When it comes to dealing with pressure and adversity, there are myriad ideas within applied psychology – seems like a new one each week – to help people fulfil their potential when the going gets tough. I have written a book about it (!). But we can turn to an unlikely source of inspiration for dealing with pressure…an ancient Greek philosopher who died almost 2000 years ago. Epictetus lived between 55-135 AD, spent his early years as a slave (“Epictetus” means “acquired”, we don’t know his actual birth name), and studied and taught something called Stoic philosophy. Far from being out of date, Stoicism is more relevant today than it ever has been, as it has informed various contemporary psychotherapies.
Epictetus’ teachings are highly relevant for performance under pressure. Whilst there are many applicable ideas from Stoicism to performance psychology, there is one particular concept that is particularly important in the work I do with people, and has been since I trained in rational emotive behaviour theory (Ellis, 1957; REBT) in 2010…
We cannot control external events.
We hear it so often in sport. “Control the controllables.” This idea suggests that performers invest time and effort into aspects of their performance they have control over, rather than those aspects that they do not have control over. It is not so much about whether and to what extent an athlete has controlled every possible controllable aspect, but more about the extent to which they are able to focus on those aspects that are under their control when under pressure. For example, a player sitting in the changing rooms waiting to go out for the start of the match could be focusing on a range of controllable and uncontrollable things. Common uncontrollables are the crowd, the venue, the opposition, the referee, the pitch surface, friends a family. Mixed in with that are controllables such as tactics, skills, abilities, movement on and off the ball, and their behavior in the warm up. In this moment, directly before performance, it is more beneficial to focus on the controllables. Why? Because we cannot control external events, so why waste time focusing on them?
The Control Map
One exercise that I have frequently used over the years that demonstrates, or operationalises, the Stoic notion of control, is The Control Map. I first used this task in 2015 at a workshop for Olympic coaches as a way to help them become more aware of the Stoic control idea, but also to help them to make performance decisions. At the time, I knew I wanted to conduct an activity on the concept of Stoic control, but hadn’t fully decided what I was going to do. I had been using the Control Triangle for a little while (I write about that, here), but wanted to try something else. I sensed that the group were very vocal, and we just so happened to have lots of flipcharts in the room, so I developed the task in vivo, if you like. The steps of the The Control Map developed naturally in the session, each step progressing organically, but staying closely to Stoic ideals.
It went well (!), and since then I have refined and delivered The Control Map with many colleagues across a range of settings. I have had the pleasure of delivering the control map alongside Prof. Marc Jones, Dr. Andrew Wood, Dr. Matthew Slater, Jamie Gillman, Dr. Jamie Barker, Prof. Andy McCann, Jenni Jones. I have applied it in athletic, occupational (public and private sector), and military settings, from youth athletes, to senior leadership teams (CEOs). I haven’t had a bad experience with it, partly I think because it is not didactic and the quality of the task is dictated by the group, not me.
Why am I writing this now? Well, I have delivered it a lot, including to fellow sport and exercise psychologists, and its about time I formally documented it for others to discuss. I am sure that similar activities exist that tap similar ideas, but this is my method of doing it.
Here is how I do it.
The below describes the process I typically go through when working with a medium to large group (n=120 is the max so far). The large group is split into smaller groups. Groups of 5 is the sweet spot. The examples I provide are from actual work I have, but it is different each time because content is driven by the group.
I give each group a massive sheet of paper. I ask the group to write down on separate post-it notes, all of the factors they can think of, that influence their performance. Anything goes here. I give them 10 minutes or so. Groups tend to generate 15-20 post-it notes, each with a performance factor written on it. Factors tend to include things like policy, leadership, sleep, nutrition, hydration, mood, attitude, weather, as well as very context specific factors to the setting I am working in. For teachers, it was often things like Ofsted inspections, and workload.
With all the factors generated, I ask the group to place a single post-it note with the word “me” on it, at the centre of the big paper. I ask the group to place each of the performance factors on the big paper in relation to how much control they think they have over each factor. Factors placed close to “me” represents high control. Factors placed far away from “me” represent low control.
This will take them a while. If they are doing this in a group (which is how I mostly use it, but it also works well at a one-to-one level), then I encourage conversations about factor placement, and I engage with them about their choices and perceptions. The idea is, that as a group they end up with a democratically decided map of performance factors that portrays the control they have over important factors that influence performance. Of course, for each person their placement decisions would be different (probably) if they did it alone, but it matters little in this context because I am trying to stimulate discussion.
At this point, all factors should have been placed on the map. The groups will have a constellation of factors – some close to “me”, some far away from “me”, and some midway between “me” and the edge of the paper.
I ask the group to label their top 5 performance factors 1-5. That is, they must decide what their most important performance factors are, and put them in rank order 1-5. When I say “most important”, I mean, the factors that influence their performance most. I will give them 5 minutes for this. You could do 1-10 if you have time, and patience.
The work is done, from their perspective anyway. Now I need to explain why we have done this! There are (at least) three main take-aways.
For the top 5 performance factors that are close to “ME”
Are you doing everything you can to “control” those factors? I say something like “If as a group, you are saying that these are the most important factors influence my performance, AND I can control them, then are you doing everything you can to control them? If not why not?”
For the top 5 performance factors that are outside of your control:
Park them – if you can’t control/influence them – then why spend time thinking about them? This is linked inexorably to Stoicism. This might take some “selling” because its hard to park things we can’t control that are important for us. But what is the other choice…?
Try to bring them within your sphere of influence so you can have some control over them. But this only works if it is possible, and worth it, to do so. If for one group the weather is a top 5 factor, then there is no point even pretending that we can control it.
With the take-aways, I am always quite up front with the group. If a group has “sleep” in their top 5 and its close to “me” (i.e., highly controllable) like in the example above, then I want to know what they are doing to gain greater quality sleep. If they are doing very little, then I’ll suggest that they should focus on this because not doing so is complacent. We can then work together to develop some sleep strategies.
One big take way people usually have, is that when it comes to their emotions, this is also a top 5 factor that can absolutely be controlled. Not that emotional control is easy – but it is possible with some hard work. Why shouldn’t it be hard work? It’s a valuable goal that can determine the fulfillment of potential – its hard but its worth it.
I can work with the individual to help them understand that factors such as emotion can be, in part, controlled, and can help them develop some emotion regulation competencies. In addition, I can help the individual to make use of the support they have around them in this area. This potent cocktail of psychosocial nutriments are of course tied to the basic psychological needs theory (autonomy, competence, relatedness), which as many experienced practitioners will tell you, is very difficult to escape from when working in achievement settings – and for good reason.
We are responsible for how we feel and behave.
One of the key points I make in The Control Map is that people can take control of their beliefs, so that no matter what adversity they face, they can keep their emotions in check. Emotional responsibility is at the core of REBT, and many other approaches. Of course athletes will be nervous at times, this is normal, but just how nervous they are will be decided in part by their thoughts and beliefs about the competition. In Epictetus’ words, “[people] are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form about things.” The good news is, we can control what we say to ourselves about important situations, in order to create emotions that can serve us rather than work against us.
It has been demonstrated in research that it is the extent to which people feel they have autonomy over their work that predicts psychological wellbeing in demanding environments. Since the cognitive revolution in the 1950s, we have also understood that stress is not a direct result of our environment, but is more accurately portrayed as a transaction between the environment and the self. This is one of the premises that spawned cognitive behavioural therapies (CBTs). The notion of cognitive mediation is at the center of Stoic control especially in relation to the regulation of emotions and behaviour. Using The Control Map, I can help people to understand that they can make choices about what they focus on in relation to performance, and have control over certain factors influencing their attainment. On the flip side, there are things they cannot control, and being cognizant of these factors whilst not dwelling on them is important – especially if the goal is eudaimonia. When it comes to performance, I rarely find that ignorance is bliss, hence the first Chapter in my book Tipping The Balance; “Know Thyself”.
In sport settings, research is showing how Stoicism can be used with athletes to help them to deal with the pressure of performance. In a recent study, we found that when golfers approached putting under pressure stoically, with rational and flexible thoughts, they performed much better than when they approached putting with very extreme and rigid thoughts. Research also show that when a half-time team-talk focusses on rational language, players are more likely to express themselves in the second half. We also know that we can help football players to think more rationally about performance from a young age, which might also help their mental well-being.
Back to The Control Map
There are three main reasons why I think The Control Map has worked well with the groups and individuals with whom I have used it.
- I am not forcing my opinion on the group. They generate their own performance factors, decide how much control they think they have over them, and how important they are. There is self-discovery here, but with a view to opening the door for cognitive-behavioural work in the conclusions of the task.
- It is discursive. People like to interact, and in many of the settings I have worked in, people don’t often get a chance to have positive performance conversations. The task provides them with this, and also creates a “there are no wrong answers” environment in which to operate for a while.
- There is a clear way forward after the task. For an individual, and for a group, the performance factors that they need to focus on are clear – the top 5. Do they park it? Try to control it? Are they doing all they can to maximize the things they said they can control?
I hope this has been a useful read. My aim with my blogs is always to share something useful as well as stimulate some interest in the work we are doing. If you use The Control Map with an individual or group, let me know how it goes.