Tag: Sports Psychology

Adversity: (N.) Fortunate Misfortune

By: Premier Sport Psychology

Imagine that right now, you are given a piece of paper. On this paper is a list, and this list contains all of the painful, frustrating, and heartbreaking experiences that you will have within the future of your athletic career. You are then given the option to cross off any or all of the items, thereby eliminating them from your life’s timeline and saving yourself from facing these setbacks down the road. Would you do so? Or what if: you are given the list, but you cannot change anything on it. You can, however, move to a new sport so as to avoid these otherwise inevitable experiences. Would you change sports in hopes of finding a smoother, more pleasant path toward your ultimate goals

Assuming that your desire is to maximize overall success, and that you want to become the best athlete you can be, you should have answered “no” to these questions. (This is also assuming that the setbacks are not so disabling as to cause PTSD or long-term trauma, as not all adversity has positive outcomes.) However, if you replied with “yes” to either of them, don’t be so hard on yourself. It is our natural instinct as humans to avoid danger and pain, so of course you wouldn’t look at that list and automatically shout, “Yes! I really want to go through all of these horrible events!” Yet…are they really so horrible? In the moment, yes, they very likely are. But with one or more people who are there to support you, and with the prerequisite skills and attitudes, these events are actually not horrible in the long run. In fact, they are beneficial, as they will likely move you further toward your goals than you may have travelled otherwise (Savage, Collins, & Cruickshank, 2017)

To gain an understanding as to why exactly this is, let’s step back for a moment and take a look at what can occur when an athlete experiences a setback. Let’s say, for example, that you get sick, and it’s the middle of the season. You are forced to sit out and rest until you recover, and this is likely frustrating in and of itself. But then when you return to practice, you are significantly weaker, and you feel as though you lost all the endurance that you had worked so hard to build up throughout the past few months. At this point, you essentially have two options. You can throw in the towel and give up on the season. Or, despite feeling angry and disappointed, you can proceed to work relentlessly—not only toward the level which you were once at, but also toward surpassing this level and becoming even greater. In this scenario, you choose the latter. You are somewhat disheartened, but your unwavering desire to reach your goals drives a determination within you which is greater than your sense of defeat.

Later in your career, you are able to see the full picture when looking back. Getting sick in the heart of the season had seemed like a purely unfortunate event. Nothing good came of it at the time. You couldn’t change it, so you gave all that you had in your fight to return to the top. And maybe the season didn’t turn out the way that you had hoped, but you now realize that you augmented your resilience and mental toughness as a result of the way in which you dealt with the setback. The overall payoff thus proved itself to be greater in magnitude than the initial negative impact of the adversity (Savage et al., 2017).

There are three aspects of this example which are important to recognize. First, when faced with the decision as to whether you wanted to confront the challenge head-on or accept the misfortune, you strengthened your resolve and chose the former. This decision was made by you, not for you (i.e., by someone else). Second, when struggling to get back on your feet and working through the grind, you employed the skills, attitude, and knowledge which you already had, including the initiative to seek external support (e.g., from family members, coaches, or trained psychologists). Even before this incident, you were a motivated, resilient, hard-working, and mentally tough athlete. It is also likely that you had previously witnessed others bounce back from injury or illness, so you had a sense of what it would take. And third, you learned from your experience by subsequently reflecting upon it, thus adding to the personal growth with which it enabled you (Savage et al., 2017).

Though it’s tempting, you should not erase your future adversities from that theoretical list. Similarly, it is not advantageous for you to constantly avoid situations which yield the possibility of failure or disappointment. Frustration and heartbreak can work to your benefit in the long run, given that you have the necessary mental tools and prior skillset to navigate them and pick yourself back up. These skills are consequently refined and strengthened, and your experience becomes a resource that you can draw upon when faced with adversity down the road. As such, setbacks cause an initial drop in perceived performance potential, but their subsequent rebounds exceed the magnitude of the drop (Savage et al., 2017).

Competition is not easy—physically or mentally. When things get tough, you need to be tough, too. Being faced with a major obstacle can at times, though, be tremendously upsetting; it can be scary, or stressful, or simply exhausting. But here’s the beautiful thing about pain: it can help you learn, it can help you grow, and it can be the catalyst for accomplishments that you had once never imagined possible.

 

Savage, J., Collins, D., & Cruickshank, A. (2017). Exploring traumas in the development of talent: what are they, what do they do, and what do they require? Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29(1), 101-117. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2016.1194910

 

Growth Mindset

By: Premier Sport Psychology

“You can do anything that you set your mind to.” Not quite, but whatever you set your mind to, you can absolutely make better.  There is a mentality called the growth mindset that can be adopted by all people which leads to greater success and overall performance. Having a growth mindset is associated with having the fundamental belief that your abilities and outcomes are influenced by hard work (as opposed to mere natural talent). It is a way of thinking that not only increases your motivation levels, giving you the drive to work towards your goals, but one that also allows for greater bounce-back from challenges faced along the way (otherwise known as resiliency). The athletes who adopt this way of thinking are the ones that tend to stand out from the rest. They are the ones that persistently look for ways in which they can improve their game and work hard to correct mistakes or bad habits. “Athletes with the growth mindset find success in doing their best, in learning and improving” (Dweck, 2006). They don’t need a prize to feel confident, and instead attain it through adopting a growth mindset and focusing on self-improvement.  Not everyone has this same way of thinking, though, for there is another mindset called the “fixed mindset” that people often adopt.

The fixed mindset is associated with the fundamental belief that your ability level is limited by natural talent. Which, in essence, is what makes success and outcomes set at a fixed level determined by said ability.  Athletes that have a fixed mindset have a fear of trying and failing. Instead of working hard to engage in their own improvement (as someone with the growth mindset would), they often get caught up in their failures/shortcomings, comparing their ability levels to other athletes around them. Someone with a fixed mindset may have all kinds of natural talent, but that talent means very little if they lack the motivation to develop it into something better.

They undermine their chances of success by assuming that their talent alone will take them where they want to go. Because talent has allowed things to come easier to them throughout their career, their confidence is quickly put to the test and often diminishes when they run into a set-back of any kind. The truth is, the athlete isn’t always to blame for having this kind of mindset. Coaches and parents have an influence on their athlete’s mindset based on the way that they communicate with them. When their athlete does something well, parents and coaches often fall into the habit of praising their talent and accomplishments, rather than praising the hard work that the athlete put forth to get there. Although praise is what many athletes like to hear, “children need honest and constructive feedback that pushes them towards growth as well” (Dweck, 2006).

That doesn’t necessarily mean that a coach or parent should negate praise altogether, but they should be cautious as to what message they are sending the athlete through the way that they deliver that praise. At the end of the day, “the athlete should recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort over anything else” (Dweck, 2006).

One athlete who used the growth mindset to overcome failure throughout his athletic career was Michael Jordan. Believe it or not, he wasn’t always the star athlete that people view him as today. Not only was Jordan cut from his high school’s varsity team, he never got recruited to play for his top college team, and was passed up during the first two draft picks in the NBA. BUT instead of viewing these so-called “failures” as reasons to give up (as many people would), he used them as motivators. In fact, Michael Jordan was featured in a Nike ad where he says, “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed, and that is why I succeed” (Dweck, 2006). He succeeds because he has trained his mind to see failure and defeat as a challenge and an opportunity for growth. This should be the mindset of every athlete, for “success is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” (Quote by Colin Powell)

 

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. 1st ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006. Print.

 

 

Just Imagine: You Can Improve Your Mental Toughness

By: Premier Sport Psychology

You’re in the lead, heart pounding, racing forward through the pain toward the finish. In the last moments, you see your competition come up next to you. Do you have what it takes to win?

More often than we might think, the difference between first and second, between winning and losing, between making the cutoff time or just barely missing it, is in our minds. In those last few seconds, did you truly give all that you had? Did you use every single ounce of energy that your body could produce, or were you unable to tap into that last tiny bit? Could you have pushed just the slightest bit harder to edge out your opponent? My guess is that physically, you were capable of more…but mentally, you were not. And if you did not win, this is likely the reason why.

The ability to persevere in the face of pressures, challenges, and adversities is a highly sought-after trait in athletes and coaches alike (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011). Mental toughness is the key to success and the linchpin of a good performance, so improving it is just as important as improving your physical strength, speed, and stamina. Yet while many know and accept this, few realize the extent to which they can augment their mental fortitude, and further, how much of this improvement can come from within.

To learn how to be mentally strong, we must practice. You want to be ready to grind out those last 100 yards in a race? You practice them over and over, you practice pushing through the pain, and while you are bettering yourself physically, you are also bettering yourself mentally and preparing for the time that it counts. But there is another way to practice, and when done correctly, it significantly predicts higher levels of mental toughness (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011). This technique is what sport psychologists refer to as imagery.

Imagery can generally be employed by athletes and performers in one of five ways. You can mentally perform specific skills (known as cognitive specific, or CS, imagery), and you can also mentally rehearse routines, plans, or strategies (known as cognitive general, or CG, imagery). Additionally, you can perform motivational specific (MS) imagery, during which you bring to mind images of goal-oriented responses or achievements. Lastly, there is motivational general (MG) imagery, which can be broken into motivational general–arousal (MG-A) and motivational general–mastery (MG-M). MG-A imagery involves bringing to mind images related to the emotional or physiological arousal and the regulation of anxiety associated with competition. MG-M imagery, on the other hand, refers to the act of imagining feelings of confidence, control, and perseverance (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011).

This level of categorization may all seem like a waste of time, and you might be thinking, “Why should I care? Can’t I just imagine my race and visualize myself winning?” If mental toughness is what you lack and this is how you are attempting to increase it, then you are, in fact, wasting your time. However, if you correctly employ the type of imagery found to be a strong and significant predictor of mental toughness––MG-M imagery, that is––then you are greatly improving your odds at having superlative mental grit when it matters most (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011).

To be clear, the other four types of imagery are not useless. Various studies have found that each type serves its own purpose (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011). Yet as you progress in your sport and the competition intensifies, mental toughness becomes clutch as the difference between first and second is often small. Therefore, the use of MG-M imagery can provide that final element of preparation needed to outperform your opponent. The importance of exercising mental strength and resilience during practice should never be underestimated. But we now know that visualizing yourself as self-confident, in control, and mentally tough during competition is also a valuable weapon in its own right (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011).

The mind is a powerful force. If you let it hold you back, it will not fail in doing so. But if you train it to push through the pain without letting up, if you teach it to work for you rather than against you, then you are enabling yourself to unlock your greatest physical potential. In those final moments, when that head-to-head race comes down to mental fortitude; to whose mind has the power to push on and who gives in to the fight…do you have what it takes to win?

The answer should be an undeniable “yes.”

 

Mattie, P., & Munroe-Chandler, K. (2012). Examining the Relationship Between Mental Toughness and Imagery Use. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24(2), 144-156. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2011.605422