Human performance expert: Olympic athletes shouldn't focus on results

Saturday, February 22, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:40 a.m. CST, Saturday, February 22, 2014
Mark Brownlee has written more than 75 published articles about sport psychology and human performance. He is also a multi-certified instructor in clay target shooting. "If you could hear the interviews of all the people who win medals and perform very well, they almost always will say something different from what the sports announcers and writers and everybody said," Brownlee said about the Olympics.

COLUMBIA — If you want it too much, you won't get it. But if you realize how unimportant it is, suddenly you can have it. That's the paradox of winning.

Mark Brownlee, a human performance consultant, has 25 years of teaching experience at the MU School of Medicine, and he currently trains athletic clients in the U.S. and abroad in what he calls "performance thinking." Brownlee has clients in a variety of sports, such as golf and white-water kayaking, and he trains them to compete to the best of their abilities.

As the Olympics come to a close, the Missourian spoke with Brownlee on Friday about what makes a winner.

Q: Could you start by giving a sense of what it is that you do within sports psychology generally?

A: I have what I call ... fundamental performance thinking. … The idea is that people spend a lot of time worrying about things that they can’t control or are beyond their control. So you have to identify what is really important, what’s truly relevant for whatever activity you’re doing. … But don’t people spend a lot of their attention, their concentration, their thinking about … the things that they can’t control? So that leads to all kinds of distraction and interferes with your performance. …

There are only two things that cause people mental difficulties in sport. The first one is being too concerned with the judgments and the expectations of others. The second one is being too concerned with the results and the outcome. That’s it. Those two things, you have a complete free will to think about them any way you want. But most people get a very distorted perspective of how important something is. And they create expectations, and they’re worried about how they’re going to be judged and evaluated.

Expectations are the stupidest thing in sport because they prevent you from being in the moment. If you could hear the interviews of all the people who win medals and perform very well, they almost always will say something different from what the sports announcers and writers and everybody said. They don’t look at it as a life and death situation. … When (figure skater Adelina Sotnikova) was getting ready to go out, … she said, “I was getting ready, and as I was getting ready to step on the ice, I took a minute or two, and I thought how much I really like what I do,” and then she went and skated and won the gold medal.

Q: Something a lot of people are wondering is why Shaun White didn’t do well. Do you think that a lack of performance thinking might have been a factor there?

A: I’m just speculating, but all those pieces were in place for him to have a poor performance because the expectations were so high. It just matters how much he bought into that. Because everybody who had any interest in the Winter Olympics and USA, all that, they’re all expecting him to win. … If he let his mind go to the future about expectations and judgments and worrying a little bit too much about what people were going to think and then the outcome, everybody’s expecting a gold medal. And if he’s got that in his mind, too, then that’s the kind of thing that leads to the problems that he exhibited.

Q: So it sounds like what you’re saying is that our culture of sports, the way we portray sports and even the way professional athletes sometimes act when they’re playing sports is detrimental to actually doing well at sports.

A: I agree. … If you watch a lot of the pros, baseball and golf, they keep that kind of (premature celebration) to a minimum. … It’s not over until it’s over. You save your celebration for after, when it’s over. Minimize that during the game so you can keep your emotional arousal level. That’s the job. You have to keep yourself at that optimum arousal level the entire time. …

People are up and they’re down throughout an event, and I think that applies to most sports. But it comes just from how you choose to perceive it. If you have a bad experience during the event, you have to look at it in a neutral way. You just accept it. You don’t make it that important. And you don’t project into the future what your outcome is going to be. You just learn to let it go.

There are ways and strategies and techniques to do all this, and that’s part of what mental skills training is: How do you let go of that bad event? And it’s hard for people when you’re doing well, too. Everybody thinks you should get excited. You should be all happy and everything, but I’ve seen this hundreds of times. Someone’s done really well throughout an event and then the last … five minutes of the game or whatever, their … arousal level is off and their emotions change and the distractions come in because now they’re not focused … and you’re not in the moment. You’re in the future, and errors happen.

Q: Has it been your experience that some people are more susceptible to those kinds of thoughts or less susceptible to the mental skills training, that they just struggle more with these kinds of things?

A: Everybody comes to these kinds of things with their own background and their own previous experiences. So, yeah, absolutely. Some people, growing up in life, whatever they’ve done, and they get into a sport and their thinking is a little more advanced. They’ve already learned to understand somehow in their mind that “I need to pay attention to this and not that,” and then there are some people who don’t get that. Their experience and background in life — they don’t have any foundation for that.

But the thing is, you can learn. There’s this thing about personality that I don’t like either. … I call it the “problem of personality.” The worst thing in the world I hear people say is “That’s just the way I am”… or “I just can’t do that.” Of course you can. You can be whoever you want to be, right? You think however you want to think. That’s such a self-limiting feeling and belief and attitude. … I’m good if I run into those kind of people; I can help them start thinking differently. I can structure the experience, so they will start thinking differently. ... It’s part of that being able to choose what you think, where you’re going to put your attention and where you’re going to put your effort, and how you perceive those questions about how important it is and what are the consequences and what you want to control.

Some people are a little better at activities because of the way they think than others, but I think the point is that can be learned. You can learn to change your thinking.

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