Poor performance: physical or mental?

Ironically when a performance goes incredibly well, we don’t often hear, wow, that guy/girl/team is so mentally tough! On the other hand when  a competition, race or performance doesn’t go well, we may ask the question, was it physical or mental? When discussing an athlete’s performance I’ve heard coaches say, “It was all mental!”. I’ve broken down performances with athletes I’ve worked with as we try to pick apart any issues that could be more related to mental versus physical reasons for a sub par competition result. Here’s my opinion on some steps to take on deciphering the mental versus physical aspects of a (more often) disappointing result:

1. The Obvious Physical. It is always important to address any physical possibilities first. As a runner I’ve been truly anemic (super low in iron) twice and until I figured out why I was performing so poorly it was super frustrating. Other obvious physical reasons would be any other deficiencies, injuries, or underlying illness. If all the types of physical reasons, most of which could be detected by a medical professional can be ruled out, time to look at the less obvious ones.

2. The Not So Obvious Physical. This is the category that sometimes takes some trial and error by athletes to get right, and can be very individual. Things like getting enough sleep, coping with jet lag, over training, eating/drinking properly before, during and after (especially if doing multiple events over a day or more), and going into a competition rested and sharp enough. While many times great performances happen with less than ideal physical preparation, sometimes (especially if a pattern can be detected), it can be linked back to some of the above aspects of physical preparation, which take high self-awareness, and much practice to fine tune in ever-changing competition scenarios and lead-ups.

3. The Obvious Mental. Did your training predict your performance? Not all sports are as obvious as say track running or pool swimming. When I was a track runner, it was pretty evident what times I would be capable of racing according to the interval times I was running in practice. While other sports aren’t so straight forward, training indications over time, or consistency of your previous competition results can give you a pretty good ball park for how well you can expect to perform. Whether it is one or several competitions where a performance is way below what you’ve proven you are physically capable of doing in training or even previous competitions, perhaps a mental factor is playing a larger role. Things like confidence, focus, competitive motivation, and nerves may be getting in the way.

4. The Not So Obvious Mental. Even though an athlete may be physically ready, and mentally tough, less obvious mental factors can impact performance. For example, sometimes poor decision-making, tactics or strategy in the midst of competition can be critical to the final outcome. Or outside of competition emotional and mental management can impact performance. It is widely accepted that physical training has phases of work or stress and recovery. But what is often neglected is that intense bouts of mental intensity (e.g. period of intense focusing and concentration in or outside of sport) or emotional intensity (e.g. the excitement, highs and lows of competition, strong emotions such as anger, sadness experienced in or outside sport) need periods of recovery too, and will impact physical performance. Stress is stress – the body doesn’t differentiate the cause, or even between perceived positive and negative stress.

5. The Complete Mystery? Sometimes the preparation can go amazingly, mental and emotional stress appears to be in check, and things still don’t go as hoped. And sometimes we may have to accept there might not be any clear reason. In a post titled, “Where to Begin?” my Luna teammate, Catharine Pendrel explained a day like this well which happened for her here in her blog. She was one the favorites to medal at the Olympic Games in London this past August.

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