Last month golfer Phil Mickelson “pulled off the impossible”, by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. In doing so at 50 years of age, he became the oldest player to win a major championship, breaking Julis Boros’ record that stood for 53 years.
Explaining what lay behind his feat Mickelson highlighted his mindfulness practice -, having previously been honest about his problems focusing. He would hit good shots and even piece together good rounds, but he’d have a hard time stacking good rounds on top of one another or re-focusing when something takes him out of the zone. Yet this scenario is totally normal.
“I’m making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus..… I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating. I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it… because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.”
Dr. Bhrett McCabe, who works with a number of PGA Tour pros says “As we age, it typically takes more effort to sustain focus. Golf is so hard because the mind is flooded constantly with processes and challenges that make it so hard to stay focused. You add in a major championship… it’s brutal.”
My own view about sports psychology is that it has two applications:– in training and in competition. I have previously looked at research that shows that mindfulness will help athletes to find “flow” in their training and to be more open to coaching… less harsh on themselves and to be more able to deal with setbacks. Further, in teams sports, there is research to show that mindful team members are more empathetic and supportive of each other… thereby building a better team spirit.
In this post I want to focus on performance… at key moments in sport. At competition time, mindfulness training can help in two ways – first in enabling athletes to focus so they make better decisions; and secondly to prevent athletes from being distracted by previous failures and or by the significance of the moment.
A few weeks ago, Peterborough United forward Johnson Clarke-Harris scored a penalty kick deep into extra time to secure promotion to the Championship – that was big moment… but, as Clarke-Harris stepped up to take the penalty, any thoughts or worries about the significance of his kick would not have been helpful to him.
I noticed, that in one research trial, volleyball players showed a greater performance improvement than soccer players when introduced to mindfulness (… though the soccer players did improve significantly). This difference may reflect the case that soccer [mostly] is “continuous” (except for set pieces including penalty kicks) while volleyball is a series of serves and rallies – so perhaps it is more important for the whole volleyball team to settle and to focus as they prepare for each serve.
So – how can sports men and sports women best avoid distraction and focus on just doing their thing?
American sports psychologist Michael Gervais works with athletes in “high stakes, consequential environments.” You can read a great interview with Michael from GQ magazine here. https://www.gq.com/story/michael-gervais-sports-psychology-interview
In his work Gervais’s helps athletes to be focussed in situations which may be very distracting (the significance of the moment or even the noise of the crowd). The success of his clients demonstrates Gervais’s view that awareness might actually be a future pillar of elite sports performance (alongside nutrition, recovery, and strength and conditioning, which, Gervais, points out, were once viewed with cynicism, too).
I will just highlight a couple of topics from Gervais’s interview:
Re Confidence: “Confidence comes from one place and one place only: what you say to yourself. It’s not just built on past success. The good news is that ultimately, we are responsible for what we say to ourselves. It’s a trainable skill. So, by default, confidence is trainable, and it’s 100% under our control.”
Re choking (self-doubt that causes athletes to over focus on technique that they have automated): “Usually it’s about “The moment is big and I don’t feel like I have the skills, so I feel small. I don’t have the skills to manage the moment.” So is the moment big? There’s really no such thing as a big moment in my mind. You’ve heard it your whole life: the Super Bowl is a big game. And I can create a narrative where that’s true. But when I strip it down, it’s no different. More people are watching. But the rules are the same. The balls are the same. The consequences are the same. One team wins, one team loses. The only person that changes the stakes is the person performing. The media need to make it big, because they need eyeballs. That’s their business. As an athlete, most of us, we have to make an informed decision early on. So the Super Bowl is like every other game. A game is a game. So do you have the ability to be where your feet are? And are you going to change that because people are watching?”
On retaining focus at big moments: “Now there are real changes that can happen after winning…. but really what it comes down to is how you respond to now. So that’s the mission here: figure out how to train your inner world—your mind —so that you can be exactly where your feet are in any environment, in any situation, in any circumstance. If you can do that, the outcomes will take care of themselves.”
I like the way Gervais talks – he can acknowledges that moments may be significant – but an athlete must be able to set all that aside and “be where there feet are” and even tell them selves that they can do that… that they can shut it all out – so that their focus is on their preparation ritual and on their kick, shot, serve, stroke or jump.