Sport Psychology: self awareness in sport

How to get the best from yourself or an athlete you coach by effective questioning and attentive listening

One of the most useful things I have learned during my long and varied career is the power of asking effective open questions in a bid to improve performance. Each of the sample questions below relates to one of the following elements: thought, feeling, will and action.

  • How clear are my thoughts about what I want to achieve?
  • To what extent are my emotions aligned to that vision?
  • How far am I committed to this aim?
  • How advanced is my action plan for implementing it?

If the answer to each of these questions is ranked on a scale of 1-10, we can quantify our progress to date and work out what further work is needed to achieve optimum scores in each area. What is the primary intent of an effective question designed to enhance an individual’s performance? One of my colleagues, Sir John Whitmore, had the insight to recognise that it is primarily to increase the individual’s awareness and responsibility – two features that invariably stand out in top performers. High achievers in every sphere of life are highly aware of what they want to achieve, of their own strengths and weaknesses, of the need to improve performances and of their opposition or the environment of competition. They also take full responsibility for doing all they can to achieve their aims. John was a motor racing champion; another colleague David Whitaker played hockey for Britain, captained the team and later coached it to gold in Seoul. Together the three of us have spent the past dozen-or-so years teaching business managers how to get the best from their performers by effective questioning and attentive listening – all with the aim of increasing awareness and responsibility. I am in the process of writing about this for coaches, parents and teachers in a book entitled (courtesy of my friend Bruce Tulloh) Guardians of the Flame. The flame is the enthusiasm inside the performer and the key issue is whether the interaction between coach and performer, parent and child, teacher and pupil nourishes or dims that flame? It is my belief that a combination of enhanced questioning (pulling) and the already prevalent ‘pushing’ - suggestions, observations and instructions - is the direction for improved teaching, coaching and parenting in the future.

I have had personal experience of this approach: when I was first introduced to the value of effective questioning in the mid 1980s, my own two sons were aged three and five - so I began with them. If we expect our youngsters to be responsible for themselves, I reasoned, why not start when they’re very young, helping to increase their self-awareness and their choices? Before I go on to talk about this work with my sons, let me illustrate the usefulness of answering questions on a scale of 1-10 with a personal experience. Back in the early seventies, in running training, I was attempting to set a personal best on a 10-mile course. Because I started faster than usual, at around seven miles I heard my brain telling me: ‘slow down, this is uncomfortable!’ But before slowing I started asking myself questions; I asked what part of me was in physical distress and had sent the message. After checking various parts, I discovered that my diaphragm was the most uncomfortable, having been heaving for more oxygen. I then asked myself where my discomfort was on a scale of 1-10 if 1 was a slight twinge and 10 in need of an ambulance. I estimated it as a seven. I then asked myself: ‘Knowing that you are aiming for a personal best, what number would you allow your discomfort to reach before you’d be forced to slow?’ I estimated that I could live with a nine. So I kept pushing and scoring the discomfort along the way as it increased gradually. By the time I hit the finish line I was drenched in sweat and heaving in my breathing, but the discomfort had only reached a 7.8 and I set the PB with a broad grin on my face, knowing that. if I’d had to, I could have continued for another mile.

I used the same technique with my eldest son, Adrian, aged five. I told him that when he screamed, I didn’t know whether he was badly hurt, angry or shocked; I let him know that next time it happened I’d come running, but I’d like to know how the situation scored on a scale of 1-10, with zero meaning he wasn’t hurt and 10 requiring me to call for an ambulance. He agreed, and a few days we had the opportunity to test the theory out after he fell climbing over a gate and hit his head on the ground. The major scream had grabbed my attention, so I ran over to find him holding his head; there was no blood, but a nasty lump was developing. I asked him what happened and followed that with: ‘On a 1-10 scale, how much does it hurt?’ He paused and said through his tears: ‘Eight!’ I asked if he wanted some ‘witch hazel’ on it or to come back inside, both of which he turned down; so I asked: ‘What’s the score now?’ He rated it as seven. I asked him to explain what happened, then asked again whether he wanted to come in and sit down for a while; again he refused so I asked again: ‘What’s it on now?’ He said: ‘Oh, five! Forget it Dad’, and ran off to play again!

Apart from demonstrating my concern and sympathy, my questions had helped Adrian to be more self-aware and to recognise that the pain was reducing. He was then able to take responsibility for himself by saying: ‘I can cope with a five, you can stop asking me questions now!’ The point of both of these stories is that we can use our minds to cope with stressful or painful situations.

I used questioning with Adrian at a much later stage to help him develop his sporting skills through self-awareness. For example, when he was learning to through the discus I asked him questions like: where is your throwing power coming from? How much are your legs involved? How and where would you hold your arm if you were trying to have the longest pull on it before it is released? Ideally, this questioning technique should be balanced and supported by the input of up-to-date technical information and/or external observation. The combination ensures that both performer and coach are involved, learning and responsible for performance improvement. It is also important to ensure that the performer’s enthusiasm remains undimmed because the coach (or parent, or teacher) remains a Guardian of the Flame.

And what of ourselves as performers? Do the conversations we have within our own heads foster or dim our flame? Can we ensure that our communication, internally and externally is factual, not critical? Linked to this last point is the need for our language, as well as our goals, to remain positive. If I tell myself, or my golfing performer: ‘Don’t worry about the lake to the left’, what have I placed foremost in his or her consciousness - the lake! Whatever the sport, we must ensure that our words focus on what is wanted in the mind, rather than what is not. So, to use the same golfing example, a better approach would be as follows: ‘We know there will be distractions at every hole, so where is the best focus for you and the direction of your ball?’

Wherever a performer focuses, that’s where his or her actions are most likely to be directed. Novice skiers will look at the people in their path ahead (and are more likely to run into them), while good skiers will look for the gaps; the footballer whose eye is fixed on the keeper will probably kick straight at him; the runner who is consumed with the fear at the sight of his opponents will hold inappropriate tension and run less efficiently. The crucial thing to realise is that we can choose what we think and where to direct our attention; we can be masters of our thoughts. When apprehension springs to mind, as long as we are aware of what’s happening, we can switch our focus to something useful, that is within our control and directed more towards enhancing performance.

In conclusion, I offer the following pointers to success:

  • At every moment have an appropriate positive single focus;
  • Establish performance goals within your own control;
  • Consider optional strategies for achieving your goals;
  • Make a full commitment to the goal and the process of achieving it;
  • Maintain an element of enjoyment in the process.
  • Build self-awareness and self-responsibility;
  • Ask open, effective, creative questions of yourself or your athlete;
  • Listen to your body or to your athlete’s self assessments;
  • Align thought, emotion and will into performance action;
  • Link your intent to achieve with your intent to make a difference/contribution/be of service;
  • Be a Guardian of the Flame.

David Hemery

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