Things You Can Do to Stay Mentally Healthy During Self-Isolation

These past few months have been wild and not in a good way.

On February 4th, I partially dislocated my knee while playing basketball in Port Vila, Vanuatu. It hurt—a lot.

On the 8th of February, I was medically relocated back to Australia, where an MRI confirmed the extent of the damage. I had ruptured my ACL, torn my meniscus, injured my MCL and fractured my tibia. Surgery was recommended, but the waiting list to see a specialist was lengthy. I worried that I would need to terminate my volunteer role as a Mental Health Specialist at Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health early. Fortunately, a private medical specialist said that I could go on a public waitlist for surgery and medically cleared me to return to Vanuatu to finish my role. I was still in pain, but I could walk and work, and the surgery could wait.

On March 7th, I returned to Port Vila and was super happy to see everyone again and put my psychological knowledge and skills towards reducing mental illness in Vanuatu.

Around this time, the number of Coronavirus cases began to escalate worldwide. Quickly. Before I had even re-adjusted to life in Port Vila again, the Australian Volunteer Program (AVP) informed us that the program was being suspended worldwide. All volunteers would be sent home in the next one to three weeks.

On the 16th of March, the program told us that we would need to pack up all our stuff and book a flight to return to Australia before the 31st of March. Then, on the 19th of March at 6:30 pm, AVP told us that we needed to leave the following day. After living in Vanuatu for 18 months, I did not even have a full day to pack and say a proper goodbye to everyone there, including dear friends, coworkers and patients. It was extremely tough and something that I am continuing to try and process both cognitively and emotionally.

Now that I am back in Melbourne and self-isolating, I suddenly have a lot of free time, no job and no demands except to stay on my property and away from other people.

Many of the things that we are all being asked to do during the pandemic are almost the exact opposite of what psychologists would normally recommend for people to do. This is especially the case for people with a diagnosable mental illness, such as depression or anxiety.

For depression, not doing things that we have previously enjoyed and isolating ourselves from others are two of the biggest traps that we can fall into. For anxiety, the biggest trap is continued avoidance of the things that we are afraid of.

A common psychological intervention for depression with a lot of scientific evidence supporting it is behavioural activation. This means that we push ourselves to do the things that we know are likely to be good for us, even if we don’t feel like doing them. For anxiety, the most empirically supported intervention is gradual exposure or slowly challenging ourselves to face our fears, especially with situations that feel like life or death situations to us but are actually pretty safe. Once we begin doing these things again, we realise that they are actually more enjoyable and less scary than our minds tell us. Over time, it can become easier and easier to do these (and other) activities.

What about Coronavirus?

Regardless of where you are in the world, the most important thing that we can do for the physical safety of ourselves and our loved ones is to follow the directives from your government about COVID-19, and the trusted health organisations that are helping to determine these directives in your area. If you are being asked to self-isolate, don’t go outside your property. If you are being asked to work from home and you can, please do, unless you are considered an essential service and needed out in the community. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds regularly, or use a hand sanitiser if you have access to them. Don’t touch your face and cough into your elbow and away from others. Practice social distancing and stay at least 1.5 metres from others. Don’t hang out in groups or touch or shake hands or hug and kiss others. Wear a mask if you are worried that you have any symptoms. Call the emergency numbers or hotlines in your region if you are concerned about your symptoms. Ask medical professionals about what you should do rather than just turn up to unannounced clinics or hospitals.

Hopefully, most of you know the relevant recommendations in your area by now and why they are important to help flatten the curve. If we can all do our part, it will help reduce how overwhelmed our medical facilities become with severe or critical COVID-19 cases, which will reduce the overall fatality rate.

How Can We Mentally Cope?

The current Coronavirus pandemic does seem to be having a huge psychological impact on people across the globe. Many people were in denial initially or trying to minimise the seriousness of the virus or the impact that they thought it would have. However, once it began to spread more, people began to feel scared, afraid, fearful, anxious, worried, nervous, panicky and overwhelmed about what was going on in the present and what may come in the future. Others report feeling sad, shocked, despondent, hopeless, helpless, or in grief about what they have already lost and what they can do about it at the moment. Or they feel annoyed, frustrated, mad, or angry about what has happened, how it has happened, and the decisions that governments and others are making to try and slow down the spread of the virus.

It is a challenging time for everyone.

During my first few days of self-isolation, I think I was still recovering from the panic associated with trying to pack up my life and leave Vanuatu in less than 24 hours. I was in shock, maybe, or denial. For the first three days, I didn’t even unpack my bag. I just communicated with friends and family, read some books, worried, played video games, watched Netflix, ate and slept.

By day four, which was yesterday, enough was enough. So I pulled out a notebook and decided that I would try the Ivy Lee Productivity Method. This 100-year-old method to boost productivity is quite simple, with only five steps:

By figuring out my top 6 priorities and writing them down, I managed to feel a lot better and more in control, even before I started doing the tasks. I also managed to fly through the tasks and feel productive again for the first time since being back in Melbourne. I resumed my daily meditation practice using the ‘Waking Up’ app. I unpacked my bags and tidied my room. I switched my SIM card in my phone back to my Australian one. I did some much-needed paperwork online and did a weights workout while watching some TV. It was a good day.

If you are feeling overwhelmed or unproductive at the moment, try the Ivy Lee Productivity Method. Just make sure that you only put six items on the list, and do the most important things first.

Having a schedule or consistent routine is also something that I would highly recommend during this pandemic. Work and school often provide this for us, but you need to create this yourself if you are at home 24/7. A helpful routine might consist of:

  • trying to sleep and wake at relatively consistent times,
  • not spending too little or too much time in bed (7–9 hours for adults, more for children),
  • regularly eating with lots of vegetables and not too much junk food or sweets,
  • staying hydrated by drinking enough water and minimising consumption of alcohol, nicotine and illicit drugs,
  • communicating via phone or the internet with at least one friend or family member daily,
  • doing some form of strength training or cardiovascular exercise for 20–30 minutes a day, even if you are confined to a single room,
  • having some daily tasks that give you a sense of achievement, engagement or mastery, and
  • getting fresh air and sunlight regularly if you can do this without breaking any restrictions in your area.

The more you can build these things into your daily routine, the greater the chance of maintaining or improving your mental health. Having some activities that we enjoy each day and look forward to doing can also really help.

Which Activities Can Help?

If you still aren’t exactly sure what you can do from day to day at the moment, a pleasant activities list or pleasant activity schedule can help. There are many different ones available online for free. Still, the one I will use for this article is the ‘Fun Activities Catalogue’ by the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Western Australia.

Out of the 365 activities listed, there are some that I can definitely not do while in self-quarantine, including going ice-skating, going out to dinner, socialising in person, flying a plane, scuba diving, going on a tour or to the zoo or movies, or playing sport.

What is surprising, though, is just how many items I still can do. Read the list of self-quarantine friendly activities below, and rank on a scale from 1 to 5 how much you think you would enjoy doing the task if you were to do it. If you can’t do that particular item where you are living, just skip it. For this exercise, 1 = I would hate to do this activity, 2 = I wouldn’t really like doing this activity 3 = doing the activity would be okay, 4 = it would be pretty fun to do this activity, and 5 = I would love to do this activity!

  • Spending time in my backyard
  • Watching the clouds drift by
  • Debating with someone online or over the phone
  • Painting my nails
  • Scheduling a day with nothing to do
  • Giving positive feedback about something (e.g. writing a letter or email about good service)
  • Feeding the birds
  • Spending an evening with good friends online or on the phone
  • Making jams or preserves
  • Getting dinner delivered by a restaurant and having them drop it at your doorstep
  • Buying gifts online
  • Having a political discussion online or over the phone
  • Repairing things around the house
  • Washing my car
  • Watching TV, videos
  • Sending a loved one a card in the mail
  • Baking something
  • Taking a bath
  • Having a video call with someone who lives far away
  • Organising my wardrobe
  • Playing musical instruments
  • Lighting scented candles, oils or incense
  • Spending time alone
  • Exercising
  • Putting up a framed picture or artwork
  • Looking up at the stars at night
  • Birdwatching from my backyard or window
  • Doing something spontaneously in the house
  • Going on a picnic in the backyard
  • Having a warm drink
  • Massaging hand cream into my hands
  • Fantasising about the future
  • Laughing
  • Clearing my email inbox
  • Getting out of debt/paying debts
  • Looking at old photo albums or photos on my computer or Facebook
  • Exploring Google Earth
  • Walking around my house and yard
  • Researching a topic of interest
  • Redecorating
  • Donating money to a cause
  • Smelling a flower
  • Opening the curtains and blinds to let light in
  • Doing jigsaw puzzles
  • Sorting through old clothes or items that you could donate to a charity eventually
  • Lying in the sun
  • Learning a magic trick
  • Talking on the phone
  • Listening to a podcast or radio show
  • Noticing what I can see in the neighbourhood from my house or yard
  • Doing arts and crafts
  • Sketching, painting
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Doing the dishes
  • Sitting outside and listening to the birds sing
  • Watching TED talks online
  • Planning a holiday for the future
  • Playing cards
  • Putting moisturising cream on my face/body
  • Re-watching a favourite movie
  • Gardening
  • Going camping in the living room or backyard
  • Entering a competition
  • Doing crossword puzzles
  • Patting or cuddling my pet
  • Cooking a special meal
  • Putting extra effort into my appearance
  • Doing a favour for someone online
  • Building a birdhouse or feeder
  • Looking at pictures of beautiful scenery
  • Talking to family members online or over the phone
  • Listening to music
  • Learning a new language using the app Duolingo
  • Taking a free online class
  • Working on my blog or seeing clients via telehealth
  • Washing my hair
  • Singing around the house
  • Creatively reusing old items
  • Stretching
  • Maintaining a musical instrument (e.g. restringing guitar)
  • Buying clothes online
  • Snuggling up with a soft blanket
  • Listening to an audiobook
  • Watching an old stand-up comedy show on Netflix or Youtube
  • Writing down a list of things I am grateful for
  • Teaching a special skill to someone else online (e.g. knitting, woodworking, painting, language)
  • Playing chess using an app
  • Playing video games
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Sending a text message to a friend
  • Doodling
  • Putting a vase of fresh flowers in my house
  • Participating in an online protest or campaign
  • Baking home-made bread
  • Walking barefoot on the soft grass
  • Watching a movie marathon
  • Skipping/jumping rope
  • Wearing an outfit that makes me feel good
  • Cooking some meals to freeze for later
  • Hobbies (stamp collecting, model building, etc.)
  • Talking to an older relative over the phone and asking them questions about their life
  • Listening to classical music
  • Photography
  • Watching funny videos on YouTube
  • Doing something religious or spiritual (e.g. praying)
  • Making my bed with fresh sheets
  • Lifting weights
  • Early morning coffee and news
  • Planning a themed party for next year (e.g. costume, murder mystery)
  • Wearing comfortable clothes
  • Shining my shoes
  • Trying to act like the characters in my favourite movies or TV shows
  • De-cluttering
  • Arranging flowers
  • Working on my car or bicycle
  • Juggling or learning to juggle
  • Contacting an old school friend
  • Calligraphy
  • Sleeping
  • Playing with my pets
  • Listening to the radio
  • Doing Sudoku
  • Planting vegetables or flowers
  • Surfing the internet
  • Doing embroidery, cross-stitching
  • Buying books from Amazon or bookdepository.co.uk
  • Meditating using Smiling Mind or Headspace or Calm or Balance or Waking Up apps
  • Training my pet to do a new trick
  • Planning a day’s activities
  • Waking up early and getting ready at a leisurely pace
  • Organising my home workspace
  • Writing (e.g. poems, articles, blog, books)
  • Dancing in the dark
  • Reading classic literature
  • Putting on perfume or cologne
  • Reading magazines or newspapers
  • Calling a friend
  • Sending a handwritten letter
  • Reading fiction
  • Meeting new people online by joining groups that you are interested in
  • Doing 5 minutes of calm deep breathing
  • Buying new stationery online
  • Turning off electronic devices for an hour (e.g. computer, phone, TV)
  • Buying music (MP3s, Spotify premium subscription)
  • Relaxing
  • Watching an old sports game (rugby, soccer, basketball, etc.)
  • Doing woodworking
  • Planning a nice surprise for someone else
  • Saying “I love you” to someone important in your life online, over the phone or in a letter
  • Making a playlist of upbeat songs
  • Colouring in
  • Doing a nagging task (e.g. making a phone call, scheduling an online appointment, replying to an email)
  • Shaping a bonsai plant
  • Planning my career
  • Reading non-fiction
  • Writing a song or composing music
  • Having a barbecue
  • Sewing
  • Dancing
  • Looking at art online
  • Making a ‘To-Do’ list of tasks
  • Having quiet evenings
  • Singing in the shower
  • Refurbishing furniture
  • Exchanging emails, chatting on the internet
  • Knitting/crocheting/quilting
  • Napping in a hammock
  • Making a gift for someone
  • Having discussions with friends
  • Trying a new recipe
  • Pampering myself at home (e.g. putting on a face mask)
  • Reading poetry
  • Savouring a piece of fresh fruit
  • Eating outside in my backyard
  • Making a pot of tea
  • Using special items (e.g. fine china, silver cutlery, jewellery, clothes, souvenir mugs)
  • Doing a DIY project (e.g. making homemade soap, making a mosaic)
  • Taking care of my plants
  • Telling a joke online or over the phone
  • Discussing books online
  • Watching boxing or wrestling online or on TV
  • Giving someone a genuine compliment
  • Practising yoga or Pilates
  • Shaving
  • Genuinely listening to others
  • Tidying-up
  • Rearranging the furniture in my house
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Buying new furniture online
  • Watching a sunset or sunrise from the balcony
  • Watching a funny TV show or movie
  • Recycling old items
  • Boxing a punching bag
  • Cleaning
  • Daydreaming
  • Learning about my genealogy/family tree
  • Setting up a budget
  • Writing a positive comment on a website /blog
  • Eating something nourishing (e.g. chicken soup)
  • Taking a class online (e.g. Masterclass, Udemy, Coursera)
  • Combing or brushing my hair
  • Writing diary/journal entries
  • Scrapbooking
  • Cooking an international cuisine
  • Reading comics
  • Trying new hairstyles
  • Watching a fireplace or campfire
  • Whistling
  • Working from home
  • Playing board games (e.g. Scrabble, Monopoly)
  • Savouring a piece of chocolate
  • Hunting for a bargain online
  • Buying, selling stocks and shares
  • Buying myself something nice
  • Solving riddles
  • Watching old home videos
  • Making home-made pizza
  • Origami
  • Doing something nostalgic (e.g. eating a childhood treat, listening to music from a certain time in my life)
  • Joining a club online (e.g. film, book, sewing, etc.)

Hopefully, there are at least a few items in the above list that you would find fun or would love to do. If so, put them on your to-do list or build them into your routine somewhere over the next week, and see what happens. If it’s been a long time or you have never done it before, it may be even more fun than you expect once you get started. Just make sure that you give the task a proper go for at least ten minutes before stopping and trying something else.

Conclusion

In the 21st Century, our lives have become extremely busy, full and fast-paced. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now being told that the most helpful thing we can do is stay at home and remain physically distant from others. Unless you are in an essential profession, this could be a time to slow down. To check in with those that you care most about. To chat for longer and to connect emotionally. To reflect on your life and rediscover what really matters to you. To hope and dream and plan for a better future. And to try things that you otherwise may not have had the chance or the time to do.

 

The Pro Athlete’s Checklist for Optimal Performance: Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part series exploring a checklist that professional athletes can go through to ensure that they perform at their best.

Part One covered the important mental aspects of training for an upcoming competition and preparing yourself right before an event. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend checking out that article first.

Part Two will now cover the aspects you need to consider to perform at your best during competition and reflect and learn the most after the event has finished.

When Competing in an Event

1. Do you know how to get into a state of flow? [_]

The flow genome project has a 10 question survey that helps you understand how you best find flow or get “into the zone”. For example, my flow profile result said that I was a hard charger:

A hard-charger: You’re a focused go-getter. You thrive in intense situations, both personally and professionally. You seek out challenges. You lead a high-impact lifestyle. When you set out to learn a new skill, you look for training from the best and brightest in that field. If such training is not available, you hunker down and focus until you’ve figured it out yourself. Either way, “slow and steady” progress is not what you’re after.

The same intensity that fuels your drive and focus also feeds a relentless inner critic. One that ceaselessly pushes you to raise the bar. For you, the Flow State offers a rare escape from the relentless tallying and scoring of yourself against your own ideal goals and past performance. When you find activities that allow this blissful calm and relief, you make them a priority in your life.

Flow Hacks: Hard chargers gravitate towards adventure sports. Skiing delivers the intensity you seek. You favour non-traditional, off-the-beaten-path travel. You’re less interested in itineraries than you are in cultural immersion.

Pro-Tip: As a Hard Charger seeking flow, you may lose sight of the trade-off between risk and reward. Make sure you always stay on the recoverable end of that equation. Rather than pursuing bigger and faster, try going more in-depth. Slow down. Take time to develop discipline and to understand all your pursuits have to offer. It’s typically a lot more than thrills. Develop skills instead of seeking challenges. If you’re already hucking off 20-foot cliffs on Alpine skis, try a different approach, like telemark skiing. If you’re surfing big waves, try stand up paddleboarding. You might also benefit from mindfulness training.

Check out the website, take the quiz, and see what can help you to best get into a flow-state on a more regular basis.

2. Do you have a clear objective? [_]

A clear objective is something that you can focus on that is within your control that, if you do well, will help you to win. In the excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by Timothy Gallwey, he said that tennis only has two requirements for success. The first requirement is to hit each ball over the net, and the second is to hit each ball into the court. What are the requirements for success in your sport, or the essential things for you to keep your focus on during a game or performance?

3. Are you able to observe what is going on to change things if they are not going right? [_]

How do you know if things are not working for you while competing? Are you not focused on your objectives, or are you easily distracted or irritated by less important things? Is it that you are in your head too much and not in your body or the zone enough? Is it that things don’t feel quite right? Is it that you feel too physically tense, or your worries are getting the better of you? Is it that you are making mistakes or losing?

To me, being able to observe well is first to become clear of what my point of focus or objective is going to be during the game, then notice as soon as possible when my focus is no longer on this objective, and then gently bring my attention back to this without getting frustrated with myself for becoming distracted.

4. Are you able to let go of judgment so that you are in your body and connected with your senses rather than caught up in your head or lost in your thoughts? [_]

Being non-judgmental of your performance and having trust in yourself and your body and your capabilities are some of the keys to staying in the zone or getting back into it during competition.

The more you are caught up in judgmental thoughts, the more you will worry, the tenser you will become, and the more your performance will suffer. So if you notice yourself being judgmental or self-critical, treat these thoughts just like you would any other unhelpful thought — challenge them, or try to let them go.

5. Can you keep your focus on what’s most important and know how to minimise or block out distractions or worries? [_]

Whenever you are distracted or worrying too much about things during a game, first take one slow, deep breath. Then accept that you have been distracted or worried without judging yourself. Remind yourself that these things are traps and not helpful, then put all of your focus on your clarified objectives from #2 above. Try to be patient and trust that things will be better the more you try to immerse yourself in your movements and the game rather than worrying about what others are doing or saying, including your own mind.

6. Do you know how to cope with adversity if you are not playing as you hoped or are losing by more than you expected to be? [_]

When things aren’t going how you have planned, call a time out if possible and re-centre yourself. Select a focal point in the distance below eye level. Form a clear intention of what you aim to do, whether to stick to the plan or make needed adjustments if the plan isn’t working. Breathe slowly and deeply, and release your muscle tension if you feel tight anywhere. Then find your centre of gravity and ground yourself with where you are and what you are doing. Have a process cue that you can say to yourself in these moments to re-focus on your objectives, and then try to channel all your remaining energy into these objectives and inspired performance.

7. Do you know how to peak under pressure and still perform at your best when the game is on the line? [_]

Try not to overthink things too much. Although this is easier said than done, remember how much hard work you have put in during practice, and trust that your muscle memory will know what to do in the crucial moments. If you worry that you tense up or worry too much under pressure, remind yourself of times that you performed at your best in the past and visualise how your body was during these times. Try to channel this and see if you can have fun, enjoy the moment, and give 100% to the performance. You won’t regret it if you know that you have applied yourself as much as you could towards the important things within your control.

After the Competition or Event

1. Have you spent some time reflecting on how you felt your performance was? [_]

How do you normally feel after an event? Relieved? Disappointed? Happy? Sad? Whatever it is, spend some time just sitting with your feelings about your performance, all the hard work you put into the lead up to the event, and how you prepared for it. Do you feel grateful and appreciative of all the hard work you put in or dissatisfied, knowing that you could have done more or better or pushed yourself harder?

2. If you performed at your best, do you know what you did that helped you perform so well? [_]

If you managed to get into a flow state or were in the zone while competing, even if it was only for part of the time, do you know how you did it? If you smashed your opponent and felt super confident and unbeatable, how did you do it? Do you know how you could replicate these things again next time?

3. If you did not perform at your best, are you aware of what triggered the poor performance or the traps you fell into? [_]

Let’s say you under-performed and did much worse than expected. What happened? Was it an issue with your training or your preparation, or was it purely what went wrong during the competition? Do you know how to make sure a similar outcome doesn’t happen again next time?

4. Are you reflecting on your performance too much? [_]

Reflection doesn’t need to take any longer than 30 minutes, so if you find yourself continuing to stew over what has happened, especially in a self-critical way, you might be ruminating rather than reflecting.

5. Regardless of how well you performed, have you written down three things that went well, either for you or the team? [_]

Writing this down will help you to remember that it wasn’t all bad and reinforce the positive. Even if you are bitterly disappointed, what did you or other people in your team do that went according to plan or better than expected? If it is what you did, give yourself some acknowledgment or a pat on the back. Even though it didn’t quite work out how you wanted it to, you still put in so much hard work and effort and deserve some acknowledgment for that. If it’s what your teammates or coaches did, make sure you let them know when appropriate.

6. If you made any mistakes, have you written down up to three things that you could do differently next time to overcome these mistakes and improve your performance next time? [_]

Even if you performed amazingly or won the event, was there anything you could have done better? What will help you shave an extra millisecond off your time, turn the ball over less, or take higher-percentage shots? Whatever it is, please write it down so that you don’t forget what you can do to keep improving and growing and getting better over time.

7. Have you written down anything else that you would like to focus on that is in your control that you think will increase your likelihood of success next time? [_]

Things that you may want to write down include:

  • A different plan for training?
  • A different plan for pre-competition?
  • A different plan for during the next performance?

If you are unsure what else to write after the 30 minutes of personal reflection, make sure that you also talk to your teammates and coaches about your performance. Others may be able to pick up on different things than you could. Maybe they saw things that you did not. They might also be more objective than you were about your performance too, especially if your emotions were high in the heat of the moment. If someone filmed your performance, watch it back with your teammates or coaches if possible. Ask for feedback, and then write down the essential points that you know you could improve. Only give your teammates honest feedback if they ask for this too. Then come up with a plan with everyone to address these issues together before the next event.

How many checklist items do you usually do? If it’s not many, are you willing to try and implement a few more of these steps in your next competition? If you do, I’d love to hear about how much it helps. Keep up the great work, and all the best in your athletic endeavours!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Professional Athlete’s Checklist for Optimal Mental Performance: Part One

My last sports psychology article covered 21 strategies that you can apply to improve your sporting performance. If you struggle to cope with adversity, remain free from worry, tend not to peak under pressure, get offended by what your coaches say to you, or struggle to focus as much as you would like to, I highly recommend checking that article out first.

When I shared these skills with the Vanuatu Women’s Beach Volleyball Squad, one question that I had was, “What skills do I try to learn first?’ Another question was, “When exactly do I try to apply them?” These are both great questions, as I don’t want anyone to overthink what they are doing too much, especially during a significant competition.

This article and the next one will try to answer both of those questions. Firstly, if you already cope well with adversity or peak under pressure every time, don’t even bother learning new skills. Just keep doing what you are already doing because it is working. However, if you have poor concentration and goal setting skills, do focus on learning the strategies that I have recommended and see if they work for you.

Now on when to apply these skills. Below is a checklist that I have created to see if you are already doing everything you need to do for optimal performance. This article goes into training for an upcoming event and before the competition. The next blog post will cover what is helpful to know during competition and afterwards.

Training for an Upcoming Event

1. Are you training/ practising enough to improve as quickly as you would like to? [_]

If you notice that you are not growing as much as you hoped, it is important to look both at the frequency (how often you practice), duration (how long you practice for) and the intensity (how hard you practice when you do) to know if one or all of these variables need to change. But, again, you can assess this yourself or figure it out with your coach or trainer.

2. Is your practice deliberate enough? [_]

You must have specific objectives for each training session and each week. It is also essential that you have particular skills that you are trying to improve with each activity you do that aims to help you meet these objectives.

3. Do you have baseline measurements of all the key things you want to improve, and are you tracking your progress with these measures? [_]

If you have not conducted a baseline assessment of your skills or the things you want to improve, it will be tough to know how much progress you have made. Baseline measurements could include your weight, vertical jump, flexibility, 40m dash, reaction time. Whatever aspects you and your coach want to improve, figure out a way to assess them and keep track of your progress concerning these things as you train and prepare for a competition. Then you will know if you are on the right track with your training or will need to switch things up.

4. Are you over-training and not giving your body enough time to recover between practice sessions? [_]

Load management is all the rage in the NBA these days. Wilt Chamberlain used to play 48 minutes a night for a whole season at his prime, never subbing out. Now some of the stars will sit out the second night of a back-to-back set, as teams have realised that playing two nights in a row increases their risk of injury. Signs of over-training may include mental exhaustion, muscle fatigue, impaired motivation and concentration and reduced performance. If you are experiencing these things or are concerned that you are overdoing it, talk to your coach, reduce your workload for a bit, and see what happens. If your symptoms go away and your performance improves again, you will know that you are on the right track.

5. Are you eating healthily and enough for your training objectives? [_]

Fresh vegetables and fruit and good sources of protein (fish and lean meats) and fats (eggs, nuts, avocado, some oils) and whole grains are generally considered healthy. Anything processed or deep-fried or too sugary or salty is not considered healthy, and having too much caffeine and sugary drinks isn’t recommended either. Still, there are sport-specific recommendations that nutritionists can provide also. If you burn an extra 3,000 calories of energy a day in your workouts, you will need to eat more and require more carbs than an athlete who is only burning 200–500 extra calories a day.

6. Are you getting enough sleep and rest? [_]

The average adult needs 7–9 hours of sleep per night. You may need more than usual after strenuous and extended training sessions. In between training sessions, try not to always be on the go either. Give yourself enough downtime for leisure, fun, socialising, relaxation and recovery.

7. Are you practising mindfulness meditation daily? [_]

Even 10 minutes a day can significantly improve concentration abilities during practice and competitions. Some people prefer doing it first thing in the morning. Others prefer the last thing at night. Whenever you think you could consistently do it, set a reminder on your phone, have a meditation app (e.g. headspace, smiling mind, calm, buddhify etc.) that can guide you through a meditation, and then do it at the same time every day for at least three weeks. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t regret starting to do it and building it into your daily routine.

8. Are you aware of unrealistic and unhelpful thoughts, and do you practice challenging them or letting them go? [_]

There are two ways that we can successfully manage unhelpful thoughts. Firstly, we can challenge and change them, which is a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) strategy. To do this, notice what you are thinking. Ask if it is a realistic or a helpful thought? If it is not practical or desirable, ask yourself what ideas might be more useful to have. Then every time you have the initial thought, try to remind yourself of the more suitable replacement thought instead. Secondly, sometimes it is not the thought that we have that is problematic, but how much we get caught up in the idea or fuse with it. Each time you notice you are too fused with a thought, aim to create some distance or let it go using defusion skills, an ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strategy. Imagine the belief in a different colour or font, said in a funny voice, or put it on a cloud and let it float away. Both thoughts challenging and defusion, can be helpful for people, so see which strategy you like best, and then apply it whenever your thoughts are impairing your performance during training sessions.

9. Are you practising in ways that simulate the conditions and pressure you will experience during the event? [_]

Andre Drummond was an awful free throw shooter in basketball games in his first few NBA seasons, making much less than half his shots. Yet, in training, he could make 9 or 10 out of 10 regularly. If this is similar to a skill that you do well in training but poorly during events, experiment with the stakes during practice to make it more game-like or have more on the line. Every missed free throw at training might equal two laps of running around the court or 20 pushups. It would mean that the athlete may tense up a bit more, meaning better preparation and more practice for tense in-game situations.

10. Are you also allowing yourself to have fun, experiment with skills and play games? [_]

Extreme athletes like skateboarders and freestyle skiers don’t always practice deliberately, especially not those who started the field. They improved their skills by doing what they loved, playing around with their friends, and challenging each other to push their boundaries and see what was possible. So even though deliberate practice is the best way to improve specific skills, getting into a flow state and not thinking about things too much is the best way to improve performance. Don’t forget to have fun, play around, push yourself just outside your comfort zone, and see what happens.

Before a Competition

1. Do you have a consistent pre-competition ritual? [_]

Before games, I try to have a low-GI carb-heavy meal the night before, get 8 hours of sleep if possible, get up at my usual wake time, eat protein shortly after waking, and not have too heavy a meal too close to competition. Next, I pack my bag with all I need and arrive at the stadium about an hour before the game. I then warm up a little bit by myself. After this, I stretch and listen to music that helps me to get pumped up and focused. I then discuss the game plan with my team and coach. Finally, we all go out as a team and warm up together before the introductions and the game begins.

2. Does it help you perform at your best regularly or allow you to get into the zone quickly? [_]

If your pre-game ritual doesn’t help you perform at your best, see what you can do to shake it up. Maybe get there earlier than you usually do. Find a quiet spot. Bring headphones and do a 10-minute meditation. Practice a few easy skills to fire up your muscle memory and boost your confidence. Listen to music and focus on your objectives for the day. Visualise yourself making the moves you want to do and being successful doing this. Add something in that you don’t usually do, or take something out that you don’t think is helping, and see the result. Over time, you’ll know what helps and doesn’t, and what to do more before a competition.

3. Do you know what type of environment is most helpful for preparing yourself before the competition? [_]

Some people are more extroverted and like to be around people, socialising, connecting, laughing, and having fun. Others are more introverted and like space from others and quiet. Experiment with this before competitions, and soon you’ll know what environment is best for the significant events.

4. If the ideal environment is not available, do you have a backup plan of what you can do? [_]

Let’s say you prefer space and quiet, but there are no change rooms around, and you need to remain by the side of the court. You may need noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still take you away from where you are a bit so that you can focus and do your pre-game ritual and get into the zone for when the competition begins,

5. Are you aware of your arousal level before a game? [_]

Think of this on a scale from 0 to 10, where ten is overwhelmed, anxious and panicky, and zero is as relaxed as you can be. Check in to your physical symptoms and give yourself a score from 0 to 10.

6. Do you know what arousal level is ideal for you at the start of the competition? [_]

If you compete in a sport where precision is critical, you may want to be at three or a four. If you need to be aggressive and reactive, like in boxing or American football, it may be better to be eight or nine. Once you know what number you are at, determine if you need to increase or decrease it to be ideal for the event.

7. Do you know how to pump yourself up if you feel apathetic, lazy or tired? [_]

Let’s say that your arousal level is at a one or two, and you need it to be at a six; what can you do to pump yourself up? Do you need some caffeine or sugar or an energy drink? Do you need to jump around to get your lymphatic system flowing? Do you need to watch motivational videos or listen to a pump-up music soundtrack? Do you need to remember your values or goals, why you put in all the hard work at training or why you love the sport? Whatever you decide to try, give it a go, and if it works, repeat it next time. If not, move onto something else.

8. Do you know how to relax if you feel too overwhelmed, worried, stressed or anxious? [_]

Let’s say you are at nine or ten and want to be at five or six. There are thousands of spectators ready to watch you. You start to worry that you are feeling too anxious and tense and won’t perform well as a result. Try to re-frame this anxiety as excitement. Remind yourself that being pumped up means more oxygen to the limbs, which can help you run faster, jump higher, put in more effort. Then if your arousal level is still too high or you are worrying too much, ground yourself. Look at what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Remind yourself that you are safe and there is no danger. Take some slow deep breaths and put your focus on one thing at eye level in the distance. Tense your muscles, breathe in, then release the tension as you breathe out. Stretch nice and slowly. Remember the objectives you want to focus on within your control, and think back to times when you have successfully done this. Remind yourself that you can do this, exhale all the air, and then go out there and give it all. People don’t tend to regret losing as much when they know they have given it their best!

part two is now up

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Psychological Strategies Can Improve Your Sporting Performance the Most?

I’ve played a lot of sport in my lifetime. When I was six years old, my first basketball game was on the Diamond Valley mini-courts in Victoria, Australia. My most recent game was this week at Wan Smol Bag in Port Vila, Vanuatu. So that means I’ve been playing organised sport for over 27 years now.

Both of my parents were Physical Education teachers and excellent sports coaches, and they consistently encouraged my two siblings and me to play sports and be active. I’m not sure if my siblings felt this too, but there was a sense that we should take sport seriously, and it was essential to try our best and be unselfish team players and fair opponents.

For example, this Larry Bird Converse poster hung on the wall in our house when I was younger:

“It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds.” — Larry Bird

I was a super competitive kid, with most of my childhood consisting of competing against whoever I could find, especially my brother and friends. I also tried to compete in anything, including board games, computer games, card games and multiple sports.

I’ve managed to have some success in several sports. I finished in the top 10 in the state in swimming in Primary (Elementary) School, the top 20 in discus throwing, and the top 30 in alpine skiing. In High School, I made the State team in volleyball for three years and the Victorian Institute of Sport and the Australian Youth Squad for volleyball. I then moved to the USA at 16 to play Varsity volleyball, basketball and tennis in California and Virginia. Later on, I won a State Championship in the top division in the Victorian Volleyball League at 25 and won a championship playing Semi-professional basketball when I was 27 in Australia.

Despite this modicum of success, I don’t think that I reached my potential.

I was a bit like Allen Iverson in his famous “practice” speech:

https://youtu.be/eGDBR2L5kzI

I loved to play, but I hated to practice. I was not overly goal-focused outside of turning up on the game day, giving my all, and doing whatever I could to help my team win. When I was younger, I also had what is known as a ‘fixed mindset’, and thought that I could not change my athletic capabilities with deliberate effort.

It wasn’t until I started to learn psychology at university that I realised that I could mentally change how I approached the games that I played. I began to apply the psychological skills I had learnt and developed a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. As a result, I became less afraid of losing, more able to learn from setbacks and mistakes, and more able to step up when the game was on the line. I also discovered how to bounce back after making a few mistakes, keep pushing and trying when we were losing, and perform at my best on a much more consistent basis.

I wish I could have had these skills earlier in my life, and I would like to share them with you so that you can hopefully take your game to the next level.

How Strong is the Mental Side of Your Game?

The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory (ACSI) looks at seven sub-scales related to how you mentally approach sport and helps to highlight areas in which you might struggle:

Sub-scale #1: Coping with adversity — assesses if you remain positive and enthusiastic even when things are going badly. Also determines if you stay calm and controlled, and can quickly bounce back from mistakes and setbacks.
  • Do you remain positive and enthusiastic during a competition, no matter how bad things are going?
  • When things are going badly, do you tell yourself to keep calm and does this work for you?
  • When you feel yourself getting too tense, can you quickly relax your body and calm yourself?
  • Can you maintain emotional control regardless of how things are going for you?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you currently are not coping as well as you could with adversity.

TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COPE WITH ADVERSITY

  • If things are going bad during a competition, try cognitive restructuring. First, tune in to what thoughts are going through your mind. Then ask yourself if they are realistic thoughts and helpful thoughts to be having right now? If you are thinking about anything that is not what you are meant to be doing in the present, they are probably not helpful. If it’s the mistake you just made, let it go and move on. If you worry that you might keep making mistakes and lose, let it go and move on. Tell yourself, “this isn’t helpful!” or ask yourself, “what is a more helpful way to be thinking right now?” It might be “keep calm”, or it could be another mantra that you find helpful. Then stop focusing on your thoughts and focus on whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to get back on track. Then do it.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control during a competition, try deep breathing. Tune into your breathing. Chances are, your breath is probably rapid and shallow if you feel overwhelmed, tense or out of control. Then, exhale and breathe out all of the air in your lungs. Slowly breathe deeply into your stomach, pause for a second or two, and then exhale all of the air out again. Keep breathing slowly and deeply and exhaling all your air until you feel a bit calmer and more in control. Then stop focusing on your breath and put your focus back to the main objective that you have that is in your power in the present.
  • If you feel too physically tense during a competition, try progressive muscle relaxation. Tune in to where you feel most tense, then pick one area to target first. Squeeze it as hard as possible, take a deep breath in, pause, breathe out and relax. Then repeat if needed or move onto another tense muscle area. If you can’t tense it because of the sport you are doing, try to breathe in and around the tight area and then see if you can relax it with the out-breath. Repeat as often as needed. Once you feel less tense, stop focusing on your body tenseness and put your focus back to whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to achieve your objectives.
Sub-scale #2: Coachability — assesses if you learn from coaches instructions and are open to accepting constructive criticism or advice without taking it personally or becoming upset:
  • Do you manage not to take it personally or feel upset when a coach tells you how to correct a mistake you’ve made?
  • When a coach criticises you, do you feel helped rather than upset?
  • If a coach criticises or yells at you, do you correct the mistake without getting upset about it?
  • Do you improve your skills by listening carefully to feedback and instructions from your coaches?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

You are currently not very coachable if you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items. For example, my dad said I was uncoachable growing up, but I did improve by applying a few strategies.

TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COACHABLE YOU ARE

  • When a coach criticises or yells at you, try not to take it personally. The coach is likely to be on an emotional roller coaster if it is a competition, just like you. They may care just as much or even more than you about winning, but they cannot control your behaviour on the field. They can merely make suggestions or sub you out, which may make them feel even more stressed or anxious than if they were out there performing. See if there is merit in what they are saying to you regardless of how they have said it. If it is useful advice, take it on board. If it is not helpful, try to tune it out and re-focus on whatever is within your control that will help you achieve your objectives.
  • Develop a growth mindset and let go of your ego. When you make a mistake in practice, try to listen to feedback from coaches about what led to the error and how you can improve it. If they don’t give you any feedback, ask for it when it is appropriate. It is generally a lot easier for someone else to see what you are doing wrong and how you can improve it than it will be for you to view it. Asking someone in your coaching staff to film what you are doing can also help because then you can view what they see and discuss how to improve it.
  • Listen carefully to your coaches’ advice and instructions, especially during practice and before and after a game. The coach’s job is to help you perform at your best, so try to take what they suggest and give it a go before rejecting it as not helpful. Having a growth mindset sees mistakes and losses and failures as opportunities to reflect on what went wrong and how you can improve it. A coach can help with this, especially after a game and in practice. Asking questions to clarify what they said if you don’t understand can also help ensure you follow or try what they suggest. Don’t overthink things too much during a game, and get back to the game plan you and your coach established before the event.
Sub-scale #3: Concentration — reflects whether you become easily distracted and whether you can focus on the task at hand in both practice and game situations, even when adverse or unexpected conditions occur:
  • When you are playing sports, can you focus your attention and block out distractions?
  • Is it easy to keep distracting thoughts from interfering with something you are watching or listening to?
  • Do you handle unexpected situations in your sport very well?
  • Is it easy to direct your attention and focus on a single object or person?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your concentration ability is not as good as it could be.

TO IMPROVE YOUR CONCENTRATION LEVELS

  • Meditate regularly. It doesn’t matter which type of meditation you do, but practice it for at least 10 minutes a day. Developing a daily meditation routine will help you improve your concentration levels on a game day more than anything else. I prefer mindfulness meditation the most, and the apps I would recommend the most to download if you want to have a guided meditation session daily are:
    • Smiling Mind
    • Insight Timer
    • Headspace
    • Calm
    • Waking Up
    • Ten Percent Happier
    • Buddhify
    • Balance
  • Avoid multitasking. Whatever you are doing throughout the day, try to focus on one thing at a time rather than attempting to do two or three things at once. It will be less tiring for you, and will also train your concentration. Just ask yourself, no matter what you are doing, “What is most important right now?” and try to put all of your attention and focus on that one task. If your mind tries to distract you or get you to do something else, thank your mind and bring your attention back to whatever is most important at that moment.
  • Practice informal mindfulness. Formal mindfulness involves sitting down and doing mindfulness meditation for a set period. However, you can also approach any other task that you are doing mindfully, called informal mindfulness. To do this, no matter what you are doing, try to see if you can approach the task as if you have never done it before in an open, accepting, non-judgmental way without wishing for it to be any other way. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls these the attitudes of mindfulness, and when applied to sports, you are likely to have a sense of relaxed concentration that is the key to getting into the zone or a state of flow more regularly.
Sub-scale #4: Confidence and Achievement Motivation — measures whether you are confident and positively motivated. Also assesses if you consistently give 100% during practices and games, and work hard to improve your skills:
  • Do you get the most out of your talent and expertise?
  • Do you feel confident that you will play well?
  • Do you give 100% during practices and competition and don’t have to be pushed to practice or play hard?
  • Do you try even harder when you fail to reach your goals?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you do not have high levels of confidence and achievement motivation.

TO IMPROVE YOUR CONFIDENCE AND MOTIVATION FOR ACHIEVEMENT

  • Know your personality: Take the IPIP-NEO personality assessment to get a good sense of your personality and what will likely motivate you. If you are an extrovert, you probably need to train with other people and need excitement and fun. You may not need as much rest, either. If you are an introvert, you may need some individual sessions to remain focused and motivated and plenty of time to reflect and recover between practices and competitions. If you are agreeable, you will enjoy cooperating with the plans of your coaches or other athletes and helping out others. If you are disagreeable, you will probably need to do things your way a bit more to stay motivated and confident. If you are highly conscientious, you could have a consistent training schedule and pre-game routine, and you will be able to follow it and benefit from it. If you are low on conscientiousness, you will need more flexibility and variety in your training and preparation and goals to stay on track. If you are highly neurotic, you will have more times to feel down, anxious, angry, self-conscious, but developing skills to assist you with these emotions will help. If you are low on neuroticism, you are unlikely to be bothered by intense emotions or self-doubt and need additional strategies. Lastly, if you are very open to experiences, you are likely to remain confident and motivated even if things don’t go according to plan and accept whatever is happening and make room for whatever feelings arise. If you are low on openness, you will probably need more contingency plans to know what to do and feel less overwhelmed when things don’t go according to plan.
  • Clarify your essential values: The values exercise that I have previously written about is a great way to identify and remember why you are playing sport and what you are hoping to get out of it — knowing our why can help us to be much more motivated to push through pain and challenges when things get hard. By figuring out which values are essential, quite important and not relevant to you, you can see if you have been living in line with your fundamental values or applying them in your sport. If you haven’t, setting some consistent goals with these values will increase your motivation and hopefully improve your confidence.
  • Apply your character strengths to your sport: The VIA character strengths survey is similar to values clarification, with the VIA standing for values in action. Please take the survey, identify your top 5 key strengths and apply them to your practice and competition. It could help your confidence and motivation a lot.
Sub-scale #5: Goal setting and mental preparation — assesses whether you set and work toward specific performance goals. It also determines if you plan and mentally prepare for competition, and if you have a “game plan” for performing well:
  • Do you set concrete goals to guide what you do in your sport daily or weekly basis?
  • Do you tend to do a lot of planning about how you will reach your goals?
  • Do you set your own performance goals for each practice?
  • Do you have your game plan worked out in your head long before the game begins?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not setting enough goals for yourself in your sport or preparing yourself mentally as much as you could be.

TO IMPROVE YOUR GOAL SETTING AND MENTAL PREPARATION SKILLS

  • Get on the same page as your coach (and teammates if you have them) about your sport’s objectives and the steps you will all need to take to achieve these objectives. By doing this, including having contingency plans for if things are not going well, your coach should help you stick to your plan and encourage you to switch to a contingency plan if things are not working as well as you both hoped. You can apply this for your training sessions, your weeks in the lead up to competition, before a game, during competition, and afterwards. If your coach changes the rules and goes off course, it is vital to raise this and remind them of your overall objectives so that you can remain on track and make progress towards your long-term goals.
  • Make sure the goals that you set are SMART goals. SMART means that your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-framed. You will then know if you have achieved them or not in the time that you have set and can make adjustments as needed.
  • Have a consistent pre-game ritual to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the game. Maybe eat the same meal the night before a competition (carbo-loading), do things to wind down and switch off to ensure you don’t get to bed too late and obtain a good quality sleep. If possible, wake up at a similar time in the morning and have the breakfast that your nutritionist has suggested is most helpful. Stay well hydrated. Have a game plan figured out with your coach well before the competition, and keep that fresh in your mind on game day. Get to the event place early enough to not have any unnecessary stress. Choose the location that allows you to get into the state you want to be when the competition starts. If you can’t choose the room, bring noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still help you feel settled wherever you are. Then listen to music or motivational material as needed, warm up your body as required, visualise doing well or think back to times you have performed well in the past, and centre yourself before the competition. Then go out there and enjoy it.
Sub-scale #6: Peaking under pressure — measures whether you are challenged rather than threatened by pressure situations and if you perform well under pressure — if you are a clutch performer:
  • Do you tend to play better under pressure because you think more clearly?
  • Do you enjoy the game more when there is more pressure during it?
  • Are pressure situations challenges that you welcome?
  • Do you make fewer mistakes when the pressure is on because you concentrate better?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not peaking under pressure or getting into the zone as much as you potentially could.

TO PEAK UNDER A PRESSURE ON A MORE REGULAR BASIS

  • Try the seven steps of centering:
    1. First, select a comfortable focal point in the distance that is below eye level.
    2. Form a clear intention in your mind of what you aim to do.
    3. Breathe slowly and deeply in a mindful way and breathe all the air out with each breath.
    4. Release your muscle tension by observing where you are most tense in your body, then release this tightness by first tensing it further and then letting go, or just trying to release it with each out-breath.
    5. Find your centre of gravity or “chi” and use that to help ground you where you are and with what you are doing.
    6. Repeat your process cue, or imagine what it sounds, feels and looks like to achieve what you aim to do in step 2. If there is a word that describes this, you can use it as your cue. For example, golfer Sam Snead would use the word “oily” to describe the smooth and effortless swing that he wanted.
    7. Channel your remaining energy into a dynamic and inspired performance. Trust that all the hard work you have put in during training will pay off and help you achieve your aim and see if you can enjoy the competition and the peak performances that can come with this.
  • Develop your inner game. Timothy Gallwey wrote one of the best sports psychology books of all time with ‘The Inner Game of Tennis.’ The first step of the inner game is to observe what is happening in a non-judgmental way. The second step is to picture the desired outcome. The third step is to trust your body to reach your desired outcome and not try to overthink it. The last step is to nonjudgmentally observe the change in your performance and results by doing this.
  • Get into a flow state. To increase your chances of getting into a flow state, you first need to remove or zone out from all potential distractions. It is also important that the task you are aiming for strikes a good balance between your current skill level and the challenge you face. Flow is most likely to happen if the challenge is slightly greater than you perceive your current skills. If it is not challenging enough, you are likely to be bored. If it is too challenging, you are likely to be anxious. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that there are eight main characteristics of flow:
    1. You need to put all of your concentration on the task at hand.
    2. You need to be clear about your goals and get immediate feedback about if you are on the right track.
    3. Flow transforms time, and things feel like they are either speeding up or slowing down in a flow state.
    4. The experience must be intrinsically rewarding or enjoyable in and of itself, and not just a means to another end.
    5. Your performance should feel effortless in a flow state.
    6. There needs to be a good balance between challenge and skills; ideally, what you are doing is challenging and requires a lot of skill.
    7. Your actions and awareness are merged, and you are no longer in your head thinking about what you are doing or worrying about your performance.
    8. You feel fully in control of what you are attempting to do in pursuit of your objectives.
Sub-scale # 7: Freedom from worry — assesses whether you put pressure on yourself by worrying about performing poorly or making mistakes. It also determines if you worry about what others will think if you perform poorly:
  • Do you worry quite a bit about what others think of your performance?
  • Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself by worrying about how you will perform?
  • While competing, do you worry about making mistakes or failing to come through?
  • Do you think about and imagine what will happen if you fail or screw up?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your worries probably impair your performance.

TO FEEL FREER FROM YOUR WORRIES WHILE COMPETING

  • Try constructive worry. I don’t recommend this strategy during competition, but it is excellent to do before or after a game or when you are training for an upcoming event and are feeling worried. Create a table with three columns, and say what is worrying you in column one, what you can do to address the worry in column two, and when you can solve it in column three. It shouldn’t take much more than 5 minutes and might look like this:
Worries/Concerns What Can I do to address this? When can I address this?
What if I lose? Train hard, prepare well, try my best Now and at the competition
What if I make mistakes or fail? Mistakes help me to learn and improve. Remember the Michael Jordan quote about failure leading to success Anytime I have a setback, try to have a growth rather than a fixed mindset and see what I can learn from it to get better
What if others judge me? Try to care less about this and focus on what is in my control, which is training hard, preparing well and trying my best. Also, don’t forget to have fun. If others judge me for trying my best, that is more about them than it is about me Now. I can put my energy into things that are within my control, which is my intention and my actions, and let go of everything else
  • Practice grounding yourself in the present. Ask yourself: “What are five things I can see right now?” “What are four things I can touch or feel right now?” “What are three things I can hear right now?” “What are two things I can smell right now?” “What is one thing I can taste right now?“. These questions help you to become fully grounded in the present, instead of worrying about things going wrong in the future or ruminating about a mistake you made in the past. Finally, ask yourself: “Am I safe?“. If there is no imminent physical danger, you do not need to be in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, and your brain can relax while you take a few deep breaths and re-focus on what you need to do next to achieve your objective.
  • Defuse from unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes it is helpful to challenge our worries if we know they are unhelpful. If you instead think of something more useful to believe, it might eliminate your fears. If it does not, try to defuse from your worry instead and aim not to get too caught up in it. Thinking “I’m going to miss this shot” won’t help, so if it crosses your mind, imagine putting this worry on a leaf on a river and let it float downstream, or put it on a cloud and watch it float away, or put it in a box on a conveyor belt and let it speed away into the distance. There are many different defusion strategies to help you let go of worrying thoughts. Look them up, try them out when you are not competing, see which ones are most effective for you, and then apply the most effective ones during your next competition. The less you worry, and the more you focus on what you can do that is in your control, the better your performance is likely to be.
To answer the title question, the best psychological strategies to improve your sporting performance are the ones that work best for you. See which sub-scales you score the lowest on, try some of these strategies that I have recommended, and then let me know what worked and how much your performance improved. I look forward to hearing about your improvement and growth! Dr Damon Ashworth Clinical Psychologist

What Separates a Good Athlete From a Truly Great One?

Could You Be Like Mike?

Michael Jordan is potentially the greatest basketball player of all time. He is also thought to be the king of staying laser focused and composed under pressure, and consistently performing at his best. He holds the record of 866 straight games in the NBA scoring at least 10 points, and he scored over 20 points in all of his last 47 playoff games.

Jordan holds ten scoring titles for the most points scored in a season, as well as the highest career regular season scoring average (30.12 points per game) and career playoff average (33.45 ppg). He went to the NBA finals 6 times, and won 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls, alongside 6 NBA most valuable player (MVP) awards. Jordan also won the defensive player of the year award once, played in 14 all-star games, made ten all-NBA first teams and won five MVP awards. He was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2009, and was named ESPN’s greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. Not too bad a career.

pexels-photo-2385477.jpeg

How did Jordan perform to such a high level so regularly, especially when the stakes were the highest? The stadiums were packed with media and screaming and jeering fans, and millions more watched on TV around the world, and yet he managed to consistently step up, night after night.

Maybe it was just was genes or natural talent. However, if this was the case, Jordan’s children should have also been great, and Jordan wouldn’t have been cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore.

Maybe it was his physical conditioning. Again, this might be true, but there have been plenty of fit and athletic players in the NBA, and not all of them go on to become superstars.

There’s also the infamous ‘flu game’ in game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals against the Utah Jazz, where the commentator Marv Albert said this:

“The big story here tonight — the story concerning Michael Jordan’s physical condition. He is suffering from flu-like symptoms.”

michael_jordan_flu_game_q2rhl94g_cl30kje0.jpg

Because the series was tied at 2 all, Jordan didn’t want to let his physical state prevent him from playing. Jordan started slow, and later admitted that he felt weak, had really low energy and couldn’t breath properly. In spite of almost passing out and having to slump over with his hands on his knees whenever the game stopped, Jordan helped the Bulls fight back from a 16-point first quarter deficit to win 90-88 and then go onto win the series in 6 games. In the process, he scored 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and the three-pointer that sealed the game with less than a minute to play.

What separated Michael Jordan from the rest and helped him to become one of the greatest athletes of all time was his mental fortitude and mindset. He never gave up, truly believed that great things were possible as long as he put in the work and tried his best, and he never backed down from a challenge.

Here are two of his most famous quotes that perfectly exemplify this:

Jordan didn’t care about making mistakes or failing in the eyes of others. What he really cared about was trying his absolute best, and not letting fear of failure hold him back from doing everything he could to help his team win. It could be that Michael Jordan is an anomaly here, but I don’t think he is.

If you look at all the greats, their mindset and mental strength played a huge role in their overall level of success. Let’s look at Simone Biles in gymnastics, who has now won 25 medals at the World Gymnastic Championships in her career, including 19 gold.

Here’s how she approaches training and competitions:

Biles believed in working harder than anyone else in practice to be the best, but also prioritized being confident in herself and her abilities, and knew that in order to do this, she needed to also ensure that she looked after her mental and emotional health.  

What about Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 28 Olympic medals in swimming, including 23 gold:

Phelps, like Biles, tried to train harder than anyone else to be the best. He also focused on building belief and confidence in himself and not listening to any doubters who tried to tell him that something couldn’t be done. Like Jordan, he did not view it as failure to try as hard as he could to achieve his goals, even if he fell short.

All three amazing athletes had incredible success when it mattered most. Their mental attitude towards themselves, setbacks, practice and competition was no doubt a huge factor in the results that they achieved.

man climbing on rope

The Equation for Success

Some people may still try to put their success down to talent, but hopefully all of you know that this is wrong. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her book ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ developed an equation for success based on her research into the area:

talent + effort = skill

skill + effort = achievement

This means that the amount of hard work and effort you put into your training and preparation is twice as important for success than your initial level of talent.

Duckworth doesn’t exactly say this in her book, but once the effort has been put in at training, I truly believe that the next most important predictor of success is your mindset and mental strength on the day of the competition.

silhouette of a boy playing ball during sunset

Finding Flow

Most professional athletes know what it is like to be “in the zone” or in a “peak experience” as Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it. It has also been commonly referred to as a “flow state”, which was initially coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and examined in detail in his book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

Flow can be defined as:

“being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Your perception of time changes. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skills to the utmost, and those skills are significantly magnified. Physical skills, mental skills, psychological skills, social skills, creative skills, decision-making skills. Flow breaks boundaries. You are flow. It is you. There is no thought. You are fully immersed in your body and the moment. You experience profound mental clarity and a sense of oneness. Everything just works.”

I’ve never been to an Olympics before, but I can tell you that when I am confident and in the zone playing basketball or volleyball, I feel like no one can stop me, the game is so easy, things seem to move in slow motion and my level of performance astounds me. I am not exactly the best shooter in basketball, but I have had some games where making a basket was as easy as throwing a stone into the ocean from the edge of a pier.

If you don’t know what I mean, check out Klay Thompson’s shooting performance in only one quarter of basketball, smashing the previously held record:

Notice how it didn’t seem to matter where he was or who was defending him; he was in the zone, and he was going to shoot the ball as soon as he caught it, and those shots were going to go down.

The book ‘The Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler suggests that extreme and adventure sport athletes are the best at getting into flow states consistently and remaining there while competing. Because of the real risk of death and serious injury with mistakes, flow is not just a desired state to aim for but a necessity in these sports. Consequently, only the athletes that can consistently do it survive, both in the sport and in their lives.

Kotler tries to go beyond flow to explain unbelievable performances, such as pro-skater Danny Way jumping the great wall of China with a broken ankle:

Kotler says that every athlete has the capacity to get in the zone. Unbelievable performances are about experimenting with the impossible once you are in a flow state, pushing your limits, and seeing what you are truly capable of. 

man wearing black long sleeved shirt standing on mountain

The opposite is also true. When I am not in a good headspace or my confidence is low, even the most basic moves feel difficult and scoring points can feel almost impossible. I’m going to guess that most of you have had similar experiences in your own sports too. When things just aren’t clicking. Where you start to doubt yourself. Where no matter what you try you just can’t get out of your head and you tense up. You start to miss free throws like Shaq:

What if you could be like Michael Jordan or Danny Way, and consistently perform at your best and reach your potential when it matters most? How would that feel, and how much would you pay to figure that out?

Fortunately, I won’t be charging you anything, but I do hope to help you unlock your own secrets to consistently great performance. In my next article, I’m going to teach you the mental skills and strategies to bounce back from adversity, take on helpful feedback from your coaches, and remain focused and composed even in highly stressful and distracting situations. I’m also going to help you to become more consistently confident and motivated, have clear objectives and be well prepared, perform at your best under pressure and not let your worries interfere with your game or prevent you from getting into a consistent state of flow. Stay tuned. 

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Values Do You Try to Live Your Life By?

Values are guiding principles for our lives that are endless pursuits. We cannot achieve a value in the same way we can accomplish a goal. However, at any point in time, you can connect with them, act in accordance to them, and receive the vitality, energy, improved self-worth, greater emotional well-being and happiness that are often the result of living consistently with our values.

To figure out your most important values, first write if each value in the list below is very important to you (V), quite important to you (Q), or not important to you (N).

It is essential that we choose the values that feel right to us, rather than pick the values that we think our parents or society might want us to follow.

Then, for only your very important values, score from (0-10) how much you have been living according to this value over the past month, with:

0 = not following this value over the past month,

1 – 3 = following this value occasionally,

4 – 6 = following this value sometimes,

7 – 9 = following this value often, and

10 = always living by this value.

VALUES LIST

  1. Connecting with Nature: Importance of value to you (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency with value if it is very important to you (0-10?) = _________
  2. Gaining wisdom: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  3. Creating beauty (in any domain, including arts, dancing, gardening): Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  4. Promoting justice and caring for the weak: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  5. Being loyal to friends, family and/or my group: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  6. Being Honest: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  7. Helping others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  8. Being sexually desirable: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ________
  9. Having genuine and close friends: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  10. Having relationships involving love and affection: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  11. Being ambitious and hard working: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  12. Being competent and effective: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  13. Having a sense of accomplishment and making a lasting contribution: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  14. Having an exciting life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  15. Having a life filled with adventure: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  16. Having a life filled with novelty and change: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  17. Being physically fit: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  18. Eating healthy food: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  19. Engaging in sporting activities: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  20. Acting consistently with my religious faith and beliefs: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  21. Being at one with God: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  22. Showing respect for tradition: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  23. Being self-disciplined and resisting temptation: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  24. Showing respect to parents and elders: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) =____
  25. Meeting my obligations: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  26. Maintaining the safety and security of my loved ones: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  27. Making sure to repay favours and not be indebted to people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  28. Being safe from danger: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  29. Being wealthy: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  30. Having authority, being in charge: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  31. Having influence over other people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  32. Having an enjoyable, leisurely life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  33. Enjoying food and drink: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  34. Being sexually active: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  35. Being creative: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  36. Being self-sufficient: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  37. Being curious, discovering new things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  38. Figuring things out, solving problems: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) =______
  39. Striving to be a better person: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  40. Experiencing positive mood states: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  41. Feeling good about myself: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _______, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  42. Leading a stress-free life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _______, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  43. Enjoying music, art or drama: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  44. Designing things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  45. Teaching others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  46. Resolving disputes: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  47. Building and repairing things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  48. Working with my hands: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  49. Organising things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  50. Engaging in clearly defined work: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) =_____
  51. Researching things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  52. Competing with others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  53. Being admired by many people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  54. Acting with courage: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  55. Caring for others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  56. Accepting others as they are: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  57. Working on practical tasks: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ________
  58. Seeking pleasure: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  59. Avoiding distress: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  60. Avoiding self-doubt: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________

It will be difficult/impossible to always live by all of our very important values, because some values will come into conflict with each other. However, if you are have scored it a 5 or below in your consistency rating, then try to set a goal for the next month of how you can live more consistently with this value.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

PLEASE NOTE: These value descriptions were taken from a values cards exercise that I did during my doctoral degree. I am not sure who developed it, but will happily give credit to them if anyone can let me know who did.

 

Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

It’s been over 9 months since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.

The first 1–2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people I had left behind to have this experience—especially my old private practice jobs and the patients I had there.

Once I settled in, however, the following seven months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore. I am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can. I am developing some excellent friendships too.

About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back and curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.

Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot into every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted. My elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that my lifestyle was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, age, or environment.

Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means Port Vila operates much more leisurely than Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.

The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.

The moment I arrived back in Melbourne, however, I felt stressed again and tired shortly after that. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but many people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as possible because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.

People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers I did smile at or said hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like, “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”

Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. For example, people from Melbourne often expect Asia, South America, or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.

My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see many of my friends and family again, and I hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.

I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Importance of Sleep for Good Mental Health

Sleep difficulties are a feature of nearly every mental health difficulty, including depression, anxiety, trauma, substance use issues, bipolar disorder and psychosis or schizophrenia. Take Depression for example. Up to 90% of individuals with Depression have sleep difficulties, and two out of every three have significant enough sleep problems to also have a diagnosis of Insomnia.

alarm clock analogue bed bedroom

Worse still, Insomnia does not tend to go away on its own without appropriate treatment. This is because once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaving around sleep that make their problems worse over the long run.

Fortunately, there is a treatment out there that can improve your sleep. It’s called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), which directly targets these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours around sleep.

CBT-I is an effective treatment for insomnia, with many studies showing it to be similar to sleeping pills at improving sleep in the short-term, and much more effective than sleeping pills at improving sleep in the long-term.

Research shows that CBT-I consistently reduces the time taken to get to sleep, decreases the amount of time spent awake during the night, and improves sleep quality and efficiency, with improvements persisting after treatment finishes. This is unlike sleeping pills, which typically lead to sleep difficulties coming back once people with insomnia stop taking them.

Sleeping pills are also not recommended for use beyond 2-4 weeks at a time, because they stop working after a while and people need to take bigger doses over time to get the same effects. Sometimes doctors prescribe them more because they think they will work faster for patients, but even one session of CBT-I has been shown to make a significant difference to one’s sleep at night!

beach during sunset

CBT for Insomnia consists of four main components:

  1. Psychoeducation: This provides people with helpful information around sleep, including homeostatic pressure, circadian rhythms, hyper-arousal and sleep hygiene recommendations. Sleep hygiene means having a comfortable bedroom environment, minimising light exposure before bed, exercising during the day, minimising caffeine and alcohol and doing things to wind down or manage worries before bed.
  1. Sleep scheduling: This provides people with helpful information on when they should be going to bed at night, the time they should be arising from bed in the morning, and the ideal amount of time that they should be in bed for each night. Stimulus control and sleep restriction are the two main interventions included in sleep scheduling, and both are scientifically supported for improving sleep quality and sleep efficiency if done properly.
  1. Relaxation techniques: Because hyper-arousal plays a huge role in Insomnia, it is important to help people develop strategies to quieten the mind and calm the body, during the day, before bed and in bed. Relaxation techniques can include imagery training, meditation, biofeedback training, deep and slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
  1. Cognitive Therapy: This provides people with the skills to challenge their unhelpful or unrealistic beliefs about sleep. A lot of individuals with Insomnia attribute all of their tiredness, mood difficulties or poor performance at work to their sleep difficulties, and this puts too much pressure on them to get a good night’s sleep. It is therefore important to get them to see the other factors that may contribute to how they feel during the day, present them with data that challenges their fears, and help them to develop realistic expectations about their sleep.

In Vanuatu, there is currently only one psychologist located at the Mind Care Unit in Port Vila who is trained in CBT-I. Please come down to receive this effective treatment if you or a family member is struggling with poor sleep. Until then, there are other sleep strategies that you can try:

orange cat sleeping on white bed

BEST SLEEP INTERVENTIONS OVERALL

In 2017, Dr Damon Ashworth, Clinical Psychologist and Sleep Researcher, ran 26 two-week experiments on his sleep to determine which interventions were most helpful for him.

He gave each intervention a score out of 100, based on how effective he found the strategy (25 points), how easy it was to apply and use the strategy (25 points), and how much scientific evidence there was that showed that this strategy could improve sleep (50 points).

Here are all of the sleep interventions he tested, ranked from best to worst based on their overall score out of 100:

palm trees at night

High Distinction

  1. Stimulus control = 85/100
  2. Winding down before sleep = 85/100
  3. Sleep restriction = 81/100
  4. Relaxation strategies pre-sleep = 81/100

photo of a man sitting under the tree

Distinction

  1. Meditation = 77/100
  2. No alcohol = 75/100
  3. Wearing blue-light blocking glasses before sleep = 75/100
  4. Listening to music in the evening = 73/100
  5. Yoga/Pilates = 72/100
  6. Constructive worry or writing down plans = 71/100

white teddy bear with opened book photo

Credit

  1. Avoiding TV before bed = 69/100
  2. Melatonin = 68/100
  3. Aromatherapy = 68/100
  4. Sauna or hot bath in the evening = 68/100
  5. Morning sunlight = 65/100
  6. Reading or listening to audiobooks pre-sleep = 63/100
  7. Exercise during the day = 61/100

black ceramic tea cup on brown surface

Pass

  1. No caffeine = 58/100
  2. Food that helps sleep = 57/100
  3. Controlling temperature = 57/100
  4. Massage in the afternoon = 57/100
  5. Comfort of sleep surface = 56/100
  6. Sleeping alone = 53/100
  7. Creativity in the evening = 52/100

Sleep Recommendations

(Stepanski & Wyatt, 2003)
  1. Decrease time in bed – Sleep efficiency is a better predictor of satisfaction with sleep and daytime mood than total sleep time. So if you only get 7 hours of sleep per night, spend 7.5 hours of time in bed. This will allow for better sleep over time.
  2. Regular bedtime and arising time – Reducing variability in your sleep can make a huge difference in how long it takes you to get to sleep, how restful a sleep you have, and how refreshed you feel in the morning. Have a set bedtime, and whenever you feel sleepy around this time, go to bed. Then set an alarm so that you can wake up at the same time each day. If you want to sleep in on weekends, allow yourself no more than one hour later than you usually wake up. Following this regardless of how much sleep you get helps to strengthen your circadian rhythms and build up your homeostatic pressure to ensure better sleep over time.
  3. Exercise – Vigorous exercise prior to bedtime is actually unhelpful for sleep, but expending more energy during the day is likely to lead to better quality sleep at night. The earlier in the day it is done, the greater the effect it will have.
  4. Less caffeine and alcohol – Minimise these substances where possible, especially within 4 hours of bedtime as they both have significant effects on sleep quality. Alcohol can reduce worries and result in getting to sleep quicker, but results in poorer sleep quality in the second half of the night. Alcohol can also can lead to more snoring due to the loosening of the throat muscles. Caffeine boosts cortisol levels, a.k.a. stress, and results in less deep sleep and more awakenings.
  5. Do not try to sleep – It is something that has to come on naturally. The harder you try to get to sleep, the less likely you will be able to, as trying activates the autonomic nervous system, which also increase how stressed you feel. The more you allow yourself to relax, the more likely sleep is.
  6. Do not keep looking at your phone or alarm clock during the night – If your alarm is set, then there is no need to know the time in bed. This will only increase performance anxiety if you look and see that you have not slept for very long. Put it in a draw, cover it with a shirt, or face it the other way.
  7. Keep naps short – Napping during the day reduces your pressure for sleep by the time you get into bed at night. If you have to nap, keep it less than 30 minutes so that you don’t go into a deep sleep, and do it before 4pm so that sleep pressure can build up again by the time you go to bed that night.
  8. Engage in relaxing activities before bed – Just like waking up, going to sleep is a transitional process. Don’t expect that your mind will shut off immediately as soon as you get into bed. Whatever it is, do something relaxing as a pre-bed routine. Watch some T.V., read a book, listen to some music, have a hot bath, practice yoga, mindfulness or relaxation techniques. Then maintain that relaxed state in bed and allow sleep to come.
  9. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex – This means no reading, eating, internet surfing, game playing, phones, T.V., planning, worrying etc. in bed. Want bed = sleep.
  10. Make worry list before bed – To prevent your mind from racing in bed, reflect on the day about 2 hours before you want to sleep, write down any worries, concerns or problems you may have, create a to-do-list, or plan for the day ahead. Then if thoughts come up in bed, remind yourself that you have already sorted them out or that they can wait until tomorrow.
  11. Leave the bed if awake – Sometimes no matter what we try, you may find yourself awake in bed. If you do not fall to sleep within what feels like 20 minutes, get up, go to another room, and do something relaxing until you are sleepy before returning to bed. Over time, this will recondition the bed with sleepiness rather than frustration and allow you to fall asleep quickly. If you are worried that you may never sleep if this was the case, give it a try for a week. It may be the most difficult recommendation to follow initially, but it produces long-lasting results quickly.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Four Ultimate Concerns in Life

I’ve been afraid to say this for a while because of how it will be perceived, but my favourite book of all time is actually a textbook. So before you think that makes me someone you would never want to speak to, I’ll ask if you have ever read anything by Irvin Yalom, American Psychiatrist and Author?

His book ‘Existential Psychotherapy’ is a true masterpiece he worked on for 10 years and is written as eloquently as any of his other titles, including ‘When Nietzsche Wept’, the best fiction novel award winner in 1992.

What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Existentialism is the philosophical exploration of existential issues or questions about our existence that we don’t have an easy answer for. We all suffer from anxiety, despair, grief and loneliness at times in our lives. Existential Psychotherapy tries to understand what life and humanity are about.

In the book, Yalom explores what he considers to be our four most significant existential issues in life:

  1. Death
  2. Freedom
  3. Isolation
  4. Meaninglessness

These existential issues or ultimate concerns are “givens of existence” or “an inescapable part” of being an alive human in our world. He shows how these concerns develop over time, how we can run into problems with each of these issues, and what they might look like in patients coming to therapy. He also talks about how we can try to live with these concerns to negatively impact our lives less, even if we don’t have clear-cut solutions to them.

Let’s go through each of these ultimate concerns…

1. Death

Homo sapiens, or humans, as far as I know, are the only species in the animal kingdom that are aware that one day they are going to die.

The first time I heard this, it fascinated me and made me wonder if life would be more comfortable not being aware that one day we cease to exist.

Imagine it. Life is going well. Then suddenly, it is no more. No worry about what the future holds. We are born. We experience life. Then we are no longer there. No fear. Just nothingness.

Being aware that we will die shapes and influences our lives much more than we would like to admit. This is because so many of our anxieties and phobias at their core are fear of some loss or death.

Irvin Yalom says that while the actuality of death is the end of us, the idea of death can actually energise us.

If we don’t know when we will die, being in touch with the fact that one day everything will vanish is enough to overwhelm some people and make them panic.

For others, it is enough to make them follow the maxim of carpe diem and helps them to seize the day by appreciating everything they have so that they can make the most of the precious time they have left on this planet. Time is really just a bright spark of lightness between two identical and infinite periods of darkness — one before we are born and one after.

Death is the ultimate equaliser, for no matter how much we have achieved or done with our time on this planet, the truth is that we will all one day die.

It is also true that we will not know exactly when death will happen. It might be with a car accident tomorrow, from cancer in ten years, motor neurone disease in twenty years, a heart attack in thirty years, a stroke in forty years, or during our sleep in fifty years.

Because our knowledge of our inevitable death is so inescapable and hard to confront and deal with directly, we instead focus on smaller and more manageable worries or concerns in our lives that we can do something about if we want to. If we successfully address all these minor concerns, however, we then come in contact with our fear of death again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Most people tend to have one of two basic defence mechanisms against their fear of death:

A. They can think that they are “special” and that death will befall others but not them, and try to be an individual and experience anxiety about life.

Or

B. They can think they are an “ultimate rescuer” and try to fuse with others and experience anxiety about death (their own mortality and that of their loved ones).

A breakdown of either of these defences can give rise to psychological disorders:

  • narcissism or schizoid characteristics for the “special” defence, and
  • passive, dependent or masochistic characteristics for the “ultimate rescuer” defence.

In general, trying to be an individual is a more empowering and effective defence than fusing with others. Still, the breakdown of either can lead to pathological anxiety and/or depression.

The way to feel better about death anxiety is through an exercise called “disidentification”:

  1. To begin with, ask yourself the question “Who am I?” and write down every answer that you can think of.
  2. Then, take one answer at a time, and meditate on giving up this part of yourself, asking and reflecting on what it would be like to give up this part of yourself and your identity.
  3. Repeat this with all the other answers until you have gone through all of them.
  4. You have now disidentified yourself from all parts of your identity. See how you feel, and if there isn’t still a part of you, that feels separate from all the labels you give yourself. This provides comfort and reduces anxiety about death and life for a lot of people.

What I try to manage death anxiety is to only focus on whatever is most important to me that I can do something about in any given moment. I try to appreciate and be grateful for the time that I have had with each important person in my life. I try to be as fully present in the moment and with others as I can be. I try to use every moment and meeting as an opportunity to impact someone’s life positively. That way, I’ll hopefully not have too many regrets and be glad for the time I have had on this planet, no matter how long it ends up being.

2. Freedom

The second ultimate concern is about freedom, responsibility and will.

Every country in the world talks about fighting for the freedom of its citizens and about taking away some people’s freedom to ensure the safety and security of all. Therefore, the existential dilemma is how much freedom do we give up to others to feel safe and secure, or how much safety and security do we give up to feel genuinely free? Are these concepts in direct opposition, or is it sometimes possible to have enough of both?

Responsibility means taking full ownership of:

one’s own self, destiny, life predicament, feelings, and if such be the case, one’s own suffering” — Irvin Yalom

In the past, one’s life was set out for them by their parents or society, and many people struggled to fight for the right to live an authentic and genuine life.

These days, most people struggle instead with the amount of choice that they have in their lives. They come to therapy because they don’t know what they want to do or how to choose, given all of the available options. They also know that if no one else is telling them what to do, it is ultimately their responsibility if things do not work out the way they want them to. People wish to choose for themselves but fear not having someone to blame when things don’t work out.

There are various defences that we engage in to avoid responsibility and shield ourselves from freedom, including:

  • compulsivity
  • displacement of responsibility to another
  • denial of responsibility (“innocent victim” or “losing control”)
  • avoidance of autonomous behaviour, and
  • decisional pathology

We can do something over and over again to relieve anxiety or stop thinking about things. This can present as OCD, hoarding, or any addiction ranging from technology to drugs and alcohol and even dependency on others.

We can try to coerce others to make decisions for us or seek out and find controlling partners, bosses or friends. But, we can also play it safe and try to do what we think everyone else does; focus on keeping up with the Joneses, engaging in passive activities that don’t require much effort, and feeling stuck in an unfulfilling relationship or career.

The problem with giving up the responsibility for how our lives turn out is that it creates an external rather than an internal locus of control. Depression and other forms of psychological disorders are more highly correlated with an external locus of control. It can also lead to learned helplessness, where people no longer feel like they can do anything to change their life in a positive direction.

The way to manage the responsibility and freedom paradox is to develop an internal locus of control. This is generally more beneficial for most people’s well-being unless we blame ourselves or change things out of our control. This includes what has happened in the past, what other people do or say, and acts of nature.

The serenity prayer nicely spells out how we should approach responsibility:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

Paradoxical intention is a good antidote too. This means that we try to do the opposite of what we typically do for a period of time and keep an open mind and observe how things go. We can then see if the outcome is better than what we usually do or if it has taught us something about what will be best for us going forward.

Anything that creates a double bind is potentially helpful for encouraging people to take more responsibility in their lives. One way is to remind someone who struggles to make their own decisions that by not deciding, they are still making a choice not to choose. This means that no matter what they do, it is impossible not to make a decision that impacts the direction of their lives. Even if we choose to follow what someone else wants us to do, we still choose to do this. Therefore, why not take responsibility for our own lives and forge our own paths?

3. Isolation

There are three types of isolation:

“A. Interpersonal isolation: isolation from other individuals, experienced as loneliness

B. Intrapersonal isolation: parts of oneself are partitioned off from the self, and

C. Existential isolation:an unbridgeable gap between oneself and any other being.”

A common way that people try to escape from existential isolation is to fuse with another fully. This is also a strategy for dealing with death anxiety, with people trying to be the “ultimate rescuer” of someone else. It can lead to an individual feeling temporarily less alone. Unfortunately, however, the less isolated we are from others, sometimes the more isolated we are from ourselves.

Other people try to overcompensate for their feelings of isolation by never relying on anyone and trying to be fully independent. Both extremes can have negative consequences.

The main thing we can do to manage our feelings of isolation is to realise and accept that we are social creatures and have always relied on others to survive. This drive creates a desire to feel closer to, more understood, and more connected to people than we can ever achieve and sustain.

Growing up, many people feel loved and comforted in an unbalanced relationship towards their needs being met over their parents. They then try to reenact this within their adult relationships and usually end up feeling resentful, angry and disappointed as a result.

Yalom believes that a good relationship involves “needs-free love”, which is about loving someone else for their sake. This is opposed to “deficiency love”, a selfish love where we only think about how useful the other person may be to us. Creating a relationship where you want the best for the other person is a healthier way to manage interpersonal isolation than demanding for them to meet every need for you.

Some of the best solutions to intrapersonal isolation are to have time to get to know ourselves through practices such as journaling, therapy and meditation. Introverts may need to have more of this time than extroverts, so it’s important to tune into how agitated or lonely you feel to know if you have found the right balance or not.

Unfortunately, existential isolation cannot be fully breached, and therefore needs to be accepted, as it is out of our control. To feel the pain that comes with this isolation and our desire not to have it is challenging, but it can help reduce the intensity of the feeling. Being grateful for the meaningful connections we have in our lives and trying to strengthen them without losing our sense of self is another way to lessen the intensity of the feeling.

4. Meaninglessness

According to Yalom and many non-religious philosophers, humans are meaning-seeking creatures in a world without a universal sense of meaning. As a result of this, most of the world turn to a religious or spiritual belief system of one type or another that clearly lays out the meaning of the world and our purpose in it. People who truly believe these systems often provide a lot of clarity, reassurance, and guidance. The tricky part is that these belief systems can vary widely, and it is hard to know which one is more correct than another or if some of them are even harmful.

What we do know is that most belief systems tend to agree that

it is good to immerse oneself in the stream of life”.

People can try to find meaning through:

A. Hedonism: Seeking out pleasure and positive experiences and trying to avoid pain,

B. Altruism: Dedication towards a cause that helps other people, and

C. Creativity: Transcending oneself through art.

Many philosophers believe that both the search for pleasure and the search for meaning are paradoxical. By this, they mean that happiness and meaning or purpose in life are tough to achieve when they are aimed at directly, but possible if they are aimed at indirectly.

So if you or someone that you know is complaining about a lack of meaning in life, try to see if there are other issues. If possible, address these other issues first, and see if your worry about meaninglessness has lessened or gone away.

The best indirect way to increase a sense of purpose and meaning in life is to build kindness, curiosity and concern for others. This is often best done by helping out with a charity, joining a club, fighting for a cause, or attending a group activity or group therapy.

Yalom strongly believes that a desire to engage in life and satisfying relationships, work, spiritual and creative pursuits always exists within a person. Therefore, the key to managing meaninglessness is to remove the obstacles that prevent the individual from wholeheartedly engaging in the regular activities of life.

We may never be able to find the absolute meaning of life. However, what we can do is work at creating a life that is personally meaningful to us.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Which Archetype Are You?

Ever notice how any successful story throughout history tends to have a similar cast of characters?

If you haven’t bothered counting, I’ll let you know that most characters will fall into one of 12 principal roles, and this explains why and how we can find favourite stories so relatable. Carl Gustav Jung, a famous psychoanalyst, defined these characters and their journey as Archetypes.

What is an Archetype?

An archetype is something that symbolises primary human motivations, drives, desires and goals. It influences how one finds meaning in life, what one values, and personality characteristics. Most people tend to identify primarily with one archetype, although it can be a mix of a few different ones.

Below are the 12 archetypes, with a brief description below them:

If you’re a visionary, you value innovation above all else. You look for patterns in the ordinary and try to create order out of chaos. You are intuitive and tend to find it much more comfortable than others to predict trends and look into the future accurately. You love to exchange ideas, share your opinions, and try out new gadgets. But you also tend to overthink things or catastrophise if stressed and overwhelmed. When this happens, you need to retreat to somewhere secluded and/or scenic to once again focus on your next innovative idea that you would like to put into action.

The visionary archetype includes the designer, the detective, the director, the entrepreneur, the hermit, the futurist or the strategist.

If you’re a caregiver, you value being compassionate, caring and kind to others, especially your family and friends. You struggle to say no to people because you love to help out and give as much as you can. Burnout is a risk if you spread yourself too thin, however. You are easy to get along with, flexible to various situations, and always willing to do what is required to adapt to and fit in with others without losing your sense of self. Your favourite activities involve spending time with those you love, and you are the person that people call or talk to if they have been going through something tough or are in crisis.

The caregiver archetype tends to include the loving parent, the teacher, the nurse, the doctor, the best friend forever, the rescuer, the mentor, the healer, the veteran and the civil servant.

The royal wants power and to be in control. They love being a leader and the boss and love living the high life and the sense of entitlement that comes with this. The royal is not afraid to throw money at a problem so that it will go away and is willing to use their status, title or name to get what they want and feel that they deserve. Activities, holidays and clothes all need to be the best that money can buy.

Royal archetypes include the king, the queen, the prince or princess, the boss, the executive, the politician, the diva and the networker or social climber.

The performer is all about entertaining others and being the centre of attention, even at social and family gatherings. Like Lady Gaga, they live for the applause and moving others emotionally or making them laugh. The performer wants to be seen and believes that being dramatic and in the right places with the right people is the best way to achieve this.

The performer archetype includes the actor, the entertainer, the comedian, the clown or fool, the eccentric, the trickster, the storyteller, the spellcaster, the magician and the provocateur.

The spiritual person has their faith as the cornerstone of who they are. They are belief-driven and pray and seek for what they know to be true to come to fruition. They love to engage in yoga, meditation, and connecting with others on a deeper level and feel very connected with others and the world around them. The biggest trap for the spiritual person is magical thinking and not doing enough to take action and change the questionable things in their lives. They instead have hope and faith that things will work out the way they want, even when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

The spiritual archetype can include the shaman, the saint, the mystic, the guru, the angel, the missionary, the martyr, the disciple and the Samaritan.

The tastemaker values the beautiful nature of things above all else. They pay attention to trends, fashion and decor, and ensure that whatever they have is as aesthetically pleasing as possible. But, unlike the royal, they don’t assume that this is just about what is most decadent or expensive. A tastemaker loves to explore new restaurants, shops, technology and holiday spots. Their weakness is judging others who do not prioritise aesthetics as much as them.

The tastemaker archetype includes the fashionista, the goddess, the gentleman and the metrosexual.

The explorer loves adventure, exploring the world, and seeking excitement wherever they are. They are curious about everything new and things they are yet to encounter, and as a result, they fear commitment and being stuck in one spot or tied down by someone else in any way. The explorer feels drawn to things unseen and undiscovered and is willing to be practical about what it takes to live their lives in this way. They love meeting new people and immersing themselves in new cultures and experiences.

The explorer archetype includes the adventurer, the traveller, the seeker, the discoverer, the wanderer, the individualist, and the pioneer.

The advocate is always being a champion for a good cause and hoping that things will get better if they fight for what they believe in. They may tend to get too caught up personally in the cause but are willing to back up what they believe in by getting signatures for a petition, fundraising money for a campaign, or organising a protest. They also try to live their lives in a way that is consistent with their values and standing up for those less fortunate or those without a voice, such as flora and fauna.

The advocate archetype includes the hero, the environmentalist, the crusader, the vegan, the lawyer, the feminist, and the human rights advocate.

The Intellectual takes pride in their extensive knowledge about things that are important to them. They are always seeking new information and trying to apply it in a useful way to increase their wisdom. The intellectual can come across as a know-it-all, but they never feel like they have enough new things to learn. They love to spend time reading books and going to museums and are happy to impart their knowledge to anyone willing to listen.

The Intellectual archetype includes the philosopher, the student, the geek, the sage, the scientist, the theologian, the crone, the inventor, and the judge.

The rebel’s core values are justice and autonomy. They are fiercely independent and cannot be contained by the social niceties, order and dutifulness. They do what they want at all times, and like adventure and excitement, challenging convention and being deliberately provocative too. They are at risk of not thinking through the consequences of their decisions, and as a result, can overconsume drugs or alcohol or get into trouble with the law, at work, or with those closest to them.

Rebel archetypes include the warrior, the hedonist, Don Juan, the femme fatale and the wild man or wild woman.

The athlete lives for staying active, fit, and in shape. They love to compete in anything involving physical activity and are happiest when they have achieved a big, athletic goal. The athlete tends to turn everything into a competition, which can annoy others, but they are just as happy pushing themselves to improve their health and body. Clothing is worn for comfort and performance only, not aesthetics. The athlete loves to attend sporting events and is also happy to watch sport on the TV.

The Athlete archetype includes the competitor, the outdoorsman, the dancer, and the tomboy.

The creative loves being original and genuinely expressing themselves. The creative hates to repeat or copy what others have done before them. They are happiest creating something from nothing, and this may include a piece of art, but it could also be a meal, an outfit, a room in a house or even an idea. The creative tends to be a perfectionist, which can make it difficult to begin a new project. Once you get started, you tend to get into the zone until a project is complete or you need a break.

The creative archetype includes the artist, the chef, the child, the poet, the novelist, the shapeshifter and the romantic.

What Are Your Main Archetypes?

At archetypes.com, it’s possible to find out which archetypes you are most similar to. This may help you identify what journey you need to take in life or what areas may be best for you to focus on going forward. Included below are my results:

I’m pretty happy with these results and not surprised by my top 2, but I was surprised to see visionary my third highest archetype. I’ve never thought of myself as imaginative or innovative, but I do want the world to change for the better and am willing to do what I can to improve the mental health of others.

Based on these results, it’s apparent that I love to help others. Still, I need to be cautious about taking on excessive responsibility for others or feeling too guilty or inadequate when I can’t help as much as I would like to. I love to learn and be curious about new things, but I still need to be humble and understand that there’s still so much that I’ll never know. I also need to realise that not everyone wants to learn as I do, which is okay. Lastly, when I have an innovative idea, it is vital that I put this plan into action to make a real difference. I would also benefit from connecting with others and collaborating with the right people to help make these dreams a reality.

I know that archetypes and the test are not highly scientific, but I still found them useful to think about what story I am trying to live out and what values or principles I am being guided by. Caring for others, learning new things, and creating positive change is what I care about. What about you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist