21 Mar Performance Beyond Sport
For each of us, words are loaded with meanings outside of their dictionary definitions. Some fail to impact us, while others have long-lasting effects. In our current world, succeed, perform, accomplish, complete, and fulfill can all be associated with thoughts of winning, medals, tears of joy, promotions, sports, acknowledgment, reaching a peak, and so forth. Although these associations may bring us warm and fuzzy thoughts, they may not quite reflect how we live daily and how we fulfill our specific roles.
People often associate sport and performance psychology specifically with sports, special forces/military, or even business groups. You are likely to hear terms like elite and high achieving. However, each one of us performs at varying levels in our chosen life endeavors. Each and every day, in our own life spheres, we aspire to fulfill tasks and jobs. Unfortunately, few of us really pursue a level of excellence to a significant extent. Perhaps it is because we have a transactional view of the daily job or because we engage in certain unhelpful behaviors. Or potentially it is because we see those who pursue excellence as elite or rare; we believe that only a few can achieve “greatness” in their field or work. As a result, we may not even attempt to perform for fear of failing or not being enough. We might also forget that we engage in many other relationships and roles throughout the day/week/year and that our influence is impactful, even more so if we engage in our roles as “high-performers.”
So, what is sport/performance psychology? Sport psychology is the interface between psychology and performance. It includes diverse aspects such as addressing not only well-being but also the end connection between physical and psychological functioning, psychological knowledge and skills to increase optimal performance of athletes, and understanding and improving developmental and social aspects of sport participation and systemic issues within sport organizations. Interventions are typically designed to assist both athletes and other members of a team (e.g. coaches, administrators, support staff, parents) across all levels of competition and age, from youth sport to Olympic level athletes (Martin, 2012). There are many strategies utilized by sport psychologists to address issues faced by athletes and other participants, such as goal setting; imagery; performance planning; attentional control strategies; development of self-confidence/self-esteem, ability to regulate emotions; establishing and solidifying leadership skills; addressing eating behaviors and body image; managing grief; expanding/solidifying identity; understanding and coping with injury; motivation; transitioning out of sport; and more. I hope that it’s clear as you read this list that the issues apply to more than just a runner, a tennis player, or a famous cello player.
The term performance psychology may seem like something more applicable to the average human than does sport psychology. Performance psychology seeks to understand the thoughts and behaviors by striving for excellence (Matthew, Davies, Stammers, Westerman, 2000). It attempts to answer the question of how to be one’s best by assessing individual and group processes involving performance (i.e. attention, imagery, motivation, anxiety, confidence, cognition, and emotion). These skills or processes provide the performer with the knowledge and awareness of themselves to master the elements in the pursuit of their performance goals. According to Aoyagi and Portenga (2010), successful performance requires both the development and mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities, along with the capability to consistently and reliably “deliver” these skills at the time of performance. That makes sense, right? If we can identify and hone in on a strength/action/behavior we know and what we can do, and feel secure in this understanding, we can utilize that information when we are engaging in our roles/jobs/sports. So, optimal performance is possible for each of us, even when we are not throwing a football or running a marathon. If we can become aware of our skills and abilities and consistently call on them during daily life, we can be confident we can use them when we need to be “at our best.”
As clinicians trained in sport and performance psychology, we can offer skills and techniques that can help all of us navigate the winding road of life. Performing and success do not have to be only for those on a grand stage or athletic field. We seek to better human performance and fulfillment through individually constructed techniques and clinical counseling, whether it is to assist an athlete in improved performance on the field, a father finding confidence in his leadership role at home, or coffee brewers honing their craft and distributing a new type of bean that becomes the staple of the cup of coffee.
So, yes, performing can mean executing a plan with precision, fervor, and maximum strength. Success may look like medals, first-place finishes, and recognition. Words like excellence, perfection, and achievement might leave a sour taste in our mouths when we look at them as “the only way,” or done only by the “elite” or, frankly, only possible if one is on some “different level.” However, performing or achieving is a continual process, not just an outcome. We see it as a journey of refining your craft, becoming your most authentic self, enjoying your most effortful yet effortless experience, and feeling satisfied with your work, identity, role, and/or environment. Optimal performance is to know yourself fully, consistently tap into your most vital skills and characteristics, and use both in the pursuit of your goals. It is not simply the achievement of the highest level of something but also the pursuit of our ideal selves and our greatest potential, all the while honoring and fully understanding ourselves and our unique paths in the process.
As we continue to shape our world in 2022, here’s to performing daily, as our authentic selves, on the stage that brings us the most purpose and passion.