P3 Thinking – Conditioning Yourself Mentally

by Dr. Stephen Walker, CC-AASP

Robin Vealey is one of sport psychology’s best. Her book Coaching for the Inner Edge (2005) is one the field’s most comprehensive works. In it she offers guidance in the use of applied methods and instruction on some of the most valuable techniques available. I give it my highest endorsement and believe it should be part of every coach’s library, regardless of the sport they teach. Whether your focus is on team chemistry or mental conditioning for peak performance, there is depth and substance to please even the most discriminating of practitioners.

One small chapter in this remarkable text involves a skill called P3 thinking. P3 Thinking is a mental training tool that focuses on the uniqueness of our self-talk, internal dialogue or cognitive awareness. It can either be purposeful, productive and positive (P3), or not. The not is likely to be characterized by more random thoughts, reactive in nature and restrictive in both range and usefulness.

It is a fact that successful athletes think differently.

They have belief systems that support their success and they actively work to manage their thought patterns. Every athlete who has conditioned themselves mentally will have readily practiced methods or strategies that support P3 thinking. This article reviews Vealey’s concepts and recommends some exercises she uses to develop your skill at P3 thinking.

Thinking Purposefully

Athletes and coaches who excel know what athletes should be thinking about and when they should be thinking it. Optimal performance does not come when athletes over think their execution. There is a distinct difference between purposeful thinking and random or reactive thoughts.

The flow state (optimal performance zone) is impaired when an athlete is encumbered by random or reactive judgments. There is no guarantee that an athlete will be able to engage the flow state on demand, but the likelihood is greatly enhanced when purposeful thinking patterns are developed and routinely engaged. Nike says “Just do it,” but do you ever wonder why some athletes can’t even describe the optimal performance zone, much less call for it on demand?

Athletes who don’t engage in purposeful thinking are far more likely to let events in the environment dictate how they think and feel. This happens largely because they don’t know what to think about.

Purposeful thinking is disciplined and focuses on such things as skill development, execution, strategy and getting us charged up or psyched for the extreme effort. It often may be designed to relax us, calm us down, focus our concentration, or remind us of our strengths to boost confidence.

The key to purposeful thinking is to clearly identify the focal points for your thinking – the goal, process of execution, the solution to the problem. Done properly and practiced regularly, this type of focus reduces the chance your thinking will gravitate toward what you don’t want.

Thinking Productively

Vealey suggests that the goals of sport psychology are to help athletes and coaches: 1) Achieve optimal performance. 2) Develop to your full potential. 3) Realize the most rewarding experiences in sport.

No one is immune to negative thoughts. The greatest athletes in the world have them. But what makes them different? They realize that they have a choice to make. They can gravitate toward them, or, they can respond in a different manner, and favor more productive thinking.

Thinking productively can only happen when the individual is focused in the “now” moment. Future thinking often contributes to anxiety. Thought patterns focused in the past tend to trigger should’ve, would’ve, could’ve self-talk and can often lead to discouragement. By definition, judgments and feelings that take us away from the “now” moment interfere with our own personal control. Productive thinking is always in the present.

Productive thinking is also task related. The point of concentration is on what we are “doing”, or the job at hand. Personal significance is important too since productive thinking must address things that are important to each individual athlete or team. Consider two athletes warming up. One of them is thinking about their rate of turnover, the “feel” of the optimal stride and the objective of improving upon their previous PR. Are they more likely to succeed than the athlete next to them who is worrying about how good the athlete looks in lane 5 …or maybe the athlete unhappy with their seeding in the event?

Consider this. The difference between the gold medal and fifteenth place in the Olympic 5,000 meters was just 10 seconds. How much of that margin can be attributed to discrete differences in physical or mental conditioning?

Thinking Possibilities

I once attended a workshop conducted by Dr. Jerry Lynch where he asked everyone in the room to stand and stretch with their fingers touching the sky, as best they could. Everyone was stretching, some losing balance, some standing casually with their arms outstretched. Then he asked us to give him just 2 more inches. “Really stretch” he said, and low and behold people found two more inches to give. This is the key to possibility thinking.

Roger Bannister, like many other runners, had to contend with the barrier of the four minute mile. To break that, he probably needed only 2-3 seconds from his previous PR. When weighing the stretch of improving 2-3 seconds vs. breaking the 4 minute mile barrier…which seems more possible?

Possibility thinking begs us to deliberately become more optimistic. Vealey states that, “Optimism is characterized by believing that defeat is a temporary setback, leads people to try harder, work through obstacles, and look for solutions.” Athletes should set possibility goals. They are purposely a stretch but compel us to work toward them.

P3 Thinking Exercises

1) Think carefully about the thoughts and feelings you associate with poor performances that you have had. Do these thoughts relate to the amount of stress you feel, lack of confidence you have? How was your focus in that event? How is it now as you think about it again? (Think Random, Reactive, Restrictive)

2) Now think about a good performance. How were your thoughts and feelings in that situation? Which thought routines do you practice that prepare you to perform well? Which keep you focused and confident? (Think Purposeful, Productive, Possibility)

Antidote: Consider an event or a situation you might anticipate that has the potential to send you into a negative thinking spiral. Write down the specifics of that event and how it might hurt your performance. Do you have an actual memory of such an event?

Replacement Thoughts: In the above situation or using another trigger event, identify the specific event and what replacement thoughts (P3 Thinking) you can employ to take control of that situation. How will this enhance your specific performance in this situation? Do you have an actual memory of doing this? How did it work out?

Robin Vealey has provided an excellent tool to help you develop your mental conditioning program. Consider this anytime you find intrusive thoughts interfering with your performance and use the model to plan ahead, so you have a problem solving remedy at the ready. Remember: These skills become second nature when practiced frequently and employed regularly. Just as in your fitness training, there is no substitute for repetition and practice in developing mental toughness. It could make a difference in your next competition.

Vealey, R.S., Coaching for the Inner Edge

By Dr Stephen Walker PhD