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Mind Set & Self-Belief


Experience with and observations of elite athletes in dynamic, high pressure training and competition environments suggests that there is a level of cognitive fitness that differentiates successful from less-successful performers. There are multiple aspects of cognitive functioning that contribute to high performance. It is suggested that one of the fundamental dimensions of cognitive functioning, upon which the successful development and application of other psychological skills is dependent, can be best described as an optimal performance mindset. It is proposed that this performance mindset, along with an iterative development of psychological skills relevant to peak performance, results in an enhanced self belief and composure, and an increase in the probability of consistent high performance.


Observational research, supported by post-performance debriefs with elite athletes and coaches, indicates that the mindset adopted by an elite athlete can predispose the individual to respond in predictable ways when under high pressure. Presumably the performance mindset affects the individual’s multimodal perception of the representation of the external (competition) environment, the consequences of success and failure, the processing of relevant data, and the guidance of relevant actions and behaviours.


It is proposed that there is a hierarchy of related motivational and attitudinal factors influenced by past and ongoing learning that collectively contribute to an optimal performance mindset. An elite athlete placed in a dynamic, high pressure performance situation, is tasked with several complex challenges. If we take shooting for a goal as an example, the individual is typically required to regain physical and mental composure following the effort expended in gaining the opportunity. This brief physical and mental recovery is time limited by the rules of the specific sport. The athlete is then required to clearly identify the precise target and execute his/her standard pre-shot routine, with previously trained timing, content, and sequence. During this brief period, the individual is also tasked with controlling thought processes, focus, and self talk, such that the skill execution is replicated successfully and precisely in the face of many potential internal and external distractions. The successful execution of the specific skill (kicking, throwing or hitting) is associated with the ability of the athlete to focus attention on both technical and kinaesthetic components of the action. In the case of kicking for goal in AFL for example, among other important components (speed and length of run in, balance and rhythm), the athlete must focus on identifying a clear and precise target, controlling the release of the ball from hand to foot, the point of contact between foot and the ball, and then follow through in order to produce an accurate and successful outcome.


A Case Study Example


An AFL player competes hard physically to earn a free kick and gains an opportunity to kick the winning goal in the very final stages of an important game. The club he plays for has struggled to win a game during the long season, and this is a chance for the club to post its first win. The club is coached by a very charismatic, physically confronting and powerful coach, who is renowned for his blistering verbal attacks on players who make mistakes. The player is acknowledged in the club and across the AFL competition as one of the group of very highly skilled midfielders. He has received the free kick a mere 35 metres from, and directly in front of the goal.


Under normal circumstances this player would kick the goal easily. He could possibly have kicked accurately over the distance with either foot, such was his skill level. In this instance the player looks very anxious and physically tense. He stutters in his run up and proceeds to kick the ball out of bounds on the full. The final siren blows, and team loses yet another game. The player is admonished by the coach in front of the other players in the changeroom immediately after the game. The player is in tears feeling he has let his coach, the team, and the fans down.


After the dressing down, the player was asked byb the team sport psychologist to describe what happened from his perspective: what he was feeling, saying to himself, focused on, and visualizing as he lined up for the free kick at the goal.


The player mentioned that he was momentarily out of breath after having to fight hard to get the ball and earn the free kick. As he lined up for the kick at goal he realized how important scoring the goal would be for the team, the coach and the long suffering supporters. He stated that he ‘forgot’ to take his time and to breathe slowly to settle his heart rate and himself down. Instead he rushed his preparation for the kick, feeling very hesitant and anxious. He described how he felt that his eyes were darting all over the place and that he found it difficult to focus on a precise target. His self talk included reminding himself not to miss the shot, not to make a mistake. He also reminded himself how angry the coach would be if he missed the goal. He said that incredibly, as soon as he said these things to himself, he felt his heart rate accelerate, he instantly began to tremble, and he had a crystal clear image of the ball going off the side of his boot and out of bounds on the full. As he ran in for the kick he remembered stuttering in his run up, he felt unbalanced and ran too close to the opponent on the mark, he did not feel as though he had his usual hand control of the ball drop, he realized too late that he was looking at his hoped-for (general) target rather than at the point of contact with the ball, and sure enough the ball went out of bounds on the full, exactly at the position he had visualised.


This example, and many other similar stories, emphasize that all of the many well-trained technical, physical and mental skills possessed by elite athletes fall away very quickly if the mindset of the individual is fragile to the extent that it becomes impossible for the athlete to focus on the right thing at the right time. The basic motivation to achieve a perfect outcome for a range of extrinsic consequences, coupled with a pronounced fear of failure and strong desire not to make a mistake, shifts the athlete’s focus from executing the necessary process to all of the ‘what ifs…?’. The player in this case experienced a significant cognitive reversal accompanied by an uplift in mental and physical arousal, lost any feelings of composure, unintentionally rushed and became hesitant in his run up routine, shifted his focus onto the intended target (the goal) rather than the most relevant point of contact target (the ball), and the resulting performance deficit proved to be very costly for him and his team.




A Precursor to ‘Mental Skills’ Training?


Applied sport psychologists focus a good deal of their energy and time assisting elite athletes to develop a set of practical strategies (commonly referred to as ‘mental or psychological skills’) that include goal setting, an understanding of attentional control, arousal management, positive self talk and visualization. The reality, based on observation and experience, would suggest that all of this ‘mental skills’ training is to no avail without a strong platform of intrinsic motivation, a process focused mindset, a disciplined motivation to approach success, and a powerful and positive ‘Do’ voice. Under the glare of the spotlight in high level competition, the absence of a strong motivational and mindset platform, predisposes an inability on the part of the athlete to successfully deploy their previously trained‘mental skills’ array, leading to a significantly decreased self belief, loss of composure, and an increased probability of a performance deficit.


Fortunately, there is an alternative approach that significantly increases the probability of a successful process execution. This approach employs a very strong intrinsic motivation base where the ‘intellectual’ or strategic challenge of mastering skill execution in the face of high pressure and potential distraction is embraced, and where the individual’s focus is very firmly placed onto the ‘feel’ associated with precision execution. Every sport has a ‘feel’ component associated with high-level skill execution. This inherent ‘feel’, in conjunction with winning the ‘intellectual challenge’ are two key intrinsic factors that keep both elite and professional athletes and ‘weekend warriors’ coming back to their chosen sport time and again. 


Satisfying intrinsic motivational needs in sport plays strongly to the human need for achievement, and the personal satisfaction gained from expert skill execution, succeeding, winning, and continuing improvement. 


I have attempted to provide a visual representation (see Figure 1) of what I believe to be the iterative relationship between intrinsic motivation, a process focus, an approach success mindset, the application of what I refer to as ‘Do’ voice (positive) self talk, and their impact on self belief, composure and high level performance. In Figure 1 this positive performance mindset is contrasted with what is proposed as a much less-successful mindset that increases the probability of a substandard performance. Unfortunately, many elite athletes experience a reversal from a positive performance mindset when they perceive excessive pressure and expectation to the unstable and negative performance mindset, while others spend the majority of their careers fighting against an omnipresent negative performance mindset.

























Figure 1. A Diagrammatic Summary



Figure 1 Motivation and Mindset Choices


How Does Mindset Relate to Self Belief?


One understanding of the concept of self belief is that it is a core aspect of an individual’s sense of being. It is the core upon which we all build more specific areas of self confidence. It is the core platform that we return to in times of challenge and difficulty, in order to remind ourselves that we are a good and capable person, and that we have the capability to execute the necessary skilled and cognitive processes to achieve the desired outcome. Core self belief is the psychological platform we refer back to as we attempt to rebuild after a setback. Many athletes and coaches (and psychology professionals) often confuse self belief with self confidence. The terms are often used interchangeably when describing a fall in motivation and persistence after a significant set back, and in describing a loss of faith in self and one’s capability to succeed.


Experience with elite athletes emphasizes that self confidence is of vital importance, but may be somewhat ‘superficial’ to core self belief. Self belief is the sum of our lives to date; including all of the very positive things we have thought and done, and those fewer not so positive thoughts and deeds. Fundamentally, human beings are positive and believe in themselves as ‘good people’. Sometimes, through impoverished, abusive or traumatic upbringings, individuals grow to believe that they are not worthy people, and not capable of achieving anything of substance. These individuals unfortunately are typically under-performers, and the ones who populate our prisons and potentially fall through the cracks of society.


My concept of self belief as it relates to self confidence is diagrammatically represented in Figure 2 below:
























Figure 2 Self Belief and Self Confidence


We go to great lengths to protect our core self belief. Defensive mindsets (including fear of failure) and behavioural mechanisms are examples where an individual may be protecting self belief, because without a strong and stable core platform, life becomes very challenging. Specific areas of self confidence, however, are subject to constant fluctuation depending upon how we are performing in specific areas of our lives. Self confidence in a specific area can be quite low, whilst core self belief remains strong and stable. In these circumstances, with appropriate training and support, the individual may bounce their self confidence back quite quickly. In cases where core self belief is unstable and fragile, a negative impact on self confidence or directly on self belief can be devastating. Bouncing back becomes extremely problematic and the individual may be at significant mental health risk over time.


A positive mindset based on appropriate levels of intrinsic motivation, contributes in a very significant way to the development of a strong and stable core self belief, and to self confidence associated with the specific task the individual is engaged in. An unstable and fragile core self belief can undermine an individual’s mindset and motivational base and negatively affect specific self confidence. This typically results in loss of composure, fear of failure, negative self talk, underperformance and the initiation of negative downward performance and mental health spirals (see the Unstable Performance pyramid in the Figure 1 diagram above).





An Evidence Base?


The components mentioned above have been derived from my observational research and practice whilst embedded with athletes/teams at major international and domestic competitions over the past 40+ years. Added to this are the countless post-performance debriefs I have conducted with athletes and coaches, ongoing discussions with experienced applied sport psychologists, and sport psychology literature reviews.


It would be beneficial to have a clear evidence base derived from peer reviewed research studies of the various components. 


The primary concepts (as I see them) are as follows:

  1. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation – is there evidence that a mindset based on intrinsic motivation is superior in high performance domains to one based primarily on meeting extrinsic needs? Does a mindset focused on satisfying intrinsic needs predispose elite athletes to greater success than those motivated by the need to satisfy extrinsic needs, such as monetary and other rewards, meeting or exceeding the expectations of important others, gaining notoriety and status, avoiding negative consequences, etc? 

  2. Process vs Outcome Focus – is there literature/research to support the notion that elite athletes who have a process focus (focus in the moment on execution of relevant preparatory routines and skill/process execution) perform better under high pressure conditions, than those with an outcome focus (thinking and focus on the end result and/or consequences)?

  3. Approach Success vs Avoid Failure Mindset – is there literature/research to support the proposal that elite athletes with an approach success mindset (strong focus on doing what needs to be done to be successful) perform at a higher level than those athletes who have a strong avoid failure mindset (focus on avoiding mistakes, avoiding losing, and thinking about the consequences of failure)?

  4. Inner Voices (‘Do’ and ‘Don’t’) – is there literature/research to support the view that elite athletes who have disciplined control over their inner voices  (self talk) such that they mostly hear and respond to the positive ‘Do’ voice, achieve more success than those athletes who are dominated by their negative ‘Don’t’ inner voice?

  5. Self Belief – is there evidence to support the concept of a core self belief and overlapping areas of self confidence? Is there a direct link between high levels of core self belief and optimal performance?

  6. Composure – is there evidence in the literature/research to support the contention that an iterative combination of intrinsic motivation/needs, a process focus, approach success focus, and dominant “Do’ inner voice result in higher levels of and more disciplined composure as a basis for effective decision making, enhanced psychological control, more effective attentional control, and higher probabilities of a successful optimal performance? 

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