Category: Sports Performance

The Problem with Brain Overload

Bill Russell

We know from studies (and real life!) that individuals may be a limited by the amount of ‘processing space‘ our brains have. As every mental and physical task requires a finite amount of processing space, if we don’t learn ways to develop our processing skills, we are inviting failure. This concept is known as the Capacity Model.

The practicalities of this concept were described excellently by the legendary Celtics basketball player Bill Russell:

“Each of us has a finite amount of energy, and things you do well don’t require as much. Things you don’t do well take more concentration. And if you’re fatigued by that, then things you do best are going to be affected”.

The good news is that you can train your brain to process better through learning, development and using the right exercises. It’s an excellent example of why we need to train our brains as well as our bodies!

Enjoy the Game!


Should athletes prepare for defeat?

Out of the 10,500 athletes who are competing at the London 2012 Games only 302 will win. The rest will be left to navigate the kaleidoscope of emotions that comes with failing to win.

Many athletes struggle to cope with the weight of expectation that is placed upon them by their supporters and their expectant compatriots. Although physically many of them recover well after losing at a big event like the Olympic Games, sadly many of them never recover mentally. It’s easy to understand why when you consider the intense media scrutiny athletes have to live and perform under during the Games.

So how can athletes cope? Well, athletes certainly should set appropriate expectation levels and keep their performances in a proper perspective but many experts are now calling for the more direct approach of mentally preparing for defeat.

This interesting article by the BBC’s Stephanie Hegarty highlights the key thinking behind it…

BBC News – London 2012: Should athletes prepare for defeat?.


Are you Practising to Fail?

If you are on a mission to become great in a sporting or intellectual endeavour, you should expect plenty of failures on the way, especially during practise. But that shouldn’t put you off, in fact if you want to become a master at what you do you should have a passion for it. How is that helpful? Well, several themes regarding practice consistently come to light according to author David Shenk in his book The Genius in All of Us:

1. Practice changes your body. Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs, and brains of those showing profound increases in skill level in any domain.

2. Skills are specific. Individuals becoming great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at other skills. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultraspecific responses to particular skill requirements.

3. The brain drives the brawn. Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy), and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real-time.

4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.

5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

“Across the board, these last two variables — practice style and practice time — emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players to soccer players to violin players, it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that K. Anders Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.’ First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. ‘Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,’ explains Ericsson. ‘Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It … does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level which is associated with frequent failures.’ …

This approach to practise requires a mindset of constant improvement driven through self-critique and an almost pathological drive to push oneself beyond current capabilities to a new level of ability. This inevitably leads to frequent failure and disappointment but rather than being de-motivating these failures and disappointments become almost desired because they demonstrate that progress is underway. This developes a ceaseless desire to pick oneself up and try again and again until success is achieved. But how long does it take to become a true master of your sport or your art or your profession. Well Ericsson also revealed some amazing insights into this particular conundrum as Shenk reveals in his book.

“The physiology of this process also requires extraordinary amounts of elapsed time — not just hours and hours of deliberate practice each day, Ericsson found, but also thousands of hours over the course of many years. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years’ time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark.”

I don’t know about you but I think I’d better go out and do some practise…


Book Title: The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (2010)
by David Shenk
Published by Anchor

The Psychology of Flow (in under 300 words)

One of the most commonly discussed concepts in sport is the idea of performance flow. The ‘zone’ that athletes get into where their minds and bodies are at one and their performance soars to the highest level.

In this interesting article, the guys from PsyBlog give us their view of Flow – in under 300 words!

The Psychology of Flow (in under 300 words) — PsyBlog.

As they say in their article:

“It’s not always easy to achieve but being in a state of flow is a beautiful thing.”

Enjoy the game!

How To Practise Penalties

Following England’s demise in the face of another penalty shoot-out at a major championship, Tim de Lisle, editor of More Intelligent Life, makes three excellent suggestions.

HOW TO PRACTISE PENALTIES | More Intelligent Life.

I wonder how many managers would implement these ideas?

Enjoy the game!


Are you engaging all of your team?

If you coach, manage or lead a team of people it is inevitable that you will be faced with a group of people who have different preferred styles of learning. That fact presents you with a challenge. That challenge is how to engage all of the group by using all of the learning styles. Failing to do this could result in failing to fully engage the group, resulting in some of your team not learning what it is you intended them to learn.

The educational psychologist Dr Bernice McCarthy found that we fall into four different categories when it comes to learning. Here’s a very simple overview:

Type One: The “Why” people.

The ‘why’ group prefer imaginative learning through feeling and watching, seeking personal associations and meaning through involvement. They are the sort of people who learn by making connections and particularly like the question, “why?”.

Type Two: The “What” people.

These are the analysts amongst us. They like facts, processing information and thinking through concepts before formulating ideas and opinions. These guys like to ask the “what?” questions.

Type Three: The “How” people.

This group likes to learn by doing. They prefer common-sense learning and are not concerned by theory, they just want to try things out.  They learn by thinking and doing, by experimenting, and tinkering. They are very good at applying ideas and love the question “How?”.

Type Four: The “What if” people.

The final group is particularly interested in the consequences of learning something and what would happen if they did something or didn’t do something. They seek hidden possibilities, explore ideas, learn by trial and error and self-discovery. They are excellent at creating original adaptations and modifications. The key question for these guys is “what if?”

To be a really effective coach it is important to cover each of the learning types. The way to do this is by planning your coaching session accordingly. For each skill or drill you want to teach, prepare the session in a way that it answers the questions “Why?”, “What?”, “How?” and “What if?”. To be most effective it is important to then deliver the session in that order.

People who prefer to know why? tend to switch off until they are given a good reason for listening, so start with this style first. The next stage is to tell people the details. This is the what? phase and covers the facts, instructions and tactics. The next stage is the how? part and probably signals the start of the practical part of the session. The final part of the session should be looking at the consequences of learning the skill or drill and what possibilities it opens up.

Following this system is a great way of structuring your coaching sessions and provides a very useful framework to work from.

You can find out more about Dr McCarthy’s learning system by visiting:

Good luck!


How To Perform Under Pressure

One of the real tests that we all face is being able to perform in high pressure situations. It doesn’t matter at what level you perform because pressure is always present in some capacity. To win a game, make a crucial sale, hole a putt or achieve whatever result you are aiming for, you sometimes have to over-come intense pressure.

Pressure is really a product of our own perception and where we place our focus. Pressure can arise from both internal cues (our own thoughts, feelings and emotions) or external cues (the crowd, the audience, the conditions etc.) but most importantly it can be controlled. You only have to look at the penalty shoot-out at the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for examples of this. Some players missed badly and some scored with ease.

So how do some players overcome pressure when others crumble? Well there’s no magic formula that will cure all of our pressure situations but here are five key steps that you can take to gain control of your thinking and your actions when you have to perform under pressure:

  • Make a crystal clear decision on what you want to do.
  • Once decided, connect fully with what you need to do to perform it. Break it down into a series of key steps and visualise performing them perfectly.
  • Block out all distractions so you can focus purely on your performance. Concentrate on each step of the process so your actions flow like you plan them to. Complete connection with your performance is the only place to be, let nothing get in the way.
  • Remind yourself that you are fully capable of performing to your best ability and free your body to do what it is capable of doing
  • Use verbal and visual cues to trigger positive thoughts and feelings and free yourself to perform with relaxed intensity.

Do you have any special methods for coping with pressure and performing to your best?

I’d love to hear about any examples of situations where you’ve excelled under pressure, or maybe when you’ve cracked!

If you have any thoughts, then please leave them in the comments below.

Thanks and good luck!


The Problem with Positive Thinking

As the young cricketer left the practise nets after a difficult session, he looked dejected and close to tears. He had endured a torrid time in the nets. He had been bowled several times, struck more than once in unprotected areas of his body and when he did manage to get bat on ball it was generally mis-timed and poorly executed.

What was the cause of this? Well, this youngster had just taken a step up from junior level to senior level and he was struggling to cope with the extra pace and skill shown by his new teammates. He had shown a lot of promise at junior level but with the seniors he looked out of his depth.

“I’m just not good enough” he told his coach as he trudged off, “I may as well give up”.

That sort of thinking is commonplace in sport and is usually the trigger for coaches (especially mental training coaches!) to start working on the athlete’s “positive thinking skills”. Teaching them to pick out the positives in their performances, visualise great technique and mentally rehearse excellence. Seeing yourself in a positive light is certainly better than the other alternative but there is a big problem with positive thinking. Take the example of our young cricketer. No matter how much he used positive thinking he was still going to lack the skills he needed to play at this new level. No amount of positive visualisation and affirmations will deliver this for him, only proper, structured batting training will enable this to happen.Without the necessary batting training, positive thinking will only lead to an increase in what psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance. This is an uncomfortable feeling people get when their beliefs and perceptions do not match up with the outcome of their actions. So in essence by focussing solely on positive thinking with the young cricketer, we would probably have just added another negative emotion to his already fragile state.

The solution to the young cricketers situation (and many other sports performers) is for him to work on his technical skills. Skill development training can be supported, and even accelerated, by the use of good mental training techniques but sometimes there is no alternative to just developing your craft.

Enjoy the game,

If you want help with a performance problem you can contact me on 07956 615 517 or email me

Conquering Fear

I was recently approached by an equestrian event rider because her performances had begun to nosedive due to what she described as a “paralysing fear”. Now many people would probably be paralysed with fear just by the thought of getting on a large, powerful horse, riding at high-speed across undulating ground and jumping fixed obstacles that are often larger than an average sized family car. But it wasn’t the fear of injury or any aspect of actually ‘doing’ her sport that was causing her fear. It was the fear of ‘failing’ that was causing her problems. The fear of not doing well, of putting in a bad performance, the fear that she just wasn’t good enough.

Fear is one of the most powerful of human emotions, regardless of what causes it. Fear has a very strong effect on your mind and your body, and it’s generally not a good thing. So how can we conquer fear and stop it from holding us back?

  1. Set appropriate expectations levels
    Your first step towards conquering the fear of failure is to mentally prepare knowing that you’ll make mistakes. Once you’ve accepted this fact you will stay in control when those mistakes happen. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect performance’ so if you expect a zero-mistake performance, you actually set yourself up for failure. Why? Because the moment you make a mistake, you think you’re under-performing or ‘failing’ and your confidence can be shattered.
  2. Focus on your strengths
    Forget the philosophy that says you have to identify your weaknesses to improve your performance. By doing that you are mentally reinforcing the things that cause you to lose confidence. Start focusing on what you do well and build your confidence instead because rock solid confidence kills the fear of failure.
  3. Put your performance into perspective
    Ask yourself three questions: What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen during your next performance? What’s the absolute best thing that could happen? What’s the most likely thing to happen? By exploring your performance from these perspectives, things don’t seem to be as bad as you first imagined they might be. That feeling frees you to perform in a more relaxed and positive mindset.

Enjoy the game!

What Do You Believe You Can Achieve?

Nearly sixty years on, this event remains one of the most iconic events in sport. This is the famous race in May 1954 at Oxford University’s Iffley Road track that saw Roger Bannister become the first person to run the mile in under four minutes.

Roger Bannister set his sights on breaking the four-minute mile barrier two years earlier after just missing out on the medal places at the 1952 Olympics. This failure spurred Bannister on and he became determined to be the first to break the record. But it wasn’t for another year that he actually believed it was possible to do. That realisation, and consequent belief, occurred when Bannister broke the British record in May 1953 achieving a time of 4:03.6. Bannister said after the event:

“This race made me realize that the four-minute mile was not out of  reach”

And so it transpired that 12 months later in May 1954 Roger Bannister, with help from his pace-makers Chris Brasher and Chris Chattaway, broke the four-minute barrier in a time of 3:59.4.

There are a lot of myths and stories told about the magical four-minute-mile barrier and many of those myths were debunked by Bannister himself in his memoirs “The Four Minute Mile” (1955) but what Bannister does say about his success is the importance of beliefs, determination and the will to succeed. What was incredible about Bannister’s feat was that in 1952 when he set his sights on breaking the four-minute barrier, Bannister’s training regimen was just three half-hour sessions per week! He did increase that after his 1952 Olympic failure but it was still very light compared to his peers.  Bannister was a natural athlete with great physical and mental abilities and provides a great example of what individuals can achieve when they truly believe in themselves.

Watch the video below and listen to Bannister’s comments on what was going through his mind during the race. It’s an incredible insight into the mind of an elite athlete. Once you’ve watched the video ask yourself this: “What do you believe you can achieve?”

Roger Bannister – The First Four Minute Mile – VIDEO

Enjoy the game!