I have now completed week four of the Peak performance: A mental conditioning program with Sports Psychologist Michael Inglis. The focus of the class this week was on avoidance and acceptance. It was during this class that I experienced an epiphany about a major barrier to my performance. I left with a sense that I am on a precipice and about to take a leap of faith; faith in myself and my ability. Instead of the sense of uneasiness about the unknown that I experienced at the start of the program, I left feeling excited.
The seeds for my epiphany were sown during our discussion on avoidance. We looked at emotion-driven versus values-driven behaviour. We learnt that emotion-driven behaviour tends to lead to avoidance and that avoidance is generally about short term comfort rather than long term benefit. One of the participants described the temptation to switch her alarm off at 5am, rather than get up in the cold and dark to train. I, too, have evaded my early morning alarm on many occasions. I tell myself, “it’s too cold,” “it’s too dark” or “I’m too tired”. But what do these behaviours do for our performance? They certainly don’t enable us to reach our fullest potential. They hint at an inability to cope with uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical sensations; something Inglis wants us to counter. He wants us to use values-driven behaviour instead and become comfortable with the discomfort; to accept it.
Inglis tells us that values driven behaviour leads to mental fitness. Firstly, we need to come to the realisation that mental fitness is important for our performance. We need to commit to following a plan, such as a mindfulness program. Each day we need to make active choices to follow that plan. We need to be resilient, what Inglis describes as a willingness to experience discomfort, yet persevere even when fatigued. To reach mental toughness, the reality is that we need to do this over and over again for a sustained period of time. Only then will we reap the performance benefits.
After reflecting on our own avoidance behaviours, Inglis asked us to complete an Emotion and Performance Interference Form. We had to think of a situation or skill and the emotion that comes up for us in relation to it. Initially I thought of the skill of speed and being able to consistently exploit my body’s potential in the pursuit of it. The emotion I have in response to this is fear. It manifests itself in a number of ways, from past experience (e.g. fear of falling) to the imagined (e.g. fear of blowing up and putting myself off exercise). Reflecting on my running over the years, I know what it takes by way of actions to improve: I always run better when I incorporate resistance training into my routine. So if I know what it takes to improve, why don’t I do it?
Inglis has the answer to avoidance issues such as this and I’m beginning to see the answer for myself. I don’t take the actions I need to improve because my emotions are driving my behaviour. My fear-based, emotion-driven response is to do nothing and avoid resistance training. It’s easy for me to make excuses that I’m too busy and avoid the discomfort of the physical sensations related to the activity. Inglis challenged us to think about a values-driven response that would assist our performance instead. Curiosity is one of my performance values that I identified in week three. The values-driven response I thought it would create is curiosity about what my body is capable of, if only I would try. This new way of thinking has been a paradigm shift; I have since been including resistance training in my weekly routine, motivated by my new interest in my body’s limits. It is no surprise that I am performing better in my running as a result.
So what about the epiphany I mentioned? It occurred when we were looking at our performance values in more detail. The first value I chose to think about was creativity. Inglis asked us to think about an action that takes us away from this value. For me this was trying to conform and not to stand out, this seemed particularly relevant to me when playing football (soccer). Our next step was to think about actions that take us closer to this value. For me this is trying new skills, being creative with the ball and my play. Inglis then wanted us to think about the uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that we would be willing to experience for this value. In terms of football skills, my uncomfortable emotion is embarrassment; embarrassment at making a mistake and looking silly in front of others. It was at this point that my epiphany occurred. By allowing my actions to be driven by the emotions of fear and embarrassment I had been limiting my performance potential. I had been playing it safe for years, rather than letting creativity overcome these barriers. By allowing these emotions to drive my behaviour I had been living in fear of failure and not developing my skills. It was at this moment that I felt myself shift from uneasiness to excitement. I sensed that a new adventure in my performance was about to begin and wondered what Inglis had in store for us next.