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Most
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TRAINING THAT WORKS FOR A CHANGE

A Gazing Performance perspective by Dr Ceri Evans & Renzie Hanham

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Introduction

Apparently, most training doesn’t work. We can still vividly remember the time when Gazing was just starting out in the world of training and a prominent training manager calmly told us that the majority of all training interventions had little or no effect. We have subsequently found that this general notion – that most training has little impact on performance – is endorsed, if not liked, by most people in the field. Experienced people who we would trust to gauge this lack of impact have also been remarkably consistent with their estimations: the standard response is that 75 to 80% of purchased training is next to worthless. If this is accurate – and we have no reason to suspect that it is not – it raises some obvious and important questions, including why companies continue to invest in interventions, which they fully realize, are more than likely to have limited impact?!

Our purpose here, though, is to address the issue of training efficacy: why is most training ineffective? Understanding this would seem to be a sensible starting point for working out what training companies should do. However, we don’t intend this to be a systematic review with a comprehensive analysis of every potential training design limitation. Instead, we wish to simply highlight three critical issues - form, content and method - which we believe lie at the heart of explaining widespread training ineffectiveness. We would go as far as to say that unless some important principles in each of these areas are addressed, training courses were probably doomed to failure from the outset.

We don’t intend to address the issue of measurement of the impact of training. For the time being, let us accept the main premise – that most training does not produce any sustainable change in behaviours – at face value, and address issues of causation rather than measurement. We couch our discussion in terms of three ‘decisions’ that are made in terms of format, content and method. Our objective is to describe an approach to the psychological component of performance under pressure that is understandable and practical. Above all, we want it to be useful. We choose these words carefully. We want to emphasise the ‘useful’ criterion because this pretty much drives our whole approach to the subject. By definition, things are only use-ful if they are used. We will achieve our objective if people actually use the material we present because humans are fundamentally practical creatures and they (mostly) will not keep using something that is not helpful to them. On the other hand, we will fail if people do not or cannot remember the material, or fail to apply it at least some of the time, relegating it to the bookshelf rather than the real world. We want our approach to the mental aspects of performance to be relevant out on the pitch, in the stadium, on the stage or set, during the business day, in the restaurant kitchen, or in any other theatre of performance – in other words, in real time - rather than only being considered one step removed from the action and solely as an academic exercise.

Decision One: Form

The starting point for designing any training programme should be some careful thinking about the context in which the training delegates will be using the material that is presented. Unless you have this appreciation of the conditions of use, the training programme cannot be considered be considered to be customer-oriented. The needs of the delegate are not the primary concern. Rather than starting with training content and delivery, it is our view that it is better to start at the other end, the actual application of the materials, and to work backwards from there. The reason for doing this is that it gives training programme designers some crucial insights about how delegates will need to use the information you are presenting, which, in turn, has major implications for how the material should be presented on the training course.

By context, we are referring to the psychological conditions in which people work as much as the specific task scenario. More specifically, although Gazing delivers training across various domains, including business, sport and education, we take the view that all of these situations share the common linkage of individuals and groups being required to perform under pressure. Pressure can manifest in a myriad of ways – the meeting with a difficult client; the big game with media attention with national selectors watching; challenging students in a poorly resourced school - but the thing that all these situations have in common is that the individual or group has to perform effectively in potentially stressful conditions. And it is this context – performance under pressure – which we think has critical implications for the format in which training materials should largely be delivered.

If we analyse a variety of scenarios from different domains, we can see that what training companies need to deliver to individuals and groups are mental skills. Some training deals with specific technical abilities but the vast majority of training, dealing with performance, leadership, management, sales or service interactions, teaching, and so on, address more generic mental skills. All of these situations require the individual or group to think clearly by accurately understanding the situation they are in, making effective decisions, and focusing attention of specific processes. They are not physical or technical skills per se, although the mental skills may well contribute to better performance of these activities. The important point is that the training objective should be for the delegate to be able to remember and use the training materials in the moment they are performing their particular task. They need mental skills which they can use in ‘real time’ because it is the quality and structure of their thinking that training companies are trying to influence. And we all know that real life means that we operate with constant short interactions with people, with multiple interruptions, and usually incomplete information. The perfect conditions which allow careful planning, deployment of resources and execution exist only in the ivory tower of training programme designers. What we need is practicality: something we can actually remember and use.

Trying to develop mental skills is no small task because by their very nature, our mental states are far more unstable affairs. Physical attributes such as strength and flexibility and endurance, are relatively enduring and change over weeks rather than from moment to moment. Similarly, technical abilities such as the ability play a musical instrument, the ability to process complicated financial information, or to use a database, are relatively stable and change little once a certain level of expertise is achieved. But our mental states, on the other hand, can change like the wind. Our emotional states, for example, can change within seconds. We change our minds and make decisions in very short order. And the situation for groups of people and teams is just compounded because they depend on a whole series of ‘minds’, each with a propensity to change quickly. And further, if these minds are operating under pressure, the likelihood of people being distracted and not focusing of the task at hand is made far more likely. This, then, is the task: to train people to think clearly under pressure, when there is a natural tendency not to.

So, to summarise so far:

  1. Training should be delivered with how the context in which the delegate is going to use the training material in mind;

  2. This context involves the use of mental skills in pressure situations, characterised by brevity, interruptions, incomplete information, time pressure, and so on;

  3. The target is mental skills, as opposed to physical or technical skills; and,

  4. Mental processes are notoriously difficult to improve because by their very nature our state of mind is so vulnerable to change and distraction.

This simple analysis of the context of performance leads to some imperatives about the format of training materials: the information must be simple (so it can be used under pressure); highly memorable (so it can be used even without written material because this is not always available); and structured (so that order is brought to disorganized or even chaotic situations).

How do the traditional formats for training, manuals and talks by professionals, fare in terms of these imperatives? Both do poorly. The most common format for the presentation of training materials is the manual (a.k.a. workbook; handbook; folder, and so on), meaning the material is presented in written or copy form, usually in substantial amounts. Whilst the manual certainly suits the needs of the trainer because the manual takes all the pressure off the need to structure the session, think about how the session is going, and adapt accordingly to the level of engagement, it does not satisfy the needs of the delegate. Manuals certainly provide structure, but they fail miserably on the simplicity (how do you apply a manual to a specific situation under pressure?) and memorability (how well can you remember a whole manual?) tests. As an aside, often delegates request a manual because they think this will stop them having to take notes during the course, and the purchasers will request a manual because they think this represents value for money. These issues have to be acknowledged and addressed, but from the argument of context, manuals suit the needs of the trainer rather than the delegates.

The second main delivery mode, ‘talks’ by trainers or professionals (a.k.a. lectures, workshops, seminars, speeches, and so on), fares little better. Verbal massages leave the delegate with little other than very general impressions. Talks score poorly in terms of simplicity, memorability and structure. They typically leave the delegate with little; at most they point to a general principle but provide little practical detail that is retained in memory for anything other than the short term.

Of course, the majority of training ‘delivery’ is comprised of a mixture of the two formats, verbal and written material. But to focus on this is to miss the point because it is concerned with how the message is imparted rather than how it will be used at a later point in time. The fact of the matter is that written and verbal material transfers extremely poorly to our minds when we are undertaking some task later on after the course. If we wanted to think of ways to present information to delegates that would ensure they would have, at best, minimal uptake when they are in the midst of performance, the traditional modes of delivery do this well. They are perfect for low impact.

Is there a better alternative? We believe there is: maps. Maps (as we argue in a sister Gazing article “10 reasons why maps are the way to go”), are perhaps one of the most powerful forms of communication known to humans. And they serve our training objectives perfectly. First, maps summarise complex information simply. They have to because they need to put all the relevant information on a single page. Second, they are highly memorable. This is because they pay heed to the principles of brain functioning and memory recall, using a mix of visual elements (colour, shapes, connections) and hierarchies (smaller details linked to main structures, a very efficient organization of information). Our visual memories are orders or magnitude more powerful than out memories for the written or verbal word. Third, maps are highly structured, having a clear orientation with an overriding reference point (the compass). We remember maps extremely well. We might only recall the main elements when we are under pressure, but this structure and guidance is all that we need in these circumstances. When we plan or review, the additional detail is there for us. Overall, maps are inherently practical devices, which are ideally suited to being a very efficient medium for the transfer of information. .

As indicated above, we are not referring to mind-maps, which are idiosyncratic, personally drawn diagrams, often in root and branch form, designed as aide memories. The similarity between gazing performance maps and mind-mapping is that both adopt the principles of brain functioning in their creation, using structure, colour, shapes, and so on to maximize recall. The main differences are twofold: first: the graphically designed Gazing Maps are intended for shared rather than personal use; and second, the content of the Gazing maps represents a substantial process of research and review of a particular discipline over several years. In other words, there are some superficial similarities in form, but there are considerable differences in content.

So, to recap: our mindset can change within short periods, so we need to monitor it during competition. Competition means pressure. Pressure means we need simplicity and structure. This rules out books (too complex, too much structure, hard to memorise) and gurus (too little structure, not available during the match). We need a 1-page drawing.

As a final design point, maps also have capacity to carry a surprising amount of detail. This is because of the hierarchical organisation of the information, with the size of the copy providing us with clear indications about what is a major centre (big letters) and what is a minor location (small letters). We are able to look at maps without being overwhelmed by the hundreds of words on the single sheet because we understand and appreciate the inherent organization involved.

This detail is important for the non-time pressured scenarios of map use, in particular the planning and preparation, and review phases of performance, when greater scrutiny is placed on attention to detail. A superficial or simplistic model won’t cut it in these situations, when more substantial insights and direction would be expected. In theses contexts, it is appropriate to consider issues in more depth, hence the need for greater depth of information. Rather than having to provide this in a separate format, the map solves the challenge because of the flexibility with which it can be used: just the main locations and pathways when under pressure; more detailed analysis outside of this.

In summary, maps provide an elegant solution to the design puzzle for the ‘vehicle’ to deliver or present information that is accessible and practical for high performance situations: they provide the potential for a mental skills framework that has both (1) simplicity and (2) depth and breadth, in the samemodel of the mind.

Decision Two: Content

A recent strong trend has been for training companies to offer a lengthy ‘menu’ of various competencies. For example, training purchasers in business, for example, can select modules of mini programmes for negotiation, problem solving and team building, if this is what they think their managers require. The objective is to provide the individual with a wide array of skills so they can deal with a broad range of situations. It also means, incidentally, that training companies are motivated to ‘sell’ the customer the maximum number of competencies. Although it might be argued that the purchasers can buy just the modules they require, it also means that if specific competency modules are not purchased, then the individual or group has no basis for operating in that area. Their capacity to perform other functions depends on further training.

We would argue that the enthusiasm for competency based programmes delivered in this way is misplaced, and, once again, it does not resource the individual to operate under pressure in the real world.

The main argument is that once the individual has a practical map of how humans function under pressure available, a broad range of competencies can be easily boiled down into a small number of ‘core skills’. This means that it is possible to build core knowledge with a map of mental performance and clarity about the main issues which arise when humans are under pressure, which provides the individual with capacity to respond to a broad range of situations. Time spent building the framework (map) pays off because the individual can then learn how the core skills provides them with a powerful ability to address multiple ‘competencies’.

Therefore, we would agree that the outcome of the training should be that individuals should be able to carry out certain competencies. However, we disagree with the approach in terms of content. We believe it is far more empowering for individuals and groups to learn a small number of core skills that will allow them to carry out a broad range of competencies (and address situations without any further training by applying the core tools), rather than the delegate being trained in single, specific competencies alone. It is an argument for integration rather than isolation of skills. Much better to have delegates develop familiarity and skill in using a small number of very powerful tools they can then apply to a wide range of situations, rather than a high number of independent non-integrated ‘modules’ that have no particular coherency.

It is worth while returning to the objective of training to put this point into context. The real question is whether the core ‘map plus tools’ approach serves the needs of the delegate better than the ‘multiple isolated competencies’ approach favoured by most training companies. Analysis from this perspective suggests that the former approach will have more merit in the real world because research has shown that, especially in business (but also in other disciplines), we nearly always operate in imperfect conditions. In simple terms, the conditions in the real world do not reflect those assumed in the text book. Instead of an opportunity to plan, organize, consider full information, and make considered judgments, we operate in the context of multiple competing demands, incomplete information, time pressures, interruptions, and rapid changes of circumstances. And in all of our interactions, we are dealing with issues which are complicated by the emotional responses of the people with whom we are dealing, which only serve to divert and distort matters further. Is that not a very strong indication indeed that the competencies we have should somehow be connected and integrated rather than isolated and piecemeal? Surely we will be better served if the tools we have relate to each other with a common core and there are some fundamental skills which provide guidance to get control of our thinking, what ever the situation?

Of course, ultimately, the ‘test’ of the content argument will involve the delegate applying the core skills in practice, when they will be able to see for themselves whether this approach works. The feedback we have received suggests that the ‘Map + Tools’ approach certainly leads to consistency, competency, and confidence.

Finally in terms of the content of training programmes, we would like to return to the concept of performance under pressure. In the first section, we saw that the requirements for thinking clearly under pressure had design implications for how information can be presented most effectively. Here we would like to comment in more detail on why we view this concept is so important in terms of deciding what related ‘content’ or material should be included in training courses.

There has been an increasing tendency to see different domains as deserving of a psychology all of their own, such as ‘sports psychology’. In contrast, we believe that the psychological requirements for performing to a high level in different domains are more similar than they are different. First, there is no evidence that the brains of people successful in, say, sports, look or function differently to those high performers in, for example, business. In all these situations, we have the same mental apparatus available – our brains do not suddenly recruit new capabilities when we walk over the white line onto the pitch or onto the track or into the office, only to disappear again when we exit the performance arena (although admittedly we often feel like that!).

Second, the reverse argument applies. In the real world, people ‘perform’ in more than one domain. Sportspeople, for example, have personal lives and have to deal with the trials and tribulations arising from their families, relationships, business interests, and so on. They confront these challenges with just the same brain and mental tools as they have available for sports.

Third, to argue that a specific area such as sports warrants a different ‘psychology’ is to enter into an argument for super-specialisation, the ridiculousness of which quickly becomes apparent. It goes like this: rather than ‘sports’ psychology, why not ‘football’ psychology’? And a step further, why not ‘midfield’ psychology versus ‘defender’ psychology? This spiral into ever decreasing circles of super-specialisation quickly becomes unhelpful. In some domains there may be some merit in looking at very specific psychological requirements, but in our experience these nearly always can be boiled down to skilful applications of basic, general principles, as long as the original framework or map is adequate enough. It is more practical to have one robust framework and to adapt it to different scenarios rather than trying to develop a whole range of different frameworks. We often get the impression that the push for greater specialisation serves those who wish to protect their knowledge, that is, to be seen as holding the precious knowledge themselves, which is inevitably unhealthy. And it does not reflect what actually happens in the real world. Of course, we all slide up and down a scale of mental effectiveness as we move from situation to situation, but the situational changes should not be mistaken for changes in capability – we remain capable of greater focus of attention and concentration at a moments notice, if need be. Witness a parent idling time away when they hear one of their children scream. To put in simply, we need one map which deals with this sliding scale of mental effectiveness, rather than two (or many) different maps. One map fits all.

The key point is that it is humans actually respond to pressure in reasonably predictable ways which are similar no matter what the source of the pressure. As humans we tend to have only limited ways in which we deal with – or not dealing with –the pressure. Separating out ‘sports psychology’, or any other domain-specific psychology, misses this point.

It is easy to see why some scenarios invite the idea that top performers are fundamentally different to the rest of us in some way but this is because we focus on the situation rather than the mental aspects of performance. Sporting scenarios, for example, can involve incredible moments of tension and suspense, often played out before riveted audiences, sometimes in vast numbers. The drama and level of intensity of top sporting competitions helps to create the impression that there is something special or different about this field – maybe even surreal. We bear witness to gripping examples of success against all the odds, signifying superhuman spirit or mental toughness. And we wince as we feel the pain and ignominy of last minute failures borne by mental collapse when glory seemed within the athlete’s grasp. These kinds of extreme scenarios suggest that the individuals and teams concerned must be dealing with areas of psychological functioning that are different from our own experiences.

But this is to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error (or FAE), a well known psychological principle which was established several decades ago which described the strong human tendency to explain things (attribute cause) to people rather than the context or situation. It is almost as if we have a blind spot. If something unusual happens, it is down to the individual rather than the circumstances. We routinely underestimate the importance of context. This tendency or ‘error’ in thinking strongly supports the Gazing approach of starting out with the end in mind – what is the situation in which the delegate will actually be using the material? And it is our contention that although the various situations might be different, people still have to deal with what is in front of them with the same mental apparatus.

To summarise in terms of the ‘content’ of training programmes which seek to improve performance, the mainstay of high performance is the ability to deal with the discomfort inherent with performance under pressure. Operating under conditions of stress does have a ‘psychology’ that is different from non-stressful conditions. No one succeeds all of the time. And even the most successful competitors describe how under intense pressure, their concentration let them down, they lost focus, or they just weren’t ‘on’ their game, which led to poor performance. The pressure got to them mentally, and they were less effective. The crucial point is that the mental activity associated with poor performance is fundamentally different from that connected to high performance. Which is fortunate because if they weren’t - if the mental states underpinning success and failure were random or just the same - there would be no point in attending to the mental aspects of sports performance. It wouldn’t make any difference.

However, stress is not exclusive to sports. It can be found in any domain where pressure can be observed and experienced. It doesn’t matter whether it is a musician performing a difficult piece before a knowledgeable audience; the head chef of a top restaurant on a busy night; the newsreader for a mainline television channel; the teacher in the large, under-resourced classroom; or the mother of three trying to get 3 young children to school on time. All are united in their psychology: the principles relevant to one are also relevant to the others.

Just to be clear, to say that sports psychology does not exist is not the same as saying that psychology or the mental aspects of performance are not important in sport. On the contrary: our belief is that they are one of the core components of successful performance. It is just that, in our view, the crucial knowledge is about the mental aspects of performance under pressure in more general terms.

Some important implications arise from this main point. First, seeing performance within this broader framework of ‘the psychology of pressure’ allows us to apply the principles across performance domains, from teaching to sport to the arts to parenthood and so on. Sporting arenas are compelling but not unique. This means that the things that you learn here can be applied to other areas of your life.

Second, as ‘pressure’ has always existed throughout history, as opposed to the transient nature of specific sports or other situations in which pressure arises, it implies that we are talking about something quite robust and enduring. In other words, the psychology of pressure is more than a management fad that will be time-limited. It is not just a new approach or an interesting angle on performance. The context – pressure – has existed throughout history in all its various guises and so has always been relevant, even if it has not been recognised in this way.

Third, if the context of pressure has always been in existence, why all the mystery surrounding the psychology attached to it? It seems that what has been lacking has been a simple framework for understanding how the mind works well in pressure situations and how the mind works poorly when stressed. To be sure, various individuals, teams, or even whole groups of people have latched onto the important principles, whether they knew it or not, as demonstrated by their sustained success. But it seems to have proven to be a far more difficult task to describe simply and succinctly just what these principles are. The fact that there is often deep skepticism and therefore mistrust surrounding the whole area tells us that a practical, accessible, and credible framework of ‘pressure psychology’ is not currently widely available.

In conclusion in terms of content, we strongly advocate for delegates being trained on a core set of concepts which give them a depth of understanding of the main human performance issues, which can then be applied to various situations. Better to go from inside-out than outside-in, or even worse, just deal superficially with the outside with no core reference points (a framework or map).

Decision Three: Method

What makes individuals and groups function well under pressure: art or science? The final decision to be made in training is concerned with the general approach or method which will guide the nature of the training activities. A common way of positioning human understanding of performance within a certain domain which is often reflected in the methods adopted by training companies, is to try to understand it as either arising from art or science.

One common belief is that the ability to perform to elite levels is innate, an inborn gift that you either have or not. This argument extends to the mental component of performance, so that those who do well are seen as being made of the ‘right stuff’, with personalities suited to coping with stress and with a mental ability ideally suited to the code or domain in question. These individuals, consequently, are good at appreciating the state of affairs in front of them and make good judgments and decisions, especially under pressure.

This line of thinking is attractive to those romantics among us, who prefer to understand their favourite performers as having some ‘special’ ability over and above their competitors. It leads to claims that a person has ‘God-given talent’ – and conceptualises sports performance as something of an art form.

The problem with this approach is that it hardly encourages dedication to the training process in those deemed not to have the magical personal ingredients. What do you do if you don’t appear to have the ‘right’ personality for success? It sets up a sort of dichotomy of those who ‘have’ the necessary mental stuff, and those who do not. And the method by which an individual can move from a lower level of performance to a higher level is left open and unclear. In any case, research has failed to demonstrate that one personality type is better than others when it comes to performance across domains, so our personalities can only provide, at best, part of the answer.

A second, more impersonal, approach to performance emphasises meticulous preparation and the importance of analysis and the technical aspects of the domain in question. Time is spent analysing the different components of performance, including the characteristics of opponents and their strategies. This approach views performance more as a matter of science.

This perspective also has limitations, particularly that it can seem soul-less and detached from the people involved. It somehow loses the dynamic feel and human quality that we all intuitively know has some place in the performance equation, even if it cannot be quantified. Science struggles to explain why some individuals and groups do stand out from their peers, even with similar or even inferior physical attributes. In sporting circles, for example, how often have we heard commentators remark on a player who lacks pace but somehow seems to magically find space and time to score goals or points?

Which of these paradigms, art or science, should we follow in our pursuit of excellence?

From the Gazing perspective, neither. There certainly can, and should, be elements of both artful judgment and systematic analysis. However, from a performance perspective, there is much to commend understanding sports performance in terms of a skill acquisition model. Skills can be taught, developed, and transferred.

Adopting a skill development approach also means that whether you are an expert or beginner, you can still improve and refine your mastery of the basic elements of your domain. It certainly has the effect of relaxing those people who are overawed or scared of the science of performance and the frightening academic knowledge that seems to be required; and it calms those disenchanted by the thought that they do not have that special ingredient that marks them out from the rest. Skill development implies that we can all improve.

So what determines whether our level of skill improves?

This is where the skill acquisition approach pays dividends. Research has shown that irrespective of whether you are learning mental or physical skills, the main two determinants of skill acquisition appear to be (1) repetition, and (2) specificity.

Repetition is provided by ‘practice’ sessions, where basic techniques are performed time and again until a certain level of mastery is attained. Everybody is aware that even (or perhaps especially) elite competitors still continue to refine their basic technique through constant polishing of movements and timing, even when we would consider them to have already attained a level of mastery. The best sports people in the world have coaches and practice every day. It is curious that there is a strong resistance to this in the business domain, with many mid-level performers feeling that they are competent enough at certain tasks in order for them not to have to practice. There is no ‘secret’ why those that perform to higher levels do well: they repeatedly pay attention to the detail of their fundamental skills.

The second determinant, specificity, is primarily concerned with the basic ‘structure’ belonging to any specific skill. In simple terms, each skill can be broken down into a series of key components. For example, it is obviously well known that a physical sports skill such as a tennis stroke can be broken down into the grip, stance, backswing, forward stroke, follow-through, and so on. It is less well known that mental skills, such as selling, also have an inherent structure that can be learnt and developed. The key idea is that our level of skill improves most if we gradually hone the structure to be as close as possible to how it will be performed in the real world, under pressure.

This requirement for realism or simulation means that there should be consideration of both the conditions in which the skill will have to be performed (the context), and the various components of the skill (the structure). It is necessary to break the overall skill down into component parts so that each can be isolated and refined. Then, the different components can be re-assembled again and synthesised into a coherent whole. This ‘whole-part-whole’ strategy is a tried and trusted method of skill acquisition, but its basic essence is that it increases the specificity and accuracy of the practice.

Because of the importance of isolating different parts of a skill and refining them prior to re-integration into the whole, the whole skill acquisition approach depends heavily on the quality of the descriptive component for each skill. This brings us back to the frameworkof a skill, the basic supporting structure or system. Put the other way, if there is no overall framework or structure for a particular skill, what chance does one have of improving the level of technique and to refine and develop it? Once a structure or framework is in place, the task is more simple and clearer.

A framework also brings the dry-sounding language of skill acquisition to life. It is easy to see that a tennis player will need to repeat certain aspects of a stroke to gain mastery and to continue doing so to maintain this level of skill, in just the same way that a sales person will need to focus attention of various aspects of a selling framework. We need to practice our skills, repeating them over and over until we have ‘over-learned’ them – until we can perform them in a natural or even ‘unconscious’ way, without thought. Further, the level of specificity or accuracy with which we practice is also critical because if the individual practises in a casual fashion, it is easy to see that the technique may fall down under pressure. The answer is that both repetition and specificity are required; one without the other does not work.

So, to summarise this section:

  • Many conceptualise training and performance within an ‘art’ or ‘science’ dichotomy;

  • A more productive paradigm is to understand performance as being underpinned by skills;

  • It is a productive approach because we have strong evidence about how skills can be improved;

  • One main factor that leads to improvement is repetition, or practice;

  • The other main factor is being as specific and accurate as possible;

  • The thing that draws both of these elements together and gives them significance and relevance is a skill framework, a basic description of the components or structure of an area of a performance or skill.

Conclusions

The dawning insight should be that the quality of the framework for performance of a task is the critical factor in high performance from a range of perspectives, including format, content and method considerations. An approach based on a coherent and carefully constructed Map of the territory and a small number of closely related tools may, on the surface, look simple or even simplistic. However, the Map + Tools approach is ideal for those interested in performing under pressure.

Imagine trying to improve your efficiency of moving around London on the underground if you did not have a diagram of the overall underground system! Individual movements would be uncertain and out of context – isolated actions would lose their meaning. Much better to have an overview or framework that will make the decisions and actions more accurate and skilful.

However, many discussions about mental skills involves descriptors such as ‘mystical’, ‘vague’, and ‘psychobabble – words all rich with skepticism. Professionals in this area are regarded with suspicion and sometimes derision. Despite agreement that mental skills are important, even crucial to success in high performance scenarios, a clear and succinct overview of the necessary skill elements remains elusive. This is a major challenge: we simply do not have a simple framework for mental skills, at least not one that is widely accepted as practical, robust, and accessible.

Frameworks are reasonably straightforward to design for technical skills like tennis shots, and the development of physical abilities. Even when these kinds of skills seem advanced, the underlying framework or structure is not that difficult to understand. Remember how it was when you first learned to ski? The performance of the ski turn might have seemed almost impossible, but the basic technique or framework (where to place your weight, and so on) was reasonably straightforward. The challenge is to develop a simple, robust and practical framework for mental skills that will lead to effective performance under pressure. That should be a primary target outcome of a training intervention.

But mental skills are a different matter all together because we have less agreement about what the various mental components are, how they fit together, and we certainly don’t share a common platform of how to apply these concepts in stressful situations. If we did, we would all be able to draw a diagram of it right now with a reasonable level of consistency, but we cannot. We would have such a wide range of approaches that inconsistency would be the predominant feature. This tells us something important – we just do not have a shared approach to the mental aspects of performance that is part of standard practice.

We would like to finish on a more optimistic note. Our starting point was to describe the phenomenon of ineffective training. It is our contention that consideration of first principles involving format, content and method can provide very useful insights about how training can overcome its legendary impotence. Productiveness will increase if the essential information is presented in map format (plus a small number of tools to operationalise the map); if the content addresses the context of humans performing under pressure by focusing on a small number of core skills which are transparently connected in meaningful ways; and if the method of training explicitly adopts the skill acquisition approach.

Making just three careful decisions on these issues could lead to something remarkable: training that works for a change.