A Performance Psychology Coach's Take On Being Well Prepared at World Championships
Our team is participating in World Championships in July 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. Before we travel to this event and other major events like it there is a massive amount of work that goes into planning and preparing. The athletes and staff are obviously doing a tremendous amount of work as they prepare to compete in their tournament. There are systems to set in place, videos to watch, scouting to do, bodies to manage, practices to arrange, travel to plan and take, and on and on and on. But there is also a lot to plan and prepare for while we are at the event.
Ensuring that we plan and prepare for all eventualities while at an event is important. My role is but a small part of this process. But if my role is, let’s say 5% of the overall preparation that goes into the event, then it is my job to ensure that I have prepared and done 100% of my 5%. As you never know what will make the difference between being a World Champion or not.
Below are a few things that we ensure are done prior to and at a major event. These are certainly not the end all be all of preparation items, but they have worked in the past and are things that help both the staff and athletes prepare and perform.
1. Ensure the team culture is reviewed, discussed and worked at.
2. Help set and implement an away routine.
3. Review goals prior to going and be a sounding board while there.
4. Remind everyone to enjoy it!
1. Ensure the culture is reviewed, discussed and worked at.
I have previously written about culture and the importance of culture. It is our belief that setting the culture is just the beginning and that living the culture everyday will be critical to our success. To this end, we talk about our culture in order to ensure we are on target. We talk about culture with the staff, with the athletes, and with key people that surround the players.
These discussions are very overt and on topic. Meaning, we deliberately set time aside to talk about things that we said we wanted to be and do up to this point in time. Sometimes these discussions are easy as we are doing x,y, and z day in and day out. But, sometimes they are a little more difficult, as perhaps we are falling a bit short. Regardless, the discussions are revealing and help keep our ship sailing in the intended direction.
Interestingly, we can have these up-front and honest discussions about culture (and how perhaps some things aren’t getting done) without eroding the group, because we have put in the work to ensure the underpinnings of a good culture are there. Look, sometimes difficult discussions about what isn’t going well or getting done can erode or fracture an individual or group. But if we have put the work in to establish an environment of trust then these discussions can serve to bolster and keep us on track not tear us down.
Trust is key in striving toward and having discussions about culture. Daniel Coyle wrote an amazing book called “The Culture Code”. In his book, Coyle investigates ways that culture is built and sustained in various performance settings. He sets forth 3 key variables, namely safety, vulnerability and purpose. We have used the first two to help us build trust in the group, namely safety and vulnerability, in order to move toward our shared purpose.
Here is a bit about how Coyle uses safety and vulnerability to build trust in a group.
Safety – Coyle sets forth that humans are social creatures that seek safety. He discusses that when we feel secure, we can relax and thus use our energy to get things done as opposed to, well, trying to feel safe. He cites Google's research on team building writing that “psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”
Coyle points out that it is important that people feel safe when they receive feedback. He indicates that the key is that people do not feel threatened by the feedback as they believe that, regardless of the feedback, that they will be ok in the group. He illustrates this by a phrase that researchers deemed “magical feedback,” and uses the example “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” He indicates that this example phrase shows 3 key cues relative to safety namely that (1) the person receiving feedback feels value from the feedback sender, (2) feels the positive attention and energy, and (3) that they have value in the sender’s eye, and value in part of that group going forward.
As we prepare for the World Championship, our team tries to do the same with our feedback in regards to ensuring a solid culture.
Vulnerability – Coyle describes that folks can only be vulnerable when they feel safe, and that by being vulnerable, we let our guard down and give way to the values and norms of the group in order to get the work of the group done. He writes that as folks set aside their insecurities, they can start to trust each other and get to work instead of trying to cover up their inabilities and inadequacies. He explains that “exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.”
To illustrate his point, Coyle describes the Red Balloon challenge as proposed by a group dedicated to helping with national security called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The question posed by DARPA was “How would you go about finding ten large red balloons deployed at secret locations throughout the United States?” A cash prize of $40k was offered to the winners. Groups from across America signed up, most of them offering cash to folks if they found the balloons.
But a group of MIT lab folks had another idea. They sent out an email that looked like this “When you sign up to join the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, you’ll be provided with a personalized invitation link [with your name in it]. Have all your friends sign up using your personalized invitation. If anyone you invite, or anyone they invite, or anyone they invite (. . . and so on) wins money, so will you! We’re giving $2,000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all— we’re also giving $1,000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 [to] whomever invited the inviter, and $250 to whomever invited them, and so on…”. These folks won the money.
Coyle points out that The MIT team “signaled its vulnerability by promising that everyone connected to finding a balloon would share in the reward (a shared purpose, not unlike our team and their pursuit of a World Championship). Then they provided people with the opportunity to create networks of vulnerability by reaching out to friends, then asking them to reach out to friends. The team did not dictate what participants should do or how they should do it; they instead gave out the link and let people do what they pleased. And what they pleased was to connect with lots of other people. Each invitation created another vulnerability loop that drove cooperation.”
Coyle describes that a vulnerability loop is a shared exchange of openness that builds cooperation and trust. Being vulnerable shows vulnerability, thus signaling that the other person can also be vulnerable. This builds trust and shows that it is safe here.
We try to build these loops as we review and strive to reach our culture.
Overall, reviewing and discussing the culture and all that we believe we stand for is key to short term and long-term success.
2. Help set and implement an away routine.
Routine - The key to a smooth and effective tournament is routine. A routine is essentially what the athletes and staff do day in and day out. In our case, the routine we're creating is for an event that is two weeks long. For this timeframe, everyone should have a sense of what they should be doing and when they should be doing it. This is not to suggest that there will not be glitches or changes in the routine, but setting the routine is a very important place to start, as predictability on the court/field is not always achievable, so striving for some semblance of it off of the court/field is critical.
We strive to plan most things over the course of the event (my specific role is only to help with a small part of planning this overall piece, however I work with players and staff to ensure it runs smoothly).
There are the usual things to plan like travel to and from practices and matches, when to get treatment, when and where to eat meals, and when and how to debrief and prepare for the next match. When we are setting these routines, we do it as a group to ensure players have some say in how we will be moving through the days and weeks. A lot of the minutiae of travel, treatment times, etc. are planned by staff, but some of the things that don’t require a specific time relative to performance/rejuvenation are discussed. I have participated, seen, and read about groups over the years that didn’t involve group members or leaders in some of these decisions. While too many chefs in the kitchen isn’t ideal, not getting a sense of the groups needs or wants during their days is less ideal and will ensure that you lose the group fairly quickly.
Providing opportunities for down time or family time is also very important. Athletes aren’t robots and are just like you and I after a hard day at work. They want and need some time to decompress and then want some time to connect with family and loved ones. This time is always built in to our schedule.
Staff also need some down time. At these events, the staff are frequently tasked with multiple roles and as a result are constantly on the go. We ensure that staff have built in chill time in order to connect with themselves or others in order to recharge.
We stick to these routines whether we win or we lose. This ensures that no matter what, we are taking care of our bodies, our minds and our souls - all of the time, not just some of the time.
Pre-performance and game day routines
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about players game day routines. All players are encouraged to have their own pre-performance and game day routine. They are encouraged to write these down and to try to stick to these routines.
Pre-performance - For our team, we want to have consistent pre-performance behaviors as well as thoughts/emotions - as the more consistently we can dial into these things the better. So, our goal for the day is to (1) Get into an optimal mindset prior to match time in order to be ready to perform from the first moment, and (2) Get physically ready to perform.
Every athlete's pre-performance routines are a little different. We find what works and try to stick with it. If players deviate from that routine they are encouraged to get back on track quickly and efficiently. It’s that simple.
Game day - We want the athletes pre-performance routines to be a part of their game day routine. Athletes each have their pre-performance routine, match routine and post-match routine. Athletes image these routines the night prior to their match – imaging all the goings-on in their next day. Imaging helps provide a much needed element of control and makes for a smoother day.
Most great athletes have pre-performance and game day routines. Ronaldo’s is legendary as is Steph Curry’s. Every player prepares differently. As long as the athlete is optimally ready to go by the time the match starts, then the pre-performance routine (and post routines for that matter) can be whatever they want them to be.
3. Review goals prior to going and be a sounding board while there.
Athletes and staff have spent a great deal of time preparing for their event. Leading up to this event, there have been a number of different things that the group and the individuals have worked on in trainings and matches. Reviewing these goals prior to leaving and providing support for these goals while there is important.
Prior to the event
Athletes - Before we leave for the event, as a performance psychology coach, I ensure that the athletes have thought about their individual goals, reviewed their progress on these, and set out small “to do’s” for the tournaments that revolve around these goals. These things can be anything from having positive body language in key moments to technical things they are working on with their coaches and teammates. We review all of these and ensure they are comfortable and clear on their progress within each of them.
Team – Once we review individual goals, we get together as a team and review and set our team focus. This is a critical step, as it creates buy-in and provides athletes with a say in our focus. We ensure our roles are set out and agreed upon and then we are good to go.
Staff – I sit with the staff and chat with them about how they see the event going. We review the focus for the team and ensure that the staff are also clear on their roles and responsibilities as we move forward.
At the event
My Role - My role as a performance psychology coach in this process is simply to support and guide. There are times set aside for me to chat with the athletes – formally or informally. Some of the more formal meetings may be in the form of team meetings, while many of the individual meetings happen on a walk outside in the fresh air. Outside walks are AWESOME for clarity and enjoyment!
Either way, frequently my role in these discussions is simply to be a sounding board for what an athlete or staff member is thinking. I listen, provide some ideas and hopefully well-timed and sound advice and we go from there.
4. Remind them to enjoy it.
One of, if not the most important job as a performance psychology coach, when working with teams at major world events, is to ensure the athletes and staff remember to find the joy in their endeavor. As I said above, these events are high-pressure environments. It is really important that athletes and staff have an opportunity to find some element of joy as they pursue their passion and goals. If I am successful in contributing to this process, then I am for sure doing my job.