You’re reading this because you want to help your athlete shine. You’re there, rain or shine, hot or cold, win or lose, and almost never sitting on anything comfortable! As a parent, you will turn over any rock you can to help your kid be successful. That’s great! As you come to understand the mental side of consistent high performance, remember how you communicate this information is important. As always, don’t tell your athlete what they need to know, lead them to the aha moments. Do this by asking what they think and allowing them to fill in the spaces. The more they realize under their own power, the faster and deeper the learning is.
In building a successful athlete, this month’s entry is next level stuff. Armed with this knowledge, your athlete has an advantage over their competitors, for sure.
A psychological state is a collection of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Happiness, excitement, and confidence are examples. One’s current state is usually an unconscious reaction to what’s going on in the present moment. If you hear knocking in the next room at two in the afternoon, you assume it’s your kids, your dog, or significant other. You maintain the current state of calm. If you hear knocking in the next room at two in the morning, you assume it’s a ghost, a ninja, or a burglar. The same sound creates a state of panic.
Peak Performance State
Every athlete has a performance state where they are on top of their game, performing at the upper edges of their current skill level. This is a sweet spot where thoughts, feelings, and physical readiness line up to facilitate success. Most athletes start a competition outside of their sweet spot. On a good day, they get warmed up as they compete, settle in, and play their way into it. On a bad day, they never find their sweet spot and they’re not sure why. This frustrates the athlete and their system because everyone knows what they are capable of.
Outside the optimal zone, an athlete makes more mistakes, plays down, and falls below expectations. For an under activated athlete, there is less zip on the task at hand, and for the over activated, there is too much zip. They perceive the resulting minor hitches in performance as major problems. As a result, they tweak and try to fix mechanics to solve these perceived problems. Coaches give extra instructions to remedy the situation. The athlete notices the parents get twitchy in the stands, looking for an explanation. All of this makes matters worse and feeds the devil on the athlete’s shoulder. Really, the athlete hasn’t developed the skills yet to dial in mentally and physically.
There is good news. Your athlete’s performance state isn’t only a reaction to external circumstances or a hit-or-miss proposition. They can manage it by systematically applying mental skills.
Dr. J’s Peak of Peak Performance Model
To understand the model, imagine the shape of a mountain to graph performance.
The Psych Up Zone
The left side of the mountain is numbered 0-4. This represents under activation and the psych up zone. An under-activated athlete disconnects from the experience, has low intensity, and not much thinking or feeling. They must learn and apply mental skills systematically to psych themselves up to their peak performance state.
Psych Out Zone
The right side of the mountain is numbered 6-10. This represents over activation, or the “psyched out” zone. Over activation is characterized by overthinking, over feeling and too much physical and emotional excitement. This causes muscular tension, coordination problems, attentional problems and degrades mental processing. Like under activation, an athlete must learn and apply mental skills systematically to calm down to peak performance. This includes skills like breathing techniques, calming cue words, and performance routines.
The Peak of Peak Performance
As the psych up zone is numbered 0-4, and the psych out zone is numbered 6-10, consider the “peak” of the peak performance state to be the number 5. “5s” are the just right, “Goldilocks” thoughts, body sensations, and emotions supporting high performance. To perform at the “peak” of their ability consistently, an athlete must get to and maintain this activation sweet spot.
I mentioned, athletes start a competition outside of their optimal zone and, if they’re lucky, play their way into their 5s. They perform at that level until things like mental or physical tiredness, mistakes, or the other team building momentum cause performance to plummet from the sweet spot. Without an understanding of the structure and the required mental skills, getting to the sweet spot is hit-or-miss. Once an athlete does, staying there is difficult.
The Peak of Peak Performance Model: 2 Benefits
The first benefit is that with mental skills training, an athlete quickly recognizes when they are under or over activated and what they are thinking and feeling. They apply mental skills to move systematically from the psych up and psyched out zones to the optimal level while performing.
The second benefit of the model is… drum roll, please…
Your athlete can summon their peak performance state at will.
They don’t have to luck into it, play into it, or wait for the stars to align, for their ideal state. By being aware of and applying their 5s, your athlete starts a performance in their sweet spot. They perform at the top of their ability consistently when they do.
To help your athlete “find their 5s,” the just right thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, encourage them to pay attention in practice and while competing. Start with self-talk, it runs the show. We think bad, we feel bad. Bad feelings create more bad thoughts. This feeds a performance destroying vicious cycle. Negative thoughts come, they’re out of our control. The only way to counter that is to have a better one loaded and ready to go to replace it. These are the 5 thoughts. They create a virtuous cycle. We think good, we feel good!
As a conversation starter on the car ride home from practice or games, ask things like:
- “What were you telling yourself when you got that hit?”
- “What did it feel like when you struck out that batter?”
Ask with genuine curiosity, not in a way that seems judgmental. That “parent tone” gets things sideways fast.
Recalling a successful performance through imagery is another good way to find your 5s. Watching a highlight reel or video of a game will also allow the athlete to remember and explore the thoughts and feelings they had.
With time and intention, the 5s emerge. Like everything else, it’s a process. They get good at this with practice.
A note from Dr. J
The Peak of Peak Performance Model and managing activation aren’t about harnessing pedal to the metal intensity. It’s about maintaining the most effective level of mental and physical activation for the athlete’s disposition, sport, and position. Some athletes are low key, some are amped up. There isn’t a level that’s best. It’s what’s best for the individual athlete. Also, different sports require different activation levels. Sports requiring big powerful movements are best facilitated by big activation, whereas sports with smaller, more precise movements which require refined motor skills benefit from less activation. It’s up to the individual to find and fine-tune their 5s.
There is a lot to mental skills training. It is a comprehensive subject. In these posts, the sport and performance psychology skills I teach overlap and work together to build an elite mindset. It takes specific coaching, practice, and time. Remember, just like physical and athletic development, it’s a process.
If you would like to work with me personally, I will help you sort out and speed up the process of your athlete finding their 5s! Use the contact info at the bottom of the page.
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I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach and founder of 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 enables an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. If you would like a consultation or to jump right into mental skills training for your athlete, reach out!