Just Look More Deeply... With Some COVID-19 Applications

Sport psychology techniques can be oversimplified or misinterpreted.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Indra riding an elephant
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Here’s a pretty lame joke, a residue of my early adolescence:

“How do you get down off an elephant?”

Silence. Or maybe a few logical attempts.

“You don’t. You get down off a duck.”

An insipid play on the double meaning of the word “down.”

So, why am I sharing it here? And why do I even recall it?

Because I didn’t get it… at the time. But—not recognizing what I didn’t know/hadn’t gotten—I  decided to share it with some friends.

Picturing the challenge of climbing down from a very tall beast, I asked something along the lines of:

“How do you climb down from an elephant?”

Deadlier silence.

Punchline... Which falls utterly flat.

Thus ended whatever future I might have had in comedy.

So why am I sharing it here?

Because it’s an example of communication gone awry. It might be the teller of the information; it might be the recipient.

Over the years that I’ve been blogging here, I’ve shared lots of information about what I call “The Big 5” of mental performance consulting:

Sometimes, these methods become “reified,” as if they were the be-all and end-all. Just do them, and that will resolve any performance issues you have. Sometimes, techniques get much too oversimplified. Sometimes the person communicating the information doesn’t really get it. Sometimes, it doesn’t fit for the recipient—or not right now, anyway.

Here are some examples of what can go wrong—and what to do about it.

And because as I write this blog (aptly, on Friday the 13th), we’re engulfed by information, experiences, vast changes in our lives—that seem to change moment to moment—and emotions about COVID-19, I’m adding in some related thoughts. After all, the Big 5 techniques apply to performance, and performance is based on how we think and feel in a particular context….

Intensity Management

Diaphragmatic breathing (also known as abdominal, belly, or deep breathing) is the fastest way I  know to address tension. It’s often taught in the context of helping a person become more relaxed. And that can become a problem if the message the performer hears or receives is “just relax.” During a performance, one rarely wants to be relaxed. Rather, the issue is to find the “sweet spot” of optimal tension for best performance.

While deep breathing can do wonders for full relaxation, say, to get some much-needed rest before a competition, it’s important to know—and learn—just how much tension or relaxation is best for any particular situation.

The COVID-19 application: Deep breathing is useful for two different aspects of our performance: decreasing performance intensity and allowing optimal performance as well as the meditative function of giving us a mental and physical “break” from tension. In the current situation, deep breathing can begin the unwinding related to panic; it can also give us some respite from tension.

Cognitive Restructuring

So maybe you’ve got the intensity management thing resolved…but you still find your mind racing. Various methods have been suggested to get you to turn off those zooming thoughts and negative mental chatter. “Just” picture a stop sign or snap a rubber band on your wrist.

Those can be good ideas and techniques—but they can also go awry:

  • “What do I do after I stop that thought?”
  • “OK, I pictured or felt that—but my mind is still going a mile a minute.”
  • “If I stop this scary thought, another will pop up; I know it will.”

Cognitive restructuring covers a wide swath of issues—and solutions. It’s important to have lots of options and see which fits.

Also, in some contrast to CBT, popular some years ago (and also over-simplified and reified), ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) has become the “newest kid on the (theoretical and practice) block.” Rather than trying to get rid of thoughts or have them stop, ACT is based on the assumption that we all have many different thoughts. Learning to recognize and acknowledge them can let them just be, rather than be feared.

The COVID-19 application: The unending loop of physical and mental interaction around tension means creating a balance (and re-creating and re-re-creating that balance) between accurate knowledge/information, our emotional reactions, and appreciating the reality that there’s a lot that we don’t know and can’t control.

Goal Setting

SMART goals—they seem so easy. Of course, one can mess up SMART goals themselves. But there are (at least) two other issues that often arise:

  • Discounting the progress you’ve already made. You may re-set your baseline—and thus, goals and expectations—with little regard for where you were to begin with and the changes you’ve already accomplished. That’s one of the best reasons for writing goals down (and dating their entry): You’ve got good information on where you started and can see your real progress.
  • Sometimes, the best goal setting—the next step—only occurs to you when you’ve reached a particular accomplishment. You’ve gotten from “here” to “there.” Now: What’s the next step, the next goal? This “iterative” process can be intriguing and useful—but you need to let it unfold rather than setting expectations without knowledge.

The COVID-19 application: Our performance lives are being upended. You may be a collegiate athlete at the pinnacle… and your final, incredibly important event has just been canceled. Or a performer whose upcoming event has been postponed.

There are so many situations, changing so very fast right now. Are there ways you can acknowledge the current or short-term situation and also recognize the longer view, the bigger picture, the ways in which you are learning resilience and flexibility? It may take some time to recognize these effects, but it truly is the process, rather than the outcome, that we can (sometimes) control.

Imagery

Of all the methods and techniques, imagery may be the most individual and idiosyncratic. A particular image that works well for one person may be interpreted and experienced differently by someone else. Dr. Shane Murphy shared a classic example: an athlete whose ice skating image worked very well for him but backfired when other skaters were told to use that same image [Hint: the story is worth reading/re-reading!].

Learn what images work for you—and remember that for most people, kinesthetic imagery—images that we experience inside our body—will be most useful for progress in performance.

The COVID-19 application: For all that imagery is so useful, as human beings, our “negativity bias” means that our natural tendency is to imagine disaster and worst-case scenarios. If you can use that initial image to then begin problem-solving, it can take on a useful function.

Concentration/Focus

How do you learn to focus and concentrate, to be in the “now”? Sometimes, people are instructed to fill in various puzzles: How rapidly can you find numbers in sequence or find embedded words? Turns out that you can become really fast at those tasks, but they don’t translate to the ball field or the practice room. Instead, learn how to notice when you’re not focused. Catch yourself not concentrating… and bring yourself gently back to where your focus needs to be.

We all miss key points some of the time, whether as instructors or recipients. As always, learning what works takes… practice. Deliberate practice.

The COVID-19 application: You wanted to get good at focusing? Remember the A-B-C method: You might practice catching yourself over-thinking catastrophic outcomes, taking some deep breaths, and then re-focusing on the task at hand.

Having read through what doesn’t work, what are some takeaways?

  • Have you noticed how frequently I’ve used the word “just”? Sometimes it implies a simple solution (to a complex issue). Sometimes it’s a way of minimizing the importance of a dilemma or challenge. You might try noticing when and where “just” is used—and by whom. (Hint: it may be something that you say to yourself!)
  • Sport psychology—and performance psychology—have become so popularized that practitioners and performers may look for foolproof shortcuts or “one size fits all” packages. The techniques are great; don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they need to be applied at an individual level in order to be truly effective.
  • And the COVID-19 application: There are always opportunities, whether intended or not, to make good use of some important mental performance techniques.

Highly recommended and just posted: a blog directed toward student-athletes dealing with the shutdown of their season due to COVID-19. Empathic and sage advice, written by my good friend and colleague, Dr. Craig Cypher, a sport psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.