By Stephen Walker, Ph.D.
One of Sport Psychology’s best is Robin Vealey whose 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 the use of 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 the 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. I am a firm supporter of this concept, but I believe we are missing 2 key elements, so I have modified the discussion to include 5Ps.
P5 Thinking is a mental training tool that focuses on the uniqueness of our self-talk, internal dialogue and awareness. This article establishes a framework for assessing our thinking process in sport, performance or creative endeavors which I believe can help us work better toward mastery.
In Vealey’s original text she espouses that our thinking process can be purposeful, productive and positive (P3) or not. The not is likely to be characterized by more random thoughts, more likely reactive to our experience in the moment. This reaction is often a knee jerk 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 P5 Thinking. This article reviews these concepts and recommends some exercises to develop your skill at P5 Thinking.
P1 – 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 or “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 practiced.
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, getting us charged up or even “psyched” for the extreme effort. It often may be designed to relax us, calm ourselves down, focus our concentration, or remind us of our strengths to boost confidence.
Athletes that are in control, are unstoppable. Athletes that aren’t are unpredictable
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.
The great coach John Wooden, used to tell his players to, “Be Quick, but Don’t Hurry.” At first glance this seems odd. But using the framework of thinking purposefully, not so much. Wooden was concerned that indecision caused his players to scramble without direction or intent. Hence, his practice sessions would cover situations multiple times so that every athlete understood their assignment and could perform it quickly and instinctively.
P2 – 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, in the form of “what if” self-talk. Thought patterns focused in the past tend to trigger “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” self-talk and can often lead to discouragement, even depression.
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 assignments are important since productive thinking must address things that are important to each individual athlete, or, their role on the team.
Consider two athletes warming up. In track and field, one of them might be thinking about their rate of turnover, the “feel” of the optimal stride and the objective of improving upon their previous race. Are they more likely to succeed than the athlete next to them who is worrying about how good his opponent looks in lane 5, or maybe, the athlete is unhappy with their seeding in the event?
Consider this. The difference between the gold medal and thirteenth place in the Olympic 5,000 meters was just 8 seconds. How much of that margin can be attributed to discrete differences in physical training? How much to mental conditioning?
P3 – Thinking of the 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. Is the outcome they are asked to create possible in their view.
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. It has been proposed that his coach asked Roger if he thought he could take a half second off of his 400 when training. He proceeded to do that. In successive repeat 400s Bannister was trained for both endurance and speed to accomplish just that. Within two months after breaking the 4 minute mile, Australian, John Landy accomplished the feat. In 2017 5 high school athletes broke the 5 minute mile. When weighing the stretch of improving 2-3 seconds vs. breaking the 4 minute mile barrier…..which seems more possible? How much of any record is physical? How much of it might be mental?
Possibility thinking begs us to deliberately become more optimistic. Vealey states that, “Optimism is characterized by believing that defeat is a temporary setback” and when doing so, it 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.
P4 – Thinking Passionately
In 2016, Angela Duckworth penned an important contribution to the field, GRIT – The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She does a masterful job of enabling each reader to understand how GRIT can be learned.
Athletes are in control of only 3 things: Preparation, Effort, and Attitude. Effort has been viewed as a necessity, but how we learn to employ the will to put that forth is duly connected to our motivations for doing so.
Circling back to how productive thinking relates to each individual’s view of their assignment, or their role on the team, we must also consider the level of passion they may experience for the activity.
What is our “Why?” This concept of our ‘why’ has been discussed in many ways, but each reveals that passion and purpose become intertwined in the motivation for accomplishment, whether in sport, performing arts or creative arts.
This personal expression is most impactful when our purpose is clear, and we have passion. Whether we are wanting to have our teammates back, or just belong to something we are all working together for, our “Why” becomes a key component to our success.
When there is passion in execution, it is apparent at every level. Preparation is mindful and considerate of various obstacles or distractions that may become a part of the competition. Preparation is practiced. When effort becomes routine, is rehearsed, and clearly understood with respect to what’s required for success, people are far more likely to extend themselves in their training, and especially in how they perform in competition.
The root word, competere, is Greek, and means to come together. It was used in the early days of the Olympic games as a peaceful gesture – to come together and show us what you can do. The forum proved that athletes benefitted from the test, and their passion played out in the effort extended.
P5 – Thinking with a Positive Frame of Mind
Mindset is a relatively new concept in applied sport psychology, but when considering the literature, it has been advanced more by the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford researcher, who coined the term “Growth Mindset”.
Growth Mindset is the belief that you have control over your most basic abilities. The opposite, Fixed Mindset, is the belief that, for the most part, you do not have control over those abilities.
Dweck was able to show that these two beliefs lead to divergent behaviors when it comes to your goals, how you view challenges, setbacks, your own effort, criticism, the success of your peers, and ultimately a very different life experience.
A fixed mindset will tend to avoid a challenge because a challenge is an opportunity to look bad. A growth mindset will embrace a challenge because a challenge is an opportunity to learn. A fixed mindset will often give up easily because they do not
want to continue to look bad setback after setback. A growth mindset will often continue despite setbacks because once they overcome a setback they will have shown that they learned something.
Fixed minded individuals aren’t likely to put forth as much effort. If you don’t have control over your abilities, what good is effort? And giving a lot of effort certainly doesn’t look good. The people that can-do things effortlessly are the ones that look good. Growth minded individuals understand that effort is the key towards mastery of any skill. They will give a lot of effort because it has helped them learn in the past.
There is more to mindset. Because the framework we use in establishing our attitudes plays a significant role in our self-talk. Highly critical people, can be so perfectionistic, that they quit early, before they frustrate themselves, or worse, they beat themselves up in the middle of execution, which sabotages their performance further.
The importance to developing and maintaining a positive framework for thinking in sport cannot be understated. In many ways, it directs every aspect of our preparation, effort, and especially our attitude in execution.
P5 Thinking is an approach toward conditioning an athlete mentally, that every coach and sport performance specialist should incorporate in their list of training methods. It sets up a different kind of “chalk talk” that lets a team begin to focus with a similar attitude toward preparation, effort, and method for execution. It is one of the ways we establish an attitude that not only works but gives each athlete a better understanding of their contribution and role on a team.
Walker’s P5 Thinking Exercises
Situation 1: Think carefully about the thoughts and feelings you associate with poor performances that you have had. Make a list of the 3 that bother you most.
- Do these thoughts relate to the amount of stress you feel, or the lack of confidence you have?
- How was your focus in that event?
- How is it now as you think about it again?
As creatures of habit, we tend to have patterns in the kind of mistakes that we make. Having a clear understanding of how we’ve set ourselves up for failure is a valuable exercise.
Situation 2: Think carefully ‘Now’ 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, Possibilities, Passionate, Positive Mindset
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 (P5 Thinking) you can employ to take control of that situation.
How will this enhance your specific preparation?
In what way can you maximize your effort?
Will this enable you to establish and maintain a growth mindset?
How will your attitude be impacted?
Most importantly, How do you envision your Performance in this situation?
Consider this anytime you find intrusive thoughts interfering with your performance and use the model to plan ahead, so you have a remedy at the ready. Remember to practice P5 thinking frequently and employ it 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, Fitness Information Technology – International Center for Performance Excellence, WVU-PE, Morgantown, WV, 2005.
Duckworth, A., GRIT – The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, New York, NY. 2016.
Dweck, C., Mindset – The New Psychology of Success. How we can learn to fulfill our potential. Random House, New York, NY 2006.
Dr. Stephen Walker is an athletic & personal performance consultant who for 35 years has researched and taught applied mental conditioning skills designed for optimum performance. His Ph.D. research brought together the fields of psychology, integrated physiology, & biofeedback contributing to our knowledge of applied stress management. As a consultant from the Human Performance Laboratory of the University of Colorado, and now with Health & Sport Performance Associates, Dr. Walker has interviewed world-record holders, consulted with All-American collegiate athletes, Olympians and professionals in track & field, cycling, triathlon, golf & team sports. For more information visit his website: www.drstephenwalker.com