Focus: Have Fun First

Another lesson learned from my mentor, Dr. Rick McGuire: Have Fun First!

Typically, we pursue a particular area because we enjoy it. Enjoyment leads to improvement, and then somewhere along the way we get labeled “good” at it. For some, that moment ends the pursuit of fun. Fun becomes secondary (or worse) to advancement, achievement, and acclaim. We constantly think that we’ll have fun when….we master the next skill….we get the next promotion….we get off the plateau….we win the next award. Sometimes those moments even end up being fun. And then we move on in pursuit of the next accomplishment.

Many of you may be caught in this cycle right now. I’ll have fun when….

When is the last time you truly enjoyed your performance? Not for what it got you, but for the simple pleasure of engaging in something that you enjoy?

If that sounds too touchy feely, keep in mind that it was your enjoyment, your passion, and having FUN that allowed you to be good in the first place. Ask yourself, “How do I perform when I am having fun?” For most people the answer is, “Great!”

Are you waiting to have fun? Focus on what you like about your performance. Focus on enjoyment. Have fun first! I’ll bet you’ll like it….and you just might get the results you’ve been struggling for.

Coalition II

The Coalition wrapped up its meeting today with everyone having a chance to add their ideas to everyone else’s ideas and a think tank-style discussion. Overall, we shared some ideas we are passionate about, and we also rehashed some of the challenges and roadblocks that have been encountered. The good news is the challenges seem to be less salient and/or less intimidating to the Coalition, and there is optimism that we will be able to move forward with defining sport psychology and graduate training. One of the resources for defining sport psychology was created by Steve Portenga and others (including me) and can be found here (click on Defining the Practice of Sport & Performance Psychology).

Coalition for Training in Sport Psychology

I spent the day today as a participant in the 2nd meeting of the Coalition for the Advancement of Graduate Training an Applied Sport Psychology (I didn’t come up with the title). It was gratifying to see the presence and influence of the University of Denver Sport & Performance Psychology Program there with fellow faculty Artur Poczwardowski and alum Dolores Christensen participating today and several other DU faculty and alum members of the Coalition.

We are working to resolve the longstanding questions of what appropriate training and preparation for the practice of sport psychology consists of, and what will these practitioners be called?

Thus far, we have made some progress, and it will be interesting to see where things end up at the end of the meeting tomorrow.


I am an avid reader, and from time to time will be adding thoughts from recent books I have read. I just finished The Power of Intuition by Gary Klein for the second time (most books I enjoy I read multiple times as the information always strikes me differently), and it certainly provides an interesting perspective on intuition. Klein attempts to take the oftentimes mystical properties associated with intuition and provide scientific evidence that intuition is real and can be developed. Of course, the necessary first step is to come up with a definition. Klein defines intuition as the way we translate experience into action. This definition identifies the key element in training and reliably using intuition: experience.

When I read The Power of Intuition previously, I had only a rudimentary awareness and shallow understanding of Ericsson’s research on expertise. I experienced the book very differently this time having a fairly in depth understanding of Ericsson’s work, and his influence on Klein’s book was particularly evident in regard to experience. Ericsson is famous for developing the idea of 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to develop expertise, and this is the same idea behind the experience necessary to develop and trust your intuition.

Klein provides evidence for experts’ abilities to make instantaneous decisions based on their having developed mental models of various scenarios. The mental models allow experts to recognize patterns that are used to make decisions based on their previous knowledge of the pattern and take action. We all do this process all the time; unfortunately, unless we have taken the time to develop accurate mental models we are often wrong. This is why many of us (justifiably) are a bit wary of intuition.

So, Klein’s real insight is helping us to identify times when we should trust our intuition (when we have experience and training in a particular area) and when we should not (areas where we have minimal experience). Similar to Ericsson’s work, the way to develop intuition is to engage in deliberate practice and build better mental models. This process can be sped up with coaching and mentoring from experts, and this is reassuring and helpful as well.


One of the key distinctions we make in sport & performance psychology is between process and outcome. Performers are typically focused on outcomes: winning, money, fame, medals, accolades, media coverage, etc. While these outcomes are certainly desirable and seductive, an important lesson we teach is that becoming overly focused on outcomes actually makes the achievement of outcomes less likely. This is because getting too wrapped up in outcomes distracts us from the process of performance. Process is all of the things we do that allow outcomes to happen. Process includes technique, strategy, strength, speed, nutrition, sleep, rest/recovery, etc. Another important distinction is that outcomes are largely outside of our control (for example, your opponent has something to say about your likelihood of winning) while process goals are typically within our control (we can execute our technique regardless of our opponent or circumstances). Finally, outcomes gain attention because they are easily measured: you don’t have to try and figure our whether you won or lost.

In order to counteract the shortcomings of outcomes, my mentor Dr. Rick McGuire developed a formula for success that provides us with a process that is (with one exception) within our control and that gives us a way to measure success (more information can be found in his book Coaching Mental Excellence):

SUCCESS = Ability X Preparation X Effort X Will

Ability, often called talent, is the raw material we are born with. This is the aspect of the formula for success that is out of our control as it is a gift from our parents. Unfortunately, our society gives undue credit to talent, oftentimes valuing it over people that have to work hard to achieve. We also often limit ourselves by believing that we are not talented enough. In most cases, this is simply not true. As referenced earlier, Ericsson, whose work has been popularized in the Talent Code and Outliers, has provided evidence that expertise is almost entirely determined by the extent to which one has engaged in deliberate practice – the next part of the formula.

Preparation, or practice, is how we develop our ability/talent. Without preparation, our ability is unusable. Preparation turn ability into capability – skills that we can reliably and effectively use in our performances.

Effort is how we deliver our skills in the competitive arena. Giving great effort takes tremendous willpower and courage. It leaves us exhausted and exposed, vulnerable to the critics. It is also often mocked by our culture, which idolizes performers who make it look “effortless.” Unfortunately what is missed is that the performances look effortless because the performers have put more time and effort into preparation and competition. The greatest performers are always the greatest practicers (for example, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Mia Hamm, Peyton Manning – all are respected for their tremendous preparation and effort). These “naturally talented” athletes appear that way because they have already outworked their opponents before stepping into the competitive arena.

And sometimes all of the ability, preparation, and effort that a performer has is not enough. This is the true meaning of competition. It is the “moment of truth,” “crunch time,” when the competition is decided. It is the point at which the performer feels they have given all that they have to give, and then realize that the competition demands more. Will is the choice to find more. It is willpower, cultivated through all of the hours of preparation and effort, that allows them to deliver the little bit more that they did not know was possible.

This is SUCCESS. Taking the ability that you were born with, developing it into capability, putting forth maximum effort, and then willing yourself to do more than you thought possible. When you do this, do you need to know the outcome to know whether to feel great about yourself or not? What more could you do? You are a success. And if you happen to not get the outcome you were hoping for? While there is not always another chance to win a gold medal, there is always an opportunity for more preparation, effort, and will. SUCCESS!


Trust is perhaps the most simple and straightforward aspect of Mental FITness, yet in many ways it is the most difficult and elusive to achieve. In the context of performance excellence necessitating complex, automatic motor skills, Moore and Stevenson (1991) defined trust as, “letting go of conscious controlling tendencies and allowing automatic processes, which have been developed through training, to execute the motor skill” (p. 282). While Moore and Stevenson provided us with a modern operationalization of trust, the concept has been around for quite some time. Suzuki (2010) translated and preserved a letter written by Takuan (no date is given for the letter, but Takuan lived from 1573-1645) that read in part, “when the ultimate perfection is attained, the body and limbs perform by themselves what is assigned to them to do with no interference from the mind. [The technical skill is so autonomized it is completely divorced from conscious efforts.]” (p. 100). Takuan was abbot of a Zen Buddhist temple and was writing about swordsmanship; therefore, his words poignantly capture the concept of trust given the truly life or death nature of the topic of his letter.

In order to develop trust, Moore and Stevenson (1994) demonstrated that three psychological skills were necessary: concentration, confidence, and composure. This is where the foundational component of focus sets the stage for trust as each of these skills are developed while learning focus. Interestingly, it is the mentality Moore and Stevenson (1994) identified as “necessary for skill development (e.g., self-monitoring, verbal cueing) [that] is counterproductive for skill execution” (p. 5). Fortunately, recent research has provided insight into ways to train that avoid the self-monitoring problematic for trust, as well as offering suggestions for how to avoid the tendency for an ironic rebound process to cause the thoughts we wish to avoid to in fact become more prevalent.

The learning of skills without explicit verbal awareness is called implicit learning, and can be applied to motor skills giving us implicit motor learning (Button, MacMahon, & Masters, 2011). Implicit motor learning typically involves providing performers with a distracting task while simultaneously teaching the motor skill. Evidence indicates that skills learned implicitly can better be performed under psychological (Masters, 1992) and physiological (Masters, Poolton, & Maxwell, 2008; Poolton, Masters, & Maxwell, 2007) stress/pressure as compared to explicit learning. This helps to understand the science behind Gallwey’s Self 1 and Self 2 and his techniques such as verbalizing “bounce” and “hit,” which we now know would serve to distract the judgmental mind (Self 1) and allow the motor program to run uninterrupted and unevaluated as in implicit motor learning.

Lastly on the topic of trust, there is now electrophysiological evidence (i.e., Giuliano & Wicha, 2010) to support the theory of ironic processes of mental control proposed by Wegner (1994). Briefly and simplistically, the theory of ironic processes stated that the more people try to suppress (control) a particular thought, the more likely that thought is to occur. This became known as ironic rebound, and is critical because commonly taught sport psychology techniques for self talk involve control processes such as stopping (i.e., suppressing) and changing thoughts. While there is evidence for the efficacy of these types of self talk interventions (see Cox, 2011), an alternative approach with strong support is to accept whatever thoughts come to mind and be willing to feel whatever sensations and emotions arise (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012). Taking advantage of the ironic effect, this approach actually results in less distracting thoughts and facilitates trust.


Inspiration addresses the “How?” and the “Why?” of performance in terms of both breadth and depth. As mentioned earlier, inspiration represents the soul, and Plato’s three divisions of the soul are a good illustration of the breadth of inspiration: appetite, spirit, and reason. From a societal perspective, appetite corresponds with the productive caste of workers, merchants, farmers, etc., and in an individual performer would represent the hard work and years of deliberate practice (see Ericsson, 1996) necessary for expertise. Spirit is the protective caste of society and represents the strength, bravery, and courage to pursue, in this case, excellence. Reason is the governing caste of society and consists primarily of wisdom and rational decision making necessary to achieve the planning and commitment necessary for the journey of mastery (see Leonard, 1992).

To be truly inspirational, the depth of one’s pursuit of excellence must extend beyond the desire for fame, glory, success, and even excellence itself. Inspiration must connect to the core values of a person and the chosen purpose and meaning of his or her life. When this is achieved, “(values) permit actions to be coordinated and directed over long time frames” (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999, p. 206). As Ericsson (1996) has demonstrated, expertise takes a long time to develop, and without inspiration it is unlikely that the dedication necessary for excellence will be maintained. Furthermore, in order to have the essential courage to take the risks necessary to pursue performance excellence, it helps to have a purpose bigger than oneself. Connecting the pursuit of excellence to the inspiration for life provides the motivation, energy, and commitment required of performance excellence.


Focus is often used synonymously with attention and concentration to indicate selectively attending to task relevant cues. However, in Mental FITness focus has a much broader meaning encompassing confidence, poise, composure, present moment awareness, mindfulness, resiliency, flexible thinking, and concentration (McGuire, 2012). It is no coincidence that focus appears in many of the leading practitioners approaches to performance excellence (see Aoyagi & Poczwardowski, 2012) and is at the hub of Orlick’s Wheel of Excellence (Orlick, 2012). Focus is the essential ingredient in both practice (i.e., learning and development of skills) and performance (i.e., delivering learned and developed skills). Due to the brevity of this overview, I will provide a short example of one of the most important aspects of focus, mindfulness, with the understanding that there is much more that could be said on the topic.

Mindfulness encapsulates many of the core concepts in Mental FITness. Kabat-Zinn (1994) defined mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (p. 4). A more elaborate definition of mindfulness was offered by Bishop et al. (2004) and included two components: self-regulation of attention and acceptance of one’s experiences in the present moment. Self-regulation of attention incorporates the skills of sustained attention (i.e., maintaining vigilance for prolonged periods of time), attention switching (i.e., flexibility of attention allowing for shifting of focus), and inhibiting elaborative processing (i.e., not getting caught up in ruminative thoughts about experiences and instead directly experiencing events). These definitions contain many of the conditions facilitating flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) as well as provide a deeper understanding for the Self 1 and Self 2 made famous by Gallwey (1997), which pertains to trust as will be discussed later.

Through the attentional skills fostered by mindfulness, performers are able to more effectively keep their mind on what is relevant to performance. Furthermore, when things go wrong (e.g., opponent playing better than expected, bad calls from officials, unexpected weather), mindful performers are better able to recognize when their attention shifts and to bring it back to where it needs to be for effective performance. Thus, focused performers keep their attention on task longer, are more flexible and adaptive, stay in the moment, are self-aware, and are able to quickly refocus when needed.

Mental FITness

I made reference in my last post to a process of performance excellence. The process I have developed consists of three elements: focus, inspiration, and trust. These elements led to the acronym FIT, and thus became Mental FITness. While focus, inspiration, and trust may not account for all of the psychological and emotional variables associated with performance excellence, I have found that they do provide insight and ways to educate or intervene about the breadth and depth of performance excellence. For example, confidence can be addressed through focus or trust, and motivation may be influenced by focus or inspiration.

In seeking a deeper understanding of these elements, I was reassured to find significant historical connections. FIT corresponds with Plato’s mind (focus), body (trust), and soul (inspiration), as well as with the Zen concepts of kokoro (focus), ch’i/ki (inspiration), and mushin (trust). For those familiar with Plato and Zen, you’ll note that the corresponding concepts from these philosophies are broader than focus, inspiration, and trust are typically thought of in the English language. It is these broader conceptualizations of FIT that are captured in Mental FITness, and I will go into more depth on each component in subsequent posts.

The Performance of Your Life

Please recall a time when you performed at your best, when you were in the zone, in a state of flow. Rather than simply remembering the event, re-experience it. Feel the sensations of completing a task to the best of your ability, see yourself excelling, feel the rush of energy and excitement. This is what is often referred to as the performance of your life. The emphasis placed on the first word, “the”, indicates a distinct event in which your performance was excellent. That will be an important, yet small, aspect of this blog. We will discuss the psychoemotional skills and techniques that contribute to an excellent performance. However, what you will see throughout this blog is an understanding that instances of peak performance do not happen by accident. They are the result of a process of performance excellence. If approached correctly, this process can and will lead to sustained excellence over the course of your lifetime. The performance of your life.