Mindset is a popular topic in sports, business, and everyday life. Everyone seems to define it differently and latch on to specific words with definitions that line up to their ideals of mindset. In reality, mindset is a model, and there are many models for many different people, and many different situations. One size doesn’t fit all, and everyone is at a different step inside of a given model; but all models have to start with a base or foundation that you can build off of.
As it pertains to sports, our models’ foundation starts with focus. Developing a focus is the start to developing yourself as an athlete. Without focus you will constantly be chasing the next best training trend, mobility tool, nutrition fad or even mindset coach. If your goal is to become the best possible player, or participant in your sport, this can be problematic. Once we have established a focus we can begin to develop a why and a vision. Most of the time we have one or the other, and often these are seen as the foundation of most models; but if we don’t have the focus to execute our why or vision, or develop them we are left distracted and chasing the next best thing thinking it will get you closer to your vision or fulfill your why. This is where we start to see individuals differ in where they are starting in our model. They may begin to act on this vision, or why without a focus, and just like a match, start out hot and intense, but very quickly burn themselves out, and are onto the next thing.
The final aspect of our model is understanding wants versus expectations, and learning how to minimize the chaos of the variable of a want, and maximize your ability to control what you can control in your expectations. Wants are chaotic and expectations are all about control. Once we can understand this we will achieve the peak of our pyramid and have develop what people chase, in the "sexy" mindset words.
Level 1: Focus
Our first step in the model is focus. What is focus? Focus can be defined by Jim Schmitz as “the ability to totally put your mind to the task you want to accomplish.” This sounds pretty intense but focus lies on a spectrum, and while at times it can be intense, there other times it needs to be soft, and also non existent. Just like a battery on our phones our focus needs to be recharged. The more intense we keep the screen brightness, the faster our battery burns out; the less intense we keep the screen brightness the longer our battery will last. However, there comes a time and place when we need to blast the brightness (intensity of focus) and when we need to keep it dim (soften the focus.) and then other times still when we will need to recharge and have no focus. What are these different focuses and how do they relate to sports?
This is one of the most intense types of focus and is perfect for game day. It can last for hours, days, minutes or seconds. It is extremely intense and after we have finished the task in which we are in a flow state we will need to recharge and take some down time. This focus can best be described as a melting away of the world. The only things that exists are you and whatever it is you are doing in that moment. Time is non existent in this state. You react perfectly to every situation thrown at you. It is almost as if you were on auto pilot and are watching yourself from the Third person. This state is total immersion into the task at hand. For some this can be difficult to cultivate as it is something that takes practice. We will discuss this in later blog posts.
This is a less intense focus than flow, but is needed for continued success. We can’t live in the flow state all the time. As discussed above our focus is like the battery in our phone. Flow is like turning the screen brightness all the way up. You will get a better view of the screen, but our battery is going to drain a lot faster. Soft focus is for periods of time where we need to stay on task but don’t necessarily need to be in an intense focus. This is like viewing your phone screen at ½ brightness or lower. While it still drains the battery, this focus can allow the battery to last much longer. This is the focus we want to use for day to day training as it allows us to stay on task, dedicated to our cause, but free from suffering the consequences of intensity all the time. This type of focus will allow us to stay consistent day in and day out, staying on track in the gym and make sure we are getting our program done in a timely manner. We pay attention to the details here with a soft focus, and work towards improvement of a task, but we are conscious as well reflecting on our actions. We aren’t on autopilot in this state. This allows us to make the corrections in training to help us change neural patterns and improve movements, rather than just reinforcing movement patterns that are already there.
This is where we are starting to get into the areas of negative focus. In this case, a hyper focus of a task at hand actually produces a negative focus result, and we end up not being able to focus on anything jumping from thought to thought object to object, or focus too intensely on a negative outcome. This can be thought of as a jumping from one subject to another. Out on the competition floor this is what a hyper focused individual might be thinking, “Okay this is what I’m going to do in the workout, Did I tie my shoes, where did I put my water bottle, I wonder if someone is going to steal my gym bag, was my wallet in there, Thrusters are going to hurt, but what if I end dropping at 8? What will people think of me then?” With a hyperfocus we have an inability to think about the task at hand, and our attention jumps from thought to thought movement to movement. We allow each thought to grab our attention in this focus and it usually leads us down the road in which we focus on a negative outcome, or what others are going to think of you...“ What happens if X person beats me, then people aren’t going to respect me in the gym, I’ll lose friends and followers, and I”ll end up being a failure. Oh god I hope X person doesn’t beat me.” Typically this type of focus is easier to snap out of with a mantra. As soon as we start to recognize that we have a negative focus we can repeat a mantra until we get back on track into a positive focus. “Change the channel, Change the Channel, Change the channel.” Is a popular one. Think about changing the channel in your mind and getting back to a focus that is positive and in more of a flow state like where you can execute to the best of your abilities. This mantra is different for everyone and some people might work better telling themselves they are capable or strong. Either way you will need to recognize when you are hyper focused and reel your thoughts back into your execution, and your effort.
We don’t often see individuals with no focus in sport, as this type of person is often in and out of a sport in the blink of an eye. They can’t focus on one set thing in life, and will often jump from activity to activity. This often stems from an inability of having a why, or not having a vision of where you want to go as a person (more on this later). Without either of these two things this individual is lost and is constantly trying new things to find their place in the world. They will be in the door one day and out the door the next, or they will jump from sport to sport. IF this is you, sitting down and STOPPING can help you out. You must get uncomfortable and get inside your thoughts to discover why you are doing something and or where you want to go. Once you have done this you can start your journey and can develop a state of focus into a more positive setting! This is different than a hobbyist for sport, or someone with a want to try a bunch of different sports because they are looking for one they might like best. It is okay to try a bunch of different sports, but if you are wanting to be more than just a sport hobbyist, you need to develop a why and vision.
Level 2: Why And Vision
When our past combines with our future it creates an unstoppable force that allows us to have actions that propel us towards a future version of ourselves. In his Book The Infinite Game Simon Sinek talks about how a just cause (which we are calling vision) Is the future, or where we want to go. While our why comes from the past, it is a cumulation of our life experience that has shaped us and drives us towards taking action. As an athlete it is important to know both of these things. Where we want to go and why we want to get there. Often though, we can express one or the other and not both. This can become an issue. For example, if we know where we want to go but don’t know why we want to get there. When this occurs our actions won’t align with our vision, and while we think we might be acting on our vision our actions which are driven by our why, might be taking us further away from the vision we see ourselves as, and pushing us towards a different version of ourselves. In order to fully achieve our vision, our why behind our actions must line up exactly with the vision of ourselves. The only way to do this is to question yourself constantly, and question every decision and action you make. “Why did I exercise on my recovery day?” “Did that help me get closer to who I want to become?”
Visa Versa, if we know our why, but don’t know where we are going, our foundation maybe strong, but the rest of our structure that it is built on will have several off shoots, and end up looking like a smorgasbord of random chaos, in a continual search for who we want to become and who we can become. We will never reach our true potential in any endeavor we take if we don’t have a vision of where we want to go. The combination of both our why and our vision will keep us focused and committed to taking actions that are positive towards where we want to go. Our why can propel us through our toughest times of training and keep us focused on where we are going. No obstacle will be too high or hard to overcome with a strong why and well thought out vision.
More often than not as athletes we have a vision of where we want to go. It is our why that needs uncovering. Everyone can uncover why they are choosing to do something. Our why is our past, it is our experiences in life that have culminated to subconsciously drive you to accomplish things. It is this subconscious thought that we need to bring to the forefront of our mind if we wish to discover our why. Questioning every thought and action, we can eventually bring that subconscious driver to the surface and discover why we do things. Our why isn’t always static, nor can we only have one why. It can be fluid and change from year to year as we gather experiences in life. One why might be more prevalent than another, at a given time, and some why’s that align with different visions of yourself might try to take dominance over you, and drive you actions toward that vision under the guise of true goals. This is why it is important to always question and self reflect. We have more than one vision of ourselves and we have more than one why. Through self reflection, and questions, we can make sure that the root cause of our actions align with our vision.
The vision is a little bit easier to develop in athletics/life. This can also be called your goal. You may want to snatch X weight for the first time ever. If that version of yourself has never existed, that becomes the vision of who you want to become. We can also see this as “I want to compete at X event.” “I want to win X.” or “I want to lose X lbs.” These are almost always things that have been accomplished by other athletes unless you are at the forefront of your sport, or are in a performance sport that you can set records in. Piggybacking off of someone else's vision is absolutely okay. We have never been to these places, and for us that is a new experience and a new world, a new you that has never existed. So wanting to compete at X competition, lose X weight, or finish X race is a great vision to have even if someone else has already done it, because it will lead to a better version of yourself. You also need to have this in order to build upon your foundation why and sometimes discover your why.
These two levels merge over each other to create the foundation of our model. Focus, why and vision. Without focus we can’t discover our why and without a vision we can’t stay focused to play the long game and become that person. We can work backwards though, as we might know where we want to go, but not why we want to get there. We can use our focus to help us figure out our why to align our actions. This is why these 3 things are all intermingled at the base or foundation of our model and are in constant flux. We might need to develop one more than the other. This foundation needs to be strong before we can start moving up our model and seeking better performances.
Level 3: Wants vs Expectations
It is also possible that an individual has entered this step with several wants without an understanding of why they want these things. When this happens we have to have a conversation with that individual as to why they might want to compete, train, lose weight ect. If this is something they haven’t thought about, we need to bring them back to stage one where our foundation lies, and teach them focus, how to develop a why, and create a vision of who they want to become. Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before they give up on the wants that they had set as expectations, and abandon their journey.
This step in our model is created to help people manage the tumultuous emotions of competing and help them to stay in the game for the long run. Without a clearly defined idea of what we can expect, and constantly chasing our wants expecting them to happen, we can get battered, broken, and eventually defeated. Individuals may have a well thought out why, and a vision they are focused on but they might not understand a want vs expectations when competing. They may want to win X competition, or they may want to place in X place in the open, want to lift X load, ect. In life, our wants are almost always out of our control, especially in dealing with outcomes, while expectations are the only thing we can control.
When competing we often “Want to Win a competition, or qualify for a competition” or “I want to beat X person.” These phrases often get rooted in our minds as expectations though when, in reality, we don’t have any control over things such as workouts, how we are feeling on a given day or how our competition is feeling and what their effort is will look like. These are all things that are uncontrollable to us so our first step to setting expectations is understanding that a want is something that we can’t control. There are variables of the chaos that we can minimize by training hard, recovering well, taking supplements, getting on the correct training program, but we can’t expect a specific outcome because of the chaos of these variables. We can always like to accomplish something though. Verbiage is very important in setting a mental tone. When you hear yourself say you want something that isn’t controllable, instead tell yourself you would like to accomplish that thing instead. This doesn’t put any expectations on it and it allows us to stay loose and free as we chase that goal. This freedom and absence of internal pressure put on by expectations we can’t control will decrease the stress in pursuing your goal and allow us to compete and train to our highest ability!
Our expectations can be set in things that we can control. There are three. First, Our Effort. We have full control over how hard we are willing to push in a workout, and how far we are willing to push the boundaries of health for performance. Our mind will shut our body down well before we will die. You will always have a little bit more to give, unless you literally black out, but it your decision to back off the pace on the AB, slow down in the middle of a workout, or give into the high heart rate towards the end of your event. The second, Our Execution. How we tackled a workout with our pre-made game plan, and how we performed our skills. This is our execution and it is in the moment. Our game plan is made of our cumulative experience of the sport. Sometimes we will need to stick to it while other times we may need to go rogue and push a little bit harder or even back off. Execution is one of the hardest things to control, and there will be a lot of learning experience during this portion of our expectations, but it is always our choice to go faster, slow down, or put in extra practice on our skills so we can perform them during game day. We are always learning from experience so our execution will never be perfect but we can use our experience to formulate a future game plan on workouts. It is fully in your control to execute on your game plan. Third, and lastly, is Our Focus. We discussed a lot about this in section one. We have full control over our thoughts and whether we are in a flow state, hyper focused state, soft focus state, or have no focused state. Ultimately, the choice is ours.
Our wants will deal in chaos, and our expectations deal in control. This is the biggest difference between the two. Wants have too many variables for you to control, and while you can minimize the chaos of those variables, our wants are outside of our control and saying we want it to happen puts excess internal pressure on us to perform. Instead, talk about how you would LIKE to accomplish something. This alleviates the internal pressure and allows us to perform to the best of our abilities. We can expect to control three things, our effort, our execution and our focus. Control what you can control and forget about the rest.
Level 4, The Top: The "Sexy" Words
Once we have a vision, our why, and have set our expectations on things we can control, all the other fancy words begin to fall into place. Grit, mental toughness, resilience, and any other mainstream work you have heard for mindset. We don’t start in this section, and if we do, it’s once again, only a matter of time before we are searching for the next best word to help to develop our mindset. When we have laid the foundation all these words begin to fall into place naturally. When we look at top performers and how developed their mindset is, we see things like grit, mental toughness, and resilience. But we don’t see the painstaking years of questioning themselves and developing a vision of where they want to go. They didn’t just start out mentally tough. They asked hard questions and developed an idea of who they wanted to become. Once developed, these concepts naturally fell into place.
It isn’t to say that we won’t have these automatically, or have naturally developed some of these words, and/or not developed some of these words. It may take some time to develop different things like confidence, or tenacity, but it all becomes easier and possible once you have laid the foundation. So as you start your journey in developing a mindset. We encourage you to start at the base. Develop your focus and use this focus to figure out your why to create the vision of where you want to go. Self reflect, question yourself and your why will present itself to you.
Once you know these things, develop an understanding of the things you can control and your expectations to control only these things. There is a difference between a want and expectation. Wants are things most likely outside of our control while expectations are things inside of our control. In sport we can control 3 things. Our focus, our execution and our effort. Outside of this we have to let the chips fall where they may.
Finally, once we have laid that base we can start to develop your grit, your confidence, your resilience, your tenacity. We must first develop the foundation before we can stand on top of our pyramid. Change must come from you though, and if you find that you haven't laid the foundation take a moment to take two steps backwards to take a giant leap forwards. Our coaches, therapist, family member, close friends can help to guide use, but ultimately the decision to develop your mental game, and figure yourself out comes down to you. We hope that this frame work helps in understanding how to best develop your mental game, thank you for reading!