“The key to success in sports is to focus on the things you can control and let go of the things you can’t.” – John Wooden
We don’t always have control or influence over the situations and experiences in our lives but we always have control in how we respond. That is where our power lies.
Just like life, sports can be a relentless, ever-changing, fast-paced, unpredictable environment, which can have a significant impact on our performance in a successful or unsuccessful way.
Mistakes happen on almost every play in sports performance. They are an inevitable part of competition. But it is not the Error or the mistake that is the problem. Even the greatest athletes in the world make mistakes but it is their ability to move on and recover that separates the best from the rest. E+R=O. Error plus Response equals Outcome.
Most athletes I work with care too much. This is definitely not a bad thing. In fact, it is this trait that drives them to continuously put the work in on their craft, and fuels their desire to develop. On the other side of the spectrum, this characteristic can also cause a negative effect on performance when adversity strikes. And the one thing you should know is that adversity is guaranteed!
“The best athletes understand that control is an illusion. The only thing you have control over is your own mindset and effort.” – Kobe Bryant
Coming from a basketball background – one of my mentors had a great perspective on this. Pressure – which is the equivalent of stress in life – is like trying to palm a basketball. The more you squeeze it, the more likely that ball is to pop out of your hand. The more you put pressure on yourself to perform perfectly, the more likely that performance is to get away from you.
When we are performing in competition, we like to be in full control. Fear is best described as a feeling of loss of control. Anytime we feel at a loss of control, the mind puts the body into a fear state. The amygdala – the fear centre of the brain – sends a message to the body (through feeling) that there is some sort of physical or psychological danger. The stress hormone – cortisol is released into our system, triggering an elevated heart rate, a sick feeling in the stomach, jelly legs, sweaty palms, and clouded thoughts. This reaction is to get you ready to fight (adrenalin pumped through the body) or flee the situation. Yet neither is helpful in sports performance. The important thing to note is that the fear state is triggered by thought – either at a conscious or subconscious level.
Mental conditioning is the same as physical conditioning. In the same way you can feel fatigued from expending physical energy, the same can be said for your mental energy. Putting focus, thoughts, and energy into things we can’t control can leave us feeling fatigued. Understanding which elements are outside of your control will allow you to channel your energy elsewhere to get a better result. Here are some things you cannot control in competition:
1. The Venue.
There may be some venues you love competing at and there may be some venues you dislike. Either way, the fixture is the fixture, and most times you won’t have a say in this. If you’ve had a bad performance at a certain venue before that creates a dislike for competing there, recalling such events can impact your very next performance. The truth is, this element of your sport is completely out of your control. The same goes, for the environment and weather conditions (for outdoor sports).
2. The Umpires Call.
Very rarely have I ever seen a referee or umpire change their call. As athletes we rarely have the perspective of the referee – they see the game through their own eyes. Often they’ll see the game different to you and what you thought was a wrong call, was the right call for them. When we put energy into berating an umpire or even just think about a call that didn’t go our way, we create a split focus for the plays ahead (depending on how long you attach to that thought). This means, that you rob yourself of giving 100% focus to the most important play of all – this play. With so much going on throughout competition, it is not only vital to give your full focus to the play at hand but it is a significant element of peak performance.
3. The Coach’s Decisions.
The reason why most coaches coach is because of their love for the sport and that passion to develop the next generation burns within. That is the reason they give up their valuable time. A competitive environment is not equal. This means playing time is not equal either. Athletes have a lot to manage in competition but coaches have even more to take into account. No coach wakes up with the intention to deliberately upset any of their athletes. They have to manage the situation for the betterment of the team. Playing time is earnt through trust. Communicate to your coach to find clarity on your role, your strengths, and what you need to develop – and then work as hard as you can to be great in that role.
4. The Opponents.
Whether you’re competing against an athlete with a solid reputation or you’re playing a travel game with boisterous parents/fans. As soon as you put your energy into what’s happening outside of you, you’ve already lost your focus. No matter who you compete against, no matter how much they might trash-talk or get in your head – remember that you have a skillset developed by practice and repetition that has been lodged into muscle memory and your central nervous system. Your skillset is your skillset and it doesn’t get any worse or any better in the midst of competition. Keep your focus on what you can do to block out the outside noise.
5. Our Teammates.
Ultimately, if you commit to your sport for a long time some of your greatest friendships will emerge from that environment. On the odd occasion, there may be teammates that you don’t enjoy the company of. Whether they use bullying tactics, freeze you out of games and don’t pass you the ball, or exclude you from team events – it is important to understand that you cannot control other people. All you can do is continue to be the best that YOU can be and approach these situations with a level of compassion and empathy. These sorts of teammates’ habits are a projection of how they feel about themselves more so than anything about you.
“Successful athletes learn to control what they can control – their attitude, their effort, and their focus.” – Tony Dungy
Concentration and the ability to focus under adversity are what great athletes do best. It only takes one distraction to enter your mind for you to lose a critical point, miss a putt, or lose a second off your lap time. You cannot afford to let distractions run wild in your mind and cause you to make errors at critical times during competition.
By aiming to control what you can, a sense of empowerment can be created. In short, when focusing on the controllable, anxiety is minimized and confidence is improved due to you feeling more in control of your emotions and ability. So what part of sports performance can we control?
- Our Thoughts.
Many of our thoughts happen at a subconscious level. Between the ages of 0-7 are our programming years. This is when our minds are developed to create our thought habits. Becoming more aware of the thoughts that lead to certain results allows you to change the habit loop (and with practice – change the programming). When you have an undesirable result, ask yourself – “What was the initial thought?” Developing a mental skillset and mental resilience take practice and repetition like any skill. The more you can understand your thoughts, the more you can develop the performance triggers that lead to peak performance. Every situation begins with a thought.
- Our Feelings.
Every thought leads to emotion or feeling in the body. Emotions can significantly impact performance by altering physiological and attentional states in a way that may enhance or harm an athlete’s skillset ability. When we feel happy, we release the feelgood neurochemicals into our system such as serotonin and dopamine. When we feel nervous, self-doubt, anger, or shame we release the stress hormone cortisol into our body. Athletes have a zone of optimal performance. Therefore, specific emotions at certain intensities will influence performance. If an athlete understands what emotional state helps them perform at their best, then they can target that emotion to significantly enhance their athletic performance.
- Our Actions.
In the T.F.A.R. Thought model, our actions are driven by feelings and create our results. Those results may be desirable or less desirable, but nonetheless, they are created from our behaviours. The reason why we act off emotion is that our brain sends a message to the body through physiological feelings. In a fear state, the body experiences an elevated heart rate, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, jelly legs, and/or clouded thoughts. A state of flow is experienced in a calm yet intense manner, where everything seems to slow down and a sense of control and joy is experienced through the body. No matter what is driving the action or behaviour, this is always a choice and therefore completely within our control.
- Our Perceptions.
Our perceptions are very much created through our life and sports experience, upbringing, culture, and environment. The process of forming a perception begins with your sensory experience of the world around you. This stage involves the recognition of environmental stimuli provided through your five senses. You see, hear, smell, taste, or feel stimuli that impact your senses. This is what makes everybody unique in their own way. Perception can and will change over time as you experience more of life. How we perceive things in life greatly impacts the thoughts and behaviors that follow – for better or for worse. When athletes “see” challenges instead of seeing threats, their mind and body flow in synchrony, and often the athlete improves mental toughness and reaches his or her full athletic potential as a result.
- Our Decisions.
Similar to thoughts, our decisions ultimately drive our actions to create results.
We might not always get this right but either way, we succeed or we learn. Generally, decision-making describes the individual capability to select functional actions to solve a given issue or to achieve a specific task goal from a number of possibilities. Therefore, it has been pointed out that decision-making relies on perception, anticipation, attention, and memory. However, considering that rationality is involved, especially in some decisions conducted in a very short period of time, decision-making can be influenced by both the environment and the individual athlete. While some decisions occur at a subconscious level, the power is always ours.
As you can see, all of the controllable elements begin within the athlete. Whereas most of the elements of sports performance that athletes are not in control of are external. When athletes are focused on what they can control – they can also influence other factors of sports performance. Elements of sports performance that athletes can influence but can’t directly control include:
1. Our Results.
Even if we prepare right, give maximum effort, and keep a positive mindset – we are not always guaranteed victory or the result we desire. While these factors impact the end game, we are not directly in control of this. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in the hole, the wind affects your kick or the referee doesn’t blow the whistle on the play. All we can do is continue to control the process and have faith that the results will come.
“Focus on the process, not the outcome. You don’t have control over the final result, but you do have control over the steps you take to get there.” – Billie Jean King
2. Our Health.
We can warm up and warm down, stretch, and engage in mindfulness activities but injuries aren’t always caused by stress. Sometimes it can happen by stepping on an opponent’s shoe and rolling an ankle, clashing heads with a teammate, or not being in control of a fall that causes injury. We can eat right, hydrate, and keep the body strong but acute injury is mostly out of our control.
Most sports psychologists and mental performance coaches working alongside athletes, promote this philosophy of “controlling the controllables”. This idea is hugely valuable and can be applied across many facets of competition. It is linked to taking care of processes to ensure athletes can maximize performance. Even though the outcome may be uncontrollable, by controlling the processes the athlete puts the odds in their favour and ultimately makes success more likely.
Athletes who can focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions enjoy the greatest possibility of success. So invest your time and energy into things you can control in competition. You will never be in complete control of everything so why not accept the unpredictability, and the imperfection, and enjoy what you can control.
– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁.