Information Over’flow’

16 10 2015

One of the most common challenges in high pressure performance situations is the ability to focus.  Distractions come in all types, from all directions, and at varying intensities.   So how on earth do we concentrate when we need to in the moments that matter most.  Learning to focus can sometimes seem like a tumultuous process with little success but that is usually because we don’t understand how our brain works.

So let’s see if we can simplify it down to the basics of what you really need to know….

First, we need to understand working memory.  Your working memory is simply the information that your brain can pay attention to in any ‘one moment’.  To help give you a visual, think of your working memory as the cup in the picture above.  Now, this your working memory, or the cup, has a very limited amount of space available, around 5 pieces of information at any one moment.

What is happening when we have trouble focusing is that we are allowing our working memory to be flooded with WAY more than 5 pieces of information that is often irrelevant to the situation.  For a visual, think of these piece of information as the marbles in the image above.  This information could include thoughts around those watching you perform, the consequences (good or bad) of your performance, previous performances you have experienced, the weather, etc. When we are not careful and selective about what information (marbles) we are allowing our working memory (cup) to be filled with, we are left with and overflowing, distracted, and probably low quality performance.

The best way to make sure our working memory (cup) is filled with the most accurate and helpful information, we must be deliberate about what we what fills that space.

As a performer…

Decide prior to your performance what the 3-5 most important pieces of information (marbles) are to your task.  This will prime working memory (cup) to only allow those items to enter.  If they change throughout the performance, that is fine.  However, make sure that you are being selective about which information you let in because once your working memory cup is full the remainder of the information marbles, even if they are relevant and helpful, will automatically be filtered out.

As a coach or leader…

Understanding working memory for those you lead can help you lead them to success! The athletes working memory is very limited so, you as the coach or leader you need to being give them limited and specific pieces of information (marbles) to place in their cup.  Instead of telling them to focus or concentration (which most athletes aren’t sure how to do), tell them a couple of items (marbles) you want them to focus on.  If you give them too much information their brain will filter it out, so be selective with the information you identify.

Our brains are designed to respond best to limited and specific information.  Focus during a performance can be largely improved if you understand how your brain works.  Simple and specific is best for ‘in the moment’ focus.

Your challenge this week is to think about a performance or practice you having coming up.  Selective 5 information (marbles) or less that you want to fill your working memory (cup) prior to the performance.  If you notice yourself drifting to other information, distractions, etc. simply ‘refocus’ by naming those items to yourself in that moment.





THE GRANNY FACTOR

9 09 2015

In a leadership role we want to influence those we lead to learn, grow, and develop in the time we have to work with them.  We want to develop individuals that are excited to learn, approach challenges instead of avoiding them, have a desire to push themselves, and be self motivated.  The million dollar questions becomes; How can we, as leaders, influence our group to adopt this perspective?

Many times when this self-determine motivation is not displayed we turn to punishments as a way of forcing the result.  For example, if an individual is not meeting a goal or struggling to recall information learned previously we yell at them in the moment or provide some other form or suitable punishment.  However, this approach is actually rendering the exact opposite of our desired result.  The evidence manifests in neuroscience. Our brain as many parts but the reptilian part of our brain, or the Limbic Brain, which sits in the center is responsible for running the other parts of our brain.  When our reptilian brain is threatened it shuts down everything else, including the Prefrontal Cortex which plays a huge role in learning and development.  Punishments are seen as threats and therefore begins this shutting down process.  So, when we punish someone or place them in another threatening situation, ultimately what we do is shut their brain down and then ask them to perform a task they have learned or need to recall.  This is simply not conducive to learning or performance.

So now what? What strategies can we use to avoiding this shut down and set these individuals up for success?  The answer is simple, encouragement is key. We need to salute learning and the willingness to challenge themselves.  We call this, THE GRANNY FACTOR.  When we see an athlete, student, child or soldier attempting to accomplish and goal or learn a new skill we need to say things like, ‘Whoa! I couldn’t do that when I was your age’, ‘that’s neat, how did you do that’, or ‘what’s the next step’.  In other words, say what granny would say. #WWGS

As humans we have an unstoppable desire to learn.  The Neurochemical, Dopamine, is release anytime we experience something new or novel.  Therefore, we want to keep learning and experiencing, even if we are not in school or placed in another environment where learning is the desired outcome.  We are hardwired to pursue information and learn!! With the learning and development process comes plateau, where we think we can’t make it any farther.  Perhaps all we need is a little granny factor.  So your challenge for this week is to get in touch with your inner granny.  Inspire those around your to keep learning and developing by being a leader of encouragement!!





The “Big Game” Effect

11 07 2014

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The idea of the ‘big game’ where the pressure is on to perform at your best is all over is sports today. Rivalries, college world series, scouts watching, interleague play, etc. all provide this feeling of the ‘big game’. It is in moments like this where we most often hear stories of choking or subpar performance leading to an undesirable outcome. However, what is the ‘big game’ and what makes this experience so much different and more challenging than other games throughout the season? The actual game is still the same. It’s the same 90 ft between bases, same 9 innings, same pitch calls, etc. it’s all the same. The idea of the ‘big game’ is an idea we have created in our minds based on our environment. As a result there is more pressure placed on each opportunity; each at bat, each defensive play, and each pitch. When in reality those plays are no different than any other day. Our PERCEPTION is that there is more pressure to which our mind and body react.

Under pressure our mental attention often shifts from what we should be focused on, to elements inducing high stress. In fact, the more we try to make our brain not think about the pressure the more challenging it becomes to do. We have talked in the past about working memory and the small amount of information your brain can hold in conscious awareness. Which is why you should be giving your brain one thing to focus on to make is easier for your brain to calm down and attend. Some examples might include; quick hands, getting your foot down, keeping your front side close, etc. Just pick one! Your brain will be more equipped to perform optimally.

Another strategy suggested in the research is a technique called Stress Exposure Training. In its most basic form, this training is practicing under pressure conditions. For some reason, as athletes and coaches, we think it works to practice in controlled settings with little to no pressure when that is not how the game is played. If more time is spent practicing under pressure conditions our mind and body will have the opportunity to become comfortable in this environment. Stress Exposure Training consists of 3 parts;

1. Inform: This includes informing the player of potential events, typical physiological, emotional, and cognitive reactions to stress that may occur, how stress is likely to affect performance, and how the individual may adapt to these changes. This information will allow the player to begin to familiarize themselves with the environment and therefore be more prepared when these feelings/events occur.

2. Skill Acquisition: This includes physical, mental, and emotional skills. Under stress, attention is diverted externally to task-irrelevant cues (ex. crowd noise) as well as inward to interpret novel or unfamiliar stress-related reactions (ex. racing heart), and less attention is devoted to task-relevant demands. Meaning that we are no longer attending to performance in the way we practiced and prepared in a controlled setting. Step 2 is designed to build the skills needed to manage these changes. Specific and unique programs should be development with your mental training consultant.

3. Application and Practice: This is the final step where you are able to take your knowledge of the environment and the mental, physical, and emotional skills you have learned and practice them in simulated environments. Some examples might include practicing with spectators present, with noise playing over the loud speakers, in game situations (ex. runners on 2nd and 3rd two outs, 1-2 count), being rushed or iced, etc. Be creative with this step, not all situation will be the same but they may have commonalities. The more you can practice (mentally, physically, and emotionally) in this environment the more prepared you will be when the time comes to actually perform.

Players can’t be expected to perform at their best under pressure if they’ve never developed the tools to handle games situations. By teaching players what to expect both externally and internally, teaching them strategies for how to deal with these changes, and being given the opportunity to practice the mental, physical, and emotional skills in realistic settings will help preparation, comfort, and control for when the performance really matters!





IT’S ‘PRIME’ TIME!

18 06 2014

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There are many people is the world of sports that would suggest emotions have no place in excellent performance. Emotions get a bad name in the sport arena but why is that? Emotions are part of our make-up for a reason and if they didn’t serve a purpose then why would we feel them? So much energy is allocated during performance to stifle emotions or to not feel something, but perhaps we are putting the emphasis in the wrong place.

Research shows that emotions are not our enemy but in instead our ally in the quest for consistently high performance. However, the way we select and use those emotions is very important to the quality of performance. All our emotions are are our reactions to our interpretations of the environment, like our bodies internal thermometer of how we are feeling. If I were about ready to go skydiving for the first time, I would feel a bit anxious about that. When we feel a specific emotion, our body tends for have reactions in line with that emotion. For example, if I am feeling anxiety in that situation, you might expect me to be very quiet, avoid others, or be pacing back and forth. However, instead of seeing emotions and their associated reactions as something to be avoided, let’s harness this knowledge and use it to our advantage for performance.

Having the awareness and ability to select an emotion and elicit that emotion from yourself as a tool for enhanced performance is called EMOTIONAL PRIMING. This skill has been backed in research by showing roughly a .5 standard deviation increase in performance between primed and unprimed performance. That translates to approximately 17% performance increase. Let’s look at this in a real performance example, if I am a hitter batting .250 unprimed, I could increase my average to .293 SIMPLY BY PRIMING MY EMOTIONS!! This is a significant performance increase!!

The first step in learning to prime your emotions is to develop self awareness around what emotion, specific to you, is most effect for performance. Take a moment to think about your best performance, how were you feeling just prior to and during that performance? Be as specific as you can with these emotions. What made you feel that way? This is a very basic way of determining what emotion you are looking to prime. However, emotions are complex, so to determine detailed emotional targets for best results, work with a mental skills trainer to find your specific individual zone.

The next step is to practice eliciting that emotion from yourself when you need it. This may be an image in your head, a past experience you remember vividly, song lyrics, etc. Priming a specific emotion will take practice. Practice several different options to determine which works best and to determine what will most efficiently help you reach that emotion when you need it.

I would like to point out that anger is an emotion that is expressed frequently as a target emotion. However, anger is one emotion that has been found to be consistently counter-productive to performance and here is why. Anger is an uncontrolled emotion with intense adverse reactions (ex, pitchers over throwing the next pitch after not getting a call), in order for the emotion to be helpful we must be in control of it. Most often what athletes mean by anger is that they like to feel amped up or aggressive to elicit that specific reactions they want while still remaining in control of their emotion.

As always this is a skill that will need to be practiced in order to see the full effects. We must practice for several reasons. First, you need to be able to get yourself to that emotion quickly and efficiently. Second, we need to practice remaining with that emotion throughout a performance. Finally, we are not perfect, so when something happens that alters our emotional state, we need to be able to return to that emotion quickly in order for high level performance to continue consistently.

Although they get a bad name, our emotions are there for a reason. In fact I would argue that, not only do they have a place is sport, but have significant impact on the quality of our execution. Practice using them to your advantage as opposed to trying to ignore them. That simple change can have profound impacts on your performance!





PHYSIOLOGY OF SUCCESS

5 06 2014

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Take a moment to think about your body just before a big performance… What do you remember feeling? Some of the common responses will include butterflies, shaky, sweating, needed to use the restroom or throw-up, heart-rate increase, dry mouth, etc. When athletes begin to experience these symptoms normally they will interpret them negatively as anxiety or nervousness. For athletes that feel this way or have ever experienced these symptoms, I thought it would be fun to ‘debunk’ the myths of these ‘negative nervous symptoms’.

When our body is preparing for performance it regulates itself in order to give us the best opportunity for success. Back when humans where required to hunt for food or in constant danger of wild animals and other threats our bodies had to adapt to allow us quick response time and optimal performance for survival. Now, our performances are a little different, including sport performance, but our body’s adaptation still functions in the similar ways.

So let’s look at some of the physiological symptoms listed above…

Digestion: Our body uses a significant amount of energy for digesting food. However, when we perform, our bodies need all of that energy we can get for optimal performance and therefore stops the digestive process. This slowing and stopping of digestion leads to feelings of butterflies caused by stomach chemicals breaking down and removing food, using the restroom and puking because our body tries to get rid of anything it doesn’t NEED for performance, dry-mouth because saliva helps break food down and there is no need to waste energy creating saliva while performing.

Muscles:
Our bodies have also adapted over time to be able to respond rapidly to threats or demands. In order for our muscles to respond as quickly as possible, they need oxygen and lots of it! This will create feelings of a racing heart because our blood is what carries oxygen to your muscles and in order to get more oxygen to them our heart has to move the blood more rapidly through your body. Response time is also what makes our body feel shaky. Prior to performance, our muscles tense in order to prepare for a quick movement and response. That will create a feeling of being shaking or on edge but it is just our body’s way or preparing to respond quickly.

Cooling System: During performance our bodies need to remain cool so that we don’t over heat during that performance. Sweating is our bodies way of regulate our temperature when we get too warm and therefore is a benefit to our performance.

Our bodies are very intelligent! Each of these symptoms is our body’s way of preparing itself for optimal performance. However, these symptoms are often very uncomfortable and are often accompanied by thoughts of anxiety or not performing well, decreased confidence levels, etc. Honestly, the time to worry is when you are not feeling some of these symptoms because your body is not yet optimally prepared. Our bodies are hardwired to perform at our best WHILE EXPERIENCING THESE SYMPTOMS! Our body will take care of creating these feelings it is our job to be in control of how we interpret them. So our challenge is to embrace the feelings of discomfort, enjoy it even! Choose to interpret these symptoms as our body being ready to go! Trust our body because these feelings are your greatest ally.





“WHITE-LINE FEVER”

4 06 2014

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“White-line fever,” or a decrease in performance once competition starts, is all too common in the baseball world. Almost every ballplayer at one point or another has experienced this sudden and often dramatic drop in performance between practice and competition. The ability to fight white-line fever and remain consistent is often the trait that separates the most successful players from the rest. Unlock your potential by learning how to become a more consistent athlete through mental preparation.

In our last article on white-line fever, we discussed a quick trick to reducing anxiety during competition. However, your mental preparation should start well before you show up to the yard. Get yourself in the right mindset by creating a pre-performance routine. Pre-performance routines should consist of both mental and physical skills designed specifically for your personality, time allotment, and controllability. Let’s look at each of these factors in a bit more depth.

Personality: You’re not the same person as any of your teammates, so your pre-performance routine should be unique. Some players like to be very social in preparation for performance while others tend to be more comfortable in silence. Pre-performance routines are designed to help you feel comfortable, so find one that fits your personality type, no matter what your teammates are doing.

Time: It’s nice to have plenty of time to prepare before a game, but we don’t always get to control our pre-performance timetable. Maybe your bus arrives to the game late or you have an injury that needs to be taped up. Because outside factors may shorten your preparation time, it’s important to have a “go-to” preparation routine you can turn to if you’re low on time. This preparation routine is usually just an abbreviated (“must-haves”) version of your longer and more thorough routine. Always expect the unexpected, and you’ll never be unprepared.

Complete: When create a routine pieces should be included that target your thoughts, emotions, and physiology. Have preplanned effective thoughts to keep your mind focused on the present and what you want to do instead of what you don’t want to do. To often we leave our thoughts up to chance and allow them to be altered by our environment, conditions, etc. We will talk more about emotional priming next week. Research is showing that we perform up to 15% better simply by targeting the most effective emotion! And finally, your physiology. Feeling comfortable has less to do with how we are feeling and more to do with WHAT WE THINK ABOUT HOW WE FEEL. Watch in following weeks for more information about both emotion and physiology.

Control: It’s important that you control your routine and it doesn’t control you. If you’re unable to work through your pre-performance routine, your game shouldn’t suffer. Routines are designed to help you feel comfortable and when we are comfortable we perform better. However, they shouldn’t turn into a superstition, you are still have the same skill set with or without your routine. If your routine gets interrupted, rely on your skills for performance.





MENTAL SUNSCREEN: PLANNING FOR THE UNEXPECTED

9 06 2013

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 10.53.55 AMAthletes are uniquely program to expect perfection from themselves and their teammates.  Was there ever a time that you went into a game expecting things to go any other way then exactly how you had planned?  With few exceptions, perfection is the expectation.  No matter what position or skill you are performing, you have a plan for success.  Maybe there is a certain pitch you are sitting on or a plan for how to strike a guy out.  Pitcher, catcher, hitter, or fielder it doesn’t matter, you have a plan.  When it comes to mental preparation, our expectation should not be any different.  However, if you are being honest with yourself, there is probably and large part of your mental performance that you leave to chance.  In my experience with ball players, preparing for the unexpected is usually one of whose pieces.  So why do we spend time preparing for the unexpected?  Preparing for things to go wrong or or extremely well?  It seems backwards to

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focus time and energy on anything but exactly what we want to have happen, right? In most cases that’s true, but you can’t just go to the beach with they expectation to not get sunburned either.  You have to plan ahead and bring sunscreen. Planning for the unexpected, good or bad, is like mental sunscreen.  So in that way, preparing for what could happen is the best way to make sure you are ready no matter what happens.  I’ll give you some examples, it is not uncommon for teams to go ahead in a game and then lose focus or relax to much and end up losing or for individual player to allow their success in previous at-bats to cloud their preparation.  Take Brandon Crawford as an example of how important it is:

I felt really good about my fourth at-bat. I already had three hits, including the home run. So psychologically you might relax a little. You know you’ve already had a good day. But I wanted to make sure I didn’t give in. I stayed as locked in as I had been the previous three at-bats.- Brandon Crawford SF Giants Short-Stop

These types of situations is why it is so important to have a plan and give yourself the best chance to continue being successful through anything.  Here are a few preparation tips for creating an effective plan:

1. ALL POSSIBILITIES– Run through every possibility you can think of prior to the game.  It is important to consider both positive and negative possibilities.  For example, picture yourself going 4 for 4, having a fielding error, striking out 14, or hanging a pitch resulting in a home run.  Run through every possibility and establish your plan for getting refocused, relaxed, and ready for the next play.  See yourself working through every situation un-phase.

2. PICK YOUR ‘MUST HAVES’– Establish what 2 or three things you MUST do to make sure you are ready.  For example, I need to close my eyes and picture my next play, take a long deep breath, and repeat the word ‘ready’ over and over until my next opportunity.  Eventually, this will become so automatic that you will no longer even notice you are doing it.

3. CREATE EMOTIONAL CONTROL– Understanding that the actual performance will have stronger emotional based reactions is important.  We can practice in practice all week with no emotional affect, but performances in games tend to bleed emotions like excitement, frustration, anger, or regret more powerfully then day to day practice.  Understanding the impact these emotions can have on you as a player will help you recognize the situation and be prepared to handle it.

4.  TRIGGERS– Create a reminder for yourself to use in the game.  Having your plan is a great start, remembering to use that plan is VITAL.  You can plan all you want but if you forget to actually get the sunscreen out and put it on, you will burn.  So, find a trigger.  When you are frustrated at yourself, pumped up about something you just did, or annoyed and the umps terrible strike zone you will need a reminder.  Emotions are powerful, irrational, and can easily wrap you up.  So make your tigger OBVIOUS!!  Here are a few example I have heard in the past; wearing something on your wrist, putting a colored sticker on the thumb of your glove or under the bill of your hat, or even writing a reminder on your hand.  Be creative! This has to work for you and only you so make it personal!

If you truly want to be successful, you have to plan to be successful under ALL circumstances.  To be the best, prepared like the best.  Prepare for the good and the bad and you will always be ready!