Performance psychology isn’t just for playing sport. The elite or professional athletes and dancers I work with are often looking for a performance improvement initially, but then use the methods and ideas we work on to get more out of their lives “off the field” too. When we identify positive changes “on the field” we usually find positive changes to be made “off the field”. For non-elite sports people, methods from performance psychology can help us experience new levels of achievement and enjoyment from the more limited time we have for training and competing, and then can be applied in other valued areas of life. The video below is an example of a breathing-centred concentration technique that I used in my own (definitely non-elite!) cycling. The video was shot during this year’s Audax Alpine 200km ride, and starts 5 kms in to a 30km climb up Mt Buffalo. This was the last climb after 140kms of riding, on a 36° C day in January. As you can tell from the video, I wanted to stop focusing on how fatigued I was, on how much I wanted to stop and rest in the shade, and on how far I had left to ride, and instead just focus on something more helpful…like breathing and riding my bike!
Focusing and refocusing.
In the video, I’m using a simple breathing technique that I originally practised to help me play better rugby. A few years ago I realised that when I tried to get really fired up and run through intense game scenarios in my head just before kick off, or spent my energy thinking about outcomes I wanted, I usually just ended up getting in the wrong place, giving a penalty away or throwing an even more errant than usual pass. In contrast I performed much better when I was calm and relaxed, with a clear head, and allowed myself to respond to whatever was happening on the field. So I started practicing a breathing technique I’d come across when reading about Zen and archery in Japan. Another sport psych had been teaching this technique in soccer and cycling. I had previously used it in my work with an elite Tae Kwon Do fighter. She used it to clear her mind of distracting thoughts of injury, self-doubt, losing or even winning: distracting thoughts which in her case sometimes contributed to the undesirable outcome of getting punched really hard in the face! After practicing the technique myself on and off, I have used it to prepare for exams, to let go of anxiety before speaking to large crowds, to prepare for important meetings, and to clear my head before engaging with clients.
Getting out of your own way
A professional football client used the same technique in his sport and life. His identity obviously stays confidential, but you may have already unknowingly seen him using the technique when watching him perform. This player started noticing he was “filling his head up with stuff” during games. He felt a lingering dissatisfaction with his performance, and by extension with himself, and had been put on notice by the coach to lift his game in a few areas. When we talked things through, we found that his own thoughts and feelings about his game, and his performance, were becoming “unhelpful”, causing physical and mental tension, and getting in the way of his talent and trained ability.
He showed me some TV footage of one of his games that summarised the “problem”. We saw him getting the ball on the run, then trying to take on an opposition player one-on-one and score himself when in fact a team-mate was clear in a much better scoring position. He felt angry at himself that he’d acted in a way that made him appear selfish and also that went against the game plan earning him a public reprimand from the coach. We replayed the footage and I pressed pause just as the ball was being kicked in his direction, and asked him to recall what he was probably feeling and thinking at the time. Going into the game he’d carried a feeling like he needed to get one up on the opposition player, and he felt some pressure to get the team out of a tight spot to “prove himself” in this game to the head coach. Looking further, he said that he’d also had a lot to think about lately, as he and his wife had just had a baby and he was also looking to move house. In his state of tension and “trying”, before he’d even seen the play unfold he’d made a decision about what to do next. As we saw, the response didn’t match the situation. In contrast, like so many athletes, when he played close to his best, he felt calm going into games. Like most people, he found that a totally “confident” feeling really wasn’t necessary for high performance. Rather all he needed was enough faith his training and preparation to let himself go and face whatever might unfurl in front of him moment to moment. In other words, his best perfomances came when he got out of his own way, and just allowed his own training and “game intelligence” to take over. In terms of trained ability, you can only be where you’re at! He wanted to learn a way to clear his head before and during games and direct his attention to his performance essentials: where is the ball? whereabouts am I? where is the opposition? which play or structure are we working with here? and leave the rest up to his trained ability.
We committed to him practising a simple breathing technique. Picture the number 1. It may be in lights, or like it’s drawn on a blackboard. Hold the image while you breathe deeply all the way in and all the way out. Next picture the number 2. All the way in, all the way out. Picture the number 3 in, the number 3 out. 4 in, 4 out. Then back to 1 again. If any other thoughts come and go, that’s fine, the mind will do that. Just let them pass like leaves floating off down a river, and come back to the number in your mind’s eye. Just sit somewhere quiet and practice 10 breath cycles per day, from 1 to 4 and then back to 1 again 10 times through. Practice coming back to your focus point regardless of what thoughts or feelings your mind comes up with at the time. He started using the technique before training, then before games. After a few weeks’ daily practice, he was able to refocus and calm himself even during high-pressure games. But the real test came when he got back from a demanding training session and tense contract discussion with the Manager, and his wife had to leave him with an impatient 4 year old wanting attention, and his new baby crying. He told me that he might usually have let anger and frustration take him over, and snapped at his kids or just felt frustrated, but instead this time he decided to breathe, to clear his head of what he did or didn’t want to be happening, and just get on with it.
Psychology for 21st Century Living |