Saturday, February 16, 2008

Psychology With a Positive Focus

Positive Psychology in Action


Many people think the goal of psychology is to understand what is abnormal and to "fix" mental problems. Those issues certainly have gotten a lot of attention. But over the past 10-15 years, some psychological researchers have tried to balance the focus of the field. Instead of just studying depression, for example, they have begin to try to understand happiness - what it is and how certain people achieve it.

This relatively new line of inquiry has been called "Positive Psychology." It is not itself a theory or type of therapy, but more of a guiding philosophy. According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania:

"Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance."

Developments in positive psychology have strongly influenced my thinking and work in mental skills training and applied sport psychology with combat sport athletes. I do not search relentlessly for "problems", but I seek to identify strengths and virtues within a fighter that can be used to enhance his or her performance. I may help to teach certain skills and facilitate growth and new learning - I may even offer advice or ideas for consideration - but fundamentally, the athlete must do the work and create the transformation.

Lao Tzu says in the The Tao: "It is said of a good leader that
 when the work is done, the aim fulfilled, 
the people will say, "We did this ourselves..”

Many of the greatest advances in applied sport psychology have not come from intensive study of "problem" cases, but from studies seeking to understand winners, success, and expertise. Some combat sport athletes never consider consulting with a sport psychologist because, they say, "there is nothing wrong with me." Remember the discussion of fixed vs growth mindsets? (see previous post). The BEST are always striving to improve, not just to "fix" what may or may not be broken.

Here is a practical exercise you can try: Think about your current game (in fighting, grappling, wrestling, or whatever you do) and identify two specific goals you would like to accomplish in the next three months (feel free to refer to the article on Goal Setting). Next, write down what you consider to be three of your greatest personal strengths. Then, write a plan for how you can use your strengths to help accomplish the goals you have set. Write so that the link between the strength and the goal is clear and direct.

You might also consider exploring some of your own strengths and virtues in more depth. The more you know about yourself, the better you will be as a competitor.

You may want to start by looking at the broad array of FREE tests available to you HERE.

For more information on Positive Psychology generally, I recommend visiting the Positive Psychology Center by clicking on the image below:


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Perfectionists Deserve a Break…

Perfectionists Deserve a Break…

by Dr. Randy Borum


“Don’t be such a perfectionist!” Do you get tired of hearing this from coaches and teammates? Well, you may in luck. Researchers have been learning that perfectionism has a positive side too.

Over the years, research has produced some seemingly contradictory findings on perfectionism’s role in performance. While some studies show perfectionism to be a central quality of elite athletes like Olympic champions, other studies have found that perfectionism undermines athletic performance.

Attempting to understand these different results, researchers have found that perfectionism has at least two different parts (or facets) – each has somewhat different effects on performance. One facet is a positive striving for perfection, which is shown in “having high personal standards, setting exacting standards for one's performance, and striving for excellence” (Stoll, Lau, & Stoeber, In Press). The other facet has been called “self critical perfectionism,” which involves “critical self-evaluations of one's performance, concern over mistakes, and feelings of discrepancy between expectations and results” (Stoll, Lau, & Stoeber, In Press).

Studies have found that those who have a strong positive striving for perfection have a more positive mood, more endurance, better performance, less anxiety, and more confidence in competitive endeavors. But – and here’s the catch – those benefits can fizzle out for those who also possess a high degree of self critical perfectionism. That self-criticality has been linked to depression, stress, increased competitive anxiety, less confidence during competition, decreased performance, and burnout.

For the perfectionistic combat sport athlete, these findings suggest that you can keep your lofty standards, but consider cutting yourself a break when you err or fall short. If you tend toward perfectionism, work with it, not against it. Learn to control the stream of negative shouts that flow from your inner critic. Learn to learn from your mistakes, not to react to them. In competition, responding to your own mistakes with frustration, worry or anger will only distract you and undermine your confidence. Have cue words ready to quickly re-focus yourself on the strength – not the limitations – of your performance and on moving forward, not looking back. There will be plenty of time later to reflect, analyze and learn about what you could have done differently. But when someone is punching you in the face or bending your joints in unintended direction – that’s probably not the best time.

For those interested in reading more research on perfectionism and sport performance, here are some references:

M.H. Anshel and H. Mansouri, Influences of perfectionism on motor performance, affect, and causal attributions in response to critical information feedback, Journal of Sport Behavior 28 (2005), pp. 99–124.

D.M. Dunkley, D.C. Zuroff and K.R. Blankstein, Self-critical perfectionism and daily affect: Dispositional and situational influences on stress and coping, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003), pp. 234–252.

J.G.H. Dunn, J.K. Gotwals and J.C. Dunn, An examination of the domain specificity of perfectionism among intercollegiate student-athletes, Personality and Individual Differences 38 (2005), pp. 1439–1448.

M.W. Enns and B.J. Cox, The nature and assessment of perfectionism: A critical analysis. In: G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, Editors, Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC (2002), pp. 33–62.

A.J. Elliot and D.E. Conroy, Beyond the dichotomous model of achievement goals in sport and exercise psychology, Sport and Exercise Psychology Review 1 (2005), pp. 17–25.

G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, The perils of perfectionism in sports and exercise, Current Directions in Psychological Science 14 (2005), pp. 14–18.

G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In: G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, Editors, Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC (2002), pp. 5–13.

Hall, H. K. (2006). Perfectionism: A hallmark quality of world class performers, or a psychological impediment to athletic development?. In D. Hackfort, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Essential processes for attaining peak performance (Vol. 1, pp. 178–211). Oxford, UK: Meyer & Meyer.

J. Stoeber and K. Otto, Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges, Personality and Social Psychology Review 10 (2006), pp. 295–319.

Stoeber, J., Stoll, O., Pescheck, E., & Otto, K. (in press). Perfectionism and achievement goals in athletes: Relations with approach and avoidance orientations in mastery and performance goals. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Stoll, O., Lau, A. & Stoeber, J. (In Press). Perfectionism and performance in a new basketball training task: Does striving for perfection enhance or undermine performance?
Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Olympic Top Ten Principles for MentalTraining

Dr. Sean McCann provided the following article for the "Mind Games" section of the USOC Olympic Coach E-Magazine. You can find the magazine HERE

The article is written for coaches, but is clearly applicable to athletes as well.


By Sean McCann, Ph.D., USOC Sports Psychologist

1. Mental training can’t replace physical training and talent.

We haven’t seen any Olympic Athlete who succeeded without doing the physical and technical work, even though we have worked with some of the most mentally talented athletes in the world. The reality is that even an exceptionally talented athlete who has not prepared well physically loses confidence and is vulnerable in competition. The best and easiest confidence is that which comes from the knowledge that you are as prepared, or more prepared, than your competitors, and that you are physically capable of a winning performance.

2. Physical training and physical ability isn’t enough to succeed consistently.

On the other hand, we have worked with a number of athletes whose coaches called them “the most talented athlete on the team,” yet these athletes never achieved international success. These physically gifted athletes were not able to manage the mental demands of the sport. Some athletes can’t handle the focus and discipline of training, where others can’t handle the pressure and stress of competition. If you are lacking in either of these areas, you may succeed at times, but you will not succeed consistently.

3. A strong mind may not win you an Olympic medal, but a weak mind will lose you one.

It is very difficult to predict that a mentally strong athlete will win an Olympic medal, due to all the factors that play into winning a medal. There are so many variables—training, health, finances, coaching to name a few—to properly account for, that success for any athlete is never certain. On the other hand, one of the easiest predictions to make is who will fail under Olympic pressure. Athletes with an obviously weak mental game virtually never win at the biggest competitions.

4. Coaches frequently don’t know what their athletes are thinking.

While all great coaches pay close attention to behavior of their athletes on the field of play, very few coaches have a similarly detailed knowledge of what their athletes are thinking or should be thinking. Few coaches know enough about the specific mental “demons” all athletes have, so they are often unable to intervene when they need to at competition. We have come to the conclusion that like politics or religion, it is an area many coaches are afraid to ask about. While some coaches know that “psychological factors” were the cause of an athlete failing in competition, many of these coaches are not aware of the athlete’s mental state before they compete.

5. Thoughts impact behavior. Consistency of thinking = consistency of behavior.

It is a simple but powerful idea that all sport behavior starts with a thought. While much of coaching focuses on making sport behavior more consistent and controllable, much less of coaching focuses on making thinking more consistent and controllable. Because of this, many coaches are surprised by not only the difference between their athletes’ practice behavior and competition behavior but that the reason for that difference is due to how their athletes are thinking. One goal of sport psychology is to understand and control the thinking process, therefore understanding and controlling behavior.

6. Coaches often have a different view of changing technical mistakes vs. mental mistakes.

As sport psychologists, we are optimistic about the ability to work on mental mistakes. Thus we are often surprised when coaches are willing to write off an athlete as a “choker” when they repeat mental mistakes in competition. These are often the same coaches who will work literally for years with an athlete on a repeated technical mistake. To a coach who says, “I don’t think they’ll ever do it”, we ask, “How many times have you specifically worked on changing the mental mistakes? What drills have you tried? How do you give the athlete feedback on his mental mistake? Does the athlete know exactly how she should think? Have you had this discussion?”

7. Coaches must be involved in the mental training process.

Historically, in sport psychology, we have heard coaches say after a strong period of training before the season “Well, now it is all mental. Now it is up to the sport psychologist!” While it is nice to feel important to a team’s success, we have learned from hard experience that it is all wrong for coaches to “outsource” mental training and sport psychology to a sport psychology consultant. We have learned that many elite coaches feel out of their comfort zone when dealing with in mental training issues, and fear asking probing questions about how an athlete thinks and feels. We have also learned to push coaches to go past their fears and get used to coaching the mental as well as the physical athlete. If coaches don’t become the prime provider of sport psychology for their teams, all kinds of teaching opportunities and chances for excellence will be missed. At worst, coaches who are unaware of their athletes’ mental skill building will coach in ways that oppose or undermine the mental skills acquired. The bottom line is that coaches must be involved in mental training for it to be successful.

8. Sometimes it is ok to force athletes to take the time to do mental training.

The USOC’s Sport Psychology Department’s philosophy on this topic has evolved over the past ten years. In the past, we were unwilling to say that all teams should do some form of mental training. We had been fairly passive, waiting for coaches to approach us with requests for service. Unfortunately, many of those requests came from coaches who had seen their athlete melt down in the biggest competition of their life. Obviously, it is too late at that point!Surprisingly, many coaches seem willing to accept an athlete’s reassurance, “My mental game is just fine.” Why, when you wouldn’t ask the athlete to determine if his technique is “just fine”, do you let the athlete avoid working on their mental game for years until a crisis forces them to admit they need work? At the USOC, we are now quite comfortable pushing athletes into doing the mental training work, even if they don’t always see the value at first.

9. Like any other skill, mental skills need to be measured in order to maximize performance of those skills.

“What gets measured, gets done.” This old expression from business writer Peter Lynch is useful for coaching as well. Just as ski coaches time training runs, or basketball coaches calculate free throw shooting percentages, application of mental skills can be measured. Moreover, they MUST be measured if they are to change. Once you think of mental skills as behaviors to be measured, you can begin to use your own coaching creativity to teach, modify, and increase the use of, mental skills.

10. Coaches need to think about their own mental skills

Most coaches can readily see that the same skills they are teaching their athletes are also useful for their own work in coaching. With the amount of pressure coaches face, for example, the ability to manage emotions, control arousal, game plan, and simulate pressure are all useful for coaches.

This is an excerpt from the Coaches Guide – Mental Training Manual, USOC Sport Psychology staff. This manual is available from the USOC for $24.95, call 719.866.4517 for more information.