Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide

Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide, edited by Dave Collins, Angela Button, and Hugh Richards, may be the first textbook I have ever read cover to cover. That’s after 15 years in graduate school and academia. Perhaps more than anything else, this speaks to the utility and readability of this text. Yes, it is dense with information. However, for the reader motivated to learn about the topics covered, the information is presented in an accessible fashion with suggestions and examples for application throughout.

Although impossible to summarize an entire text, I’ll include one example here that I found particularly useful. As reader’s of this blog know, focus is a major theme of my work, and thus I was interested in the 5 principles of effective concentration in skilled performance presented in the book:

1) Decide to concentrate – it won’t just happen by chance

2) Focus on only one thought at a time

3) Your mind is “focused” when you are doing exactly what you are thinking

4) You “lose” your concentration when you focus on factors that are outside your control

5) Focus outwards when you get nervous

Filled with similarly useful and through provoking insights throughout, I would recommend this book for anyone interested in an in-depth examination of how current science can be applied to performance.

See it – Feel it – Trust it

One of the simplest and most effective ideas I teach is called Cook’s Model of Concentration after the model’s creator, David Cook. Cook’s model is a strategy to prepare oneself either pre-performance or pre-skill execution.

The model utilizes a funnel analogy in which concentration starts broad and gradually narrows as the performance of the skill nears. At its widest point, the performer observes the situation and takes note of anything relevant to the task (e.g., opponent/defense, potential distractions, weather, etc.). Next, concentration begins to narrow as irrelevant aspects of the environment are ignored and the performer begins to prepare a strategy to meet the demands of the task. Once a strategy is developed, the performer visualizes executing the strategy and the task/skill, emphasizing the feel of the performance. Finally, at the narrowest point of the funnel just prior to and during skill execution, the performer enters the trusting mindset where they have committed to their strategy, seen and felt themselves performing the skill, and can now turn off their mind and trust their body to execute the task.

Although this may sound elaborate, Cook’s Model can be shortened to See it – Feel it – Trust it and is extremely effective at allowing performers to go through a pre-performance routine designed to grow their confidence and increase the likelihood of successful skill execution.

With practice, See it – Feel it – Trust it can be completed within the space of one or two centering breaths and can be applied to just about any performance situation. If you regularly practice See it – Feel it – Trust it, it will become automatic and have a positive impact on your confidence and your performance.

Focus

Focus is often used synonymously with attention and concentration to indicate selectively attending to task relevant cues. However, in Mental FITness focus has a much broader meaning encompassing confidence, poise, composure, present moment awareness, mindfulness, resiliency, flexible thinking, and concentration (McGuire, 2012). It is no coincidence that focus appears in many of the leading practitioners approaches to performance excellence (see Aoyagi & Poczwardowski, 2012) and is at the hub of Orlick’s Wheel of Excellence (Orlick, 2012). Focus is the essential ingredient in both practice (i.e., learning and development of skills) and performance (i.e., delivering learned and developed skills). Due to the brevity of this overview, I will provide a short example of one of the most important aspects of focus, mindfulness, with the understanding that there is much more that could be said on the topic.

Mindfulness encapsulates many of the core concepts in Mental FITness. Kabat-Zinn (1994) defined mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (p. 4). A more elaborate definition of mindfulness was offered by Bishop et al. (2004) and included two components: self-regulation of attention and acceptance of one’s experiences in the present moment. Self-regulation of attention incorporates the skills of sustained attention (i.e., maintaining vigilance for prolonged periods of time), attention switching (i.e., flexibility of attention allowing for shifting of focus), and inhibiting elaborative processing (i.e., not getting caught up in ruminative thoughts about experiences and instead directly experiencing events). These definitions contain many of the conditions facilitating flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) as well as provide a deeper understanding for the Self 1 and Self 2 made famous by Gallwey (1997), which pertains to trust as will be discussed later.

Through the attentional skills fostered by mindfulness, performers are able to more effectively keep their mind on what is relevant to performance. Furthermore, when things go wrong (e.g., opponent playing better than expected, bad calls from officials, unexpected weather), mindful performers are better able to recognize when their attention shifts and to bring it back to where it needs to be for effective performance. Thus, focused performers keep their attention on task longer, are more flexible and adaptive, stay in the moment, are self-aware, and are able to quickly refocus when needed.