Tag: psychology

Managing burnout: Lessons from elite sport coaches.

burnout_syndrom

Burnout tends to happen as a result of long-term stress in a situation or job that, for whatever reason, you’re highly committed to. So the more you care about your work, the more likely you are to experience burnout.

Burnout has three major characteristics: emotional and physical exhaustion, a cynical attitude towards people and relationships at work, and a feeling that you are no longer accomplishing anything worthwhile. Sound familiar?

The mindful athlete: Can mindfulness really improve performance?

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?

The problem with Mental Toughness

Everyone loves a bit of mental toughness. Coaches will often tell you they only want athletes who are mentally TOUGH. Athletes strive to develop their mental STRENGTH. Sports journalists write and debate about which athletes are mentally TOUGHER than others.

Badass
Badass

In fact, mental toughness has become one of the most commonly used phrases in sports. I should point out here that I have no evidence whatsoever to support that last statement, but it seems like it’s probably true. Just search twitter for mental toughness or mental strength and you’ll see what I mean.

The Last Second Shot: Psychology of the 2015 NBA Playoffs – Round 2

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“I called GAME!”

If the first round of the 2015 NBA PLayoffs was all about dealing with the weight of expectation, for me, the Conference Semi-Finals were about pressure moments. During this round we saw several examples of individual players stepping up to the mark and delivering in the face of extreme pressure.

Michael Jordan did it to win his 6th NBA Championship. Damian Lillard won a series with one in last the 2014 playoffs. Robert Horry made it an art-form during his career. I’m talking, of course, about the game-winner, the buzzer-beater, the last second shot.

The last second shot.

In the 2015 Conference Semi-Finals, we saw no less than four game winning shots and Paul Pierce was a tenth of a second from hitting a huge shot in Game 6 of the Wizard’s series against the Hawks. Everyone who’s ever played sports has imagined themselves winning the game for their team in the dying moments, rising up as the clock winds down to sink a last second game-winner.

In other sports too, a footballer might think about soaring above the defender to head home a winner in the 93rd minute, or an athlete might dream of coming from behind down the home straight to beat their opponent on the line.

We’ve all imagined it, but when it comes down to it, how many of us actively seek out that pressure, and take those challenges head on? Are you the type of athlete who will demand to be front and centre in that situation?

In Game 4 of the Cavs/Bulls series, Lebron James made a series of mistakes in the final quarter, but with the game tied and only 1.5 seconds left, he changed the play that coach David Blatt had drawn up (a play which had James inbounding the ball), got open and hit a jumpshot to win the game. Now I’m not advocating changing plays that your coach draws up, but this was a great example of a player willing to put his own neck on the line, to make a play for his team.

Tristan Thompson was so pleased with Lebron, that he tried to take his head clean off.

Tristan Thompson was so pleased with Lebron, that he tried to take his head clean off.

Achieving Success or Avoiding Failure

There are a couple of theories of motivation that might be important in explaining why some people seek out challenges (like taking last second shots in basketball games) and why some people might prefer to sit back and let someone else to take the shot. Let’s ignore skill level for the moment (obviously if you’re a terrible shooter, you might have reasons to want someone else to take the shot!) and focus purely on behaviour.

Need Achievement Theory¹ suggests, quite simply, that everyone wants to achieve success and everyone wants to avoid failure. But the balance of these two motives isn’t the same in everyone. Pretty obviously those with high motivation to achieve success and low motivation to avoid failure, tend to be high achievers. Athletes who are more concerned with avoiding failure than achieving success are much less likely to be high achievers.

Game Winner!

Game Winner!

There are also situational factors that might play a role here. According to Need Achievement Theory, we also consider the probability of success in any situation and the value of success. If you’re facing an easy opponent, the probability of being successful is high, but the value of success is quite low.

For an extremely difficult challenge, the opposite is true (low probability/high value). So for optimal challenges (difficult but attainable), high achievers tend to step up because they see the potential for success, whereas low achievers shy away because they see the potential for criticism if they fail.

Is it all about personality?

I don’t think it would be too controversial to suggest that Paul Pierce, Derrick Rose, and LeBron James are high achievers. There are several other theories of motivation that contribute to our understanding of achievement behaviour that I won’t go into in this post, but essentially, high achievers are those who seek out challenges, perform well when being evaluated (e.g., in front of an audience), believe that success is a result of stable and controllable factors (rather than luck), tend to focus more on task than outcome goals, and focus on the pride of success rather than the shame of failure. But knowing this, it’s certainly possible to work with athletes to help them develop these tendencies.

 Developing a last-shot mentality

  • 1.  Understand your own motivation. Or if you’re a coach reading this, understand that your athletes all have different motivations. Research suggests that at the age of around 4 or 5, children move on from being completely self-focused and start comparing themselves to those around them. As people grow older still, some develop more of an awareness of when comparison with others is useful and when it isn’t, but that can happen at any age, or not at all. Knowing yourself/your athletes is the first step to developing a last-shot mentality.
  • 2. Think about your goals carefully. Are your goals about outcomes (winning) or about how you’re going to win? It’s easy to focus on winning as a goal, but make sure that the process or task goals are emphasised. Read this post on why goal setting often fails for more tips.
  • 3. Think about the feedback you give your athletes/yourself. When you succeed, make sure you acknowledge the hard work, effort, and skill that has contributed to that success. When things go wrong, make sure feedback is instructional and acknowledge outside influences that might be a cause. It’s really important to be realistic here though. There’s no use blaming failure on those external, uncontrollable factors, if it really was down to lack of effort!
  • 4. Do you approach challenges, or do you pick tasks that are easy? Make sure you train under conditions that are difficult, but also where success is possible. Setting up tasks that are too easy might give you/your athletes opportunities to achieve success, but there’s little, if any, value attached to that success. Similarly, it’s easy to reduce effort or give up on tasks that are obviously too difficult. Find the balance.

So there you have it. Are you motivated to achieve success or are you more concerned with avoiding failure? What subtle changes could you make to the ways you think about training and competition, about success and failure, in order to develop a last-shot mentality? Oh and remember, it helps if you can actually shoot well enough to back it up.

References

¹Atkinson, J.W. (1974). The mainstream of achievement-oriented activity. In J.W. Atkinson & J.O. Raynor (Eds.), Motivation and achievement (pp.13-41). New York: Halstead.

Mayweather vs Pacquiao: Battle of the Minds

May-vs-Pac-Battle-of-The-Minds

Mayweather vs Pacquiao – The Fight of the Century

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 Sciencethe 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

Keep your focus

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 controllablesso 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.

Conclusion

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.

Kėdainiuose-prasidėjo-Lietuvos-suaugusiųjų-bokso-čempionatas

 

SCIENCE!

SCIENCE!

Decisions, Decisions! How the Seahawks Lost Superbowl XLIX.

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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.

BEAST MODE

BEAST MODE

Beast Mode

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.

Game Winner

Game Winner

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.

Butler saw it coming all the way, reacted, and made a fantastic play

Butler saw it coming all the way, reacted, and made a game-winning play.

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!

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 5

2014 NBA Champions

2014 NBA Champions

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?

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 4

Team-first basketball has given the Spurs a 3-1 series lead.

Team-first basketball has given the Spurs a 3-1 series lead.

San Antonio took Game 3 in dramatic fashion to lead the series 2-1. They hit 19 of their first 21 shots, they scored 41 in the 1st quarter, and they had 71 by half-time! It was always an uphill struggle for the Heat, but the Spurs won by being aggressive and doing their thing, especially Kawhi Leonard who had an outstanding game (career high 29 points) after a relatively quite Game 1 and Game 2.

So, how did the Heat make adjustments? Did Mario Chalmers decide to do something… anything? I predicted that the Heat would respond with a BIG game, that they would be the more aggressive team in Game 4, and that they would do their thing to get back into the series: Swarming defence, steals, fast break points… I could not have been more wrong.

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 3

The series was tied 1-1 going into Game 3 in Miami. The Spurs had managed to do a better job of not being distracted by the literally uncontrollable temperature in Game 1, and Danny Green came through with some Short Memory Shooting in the 4th quarter. In Game 2, another uncontrollable factor, the referees, left both teams struggling to find their rhythm early on and it was the Heat this time, that did the better job of refocusing quickly after bad calls. So what were the key themes of Game 3?

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 2

Everyone loves these guys!

Everyone loves these guys!

Keeping Cool

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.

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