Gayle Davis is a sports psychologist and author of "High Performance Thinking for Business, Sports and Life," who has worked with USFSA and ISU figure skaters in Colorado Springs for 20 years. I attended the second of her three-part lecture series on "High Performance Thinking." Although I was coming in at the middle, what she was saying still made sense. And everything she discussed, as she pointed out, was simply a life skill -- not specific to sport alone.
She asked the attendees, "What do you think is the #1 reason that athletes don't perform to their ability?" The answer was that they are unable to deal with distractions. She gave tips on how to improve that.
Under "Concentration and Refocus," she told us that there are five or six thousand things vying for our attention at all times, from nagging thoughts to the weather. However, even though the thoughts change very quickly, we can only hold one of them in our heads at a time. So athletes can learn how to deal with this.
She described this familiar situation: a skater will skate, have a distraction, and instead of dealing with it and coming right back, may stay gone -- and then miss elements. The skater's thoughts can be in the past, present or future -- but they'll miss elements if they're in the past (the fall they just had), or in the future (they might miss another element, or place badly). On a more positive but equally distracted note, they might land a difficult element, celebrate, and fall flat on their face because their bodies are going on with the program but their minds are still in the recent past. (This brought laughter of recognition from the crowd.)
But when skaters have a really great skate, they all say the same thing afterwards: they were completely in the moment.
Before a competition, Davis helps skaters make a list of things that might distract them, and then think of a word -- whether random such as "dog" or "cat," or technical or motivational -- that can help them get back quickly.
They also list the skater's strengths rather than weaknesses, and the things that are under the skater's control: self, thoughts, what they're trying to achieve.
Some exercises to improve concentration and refocusing abilities include counting backwards, or choosing a letter of the alphabet and quickly naming 20 words beginning with that letter. It's important to exercise the ability to concentrate, because the normal human attention span (which Davis blamed squarely on television) is 7-11 seconds.
When asked to name goals, many skaters want "a perfect skate." Naturally, perfectionism is a big problem, since perfection cannot be attained. Davis said that most athletes have a streak of perfectionism, but when that streak is too wide, it turns on them. They have to be taught that learning cannot take place without mistakes -- that mistakes are our teachers.
But how do the skaters make mistakes and then feel okay with it? Perfectionists are people who see things as either 0 or 100, completely clueless about everything from 1 to 99. They need to change their thinking to allow for a mistake quota that is large enough to enable learning to occur.
Davis asked if any coaches present had skaters who "circle," and was met with much laughter. "Those are probably perfectionists," she said. Such skaters cannot jump unless everything is in place: their speed, their body positions, no one else on the rink for five miles around. If one thing is out of place, they can't do it and have to circle around and start over. To these skaters, coaches can say, "Even if everything isn't perfect, do it anyway." And Davis said for the coaches to deliberately use the word "perfect" in this case. The same thing with skaters who do a great job until they miss an element, and then fall apart, because they believe they have failed. They must be taught that skaters have to become risk-takers in order to be good athletes.
Some skaters, she said, are like goldfish. Goldfish take over their little bowls comfortably, but when you put them in the bathtub, they swim within the same tiny bowl-sized diameter, staying within what they know and trust. Skaters may do this too, and need encouragement to push themselves a little.
The best way to do this is through repetition, which Davis called "the only way we learn." Repetition builds "the ability to know I can repeat something -- and that builds confidence." She said that in one study, people who heard something once remembered an average of 2% of the content after two weeks had passed. But people who heard something six times remembered an average of 62% of it after two weeks. So, if it's the beginning of the season and you tell your skater to do something technical, they might forget it -- but as the season goes on and you keep saying it, they will remember.
Ninety percent of the time, she said, when we fail to accomplish something, it's because we quit too soon. How many times, she asked, have you seen someone make very little progress on the double axel for two, three, four years -- and then suddenly, it clicks? She said it's like raising a bamboo tree, which you water and tend for five years while it doesn't grow at all -- and then suddenly, within five weeks, it shoots up 90 feet, all because of those five years of meticulous care. "That's exactly what happens with skaters and repetition," she said.
It takes 21 days to make or break a habit, she said. So if a skater is, for example, trying to correct a habit of bringing the leg around and would like to bring it through, she said to have them make a calendar. They can use it to mark 21 days in a row that they remember to bring their leg through. If they miss a day, start over, because that's how the mind works -- when you go back to the old habit, the old programming takes over. Twenty-one days is a long time to do this; most people who are committed to breaking a habit can go 3-5 days before reverting, or the really serious ones, 7-9 days. Skaters committed to this can do visualizations on days when they will not be skating.
On fear management, Davis said that we are all born with only two fears: of falling, and of noise. It's instinct to put a hand down on a jump landing, or to be distracted when the audience makes noise. So skaters must learn to deal with these fears. All others are acquired.
Fear can immobilize you, but this can be changed, since the mind can only hold one thought at a time. You can learn to block out the fear. Most fears come from thoughts of the past or the future, so being in the moment works. If a skater is afraid because they fell painfully on a double axel, the coach can say, "I know you fell and got hurt last week. But let's look at this week -- you can only repeat that exact situation if all the conditions are the same. What's different? Your speed? Your body position?"
She made the point that when you're trying to change habits, things get worse before they get better. That is normal and to be expected. During the transition, sometimes the old habit will happen, and sometimes the new. As long as you're not doing the same thing you were before, though, you're making progress.
Then she took questions from the audience.
Someone asked if telegraphing and circling are more or less the same. Davis said that if you must choose between them, choose telegraphing, because if they have the right information (technically, mentally), they can pull it together and speed it up, and then they'll have the jump.
Davis thinks every jump should have a key word. She uses the image that the jump is in a cage, and you have the key to go get it out. Another trick is to prevent distractions -- she told of a senior man who would sing a song in his head before the triple lutz, because that would fill his mental space so his muscle memory would come up and do the jump.
Someone wanted to ask how coaches can avoid being a distraction, especially at the boards during a competition. Davis said to be honest and positive about what the skater can do. You can behave in whatever way feels right, as long as you talk to the skater about it ahead of time.
About skaters who can only do a jump in one particular area of the ice -- she said they were not born able to do a jump only there, and they can be reprogrammed.
Arousal control is also an important concept. Some skaters, she said, need to be so calm before a competition that you think they're almost dead. Others are hyper. There is no right or wrong answer, but you have to find what is right for each skater.
Someone asked what to do when deep down, you honestly don't believe the skater can do it. Do you pump them up anyway?
Davis said, "Yes. Because you never know."