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It’s a question the Leaders Performance Institute posed to Denise Shull. “People are always trying to fix a slump by changing their thought process, but science shows us that everything we do comes from how we feel,” she replies, adding, “but people don’t know that.”
Shull is the Principal of the ReThink Group, a New York-based human capital consultancy that leverages the latest neuroscience and psychological research into how thoughts, feelings interreact to create behavior. The ReThink Group are the Leaders Performance Institute’s official psychological training partners and the question of slumps is right in their sweet spot.
As a long-time, renowned Wall Street performance coach, Shull built her name working with the likes of hedge funders, business innovators and traders, training them to use advanced emotional competencies to perform better under market and competitive pressures. It led to the creation of the ReThink Group in 2003. As word spread, Olympic athletes and sports organizations began to explore the possibility of applying ReThink’s ‘Shull Method’ to their own circumstances.
She explains: “The answer is in the feeling, so you need to understand what the feelings are. The athlete will already know some of these feelings, but probably not all until you get them talking about it. When athletes do talk about their slumps, they mention the inevitability – ‘It happens to everyone’ – and their sagging confidence, the trying too hard and the exasperating mystery of why it won’t end. They cannot understand how working harder, focusing on technique, being positive or recalling past success isn’t helping them to break through.
“The situation also creates an even bigger ego-hit than is obvious. The athlete has problem No1, which is the slump, and then they have an additional problem No2, which is the advice they’re getting is not working and they start to think ‘what’s wrong with me that none of the mental strategies are working?’ It’s an inadvertent but significant additional hit to the already bruised ego and ironically fuels the slump.”
The root cause of a slump, she argues, actually has an emotional logic for the athlete. “I want to not only understand that but to help them understand it too. I want them to see what is happening to them is happening on an emotional level. Frequently, slumps begin when someone made a mistake and can’t forgive themselves. They’re told to ‘let it go, put it behind you, think positively, move on to the next game’, but they’re still upset and for some specific but undiscovered reason, it sticks with them.”
“The answer is in the feeling, so you need to understand what the feelings are. The athlete will already know some of these feelings, but probably not all until you get them talking about it.”
Shull and her colleagues work to get to the bottom of what’s really going on in the back of the athlete’s mind. “People tend to secretly catastrophize,” she continues. “An athlete in a slump will say ‘maybe I’ve lost it and won’t be able to do this again’. They’re told not to think like that, but they can’t help it because suppressing the fear around the ongoing under-performance causes it to grow. If they do tell anyone, their feelings usually get dismissed with either ‘that’s ridiculous’ or admonishments to be mentally tougher. They put on their game face and everyone hopes for the best only to find the slump lingering on.
“Athletes have been taught to paper over their feelings but that often results in the feeling becoming more intense – the exact opposite of the desired outcome, however, when a feeling is understood by both the individual and the person talking to that individual, the emotion tends to contract, resolve or be diluted – it has less power.”
She admits it’s not always easy to get through to an athlete: “If you’re a professional athlete, then everyone is after you for something, so you really have to be picky about who you trust. My team and I have cultivated the skill to begin developing trust, to make a person feel comfortable so they can tell you what’s really going on; how to ask questions in a way that doesn’t put the athlete on the defensive. We will never actually ask ‘how do you feel about that?’ We’ll ask it in a more indirect way that helps the client to talk. We also insist on complete confidentiality so the athlete isn’t worried that we will turn around and tell the coaches or management everything they said.
“I know where I want to take them, and it’s a matter of judging how honest with themselves they are willing and capable of being. You have to meet them where they are emotionally and take them to the next step, and then hopefully the next and the next.”
Shull explains that she will book an afternoon slot with an athlete to draw an easily understood diagram of their situation. From that point, she will speak with them two or three times a week until they are back where they want to be, pre-slump. The process, she says, “varies from person to person. Some go in-depth immediately, while others have to wade into that pool. It doesn’t help, in the long run, to push their defenses too much. I want to protect their vulnerability so that it’s safe for them to reveal their true unpleasant and unattractive feelings.”
There is no judgment; any and all thoughts and feeling are welcome. “Often, the athlete will not have admitted the whole range of their thoughts, feelings and emotions. They think it sounds crazy and advisors tend to tell them not to feel that way. But when you put yourself in their shoes, there is an understandable logic to it. The key is for the athlete to be seen and heard for who they really are, those worst fears and frustrations.
“I can only know who they are and where they are if they explain it to me. Quite early in the process, I’ll say, ‘let’s go back to when this started, tell me about what was going on at that time both within your game, within your team and within your family’. At that point, I probably have a fair idea of what is getting in their way, so I have to make a judgment about how much or how quickly they’re willing to go, to get to the root of what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it.
“I’ll test and it’s an iterative process. It. It can be something like embarrassment or frustration, fear of being fired, and sometimes it’s even more personal. Often in that conversation, they’ll realize what they’re really afraid of or what they’re really frustrated about, and that opens a door. The moment they fill in the blank can be game-changing.”
“The key is for the athlete to be seen and heard for who they really are, those worst fears and frustrations.”
Shull cites a hypothetical example to illustrate how this iterative process works in practice: “A player may say they’re mad at their coach for taking them out of a game. Then, once they’ve admitted that feeling, the truth is slightly different. They’ll realize what they’re really irritated with are contract negotiations with their agent or even something written by a prominent reporter who covers their team. There’s always something unexpected. ReThink’s Shull Method helps the athlete be more empathetic towards themselves, and often to forgive themselves for letting their teammates and fans down.”
It can take considerable effort, so widely embedded are assumptions about slumps in sporting culture, but athletes who work with the ReThink Group are given the tools needed to address the emotional reasons behind a slump. “We want our clients to have a whole new opinion of their emotions, particularly the negative ones. They then find they can both overcome and sometimes even use their fear, frustration and disappointment as actual tools. This emotional sophistication is a key mental skill for the athletes. We believe it can also help a team snap out of a needless losing streak.”