- Enroll onto the all new ALTIS Foundation Course to become a better coach Register here

Coach Dan Pfaff on what drives successful performance under pressure

June 15th, 2014 • Articles Dan Pfaff Steve Lewis discussing Pole Vault
Written by Ellie Spain (@elliespain)
ALTIS Digital Education Manager

An expert in multiple realms, Coach Dan Pfaff is a world leader in high performance coaching. Known for his extraordinary observational abilities both on and off the track, Dan is an erudite spectator of people and behaviors. With over 40 years’ experience working across the globe, Dan has coached across multiple event groups and populations – within a melting pot of settings. As such it comes as no surprise that Coach Pfaff has developed a remarkable understanding of the drivers influencing human behavior and performance. In this conversation with Altis Education Director, we discussed topics which contribute to the building blocks of successful performance under pressure, and how coaches, support teams and family can best help athletes to perform to their potential in these situations.

Dan – thanks for joining us today. Can we start by looking at what defines successful performance under pressure – what does this look like in your opinion?

To me it is when the athlete exhibits the technical mastery and control that they are exhibiting in their best practices leading into the competition … or the best average level of those traits that they’ve been exhibiting in lead up to competition. So if you’ve been at or near your season’s best for 3 to 4 meets then you go to a major, you should at least stay there.

What are your thoughts in terms of coaching in a competition setting – what approaches work and do not work?

I think everybody coaches with unique outlooks, skill-sets, and abilities. When you’re coaching successfully in practice or in lower key competitions, you should exhibit same behaviors and processes in major competitions. If you consistently have trends towards irregular performances then you’ve got to search – ‘why is it irregular?’ Am I giving too much information, or am I not giving enough; am I not holding people to a high accountability index, why is it going south?’ I don’t think there’s a magic bullet. Some coaches are emotional and excited, some coaches are calm; some coaches are not good competition coaches. Athletes can see fear or anger or ego, so being real, being a humanist – being what you are day in and day out in practice to me is the best recipe for success there.

“Athletes can see fear or anger or ego, so being real, being a humanist – being what you are day in and day out in practice to me is the best recipe for success”

Dan Pfaff

What would be your advice in terms of planning pre-competition routines?

As I’ve said in many other venues you have to experiment with what you do the day before, and the day of a competition; it should not be a huge deviation from what you’re doing on technical workout days. These things vary with travel and weather, state of health, conditions – do you have a long call room? Do you have a huge qualifying round? So in a World Championships you may start your warm up at 7.30am in in the morning and you’re still vaulting at 12 noon, so a lot of the better guys don’t do much on the warm up track.

There has been a lot of recent attention in the literature on ‘choking’ in the context of competition, can you tell us about your thoughts on this?

Complex topic. To me it shows a huge deficit in mental resilience training, a deficit in coping skills, not only in the athlete but in the coach – a lack of preparation for the moment for whatever stage they’re at.

I don’t like the word choking, but it’s in the literature and coaches use it … to me a disappointing performance has many inputs; it could be the workouts leading into the competition; a lack of self-talk or resilience factors, abilities and skill-sets; life 101; parents; spouse; it could be coach athlete blow up in the weeks leading in. Some people struggle when certain weather conditions show up – so if you don’t practice in those weather conditions and come up with strategies and progressions through those, then you’re always going to have disappointing performances in those conditions. Is that choking? That’s not choking to me – that’s lack of preparation. Have I had some athletes choke? Yep. And who do I blame? Myself.

Why?

If I was on top of it, it would never have got to that point.

Can you predict that someone’s going to blow up like that do you think?

Yep.

How can you stop them doing that?

There’s not a tablet you can give them before going into the stadium, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge before you got to that point. You can’t always stop the tide because you’re one party of two, or maybe multiple parties – depending on how close they are with their agent or their spouse or their parents … can parents cause choking? Yes. The wrong words, or wrong look, wrong approach that week, day, year – why do so many Olympic athletes have disappointing performances at the Olympics? Because all these parties got it wrong. It wasn’t just the athlete. There isn’t a virus where an athlete says “I’m going to choke” … I don’t believe, however fragile, that an athlete’s psychological skill-set can’t be improved. That defies logic. Do drug addicts stop doing drugs? That’s a massive behavior change but for a drug addict to stay clean, their family, their friends, their neighbors have to be a part of that process to help them stay clean.

What about training ‘grit’? Another term being discussed in the realms of performance psychology at present.

I think grit kind of falls under mental resilience training. I think a lot of people think grinding workouts is the best way to train grit – that doesn’t bear out – I think that if you go to the Olympic Games, a high percentage of those athletes have done grinding, gut wrenching, mentally destroying workouts, but only 3 get on the podium in each event – so that says that all the grinding and what not isn’t very successful. It’s not why those people got on the podium. Most podium finishers will tell you their mental abilities along with their training is what got them on the podium. If you look at a field event final or a sprint final the differences in seasonal best performances aren’t that broad, but only a few rise to the top. So to me that says their mental resilience skills are what matter. Do you call that ‘grit’? Questionable.

So moving onto other related areas – let’s talk about Mindfulness. Could you explain from your perspective, what is this, how does it apply to athletes, and how do we train it?

To me, mindfulness is where you have the ability to control focus – internal, external, broad, narrow – and you’re able to surf between those types of focus and apply them for the appropriate task; whilst being flexible and having appropriate strategies and implementations of these focus abilities. Some athletes are too broad, too external, they see too many things, and are too easily distracted. So they need to work on getting more narrow and internal. However, if you get too narrow and internal then you’re overloaded on information or you’re too acutely aware, so there’s truly a juggling act of these four entities.

“To me, mindfulness is where you have the ability to control focus – internal; external; broad; narrow, and you’re able to surf between those types of focus and apply them for the appropriate task”

Dan Pfaff

Mindfulness has a macro-power and a micro-power; so how switched on is the athlete and the coach during the whole training session or competition or cycle, or training year? Some coaches will have a good cycle or two and then get distracted with life or family or other athletes and pressures, and they don’t do a good job during that cycle. So to me that coach was not mindful during those sessions. So mindfulness applies not only to the coach, but to the athlete and the performance staff. We have had therapists that were awesome on game day, and we have had therapists that were absolute nightmares on game day, because pressure and the distractions at the majors got them away from being mindful and doing their task.

So it’s not just the athlete – it’s the coach and the performance staff that has to practice and be held accountable for mindfulness. So when I see athletes doing sloppy warm-ups and sloppy training I have to stop them and say ‘why do we do these things? Why is it important?’ … ‘If you’re going to have a degree of excellence whilst doing this there has to be a certain degree of mental attentiveness to this activity.’ To me – that’s mindfulness.

How can Integrated Support Teams and Staff best support this process?

If everybody is mindful and it’s the culture to be mindful then it becomes standard practice. If therapists and coaches are being interrupted for phone calls and texting then they are not mindful. For example, I really get upset when I see coaches or support staff just constantly checking their phone or taking calls in the middle of sessions. I think it’s hugely disrespectful and it’s destroying the aura of mindfulness that you’d want as a high priority in a performance culture.

“If everybody is mindful and it’s the culture to be mindful then it becomes standard practice. If therapists and coaches are being interrupted for phone calls and texting then they are not mindful”

Dan Pfaff

What about the influence of family, friends and parents on mental state and athlete readiness? How do we manage this?

I think with bigger squads and youth, you’ve got to do some research and type up guidelines and boundaries that are common practice amongst all sport disciplines. Define boundaries, have meetings with these parents, partners, spouses, media and say – ‘these are our boundaries and this is why we have them – please respect them – if you don’t, you’re out.’ We can’t have anarchy – I can’t have twenty spouses working with us and two spouses working against us.

So in terms of the role of parents, what is your advice for them to best support athlete development?

Parents are like athletes, they have personalities, skill-sets, abilities, intent, and purpose. I think you need to define what healthy parenting looks like. To me, healthy parenting is loving, supporting; but has strong boundaries, rules, and expectations. I think the literature is pretty high on reward and applauding efforts, not just results. So staying with our theme of high performance, you’re going to get more mileage and better results if you’re process-driven. So if parents understand process-driven goals and why those have higher priority than outcome-driven goals, then you have a good starting point for defining good parenting behaviors with an emerging or developing athlete.

And lastly – from a coaches’ perspective – what do you see in terms of behavior traits in those parents who are more challenging in their approach.

Each person has unique personalities; skill-sets; family of origin history. When we’re under stress, or in doubt, we usually parent how we were parented; so realizing if that was a negative – or not always positive – seeking to ask how can we break the cycle of generational dis-parenting. Until a parent recognizes they have issues, or problems, or skill-sets that are not really aiding the cause; and they don’t seek advice for how to change, they’re not going to change. So if you have parenting that falls in those realms, then you have to be really tough with your boundaries and demands, at least while you’re in control of the environment at practice and in competitions. You can’t control the drive home.

Dan – thank you for your time, some fantastic insights as always.

Dan Pfaff is on Twitter.