Building Fun into Training Habits

As many athletes transition from their regular season and into off-season training, they’ll likely come face to face with one of the biggest mental barriers to high-performance: learning how to live with delayed gratification.

Difficult tasks (like high performance athletic training) usually require a tough trade-off of having to do the work now, for a reward that may or may not come later. For many young athletes this trade-off is particularly difficult, especially because technology has designed most of our world to provide instant gratification – one click solutions to whatever our heart desires.

Psychology points to Present Bias as major contributor to shortcomings in long-term planning.

Present Bias is the tendency to settle for a smaller present reward rather than to wait for a larger future reward. It describes the trend of overvaluing immediate rewards, while putting less worth in long-term consequences.

Another name for it would be: impulsivity.

So how do we overcome this bias? Well, a growing body of research suggests that if we can build some fun (like a reward) into our process we can increase our likelihood of seeing difficult tasks through. By designing instant gratification activities into tasks that don’t naturally yield them we can increase enjoyment and the likelihood of repeating positive activities.

This type of design can take a number of forms including:

Whatever it is you design, the important thing that research points to is that the athlete must be involved in building the reward system. Study after study show that when a reward system is imposed on a person, rather than designed by them, they’re more likely to give up on the task.

If we need to see proof of this idea in action – check out this great video of a company in Sweden who designed fun into taking the stairs versus taking the escalator:

Enjoy designing “fun” into your training plans!

Don’t Confuse Calmness with Complacency

Led by their world-class goaltender, Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens just completed a 4-game series sweep of the Winnipeg Jets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Price and his calm demeanor have been the subject of much discussion in the hockey world. Over the team’s last 7 wins, including 2 series clinching performances, Price has looked calm, stoic, some would even say “bored” as he congregated with his teammates in the moments after the final horn.

Lots of coaches instruct their players to “act like they’ve won before and will again soon”, but for Price, I would argue that his conduct is not an act, but a measured and trained performance skill.

We all know what it feels like to be over-activated, nervous, anxious, or so worked up that we can’t perform to our capabilities. We also know that high-performance happens in the present moment and it’s a skill to find the right level of activation – not too relaxed and not too fired up.

Learning how to regulate their internal activation helps athletes stay present and perform their best. I’ll bet that Carey Price has studied the Yerkes-Dodson Law – the concept of the Arousal Curve and the role of the sympathetic nervous system. This law states that our performance will increase as we activate our minds and bodies, but that after a certain point, too much activation will result in a decrease in performance.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Our natural responses to danger and stress include: fight, flight, freeze, or submit. The first two responses happen in an over-activated state (where the “nervous wreck” lives), while the latter two occur in an under-activated state (we call this the “drone zone”).

For a Stanley Cup playoff game, most athletes would be over-activated – with their hearts pounding and their legs shaking. Athletes like Carey Price learn to love this sate and work hard at training themselves to use to use their mind to control their internal system so it can operate optimally – at the perfect arousal level.

Coaches and athletes should pay attention to and keep the Yerkes-Dodson Law in mind as they build pre-performance routines – aiming to find that perfect level of activation – not too high and not too low.

The Mental Game of Major Championship Golf

This past weekend we watched in awe as 50 year old Phil Mickelson captured his 6th Major Championship, and first in almost 8 years. Throughout the weekend Phil spoke to the media about his need to stay “present” and not allow his mind to wonder. In his words, his game was there (and always has been), it’s just been the mental focus that has eluded him of late.

It’s not the first time a champion golfer has used his mind to dominate a Major golf tournament. In fact, Louis Oosthuizen, a contender from this weekend had a very famous victory where he harnessed the power of his mind to deliver.

In 2010, one of the greatest displays of golf under pressure the world has ever seen was on display. A talented young golfer was destroying the field at the Open Championship and it wasn’t Tiger, Phil or Rory, but an unknown South African named Louis Oosthuizen.

Oosthuizen played 3 terrific rounds and held a 4-shot lead entering the final round. At golf majors, almost every time, the inexperienced leader cracks under the pressure and succumbs to the charging superstar farther down the leaderboard.

So how did Oosthuizen accomplish the rare task of holding off the field on Sunday to win by one of the largest margins in tournament history? Mindfulness and a little red dot.

Oosthuizen had just begun working with a sport psychologist because he felt that in crucial moments, negative thoughts were creeping into his mind, preventing him from pulling off winning shots. His mental coach had Louis draw a little red dot in sharpie on his glove at the base of his thumb. Then he instructed Oosthuizen to focus his complete attention on the little red dot – nothing else mattered – all attention was on the dot.

Oosthuizen used this technique to clear his mind of all negative thoughts and maintain laser-like focus on the last round of the tournament. He won by 7 shots simply by practicing mindfulness amongst the chaos of one of golf’s biggest tournaments. Oosthuizen went from an unknown entity to a  famous champion who has since earned more than $20M USD in tournament earnings.

Often at the highest levels, the skill of the competitors cancel each other out. The difference between winners and “also rans” usually comes down to their ability to manage themselves between the ears.

Book Review: The Culture Code

Book: The Culture Code
Author: Daniel Coyle (2018)
Who is it For: Coaches / Leaders of High-Performance Teams

Summary:
The Culture Code explores in detail some of the world’s most cohesive and successful teams including US Navy Seals, the hugely successful online retailer Zappos, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

The author provides a three-step framework for building a great culture, which includes:

  1. Building Safety
    Creating signals of connections within your teams, generating cues of belonging and identity.
  2. Sharing Vulnerability
    Creating habits of mutual risk that signal trust and cooperation.
  3. Establishing Purpose
    Building narratives that create and articulate shared goals and values.

The book is full of great stories, anecdotes, and examples of high-performance culture in action. This is a terrific read for anyone leading a team at any level.


My Favourite Excerpt:

Coyle breaks down the way Spurs Coach Greg Popovich delivers strong feedback to his athletes. He describes Popovich’s feedback as magical for it’s ability to be direct but warm. Coyle says Popovich’s feedback is along the lines of,

“I’m giving you these comments because I have a very high expectation and I know you can reach them.”

Coyle claims that this feedback communicates 3 separate but equally important cues to the receiver:

  1. You are part of this group
  2. This group is special; we have high standards here
  3. I believe you can reach those standards

What a tremendous framework for coaches and leaders to operate within to get the most out of their team.

For Roger Federer, the Rest is History

In 2013, Roger Federer was struggling with chronic back pain, leading to the first tennis season in 15 years where he wasn’t featured in a Grand Slam Final. By 2016 Federer was sidelined with a knee injury that required surgery and that’s when the questions around the sporting world began: would Federer ever win another Grand Slam?

Fast forward to 2017, when something surprising happened. At the age of 35 Federer turned back the clock – he won the Australian Open followed by Wimbledon, in totally dominating fashion. He defended his Australian Open win in 2018. How was this possible at the age of 36?

Rumors emerged that Roger Federer had discovered a secret weapon to preserve his stamina, accelerate his recovery, sharpen his quickness, and keep his mind agile. Rumors were that this secret weapon was so impactful that Roger refused to talk about it. The secret weapon was Federer’s relentless focus on sleep.

In 2017 at Wimbledon, Federer even rented two houses – one for his family and team and one for himself – in order to get 12 hours per day. In a sport that has not traditionally been kind to 30 year old + athletes, Federer has found a secret weapon to keep him in the game.

As Federer looks to make yet another comeback this time at 39 years of age, we will look to see if this secret weapon can once again bring him back to the top of the game.

It All Starts with Control

To do extraordinary things, you will encounter and need to manage stress – this is an inescapable reality of high-performance. One of (if not the best way) to help manage stress, is to understand what is inside and outside of our control. To me, there are 4 things that are always inside of our control:

Understanding and accepting what is inside and outside of our control is a consistent trait of high-performance. Studies show that people who focus on what is inside their control are more motivated and focused on their pursuits. This makes sense when we think about it – High Performers are masters at getting the most out of their seconds, minutes, and hours – so they don’t have time to focus on things that they can’t control.

The best news is that control is a skill, and we can train ourselves to become great at focusing on the inputs that actually make a difference. High Performers understand that life is 10% what happens to them and 90% how they respond to it. They realize that life can generally be broken down as:

[THE E+R=O FORMULA FOR CONTROL]

We cannot control what happens to us, only our response to it. As athletes and people we often overestimate the impact bad events will have on us, when in fact the outcome is almost entirely influenced by our response.

While what we can control is limited … we should remember that there is also a ton of stuff we can influence. High Performers don’t shy away from things they cannot control, instead they focus on influencing them in ways they can control. For example, we cannot control whether or not we make the team, get drafted, or receive a scholarship, but we can influence those outcomes through elements within our control, like a great attitude and effort. Therefore, a great way to attack your pursuits is to focus on what you can control as a means for influencing what you cannot.

Summary:

  • High Performers are notorious for focusing on what is inside their control.
  • What we can control boils down to our thoughts, actions, attitude, and effort.
  • We can train our control response by applying the E+R=O formula to any and all challenging situations in our lives.
  • A great approach for big goals is to focus on what we can control as a means for influencing what we cannot.