Sport and Performance Psychologist, Abra Garfield, looks at how better communication can help us achieve our sport and performance goals …
Communication breakdowns, misrepresenting ourselves to others by the way we act during performance, and negative self-talk represent real barriers to achieving greatness and reaching goals.
We may think of communication as just talking or writing and not see the direct link to performance through this limited view. In fact, there are three areas of communication critical for maximising potential for success: (1) communication with others, (2) body language, and (3) internal self-talk.
To me communication refers to sending and receiving messages externally and internally, and this can be done in many ways. We communicate in obvious ways like talking or writing and in more subtle ways like body language and style. Language (verbal and body) will be our main focus here, as it is a very effective tool both in controlling our own mind and body and improving our relationships with others. Both are critical to peak performance.
Improving our relationships with coaches, teachers, other performers, and our parents/children through better communication, improves the support we have to attain our goals. Interpersonal communication is vital in team environments, with coaching, and with the wider community – ranging from family and social support to the media.
By improving how we communicate who we are to the wider community – through how we hold ourselves and behave in and out of performance settings – we will not only get closer to our goals, but it will have a positive effect on our own mind too. Personality says a lot and sometimes in team situations or for professionalism we need to adjust how we portray our image to others in a performance context. Communicating emotion to an opponent through acting out after a wayward shot can give them a mental edge or bring our teammates down. In performance, people make a large proportion of judgments of athlete character based on how they behave, not what they say.
Lastly if we can harness that little voice in our head (that can be angel or devil!) – our communication with ourselves – it can help us achieve great things. Self-talk or our inner voice can be planned and used strategically to keep the mind positive and on task.
1. Communication with Others
Coach/Teacher/Leader Communication – Leadership is all about communication, but specific goals help leaders to hone this ability to connect with individuals and groups. Breaking information down makes it easily accessible, and simplifying the world of performance for people helps to build shared language and a shared vision of what to improve through targets and goals. This helps to reduce conflict and misunderstanding. But what do we need to clarify and break down specifically to improve high performance communication?
- Values and team identity;
- Performance targets (profile);
- Training strategies;
- Conflict resolution.
The process of sitting down and doing this early in a season or career creates valuable discussion, and allows performers to express themselves and feel a sense of agency in the process, increasing motivation. People learn in both visual and verbal modes, so utilising communication tools such as mind mapping and performance profiling can enhance this process greatly.
Support from a performance psychologist: Coaches and leadership communication targets.
Positive reinforcement – Setting up expectations of how reward and punishment or reinforcement will shape behaviour under the coach’s lead is delicate, and to get performers on-board and committed to the model, specific processes are required.
Motivational interviewing and eliciting personal goals – Leaders can help performers to reflect and generate motivating forces, both internal and external, to drive them forward. There is a particular skill set that experts in behaviour change use to develop motivational drive and goals that can be learned. This improves the relationship and motivation, and creates shared accountability and follow-through.
Conflict resolution – Conflict is inevitable and is usually due to communication breakdowns in the first place. There are several models of conflict resolution in terms of “putting out fires” when they occur. I believe in pro-active and pre-emptive conflict resolution through improving communication processes; but since we cannot avoid conflict altogether we must have skills to help resolve such events, so they do not affect training and team/individual cohesion and performance.
Assertiveness training – Assertiveness in communication is the “Goldilocks” effect for leaders. Too strict, controlling and harsh is authoritarian and aggressive and will not reap the positive outcomes desired. On the other extreme is submissive and passive communication, which lacks control, power and weight. Again, leading from a passive or submissive position is bound for failure as your troops must respect you, and you must be able to command their attention and commitment.
In the middle is Assertiveness. It is confident and powerful without being forceful and controlling. It will gain you respect without resentment and is both important for leaders and non-leaders who need to communicate clearly with their peers what they need and believe. Sometimes we need to be assertive to look after our own interests and goals above and beyond others’ needs. If we do not have the communication tools to stand up for ourselves without coming off as aggressive or submissive, we will create barriers to progress.
Empathy and counselling skills – Leaders benefit greatly from improving their empathy and counselling skills. Unfortunately most leaders do not develop these skills by utilising counsellors and psychologists who are the experts in this area of communication. Empathy, or showing understanding and acknowledgment of others’ feelings and perception of events, allows people to feel heard and that they have some freedom of expression. This subtle human need contributes greatly to internal motivation, strengthening rapport and trust, and improves conflict resolution greatly. Counselling skills are a finite set of communication tools to help people discuss their life challenges and internal world and find some resolution, answers and/or direction forward.
Constructing team communication structure – How does information travel within a group? How is everyone’s voice heard without information overload top down and bottom up? To accomplish this middle ground of not too much and not too little two-way communication between leaders/coaches and performers, it can be useful to have a plan for what the team communication channels are.
2. Body language and Expression
Think of the information you pick up about who Lleyton Hewitt is, or who Roger Federer is, just through how they hold themselves, react on the court, speak and behave.
We and the rest of the sporting community make judgments of athletes based on what we see, and so do their opponents.
Some people are confident, loud and emotionally reactive and some are shy, quiet and calm. We can be all business and serious with our actions and subtle body language or we can have fun and enjoy things through how we behave. What identity do we want to convey to others in our performance world? And what messages will our behaviour send to ourselves – about our values, self-worth, attitude and professionalism? How do other people’s judgments of our identity in sport affect our future success? Think of all of the benefits of being aware and pre-meditated about how we act and hold ourselves in performance.
There is no right or wrong energy and attitude to project to the world in sport, it is very much a personal thing. However there are advantages of being aware of our communication in sport through how we behave and treat others, because it projects who we are.
We can be our own architects of how we want to be seen and judged, to maximise our image to others such as coaches, selectors or other players. We also send valuable feedback to ourselves about how we are feeling and thinking and behaving when we pro-actively “act as if”. Body language can have a dramatic effect on our internal world and mental state and learning about how to use body language to build mental toughness is a valuable skill.
3. Internal Language and Self-Talk
Internal language or self-talk can help or hurt us in performance settings due to its link to our attention, emotions and goal-directed behaviour.
Self-talk can be useful in directing the mind through high-pressure performance situations, as it can reduce complexity and distraction, which is typically increased under stress, and keep the mind on task. A concise set of targeted words or phrases can keep a performer’s focus on the plan; what is in their control, what their goals are and what attitude or energy they want to bring to the task.
Internal language occurs all the time and if you think about it, self-talk often reflects how we are feeling, and can either keep us in a bad headspace or get us out. Self-talk can be used to grab attention and re-allocate it to more productive positive targets if we prepare and practice effective verbal cues. In performance setting, it can be important to utilise self-talk strategically. It can bring our focus of attention to task-oriented cues when distracted; it can remind us of motivational information; it can help us relax or pump up; it can be used to boost confidence, and improve skill learning.
Self-talk can be broken down into mantras (short phrases to build motivation and confidence) and cue-words (single words that draw attention to a specific cue for skill execution, attitude, focus, goals).
Mantras – Mantras can serve as motivational triggers, focus tools, reminders of values and attitudes or as self-affirmations for confidence. Mantras are usually very meaningful and personal short phrases like prayers, but serve the purpose of preparing and setting the mind for performance. They can be tailored to the sport and individual and can be strengthened or charged up by practicing them in certain ways, like accompanied by music or imagery. An example of a mantra that focuses a performer on the present moment and what is within their control might look something like this:
“The past is only memories, the future is imagined, right now is where I live and breathe. The score is my enemy, other people are distractions, but I am in control of me.”
Cue Words – Cue words act as thought anchors because they are single words that draw attention to specific cues related to the task or our mindset. Cue words are fast and easy ways to trigger positive thoughts, behaviours, focus cues and emotions. They too are most useful when they are meaningful, personalised and practiced. There are several techniques to derive powerful cue words which can help performers stay task/goal oriented and in a positive frame of mind. They can also be used after distraction or mistakes to help us pick ourselves up and re-focus quickly. Cue words are typically used in skill learning processes to help people sequence movements to improve technique.
Three Tips for Enhancing Mantras and Cue Words
- Keep them visible (eg on your water bottle);
- Associate them with information that is meaningful to you, such as memories or music;
- Use them when you train and when things are going well, they can be part of the routine.
If you are keen to improve your communication, public image or self-talk and find success in your chosen field, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Abra Garfield, BPsych, MPsych (sport & exercise), MAPS; Medicare ATAPS provider.
Abra Garfield is an endorsed Sport and Performance Psychologist, with a passion for helping others to achieve optimal performance whether on the sports field, in the classroom, home or office. By drawing on a range of therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing, Abra helps many people with goal setting, motivation, and overcoming anxiety.
Abra is the Principal Sport Psychologist and founder of Summit Performance Psychology. Visit the Summit Performance Psychology website to learn more or like us on Facebook to receive Summit Performance Psychology Articles and event updates.
Psychologist Abra Garfield has moved.
Find his details on his website: Summit Sport & Performance Psychology.