Our Extended Q&A Interview With Kyle McDonald
Mental Performance Consultant at Competitive Will Performance Consulting
By Mim Haigh, Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments
When we interviewed Kyle McDonald for our recent article “Ensuring Your Game Preparation is Complete” there were just too many valuable insights for only one article. To overcome this, we’re sharing the extended Q&A here.
You work with athletes and teams performing at the pinnacle of their sport, in the professional leagues and the Olympics. What aspects of their mental approach really differentiate them as elite athletes?
What differentiates an elite athlete is their willingness to have a conversation and show some vulnerability when it comes to their perception of stress and pressure. The elite athlete holds the mindset that it is not a particular technical skill that will separate them (such as their free throw or wrist shot), but instead it’s how they see themselves, it’s their internal perceptions, dialogue, and breathing. In general, it’s their development of preparation and performance skills.
Can you outline the relationship between hardiness and high-performance? I’m aware that your MSc Sport Psychology focused on this area.
This is a great question. I think that in general our society really likes outcomes and labeling. Mental toughness is a label and I thought hardiness brought to the forefront some tangible aspects that are discussed in relation to being stress resistant. The concepts of challenges, commitment, and control functioning in stress resilience are crucial in environments. My research began with professional ice hockey coaches and how they perceived the elements of hardiness. I started with coaches because I felt they are the ones who shape environments for athletes. The relation to high performance is that if a coach can exhibit hardiness, they could influence their athletes in this element. There still lots of room for education and acquisition in this field.
Change is difficult but, in your experience, what builds an athlete’s ability to handle change and become resilient?
I think commitment and willingness to embrace adversity. Games are never perfect and nor are we as individuals. Stress and pressure can take a toll and can even bring us to some pretty low points, but commitment and being self-aware in our own process is crucial. There is always resistance in change, but an ability to persist in challenges is such a great aspect.
Is there a time in an athlete’s development that is most beneficial for them to learn mental skills?
I used to think that mid-teens were the right time, however I have had an increase in conversations with families of athletes who are around 10-12 years of age. I think sport can be difficult, especially in this day and age, so the sooner we can start discussing and educating individuals on areas like attitude as a choice, motivation as a choice, and share stories on how athletes work through difficult times, the better. Mental skills are just that – a skill and need to be worked on daily.
Why is developing a strong mental game as important as developing strong technical and physical skills?
When we look at elite performance, the technical, tactical, and conditioning aspects are so intact among the best individual athletes and teams. It is only a thin line that separates the great performers from the elite, therefore, I believe the mental skills developed for individual and group effectiveness are the deal breakers at the top. Being human, our perceptions of success and stress should be discussed, and the mental skills pillar of development gives us that ability. You would never meet an elite athlete who didn’t have a tactical skills development plan or who didn’t have nutrition and conditioning plans – so why would you allow a gap by not having a mental skills plan?
What gets you excited / what do you look forward to most in your work with clients?
I like winning just as much as the next person, but I also believe each of us have a process scorecard we should pay particular attention to. This process is what gives us meaning, purpose, and passion for our endeavors and I absolutely love being part of many high performing individuals’ journeys on their process. Seeing clients perform and being part of their team on a daily basis as they chase their unique goals, is pretty special. To have a front row seat to performance every day. I’m pretty lucky.
What have been the top 3 things that have helped you succeed in your work with clients?
- Being an active listener, who focuses on the athlete’s thinking and not just the issue or problem they’re bringing to the table.
- Building a relationship with each of my clients, which also includes the trust to have some difficult conversations.
- As cliché as it is – Having passion and commitment to better myself in my profession and having a willingness to always continue to learn.
What feedback do you receive from your clients about the best thing about working with you?
There are probably two pieces that are the best thing about working with me. The first is that the client is seeing performance improvements because of the work that we are doing together. The second is feedback from clients that I am there for them when they needed it – whether it’s a pat on the back or having a tough conversation. I hate the saying about not taking performance aspects personally; it is personal, because athletes care. Personal is human. Being able to have conversations that they may take personally is a trademark of a great relationship and I think the athletes I work with understand that. I think they would say that I helped create self-awareness in an effort to understand emotions and the effect they may have on performance.
Is there an example of your work with a client or clients that stands out for you? That highlights the great work that you do. (You can leave out names to keep confidentiality.)
I think there are so many to choose from. I have worked with a number of athletes who have had different adversities and perceive success and failure so differently. There is definitely no one “cookie cutter” approach when we talk about mental skills, and each organization and individual athlete have their own journey. With that said, I think the start of the new “quad” with our national para ice hockey team stands out. They are a really great group to be with and to be integrated with.
What is most misunderstood about the work you do with athletes, coaches, and/or administrators?
What I find is the most misunderstood is that we still look at mental skills development as a weakness and it means something is wrong with the athlete. Mental skills are just like technical skills and there should be a conscious effort on developing them on a daily basis. It is okay to speak with a mental performance consultant. It is not a sign of weakness or sickness but instead, it is a sign of personal mental mastery.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a coach or athlete, what would it be?
There’s a quote by Herbert B. Swope – “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure – which is: Try to please everybody.” I think it’s important for our athletes to look inward and find their path, not everyone is going to be happy all the time, but let’s invest in aspects we can control and our inward feelings towards success and adversity.
What do you see as the number 1 issue your clients face and work to overcome?
The number one issue I see goes by a few different names – confidence, self-esteem, or self-efficacy. An athlete’s belief in their own ability to success can be debilitating. The sport landscape is a difficult one and it is okay to talk with athletes about how hard it can be. If you don’t talk about it, it is hard to improve it.
What you are most proud of? What has been your career highlight so far?
There are so many of my athletes that I am proud of but one highlight that stands out is our silver medal at the world para ice hockey championships. I know that we all want gold but that process scorecard that I talked about earlier, there were many check marks on it. We just need to keep challenging ourselves.
What was one thing you changed from last year that has made a significant difference?
Understanding energy and where we need to spend it. Athletes tend to spend a lot of energy on aspects that they cannot control and sometimes mountains are made out of molehills. I’ve really learned to work through some of that emotion with high performers and put a different lens on.
How/why did you get into what you are doing now?
I coached ice hockey for a number of years and saw an opportunity or need in the sport for athletes and teams to improve on their mental skills. With my background and education, I felt I could better lead athletes in the mental skill pillar of development – so I embarked on Competitive Will Performance Consulting six years ago. I would not change a thing from the struggles/successes of coaching to my position now.
Can you share an ‘ah-ha’ moment in your career?
There are so many to choose from. Usually after a relationship is built, we find that piece of the puzzle that produces some outcomes. Some athletes take a few months others a year, but we find it and it is quite a journey.
What are you aiming for in the future?
I have been working towards my PhD for a few years and have started to make some real progress in my research, so I hope to have that published in the near future. It revolves around the integration of mental skills for a positive youth experience in sport. Looking a few more years out, Beijing 2022 with the Canadian national para ice hockey is on my mind.
How has working with Athlete Assessments contributed to your work with clients? (What has been most valuable?)
The most valuable aspect of the Athlete Assessments contribution is that it helps open the line of communication with athletes and organizations, and also provides a deep evaluation to educate the athlete on their behavioral preferences. Before we acquire the skills, education in self-awareness is so crucial and Athlete Assessments starts that process.
How has using the Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiles helped most with your work?
The DISC Profiles have helped me paint a complete picture of my athletes. The DISC starts creating an identity for us to build upon.
Any other comments about the work we’ve done with you or about us?
Earlier I talked a lot about relationships, and I feel Liz and Bo do such a great job with me to have conversations from the logistics to the review of the DISC use. Although we are just one year in, I feel I can reach out for a conversation, which is the foundation of a great relationship.
You are welcome to read our article about
Kyle McDonald, ‘Ensuring Your Game Preparation is Complete’.
Where to from here…
If you’ve enjoyed this Q&A article, you might also value reading:
- It’s not about Deficits, it’s about being your Best
- Olympic Mental Challenges – Insights from Dr Nicole Detling
- Debunking The Myth of Leadership
- Hungarian Sport Reaches For New Heights
- Equipping Athletes to Evolve
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