Protecting Your Competitive Edge: An Old Mindset that is Killing the Performance of Today's Athlete

Jun 29, 2023


The Alarming Impact This One Habit Can Have On Human Performance

We have done so many wonderful things to promote the development and evolution of our species.

However, there is one habit we have recently created that is causing a de-evolution of one of our performance strengths: our ability to perform and perform with confidence.

And as an athlete this could be catastrophic to our competitive future as it has the potential to jeopardise competitive prospects in the long run.

In this video, we unpack the one habit that, if you change it, has the power to significantly enhance not only your performance but also your consistency and your ability to respond under pressure

And it's not that hard to do!

So watch and learn what could possibly have the biggest impact on your sporting career in decades.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Beating Mental Blocks

Perform Like a Champion

Episode Transcript:

Hello and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches, and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.

In this Episode 91, we're going to look at our modern day habits that are causing an ancient mindset, and how that's having a real negative impact on our competitive athletes. And for those of you who are choosing to watch this podcast, welcome back to watching it on YouTube. You can also follow this on any one of the streaming podcast platforms.

Those of us who grew up during the 70s can contest to the fact that the fashion in the 1970s was pretty awful. Yet we see it today when I walk through the streets, I see kids today wearing the fashion that we were wearing back in the 70s. Now, this is not a fashion podcast, but what it does show is that humans tend to follow patterns, and they repeat themselves. So we can learn from those. And if we're not learning from those, then we're destined to repeat them. And we should never repeat the 1970s fashion for any reason.

Now, like I said, we tend to follow behavioural patterns and repeat things that have happened in the past, even when we look at it and go, 'I don't want to do that again.' As a competitive athlete, that can be really detrimental to your performance. So in this podcast, we're going to unpack why we're seeing a real ancient mindset permeating through a lot of our competitive athletes today.

So let's go back to the caveman era. When we were cavemen and women, what we tended to do was, if we were hungry we'd go out and we would eat. We'd hunt, we would gather, we would eat. It didn't matter if it was breakfast, whether it was lunch or it was tea time. If we were hungry, we would feed that urge. If we were tired, we would go and find a tree. We'd climb up that tree, to get away from something that's going to eat us, and we would sleep. And again, it doesn't matter if it was a morning, it was the afternoon, or whatever time it was. And the same with our urges regarding pleasure. If we wanted pleasure, we would take it.

So what all of those key areas of our behaviour actually are, is instant gratification. So if we wanted something, if we needed something, we went and did that. We didn't think about consequences. And let's be honest, there was probably not a great chance of a tomorrow back in those days. So we just lived for the moment. Our instant gratification mechanism is deep-seated into our limbic system, and our limbic system in our brain also delivers cortisol to us: our fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. And it stimulates our dopamine releases as well. So that's where a lot of our anxieties come from. That big, hairy dopamine gorilla is really hard to control, particularly when it doesn't plan forwards. It's all about the now, it's about living in the moment. So back in those caveman and woman days, it just made sense. That survival mechanism of living in the moment and optimising whatever was around us because we didn't know there was going to be a tomorrow, that just made sense. That's how our brain was hard wired.

Fast forward a few hundred years, we started trading our time for payment. And when we started trading time for payment, then we had to have delayed gratification. That delayed gratification meant that we had to do things, we had to work for a living. And as we worked and we completed that job, then we would get paid, and then we could swap that payment for shelter, for food, for pleasure. And so we started to create this delayed gratification mechanism in our brain, which is fed by our amygdala, which is our emotions. It's fed by our hippocampus, which is our memories. And it's fed by our prefrontal cortex, which is our critical thinking part of our brain. So we started to value the ability to plan and to complete, knowing that when we had that completion, we were going to get paid, so we could go and have a good meal, we could have a nice roof over our head, or we could have lots of really good pleasures.

So we moved away from that instant gratification, living in the moment, living for the now, to better planning and recognising value in delivery, in process, in replicability. Our brain shifted. The chemistry of our brain became a lot more focused on that delayed gratification.

You may have heard of the Stanford Marshmallow experiment. In 1972, psychologist and professor Walter Mitchell, conducted an experiment on delayed gratification. Now, what he did was he put small children in a clinical environment and he offered them a sweet treat, a marshmallow. And he said to them, 'You can have that marshmallow right now. Or if you're prepared to wait,' and it was typically around about 15 minutes, 'I'll give you two marshmallows, two sweet treats.' And what we started to see was the vast majority of those children couldn't have delayed gratification. They were much more focused on, 'Hang the thoughts of having two in 15 minutes. I'll take the one now, thanks very much.'

What we know about how children process is, it's highly emotive. They don't have that critical thinking capacity in their prefrontal cortex to say, 'Well, I can put off that instant gratification, that nice sweet treat right now, knowing that in 15 minutes, I can have two.' The children that could delay that gratification, could say, 'Yeah, I'll wait, thanks very much.' There were a couple of triggers in that. As they assessed older children, they have that ability to recognise that, 'I could have two here,' so that planning mechanism of their brain was kicking in. The younger ones, no impulse control, straight for the sweet treat, right now. The older ones started to recognise that, 'If I plan for this, I can get a better return.' There was still a high percentage of those older children who still went for that instant gratification.

So we learned a lot about human behaviour from that experiment in 1972. And subsequently, they've gone on and studied many of those children and looked at the lifestyles that they created post that experiment. Those children who were able to delay that gratification, tended to go on and have way more successful lives. They tended to do better at school in their education system. They tended to do better in their employment as they went through life. They tended to do better in relationships. Their stickability to relationships was better. Those children who went for the instant gratification, who couldn't put off and plan for the future of two marshmallows, wanted that instant one, tended not to perform as well at school, had more jobs throughout their career, and had a greater degree of failed relationships. It's really interesting because we can look at that in the high performance athlete world as well.

And that's what this podcast is really going to unpack, that ability to plan, and what causes some to not be able to plan, to want that instant success right now and get frustrated when their skills aren't there straight away. And how some athletes can better plan their progress, their strategies, their programmes, and say, 'Well, this is not working right now, but I can trust it is going to work.' Particularly under pressure. When we're looking at athletes who perform well under pressure, it's those that rely on their process. We know this. We know that athletes who are more focused on process, who bring more recognition into their preparation process, tend to trust they can perform and tend to perform better under pressure. Now, this is not a have or have-not mindset. Like at the start of this podcast, I said there's an ancient mindset involved in this. It's our caveman thought process of that instant gratification that we're stimulating in today's society way more than we did 15, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. 50 years ago when I was a little young competitive athlete, delayed gratification was instilled into how we prepared. We were taught that we had to invest time, effort, and process to get an outcome. When we look at young athletes today, that same ethos isn't as prevalent. And I'm going to explain to you why.

When we think about the completion ethos, it is an understanding around, 'If I do A, B, C, and D, the consequence of that is an outcome.' Those of you who have seen this image that I'm showing on screen right now when we talk about, we have a focal point, we have a process, and we have an outcome. This is how everybody's brain tends to work. We focus on doing something, we know that there's a process to get that, that completion gives us an outcome. When we add emotion into that process, we tend to think about the outcome more and less about the process, and it increases our emotions. And we don't have such clarity on completion. So learning to complete is a learnt strategy. If we put this into an athlete's mindset, if we put this into an athlete's world, if we're going through an execution of a skill, any skill, we know that there's a trigger to that skill, there's a decision to do that skill, there's a decision to do that skill, and we trigger that skill, we follow a process to get the outcome. Makes sense.

Whether we're kicking a goal; whether we're completing a twizzle on the ice; whether we're a gymnast and doing multiple somersaults, or whatever sport we're talking about, we follow this same execution format. The execution format is our way of controlling consistency, replicability, being that athlete who is not a one hit wonder, but can turn up every single week and perform, can deliver, and can trust. That competitor who, as a coach, you can put out there in their competitive environment and you go, 'I know what they're going to do. I know how they're going to compete. I know they're going to hit their routine.' Or if you're in a team, your team can depend on you because they've seen you do it in training. They've seen you do it multiple times under pressure and performance. So the ability to follow that process is critical to consistency and replicability, in confidence and in trusting yourself.

So our language is incredibly important. If we're teaching athletes and young people to follow process, then what we've got to be able to do is recognise and reward the outcome, and not just the instant stimulation. So by retraining our brain to move the emotion of doubts and wanting that instant gratification, that instant 'now' buzz, to feeling really good about the completion at the end of the process, we've got to recognise and reward completion.

We've got to start by building a much smaller capacity, first of all, and then building on top of that. So you might turn around and go,

- Okay, when I've completed this skill, recognise and reward. Then it becomes,

- When I've completed that skill in a routine, recognise and reward.

- When I've completed that skill multiple times and I've got consistency, recognise and reward.

So what we're building is a much more robust system of:

1. Focus on something

2.Follow the process

3. Get that outcome, and then

4. Recognise the outcome.

That's going to help recalibrate and retrain our brains to utilise and focus on following process and that delayed gratification, reducing that need, that urge for that instant hit, that instant dopamine hit, and makes it way more sustainable.

So building that into our training mechanism, so set the objective for the day, make sure we follow the process. When we hit that objective, we retrain our brain to go, 'That's it; at the end of that day, that's complete. Awesome. Let's tick that off.' If we aren't focusing on recognising and rewarding, then our emotion has to go somewhere and it will go into that instant gratification. So it's a retraining and recalibrating. That's important.

Now, I'm not generation bashing here because every single generation since the dawn of time have said, The next generation has it easier than us. We had it much harder. And in some circumstances, that can be argued as being true. Data is proving that the next generation of highly competitive athletes, and people, let's be honest, aren't actually as robust as the previous generation. It's the first time in history that we're seeing relevant scientific data that's proving that. And we've got to ask ourselves, what have we done or what are we doing that's probably not preparing the next generation of performers as well as we want them to?

We're starting to see a shift in the things that our brains prioritise. Now, when I was a kid, I had to remember phone numbers because we didn't have phones to keep phone numbers in. I remember addresses. I can even remember getting my first passport, and I remember the passport number. I guarantee a lot of young athletes and competitors today would have trouble remembering their passport number or phone numbers. Now, it's not because they're not as intelligent. It's because we aren't prioritising that as a memory necessity.

So our brain is de-evolving that necessity to remember certain patterns and processes. And with technology, we're seeing that we don't have to remember how to spell. We've got auto correct. We don't remember where things come from or dates because we've got reminders and calendar reminders that pop up on our phones all the time. So as an efficiency mechanism, our brain is turning around and going, That's just a waste of resources. Us having to remember your passport number, your phone number, addresses, because, hey, you can just plug it into Google, it will remind you, it will take you there. You don't have to remember how to get there. I know that when I'm going somewhere for the first time, I'll learn that and I'll remember that next time I go. Yet when I'm traveling with some of my clients, younger clients, and we go to a same location multiple times, they constantly plug it into their phones, the directions. They don't remember how to get there, because they don't need to remember how to get there. So that has an impact on our performance. It has an impact on our athletes' ability to remember and follow process.

Another consequence to this highly accessible world that we live in today is the ability to build a 'how'. And when I'm working with athletes who've had mental blocks for argument's sake, and we talked about skill acquisition, and I've said to them, 'Right, you've got a mental block because your brain stepped in and has taken a piece of the puzzle away.'

And if you want to learn more about mental blocks, by the way, we've got deep dives that go straight into teaching you why you've got a mental block and how to correct that. But in essence, what happens is your brain will step in and remove part of that blueprint, part of that 'how', to protect you.

And when I'm working with today's young athletes and I say to them, Okay, can you teach me how that skill works? They tend to struggle. Now, I remember as a young athlete back in the 70s and early 80s, that I probably could articulate how a skill worked, not because of any other reason than we were taught that 'how'. We didn't have YouTube. We couldn't go and watch it. We had to learn it. So in order for us to repeat a skill, the neurological point of reference, the blueprint inside our head, had to be so crystal clear that we could replicate that. And there's a slight, subtle shift in the way that our brain categorises those memories. The athletes who can visualise the 'how', embed that picture into their mind and get very, very clear on, 'If I follow this process, I'm going to get this outcome,' tend to come through mental blocks way more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably.

And a lot of this comes down to our stimulation today. I've alluded to the technology, but we've also created a generation of instant gratification addicts. You think about things like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and all those other social platforms that you can put something in and within seconds, people are acknowledging it and recognising it. And you're getting that dopamine hit of, 'That feels really good.' When we get dopamine hits, it's that big hairy gorilla we've been talking about. And the fact that that hairy gorilla will rock up and go, 'That feels awesome. I want more of it.' But it doesn't look at how it gets more of it. It just wants more. So those social platforms will absolutely stimulate you. You'll get your dopamine produced in your body. That guerrilla is going to rock up and go, Yeah, this is great. You've posted that, and 4,352 people have liked that in the last 30 seconds.

That stimulation is an instant gratification. This instant gratification is bringing up that mindset, that ancient caveman and woman mindset of: live for the now. That's having a massive impact on athletes' sustainable performance frameworking.

We can also go into a whole different podcast on what impact this has on our ability to build effective and efficient relationships. On collaboration and building an environment that respects people for what they bring, rather than, I've got to get that instant outcome from them right now. I'm fortunate enough to work in enough environments where we work on team dynamics and team culture, to recognise that often challenges arise because people don't see the long term value that someone adds to a team. They're looking for an instant fix, that instant gratification, that instant gratification, that instant now I need this, you need to fix it, mindset comes from not recognising delayed gratification, not looking to invest in people and build people.

We have a program that teaches athletes how to prepare for competitions, how to perform, how to collect data, and then build that back into that system that's called the Mental Gladiator. And what we've done is we've diluted down to the key things to recalibrate athletes into thinking about the preparation, about investing in the how. The athletes that go through our Mental Gladiator program and through our Perform Like a Champion training, have reduced the number of mental blocks in their performance. They've increased their consistency in how they perform under pressure. They've increased their confidence and their self reliance and reduced the imposter syndrome. Now, all of that is teaching an athlete to better understand and feed the right kinds of stimulants to their brain. It's increased their focus on delayed gratification, on respecting and valuing a process.

So we know that we can course correct this instant gratification addiction that we're seeing in a lot of younger people today. Statistics are showing us that young people today are turning to stimulants such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, porn, all of these stimulants to get that instant gratification, more than any other time in history. So we've got to pay attention to that, and recognise our environment is causing a lot of these 'now' focused athletes that caveman mindset of instant gratification. The poor impulse control. And as much as technology adds so much to our lives, enriches and educates so well, we've got to have the counteract to that, the balance to that.

It's not about stopping the technology. We don't want to stop the technology. We want to use it smarter, particularly in a high performance world. Accessing trainings, accessing learning, accessing coaches around the world. I do a lot of my coaching via Zoom now, whereas it was dependent on me being on a plane and going somewhere. So technology is definitely enriching the learning capabilities of athletes, of coaches, of parents. But we can't neglect what we've learned in the past, that learning to value the how, learning to become more resilient to when things don't work, and being more pragmatic about unpacking and rebuilding, and being more self reliant, needs to have the balance to that technology, that instant accessibility. If we don't use it right, then we create these addicts. If we use it correctly and we use it as a tool, but not the only tool, then we end up building resilience in our athletes, in our young people. So the next generation beyond them are going to be able to manage their performance. They're going to know what to do to get that instant information and build long term programmes.

I hope you got a lot from today's podcast. It's a really good really interesting evolution of human behaviour. If we don't use it, our brain will step in and say, 'Right, we're going to prioritise something else.' So we lose the ability to do it. What I want to help athletes and coaches do is to be able to move forward and better understand that that delayed gratification process is vital for our mental stability, performance, and consistency. My name's Dave Diggle. I hope you got a lot from this podcast. I look forward to seeing you inside our next Brain in the Game. Until then, train smart and enjoy the ride. 


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