Performance Thinking: Great Expectations

Posted 19 September 2015 to Technique, The Game by Jeff Soo

Preface: This article concerns the psychology of athletic performance, which the author calls “performance thinking”, and which is otherwise known as the “inner game” or “mental game”. Most players spend little if any effort developing effective performance thinking, and simply wonder why they can’t play in tournaments like they play in pick-up games. As Yogi Berra said about baseball, the game “is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Goals and expectations are great motivators. The two go together—if you have a goal but don’t expect to achieve it, you won’t. Ambitious goals and expectations help motivate you to put in the effort needed to make big improvements to your game. So they are an essential part of performance thinking, the long-term part.

But the short-term part of performance thinking is where results happen. I call this short-term part the “mental routine”; it encompasses how you think during your pre-shot routine, while executing the stroke, and afterward while you evaluate the stroke you just played. An essential aspect of the mental routine is staying in the present—thinking only about the shot you are playing.

Goals and expectations are, obviously, all about the future. If you are thinking about the future, you aren’t staying in the present. If you do this during the mental routine, you have just short-circuited it. Paradoxically, while goals and expectations are productive and even necessary in the long term, during the mental routine they become destructive. They are just as distracting as a loud noise or visual disturbance.

Long-term goals are often focused around tournament performance, so it’s natural to think about them during a tournament. Tournament performance depends very much on the mental routine—the extra adrenaline puts that routine to the test. So just when the mental routine is under the most pressure, we are most apt to overburden it with distracting thoughts about our long-term goals. The solution is to put aside those goals during a tournament, not just during games, but for the entire tournament, including the days leading up to the tournament when you are probably putting in extra practice time.

That’s easier said than done. We’ve been using these goals to stay motivated all along, and now we’re supposed to stop thinking about them just when we have a chance to measure our progress. The key is to substitute a different set of goals at tournament time. Those long-term goals will probably still come to mind at times, but when this happens you can use these short-term goals as a mental refuge. The goals I recommend are:

The first item is a big topic. The key steps are commitment, focus, confidence, visualization, trust, and acceptance; a detailed treatment is well beyond the scope of this article. If you haven’t developed an effective mental routine you aren’t giving yourself much of a chance to perform your best under pressure, and you have some work to do. The second item may sound obvious, but in practice it isn’t always so. Faced with a difficult shot or tactical situation, reminding yourself to have fun helps you relax and stay in the present. The third item helps you accept and move on from your mistakes, and can also help you stay more tactically observant.

Notice that none of these short-term goals is concerned with winning games. Of course you want to win every game you play, but thoughts of winning or losing are thoughts about the future, and, again, you need to stay in the present to perform well. To give yourself the best chance of winning, don’t think about winning, at least not during the mental routine. (Tactical thinking is a separate matter, where of course you must think about how to win the game.) Come tournament time, stick to these short-term goals to give yourself a chance to perform your best; let the results take care of themselves.

—- Jeff Soo

Last modified on 19 October 2015