There were times in my martial arts career when I would be 100 % prepared for a competition. Then at the event I would have no focus and it would be a disaster. With other competitions, I would have restricted training time due to an injury or a bout of the flu and then do exceptionally well at the event.
I began to realize that there were a lot of factors that could affect my performance, many of them peripheral or external to my sport. Quite simply, slumps or bad days may have little or nothing to do with our skill, hard work or equipment. So, we don’t have to feel bad about these lapses, but we certainly have to figure out what is causing them.
Here is a short list of some of the peripheral distractions that many athletes can identify with:
- Business roles –wearing two hats at once such as mixing both client and business promotion during a competition or game
- Business Stress–stressful workplace conditions
- Home Stress–spouse, teenagers, aging parents, money issues, retirement issues or guilt at being away from family
- Health stress—injuries or health concerns
- Leadership conflict–used to getting your own way but can’t fire or discipline a team member as you can an employee
- Lack of sleep–worrying about it produces even more anxiety
- Maturation–many young athletes, at about college age, suddenly lose focus because life gets more complex and social
- Travel–long tiring drives to get to a training location or competition
We get peripheral stuff happening all the time. Mostly we handle it well. And mostly we can handle difficult stuff in one or two areas of our life. But sometimes, when BIG issues arise in several areas, say family (aging parent), work (new and difficult boss) and health (knee injury), they eat away at our focus. They eat away degree by degree until wham… there goes the game.
So, what happens when “the game goes south?” Well, typically we misread it and start blaming and doubting what got us there–our skill, our hard work and our equipment. And then we try to resolve it by getting extra coaching, practicing harder and longer or buying new equipment. While all these might help a bit, ultimately we crash and burn because the problem is ‘none of the above’. And this makes our poor performance both puzzling and frustrating.
Sometimes, even when there are no solutions to certain problems, we can change how we perceive the problems and learn to handle them better. The following exercise will help you manage your peripheral stuff. You’ll need a pen and some paper and some time to do this.
1. Acknowledge to yourself that you aren’t superman and that your life is multi-faceted and complex. As well, some of you may not have the less complex lives that we might have enjoyed in our youth. Typically you have stuff that demands your attention and this stuff is often triggered by well-meaning people in ill-timed conversations just before you step on the field or the competition floor. Even those of you who are retired often have your share of volunteer activities and family and social functions that prey on your attention.
2. Become more objective about your life so that you can make good decisions based on that objectivity. You have to be able to decide: Is this a stress issue or an equipment or training issue? And the best way to accomplish this is to “step back” and take stock of your life. On your sheet of paper, WRITE OUT a list of all the major roles you play. I’ve listed a few to give you some examples, as well as to show you how complex life can be: Parent, spouse, volunteer, coach, boss, employee, colleague, son, daughter, brother, sister, hobbyist, grandparent, fitness buff, musician, gardener, etc. (State your profession as a single item, even though you may have many workplace roles.)
3. With the same objectivity, place a number beside each role you play. This number (one to 10) represents how much you get into the Zone during this activity. A 10 would suggest that you love this area of your life and it is under control and a one would suggest that you procrastinate or avoid this area of your life and that you need to get it under control. Very quickly, as you evaluate your activities with this scoring system, you will get an objective view of the overall state of your mind.
If all your roles are in the eight to 10 range you are either doing very well or you are in denial. No one is looking over your shoulder so be honest. If a number of your roles are five or lower, is it any wonder you can struggle to keep your focus? Fixing these low, distracting roles will have a huge spillover effect on your sport performance and on your life.
4. Use visualization in this exercise. If you visualize well, you’ll find it easy. If you are more auditory or touch oriented, you’ll have to trust that you have the required images. Imagine now that the key roles you listed are standing shoulder to shoulder on a theater stage in front of you, perhaps like the cast of a play. You should be able to imagine which roles are large and in the Zone and which ones that are small and insignificant and out of the Zone. Some people see the Zone roles as not only larger, but brighter, clearer and louder. The reverse is true of the ones that are out of the Zone. In this manner, you can clearly identify the ones that are distracting you.
5. Now let’s make some changes using this visualization. This may sound simplistic, but we are capable of creating balance in our lives by giving all our roles ample doses of the Zone. In essence, we need to make them all the same size. The small, weak and quiet roles (low scores) need to look in your mind’s eye as just as huge, strong, loud and capable as your more enjoyable and empowered roles (high scores). Simply by making them look empowered you start to act that way and you start to believe yourself to be capable in these areas.
It changes your FEEL for the situation. You can even install in these roles the kinds of attributes and skills you’ve seen others use. And, if you are overwhelmed with too many activities, you can get some of your roles to take a vacation (and leave the stage). Be honest with yourself and then work to get your whole cast of roles to be manageable and in the Zone.
When I work with athletes, coaches or anyone else for that matter, at the end of this exercise they generally feel very relaxed and calm. And they haven’t fixed anything yet! This exercise is not designed to do that. But it is designed to give some revelations about your life. And it will help you to change how you feel about your ability to handle the problems. It might even make your life less complex if you fire a few of the cast. Ultimately, it can help you to stay focused on your game by building positive emotions into all your roles, namely the ones that are peripheral to your sport.
Here are some examples of peripheral issues I have helped athletes resolve over the years. Remember, none of these issues was even on the athlete’s radar:
A young athlete was struggling with school. He spent many hours each week hating it and then was expected to perform at the highest levels on the weekends. He rated school as a one. Raising school to an eight gave him an opportunity to get a scholarship, but mostly it allowed him to stay focused on the game, all game.
A mature athlete realized that he can have his cake and eat it too. He better understands his sport and business-owner roles and he has learned to shift fluidly between the roles when mixing with clients or suppliers at his competitions.
A young athlete was in a slump. He and the coach couldn’t figure out what was ailing him. They realized that it was the coach, not the athlete, who was in a funk and it was affecting the athlete. Up to that point, they both had had any number of excuses.
These are just a few examples but you get the idea. Step back and get an objective view of your life. Then work to create the Zone in all your roles. Once you do, perhaps by letting a few of them go, you will find a balance point where all your roles will improve and your game along with them. To stay clear of slumps, set up this process and revisit it regularly, before you spend a lot of money on equipment and coaching. Examine the roles you play and resolve to deal with the peripheral issues in your life.