
No, not at all! Rather than lowering your expectations, it’s more a case of thinking about where your expectations lie. Are they about performance, or are they about effort, intensity, attitude? Here are three ways to perform without the weight of expectation dragging you down.
1. Play with no expectations about the outcome – We don’t know what’s going to happen in a game. We can’t control the opposition, or the officials. So instead of having expectations about winning, have high expectations about your efforts and the attitude you bring to performing.
2. Allow yourself to make mistakes – Perfection is not really possible. Yeah, you might make all your shots in the first quarter, even in the half. But over a whole game, it’s just not gonna happen. So don’t beat yourself up over a mistake. The best of the best of the best three-point shooters miss more than half of their shots! Use mistakes as opportunities to get better.
3. Reframe the expectations of others – If you feel your coaches, parents, fans have high expectations of you, it’s likely those expectations come from a good place. Your coaches and teammates probably don’t want you to feel like you’d be letting them down by not playing well. They want you to do well and are supporting you in your efforts, so use this support as a positive source of motivation and confidence.
There’ll always be expectations, whether you create them yourself, or whether you feel them from outside sources, but it’s how you manage those expectations that’s going to make the biggest difference.
Have high expectations ever affected your performance? Maybe you’re a coach or parent that has high expectations for your athletes or kids. What are your experiences and how do you deal with the weight of expectation? Leave a comment below.
The build-up, the money, the media circus surrounding the “fight of the century” were all potential distractions, so how might the pound for pound kings have kept their focus for the biggest fight of their lives?
I write for a website called Boxing Science, the world’s first website dedicated specifically to sport science in Boxing. Co-created by Danny Wilson, and Alan Ruddock, Boxing Science has brought together a team of sport science experts from Sheffield Hallam University to apply principles from research and practice in developing world class boxers and coaches.
In the build up to the fight of Fight of the Century, we wrote a series of articles on the science behind this potentially spectacular fight night. So I collaborated with trainee sport psychologist, Rory Mack, to write the following article for the Boxing Science website. In it, we discuss some of the methods and strategies boxers might use to remain focused on the biggest stage of them all…
Trawling through twitter, a tweet from Manny Pacquiao caught our attention here at Boxing Science. It read, simply, “Keep your focus on what matters the most.” But what does matter the most when preparing for the fight of your life? What should you keep your focus on? Winning? Making weight? Eating right? Getting enough sleep?
With so many things running round an athlete’s head in the build up to an important competition, it’s sometimes difficult to know what to focus on. In this article, we’ll be giving you some hints and tips for developing your ability to focus on what’s important.
Now whoever you picked to win the ‘Fight of the Century’, there’s no denying that both of these guys were supremely talented fighters. In a port like boxing, the battle of the minds can play a key part in who comes out on top. Who can keep their focus on what matters most?
Keep your focus
This might sound pretty obvious, but keeping your focus isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In the build up to an important fight, it’s perfectly normal to have a lot of different thoughts about a lot of different things…
What If I lose? What if I WIN? What shall I have for dinner tonight?
Whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has thoughts like this, all the time. Sometimes these thoughts are useful like when you’re thinking about how you might counter an opponent’s strengths; sometimes they’re not, like when you’re wondering how they get cranes on top of buildings.
“It’s perfectly normal to have a lot of different thoughts about a lot of different things. Every now and then our minds are going to wander away from what’s important, but having a strategy in place for when that happens can be a real advantage.”
On fight night itself, it can be easy to get distracted. Thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, as well as things like the crowd, the referee, even the colour of your opponent’s shorts, might all take your focus away from what’s important.
The key thing really, is how you see these thoughts – are they negative and distracting, or are they ‘just thoughts’ that come and go and don’t necessarily mean anything? As boxers, we should probably accept that every now and then our minds are going to wander away from what’s important; that’s just human nature. But having a strategy in place for when that happens can be a real advantage.
What should I focus on?
We started by asking what matters most in terms of focus – what should we focus on? But the honest answer is that it really does depend on the athlete. Sometimes using focus cues in the ring can really help you to keep your attention on what’s important. If you find yourself being distracted or getting ‘stuck’ on negative or unhelpful thoughts, focus cues are a great tool to help re-focus the mind.
These focus cues can be single words, or longer phrases, used to direct attention to different aspects of performance, but it’s really important that boxers develop their own cues so that they’re more meaningful.
How do I know what my focus cues should be?
So let’s say you want to develop your own focus cues that you could use in the ring for a particular fight. The first stage is to decide where you want your focus to be. In previous articles we’ve talked about the need to ‘control the controllables’, so it’s best that your focus cues relate to things that you can control!
Perhaps you want to focus on something technical, or maybe it’s something physical. Perhaps it’s something more to do with your mind-set or your mental approach to the fight. Dominate the centre of the ring? Stay light on your feet? Keep using the jab? Maybe thinking back to the ‘four corners’ might be useful.
Once you’ve decided what your areas of focus are, come up with one cue word for each of those things – ‘Dominate’ … ‘Glide’ … ‘Sting’ – but make sure these words are particularly meaningful for you. These cues should be simple, but should remind you of the job at hand.
Some athletes find it helpful to pair their focus cues with a physical cue; perhaps a couple of deep, abdominal breaths, rolling the neck and shoulders or a squeeze of the fist. This can help draw attention away from any distracting thoughts, and help you to focus on what is relevant at that particular moment, or just help you relax and feel loose.
It’s really important to practice using your focus cues in training. Get comfortable with them long before fight night. See what works and what doesn’t work for you and change your cues if you need to. But remember that your focus cues should be simple and tailored specifically to you if they’re going to help you maintain focus on the task at hand.
Practice them consistently, and when it comes time to perform, your cues might just help you to focus on what’s important and remind your body to go out there and do exactly what you’ve been training for.
The Seattle Seahawks could have won their second straight Superbowl. They should have won their second straight. They should have beaten the New England Patriots in Feb, 2015, but instead they had to walk off the field, close, but cigar-less. They could have won, but for a decision that had pretty much everyone who was watching saying “what the… wait… why would you… but you have… just… oh my goodness what have you done!?”
Some context might be good right about now. I’ll be honest, I pretty much fell asleep about two minutes after the opening kick off, but I did wake up just in time to see Russell Wilson throw an unlikely touchdown pass to Seahawks rookie receiver Chris Matthews; unlikely because the play came with 0.06 left in the first half. It was a gamble.
Most coaches would probably have gone for the field goal and the (almost) guaranteed points, rather than risk not scoring and not having enough time to get another play off.
Anyway, that tied the game at 14-14, Katy Perry attempted to sing some songs atop a genuinely quite impressive giant lion (or a genuinely shit tiger, I’m not sure), Channel 4 desperately tried to fill time, and then the second half got under way. The Seahawks scored twice in the 3rd quarter, putting them up by 10, then Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes for the Patriots in the 4th, the second with only 2.06 left in the game. Patriots ahead 28-24.
“You put the ball in the hands of the guy named “BEAST MODE” and let him go all… well… beast modey. You definitely don’t throw on second down right?”
What happened next was… ridiculous. The Seahawks had the ball on their own 20 yard line with just over two minutes to go, and all three of their time-outs left. On first down, Wilson threw to running back, Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch (more on that nickname later), for 31 yards.
A couple of plays and another first down later, Wilson threw long to Jermaine Kearse. The pass was tipped by rookie corner, Malcolm Butler, who I don’t think could have done any better with it, but Kearse somehow kept hold of the ball, giving the Seahawks possession at the Patriots’ 5 yard line. One running play later (Lynch for 4 yards) and the Hawks had 2nd and Goal at the 1 yard line, with 26 seconds remaining and one timeout left.
Now, back to Beast Mode. I think this video probably says all that needs to be said about that. Lynch was arguably the best running back in the game at the time and was virtually unstoppable in the very situation Seattle found themselves in. So you’re on the 1 yard line. You run the ball, yeah? You put the ball in the hands of the guy named “BEAST MODE” and let him go all… well… beast modey. You definitely don’t throw on second down right? Right? Uh… what the… wait… why would you… but you have… just… oh my goodness what have you done!?
Pete Carroll, the Seahawks head coach had called a pass play. Russell Wilson passed on 2nd down, and the ball was intercepted by Malcolm Butler. Patriots win. And the watching world wonders what the hell just happened.
Fans, critics, sports writers, all over the world were quick to decry this as the worst coaching decision in Football history, and in hindsight, they were right. The Seahawks lost and you can’t really argue with that.
Hindsight is 20/20
But just hold on a sec. Let’s say the Seahawks did run on 2nd down and didn’t get in. They have to call time-out to stop the clock (or spike the ball leaving them with only 4th down to score). Probably not enough time for another run on 3rd down and a reset, so you have to throw on 3rd down. And New England know you have to throw.
If you throw on 2nd down (like they did) and it’s incomplete, the clock stops, and you still have your time-out to stop the clock after a 3rd down run attempt if you don’t score from it, or you could take another shot in the air (if you fancied it). From Carrolls’ comments, “we were playing for 3rd and 4th down,” it seems likely that this was the thinking behind the decision to throw on 2nd and Goal. Now unfortunately, if your pass on 2nd down is intercepted, then you’re screwed.
So what happened? Coaching under pressure? Decision-making under pressure? Quarterbacking under pressure? Was this a case of over-thinking the situation, over-thinking all of the potential outcomes when really, putting the ball in the hands of the league’s best running back might have just gotten you the win?
Doing what you do best and not worrying about what the other team is doing (lining up to defend the run) might have won it for you? Possibly, possibly not. It’s impossible for anyone to know.
Pete Carroll is a great coach. I love his coaching philosophy, I love the way he relates to his players, and for a coach who is fully on board with mindfulness practices, staying in the moment, focusing “on what’s right in front of us,” it’s likely that he was doing just that. Focusing on what was right in front of him. Just like at the end of the first half when most people would have taken three points rather than risk coming away with nothing. And as Carroll said after the game, “you never think you’ll throw an interception there, just as you don’t think you would fumble.”(read full article here).
But here’s a story that doesn’t seem to be being told. Undrafted rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made a spectacular defensive play that essentially won the Superbowl for the Patriots. Spectacular not only because of the speed and athleticism and the strength involved, spectacular not only because it involved a tremendous read on the play, but spectacular also because it came a few seconds after the disappointment of getting his hands on the ball but still giving up the pass that got the Seahawks into a winning position.
Again, I don’t think he could have played it better, but that’s the sort of thing that plays on your mind. “If only I’d have tipped it further, if only, I’d have broken up the play… we wouldn’t be in this position, with the Seahawks about to score, and us about to lose the Superbowl.” Admit it. How many of you would find it hard not to be thinking about all that stuff?
But how about staying in the moment! Not worrying about the past, or the future, but staying purely in the moment, reacting to what’s in front of you, and responding in the right way. That’s what Butler was able to do. Something I’m sure Pete Carroll would admire.
We could argue all day about whether the Hawks should have passed or not, whether it was the right call or not. What’s important is that it happened the way it happened. That was the play that was called, the play that was run, and Malcolm Butler, fully in the moment, fully present, reacted. The Seattle Seahawks didn’t lose the Superbowl. Malcolm Butler won it.
What’s your take on the last 2 minutes of Superbowl XLIX? What affects your decision-making under pressure? Do you over-think? Do you under-think? How good are you at staying in the moment, and focusing on what’s in front of you? Leave a comment below!
Well that’s it! The 2014 NBA Finals are over and it was the San Antonio Spurs who put last year’s defeat emphatically behind them, and prevented the Miami Heat from winning their third straight Championship, or “threepeating” if you will.
I don’t think anyone expected the Spurs to win in 5 Games and I certainly don’t think anyone expected the Heat to roll over without much of a fight. At the very least, I didn’t expect it, but I admit that I was hoping that the Spurs brand of TEAM FIRST basketball would be effective enough to get them past Miami. And it really, really was!
I said in the first blog-post of this series that I wanted to do a game-by-game ‘Psychology of the NBA Finals’ type thing. Key sport psych lessons or observations from each game. You can access the other blogs from the home page if you like. But what were the important points to take from Game 5?
If the theme of Game 1 was ‘beating the heat’, the theme of Game 2 was definitely ‘keeping cool’. But this time, it wasn’t a broken air conditioning system that was causing players’ temperatures to rise. It was another one of those damn uncontrollables – the refs.
Every player knows that the refs won’t call two games in exactly the same way. No matter what the sport, while referees aim for consistency, you just know that some days you’re gonna get calls, some days you’re not. It was clear from the start that the referees had made an adjustment from Game 1 and were allowing much more contact in Game 2.
It’s been a while since my last post on here. I’ve been largely trying to avoid the internet while the NBA Playoffs have been happening. People seem unable to resist posting results on social media sites and, since I can no longer stay up until 5am and function adequately the next day, I’ve been recording games to watch when I get home from work the following day.
Even though I’m not watching the games live, I can still obviously influence the result by shouting at the TV, so knowing the results essentially ruins watching sports… and spending a whole day in a Sports Department and NOT finding out sporting results is not easy.
Anyway, that’s why I’ve been “off the internet” for a while, but I’m back now, and what an NBA Final Series we have this year! I’m not a Spurs fan as such, but I’m a fan of the way they play basketball… the right way. They were literally inches from winning the Finals last year, so I was really pleased to see them make their way back there this year, and loved the way their unselfish, team basketball, got them past the one-on-one, never-going-to-be-successful, even-Jordan-passed-the-ball-sometimes, nightmare that is the OKC Thunder.
Most… probably all athletes who’ve achieved anything approaching success will have set goals along the way. There are a couple of theories as to how and why goal setting works.
One, called the Direct Mechanistic view¹, explains that goals direct your attention onto the task at hand, encourage persistence and motivation, and can even help you to develop new strategies for achieving what you’ve set out to achieve.
So I’ve been doing some consultancy work in boxing for a while now, and it’s safe to say that it’s a sport that’s unlike any of the sports that I’ve worked in before. It’s a brutal sport, there’s no getting away from it. The aim is to punch your opponent until he/she can’t punch you back any more.
However, it’s also a sport that requires not only immense physical strength and stamina, but also discipline and control, and the ability to think tactically and strategically while under pressure. So in some ways, I suppose it’s not that dissimilar to other sports after all.
People will tell you that boxing is 80% mental. …or maybe 90% mental. …. or 95% mental…. The bottom line is, nobody would question that boxers have to be mentally tough …. but what exactly is mental toughness, and how can Sport Psychology help boxers develop it?