As a mental skills coach, I define high performance this way:

High performance is the ability to execute the task at hand when the situation requires it.

This execution happens in the present moment, and the most valuable mental resource to make it happen is attention. The brain’s default is to SQUIRREL… wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, it’s the brain’s tendency to wander off.

For an athlete, there are 3 unconscious processes that pull attention from the task at hand.

Number 1: Assessing the Current Experience as Bad

This is mindfulness 101, as I teach it. Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment and accept it as it is-without assessing it as bad. In my October post, I talked about this as “awfulizing” our experience. Awfulizing is our tendency in sports (and real life) to maintain a running negative commentary on anything that falls short of our preferences. Often this is what’s going on when athletes, coaches and parents talk about the athlete being “in their head.” Negative assessments like, “This sucks,” “This isn’t fair,” or any of the other host of knee jerk statements make the central nervous system fight-or-flighty. There is an emotional, psychological, and physiological response to the negative commentary that degrades performance. It pulls attention to the threat nested in the assessment and away from the task at hand. 

Number 2: Default to Programmed Mental Models

In my December post, I explained the belief system. Our beliefs are a prime example of mental models. As a refresher, the belief system contains:

  1. The Big 3 negative core beliefs (unlovable, unworthy, and helpless/incompetent), and
  2. Intermediate beliefs (our rules and assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world).

Intermediate beliefs sit on top of our negative core beliefs and are fed by them. Some external event plucks a raw nerve rooted in the Big 3. We filter it through the “should” nestled in our intermediate beliefs and BOOM, it triggers us to a negative emotional, psychological, and/or physiological response. We unconsciously twist incoming information to make it fit the expectations in our beliefs. It transports us mentally and experientially to those expectations, and away from reality and the present moment. Instead of imposing their will on the present moment, an athlete is filtering what is actually happening to fit the expectations of what should be happening. 

Number 3: Mental Time Travel

The athlete leaves the present experience and time travels to explore past missteps and run simulations based on “I should haves.” At the plate, a hitter tells themself, “I never get a hit off of this pitcher.” Their mind isn’t where their feet are, it’s on the last time they faced this pitcher. The player’s ability to impose their will on the at bat, the ball, and the present moment is compromised.

The athlete leaves the present experience and time travels to the future to explore potential worst-case scenarios. At the plate, a ball player might tell themselves, “If I don’t get on base, I might get benched.” Again, their mind isn’t where their feet are. It’s on the bench 10 minutes from now because they have pre assumed this current at bat is a failure.

Be Better: Be Present

So what’s the solution? To be better, an athlete (and parent, and coach) needs to learn to be present. It’s where all greatness happens. It’s also easy, once you recognize you have drifted off to somewhere else. Try the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method as an exercise. In the car, at the dinner table, or anywhere else. Here is the structure:

  • Name 5 things you can see
  • Name 4 things you can physically feel
  • Name 3 things you can hear
  • Name 2 things you can smell
  • Name 1 thing you can taste

A Warning

I’m using this model to teach the concept. It is cumbersome for an athlete to give it a full run through in a game, however. It’s counterproductive to check out for a minute to run 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, to dial in for a moment. By all means, practice it in its entirety frequently. Like with physical skills, repetition is important. It conditions your ability to wrangle attention and direct it where you want it to go. For practice and performance, a concise version that is individualized to the athlete is best. An athlete should experiment with this and see what works best for them. It might be a quick check down like, “what do I see, feel, hear, smell, and taste, then go!” It might be a focus on just one thing of the 5, like, “what do I hear,” or “what do I see.” Make sure the thing chosen is available in all environments.

Wiggle Your Toes

A very simple method is to wiggle your toes in your shoes. Attention can’t be somewhere else if you are aware of your wiggling little piggies. You probably just tried it. How did it go? I like using the feet to return to and stay in the present. For a baseball player, this might be things like digging in the cleats, or tapping the feet with the bat. Ultimately, you want the mind where the feet are, so using the feet as an anchor works well.

Whatever an athlete chooses, it should be easy and work for them. To make being present the default, this should be repeated in practice and in competition to groove it in. It’s common for athletes to learn a new skill, but only try to use it when things go south. That’s not the best way. Do it every time, every rep, and in practice and competition. An athlete who is present will perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. If you need help figuring it out, reach out!

* * *

Hi, I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach at Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training builds a repeatable approach to performance, enabling an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently.


  • Lamont Shipley said:

    This is an amazing article! My son and I read it together. I am 100% confident in that it will pay huge dividends.

    February 16, 2023

  • Patrick Christianson said:

    This is a great bunch of information , and something I have tried for several years to impart to my now 15 year old grandson baseball player to combat his wanting to immediately focus on any negative plays to the exclusion of any positive/good plays he makes. I am just wondering if there is a “15 year old “ version of these concepts that might be easier for him to understand?
    Thank you for this information and for any suggestions you might have

    March 11, 2023

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