Sports Psychology Part 1. Awareness, Development, Discipline and Success.

08 Jun


This article will aim to explain what is means to be self aware, highlight the difference between motivation and discipline, provide tools to create a self development plan, outline what a structure goal setting process looks like and outline the relationship between ignorance and failure.

Throughout, I will do my best to avoid sounding like a know it all millennial.
I’m aware I have plenty of years ahead to obtain wisdom and experience and none of these ideas are my own, they’re taken from the experts and regurgitated into, what I hope is a useful article for developing athletes and coaches.
With that being said, lets start with self awareness and self development.

Self Awareness 

Self-awareness means knowing your values, personality, needs, habits, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, etc.  With a sense of who you are and a vision of the person you want to become, a plan for professional or personal development can be created.

I wasn’t until a while after I finished competing in athletics that I realised, without self awareness, there is no self development.  I remember when I competed well, I had nerves, I had excitement, I had a good plan going into the competition and I executed it as best as I could. However, I didn’t realise the importance of being self aware and it made analysing poor performance very difficult.

I would get frustrated, become overly emotional which would make it very difficult to look at thing pragmatically. There were a couple times, where I would embarrassingly tear my vest in half if I had no height’ed. Being in a stage of denial made it hard to analyse what I went wrong.

Often I would come in at heights that were too high for an opener, it makes sense everyone needs a few warm up jumps, to find their flow and get use to the atmosphere with as little pressure as possible.

Having a sensible plan prior to the competition is just one thing I could have done to avoid failure, and if I had a systematic plan I could have  referred back to the plan which would have helped me detach myself from any emotions at the time. This is a far more professional approach that getting emotional and will reduce the chances of failure occurring again in the future.

If you’re interested, here is an article from Psychology Today on 11 ways to achieve greater self awareness.

Personally I find journaling, walking and listening helps self awareness. In an age where everywhere is loud on social media, less and less people listen and they just want to be heard.
If you’ve had a bad competition or performance, take some time to distance yourself, take a walk, calm down, practice mindfulness and then listen to your coach for feedback and watch any footage and journal any strengths and weakness.

Self Development

Self development requires both motivation and discipline.

Motivation is the why behind the goal.  It’s your little engine that says you can, when the rest of you says you can’t.
Discipline is hard, the word originates from the Latin, discipulus, meaning  pupil, which also provided the source of the word disciple.  Self discipline can be seen as teaching self, control, to fight urges, distractions and other desires that may help you towards your goal.

Self-discipline is the ability to correct your behaviour, it helps you get back on your course when you fall off your path. This could be after an injury, or a poor performance. One of the benefits of seeing a  good sports therapist, is that they help you develop a plan to get back on track.

Only the disciplined are truly free. The undisciplined are slaves to mood, appetites and passions. – Stephen Covey, author of  The 7 Habits of highly effective people.

It was the 34th U.S President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. Though this may seem paradoxical at first, plans can change at any moment but planning is essential to organise and structure your path to success.

4 Steps for Developing a good plan

Here are 4 useful steps for creating a development plan, you could use this for your event, studies, a relationship or for finding the perfect job.
I would also like to point out, when I was an athlete, I hadn’t done any of these, it was only when I finished University than learnt the importance of developing a well structured plan.

I appreciate for some you may already be aware of how to create a plan and for others this may be really boring, but those that perhaps don’t know and are highly motivated, this breakdown might help.

Step 1: Clear out your vision

When building a plan, it helps to to start with the end in mind. To build your personal development plan, look at what’s on the other side. Think about your future life. Choose a time frame that makes sense.

It could be until the national indoor championships, English schools, it could even be the competition that you ran your PB at last year.

Step 2: Outline strengths and areas for improvement

First, think about what you already have going for you – what are your strengths, these could be skills, or techniques, physical attributes, like high power output, good acceleration mechanics, the more detailed and more understood your skills, event and sport, the greater your understanding and the better chance you have at executing good technique or the requirements needed to achieve excellence.
Elite athletes are students of their sport.

Then, make a list of skills or attributes etc. you need to develop and projects you can start working on to move you closer to your goals.

Creating a SWOT will help you maintain organisation through this stage.

  • Strengths (what you’re good at)
  • Weaknesses (what you can be better at, or things you don’t enjoy)
  • Opportunities (what sources are available, skills can you learn)
  • Threats (what are you not working on, what can’t you

Step 3: Building a personal development plan

After you have a clear direction of where you want to be and what you have to work on, it , let’s go into detail. The key here is to get down to specific actions for the future.

You start by setting up specific projects. What do you need to get them done?

  • What resources will you need? Books to read, courses to take, website to subscribe to, maybe or , I highly recommend using Instagram to follow some elite coaches from across the world.
  • What people can help you do it? Friends, mentors, coaches?
  • What will success look like? Set specific criteria for measuring that, it could a flying 30m pb, or a 300m TT pb, a jump PB, anything specific is great, in my past I would chase numbers in the gym, which may seem obvious but unless that’s your sport, it should not be your key metric.
  • What is the time frame? Either put in a general deadline or milestones for different parts of the project. I would suggest somewhere between 3-4 weeks before your season opens to gauge where you are.

Step 4: Review and adapt

This may seem like the easiest and most obvious step and it is, which is probably why it’s the most overlook step. It’s really important to review each competition and every video to know you executed a particular element of your race/event. But whether you choose to review short term, after each training week, block, competition or season, the more you review, the better your awareness of where you are.
You may need to make subtle changes in your approach leading into a competition or season and without that awareness and reviewing it could be lost.

For example, you may realise that you perform better in the 200m than the 100m and choose to specialise there, you can still aim to achieve a national final or to represent your country, but it may suit you more to switch.  For me, I always wanted to go to an Olympics, a mighty big task, I thought that goal was over when I stopped competing, I considered that a failure, however now I’m coaching, there is a very real chance of going next year , but not as an athlete, as a coach. You may be familiar with, Tony Robbins, he once said, “Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.”

Goal setting 

Following that last paragraph, another thing I didn’t get right and what I was fixated on was the end result. I set myself an almost impossible task, which is probably why I couldn’t handle the smallest of failures. I was pretty ignorant with my goals and at one point, I fully believed I would achieve the Olympic standard and really, I was no where near it.

It didn’t help that I had a lot of time out from injuries but the reality was, I was ignorant. You could argue having a strong belief system is a good thing, but really what I should have done, was set more achievable goals, especially at first.

You’re probably all aware of the SMART method for goal setting. If you follow these 4 tips, you will significantly increase the likelihood of achieving goals and reinforcing positive feedback.

Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time bound.

Very quickly put, these goals must be specific to the task and clearly defined, you need to measure your progress along the way. Your goals must be attainable, trying to get to the Olympics standard without being in the top 10 of your country, set that as your goal, aim for the top 10 first.  Having more attainable goals means achieving them is more likely, which further adds positive reinforcement and helps strengthen your belief system. Your goals should be relevant to your sport, as I’ve said before, getting really strong won’t help you get faster and faster, this will mean having to understand your sport to greater depths. Finally your goals need a deadline, this will give you the sense of urgency. Just believing something will happen because you’ve been told to believe in yourself, doesn’t work. You need action and intensity and have that urgency will make you realise, you really have to give it your best shot and not just sit by and watch the opportunity pass.

Ignorance & Failure

As I touched on before, I was pretty ignorant as an athlete, and I hadn’t entertained the possibility of not achieving my goals or dreams, which they were really dreams. However, strangely this ignorance gave me a confidence, a false sense of confidence.

Only later did I realise why., from reading  by Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Meaning someone who is ignorant is often far more confident, than the person who has self awareness.
To the more experienced and self aware, it’s likely their lack of confidence comes from the knowing more and realising there’s so much to learn and know, they can’t possible learn everything. Which supports the legendary Greek philosopher,  Aristotle who said- “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect.

A type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. This will ultimately lead to failure.
Dunning & Kruger were both social psychologists, they found that having a lack of self awareness, leads to incompetence in tasks and that not only were incompetence people poor performers, they’re also unable to accurately assess and recognise the quality of their work.
This cognitive bias is incredibly common and in in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious, but like Charles Darwin said, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

So to finish, and it may seem harsh, but Dunning & Kruger found people are not only incompetent; their incompetence robs them of the mental ability to realise just how inept they are. So being honest with yourself can really help you grow and improve.

Thank you for getting this far, I hope this article has been useful for you. I know if I read this as an athlete, I’m very confident I would have applied these methods and tools to have helped me achieve my goals.

Connell Macquisten
Performance Adviser
Bristol & West A.C