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What Holds Us Back? The "F Word" That F's Up our Performance.

Mindset Made Simple Tip #183 –What Holds Us Back? The F Word that Fs Up our Performance. Watch or Listen HERE.  

Last week’s Tip was about persistence! If you haven’t read it yet, skip to the link that tells the story about Katherine Peters and the persistence it took to get her doctors to listen to her. Since posting last week, I have heard other frustrating stories about similar situations. Hearing all these is an important reminder that there are times when the adage “when you know, you know” isn’t just a saying…it is a truism and someone else needs to know what you know, so keep talking!

The persistence of Dr. King and Katherine is admirable and who we hope we all can be.  

But, we know how hard it is to keep at it when things aren’t going our way. 

And one of my teams is living this right now. They have all the pieces, but the puzzle is taking longer than they expected to put together. They know what the picture is on the box. They know all the pieces are there somewhere, but they can’t figure out how they all fit together.

We’ve all been there before. AND IT IS SO FRUSTRATING.

On paper, we have what we need. Heck, we’ve even seen it and experienced it. It is there. It was there. 

But, POOF, it’s gone, and trying to get it back is like trying to grab that POOF with our hands. We are reaching and reaching but we can’t reel it in!

What is it? How does this happen? Why do we lose our ability to persist when things don’t go as we expected?  

Even more explicitly, how many times have you seen teams seemingly sabotage their success because they appear to be unwilling to give the effort, focus, collaboration, communication…you name the variable…needed to overcome the challenges inherent in competition?   

Before I go on, this issue is not for athletes only. This unwillingness to give is something we all do…coaches, leaders, parents…all of us when we are afraid our effort will go unrewarded.  

I am not calling out athletes only. We know a lot goes into the success of a team. Even so, the example of a team dealing with frustration will help illustrate ways we may be able to right the wayward ship!

What causes the lukewarm approach of a team in trouble…a team that isn’t where they thought they would be…a team that falls into the “here we go again” mindset?

I think we can narrow it down to one major thing that fuels other things. 

It's that four letter word that starts with "F"....FEAR.... and that F word leads to DISSONANCE.

Both of which lead to lots of emotion and unhelpful behaviors.  What the "f"?

I assigned a podcast for the students in my Tactics and Strategies in the Science of Coaching class this week and it’s a good one. One of the podcast hosts, Dr. Jerry Lynch said in the episode, “FEAR IS THE CANCER OF THE ATHLETIC SOUL.”


Fear of failure. Fear of judgment. Fear of regret. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing others. We even fear responsibility!  

We even conjure up fear as soon as we realize things are going well. 

How many times have you been cruising along in a game or life and the next thing you know, you are worried about how you can keep it going or you tell yourself something bad has to happen because what is happening is going too well? 

It’s NUTS!

This fear of failure is the catalyst for our changes in behavior and it, as Dr. Lynch puts it, “kills opportunity.”  

Not sure we will win? Let’s not try too hard then, so it won’t hurt as bad.

Not getting the playing time we want? Why work hard? No one will notice anyway!

Not into being pushed out of our comfort zone? That coaching tactic was stupid anyway. That’s not how I do things!

Although we don’t normally verbalize these thoughts, the thoughts dictate our feelings, and our feelings influence our behavior…which changes our performance! 

This “it’s not going my way, but I don’t care anyway” modus operandi is frustrating. It’s also our brain trying to reduce the dissonance we feel in our heads, our hearts and our bodies.  

We lose. We hurt.  We change our approach to avoid hurting. 

Not only does going into self-protect mode change our output. It changes how we feel about ourselves.  

We are achievers. We got where we are by working hard and loving what we do. Now, since it hurts, we act like we don’t love it as much and we aren’t as connected to that hard-working achiever that got us here.  

DISSONANCE. And we want to dump those dissonant feelings ASAP!

Studies dating back to the 1950s have defined cognitive dissonance as the discomfort we feel when our behaviors are inconsistent with who we think we are, like when we don’t live up to our own expectations. van Veen, et. al., (2009) found that when we experience cognitive dissonance the part of our brain that is sensitive to pain lights up, meaning the feelings it creates are experienced the same way we feel physical pain.  

Ouch! Like taking our hand off of a hot stove, we find ways to minimize it…and these ways negatively affect our performance!

We came into the season ready to grind…no matter what. Then “what” happened, and we aren’t sure we want to do the things it takes to grind when it hurts. Now, not only do we feel pain, but we also feel bad…bad about ourselves because we aren’t acting like the person we say we are. Our self-concept takes a hit, and it takes our self-esteem with it.

What comes next? We find ways to reduce the pain of the dissonance we are experiencing.

One easy way to do this is to play the blame game. We blame the situation and discount the effects of our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors on the situation we find ourselves trying to manage. We blame the situation for our lack of effort.  “It doesn’t matter what I do, we will lose anyway.”  

Next? We try to protect our self-esteem by reducing the importance of what we are doing. “I really don’t care that much about basketball anyway.” 

This helps us justify our lack of effort. We try to convince ourselves that it just doesn’t matter as much anymore to reduce the dissonance.

The frustration we feel when we see teams that can’t get the puzzle pieces to match up is borne of this PROTECT MODE!

The brain doesn’t like challenges. The brain looks for problems. The brain is built to respond. We don’t control our thoughts. None of these hurtful features of the brain are working in our favor when we feel FEAR!

I wish I had an answer for languishing teams…other than grabbing them and shaking them and saying…you have what it takes…so go use it. (Not a recommended or effective strategy).

But there are a few things we can try.

#1. Ask each athlete to remember why they wanted to be where they are right now. Why did they want to play college athletics? Why did they want to take on this challenge? Who inspired them to do so and if these people were in their heads right now, listening to the thoughts they are having about the challenges they are facing, would they be pleased with their responses/behaviors? etc.? If not, what is one thing they can adjust to ensure they are the athlete and teammate those people expect them to be?


You can take it one step further and ask them what they thought their college experience would be like when they were being recruited and what the reality of being a college athlete is. After they write down what they thought it would be, remind them that their thoughts were not based on experience, but on projections. 

Now that they are where they wanted to be so badly, have them write down the comparisons and the skills, growth and experiences they have acquired that have helped them adapt to the reality of where they are now. They can also write down how they have CHOSEN to respond to these unexpected differences and how their responses have helped or hurt them. This will help them realize that what they thought was not accurate…how could it have been…they hadn’t been here before. But they have the power to use the new situations as opportunities or obstacles based on their responses to them!


#2. Have everyone make a list of what they can and can’t control. Fear begins when we look around and focus on the things we cannot control. We move from process-oriented thoughts to fearing the outcome. We aren’t there yet, so we don’t know what is going to happen. But we do know that if we don’t give effort, focus, collaboration, and communication, our chances of a positive outcome diminish. 

What things can we control that will give us our best shot? Breaking things down into task-relevant behaviors can minimize emotion and help athletes focus on managing moments…one at a time instead of “If we lose this one, we may not win again.”  

When in these situations, former Toronto Blue Jays mental coach, Dr. Ben Freakley asks his athletes, “What is one thing your team can count on you to do today?” I’ll add, this week or this practice? He then asks them if they can do this thing when they are winning or losing. Can they do it no matter what? This is a great way to get athletes thinking about acting differently than they feel.  

I talk with my athletes and teams A LOT about acting differently than we feel. 

We often feel like strangling someone, but we don’t because it is frowned upon! But we let our feelings dictate our actions in practice and competition…because we are under pressure. But what CAN we do…no matter what? Can we get to the elbow? Can we run everything out? Can we hustle back on defense? Can we throw it as hard as we can?  

NO SITUATION, short of injury or our bodies being held or trapped, can change our ability to use our skills. No words.  No call. No loss. No mistake. 

The only thing that can change our ability to hustle is our CHOICE!

So…why do you play? What is one thing you can do to get back to that today? Then, what can you control? What is the ONE THING we can count on you for today?

Both are moving us from protection mode to powerful mode and both can help us reduce the pain we feel when we aren’t acting in congruence with who we want to be.

I can’t say these strategies will help us finish the puzzle and bring the picture on the box to fruition, but I am certain most of our issues start with FEAR. Finding ways to reduce it is a start! Then who knows what will happen!

Manage FEAR and manage the moments!


P.S. Does your team need a new way to deal wtih fear, adversity and uncertainty? Reach out today to schedule a three-session workshop and give them new tools to manage this four letter word and everything that comes with it!  Shoot me a text at 234-206-0946 or an email at and get scheduled today!

Julie Jones

Mental Performance Coach

SSB Performance • 234-206-0946 

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