Thinking about Performing Well versus Thinking about How to Perform well


In this article I wanted to discuss how what you think about and focus on might apply to and help you on the rollercoaster that is an improved performance, whether that be a ParkRun PB or Ironman World Championship Qualification.  I will start from an academic perspective - without getting overly geeky (I promise) – and will move to the Practical Implications discussing why I get all the athletes I coach who are looking at any goal but particularly a big goal like World Championship Qualification to be Process Orientated and focus on How to Qualify not on Qualifying which is an Outcome Orientation.  

 In text books the Ideal Performance State is often quoted as being that mood where an athlete feels completely focussed on their performance and is confident they will achieve their best. It’s often likened to being on autopilot – the problem being though that for most triathletes, not least in an Ironman event lasting between 8 and 17 hours, this can be quite elusive.  In an event that long, the skills and abilities that represent this Ideal Performance State: mental preparation; complete concentration; self confidence; high motivation; ability to control activation and anxiety and ability to cope with pressure and anxiety are going to be tested to the limit. 

 There is solid research in this area for example, Gould, D.. Eclund,, R., & Jackson, S. The Sports Psychologist (1992), and also Hardy, L., Jones, Gould, D. (1996) Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sports suggests that the Ideal Performance State is related to adoption of a process goal.  Further that whilst the process goal helps an athlete - that an outcome goal (eg win/loss, position) actually hinders them from achieving peak performance.

 In other words triathletes who primarily focus on just the outcome of qualifying may be distracted by how well they are performing compared to others and focus on the anticipated outcome of their performance rather than the immediate tasks that need to be mastered for successful performance. Whereas if a triathlete adopts a process focussed, personal best approach then she or he is more likely to achieve a peak performance.  

 So what do I mean by this and how does it manifest itself in the real world.  Let’s take your upcoming Running Race or Triathlon; you could have two types of goals: firstly an outcome goal – I want to come in the top 10, I want to qualify etc or you could have a process goal and concentrate on that process – I want to swim efficiently with good stroke rate, I want to cycle at X Watts and keep aero and then run at Y min per mile pace with high hips and good form.  

 With the latter you know you’ve been swimming steady 1:40 per 100m in training in your 4k sets; you know that without any external uncontrollable factors, punctures, strong winds, you can hold 21 mph on the bike at that power and if you run well an 8:00 per mile is possible based on your standalone 3:00 marathon time. Those processes coupled with a couple of slick transitions may get you to your goal but will allow you just to think about those tasks and allow you to remain calm.

Athletes who primarily focus on just the outcome may be distracted by how well they are performing compared to others and focus on the anticipated outcome of their performance rather than the immediate tasks that need to be mastered for successful performance.  In the example above, if the triathlete is cycling at 21 mph and is process orientated they can relax even if it feels that everyone in the field is overtaking them as they know they are performing to their limit and there is a long run to come – the outcome focussed athlete will be in a state of anxiety which usually leads to negative thoughts: I’m so slow; I got my training wrong; I’m going to change my coach.  Further you have no control of other competitors – if there is only 1 entrant in your AG then you will qualify.  If you are of a certain age and 4 former Elite triathletes show up, think Molina, Tinley, Allen and Scott etc and decide they want to qualify and race AG then I suggest you will come outside the top 4 but you can’t control those factors.  The process focussed athlete will or will not achieve their goal regardless.

 Take home message: Focus on How to Win not just Winning Itself

 In one research study, Howitt, B., & McConnell, R. (1996), 88% of athletes reported an outcome focus during their worst performance.  Read that sentence again!  By examining worst performances it becomes clear that an over emphasis on outcome goals prevents athletes from performing well.  The focus during best performances should be primarily on skill mastery and be process centred.  If our triathlete is cycling along at the X Watts that they have trained to do and their HR is in the right zone, they are comfortable, and they are appropriately aero then they can relax.  They don’t need to expend energy thinking - every few minutes they can run through the check list and if all is well then they can just relax or modify anything that isn’t ideal.

 The bottom line is that if a triathlete adopts a process–focussed, personal–best approach then she or he is more likely to achieve a peak performance.  

 So what are the Practical Implications of being Process Orientated.  Above I’ve discussed why it is important for triathletes to understand the distinction between task (process focussed) goals and outcome (win focussed) goals – and the enormous impact that their goals have on their performance.  As a Coach I work hard to encourage athletes, such as Joe Webley who went from non swimmer to the 70.3 World Championships to develop a task-goal orientation, since these goals are related to the skills in which the triathlete must be competent in order to perform well and the only goals she or he has control of.

 During the actual race situation it is vital that the triathlete primarily adopts a task goal; however that does not mean she/he should not ever be focussed on the outcome. Winning is not a dirty word. I want all the athletes I coach to win but during actual performance I want them to primarily focus on how to win.  The whole point of competition is to determine who is the best so it is natural that athletes want to compare their competitive ability with others (an outcome focus).  Such a focus is not necessarily bad. An outcome goal can provide motivation and incentive for training just as much as a task goal.  Dreaming of Kona is what may get you out of the door when others are still sleeping.  However during the race itself the triathlete must be primarily task focussed to get into the Ideal Performance State and achieve peak performance.  There are some great recent examples of executing this process focussed approach one is Cat Morrison's 2010 Lanzarote win where she describes how she felt as an out of body experience – you can read about that race experience here Another example would be Chrissie in 2008 in Kona after she punctured.  Both these athletes sat at the side of the road, and could have thrown in the towel and then just kept with the plan and worried about the outcome later.

 It is this state that contributes to both success and enjoyment in sport. However, it doesn’t occur by chance very often – you need to plan to get there more often. You need to learn how to switch on your autopilot (perhaps this is Cat’s out of body experience) so that the Ideal Performance State becomes second nature.  The ideal is to get into that wonderful mental rhythm and flow where you barely need to think - you just do.  I love this quote from one of the Coaches I looked up to when I was making my way in Basketball; and I think it sums up for me the Ideal Performance State: 

 ‘That’s when I come alive; on the basketball court. As the game unfolds, time slows down and I experience the blissful feel of being totally engaged in the action.  My mind is completely focussed on the process but with a sense of openness and joy…That’s when you realise that basketball is a game, a journey, a dance – not a fight to the death…It’s just life as it is’

Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers basketball coach and nine times winner of the NBA Championship)

 So practice being more process orientated in training, practice turning your autopilot on and execute that on race day and maybe, just maybe if you focus on the process you might find yourself on the Big Island in October