The Mental Approach to Competition

By Sam Shweisky, Princeton University | April 12, 2018, 12:38 p.m. (ET)

Originally published in Inside HP, January/February 2011
Author Sam Shweisky is the head men's volleyball coach at Princeton University

All athletes in all sports are destined to make mistakes at different points in their careers. How athletes choose to respond to these mistakes is often the determining factor between which athletes accelerate and which athletes stagnate. It is commonly believed that you are what you dwell on.

But you can give your athletes and coaches tools so they can choose to think well. Great players have learned how to respond to mistakes and have developed ways to not let poor performance affect their thinking.

Many athletes equate self-worth with performance. When playing well, athletes often feel invincible and extremely confident. However, when athletes are not playing well, many tend to equate a missed shot with low self-esteem and lose confidence in their own ability.

“I suck today!” is a commonly heard sentiment after missing a shot. Not letting athletes equate a singular performance with overall self-worth is the basis of “P3 Thinking.”

“P3 Thinking” is a concept that was developed by Dr. Robin Vealey in her book “Coaching for the Inner Edge.” The three P’s stand for Purposeful, Productive and Possibility thinking. Their negative counterparts are known as the 3 R’s: Random, Reactive and Restrictive. Let’s take an example and see how it can be seen through the two difference lenses: P3 and R3.

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Suppose you arrive 45 minutes late to the competition gym due to transportation problems and you have less time to warm-up than usual. The athlete looking through the R3 lens might be thinking 1-Random: “I feel rushed and unfocused.” 2-Reactive: “This is not fair!” and or 3-Restrictive: “I can’t get ready to play this quickly.”

All these feelings may be accurate and valid but indulging in them is only exacerbating the situation. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the athlete who chooses to look at the same exact situation through the P3 lens and might be thinking:

1 - Purposeful: “Focus on the most important things you need to get ready. Warm-up your shoulder and take a few good swings.”

2 - Productive: “Focus on what you can control and get the most out of the limited warm-up.”

3  - Possibility: “Who knows, maybe a reduced warm up will make you play better!”


The best way to stay in a P3 mindset is to stay focused on the pre-sent and focus on the parts of your game that are working - the 30 percent you do have!

The second athlete is looking for the positive in the situation and not giving into the temptation to complain about what is not fair. We all know that life is not fair, yet we all spend tremendous amounts of time complaining about things that we have no control over. From speeding tickets, to stepping in doggy-doo, to missing our connecting flight, we are constantly complaining about why life is not fair.

Don't waste valuable mental energy on things we cannot control such as the no-touch call (the ref must have been blind not to see)! One of the central tenets of sport psychology is to control the controllables. Inherent to that is to decipher which variables in our lives are controllable and which are not.

Focus on What You Can Control

Assess the situation. What can you control about your current predicament? You have just been issued a speeding ticket; is yelling at the police officer going to help or hurt your chances of getting a reduced fine? You were called in the net when you know you weren’t. What type of response will help you develop a positive relationship with the down ref and what type of response will get you a card or even worse?

P3 thinking is a technique for athletes to use in all situations. It helps take the onus off whether the call was right or wrong and whether or not it is fair that the bus broke down.

P3 thinking focuses the athlete in the here-and-now and on what they themselves can control. The No. 1 thing all athletes control are their thoughts. Encourage athletes to think on purpose and with a purpose. Don’t let your thoughts happen to you and feel victimized. It is OK to have negative thoughts. But if you fight them they will stick around longer.

Banish the Negative Thoughts

The best approach to getting rid of a negative thought is to try and let it pass and replace it with a positive image. Another technique is called the negative thought stopping technique. Anytime an athlete says “darn” or “crap” (or some other four-letter expletive!), teammates are instructed to say “Stop!” or “Chuck it!” Stop the negative thought and throw it away, replacing it with a positive one like “Golden,” “Perfect” or “Nails.”

You can add a physical trigger, such as wiping the knee pads or bottom of shoes to signify the passing of a negative thought. Wiping the slate clean and refocusing on the next play. It is important to illustrate to athletes how often we use negative language after making a mistake. This negative language is the result of negative thoughts and often results in negative body language.

Creating an environment in practice where negative verbal language and negative body language is discouraged is the first step. Giving players the tools and positive language to communicate with one another is the next step. Make it a team responsibility where if anyone sees a teammate using negative language or negative body language, it is their responsibility to say: “hey, chuck it Sammy – let’s get the next one!”