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Top athletes under-perform when expectations are highest. One thing goes wrong, then another, then another. Soon, the higher-ranking opponent collapses and no one is really sure why.
“The core of the problem is the wrong view of how the human mind actually works. Feelings and emotions are the foundation to thought – not the other way around. We have a flat earth-round earth moment right now where most advisors fear the round earth yet it’s exactly the path to greater horizons and specifically the path for athletes to use to outperform under pressure.”
That is according to Denise Shull, a Performance Coach who serves as the Principal of the ReThink Group, a New York-based human capital consultancy that leverages the latest neuroscience and psychological research into creating new levels of human performance.
Shull and the ReThink Group – who are the Leaders Performance Institute’s official psychological training partners – work with athletes across elite sport and also work with hedge fund traders and investors where she is often called the ‘real-life Wendy’ from the TV show Billions.
“Athletes need to realize all of their feelings – even the so-called negative ones – can be helpful,” she explains. “In their pure form, fear, frustration and disappointment make complete sense, are meant to help you. You want to win, you regret mistakes, you need fair officiating. When it’s not going your way, how could you feel good? In reality, it’s the effort to avoid those feelings that will make an athlete work their hardest to prepare.”
She continues: “Conventional wisdom in sports psychology leaves the athlete with nothing to work with during moments of frustration in big events. Standard strategies such as ‘focus on the process’, ‘be positive’, ‘control what you can control and don’t worry about what you cannot’ and ‘think of it as just another game’ are ill-suited to the realities of championship or final games.
“Each of those phrases is also intended to create a different emotion – ‘I feel comfortable, I feel confident’. The radical but more effective approach is to embrace the negative so that it facilitates a natural and more powerful transition to the positive feeling we want. But even if it doesn’t do that in the nanoseconds of a contest, the athlete can learn to use fear to focus and frustration to create more power – if they have practiced doing so.”
The regular season might be one thing, but the playoffs are quite another. “On a day to day basis, athletes go about their training, whether it’s regular seasons or regular contests; moments that are merely average for them,” says Shull as she places her observation in its proper context. “At those moments they’re encouraged to set aside any unpleasant feelings; to be positive, to focus on the process. It works in those phases due to the feeling that there will be many more plays to make up for mistakes or that losing on that day doesn’t have many implications. Think of the golfer who bounces back from a poor shot on Thursday while having an outsized, performance sapping reaction to the same shot on Sunday. What’s different about Saturday? Or for the tennis player, what’s different about the final?
“The implications of playing poorly as the ultimate prize comes closer create a literal fear of disappointment. Both feelings need processed and in the big picture, both feelings can lead to better play in the future through amplifying motivation. In the moment however, using intellectual instructions like ‘stay positive’ or ‘it’s only one shot’ is no match for more fundamental meanings and foundational desires. Athletes have worked their entire lives to win these big contests. No one is going to talk them out of how important they are. Their subconscious’ will never bend to the idea it’s just another event, but the good news is that the latest in psychological science says if just admit to our worst fears they become more manageable. Absent the ability to own one’s darkest feelings, the athlete faces the hardest situations with the least powerful tools.
“What also happens in a few athletes is they haven’t been able to use their thoughts to make themselves feel positive all the time even in the regular season, but they cannot tell anybody because they feel guilty; they feel as if something must be wrong with them because this strategy that everyone has been inviting them to use has not been working. They don’t tell anyone, and it gets bigger, it gets worse, it becomes more of a problem than it should be. The background feelings come pouring out. This is what is happening when we watch athlete after athlete under-perform even their average during their biggest contests.”
How does Shull suggest athletes approach those feelings?
“The more an athlete and their coach take the radical approach of respecting these so-called negative emotions, the more ability to rise to occasions the athlete will acquire. First, they need to gain the skill of being able to recognize them and name them. The more they can recognize them, name them, understand them, establish what their patterns of fear, frustration and disappointment are, the better they can do in the bigger picture. Everyone is scared to do it but allowing, through language, the expression of, ‘I’m so frustrated or afraid I am going to lose or be embarrassed’ actually reduces the intensity of the feeling and allows the athlete to return to the moment.
“Athletes don’t know they should do that; and then those feelings take over. They play scared, they’re frustrated. There will be a mistake, another mistake, and it cascades; people ask, ‘why did that happen?’ and it is because the fear and anger literally seep into the muscles and get acted out in the physical performance.”
When Shull or her ReThink team starts to work with an athlete the first step is an assessment of how well the individual can recognize and respect their negative feelings through identifying the emotional logic.
“How much of it is really about the here and now and how much of it stems from your history? Are you afraid of being criticised by the coach because you grew up in a really critical environment? It’s really helping the person to understand themselves and their own pattern of what they feel and then untangling the feelings that happen in the middle of a contest so that not only can they feel better about feeling bad but they can take the energy of the fear, frustration or disappointment and use it to focus.”
Shull explains that this process, from the conversations pursued to the time it takes for her ideas to take effect, differ from person to person. “That’s all over the board because different people have different defense mechanisms to help them cope,” she says. “They have different opinions of their own negative feelings and they each have different ways to deal with fear, frustration or disappointment.
“A lot of athletes are fairly open because they’ve had to be at the edge of their comfort level for a long time, but really someone’s defense mechanisms are set up early in life; the fundamental pattern was created before they were a professional athlete. We can sometimes make super progress with them in an afternoon but the person has to practice with it also. It’s an actual skill to say ‘this is what I’m feeling. I tolerate the unpleasantness of fear, frustration and disappointment and I allow these feelings to be and practice examining them.’ It can take a short period of time or it can take a long period of time.
“One of the advantages that our athlete clients have over our Wall Street clients is that, by the very definition, they are in touch with their bodies; they’re more likely to be what science calls ‘interoceptive’, which means you’re aware of your internal sensations and feelings. Athletes are always thinking about how their body feels so they have a leg-up already. Emotion, after all, is just another type of physical sensation
“It can take one month or three, but usually there is some progress early on where the athlete goes from ‘I’m trying to control my feelings’ to ‘I’m going to respect those feelings, try to recognize them, and understand what they’re really about.’ When you can articulate what you’re feeling and why then you’ll have different tools to deal with the anxiety.
“Telling yourself that you don’t care, that it isn’t important, is not going to solve the anxiety or decrease the intensity of the feelings, or the disappointment and it actually creates another problem. If we try to ignore the intense feelings, they take over and the performer does things that they don’t usually do, effectively operating at a much lower level of performance.”
Beyond the field or the court, Shull also explains that her approach can help athletes to improve their relationships with both teammates and staff. “As long as your coach or teammates are able to be empathetic, nod, and respect your feelings and not say ‘you’re not supposed to feel that way’ then you can better own your own feelings and not act them out; you will create less disruption or a power struggle with the coach, for example.
“If you’re not owning that frustration you’re acting it out; you’re not training properly, not showing up on time, you’re being overly aggressive in the wrong moment, defying what the coach asks you to do. But if you own it, you can put it into words which reduces the chance you will act it out.”
While athletes tend to be amenable to the ReThink Group’s methods, management level staff have not quite been so receptive. “We’ve had coaches who are interested, who told me ‘this makes so much sense vis-à-vis this player or this situation’ and they want to bring me in but they don’t know how to integrate it with existing psychology or mental skills services. “One recently hired coach at a large US franchise can see the value but said ‘there’s no way I can talk about it this year – they’ll think I’m crazy! Maybe next year when I have time under my belt.’ I think that’s the ReThink Group’s biggest challenge as a consulting company.”
Nevertheless, Shull and ReThink are making inroads across elite sport from North America’s major leagues to Hendrick Motorsports’ pit crews to Olympic sport and it is based on one premise: “At their core, fear, frustration and disappointment are meant to help us. Fear – make sure you’re prepared. Frustration – what’s wrong here and how do I fix it? Disappointment – what didn’t work and how can I make it better next time?
“There’s power in every single feeling. We need to lose our fear of fear and instead learn how to use it and the other unpleasant feelings. They literally are a power lever that the most forward-thinking coaches can leverage.”