Brain in the Game | Sport Mind Coaching Podcast
Episode Seventy-Six – Consistent Preparation = Consistent Performance
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. Brain in the Games is a podcast that keeps on giving, and I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this episode 76, we're going to unpack the conundrum all athletes experience. Do I focus on selection or do I focus on improvement? So let's start with the elephant in the room. When learning something, be that a new skill or improving a skill, our efficiency and our effectiveness is compromised for a period of time. Think of this like a snow globe. In order to relay new neural pathways, we have to first shake up the old ones and then let them settle before they are proficient and we can see the full picture. This is normal, albeit unsettling, and it's this fear of not performing and potentially impacting our selection that causes internal conflict and anxiety. This is not only a conundrum for athletes, it's actually counterproductive for coaches, too. Because of this restrictive mindset. We know most athletes choose the flip side of that and don't learn anything during the mid season, and they stay in the moment and focus on the now.
And yes, they're less likely to experience a snow globe effect and any changes in their performance. But therein lies the issue. No change. That means no growth. What a conundrum? Grow and risk your selection. Don't grow and guarantee you'll be overtaken at some point. That red pill/blue pill moment. I hear athletes say to me all the time, "It doesn't matter, Dave. I'll work harder in the offseason and grow my skills. I'll just focus on performance now." And yes, the offseason is partly part of our strategy of growth. But what if your season is, say, eight to ten months long, such as with motor racing or rugby or tennis or even indoor sports like gymnastics? Does that mean that growth is restricted and shared between your off time, your physical recovery and your skill acquisition for maybe one or two months a year? Is that likely to give you the skill base that you're looking for? Probably not. Over the last couple of years, I've been involved with the rebuilding of our national rugby team, the Wallabies. It's safe to say, however, before that point, the system and the process at top level wasn't working as well as it could have done.
This unfortunately saw a huge number of key players who retired from the sport altogether or relocate to countries that helped them see out their professional careers with a little extra cash in their pocket. And why not? This meant, however, the selection pool was shallow. Great if you're already in the pool and you're still swimming, you're almost guaranteed to play if you're fit. And sometimes, even if you're not. This was something the powers that be struggled with for quite a few years, and in my opinion, over the last few years have done a phenomenal job in turning that around. We're starting to see a lot of our major players returning to Australia and wanting to play for their country again, which is fantastic. But the management performance is not why I'm here, particularly not on this podcast. Maybe we'll save that for another one. At the time of going to air on this podcast, our Wallabies have won the last three games in a row, the first time in the last four years – twice over the world champions, South Africa – and won so far over Argentina. The Wallaby team are way better connected. They are more focused, they're clear in their performance, they're better under pressure.
So full credit to their coaching staff who have done a fantastic job, and the leadership group in particular, Michael Hooper, who does such a great job on and off the field. All that being said, the shift in depth with the players coming back into the fold and wanting to play for their country has created a whole new challenge: that internal competition. Players are no longer inheriting positions because the pool is not deep enough. In my position as a mental performance coach in any sport that I work in, I get to hear a completely different side to the performance playbook than most of the technical coaches ever get to hear. I get to hear the players thoughts and processes around what they think is really important and valuable to them and what they think is important to coaches and in particular to the selection committee. I've worked in many diverse sports over the last 20 years, and whereas there are clear differences in how we do what we do for specific sports and specific athletes, there are a lot more things that are similar than are different. One of those that flow across all performers is selectability, and the anxiety that comes from that selection process.
From a mental performance perspective, our in season needs to be an effective balance of three key areas to guarantee that growth and our selectability. What we're going to do in this podcast is unpack those three key areas. Let's call them:
2. Timing; and
So let's start with currency. Now, I've not switched to a finance podcast. However, it is all about investment. What is the biggest currency a selection team is looking for in an athlete and something that an athlete can focus on and make themselves way more selectable? Is it their skill? Is it their X factor? Is it positional dominance? Well, yes, kind of. All those things are really important and form part of the selection puzzle. However, probably the biggest, certainly the smartest selection piece of the puzzle is consistency. You can have all the skills in the world, possess all the X factor, and dominate your role. But if you can't produce it consistently under pressure, then you're more of a liability to the team than an asset. So for me, when I'm working with any athlete, I'm looking for one to build consistency, specifically, high quality consistency layering in those blueprints and those frameworks of performance.
So it doesn't matter what happens when they're performing. They can perform with consistent control. Now, remember, the snow globe and the inevitable shake up. Those things get shaken up. Before we can settle down for that consistency. Let's better understand how our brain works and how we can optimise this process, allowing for that consistent performance much sooner. So let's shift gears a little bit, and I want to think of your brain like a factory. At the front of the factory is a boss' office. This is where the boss sits and surveys all incoming information and opportunities. Good bosses are diligent. They look for efficiency. They want to make replicability, and they want things to run smoothly. This can take time and patience. The mortal enemy of all performers in our brain. This is the area called the prefrontal cortex at the front of our skull. The boss in the office, our mental office. Once a boss has designed a protocol, a skill, a process, a performance, they need to delegate that to the shop floor to be produced.
Now, the shop floor workers, or in our brain, the subconscious isn't interested in the why, the why we do things, our motivation, our risk analysis, or the why things are important to us. It's certainly not focused on it the way our boss in the prefrontal cortex is. The subconscious workforce are just interested in following a plan. Right or wrong, they are just doers. This transition between our prefrontal cortex, the boss in the office, and our subconscious workers is where our snow globe comes in. Because we know there is often a 'them' and 'us'. Between the boss and the workers, there are often different rules, different focuses, and different value systems. Our brain can be exactly the same way. So what we need to do is build a smoother, more equal working environment. Now, I don't know about you, but when I think about this in my head and I picture that, I think of some Swedish workforce all working together in harmony and singing songs. So that flow of smooth process is what I see in my mind. Any of my Swedish listeners listen to this want to give me an insight on what it's really like inside those factories, please let me know. So in order to create that more harmonious working environment, there are two key ingredients. A common shared objective, which is a much bigger purpose than just the now and just winning or the survival mechanism of getting through the moment.
This allows for an increase in value. The hard work is outweighed by greater good. This shares objectives. We can be winning. However, it's truly a bigger bang for buck when to create a longer term impact, a legacy. The more potent that is, the clearer the picture and the stronger the drive towards that common objective. The second part is trust. This is a key component of moving that blueprint. There is a skill or a process that the prefrontal cortex or the boss has built to the workforce. Our subconscious, if it's not trusted, it won't leave the boss' desk and will keep overthinking and overthinking it. So we've got to create a way of trusting that neural blueprint. Make sure that every part of our preparation, our process and our skill can be trusted. Otherwise the workforce will just simply send it back to the boss' office and say, "No, don't trust it." The boss will then be obliged to overthink to dig in and look for the floor and work out why it wasn't working. This is often where you'll see athletes who have a skill or a process that they do really well start to self sabotage it, unpick it, looking for a reason why it wouldn't work. Not necessarily a reason why it didn't work, but why it wouldn't work.
As coaches and spectators, we look at that and we don't necessarily understand what's going on inside the athlete's head. Why are they sabotaging their performance? The reality is it wasn't trusted enough when it was sent to the workers, so when it got sent back, the process was to look for the flaw. So where I use this trust mechanism and optimise on that is through a mental funneling process. Every one of my athletes use this template to create a known outcome rather than relying on, How do I feel? There's a huge difference between feeling ready and knowing you're ready. Our feelings shift in high emotional situations like competitions, so therefore our feelings aren't consistent gauges on our performance. Inevitably, when I'm talking to athletes and initially start working with them, I say to them, "How do you know you're ready for a competition?" They'll always tell me, "I feel ready, I feel good, I feel calm, I feel comfortable."
The reality is we're human, when you get put into a high pressure situation, your emotions rise. It's a self survival mechanism that shifts how we feel and in essence, it makes us inconsistent. Remember what our first thing was? We were focusing on building consistency. If our gauges, our metrics for performance aren't consistent, then how can we be? So by building this funnel system, this checklist of what do I need to do on a Monday? What do I need to do on a Tuesday? All the way through that funnel all the way through to game day or competition day and getting to that point and saying, "You know what? I still feel nervous. I don't actually feel really comfortable, but I know I'm ready. I've ticked the boxes, I've built my funnel. I can go out there and I can perform."
So if phase one is consistency, and consistency comes from reliable and replicable process, then phase two is all about timing. When I'm working with an athlete, I will ask them what mindset they're currently in, be that a student or a performer. A student is just that. It's a learning phase. It's about making mistakes, pushing boundaries, getting curious and exploratory. It's the ultimate growth phase, being able to be inquisitive about the skills we're learning and how we learn them.
The student phase, as I said, is critical for growth. However, we know it comes with that snow globe effect. Meaning whilst we're in student mode and we're learning, we're less consistent and less confident. So by setting up parameters around focal points such as growth areas, training objectives, we can take that student mode and then switch it into performance mode, to action. What we've learned by giving us the freedom to be in student mode, first of all, and not feel the fear of failure or the fear of consequence; we get comfortable with exploring and then settling on a point like that snow globe, everything starts to settle. Then once we can trust that, we can switch that into performer mode. And performer mode is all about the doing. It's not about learning. It's not about unpacking. It's just about doing what you already know you can do. I'll often say to my clients, "What's more difficult: training or performing?" And initially they'll always say to me, "Of course, performing." When the reality is the most challenging thing you're going to do is train. Because you're creating in that moment, you're learning new stuff, you're learning how you do, what you do when you go to perform.
The reality is, at least from a neurological perspective, all you're doing is pressing go on something you've already built a blueprint that you can trust. These processes are really important and critical in building that trust mechanism in our brain.
So how do we get the balance right? How do we get the balance right between being a student and being that performer? Student is obviously very easy when we're in training mode, when we're learning new skills or going out, learning new plays. But how do we get the balance between that and trusting the performance? If we want to take our training into game day, the things that we've learned, the things that we've refined and got correct, then we need to build a conduit between how we train and how we perform.
For me, the balance comes down to a percentage. The gauge I found the most optimised is to spend around 70% of every training session in student mode, allowing the athlete to explore, get comfortable, recognise what they need to do, the triggers. And around 30% in performance mode, the application mode. And of course, as we get closer and closer to game day, those percentages shift to be almost 80% in the performer and around 20% still in the student mode, still allowing the athlete to refine and hone their skill set before game day.
Now when we shift between the student mode and the performer mode it's all about creating a replicable trigger. It's not enough just to say, "Okay, switch and perform." What you want to be able to do is have a consistent trigger that allows you to go from, "Okay, I've learnt this skill, now I'm going to apply this skill." A great deal of that comes down to you better understanding what the performer version of you looks like, sounds like and performs like. It's something us as athletes sometimes can get blurry around the edges when we think the way that we train is the way that we perform and the way that we perform is the way we are all the time. It's not a reality. Sometimes you hear coaches say, "Okay, it's game day, you've got to step up." And for me, this is one of the areas we struggle with the most when we're talking about timing and consistency – when we treat game days differently to how we've trained. We want to put a piece of the game day in every training session so we can take the trained version of you into the game.
If we get there and it's completely different, we'll go into survival mode. We'll look for all the differences rather than look for all the consistencies and similarities. Learning to trigger between the student and the performer can take time to get it right. We see just how difficult this can be when we see players in a game who will go out, they'll make a mistake and then they'll start to go into student mode, over analysing it, looking for the calls, being more fear-driven about making mistakes – and now under the big lights with lots of people watching rather than in training where there was no consequence – and we start to see them unravel. Not only make one mistake, but make two mistakes and three mistakes and they compound. This is where an athlete has shifted out of performer mode and gone into student mode. There's always a time to analyse what happened, but it's certainly not in the middle of a competition or a game.
Coaches can also trigger this shift out of performer mode and back into student mode when they over coach from the sideline. I see this so frequently where an athlete will be switched into performance mode. They'll go out to perform and a coach will call them back and say, "Don't forget this and remember to do this, and how you do this is this way," that's taking that athlete out of their performer, their trusted mode and putting them back into the questionable mode where they're looking for a better way of doing stuff, trying to re-understand it, trying to re-impregnate that blueprint that they had trusted in their brain. The workers will send that back to the boss and say, "Right, if you don't trust it, find the problem."
So we focused on currency and we've recognised the most effective currency an athlete has on their select-ability is consistency. We've just looked at timing: knowing when to be the student and knowing when to be the performer, recognising that we start the student phase around 70% of our training and 30% is actioning as a performer before we switch all the way up to around 80% as a performer and 20% as a student right before competition.
And now let's look at plates. Yes, plates. Do you remember the old circus performers that used to spin plates on top of poles? Spinning each one required just the right amount of setup before moving on to the next one. Each plate required an amount of attention, an amount of focus, the right amount of spin, the balance, and sometimes used to watch them spend so much time trying to get one right that they would have an absolute catastrophe when all the other plates would start falling.
Our performance, our careers as athletes like those plates must work out what is required to get each skill up and running, each process, each performance and what it is required to keep it running, and then ensure all our other skills on and off the field are getting their needed time as well. This ensures healthy performance, a healthy environment, one that can maintain and build based on need, not on emotional ones, but on pragmatic needs.
So I started this podcast by asking, selection or growth? We focused on three key areas that should allow you to recognise you can have both. You can maintain that consistency of performance and utilise everything that got you into that team and be selectable and be able to perform consistently so you are an asset to the team, but also how to look at better balancing the student mode and growth mode along with that performance mode so that you can continue to grow your skills. Understanding there's going to be that snow globe effect and being able to consolidate that down to say, "Each and every training session, I can still put it together and perform."
And we've looked at the spinning of the plates, making sure that you can access every area of your life, be that performer mode, student mode skills, your personal life, your relationships and your off time so that you're a healthy, happy and mentally robust athlete.
So we need to trade on our currency, optimise our timing and keep our plates spinning. When you are performing, when you're out there and you've made it to a level where you're concerned that you can't grow or you might lose out, just remember if you don't grow they will overtake you.
If you'd like more information, check out smartmind.com – in there is a whole library of different podcasts on different subjects. There's also a whole library of video trainings that gives you an opportunity to not only listen but see and work through some of the templates.
So until our next podcast, trust, believe and enjoy: trust in your preparation; believe in yourself; enjoy what you do.
My name is Dave Diggle and I'm the mind coach.
Copyright 2012-2022 Dave Diggle