Anna Mitchell
(B.Soc.Sci (psych/philos), Post Grad. Dip (Applied Sport Psych), Sport Psychology Consultant

Have you ever felt like your performance is out of your hands? How many times have you thought to yourself “If I could just get a lucky break”?. Have you ever jumped into a performance with a last minute “wish me luck’ or “cross your fingers”? Take a minute to think about how often we rely on chance or luck to pull us through. Wouldn’t it be great to reduce our insecurities by eliminating the unpredictability of our performance?

 

Anna Mitchell

Anna Mitchell originates from Australia, where she grew up on an Australian Stock Horse farm outside a small, isolated town west of Sydney. During this time, she competed in eventing, dressage, camp drafting and polocrosse. After completing high school in Sydney, Anna attended the University of New England where she completed a Bachelor of Social Science with a double major in Psychology and Philosophy.

Following graduation, Anna commenced employment as an Occupational Rehabilitation Counselor in Central Western New South Wales where she worked for 3 years. In1997 she moved to Sydney and worked for the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service while she completed her Post Graduate studies in Applied Sport Psychology at the University of Western Sydney. While with the CRS, she worked with a range of clients including athletes, occupational related cases and mental health clients.

During her studies in Applied Sport Psychology, Anna conducted a major research project on comparisons in gender and personality factors of motor sport participants (extreme athletes). The findings of this research project were published in CAMS, the Australian motor sports magazine in 1998. During this time she also had an article published in the Professional Bull Riders Magazine, USA called “The Mental Game” discussing sport psychology in extreme sports. It was this article that led her to the U.S. in November of 1998.

In the U.S., Anna ran a mental skills training program for extreme athletes in California, working both with groups and individuals for performance enhancement. In 2005 she returned to Australia to conduct a seminar for the Central Western Dressage Group on using Sport Psychology Techniques for performance enhancement.

Anna currently resides in Tennessee where she and her husband train and show cutting horses for Barbara and Kix Brooks (of Brooks and Dunn). Anna is presently writing a regular monthly column for the Quarter Horse News called “The Competitive Edge” and is in the process of establishing a private consultancy business for Performance Enhancement.


The purpose of this paper is to outline a number of concepts and techniques that can help you take control of your performance by taking a conscious, strategic approach to your training program.

Sport Psychology traditionally focuses on developing an athlete’s mental skills in order to achieve peak performance. Alternatively, coaches and trainers tend to focus predominantly on the development of an athlete’s technical skills. More recently, however, specialists in this area are recognizing the need to take a Total Approach to performance enhancement.

An athlete is a complex combination of thoughts, feelings, moods, skills, abilities, experiences, influences, expectations, weaknesses and strengths, all of which can impact a performance in some way. So how do we manage all these aspects to create the ideal circumstances in order to achieve peak performance? The answer is The Total Approach.

Many things can happen to help or hinder us along the way to achieving our goals. Following The Total Approach assists us to predict road blocks and turn them into stepping stones as we prepare for peak performance.

This paper will cover three inter-related topics: 1) The Total Approach 2) Establishing a Training Journal and 3) Goal Setting.

The Total Approach
The Total Approach enables you to take control by strategically addressing every aspect of your life that may be either directly or indirectly affecting your preparation and/or performance.

This process not only increases the competitor’s self awareness enabling change to occur, but it greatly reduces unpredictability in a performance. By having a better understanding of what is going on, a competitor has more control of their performance. This enables them to anticipate obstacles and adjust accordingly.

The athlete is not a performance machine where if you press this, it will perform like that. As outlined above, the athlete is a highly complex cocktail. If we approach performance enhancement by addressing only the mental skills or only the technical skills, then we are trying to run a race on one leg. To get a better understanding of what makes the athlete ‘tick’ we have to take a total approach.

When an athlete comes to me, they are often frustrated with their performance and confused about what is going wrong. They can’t understand why their performance has deteriorated when on the surface it appears that nothing else has changed. How many times have we told ourselves, “if I just try harder?. Sometimes trying harder is not enough.

My motto here is to “simplify”. Break it down, go back to the basics and tackle it one step at a time.

Break your preparation and performance up into 4 components: Physical, Technical, Mental and General. Constantly refer to these areas throughout your development as an athlete.

Within each component consider the following in regards to your performance:

Physical:
Consider your current health.
Do you have any injuries or illnesses that could be affecting your performance?
Do you experience weight issues or an eating disorder?
Are your current fitness levels appropriate for your sports demands?
Do you have a visual or hearing impairment that may inhibit your performance?

Technical:
Do you have the necessary skills and abilities to perform at a high level in your sport?
Again, break it down. List the specific skills required by your sport such as, your ability to ride a horse, cut a cow, swing a rope or tie a calf .
Give yourself a rating between 1 - 10 on how well you think you have mastered each of these skills. This will give you an idea of areas that need work and strengths you can draw upon.

Mental:
This includes all mental aspects of your performance.
How confident are you in relation to your current performance levels?
How motivated are you to achieve your peak performance? Do you experience episodes of low motivation? How does this affect your performance?
How effective are your stress management skills? Are you able to control your nerves during competition?
Do you have effective goal setting techniques? Have you set short and long term goals? Have you asked yourself what you want to achieve from your sport?
Are you able to control your thoughts? Are you able to effectively block out distractions and concentrate on the job at hand?
Can you maintain a positive approach to your training and performance?
Are you able to re-bound if something goes wrong during your performance so that you are able to continue at a high level?
Do you use imagery as part of your pre-performance preparation? How advanced are your imagery skills?

General:
The general component includes all other aspects of your life that may be impacting your performance in some way. Such as;
Drug and alcohol abuse. Are you taking prescriptive or non-prescriptive medication that my be affecting your memory or your ability to concentrate?
Relationship issues. Think about your current relationships and how they influence your performance.
Are you happy with your current relationships with your trainer, help, and peers.
Are you experiencing problems in your personal relationships that may be affecting your ability to concentrate on your sport? Alternatively, are the demands of your sport putting pressure on your personal life?
Do you feel pressure to perform well from an influential family member?

The more you break it down the better your understanding will be of yourself and your performance. My number one rule I use with all my client’s is ‘write it down’. This is where the Training Journal becomes a crucial tool in your development as an athlete.

The Training Journal
“The day you take complete responsibility for yourself, the day you stop making excuses, that’s the day you start to the top.” - O.J Simpson.

Make that day today. Pick up a pen and paper and get active. Success is not going to fall in your lap you have to go get it, that’s half the fun . Make that decision to want to be the best that you can be and take control. Get a better understanding of what is going on now and what needs to change to promote progress. One of the most effective ways to do this is to keep a Training Journal.

The Training Journal could be considered the back bone of your training program. This is what provides your program with structure. It is here that you record your thoughts and feelings, your accomplishments and failures, your dreams and goals. Your journal is a personal tool for the athlete so make it meaningful to you

Before you proceed to tackle this task, you need to ask yourself what you hope to achieve in your sport. Do you want to become an elite athlete within the top levels of competition? Or, do you want to compete occasionally for the fun and social aspects that your sport offers? Identifying your level of commitment to your sport will determine how much work you will be required to put into your training program and how much detail you will need to put into your training journal.

Write it down. I can not stress this enough. Just by the simple act of finding a note book and pen you are making a commitment to yourself and to your training program. You are saying to yourself, “my success is important enough to me that I am prepared to work for it”.

Your journal enables you to reflect on your previous practices and performances. Any trainer will tell you the value of reviewing your videos after your performance. What we ‘think’ is not always the case. By jotting down thoughts and feelings while they are fresh in your mind, you can go back over them later and you may be surprised what is actually going on in your head before, during and after your performance. Reflection also enables us to identify patterns which for better or worse may be affecting your performance.

So what should you include in your journal and how do you use it?

The training journal is a great place to jot down your daily thoughts, feelings and emotions. You can include anything you want in this section. You do not need to add entries every day, but date the entries you do include for later reflection. You may like to include your general confidence and motivation levels in regards to your current performance. You may also like to include any changes you experience, such as, change of trainer, horse, partner, job, medication, financial situation etc. This gives us the opportunity to identify correlations between personal changes and changes in performance levels.

It is here that you should write your formal Goal Plan. Writing it down helps to seal your commitment to your goals. For any of you that have participated in a structured program of some sort, perhaps a weight loss or stop smoking program, you will understand how important it is to have a ‘visual’ plan. This enables us to see our goals and makes it easier to monitor our progress which becomes important when we are needing a little extra motivation to keep going. I will cover goal setting in depth in the next section but for now suffice to say that your journal is where you establish, record and monitor your long and short term goals.

The training journal is also a learning tool. This is where you can record your accomplishments and your ‘not so’ accomplished moments. Take the time to remember and record the highlights of your performances and practices. Describe in detail your very best performance. The one situation where everything seemed to fall into place and work out just right. What were the circumstances surrounding this performance? Break it up into the 4 components of the Total Approach as discussed earlier.
Physical: How was your health and general physical well-being? Had you recently lost or gained weight. Were you experiencing any injuries or illnesses? How did you overcome these and continue to perform at your best?
Technical: Who was your trainer, help, partner? How did you feel about your technical skills at the time? How would you rate your technical skills on a scale of 1 - 5? How much had you been practicing leading up to this performance?
Mental: How were you feeling mentally? How confident did you feel prior to and during your performance? How nervous did you feel? How did you overcome these nerves so they did not affect your performance? Did you use any mental skills or techniques to prepare for this performance? How focused did you feel? How did you maintain your concentration? Do you have a pre-competition routine? What is it? Did you use it?

General: Where were you? When? What equipment, horse etc were you using? What were the conditions surrounding the performance such as footing, indoor/outdoor, hot/cold etc. What did you do to prepare for this performance? How much time did you have to get ready? Who was with you that day? Did you experience any other situations prior to your performance e.g your truck breaking down on the way? Include any other aspects you can remember about this particular performance.

This is your “ideal” performance. The plan is to make this performance the norm not an exception. So the more we know about it and similar performances, the more control we have to recreate the “ideal” circumstances surrounding this successful performance. This performance also acts as your confidence booster. During times when your confidence is low or your self-esteem is down, you can reflect back on this as a quick pick-me-up and reminder that you CAN do this so hang in there.

Similarly, describe your “worst” performance. This is essentially your ‘what not to do’ performance. Once you have both your best and worst, you can start to make comparisons between the two and get a better understanding of what you need to do to become a more consistent performer.

Looking at two performances, although invaluable for the reasons I mentioned above, will not give you much insight into behavioural or mental “patterns” that may be impacting your performance. This leads me to the core purpose of your training journal: the main body of your journal should comprise of your reflections of each practice and performance. It is important to include both practices and performances for the instances when an athlete is able to achieve their peak performance during practice but not during competition. Consequently, comparisons can be made to determine detrimental patterns within the training program.

Take a few minutes after each practice and competition to re-live and review the situations and circumstances surrounding these performances. It’s often helpful to use the “Total Approach” components when breaking down your performances but be careful not to make it so tedious and time consuming that you find it a chore to do. Something is better than nothing in this situation.

This information becomes your tool to becoming a more consistent competitor. With this information you can:
Break performance slumps by comparing current performances to previous more successful performances to identify changes. Obviously the more detail you have included in your reviews, the more accurate your comparisons will be. Sometimes even small changes can have a monumental impact and by strategically dissecting your preparation and performances you can identify individual circumstances or patterns that result in either a successful or unsuccessful performance.

Compare practice to performances. Most athletes perform their greatest feats in a practice rather than performance environment. I have worked with a number of athletes that express frustration at being able to perform well at home but are unable to produce in a competitive situation. Comparisons between these performances allow us to see the differences and prepare accordingly. The practice situation usually represents our comfort zone. There is less stress and distractions enabling us to concentrate on the job at hand and perform more often at our peak level. Technically, it is easier to create a competitive environment during practice than it is to create a practice environment during competition. For this reason many trainers and competitor’s would benefit from trying to make their practices as similar to a competition as possible. Use the same equipment during practice that you use to compete. I hate to point the finger but, from my experience this concept seems a lot more relevant to the amateurs and those just starting out who often have one set of gear to practice in and a shiny new set to compete. This only contributes to a feeling of discomfort and unfamiliarity in an already stressful situation. This includes what you wear. If you are not used to wearing chaps and a cowboy hat, these will be added distractions during competition. There are many documented studies on the preparation of Olympic athletes highlighting the benefits of assimilating a competitive atmosphere during practice. Many coaches will play loud audio recordings of crowds cheering and music for athletes to develop their skills of blocking out distractions.

See your progress. Looking back through your journal you can see how you performed when you first started out and then see how far you have come and what you have achieved. This refection is important for your self-confidence and helps to keep you on track with your goals.

The Training Journal is potentially an extremely important tool during the athlete’s development towards becoming a successful and consistent performer. As with most things, what you put into it determines how much you will get out of it. It will be as much or as little as you make it. The suggestions I have made above are just that, suggestions. This is YOUR journal, make it work for you.

Goal Setting
“Superficial goals lead to superficial results” Attila the Hun

Before we go any further, we need to clear up a common misinterpretation of what defines a goal. The type of goals that we will be talking about here are the actions we take to achieve a specific result not the result itself. The purpose of these exercises are to help you to gain control of your performance, very rarely can we control the actual outcome, so instead we set goals that help us work towards that outcome. When setting any goal ask yourself, “can I control whether I achieve this goal or not?”

I asked a number of people what their goal in competitive cutting was. A common answer was “to win the Futurity”. Winning the Futurity, however, is a desirable outcome not a goal. The steps that you take along the way to achieving that outcome are your goals. Winning the futurity is not entirely in our hands. You may have prepared and performed at your absolute best but someone else may just be better. The judges may make a mistake or your horse may stumble during the finals. The lights may go out as you cut your last cow. Many things could happen to stop you achieving that outcome.

I am not suggesting that you let go of that dream, but rather hold it as your Holy Grail and develop a plan to achieve that result by setting goals. Goals are highly subjective and in order to make them meaningful to you, you need to set them. Below are a number of guidelines for things to consider when developing your goal plan. It is often helpful to consult others such as your trainer for advice and direction but remember that these are your goals.

Guidelines for setting goals and developing a goal plan:
Work out your level of commitment to your sport . You need to work out how far you want to go with your sport. This will determine the amount of work you will need to be prepared to put into your goal plan and the types of goals you may set.

Assess your sport. Look at your sport itself. Exactly what skills must be mastered in order to succeed in this sport. List them down in your training journal. Start generally and move to more specific skills. For example, Team roping; you need to be able to at least a) ride a horse and b) swing a rope. Break your sport down and write down the required skills for each component. These will be a guide when developing your goal plan. The more detail you write down the easier it will be for you to understand what must be accomplished in order for you to reach your target.
Set both short and long-term goals. Short-term goals stimulate motivation because they provide you with little successes along the way. They also allow you to monitor your progress and make adjustments in your goal plan as necessary. Long-term goals keep you on track moving towards your desired outcome, your holy grail.
Set challenging, realistic goals. Be clear and specific. Vague goals are hard to measure and difficult to attain. Do not set goals that are too hard or too easy. Your motivation will come from overcoming challenges.
Ensure your goals are flexible and monitor them regularly. If you are having trouble achieving a specific goal, work out why (is it too hard, is it based on some external source that you can not control, do you have the necessary resources?). Sort out what you can change to make it work for you. Be prepared to modify your goals if necessary, they are not set in concrete.

Set positive goals such as, ‘I want to maintain my concentration during competition’ rather than a negative goal like; I want to stop getting nervous and losing my concentration. Achieving something is often easier to measure than trying to stop doing something and helps to create an all around positive approach. In a negative statement such as the one above we tend to over look the “stop” and fixate directly on the ‘getting nervous and losing my concentration’ component.

Break each goal down into smaller sub-goals. The more you break it down, the easier it will be to achieve your goals.
Finally, the number 1 Golden Rule: Write it down. This is where we turn our goals into our goal plan. So dust off those training journals and get to work.

Using a basic formula, consider (A) to be your current status in your sport. This is your current skill mastery and performance level. Consider (C) to be where you want to go in your sport. Your ideal skill mastery and performance level. How we get from (A) to (C) is through our goal plan (B). Before we can effectively establish (B), we need to identify both (A) and (C). So in your journal make 2 lists: (A) and (C).

Under (A) list where you are in relation to your sport right now. What level are you competing in. How much have you currently won? Break this list down using the 4 components of The Total Approach.

List under Physical your current status such as; health, illnesses, injuries and weight.

Under Technical: List the skills you currently possess and rate out of 5 how well you think you perform each skill. E.g executing a smooth lead change in a reining pattern-2 out of 5. This let’s me know that this is an area that needs improvement.

Under Mental/Psychological refer to things like your current confidence/motivational levels and general emotional wellbeing.

In the General section list anything else you can think of that may be either positively or negatively affecting your performance right now. Such as financial status (stress paying entry fees), relationship status, just bought a new horse, sold your trailer etc.

When you complete this list take a close look at where you are right now and think about (C) where you want to be and when. Make a similar list for (C) then you start to look at how you are going to get there, (B).

Make a heading “GOAL PLAN” and write down your Holy Grail, for example, win the Futurity or compete at the NFR. and list your long-term goals such as; move to Texas, build arena so you can practice at home, buy a new truck etc.

Under this heading start to set your goals thinking about the guidelines mentioned above. Break your Goal Plan up according to The Total Approach. Start with Physical, suppose you are currently recovering from knee surgery and you need to have full strength and pain free flexion in order to achieve your ideal outcome. Set a goal; ‘Achieve full recovery from knee injury’. Make it measurable and action based by breaking it down into sub-goals; 1) Consult Dr for realistic time frame and referral to Physio’ Therapist, 2) Develop rehab’ program with Physio’ Therapist, 3) Sign up for gym membership to participate in strengthening exercises etc.

Set goals and sub-goals in each section by comparing (A) to (C). Once you have a general Goal Plan make a Weekly Goal Plan. At the beginning of each week write down the specific goals that you want to achieve that week. Do not set too many goals to avoid extra stress or becoming overwhelmed and dropping the whole idea all together. Set 1 or 2 in each of the 4 Total Approach sections. Some weeks you may have a few in one section and none in the other. Keep up with your goal plan and refer to your long-term goals to maintain momentum. The above example, ‘Contact doctor to discuss rehabilitation program’, is a clear, measurable and attainable goal. Small as it may seem it is your first step towards winning the Futurity.

In summary, The Total Approach enables us to develop an acute awareness of ourselves as both an athlete and a person. We can identify patterns of behavior that either help us or prevent us from achieving our goals. The more we understand about ourselves and our sports, the better our potential to control the circumstances that surround our performances. Consequently we are able to reproduce ‘ideal circumstances’ as needed for peak performance rather than relying on luck to pull us through.