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Dealing with performance: frOm FORM slumps TO winning droughts

Are you an athlete who has not won in a while?

If you haven't won in a while, whether that be a tournament, a race, or you are part of a team that is having trouble winning, then this article is for you.

Reviewing performances are a fundamental part of getting better. Whether you won or lost.

Firstly, it's important to note that some questions need to be distinguished.

Are you or your team going through a winning drought? Or are you just out of form?

The second question asks – How do you get back on track when you haven't won in a while and how do you get out of an individual 'Form Slump or Performance Drought'?

This is extremely common and when an athlete plays long enough, it's bound to be experienced. No athlete has gone through their career without experiencing one of the two.

The feeling of not knowing when or how or where your next win is going to come from can be very difficult to deal with.

This article explores some practical ways you can stay positive whilst going through this experience.

Firstly – every (and I mean every) athlete and team will go through this phenomenon at some stage.

But the questions remain – how does one maintain confidence? stay positive and keep the vision strong, during a performance and winning drought.

The essence of self-doubt, fear, performance anxiety will bubble and simmer away if interventions aren't addressed.

Primarily, we need to decipher if it is a performance drought or a form slump?

You see - It's a very important distinction. What's also of importance is if 'cognitive distortion' is at play in the athlete. A psychological term, this distortion can wreak havoc with athletes.

For an athlete or a team to handle the status quo…. determining this distinction between these two terms will establish how quickly you break through this mental state when best or peak athletic or personal performances are not consistent.

Remember, that's what we strive for.

· Consistency in performance.

· Maintaining how levels of confidence and trust in your ability and skillset

Dealing with form slumps:

If you or your team experiences frequently, form slumps or performance droughts, then you need to treat some underlying issues.

Have you ever asked yourself, why these continuously occur?

Interestingly, when athletes label a few bad performances as a "slump," they subconsciously imply that it as a long-lasting problem and something that will naturally occur.

The problem is that these athletes enter a competition with a fixed mindset of already "being in a slump". Thus, we can assume that confidence is not at an optimal level, and one expects to have another bad performance.

Of course, what happens next is very predictable. The athlete or the team performs poorly again, excusing it as a form slump. It's an immature way of thinking.

Great athletes are inquisitive and curious about their performance. When they see a sports psychologist and they discover the demons of 'cognitive distortion' they will soon be educated on how to render interventions to render a sound mindset and thinking protocol in the face of the reality.

Athletes who are successful typically always want to learn how to get better in every facet of their game – on and off the field.

For athletes who have not put in the work, the most probable diagnosis from a sport psychologist would be that they have an element of 'cognitive distortion'.

What's a cognitive distortion and why do so many athletes have them?

Cognitive distortions (known also as dissonance) are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn't really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.

For instance, a person might tell themselves, "I always fail when I try to do something new; I, therefore, fail at everything I try." This is an example of "black or white" (or polarized) thinking.

The person is only seeing things in absolutes — that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, "I must be a complete loser and failure" to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization — taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it their very self and identity.

Cognitive distortions are at the core of what many cognitive-behavioural and other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of "stinkin' thinkin'," a person can then answer the negative thinking back and refute it. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again, it will slowly diminish overtime and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.

If a form slump is not properly dealt with - It becomes (cognitive distortion) a vicious cycle and the mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For an athlete or team, it feels like there is no end in sight, it can feel toxic and can become mentally draining. You constantly ask yourself why you can’t get out of this hole – without actually stepping back and completely reviewing your entire approach.

Performance and Winning Droughts

A performance drought has a completely different feel.

Think of it in terms of the weather, a drought denotes a brief period of time. It doesn't last forever. When there has been no rain, no one expects it to last forever.

The mindset is after a little bit of time, the weather will change.

And that's exactly what emotions are. They are like clouds. They come and go.

Performance droughts are similar in sports.

The expectation should be that you will come out of it.

This is where self-belief comes into play

As a young athlete, you are hopefully being always told by many people, whether it be friends, family, coaches 'believe in yourself…. you’re a good player…. you’ve got talent, keep believing.

But where does belief come from? Especially in times when you are in a winning drought, or a form slump and confidence and belief are low?

What have you got to believe in? After all, believing in yourself isn't just about flicking a switch. Belief is something playing out in the conscious mind and as well as playing out in the subconscious.

You see belief comes from KNOWING that you have done everything you can possibly do to be ready to perform. Belief comes from a mountain of hard work; belief comes from a period of success and a period of preparation. Belief comes from knowing you have done the work.

Michael Jordan "Practice eliminates fear'…. There is no fear of failure If you have put in the work, you know your skills

I never had fear about my skills because I put in the work…. So, if you put forth the work, what are you fearing? you know what you're capable of doing and not'

Therefore, belief comes from having the right diet, the right amount of sleep, knowing you have done the training, the stretching, the learning, the reviewing, having the right mindset.

Knowing that consistently, you have done the work over a long, sustained period of time. Belief simply comes from dedicating yourself to what you do.

So, when you go out and play and someone tells you to believe and you haven't done the work – it's going to shine through that you don't believe.

There so many things you can do in sports psychology, that may help. However, sport Psychology and mental strength techniques will only have a limited impact on getting out of this mindset and improving your 'cognitive distortion', if you know deep down you haven't done the work.

For example, you can learn how to use affirmations, use visualisation, execute some mindfulness work. But pure belief comes from knowing that you have put in an enormous amount of energy, time, and hard work that you have put in.

Because consciously and unconsciously - You know you can outlast physically, you are mentally strong, you know that you are resilient. You can stand tall and strong and you know you can withstand adversity because you have overcome things before. That's where belief comes from.

Examples include Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Serena, champions of the game.

Continued success has helped them become much stronger in their belief. They know that they have done the work and through this, they promote that belief through their body language, as their mindset is sound, they truly believe in themselves, because they have done mountains of work. The fear has been eliminated.

That belief is not only is within them, the belief then goes into their opponents, and their opponents start thinking I can’t beat Federer, I can't beat Djokovic,

it has a two-pronged process for you as an athlete. You become more mentally stronger and resilient as you believe more, and then your opponent’s start believing that they can't win because of your approach and mental strength.

So, as belief gets stronger in them, on the contrary, it then becomes weaker in their opponents. Their opponents start to question themselves.

To get out of a form slump or a winning drought – the protocol is to build belief that you deserve to win. It’s to remove elements of 'cognitive distortion' commonly known as cognitive dissonance.

Remember you can't just flick a switch.

Because they have done the work, athletes who see themselves being in and experiencing a performance drought know things will turn around, either naturally through opportunity or through experience.

We can assume that there are indeed other factors at play but perceiving stress as a challenge and being mentally tough is the key to maximising performance. Nadal and Serena both view stress and challenging times as pivotal moments to execute mental toughness skills. They are essentially hardwiring the brain in these moments. At ATHLETE IQ, we believe in teaching and education athletes into using ‘Compartmentalization’ techniques.

Learning Compartmentalization is important for an athlete. Learning this skill can help in many areas of their professional and sporting life. It essentially is a subconscious psychological defence mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

I stopped thinking too much about what could happen and relied on my physical and mental strength to play the right shots at the right time. Novak

Focusing on Serena Williams view on how she handles nerves, we see that if Serena centres on giving effort and just doing her best in these tight situations, compartmentalises what’s in front of her and perceives it as a challenge it can enable her to make the best possible decisions, maintain belief levels, and importantly sustain sound levels of focus and control over her thoughts and emotions

These athletes enter a competition with the mindset, this could be the event or game that I or we turn my/our game around. They get excited about the challenge of being in a form slump or winning drought.

Because they enter into a competition, knowing they've done the work. They know, that with the work that they have done behind the scenes, they are putting themselves in the best possible position to perform. And that's all you can do. They remove all expectations and remove entitlement. They, therefore, become hungrier to succeed by using the external motivation of them being in a form slump, to their advantage – they use it as a challenge to test themselves. They use this external factor to stimulate motivation.

I stress: Great athletes, work harder in the gym, and focus on the little things like sleeping routines, diet, hydration, recovery, and working on their inner game (their mental strength).

Knowing that they have worked extremely hard to achieve a growth mindset sets them up to overcome difficult periods of their sporting journey. On the contrary, there are lots of athletes out there that think they are too good to work on their mental game or work on themselves in character and personal development. They, therefore, struggle to get out of a form slump or winning drought because of this fixed mindset in competing.

Therefore, the coach/es in this instance have a pivotal role to play.

They must understand, where their player or team is at mentally and coach accordingly.

They also have to understand that part of their role as a coach is to take on a mentor role in personal and character development in making them better people.

They have to invest in their athlete or team in the aspect of creating an environment of learning.

As stated, - Good and experienced athletes keep looking for ways to improve their game.

It's the same for coaches and support staff.

The term professional athlete has a lot to do with how they handle situations like these. Instead of feeling bad for themselves or frustrated, they look within, they review and prepare for how to get better.

They ask questions on why they are not performing to their personal standards.

"Spectacular performances are preceded by unspectacular preparation"

What we term in elite sport - doing the little things daily.

So, to those athletes who are beginning their journey to the pros, college, the Olympics or you're a weekend warrior, just because you are not on top of your game today, doesn't mean it will last forever.

Slumps or performance droughts that happen for a few competitions doesn't mean it is entrenched.

Each competition is a new opportunity to learn.

There is the mindset needed to get back on track and potentially have a career-best performance, realising opportunity instead of realising the slump… high-performance teams and coaches around you will prepare you with the right mindset if they themselves know what you are going through!

But know that ultimately you are responsible to execute that mindset.

So, when you are in a performance and winning drought and or you're going through a form slump, the best advice is to have a shift in mindset: Currently, you may be too consumed in winning at all costs.

You have to truly understand that Winning Is Not the Number-One Goal When You Are Competing.

By all means, winning is awfully important, and, of course, it is always one of your most central goals for competition. Nevertheless, when winning becomes your number-one goal during competition, it will psychologically consume you because you will be focusing your energies on something you cannot control.

This will distract you from getting into a flow state and executing your game to the best of your ability.

At that point, you are no longer giving yourself the best chance to win. And that means you are not going to win as often. This is a common reason why winning droughts occur.

Great champions and teams know this concept really well – it comes with experience. And moreover, the bigger the match, the more they attempt to discipline their mind into keeping the arousal levels regulated and focusing on the process.

Concentrating on the things they can control, like how they prepare, sleep, diet, etc,

they know that winning will be a by-product of executing to the best of their ability.

"When winning becomes your number-one goal during competition, it will psychologically consume you because you will be focusing your energies on something you cannot control."

In reality, winning, as your primary goal, is in fact striving for mediocrity relative to what you are capable of. Because winning is a by-product of a process.

As the famous Billie Jean King stated… The question is not whether you win or lose: "When you stay in the process is when you win. Not when you get into the end results."

The question therefore becomes; did you do everything in your power to give yourself the best chance to play up to your potential and are you constantly trying to improve? Are you looking at ways to become better regardless of whether or not you are in a performance drought? You may be there because you got complacent and lost the aggression in learning.

Some examples

After Tiger Woods won his third Master’s championship, the media and everyone was speculating and pressing him on how many majors he would win. What he said illustrates our point: "The thing I keep saying to myself is that I want to become a better player at the end of the year. And if I can keep doing that year after year for the rest of my career, I'll have a pretty good career."

If you are in a drought, winning or experiencing a form slump, get out of your head the notion that you need to win as your primary goal. Instead, replace it with pursing and being aggressive in learning and being a ruthless competitor.

Sometimes it’s just about how you compete

That is the pursuit of personal excellence! Winning is a natural by-product of this pursuit. The commitment to personal excellence does not guarantee winning. It does, however, ensure success. The end result is that you will win far more than you otherwise would have, and you will often exceed your self-imposed limitations.

American tennis star Andy Roddick, as he was preparing for the 2001 French Open said, "I really don't have any expectations (concerning winning or losing). I want to play well (in other words, execute his game). If someone is going to beat me, I want him to have to play a good match (concentrating only on what he can control)."

Later in the year, as Roddick was preparing for the 2001 US Open after winning four tour events, he said, "I'm just going to go in and try to play well (focus on what he can control), have some fun, and see what happens". Roddick reached the quarters, where he lost 6-4 in the fifth set to the eventual champion Lleyton Hewitt.

Roddick talked post mast about what he concentrated on, what he could control and how gave himself the best opportunity to win. Elite athletes focus on playing well, learning and doing the little things right – the fundamentals. This is the mental approach the top professional take. Please don't interpret this to mean that winning is not important to them. Quite the contrary, which is exactly why they try not to think about winning while they are competing. They love winning, but they love preparing, improving, and overcoming challenges more.

Get Out of a Performance and Winning Drought with some simple steps.

· Acknowledge it

· Communicate what you are feeling to someone and to yourself

· Don't overthink. Keep it simple.

· See it as a challenge to improve

· See winning as a bi product of a process

· Embrace the reality that you aren't playing that well and use it as a motivator to learn

· Find out ways – where you can improve off the field (Diet? Sleep? Hydration? Fitness?)

· Be honest with yourself (are you practicing enough?)

· See it for what it is, where are you going wrong, where can you improve but also where are you going right (look for positives)

· Review a couple of bad games or competitions and see what patterns or mindsets you had and journal them

· Don't generalize based on one or two games, be specific and investigate. Is this a pattern of performance?

· Acknowledge you can't perform in the zone every day and it's impossible to play your best week in week out

· Look for fortunate breaks through good preparation instead of dwelling on bad breaks or bad calls; Move on and forget negative thoughts

· Remind yourself that you can still contribute to the team performance in other ways, investigate ways to help a teammate get better.

· Talk openly and candidly about it with a mentor, parents, psychologist, coach, and look for ways to reduce the pressure and expectation.

· Go back to basics with practicing your fundamental skill sets in your chosen sport.

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