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UNDER FIRE!: Maintain Your Focus Under Pressure

by Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc. M.Sc(Hons)

Positive emotional states - such as one-pointed concentration, enthusiasm, tenacity, motivation, and even happiness - are influenced by three important factors: your physiology, your ideology, and by the environment. Your state is under your control, and if you want to change a negative state - in yourself or someone else - simply change one of these three factors.

STATE
One of the most important concepts in performance psychology that every tennis coach and player wants to know about, and master, is the idea of state.

State is all about how you're currently experiencing the world, emotionally. You know, and have experienced many different states : anger; sadness; boredom; jealousy; happiness; determination; excitement; and so on. Yet states don't just 'jump' on you out of the blue, do they? You don't suddenly experience violent rage, or deep loneliness, for no reason do you?

States are effects - they are a consequence of something you're doing in your mind. States are also processes, they're not static - you change 'state' regularly throughout the day don't you?

Now we can ask two questions about state that are particularly important to all sports people: Firstly, what states are most useful for success in your sport?; and secondly, how can we deliberately create those states in ourselves? Some examples of states that tennis players commonly mention are : Relaxed; Confident; Positive; Focused; Determined; Aggressive; and Hungry to Win. Feeling a sense of Enjoyment, and Happiness or Fun when playing also rates highly for most successful players.

However, few people ever answer the second question - how do I create those states in myself?
This is because, for many people, their state is not under conscious control. They just 're-act' to external circumstances and situations rather than choosing a state that would be most useful to them in a given context, and deliberately building that state in themselves, prior to performing. They just leave their state to chance, and 'hope' they perform well.

This isn't good enough.

It's important to know how to create states in ourselves, so you can manage your state .... so you can deliberately build the most resourceful and capable states in yourself before you even step onto the tennis court. So let me ask you to stop and think again - how do we create states in ourselves ..... what are the 'building blocks' of state

BUILDING BLOCKS OF STATE
I've identified three major building blocks of state, and whatever answers you came up with, you'll probably find that they fit into one of the following three categories : Physiology; Ideology; and Environment.

The building blocks of state are our physiology - or body posture, breathing and movements; our ideology - or what you're imagining, and saying to yourself; and the environment around you - both physical and social environments. Lets look at each of these in more detail now.

Physiology. It's easy to recognise how our physiology - our body posture, breathing, and the way we move - affects our state. For example, think how differently you feel if you hang your head, breath shallowly, slouch, and slowly shuffle around ........ compared to holding your head up high, breathe deeply with an erect posture, and move quickly. How is your state right now? Are you feeling energised and enthusiastic about your life, and about your sport? If you're not, try changing your physiology now. You can change how you feel, quickly and easily simply by changing how you move, how you breathe, and how you hold your head.

Take a few moments right now and stand up straight .... take five deep breaths .... and walk briskly around. It's a simple thing, but changing your physiology is one of the quickest and easiest ways to change your state, isn't it?
Let's move on to ideology. Your ideology is the combination of what you're imagining and saying to yourself in your mind - and again, this has a powerful impact on your state.

For instance, for someone to feel nervous and unconfident about asking someone out on a date, what kinds of things would they imagine? What would they say to themselves? If you imagined being rejected, or worse still, laughed at when you asked them out, and you said to yourself "Oh, they'll never want to go out with me ... I'm not interesting enough", it's easy to see how you could quickly create that negative state, isn't it?

Now relate this concept to your sport. Think of a time you were playing really well, and were feeling confident and focused. What kinds of things were you saying to yourself? What did you imagine? Why not do these things deliberately to create the kinds of positive states you want to experience in your sport, every time you play?

What could you imagine and say to yourself to create more confidence? More hungriness to win? More relaxed and positive states? What could you imagine and say to yourself to feel more enjoyment in your training and competition? Recognise that changes in your thinking don't just relate to changing the content of your thoughts, but changing how you imagine and say things in your mind can have a profound impact on your state. It's not just what you say, or imagine, that affects your state, but also how you imagine the pictures, and how you hear the words.

For example, I'm sure you have at one time or another, criticised yourself for something ... a silly mistake, an oversight, a poor performance, whatever. Take a moment to recall that critical voice, and as you do, notice the direction it comes from. Do you experience it from your left or right, from in front or behind you? How far away is the voice - does it seem close, or far away? How loud is the voice, and what is its tone like?

Now, just as a bit of an experiment, hear your voice say the same thing in a different way. For instance, if the voice seems to come from just behind your left ear, up close ..... then move it further away, and hear it coming from out in front of you. If the voice is loud, make it softer. If it has a high pitched, whining tone .... change it to be a deep throaty voice. What happens when you do this? It's hard to still feel lousy when your internal critic sounds like Tina Turner or Demi Moore, isn't it?

Likewise, if you have a poor performance and you continue to picture that up close, big, bright and right in front of you .... how do you think it will affect your state? Or if you put in a personal best performance, and you remember that as a tiny, black and white, postage stamp sized picture, behind you .... how much effect will that have on your state?

One of the consistent things I've found in all champion performers - whether they be athletes, or business people - is that they do just the opposite to this. Champions remember their good performances as big, colourful, bright pictures, up close in front of them. And of course, this gives them the confidence to attempt their next big goal - and succeed. When they have an off day, they let it go by seeing it small, and dim, and they deliberately push it away and out behind them so it no longer affects them.

How do you think about your good and not-so-good performances? Realise that how you're thinking may very well be holding you back. Deliberately choose the type of words and pictures that are going to build those positive states I spoke of earlier.

Lets move on to Environment. Environment consists of all the other things around you that can influence your state. It includes the weather conditions; the venue; your opponents; the officials; the audience; your coach and team mates; your equipment; your clothes and personal grooming; and so on.

To give you an example of how environment can affect performance, imagine competing in a place and it's a cold windy day .... and the venue is dirty, and littered with papers .... and the equipment is old and poorly maintained .... and the officials disorganised and inefficient .... and there's half a dozen bored looking spectators barracking for the opposition. Maybe you've even experienced times like that!

Compare how you would feel in that situation, to another day ..... where its warm and sunny .... and the venue is clean and fresh looking .... all the equipment is new and well maintained .... and everything is run like clockwork by the officials .... and there is a huge crowd of your supporters buzzing with excitement. It makes a difference doesn't it?

Another example of how environment can affect your state is given by the person who is playing really well ... until they notice one of their relatives, or close friends, or someone they really want to impress, in the audience .... then their game falls apart!

I think it's important to also recognise that, while environment can affect your state, it does so only in as much as you allow it to affect the other two - your physiology and ideology. Really, the environment can only affect your state through its influence upon your posture and your thinking - and by attending to building positive states using strong physiology and a positive ideology, you can maintain peak performance states regardless of the environment.

Having said this, I think it imperative to point out that the effect of the environment is often very subtle and unconscious, and so giving some attention to building a positive environment for peak performance is a good way to encourage positive states - particularly in those athletes who have not yet developed the ability to consistently self-manage their own state.

TRIGGERS
One of the best ways to develop this personal facility of control over your own state is through the use of what are known as sensory triggers. A sensory trigger is simply a physical stimulus that you train your body to associate with a particular state, and which you can use to 'switch on' that state in yourself as required, by using the trigger. It's what is know as simple 'stimulus - response conditioning', and it works in the same way as a light switch. You train your neurology to automatically respond in a precise, positive way to a specific stimulus - in the same way that flicking the light switch turns on the electric light.

Triggers are common in human experience - the trouble is, that most people have built negative triggers for themselves, rather than positive ones. Some common examples of triggers which affect our state are: phobic responses such as fainting at the sight of blood, or freaking out on seeing a spider; and also common emotional reactions such as feeling threatened by a particular facial expression or tone of voice; a certain smell 'triggering' a vivid past memory; hearing a particular song on the radio which reminds you of a past relationship; or getting 'stage-fright' in front of an audience.

Common examples of triggers in sport are the automatic response to stop playing on hearing the umpire's whistle; over-anxiety prior to a big match; or getting angry at a dubious line call. Of course there are examples of powerful positive triggers as well: the Maori Haka that the All Blacks use prior to a rugby match is a great example of a trigger for building very powerful team spirit and aggressive states in the players; and you can see how being on the verge of losing is often a trigger for top players to switch up a gear.

Triggers are usually simple physical stimuli - such as clenching your left hand strongly, or saying a particular key word, or visualising a specific symbol to yourself - which you use as needed to generate the positive state you want. Of course you can have lots of different triggers for different positive states, but I've generally found that after using them for a while, they become automatic, and you will only need to use them if for some reason you lose your concentration or confidence.

One good idea is to associate your positive states to something that is always in your performance environment. For example, you can have some item of equipment - a wristband, a pair of socks, etc as your positive trigger. One basketballer I know, uses the smell of the basketball to switch himself on! Of course, be aware that if you depend too much on external triggers, you can lose confidence if that special thing is not there! I encourage you to build strong self-based triggers for the kinds of state you want to exhibit.

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed "Sportsmind - An Athlete's Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training" and "Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings"; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph's College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
SPORTSMIND , 77 FLAXTON MILL ROAD
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
email : jh@sportsmind.com.au
website : www.sportsmind.com.au

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