A blog about my adventures as an athlete, adventures with athletes and just adventures!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I am really lucky to get to work with some professional athletes of different sports. One thing that I have found these athletes have in common is their attitudes! This article is one of my favourites, written with triathletes in mind, but can definitely be applied to any sport: are you a level 6 performer??

Are You a Level 6 Performer?
Achieve more by developing a winning mindset
Matt Fitzgerald, Triathlete Magazine, June 2008

Dr. Stephen Long believes that those athletes who most fully realise their performance potential exhibit certain core mental traits and behavioural patters. Likewise, athletes who fallshort of their potential tend to share a different set of common characteristics. A sports psychologist based in Colorado Springs, CO, Long has devoted his career to studying the character qualities of high-reaching athletes and helping all athletes develop them so they may achieve what he calls level-six performance.

It’s a different sort of sports psychology that the tool-based sort that is practised by the majority of Long’s peers, who concentrate on showing clients how to practice methods such as positive self-talk and mental rehearsal. While these methods are not absent from Long’s system, he is grounded on a different philosophical foundation. Whereas traditional sports psychology takes a problem-solving approach to the mental side of performance (for example, relaxation exercises are used to solve the problem of pre-race anxiety), Long takes a developmental approach. He believes that level-six performers are typically more highly-developed in terms of particular performance-relevant character qualities and that the surest way to become a higher achiever is to develop these same qualities. It makes sense. So, if you feel you have untapped triathlon potential within you that training and nutrition changes alone cannot bring out, then you might want to try Stephen Long’s level-six performance system.

Long began his career as a football coach at the University of Delaware and the University of Virginia. In those roles he witnessed a consistent phenomenon that tickled his curiosity. “I noticed our most productive player was never our most talented player”, he says. Long was so ken to find out why some athletes are able to realise their full potential and others are not that he went back to school to do so, receiving a doctoral degree in education from the University of Kansas in 1990.

His thesis used the theoretical framework of renowned humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow - a hierarchy of needs that culminates in self-actualisation, or becoming oneself through the pursuit of a calling - to tackle the mystery of what makes high-achieving athletes tick. “I came up with a psychology inventory that measures the need for self-actualisation,” he explains. “In the first phase of my research I went to Division I track and field coaches and asked them to select the two athletes who had made the most out of their potential and the two athletes who had made the least out of their potential, and I interviewed them. Interestingly, performance was not an indicator. For example, a certain athlete might be an All-American, but he really should be competing in Europe. Another athlete might just give the team two points at the conference meet, but that’s the very best he could do.”

Long found significant differences between these two groups of athletes - the high achievers and the underachievers - in terms of their beliefs and attitudes. When he went to work as a performance-enhancement specialist for the Air Force Academy, Long continued to collect data. He discovered he could rank athletes in six-level hierarchy of self-actualisation potential in sports. A graph of their distribution along this hierarchy formed a classic bell curve. “Only the top two percent of athletes knew how to actualise their potential,” says Long.”Their beliefs and attitudes are very different from those in levels three and four, where seven out of 10 athletes fall.”

Another eye-opening experience awaited Long at the United States Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs, where he went to collect data from a higher calibre of athlete than he had ever studied. “I discovered that the norm for Olympic athletes was much higher than it was for college athletes,” Long says. There were significantly more level-six performers at the world-class level. “What that told me is that if you want to compete on a higher level, you’re going to have to change the way you think,” Long states.

To know exactly where you fall on Long’s bell curve you would have to complete the test he devised. But he can characterise the six levels of the winning mindset continuum in general terms. “People at levels one and two develop ways of thinking that severely restrict them, he explains. “These attitudes and beliefs can range from fear of failure or fear of success to lack of discipline or laziness. People at levels three and four still have some attitudes and beliefs that limit their performance somewhat. People at level five have learned how to eliminate the psychological barrier to performance. At this level, emotion does not dictate decisions, whereas at levels three and four, many times emotion dictates decisions. Athletes at level six have learned how to use their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions as tools to enhance performance.”

Long insists the mental habits and behaviours of level-six performers are not inborn personality traits but instead are learned skills. Most athletes who have them come by them naturally over time as a result of continuously manifesting a great passion for their chosen sport. However, Long says he has had great success in helping athletes mindfully cultivate the level-six qualities in the athletes who lack them to some degree.

According to Long, level six performers demonstrate a commitment to 11 positive principles. By learning these principles and making your own commitment to each of them, he says, you can develop your character in ways that will raise your level of performance as a triathlete. These principles are as follows:

Learning over ignorance: The athletes who improve most consistently are those who learn most steadily, and those who learn most steadily are those who have conditioned themselves to look for lessons in every new experience. “If you haven’t learned how to learn, you’re not going to maximize your performance,” says Long. There are many different ways to learn. The surest means to increase your learning rate is to broaden your approach to learning. For example, some athletes tend to think and then act, and learn by comparing expected results with actual results. Others tend to act and then think, and learn by encountering surprises. Neither approach is inherently better than the others, says Long, but the athlete who makes a conscious effort to use both will learn and thus improve faster.

Simplicity over complexity: Level-six performers tend to focus their minds on a few important things instead of cluttering their minds with distracting minutia that draw energy away from larger matters that have a far greater impact on performance. One way to choose simplicity over complexity is to set goals selectively. “Keep goals to a minimum,” says Long. “Trying to manage seven, 10, or 13 goals is just impossible. And the main goal in triathlon is pretty much the same as for everyone: go faster.”

Proficiency over incompetence: Level-six performers choose proficiency over incompetence. But does anybody really choose incompetence? Yes, they do, according to Long. To truly choose proficiency you must choose to never be content with any level of improvement as an athlete, he says. “Excellence begins with a level of dissatisfaction with your performance and productivity - fulfilment is overrated,” Long writes in his book, Level Six Performance: A Gold Medal Formula for Achieving Personal and Professional Success. The majority of athletes do not choose proficiency in this way. Instead, they limit themselves by feeling satisfied with a degree of improvement that, for one reason or another, they believe is all they’re really entitled to. Level-six performers cross the finish line and kick themselves for not beating the person in front of them. Others cross the finish line and pat themselves on the back for beating the person behind them. You’ll improve faster if you keep your eyes trained on that person ahead of you.

Excellence over mediocrity: Excellence is, by definition, not normal. Only those who achieve a level of performance that is exceptional or extraordinary qualify as excellent. From this definition it follows that those who wish to achieve excellence must not be afraid to stand apart, cultivate their individuality and find their own way of doing things. “We spend most of our developmental lives trying to fit in, to conform to acceptable standards of behaviour,” Long writes in Level Six Performance. “During the process, we can easily lose ourselves.” While it’s important to take advantage of the accumulated wisdom on how to train and prepare for triathlon competition, copying the methods that have worked for others will only take you so far. At some point you must become independent and secure enough to go your own way. That’s choosing excellence. A good example of choosing excellence - and also of the consequences of conforming - is miler great Steve Prefontaine. In his all-too-brief career, Pre insisted on running from the front in every race. His coach, Bill Bowerman, tried to coach him out of the habit because it wasn’t normal, and he felt it was wasteful. But Pre kept on running from the font anyway, and kept winning - until he finally too Bowerman’s advice in the 1973 Olympic 5000 metres and ran conservatively, and finished fourth.

Process over results: Every athlete who has the ability to win loves to do so, but level six performers spend less time thinking about winning and more time thinking about what it takes to win than equally gifted but less mature athletes do. In other words, they focus their attention on execution instead of hoped-for outcomes. Maximizing your performance requires that you stay in the moment so that you can maintain optimal intensity, technique, responsiveness, and so forth. If you go through the race thinking “I hope I win, I hope I win” or even “I hope I finish, I hope I finish”, your mental focus will slip into the future and you will execute poorly. “Level six performers never finish the race,” Long says. What he means by this statement is that, for these individuals, the feeling of performing well and of improving is more rewarding than the feeling of crossing the finish line or receiving a trophy. This process orientation ultimately helps them reach the finish line faster, and it could do the same for you.

Progress over deterioration: To make a commitment to progress is to make a commitment to preparation. There are many noteworthy examples of great athletes who outperformed their rivals in competition because they out-prepared them in training. Lance Armstrong spent more time scouting and training on the Tour de France stage routes than anyone. Tiger Woods participates in fewer tournaments that most other top golfers, but nobody works harder to perfect his game, condition his body and refine his equipment selection. Long believes that the will to prepare that characterises level-six performers has a source most others would not assume it does. “Perhaps the most important thing [about the level six performers] is that they have tremendous passion for their sport,” he says. “They just love doing it. Only through passion can you be disciplined.” Presumably, a love of swimming, cycling, and running is what hooked you on triathlon in the beginning. But as you became more serious or competitive, you might have lost some of that pure enjoyment and as a result you’re now just going through the motions of training. If so, get back in touch with the kid in you. Start swimming, cycling and running as play once more and your passion for preparation will return - and pay dividends.

Decisiveness over vacillation: Level six performers separate themselves by making effective and productive decisions by clarifying vague distinctions,” writes Stephen Long in his book. Clarity of vision allows them to choose the best course of action when a choice between competing options must be made. How is such clarity of vision achieved? According to Long, it is achieved largely through a commitment to the other 10 principles of level-six performance, Internalizing these values gives you a framework through which to evaluate choices and distinguish the better from the worse. In fact, says Long, committing to the level-six performance principles vastly reduces the number of decisions you need to make; it sets you on a steady course of development that you need not ever stray from.

Balance over extremism: Many triathletes assume that their commitment to the sport necessarily comes at the expense of other life areas, but according to Stephen Long, level-six performers don’t. “There’s your family life, your financial life, your spiritual life, your social life, your professional life, and your health and leisure life, which includes your sport,” he says. “The key is to create a system where each life area is supporting the other life areas.” If you simply jettison the assumption that your pursuit of sport cannot benefit your family life and other life areas, and vice versa, you begin to find creative new ways to enhance their synergy.

Efficiency over wastefulness: On a physiological level, improving as a triathlete is all about gaining efficiency. For example, through proper training you might lop off 10 minutes off your best 40km cycling time trial without making improvement in your maximum power-output capability, die to improved mechanical and metabolic efficiency, which enables you to get more out of the power you have. Efficiency is also a hallmark quality of effective preparation and level six performers are typically very efficient in their training. To become a more efficient athlete, constantly question the way you’re doing things and keep an eye out for opportunities to get better results from equal effort. For example, ask yourself “Am I really benefiting from my one-size-fits-all masters swim workouts as much as I would from solo sessions formatted for my specific needs and goals?” Or ask, “Am I deriving as mich race endurance from the super-long, slow rides I’ve been doing as I would get from slightly shorter, more aggressive rides?”

Confidence over self-doubt: Every athlete gains confidence from success. What separates level six performers from other athletes is they don’t lose confidence from failures. “Level six performers know how to build confidence even from failure,” says Long. “They know how to take full credit for success and explain their failures in a constructive way.” For example, after a disappointing race such an athlete might say, “Well, I had hoped to do better, but considering how little run training I was able to do because of that hip injury, I actually did surprisingly well.”

Humility over arrogance: Pride comes before the fall, as the saying goes. The problem with becoming too full of yourself as an athlete is that it causes you to lose your intensity, and when you lose your intensity, you lose your edge. “Most people lose their intensity when their lead appears to be safe,” Long writes. Level six performers often talk about racing as if they are behind, even when they have the lead. This racing-from-behind attitude will serve you well in both training and competition. Never lose sight of the fact that there are other athletes out there who have a little more talent that you have, but whom you can defeat anyway with a level six mindset.--

1 comment:

  1. Well, as I said before Jenn, I'm no blogger. I just don't have the patience to sit down and write something. I'd rather be reading, plus many people don't appreciate my "get to the point" communication ;) I won't be doing any butt kicking at camp lol, especially not your butt. Jeff is VERY competitive so I like to jab him every once in awhile. Sure I've gotten faster and training is going well, but I'm not Turner Fast, not even Seeley Fast, but one day...I'm working on it! :) Great article above by the way, I'm very interested in sports psychology and nutrition and often think that I'd like to pursue those angles one day...after I pay off my current student loans and win the lottery of course.