Episode: 145 |
Amy Gross:
In the Zone:


Amy Gross

In the Zone

Show Notes

Our guest today is Amy Gross, a performance psychology consultant who runs a coaching practice called Pillars4Performance.  Many of her clients are elite athletes, and that’s where we focus our discussion.  In this episode we cover:

how to focus on the controllables (instead of fixating on things outside your control)

how to using visioning exercises effectively

how to identify and overcome self-defeating narratives

how to identify your zone – and how to get into it

To learn more about Amy’s work, visit her website pillars4performance.com.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Hello, Amy, welcome to the show.
Amy Gross: Thanks. I’m excited to be here, Will.
Will Bachman: Talk to me about common killers of the mind that athletes face.
Amy Gross: Yeah, so there a variety of things that athletes face, but sort of common killers of the mind are critical thinking. Instead of critically thinking, you’re critical. You put yourself down. A lot of social comparison versus social learning, kind of focusing on the things that are out of your control instead of the things that are in your control. Being too outcome-oriented, looking at the external for motivation instead of looking for motivation from within. Those are some of the key common mind killers.
Will Bachman: So those actually sound pretty similar to something that someone in an executive faces as well, and talk to us a little bit about your work with athletes. I don’t know anybody else who has this sort of practice similar to yours of being a coach to athletes. Tell us a little bit about that work.
Amy Gross: Yeah, sure. It’s funny that you mention the word executives ’cause a lot of the work is very similar, it’s just the craft is different, right? The technical aspect is different than athletes. But a lot of the work, it really depends. Common, sort of, mental skills that I might sort of help an athlete with and provide tools to put in their toolbox might be, improving their focus; attitude; things like mental toughness; managing your anxiety, especially before, during, post competition. Knowing your zone. A lot of people sort of need to build awareness as sort of what their optimal functioning zone is. Knowing their energy level, a lot of self-talk and narrative, right, as sort of the chatter that you have in your mind. Developing your vision, your purpose, your goals.
Amy Gross: And then, I’m also a huge proponent of things like breathing techniques, belly breathing, mental imagery. It’s definitely a very underutilized skill with a lot of science behind it and things of that nature. Those are sort of common issues. Confidence, I don’t know if I said that one. But, there are obviously a number of things that an athlete might work on to enhance their performance.
Will Bachman: Can you talk a little bit about sort of what level of athletes that you work with and what sort of an engagement with you looks like?
Amy Gross: Sure. So I work primarily with elite athletes. I do work with recreational athletes as well. And it’s of all ages, starting as young as, I would say, middle school, maybe a little bit younger for sports where you specialize early like gymnastics or figure skating; up to, so predominantly middle school, high school, college, and professional athletes as well as adults.
Amy Gross: Every engagements different. I really customize the work that I do to meet the athletes that I’m working with to meet their needs. But it might look like, basically, there’s a sort of pre-performance assessment. We meet, we make sure there’s the chemistry there, and then we set up a performance program that could be as little as five to eight sessions if there’s just some specific mental skill that a person wants to improve, to a season, which is what I do with a lot of my professional athletes. We’ll develop a contract that might last 10 months or so, and then we revisit their goals, and then we continue whether or not we need to do more work together. But is can be as short as three to six months to as long as, there are people that I’ve been working with for five years. So it really depends on what their needs are and what their goals are. I try to see them through until they accomplish their performance goals.
Will Bachman: Tell me a little bit about what that pre-assessment or that initial diagnostic that you do looks like.
Amy Gross: Sure. So a lot of it is goal setting, building awareness of what their strengths are, their areas of growth, potential blind spots, which I define as overuse strengths, right? Sometimes our biggest strengths can be the things that get in our way the most. And then, once we sort of have an idea of what they’re hoping to accomplish, what their dreams are, what their purpose is and the areas that they need to do, we sort of hone in on … I start with leveraging strengths and then developing the skills that they need to work on in order to get to the next level of performance.
Will Bachman: I want to go into some detail on some of the areas that you’ve already mentioned and to kind of get a sense of what are some of the specific exercises you’d work with on people or how you help them. Maybe start with “know your zone,” what does that mean, how do you help people know their zone, are there exercises around that? Talk to me about “know your zone”.
Amy Gross: Yeah, so a lot of the time, it’s building awareness of … Tell me a time that you performed at your best. How were you feeling, right? So optimal zone is really about what your emotional state is. So as you know and I’m sure you’ve watched a lot of sports, there might be some professional athletes, right, that play their best when they’re really intense, right? That helps them get into that laser-like focus state, right? So they need to kind of pump themselves up, so that’s sort of one side of the spectrum.
Amy Gross: And then you might have other athletes on the other sort of extreme side of the polarity that need to be very, very relaxed and calm. And then you might have sort of a group that needs to be somewhere in between. They need to be maybe kind of relaxed but have a little bit of that excitement, so I sort of define that as maybe they’re in that four to six zone, right? And so you really sort of have to reflect back on a lot of your key performances and sort of be able to dull it. Like, hey, what was my energy level, what was my emotional state, what helped me get into that laser-like focus, which is what we define as flow or more people define know it as being in the zone, right, ’cause that’s what we strive for. Again, you’re not gonna be in the zone every time you compete, but if you can get yourself closer and closer to that optimal level, that’s really the key.
Will Bachman: And then once you’ve kind of asked those initial questions and got people talking about it, can you maybe give a sanitized example of somebody and what their zone looked like and maybe if you gave them exercises or tools to help them achieve that state?
Amy Gross: Sure, so if a pro athlete identifies … There’s a pro athlete that I’m currently working with that identifies, “Hey, at my best, I’m about a seven. I need to be really excited and intense, but if I get too intense, I expend too much energy, right? But if I’m too calm then I can’t focus, right? I kind of space out and I’m not really sort of in the game.” And so there are things that you can do before competition, during competition, and in between competition, right?
Amy Gross: So before, we develop sort of a pre-match routine, right, something that she does before competition. There are a lot of things that people do. Obviously, there’s the physical warmup aspect, right, but there are things like listening to music, and again, if you’re someone that needs to be pumped up, listening to classical music before, might not be the thing that gets you in the emotional state, right? So that’s gonna vary depending on sort of what your zone is.
Amy Gross: So it could be as small as, I’m gonna listen to music, I’m gonna sort of develop a mantra, make sure I’m focusing on my confidence builders that I’ve established, and make sure that I’m sort of remembering my why and my purpose. I gotta get myself excited and right now maybe I’m only a four. So why am I excited to compete? So it’s as simple as that. It’s really a simple pre-match routine. Could be anywhere from five to 15 minutes, but it’s really being cognizant of sort of managing your energy level, right, to know sort of what you need to get into that desired emotional state.
Amy Gross: And then during, it’s really about sort of assessing, right, where you’re at. If your sort of stake gets too high, you know that you need to do things like calm yourself. So during a match, this person breathing techniques, right, or develop a few queue words that bring them down. Or if the athlete’s flat, right, we’re they’re sort of not having enough energy then they have to do the energy builders and boosters, right?
Amy Gross: So it’s really sort of is about being able to assess where you’re at and make those adjustments in order to sort of perform well consistently.
Will Bachman: I can imagine something analogous to what we do, for consultants or for anyone in business, to be kind in the middle of a meeting or even in the middle of the day to think about, “Okay, what’s my mood right now?” Do a little self-assessment if you’re distracted and just fiddling away your time. How do you refocus? I can imagine a similar sort of process.
Amy Gross: 100%. I mean, I think the key, no matter how high a performer you are, is just knowing yourself and keeping yourself in check, right? I mean, I tell sort of all my clients is, there’s sort of an assumption, especially with nerves, that the best of the best don’t get nervous and that’s just not true. It’s part of the game, it’s part of performing, right? And so, I think there’s just this assumption that people who are an expert in anything sort of, are like Superman, you know? But I kind of joke around, even Superman had kryptonite. So it’s really important that you’re regularly sort of keeping yourself in check and really it’s just building that awareness of what you need in the moment, right, because every day is different.
Will Bachman: Let’s talk about self-talk or narrative. Give me some examples of what that means. We probably understand intuitively, but maybe make that explicit and what are some tools or techniques that you equip people with to help counter those negative narratives?
Amy Gross: Well, self-talk is an interesting term. I like to use the word chatter or your narrative. It’s just really, it’s the story you’re telling yourself. This is important not just for athletes but everyone. A lot of time, whether it’s before competition or during, if you make a mistake or you fail or things don’t sort of go as planned, your self-talk, right, might not be … I don’t like to label things as good or bad. I sort of ask people, “Is this healthy or hurting your performance?” Right?
Amy Gross: So an example of self-talk that might be hindering your performance is, if you make a mistake, or an error in a game and you tell yourself, “You suck,” right? Or “Oh, you’re so bad.” Again, that’s an example of being critical and the sort of mind killers that we spoke about in the beginning, where you’re just like, “Why’d you do that. I can’t believe you did that. You’re gonna lose. You suck. You don’t deserve to be here.” Right? Those are sort of the things that you’re telling yourself.
Amy Gross: One of my favorite strategies to sort of combat that is, just focusing on being constructive instead of destructive. It’s one of those things where it’s like even if that’s true or you’re making unforced errors or you’re not playing well, how is that helping you in the moment, right? That’s not gonna make you go into that next point in a good mindset, right? And so, things like being constructive is more, what can you do in that next point? What can you do in that next play, right, to help you be more effective? That’s really sort of my favorite strategies.
Amy Gross: Another favorite that I like to help sort of combat some of the negative stuff that you tell yourself is focusing on “do” statements instead of “don’t” statements, right? ‘Cause a lot of the times we say, “Don’t do that.” Right? Or “Don’t get nervous,” or “Don’t miss.” Instead of actually focusing on things we need to do to increase our chances of being successful, right? So for a pitcher, you might say, “Make sure that you even get your mitt up.” Right? It’s something even as small that might help them throw a pitch better, right? Or tennis player, “Make sure you follow through on your swing next time.” And that’s a little bit more motivating and these small sort of motivating self statement go a really long way. So those are two of sort of my favorite little strategies that you can really apply before, during, and post-competition.
Will Bachman: You spoke about fixating on the uncontrollables, things outside your control, versus focusing on things that you can control. Talk to me about that distinction a little bit about and what are some tools that can help a person focus on the things that are within their control?
Amy Gross: I have to tell you just talking to a client and actually asking them, “What are the controllables? What are the things that are in your control in competition and what are the things that are out of your control?” I have elite athletes, college-level and professional, that actually sort of stumble at that question, and so I walk them though it. Common things, right, that are in your control, right? You can control how you respond, right? You might now be able to control your opponents, but you can control how you react to your opponents, right? What you eat, your pre sort of match warmup, things like that. The shot you choose, the plays you choose, that sort of stuff.
Amy Gross: And a lot of the time you see people sort of focusing on, “Oh my gosh, who am I gonna play?” Right? “Oh man, we’re playing the number one seed. We lost to them last time.” Right? You can’t really control if you win, that’s not 100% in your control. There are things that you can do to increase your chances of winning, right, but the outcome is not 100% in your control. You don’t know who you’re playing, how well they’re gonna play. So it’s actually really, regardless of the sport that the client plays, it’s really helping them understand what exactly is in their control and what’s not. There’s some things that are a little bit in the gray area, but it’s learning to sort of make those mental shifts and shift your energy and focus on the things that are in your control, ’cause that’s huge from a confidence building perspective and sort of building that belief that you have the ability and it’s within your power to impact your results.
Will Bachman: So, I suppose the starting point then is just asking the question. “Okay, what’s in your control? What’s outside your control?”
Amy Gross: 100%.
Will Bachman: So I mean, just even asking the question, I suppose, can be helpful to make it explicit. I mean, someone has maybe never thought of it before that way. What then would be some tools that someone can use, an athlete or a business person or a consultant, to, now that you sort of made it explicit, how do you kind of retain that learning and continue to focus on controllables? Maybe it’s like asking yourself explicitly, “This thing I’m worried about right now, its that controllable or uncontrollable?” Are there other tools? How do you help people then kind of implement that knowledge?
Amy Gross: Yeah, that’s a great question because a lot of it is about sort of learning to change your thinking and then putting that thinking into practice, right, and executing. ‘Cause insights great, but you wanna change behavior, right, and build these long-lasting habits.
Amy Gross: There are a few tools that I love for the uncontrollables. A lot of the times you get stuck in the problem, and this is true with executives or consultants or athletes, where they’re like, “Hey, I have boss. I can’t do anything about it.” Well, it’s like, okay, so the problem is you have a boss or a manager, right, or you have this opponent that really just is a pain. What are three solutions to the problem? Right? So again, you’re just trying to shift some problems into solution-mode and then you might ask, “Okay, these are three possible solutions, is there one that maybe is the most important or one that’s the easiest to execute?” Right? And now it at least gets yourself into sort of this solution-focused mindset, instead of the problem when you get into this sort of stuck in the problem. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I certainly have, when you’re just recycling that same negative thought, right, over and over again. You’re continuing to think about that.
Amy Gross: I don’t know, I think the research says something like, we recycle certain thoughts like nine percent of the time, and so it’s just, again, it’s trying to get yourself more solution-focused. Sometimes there might not be a clear solution at this moment, so it might even be like letting go, right? Learning to let go and then, again, refocus on the things that might be in your control, right, and make progress in that way.
Amy Gross: I’m a really big proponent of bite-size goals, right? These sort of sub-goals. Maybe you haven’t reached sort of that big goal yet, but there are sort of small things that you can execute on consistently, on a regular basis, right? And so it’s really sort of, again, it’s equipping them with sort of the tools that they need to do to shift their thinking and then be able to see that behavioral change, right?
Will Bachman: That makes sense. Let’s talk about the mental imagery you mentioned earlier and kind of envisioning. Explain that to me. What are some tools and techniques there and how is that helpful?
Amy Gross: Sure. Well, there’s a lot of neuroscience behind visualization and the benefits that it has for building these skills, creating new neural pathways, calming yourself, all that stuff. So there are a couple things that I really like. Michael Phelps actually, he sort of credited his gold medal in, I believe, it was the 2008 Olympics but fact check me if I’m incorrect on that, to mental imagery. And so, what he did that I find to be a very useful mental imagery technique, is instead of … a lot of people when use visualization for mental imagery, they envision themselves going through a presentation or swimming a race perfectly, right? Again, back to that optimal zone, they might envision themselves doing it perfectly, killing it, swimming their best.
Amy Gross: What Michael Phelps does actually is, he uses a few different scenarios. So he envisions himself, obviously, swimming that perfect race well, but he also envisions himself, if something went wrong, and again, that speaks to the uncontrollables. So in 2008, he actually had goggle failure, right? He got water in his eyes, which is one of the worst things, right, that can happen. Worst sort of uncontrollables, I guess, that can happen in a race and he still won a gold medal and broke the World Record. He said, when people were like, “How did you do that? Most people would be freaking out.” He was just like, “Look, I’ve already sort of trained. I practiced that part of my …”
Amy Gross: And what he practiced is responding in a calm way if something bad happens, right, or something goes wrong. So that helped him respond in a way, and bringing it back to some of the athletes I work with, they’re, any human being really, is it’s also, it’s important to visualize yourself at your best, but it’s also important to sort of visualize yourself when there is a problem.
Amy Gross: We all sort of have things, different things that make us tick, right? Some people may be in a bad temper or they get impatient and that affects their performance. So for that individual, that person might need to actually envision themselves being calm, right, if they’re playing an opponent that really sort of gets under their skin.
Amy Gross: The nice thing about visualization and mental imagery is that … there are a few things. The first one is, you can only do it for about five minutes to see benefits, which is great. The second thing that I feel like is very effective, especially for athletes, is it’s a great tapering tool. ‘Cause a lot of the times people physically boss themselves before a competition and then their energy levels, right, and their competitiveness might be down. And so maybe towards the end when they’re starting to taper before a big meet or competition, they’ll really incorporate this visualization, but it’s certainly something that needs to be done regularly to get into the habit.
Will Bachman: And what say, the instructions for visualization, and maybe put it in a business context for somebody?
Amy Gross: It might be you have a big pitch, right, big pitch meeting, and so going based off the Michael Phelps advice, right, you definitely … obviously first of all, preparation is key and practicing. I’m still a proponent of both practicing and visualization. But you might visualize yourself doing the presentation, it’s a amazing, right? All the participants are like, “Wow, you killed it.” That might be one version, but the second one is, sort of going over maybe some of the questions, right, that someone might ask after a pitch or a presentation or whatever, whether you’re introducing a new product launch, it doesn’t matter sort of what content it is.
Amy Gross: But maybe, let’s say you struggle when you’re on the spot, right? It’s maybe, as part of that visualization process, you visualize yourself just being calm and patient when someone asks you a challenging question, right? Or maybe you visualize yourself sort of taking a pause before you’re asked, creating that space, ’cause that way, you’re sort of prepared to be able to deal with anything that’s thrown at you.
Amy Gross: But again, the key is also that you have to know what makes you tick too, and that’s really why a lot of the beginning part of sort of the work that I do, is building awareness, right? ‘Cause a lot of people, and you see this even with executives, they’re not sort of willing to admit their mistakes or their limitations, right? Or even in some people, imposter syndrome’s a huge thing with both executives and athletes, where they play down their strengths. They might not be leveraging their strengths enough, right? And so awareness is also really a key part because then that will make the mental imagery and visualization practices more effective.
Will Bachman: I guess I hadn’t thought about how important it is for athletes to master the emotional side of the game or the kind of this mental side of the game. You hear about it, but as just sort of all mental toughness. But I guess, in this sort of typical sports journalism, you’re not really exposed to all that self-doubt and stuff and other lack of focus or motivation even that elite athletes have. What are some maybe, obviously sanitized stories that you can share of emotional challenges that you’ve seen athletes facing and how after doing some of these exercises over a period of time, they were able to … Do you have any examples of stories where an athlete has successful overcome some of these challenges by applying some of these lessons?
Amy Gross: I think that the common sort of things that you see that people don’t talk about much is like body image issues, they say confidence is a really big one. You see this a lot with female athletes and executives that I work with as well, where there’s sort of this … A lot of people actually, even top people in the nation or the world, that they’d rather be well-like instead of compete because the sort of the labels that come along if you’re really a competitive woman. They might be perceived negatively and there are people that actually are sort of willing to sacrifice their performance to be well-liked and be perceived positively. That’s really a big issue that comes up with a lot of my female athletes.
Amy Gross: The converse side of that is there are a lot of male athletes that are afraid to sort of show their emotions, right, because of being negative labeled in that way. Unfortunately, there’s some sort of negative bias with the word “emotion” even though feelings are sort of the key, right, to life. And so, a lot of it is sort of just, again, normalizing it, I think, and sort of getting clients to understand that it’s part of it. You sort of have to just figure out what you need to do to be successful. And sort of gender norms are huge, so I think it’s really sort of looking within enough. That’s where building motivation within and understanding what your purpose is, what’s more important to you? Is it making the Olympics or is being well-liked?
Amy Gross: And there’s no judgment, right? If you’d rather sort of be popular or be captain of your team, and that takes importance over being the best, then to each their own, right? But it’s really sort of getting clarity of what your outcomes are. A lot of people aren’t really clear of their outcomes, that’s like step one, right? And step two is making sure once you do prioritize what’s important to you, it’s making sure that you’re actually doing the things that are helping you get to those goals.
Amy Gross: Because we all sort of expend our time, and again, this is where the uncontrollables come into play, the controllables. And you see this with executives too, where, and managers and directors, where they’re actually spending of their time on the things that aren’t important rather than the things that actually matter. So there’s really a variety of issues that you see.
Amy Gross: I’m trying to think. Do you want more examples of emotions or did we talk enough about that?
Will Bachman: No, that’s helpful. I’d love to hear a little bit about your process. So, you spoke some about just the very first meeting about the diagnostic. What does it look like over time? As you’re working with someone for six to nine months or even longer, what does that … I’m not sure it’s a weekly or every other week what does that meeting typically look like? What are you covering? What do you do?
Amy Gross: Well, so I have different levels of engagements. Someone like pro athletes have all-access, where we’re meeting frequently, I’m providing exercises for them based on the performance plan that we created together, and that’s how it works. Other people, it might be biweekly or once a month depending on the scope of the engagement. But it really comes down to making sure that … I mean, my process is, it’s basically just equipping them with the tools they need to be successful and we’re gauging their progress. Once their goals are achieved, we reassess and evaluate if more work is needed.
Will Bachman: How did you get started in this, Amy? I think you’re an athlete, yourself, right? You wanna talk about that a little bit and how did you get into this world of coaching elite athletes?
Amy Gross: Yeah, sure. So, I was a former elite athlete and played sort of internationally and in college as well, and I also was a college coach while I was in grad school. And actually, a friend of mine in high school, we sort of had this dream of starting a business ’cause we were like, what’s up with psychology? Why do you only see a psychologist if you have a problem, right? Everyone has a coach as an athlete, whether you’re a beginner or you’re Roger Federer, so why is the mental side of the game any different?
Amy Gross: And so I’ve really just been very passionate about educating people of the benefits of training your mind in the same way as training your body, and that’s sort of where it started. It started in high school on the tennis court actually. I think my friend ditched me for industrial psych, the I/O world, but I sort of continued to do it and it’s a very important part of performance, right? I think people focus too much on the technical and physical side of sport, when the mental and tactical side is huge.
Amy Gross: Especially the better you get because everyone you know, and I’m sure you see this in your work with executives or consultants, it’s like, when you get to a point in your craft or, right, where you sort of, you can do it, right? Everyone can hit a forward hand at one point, so it’s really the small little shifts that can make a huge impact on your overall performance. And if you learn these sort of habits and tools at a young age, it’s huge, right? ‘Cause then you’re already building habits that are gonna help you, right, instead of trying to sort of … A lot of the work that I do is you’re almost like getting people to get rid of these bad habits that seem to not be serving them well.
Amy Gross: So I think the younger that you can learn these tools, even for children, learning sort of to be able to be more mindful, be in the moment, right, build their confidence, be more resilient, learn to adjust, right? We live in a world that’s sort of changing so quickly that you need to be mentally and emotionally flexible and adaptable, right? And so if you can teach people these skills at a young age, it’s huge.
Will Bachman: Amy, what’s the best way for anyone who is interested, to learn more about your practice get in touch with you? What’s the best way for people to find you online?
Amy Gross: You can go to my website. That’s probably the easiest way. It has all my contact info. Company is pillars4performance.com. So P-I-L-L-A-R-S-4performance.com.
Will Bachman: All right.
Amy Gross: It’s a good way to start.
Will Bachman: Fantastic. We will include that link in the show notes. Pillars4performance.com. Amy, it’s been great having you on the show. Thank you so much for joining.
Amy Gross: Thanks for having me, Will.

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