I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Stuart Singer, who works with athletes to help them master the mental aspects of performance. As we talked I realized there was a lot of overlap between our areas of interest- from a coaching perspective and more broadly from a teaching and learning perspective. He agreed to join me for a Q&A. I think you’ll find his reflections on the keys to mental success–for athletes and other learners–insightful.
- DL: Your organization is called “WellPerformance”… maybe you could start by defining that what well performance is and how wellness relates to a performance environment- those might not be ideas that readers automatically think go together.
SS: The Performance part of our name stands for how we help individuals learn, develop, execute, and apply skills within the chaos of the competitive arena. This could be in athletic competition, work, the classroom, and anywhere else that requires high-energy, focus, and mental-toughness. Any setting that challenges us to be the best we can be requires that we manage our stress, focus, and resilience. The goal is to teach applicable mental skills that assist the ability to “perform”.
The Well has a few meanings. First, it simply means to approach and complete any task you do the right way. When we perform “well” it signifies that we completed the challenge successfully. However, Well also refers to the process of achieving success. Sometimes we get the outcome we want, but we aren’t using a system that is mentally or physically healthy. Our goal is not just to have our clients achieve success, but also have them perform in a way that is truly mentally and physically sound, which will make them, their team, or their organization as strong and functional as can be.
Essentially, our experience tells us that it isn’t enough to just have performance success without an approach that is healthy for the individual or the group they’re performing within, as this is not sustainable for the long run. True success is based on a foundation that can handle setbacks and challenges. Adversity will always be a part of the performance environment, so we train to handle each moment that leads us to our ultimate potential.
When we have performance success AND we do it in a way that is healthy and sustainable we have WellPerformance!
- DL: In one of your blog posts, about mindfulness and performance, you say that ‘Too often when something is uncomfortable or even painful (as in losing a big game, or having a poor performance when it matters most) we look to want to avoid or escape those feelings.” You argue that you have to embrace moments of discomfort and in fact practice embracing moments of discomfort as part of training.
SS: Yes, it is a natural REACTION to want to escape or avoid the things that make us feel “pain” or discomfort. In fact, there are literally chemicals released in the brain that make us want to avoid painful moments. This is actually part of the survival instinct – something bad happens – “stay away from doing that again”. Vice versa there are “feel good” chemicals released in the brain when things feel comfortable and safe. We tend to get “addicted” to those experiences because we want another hit of the “feel good” chemical release, and we, of course, want to avoid the negative experience chemical release. So, in order to combat this natural process we must create an intentional awareness of the discomfort as something we NEED to embrace in order to grow, learn, or develop. Eventually, the feeling of wanting to take on new things or challenges can begin to generate that “feel good” chemical release.
- DL: When we observe teachers we often look for something we call a “culture of error”- the idea that you have to be willing to accept error in order to maximize learning- that when you are comfortable with the process of getting-it-wrong-to-get it-right you can spend time studying and learning from mistakes. You’re very interested in a similar idea — ‘psychological safety.’ Can you describe what it is and why it’s important to athletes’ development?
SS: Well I use the term “psychological safety” more in reference to the environment that the coach, teacher, parent, or business leader should develop for learning. At some point the pendulum swung too far in terms of attempting to build self-esteem in our youths. There was a belief that we should compliment and support everything no matter the success or failure. It’s well-intentioned but misses the mark. There is no learning that happens when we compliment attempts but provide no context.
Instead in any performance based environment we can demand a high standard, but we must also create the environment where the individual feels a sense of “safety” in taking risks that move them beyond their comfort zone. We want the attempt no matter how uncomfortable it is and how often they struggle to gain mastery. However, we give the struggle and “failure” context as part of the process. We ask questions on what happened and why. We provide feedback that gives corrective cues. We do this without embarrassing the individual or condemning the imperfection. We teach that being a beginner and reaching mastery is a relatively long, winding, ugly, stop and start path instead of a nice neat line. When the environment we create allows for these “failures” to be an essential component of the journey towards mastery is when we know we’ve established a “psychologically safety”.
- DL: You’ve written a lot about the difference between telling athletes—or students—what to do and telling them how to do it. Growth mindset is a good example. It’s not really sufficient to say, “You have to relish challenge and not fear mistakes.” What are some keys to teaching people to use a mindset?
SS: Great question! Yes, again as teachers, coaches, parents, and business world leaders we often try to just tell the individuals under us what mindset to have. This is actually impossible to do and relatively worthless exercise to endeavor in. If it was that easy every one would just simply have the “correct” mindset already. Instead we need to work on some of the things that get in the way of effective mindsets. There are numerous roadblocks that can get in the way, but two big ones include not understanding our reactivity to the events that happen in our life, and being in what is known as “auto-pilot” thoughts. Reactivity refers to our emotional knee-jerk to an event. For instance, some athletes hate to be called out for a mistake by the coach in front of the entire group. When this happens their fight or flight response kicks-in and emotional response ensues. That emotional reaction can be anger, fear, sadness, self-doubt, etc. If the athlete then buys into those emotions it can lead them in a pretty negative spiral of thought.
Auto-pilot thinking is really just the concept of “day-dreaming”. That we often are in this place of lacking an awareness of what it is we’re truly thinking about. Our thoughts jump from the past, to the future, to random things, and everything in between. The trouble with this is that if we are in “auto-pilot” thinking we can often head down old, habitual, ineffective patterns of thought. And, we head down these road without an awareness of them or that we could question if they are helping us.
So, my approach teaches the “how” of moving beyond reactivity and directs attention towards response. Response is a thoughtful and conscious awareness of “what matters right now”. In the case of the player getting constructive feedback from the coach, what matters is the instruction and trying to take in the cues that are being given. The only way to process that information is through a mindset that is less reactive. I’ve developed a very specific approach to teaching “the how” of moving beyond reactivity and auto-pilot thinking that includes psycho-educational information and what I would call performance-focused mindfulness. This approach is work and the reps that I do with my athletes the way a quarterback coach may put a quarterback through specific drills.
One of the greatest realizations that we can give to the individuals that are learning from us is that we can truly train and change our reactivity, habits, and patterns of our thought. However, it all starts with awareness and it does require some work.