Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Question/Answer Cycle Problem

In the lead-up to competition, athletes who picture a positive result in performance are more likely to reach peak performance, as compared to athletes who picture a poor result. This reality of competitive sports is well-known among sport psychologists, coaches, and athletes – and must be accounted for when considering an athlete’s race preparation.

It is the athlete’s mindset that determines the deftness with which we walk a path of readiness – and make no mistake about it: readiness to succeed is essential to peak performance. The mindset of an athlete who is ready to achieve peak performance can be defined as an “answer—based” mindset. It is proper training, skill, talent, and physical gifts that separate one athlete from another in competition, but it is mindset that separates our “best selves” from the side of ourselves that is too riddled with anxiety and negative thought to perform at the peak level. There is an important distinction to be made here, because it is obvious and simple to understand that an athlete who does not train hard, often, and well, will not think her way into a win when competing against a trained, ready competitor. But to compete against yourself – “your own best self” – is really the task for all athletes because, simply put, competing against your own “best self” is the task any athlete can learn to control. You cannot control your competitors, but you can control yourself.

An athlete’s ability to control her mind and thus her environment allows her to unlock the free-flow of energy available to her at the time of peak performance!

It is near impossible for most athletes to prepare for competition without asking oneself questions like: “Am I ready?”, or “Is my training plan going to work?”, or “What is my competitor going to do”? It is this type of inner-questioning that makes an athlete, to differing degrees, anxious and insecure about their upcoming performance. To their detriment, athletes tend to dwell in this sort of “question-based” mindset more often as the competition draws closer on the calendar. This type of questioning, posed to one’s self in a habitual way, leads to the athlete’s less-than-ideal picture of what may happen in competition – a picture that readily creates its own reality through performance.

An athlete in the “question-based” mindset may think:

“What if I am unsuccessful like I was last year?”
“What will my parents think if I don’t achieve my best time?”
“Am I ready for this meet?”
“Will my taper plan work out?”

These questions have no definitive answer. One can speculate an answer, but to actually find an answer to these questions is impossible. The answers are impossible because the answers can only be found in the future. The future is uncontrollable. The only thing we can control is the present!

A positive athlete will learn to give proper weight to the answers, and give less power to the actual questions. In doing so, an athlete can learn to control their self-talk, and bring their thought process into the controllable present. It’s ok to field the questions, because let’s face it: no matter how hard we try, questions regarding one’s own personal readiness for competition will always make themselves heard. But with a proper “answer-based” mindset we can either turn a question into a positive answer, or dismiss it from our mind.

The basic question “Am I ready?”, in an “answer – based” mindset, is followed with the inner-statement: “Yes, I am ready. Today, I am stronger and faster than I’ve ever been in my life“. You can stop the cycle of questions by answering definitively.

Stopping the ‘Question/Answer” cycle at one question and one answer is essential! Concisely answered questions tend to create an optimistic picture in an athlete’s mind. The question, “What is my competitor going to do?”, in an “answer – based” mindset, is dismissed because as an athlete you are incapable of discerning what anyone else may or may not be capable of and so logically there is no way to field the question. The question, “What if I am not on my pace halfway through my 800?” can be answered definitively with the answer: “I know I can do an 8:40 in my 800, so if I’m off my pace at the 400 I probably have enough in reserve to make it up on the second 400”. By answering definitively and positively, the focus of an athlete’s internal conversation becomes the answer instead of the question. It is much easier to control the answers you give than it is to control what questions may pop up in your head!

Hard, consistent, skill-oriented training is a key ingredient to achieving peak performance, and certainly there is no substitute. We cannot “will” ourselves to a different level of performance with our minds alone! But it is the “answer-based” mindset that separates us from our previous best selves, stops an otherwise habitual cycle of questions/answers, and allows us to transcend our own peak performances.