Marshalling the Mind Under Stress

High stakes and heightened emotions are characteristic of competitive sport, particularly at the highest level. For those who operate in elite and professional sport the presence of stress seems ubiquitous. Coaches and athletes alike regularly face high pressure scenarios where there is a great deal of expectation and much riding on the outcome. Anticipation of an important event, such as a big game, major competition, or selection trials naturally inspire a host of feelings, thoughts, and emotions, ranging from excitement to anxiety and even dread, sometimes simultaneously! In this post we explore how we can equip ourselves and help our athletes to meet the psychological and emotional challenges we will inevitably face on the journey.

REVELATION: HIGH PERFORMERS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO STRESS AND ANXIETY…

There is a longstanding myth that elite athletes (and coaches) are somehow a different breed of human that is immune to stress, and not troubled by doubt and anxiety as other mortals are. Over the recent period, high profile athletes have shared their personal battles with mental health issues, which has gone some way to dispelling these myths and reducing the stigma. Athletes are certainly more open about sharing their experiences, and happily mental health is no longer the taboo topic it once was.

Yet unhelpful attitudes persist among athletes and coaches. Somehow we have retained the impression that as a high performer we should be above such petty anxieties and doubts. The imaginary archetype of a high performing athlete or coach that many still hold in their heads is not prone to such human failings.

As a result of these enduring attitudes and stereotypes we often assume that others do not have the same negative thoughts or feel the same anxiety. Often these perceptions are reinforced by the show that performers put on for their peers’ benefit. Such misapprehensions compound the nerves that we all feel periodically, due to our thoughts and judgements that we are somehow not meant to be affected in this way.

On an individual level, it is true that different athletes and coaches can be affected by varying degrees. The terms ‘trait-’ and ‘state-anxiety’ describe how certain personality types may be more prone to anxiety, and also signify that anxiety can be provoked by external conditions and circumstances. What is also evident is that conditions of stress can have differing effects on how we perform on different occasions, and the effect may not necessarily be negative.

All in all, elite sport is a high stress environment, and in such circumstances feeling nervous or anxious at times seems eminently natural and entirely understandable. Objectively it is somewhat baffling that athletes and coaches respond to such feelings with damning thoughts and judgements. Perception is hugely powerful, a theme which will recur often in this post. This certainly applies to our expectations of the degree to which we should be affected by stress, what thoughts we are supposed to have, and how we are meant to feel in particular scenarios.

STRESS AND PERFORMANCE…

The statement ‘affected by nerves’ is generally construed as negatively impacting how an athlete performs on the occasion. In fact the impact of conditions of stress on performance can be negative, neutral, or in some cases positive. In the same way, how we respond to anxiety can serve us in a positive way, have a neutral effect on performance (i.e. no impact), or negatively affect how we perform.

For the purposes of this discussion it is also important that we differentiate between acute stress that is transient or short-lasting, and occurs in response to the situation at hand, versus chronic stress, which is sustained over an extended period. The maladaptation that is often associated with chronic stress typically has a negative effect on performance in direct and indirect ways, including negatively impacting health, motivation, and behaviour.

The experience of coming through the trials of youth sport to some degree prompts athletes to figure out their own countermeasures and coping strategies to manage acute stress and anxiety, to neutralise or minimise the negative impact on their performance. For the most part, this problem-solving process relies upon trial and error, and is largely an independent endeavour. It is typically only when athletes arrive at elite level as a senior athlete that they encounter sport psychologists or mental skills coaches. Even at this stage, specialist support in this area is far from assured. Whilst things are becoming more evolved, there is still typically very little consideration for helping athletes (or coaches) to cope with chronic stress and anxiety.

‘FLOW’, ‘CLUTCH’, AND ‘CHOKING’…

Flow state is characterised as spontaneous and fleeting, albeit authors have started to investigate how we might go about ‘hacking’ flow, or triggering these states. In contrast, what is termed ‘clutch’ pertains to elevating performance at a very specific crunch time. Whereas flow is characterised as effortless and ‘letting it happen’, clutch performance is described in terms of ‘making it happen’.

Clutch performance requires the athlete to concentrate their focus in an effortful way to bring their full mental resources to bear in order to perform in the key moment under pressure. We typically do little to help athletes acquire the capability for clutch performance, beyond exposing them to pressure conditions and assuming they will figure it out. However, managing inner dialogue would appear hugely important to this endeavour, given the scope for negative thoughts and judgements to distract and take up precious mental resources.

Returning to perception, there is great stigma attached to occasions where we might demonstrate such human frailties as being negatively affected by the pressure. Choking is the term used to describe the scenario where performance is impaired under pressure, so that conditions of stress negatively impact execution. The term is used widely both in the scientific literature and among commentators and fans. The label of choking represents a huge problem given the negative connotations, and naturally this becomes an added source of anxiety for performers.

THE INFLUENCE OF COGNITION ON EMOTION… AND MUCH ELSE…

In the context of the stress of the life of an athlete, coach or practitioner in elite sport, what goes in within our own mind affects other processes within our body. Our thoughts or ‘cognitions’ impact our emotional state, which is manifested physically in our body, and in turn affects a host of other aspects, including brain chemistry, physiology, autonomic nervous system, and immune function.

Cognition encompasses our internal representations of the outside world, and how we appraise individuals and interpret situations we encounter. Cognition is also central to our sense of self, and includes thoughts about ourselves, both in general and in relation to others, and in the context of different scenarios and external events. Cognition pertains both to our conscious thoughts and the tacit knowledge that we acquire through learning and experience.

Athletes (and coaches) will periodically find themselves in a negative head space, particularly when the circumstances are trying. For instance, physical health often impacts mental health (and vice versa). Extended periods when the athlete is unable to participate in practice and competition due to injury offer an illustrative example. It is not uncommon for injured athletes to report symptoms akin to depression during these times.

Given that such trials are a feature of most athletic careers, it follows that we should do our best to help equip the athlete with appropriate tools and coping strategies for athlete life. Whilst this is given less attention, it likewise follows that we should be providing for coaches and practitioners in the same way.

SCOPE OF PRACTICE…

On a personal and professional level I am leery of labels; however, for the purposes of this discussion, let us for now call me a performance coach. Beyond the physical and athletic preparation process, performing in competition has a significant mental component. The psychological and emotional aspects encompassed in the mental game can profoundly affect the athlete’s expression of the physical and athletic qualities we have sought to develop. On that basis, it would seem highly remiss to neglect such portentous performance factors.

On a more fundamental level, I do not simply coach athletes; I coach humans who happen to be athletes. An integral part of working with humans is learning to understand how they think and becoming attuned to their emotional state. Once again, this necessitates delving into cognitive and emotional aspects, in the same way we seek to develop our knowledge in more conventional elements, such as physiology and motor learning. Effecting a positive change in thinking habits and associated behaviours requires a deep knowledge and understanding of these topics. We must understand both the human concerned and the complexities of mental performance if we are to guide the athlete towards cognitive strategies that better serve.

Moreover, I am not only a coach of humans, but also a human myself. As a human coach of humans, my effectiveness is contingent upon my interactions with others (particularly the athlete), so it follows that I also need to maintain a high degree of self awareness in relation to my own thinking and emotional state. As with athletes, to improve my capabilities I need to understand my own patterns of thinking, in order to develop the necessary vigilance and devise alternative cognitive strategies. I would contend that developing knowledge of cognitive and emotional aspects is a prerequisite for a leader or people manager in any realm, and essentially anybody for whom interacting with humans is central to their ability to operate effectively.

That said, an important caveat is that whilst as coaches we might be best placed to offer early support to help athletes to equip themselves, it is critical that we recognise and respect the limits of what we are equipped and qualified to deal with. When signs indicate a clinical condition, we must be ready to refer to a mental health specialist, and it is important that we have an established referral pathway and protocol under the direction of a medical professional. Such instances would include suspected clinical depression and other conditions, including eating disorders.

THE ILLUSIONS WE CREATE IN OUR MINDS…

Our cognitions are very powerful in shaping our subjective reality and how we perceive things in the moment. These fabrications constructed from our thoughts and reasoning are given depth by the emotions they create. The underpinning cognitions do not need to reflect objective reality in order for what we construct in our mind to seem and feel very real.

Sometimes the illusions and subjective reality we create in our minds does not serve us, and can actively sabotage our efforts. Steps of illogic, warped perception of events, and cognitive distortions can serve to create unhelpful illusions that affect our mindset. These illusions generate their own reinforcing thoughts and feelings which shape our internal representation of the situation, and influence how we view the world and ourselves.

Irrespective of the objective reality, these fabrications nevertheless have a real bearing on how we perceive things and our emotional state. The feelings created by our cognitions are no less tangible, despite the fact that the underlying thoughts and reasoning may have no rational basis.

INCAPACITATING EFFECTS OF A NEGATIVE HEAD SPACE…

Given the propensity for our cognitions to shape our subjective reality, it is easy to fall prey to the beguiling influence of our own thoughts. When we become trapped in a negative head space this can be incredibly debilitating, and descriptions such as ‘crippling anxiety’ can seem apt.

An example of how this scenario might play out: at the outset, the prospect of the challenge we are facing may conjure doubts and troubling thoughts, eliciting associated feelings of dread and anxiety. The mere fact that we are having such thoughts and feelings may in turn provoke negative judgements; this can serve to further taint our subjective view of both ourselves and the task that faces us.

The effect on our perspective when we are in a negative head space has been likened to looking through binoculars. Our view of the what we are facing can become magnified out of proportion. Conversely, our view of ourselves is distorted as if we are looking through the opposite end of the binoculars.

A negative head space hereby adversely affects how we evaluate our own capabilities, particularly when we have blown the size of the challenge out of all proportion, and this naturally impacts how we assess our prospects of a successful outcome. When the challenge we face appears so daunting in our minds naturally this can affect our resolve. Against such apparently overwhelming odds our motivation to address the situation is thus impacted. The prospect of tackling such a daunting challenge feels overwhelming, which can lead to a sense of apathy in view of the diminished hope of a successful outcome.

On a practical level, our distorted thinking and judgements on the situation also present a barrier to actually getting a handle on the problem. In this head space it becomes hard to know where to start. Without a realistic or objective evaluation it is naturally difficult to break down what we need to address in order to come up with actionable steps towards a solution.

DOWNWARD SPIRAL…

When trapped in a negative head space it is easy to become withdrawn, particularly in the face of negatives outcomes. This only reduces our exposure to external viewpoints, and a growing tendency for introspection dials up the volume and saturates our exposure to the distortions provided by our internal commentary, with less and less counterbalancing input. Withdrawal also robs us of the in-person interaction we thrive on as social animals, which also contributes to the negative cascade.

Self-defeating thoughts elicit self-defeating emotions and inspire self-defeating behaviours, which in turn generate further self-defeating thoughts, so that the cycle has a tendency to repeat. With each cycle the downward spiral gains strength, providing confirming evidence so that our negative judgements and pessimistic attitudes appear increasingly valid.

There is a strange circular logic at play here. I think that I am going to fail; this thought triggers negative feelings, and in this negative emotional state my belief that I am going to fail seems more real and believable. These doubts and growing negative beliefs sabotage my preparation and my efforts when I come to perform, causing me to fail to execute to my potential when the time comes. All of which seems to confirm that I was correct in thinking I would fail. I take from the experience that I can expect to fail when I come to attempt this particular trial in future. I therefore label myself as ‘bad at this’, and this fuels my negative expectations when I encounter this situation again at a later date.

BREAKING THE CYCLE: ‘COGNITIVE TRAINING’…

There have been early efforts within the sports psychology literature to borrow from therapeutic approaches more commonly employed with mental health disorders under the umbrella definition of ‘cognitive therapy’. Some attempts have been made to apply these principles to developing the ‘mental skills’ required to perform under stress in the athletic realm. Authors on the topic have termed this practice ‘cognitive training’, to differentiate the application of these tools for mental performance, as opposed to mental health.

Whatever terms we choose to employ, the most important first step is to bring awareness to our cognitions. When trapped in a negative head space, the fact that the illusions we create in our mind do not stand up to close scrutiny offers us a way out. The starting point is to get our swirling thoughts out of our head and onto paper. Once captured on paper, we can expose the logic structure created in our mind to daylight and see how it stacks up.

Given that our thinking is at the centre of our distorted perceptions, it follows that what is required in order to break the cycle is action to alter both our cognitive processes and our perceptions. As described, one such action is to capture our thoughts on paper so that they can be exposed to scrutiny. Engaging in action also offers the means to disprove the untruths our psyche has been feeding us, enabling us to provide evidence to contradict the distorted reasoning that these thoughts are build upon.

There are typically a number of cognitive distortions distortions at play when we get trapped in a negative head space, and these tend to be a feature of our anxieties in general. The observation that statements indicative of these cognitive distortions are more prevalent in those suffering with depression demonstrates their power and potential to do harm. Clearly becoming familiar with the common cognitive distortions is a crucial first step in order to bring awareness and thereby exercise vigilance.

THE COMMON DISTORTIONS…

Absolutist, Binary, All or Nothing Thinking (e.g. less than perfection or total success represents complete failure)

Over-generalising (blanket generalisations, always statements, or assuming what is now will always be)

Labelling (affixing labels that define others or ourselves, generally based scant evidence - i.e. single act, event, interaction)

Jumping to Conclusions #1: Mind Reading Fallacy (assuming other’s thoughts or motivations behind their actions)

Jumping to Conclusions #2: Forecasting the Future (definitive statements about future unknowable events or outcomes)

Selective Recollection (Filtering out the positive, capturing and storing only the negative)

Binocular Distortion (Magnifying negatives/weakness, minimising positives/strengths)

Reasoning Based on Felt Emotions (I feel this way therefore it must be the case)

Dismissing and Discrediting Success or Praise

Attribution Errors (assuming fault or personal responsibility for external events or other’s decisions or actions)

False Expectations, Assumed Obligations (how things should be, what I should be doing, provoking indignation towards others, guilt towards oneself)

TWO-PRONGED STRATEGY…

Addressing the above cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns calls for a two-pronged strategy. The first prong tackles the ‘top-down’ component (i.e. examining our thought patterns and modifying as necessary). The second prong addresses ‘bottom-up aspects’, relating to how we respond to events and situations, and interpret the feelings and emotions elicited.

Marshalling our cognitions involves exercising executive function, and the ‘meta-abilities’ described in a previous post. Specifically, this calls for ‘meta-cognition’, and the meta-abilities that underpin emotional regulation.

Meta cognition describes our awareness of how we think, and the degree of executive control we are able to exercise over our cognitions. Cognitive distortions encompass giant unsupported leaps in reasoning, and glaring flaws in logic. If we are systematic in our approach we can interrogate each step of our reasoning, and thereby identify precisely the ways in which our thinking is distorting to create the illusion in our minds, and in turn what we are feeling in response.

Returning to the bottom up part of the two pronged strategy, for the purposes of managing the stress of practice and competition emotional regulation effectively means learning how to deal with what we feel. This encompasses how we perceive the experiences we encounter, the sensations we feel, the label we give these aspects, and our appraisal of what this means.

DEPLOYING META-COGNITION…

As described, the simple exercise of capturing negative thoughts on paper allows us to retroactively examine them for distortions, and identify any flaws in logic or unsupported leaps in reasoning. The next step in this exercise then provides the opportunity to summon more objective and rational thoughts to counter the distortions, and thereby bring our subjective reality closer to objective reality. Whilst this is a retroactive exercise, it nevertheless helps to relieve the lingering negative feelings and dispel the ongoing urge to ruminate.

Self awareness is equally important to allow athletes to be aware of their emotions in the moment. Once again, the practice of regularly engaging in the above exercise to capture and re-examine negative thoughts will help athletes and coaches to become highly familiar with commonly occurring cognitive distortions so that over time we may acquire the ability to recognise them in real-time. Regardless, the discipline of capturing our thoughts on paper remains important to effectively download them, rather than allowing them to continue circling in our heads, and this also lends a degree of detachment.

One crucial aspect is accepting our thoughts and feelings as both natural and appropriate in the circumstances. This acceptance alone helps neutralise much of the angst and rumination that results from the unrealistic expectations and surrounding judgements of our own thoughts and emotions.

By definition in sport the outcome is uncertain, so it is natural for there to be doubt and for us to feel anxious to some degree. Given what is at stake and how invested we are in the endeavour it is likewise natural and appropriate to feel nervous. The physiological arousal that goes along with feeling nervous can also serve our mental and physical performance in a positive way, so from this viewpoint these feelings are not only natural but desirable. Once again, if athletes (and coaches) are able to accept the premise that what they are feeling can assist their performance and embrace it, this will serve them far better.

Another aspect of metacognition relates to how we appraise situations, scenarios, and our own sensations. The labels we use and the meaning we attach to external events and scenarios go a long way to shaping our thought patterns and ensuing emotional responses. This is manifested in our perception of scenarios in terms of threat versus reward.

APPRAISAL AND RE-APPRAISAL…

When our impression of a situation is dominated by the potential threat it constitutes (i.e. a potential loss), clearly this will shape how we anticipate the event, and our cognitions and behaviour during the event. For instance, this might cause us to adopt a defensive approach as we seek to avoid the apparent risks. Conversely, appraising the same scenario in terms of the potential rewards (i.e. opportunity for a potential win) changes things dramatically. Such an appraisal leads us to a think about the event in terms of the opportunities, which alters our approach with respect to decision-making and action selections when we perform, and our overall experience of the endeavour.

The power of appraisal is also evident with our own bodily sensations. The same physical sensations of physiological arousal can be experienced in different ways, based on the meaning we attach to them. We might perceive and interpret these bodily sensations as feeling anxious, or we might attribute these feelings to excitement. The experience we have as a result of the differing interpretations (anxious versus excited) are very different, despite the original sensations being identical. In particular the cognitions or patterns of thought that accompany the interpretation ‘I am anxious’ versus ‘I am excited’ are very different, and these differing cognitions fuel their own feelings, sensations, and emotional states, according to our expectations and the judgements and ruminations that follow.

Once again, we can use this knowledge to alter how we appraise the sensations that will naturally be elicited as we anticipate and encounter high arousal situations. In this way we can acquire some mastery over how we experience what we feel in response to events.

OTHER COUNTERMEASURES…

Aside from tackling internal ramblings head-on by interrogating our thinking, there are also some practices that permit dialling down the volume of the internal chatter to provide periods of respite. Effectively these practices involve channeling our attention towards another activity and/or tuning our awareness to alternative foci.

What this immediately calls to mind is yoga and meditation, and it is true that many athletes derive benefits from these practices. However, mindfulness simply means tuning into our own body, a mundane task, or our surroundings, rather than having our attention captured by the thoughts in our mind.

On that basis, essentially any routine activity can serve for these purposes, for instance simply going out for a walk, or preparing a meal can be meditative for some. This is an important point, is it allows us to engage in relevant ‘mind-body’ practice in a variety of settings, whilst avoiding the connotations that come with the labels of ‘yoga’, ‘meditation’, and even ‘mindfulness’, which can be a barrier for some athletes and coaches.

IN CLOSING…

There are persisting misconceptions and false expectations in relation to stress and anxiety among high performing athletes and coaches. On the other hand there is growing awareness of the increasing prevalence of health challenges such as chronic anxiety and depression among student athletes particularly, and it is increasingly evident that those in the elite and professional ranks are similarly affected. From both perspectives, this points to a need to take a more proactive approach to understanding and investing in the mental game that is a major part of operating in the realm of competitive sport.

We are all mortal, and as such can fall prey to habits of thought that do not serve us. Our cognitions create the world within our minds, and subjective reality is very powerful: it feels very real, and whilst our thoughts and feelings might not make something objectively true, it nevertheless affects us in very real ways.

In view of the power of our cognitions to influence our emotional state and shape our subjective reality, it follows there is a real need to bring some awareness to these habits of thought. We might think of this as ‘cognitive training’, and it is an integral part of developing the mental skills required to perform under stress.

There are some very practical methods we can adopt to help regulate our thoughts, allowing us to identify dysfunctional thinking and cognitive distortions at play. A simple yet powerful practice is to capture these cognitions on paper allows us to bring our swirling thoughts out of the dark recesses of our mind and into the daylight. In this way we can scrutinise our thoughts and reasoning with a degree of detachment. In turn we can develop strategies and ways of thinking that better serve us. Along the way we can also acquire the capability to deploy our mental resources more effectively, facilitating the clutch performances that athletes aspire to.

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