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:  http://appmc.hn/1aekztQ
 








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:  http://appmc.hn/1aekztQ








Friday, September 22, 2017

Strengthening Your Mental Core


The word "core" in the physical fitness and conditioning world has become a buzzword.  Like the physical core, there is also a mental core related to mental conditioning. Physical core training is about increasing power, strength and stabilization.  So, is the training of your mental core.

Many fitness buffs often think only of sit-ups and crunches as the secret to strengthening the core. True fitness experts know that there is much more to the core than an impressive six-pack.  Similarly, many athletes and coaches think that the mental core is simply just about developing mental toughness (the equivalent of a mental core six-pack).  The mental core is much more than mental toughness.

The mental core creates a solid, fundamental, and broad base for your overall mental fitness and, thus, your subsequent ability to perform successfully.

So, what does constitute the mental core? Here are some of my thoughts.   
  • Internal Dialogue/Self-Talk -  simply put, these are the things you say to yourself about yourself, your opponent, your teammates, your coach, the fans.  It also includes what you say to your during practice, during your performance in games, during time-outs, after games. Often the things you say to yourself about yourself are harsh, toxic and distract you from your performance.  The real problem with our cognitive mindset is that that it is often stuck in evaluation activities when it should be focused on other tasks (such as gathering information, skill acquisition, rehearsal, and execution, for example).   Increasing your awareness of your internal dialogue/self-talk and its effect on your performance will have a great influence on your performance skills.  Additionally, it is important to realize that silencing your inner critic and internal "chatter" is more useful that simply changing your self-talk from negative to positive. 
  • Pre- and Post-Performance Recovery Skills -  here, emphasis is placed on the importance of developing a set of skills and activities that provide you with an opportunity to fully recover mentally from performances and competition that is as crucial as physical recovery.   Evidence is mounting that both mental and physical recovery skills (including sleep) are more important than we ever considered in the past.  
  • Resilience - this refers to your skill and ability to quickly and fully bounce back from setbacks, to deal with adversity, learn from mistakes and effectively put your mistakes behind you.  Only recently has resilience been seriously considered as a component of mental toughness.   Resilience includes carefully obtaining, valuing, and incorporating constructive feedback.   
  • Systems Thinking - in the case of your mental core, this refers to your awareness and understanding of the matrixed complexity, interrelatedness and connection of multiple factors involved in your performance. It also refers to the idea that in order to affect real behavioral change, a system that provides structure and consistency must be put into place.  Systems thinking in this context implies that mental conditioning and strengthening of your mental core requires you to become a student of mental conditioning, sports and performance psychology (as well as a student of your sport).  
  • Anxiety Management - refers to the idea that 1)  anxiety is a part of performance and competition; 2)  mental fitness includes the acknowledgment and management rather than the eradication of anxiety; 2) that excitement and anxiety can be two words for the same thing; and, 3)  the goal of mental conditioning can't and shouldn't be to eliminate anxiety.  
  • Emotional Intelligence - emotional intelligence (and related skills) is an important and necessary component of performance enhancement in players, coaches, and teammates. Emotional intelligence involves the understanding of the critical role that emotional information and social interactions play in performance and success. Evidence suggests that emotional intelligence is an important characteristic of effective leadership and team development as well as coaching effectiveness.
  • Confidence - this component of your mental core is one of the characteristics that has been long considered critical to success in any endeavor, including sports and the performing arts. In this model of the mental core, confidence is defined as a general sense that one's skills and abilities are capable of achieving one's desired outcomes.  Many people include this component in their idea of mental toughness.  Confidence is particularly dependent upon a health cognitive mindset.  
  • Preparation Skills - this factor suggests that 1)  success is related to one's understanding and awareness that personal growth occurs through the methodical process of continuous learning and development of skills, rather than inherent, genetically-informed and pre-ordained talent; and, 2) is highly influenced by your desire and willingness to consistently spend long-hours of monotonous, focused, disciplined, repetitive activity to improve and perfect your skills and abilities.  
  • Mindfulness - this important factor of the mental core refers to a broad set of skills that include mental imagery and visualization, relaxation and meditation skills, focusing and centering skills (that are useful in practice, preparation, performance, recovery and evaluation activities of athletes and coaches). Mindfulness approaches can be very helpful to post-performance recovery and injury recovery.  
Note that there has been increasing evidence that body language is important in performance.  Be aware of your body language; however, I have seen increasing evidence that body language is more of a indicator of the strength of your mental core than a factor or component of the mental core.  

Assess these core components of your mental core.  Start by identifying your mental core strengths and limitations in each of these areas.  Focus on and leverage your strengths while also learning more about how to shore up your limitations.  Learn to use these basic skills to build a foundation for mental core training.

Future blog posts will go into more detail about your mental core.  Please let me know if you have any comments or questions about your mental core below.

For more information about mental conditioning and your mental core, download my mobile app.
Mindfuel at: http://appmc.hn/1aekztQ

Also,check out my sports and performance psychology book, Razor Thin:  The Difference Between Winning and Losing.  You can purchase it at www.lulu.com/spotlight/razorthin

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Super Bowl LI Match-up: The Tale of Two Mindsets



Let's take a look at some factors that may influence the outcome of Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.

The Franchise Systems
  • Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and current owner of the Atlanta Falcons has a long history of success as a businessman, and has a set of leadership principles that he follows closely.   
Advantage:  New England Patriots

Super Bowl Experience
  • This is Bill Belichick's seventh Super Bowl appearance with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback. They have won four of the six Super Bowls they have participated in.  Brady was voted MVP for Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII and XLIX.
  • This is the second appearance in the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons since their were founded in 1966.  It is their first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.  Dan Quinn has been an assistant coach for Seattle Seahawks during their Super Bowl appearances.  He knows what it is like, but he has not been head coach there.  
Advantage:  New England Patriots

Mental Conditioning, Team Training and Team Building
  • In the off-season, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and director of sports medicine and performance Marty Lauzon had a four day team-building session with seven veteran Navy SEALs of Acumen Performance Group.  
  • Falcon head coach Dan Quinn spent several years with the Seattle Seahawks and their head coach Pete Carroll.  The Seahawks embrace the use of mental conditioning and employ various high-profile mental conditioning coaches, including Michael Gervais and George Mumford (Michael Jordan's meditation ) guru.
  • Bill Belichick is a master of getting his teams prepared for playoff and Super Bowl games.  He understands the mental aspect of the game as well as anyone.   
Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

Neuroscience
  • For the past 3 years. Tom Brady uses the BrainHQ training program developed by Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science.  A cognitive enhancement tool and brain training program, Brady had it installed at his TB12 Sports Center.  BrainHQ has 29 brain exercises that are done on a computer screen. One example of an exercise that Brady uses is called “Double Decision.”

  • Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback uses a device called NeuroTracker that he says has helped him sharpen his cognitive skills, providing an edge when he targets receivers or chooses plays. The focus has helped fuel an MVP-caliber season.  Ryan uses the 3D glasses at least three times a week to improve peripheral vision.
Advantage:  None

Motivation/Complacency
  • The New England Patriots won the last Super Bowl in which they participated two years ago.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have never won the Super Bowl.  This year they have embraced "The Brotherhood" as their rallying cry.  
Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

Distractions
  • New England has been distracted by the focus the media and the public has placed on Tom Brady's alleged support of Donald Trump; the injury to star tight-end Rob Gronkowski, and the long-standing Deflategate controversy.
  • The Atlanta Falcons are slight underdogs in Las Vegas.  This may take any pressure off of them.  
Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

Overall Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons


What is your prediction?  





Saturday, January 28, 2017

Donald Trump & the USFL: Past Behavior is the Best Predictor of Future Behavior (VIDEO)

I ran into some guy last night at a restaurant.  Admittedly a Trump voter, the stranger reluctantly expressed concern and growing regret about his vote.  His sentiments may be evidence of a growing feeling of fear in Trump voters around the country.  This is after only one week of Trump's controversial presidency.    

But if you still have any illusions (or delusions) about Donald Trump's huge talents as a successful businessman, all you have to do is look carefully at his prominent role as an owner of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL.  Founded in the early 1980s, the USFL, a professional football league, was new and it was experiencing growing pains.    

At that time, a young Trump was certainly a brash, confident promoter and salesman.  Here he is in an interview during a New Jersey Generals game.  Also, forebodingly, listen to the owner of the Birmingham Stallions throw the media under the bus for their coverage of the league.



So, let's fast forward to the story about the demise of the USFL.  Here is a video clip highlighting Mr. Trump abilities as a leader of a league that backed his strategy and, then quickly, failed miserably. No success to be found here.


Now, let's look at a interview with Mr. Trump as he shows his impatience, arrogance, and short attention span, paranoia, lack of a sense of humor and inability to learn from his mistakes as he sits for a moment with the media to reflect on his USFL experience.  Pay careful attention to his attitude toward the media.




The behavioral and social sciences, including psychology, and criminology, and law enforcement all consider past behavior as the best predictor of future behavior.   Ironically, the hotel, casino and gaming industries all believe strongly in this theory.  

So, if we look at his past behavior through the lens of these videos, what is your best guess about about the ultimate outcome of his presidency?  

No, I don't want him to fail either, but we all have to prepare for it.  

  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Stan Wawrinka's Mental Toughness Powers Him to the U. S. Open Final (Video)






"Really tough for the body, a big fight physically and mentally. You need to accept to suffer and almost enjoy it, because you have no choice. I saw after the first set he would start to be tired if I pushed him physically. I know I can last for three, four, five hours. Same as against Del Potro. I need to stay with him, not go down, show him you will push him, push him again. Sometimes my brain gets lost on the tennis court. When I stay tough I can beat anybody. I know I can bring my best in a Grand Slam. Maybe because i didn't play so well in last few months." 
--Stan Wawrinka, tennis pro, speaking on ESPN following his win in the semifinals of the U.S. Open on 9/9/2016.
Stan Wawrinka sounds highly motivated as he heads into a showdown in the finals against Novak Djokovic on Sunday in New York. Can he will himself to victory? It seems that his head's on straight right now. Will it be enough for the upset?

How do you call up your mental toughness? Are you willing to suffer mentally and physically to achieve greatness?


Wednesday, April 06, 2016

NCAA Mens' Basketball Classic: A Lesson in Leadership and Courage





This is my first blog post in a while.  I had not been inspired to write recently--until this week.  The 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Final was what did it.

I have only one conclusion from watching and analyzing that wonderful game between the champion Villanova Wildcats and the runner-up North Carolina Tar Heels.

Yes, Kris Jenkins of Villanova won the game with a once-in-a lifetime, buzzer-beating, long-distance jumper.  He is the obvious hero.  However, my more important take away from that game is that, at least in basketball, you don't give the ball to your best shooter or scorer when the game is on the line. You give the ball to your leader and let him (or her) put your team in the best position to win.  On Monday night, both experienced and highly respected coaches let their leader lead.  Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams put their leader, Marcus Paige in the driver's seat at the end of the game.   Late in the game, the courageous Paige, a senior, found ways to keep the Tar Heels in the game.

Similarly, Wildcat head coach, Jay Wright, put the ball in the hands of point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Arcidiacono, also a senior.  Arciciacono, who had show much poise and scoring ability throughout the game, ran the final play that led to the winning Jenkins jump shot.  Though he considered shooting, he made the right pass at the right time to get Jenkins the ball in a position to shoot.

Watch the video and you will see.  Leadership and courage by Paige, and then Arcidiacono, led to a classic finish and a timelessly valuable basketball lesson.

Thank you, Tar Heels.  Thank you, Wildcats.  Congratulations to both teams.  Enjoy the video!