Category Archives: For the masses

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Learning to be OK with Earning Number Two

xray brainWhether you are an athlete, a parent, a coach, or a workplace professional, your mindset and preparation can make a world of difference in your productivity, performance, and level of success.  To help address this area, O-PA! Performance Academy has teamed up with Dr. Pete Economou of The Counseling and Wellness Center to provide Sports Psychology education on-site in Bernardsville, NJ.  I am also excited to present Dr. Pete in his first guest blog for SMFTM!  Below, Dr. Pete provides some insight into the relevance and principles of “MAC” for helping athletes improve their performance.

Take it away, Dr. Pete!

“You might be reading this because the title caught your attention. How many people remember who came in second place? Who is really OK with earning second place?  Many athletes have wondered how they can improve and enhance their performance. Our society is one that emphasizes the importance of immediacy, as well as a society that stresses the importance of winning. Some elite athletes have taken this to irrationally high levels and have even thought to hurt a fellow competitor (Think: Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding- figure skating-1994 Olympics). While some athletes might look for the easy way to the top, there are still many athletes that are committed to the hard work that is essential in winning. As parents or coaches of athletes, we may be seeking the right way for our blossoming athlete. I will show you the perfect blend, as I see it, to achieve success in sports.

Think about the good old fashioned approach of working hard for an outcome. This would include countless mornings rising before the sun, closely monitoring one’s diet (which probably includes being sure to eat enough calories- like a table full of breakfast foods at the diner following at 4 hour practice), hours of sacrifice (e.g., social, academic, family), and a life that is dissimilar to the everyday student. As a former athlete, collegiate coach and now psychologist, I have experienced losing. Growing up there was no such thing as always winning and receiving a trophy. You had to earn that title and reward. I was not the best on every team, and that was OK. I can see the negative effect not being the best had on self-esteem, but it also provided me with the opportunity to learn other ways to build self-esteem. I worked hard, learned how to perform to the best of my ability, and was rewarded for the effort (sometimes). Discussion was often encouraged in my house, and my parents would often lead conversations about feelings related to a performance; not just those that were losses but also reinforcing strategies that worked while winning. Mindfulness within the sports performance world can assist athletes in finding that balance between winning and losing, working hard to the point of tears, and being OK with not always winning.

Mindfulness is a term you may have heard in the media and is defined as being present in this moment, doing so on purpose, and not judging your experiences (See: John Kabat-Zinn). While this is not an easy feat in Western world, it has proven to be effective in the East for centuries. Much of the social research shows that people in the East have lived free of many of the concerns and issues that we typically experience here in the West (e.g., the China study- no translation for hypertension and other medical health issues that are common here in the West). In fact, some argue that Mindfulness is nothing more than Buddhism wrapped up in a bow for Western people to embrace (Note: technically Buddhism is a way of life and not a religion). The foundation of Mindfulness comes from Zen Buddhism which teaches practitioners to observe the mind and this is often achieved through hours of silent sitting (zazen). I recently read the autobiography of Yogananda, and then watched the documentary, and I was reminded of how closed the minds in the Western world can be. Yogananda brought yoga from India to the U.S. and he was met with much resistance. Many people practice yoga in the U.S. today without any realization that yoga was initially created as a way to warm the mind up for meditation.  Currently it seems that yoga is more of a fad and a means to tone up the body rather than an exercise for the body AND mind. While I just bounced between Zen Buddhism and yoga, there is a strong connection between these two practices- one that beautifully compliments the practice of Mindfulness.

What does this idea of Mindfulness, yoga and Buddhism have to do with winning? Recent research by Frank Gardner and other sports psychologists have employed principles of Mindfulness in athletic performance and called it Mindfulness Acceptance and Commitment (MAC). Athletes are trained in the practice of Mindfulness, are evaluated on their openness to experiences and assess their values, and then are taught to commit to actions. Let me explain what that means.

The practice of Mindfulness with athletes looks something like this: embracing any present moment no matter how difficult it might be (i.e., being comfortable being uncomfortable), homework such as driving in the car with no radio or phone, sitting in silence daily for 10 minutes (with the hope we can work up to 30 minutes), defusing words and thoughts from reality (i.e., “I am stupid” vs. “ I am noticing a thought saying that I am stupid”), and ultimately cultivating the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the calming aspect of our central nervous system- the opposite of that “fight-or-flight” response).

Then, the leaders assist athletes in practicing psychological flexibility. Not the kind of flexibility that occurs in the gym or yoga room, rather this is the flexibility that requires us to re-learn something that we have known and practiced for a long period of time. Psychological flexibility is the ability to persist in a new behavior that is more aligned with who we want to be (See: Stephen Hayes and ACT). While the practice of psychological flexibility is one of the most challenging aspects of my clinical work, here are some ways to do so:

  1.  Accept the present moment as it is
  2. Separate yourself from your thoughts
  3. Be present
  4. Evaluate your values and see what you want to change
  5. Commit to this change.

To that end, we also work with the athletes to assess their values related to performance (e.g., their role for their team or goals that have been set) and also we evaluate the life values in general (e.g., the balance of working out and socializing, community work, spirituality, family, etc).

Lastly, this work of MAC requires a level of commitment from all parties that are involved. It is more to just say that someone wants to win- it is committing to the hard work required to get there that we focus on. A marathon runner does not just receive some trophies along the way to the first 26.2 mile run. That runner slowly and steadily builds to the marathon run through hours and hours of training.

While our society is typically focusing on the principles of winning, there is a lot to be learned from losing. Learning to accept that moment and learn how to improve yourself within performance is crucial for athletes. It is true that winning can improve self-esteem, but I postulate that one could learn more self-esteem improvement strategies through losing.  The message must be heard. To that end, listening is not just hearing. It is imperative that athletes, their coaches, and parents talk about the processes of both winning and losing. It is OK for boys to cry when they lose, and girls can boast when they win. We do not have to adhere to social pressure to uphold gender stereotypes. Lastly, cultivating a daily mindfulness routine can enhance quality of life and subsequently athletic performance. This can be accomplished by sitting and noticing, counting your breaths, visualization, or endless number of mindfulness strategies which can be detailed in future blog posts.”


Pete Economou OPADr. Pete Economou has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology with a concentration in neuropsychology, and is based out of The Counseling & Wellness Center. For more info on Dr. Pete Economou, check out his bio here.  Dr. Pete can be contacted at and is on twitter: @thecwcnj and @OfficialDrPete.

10 Tests for Measuring Athletic and Functional Performance

“If you ain’t assessin’, you’re just guessin’!”  Tweet:
I cannot remember who I first heard this from, but I find it absolutely true. I’ve discovered that I’m a “fixer” by nature. Sometimes so much to a fault (just ask my wife!), I’m always re-evaluating things I come across daily to find ways to make them better. It could be my effectiveness and approach in dealing with a difficult challenge, my performance-training approach, my meatloaf recipe (and I make a MEAN meatloaf), or my dance moves in preparation for the next wedding I attend. Just as in life,  in athletic and functional performance if we aren’t checking to see where we currently are as compared to where we’ve been, how clear is our path to get to where we want to be. Yes, as performance coaches or rehab professionals we could just put everyone through a cookie-cutter program. How effective is that approach towards promoting client accountability, getting positive outcomes, and justifying the quality of service we provide? On the flip-side, if you are someone who is going through a fitness program, it’s important to reinforce your hard work and dedication by noting changes over time. Assess, then progress (or regress) as indicated.

Over the years I’ve learned through mentorship , self-development, and trial/error quite a few assessment and evaluation techniques for a multitude of measurable variables. In this blog, I’m going to share 10 easily-reproducible functional evaluation and/or athletic performance performance testing order, O-PA Performance Academy tests that I’m very fond of, all of which are highly justified both in research and in real-life observable outcomes. It is not the purpose of this blog to discuss how to address the findings of each test – that’s for a future blog! It’s also important to note that not all 10 of these tests need to conducted in one session, and that the sequence of conducting the tests is crucial to ensuring accurate results (see recommended testing sequence, per the National Strength and Conditioning Association). We must limit the chances of a negative residual effect on a subsequent test due to physical or energy system fatigue from the previous test. Keeping that in mind, here are your 10 functional /athletic performance assessment tools to try:

  1. Subjective/Objective Self-Assessment (Questionnaire, Body Measurements): Some sort of non-complex questionnaire is very helpful here. As a coach, the better your rapport is with your clients the more accurate and honest their responses will most likely be. Questions should include topics such as self-ratings on current mindset, satisfaction with current/previous program,  attainment of personal goals, and expression of both valued components of their program as well as areas they feel need to be enhanced. To compliment this questionnaire, a simple height, weight, body fat %, and body measurements assessment is great for monitoring progress as well.
  2. Posture Assessment: Make note of certain objective observations pertaining to posture. How does normal standing and sitting position look (neck, upper back, and lower back position/curves)? Is there  near-symmetry right vs left? Does one or both shoulder blades wing up when raising arms overhead or when pushing off of a wall? What is the observed foot and knee position in standing?  A quick scan from head to toe can tell you a whole lot.
  3. Functional Movement Screen/Biomechanical Analysis:  The Functional Movement Screen (FMS), developed by Gray Cook and his team of athletic training/physical therapy gurus, is a “screening tool used to identify limitations or asymmetries in seven fundamental movement patterns that are key to functional movement quality in individuals with no current pain complaint or known musculo-skeletal injury (”  The purpose of this screen is to identify weak links, notable asymmetries, and faulty biomechanics – all of which can lead to increased risk of injury, decreased functional efficiency, and potentially decreased performance. This helps to direct corrective exercise prescription. The great thing about the FMS is that it is easily reproducible and demonstrates very high validity in consistency between the testers. To delve into movement analysis even deeper, there are some awesome video analysis tools out there which allow coaches to video-record and analyze sport-specific movements, running/jumping technique, and functional patterns in slow motion. This gives the opportunity to not only address inefficiencies noted in the movement, but also to provide visual sensory feedback to the person on the video (since we can neurocognitively process feedback we see much faster, with better retention, than when we only hear it). Pretty awesome stuff!

    Lateral Step Down Test


  4. Single-leg squat: While the FMS lets you screen squat and lunge patterns, one thing left out is strength and control in a single leg squat pattern. I’ve found that many times people can have a very good 2-legged squat, yet when you put them on 1 leg and have them try to squat, breakdowns occur in the kinetic chain. Problems such as knee valgus (buckling/rotating inward ) and heel rise/foot shift can indicate high risk of knee and ankle injury. I also see direct correlation between poor eccentric control of this motion and less than ideal deceleration quality in agilities.  This shows you any asymmetries between sides which may need to be addressed. I usually have the person perform 3-5 reps on a 12″ high step.
  5. Vertical Jump Tests – Double Vertical Jump (DVJ) for technique, Vertical Jump (VJ) for height: There are multiple purposes for using the DVJ or VJ tests. In addition to measuring lower extremity explosive power (how high you can jump), you can also objectively note the quality of take off, landing, and reversal rate of power.  Vertical jump height can be tested with a jump tower, using a force mat (such as the Just-Jump System that we have at O-PA! Performance Academy), or simply touching as high as you can on a wall. I love the VJ test – my scores weren’t too shabby back in the day. Maybe my goal should be to get back that 37″ vertical jump – I just need 6″ more!

    Unfortunately I can no-longer dunk.  But I can get it back one day!

    Unfortunately I can no-longer dunk. But I can get it back one day!

  6. Med Ball Chest Pass:  Using a weighted ball, it’s easy to assess upper body power, measuring how far the ball can be pushed away from you like a basketball pass.  A simple, reproducible test, I recommend performing seated or kneeling to eliminate compensation coming from the legs. The actual weight of the ball should be such that the test taker can move it at least somewhat fast. It probably goes without saying, but make sure to use the same weight consistently every time you re-test for accurate results.
  7. Acceleration and Agility testing: 10-Yard Sprint, Spider Test, & 5-10-5 Pro Agility:  The purpose of these tests is to demonstrate an athlete’s acceleration, quickness, and ability to change direction efficiently. With any agility or quickness test, the total time to complete should be very short, aiming for no longer than 5-15″ (go longer than 30″ at most and you are no longer testing the phosphogen energy system – or the “burst”). The 10 yard acceleration test is pretty self-explanatory – time it takes to run 10 yards straight ahead. The Spider Agility test as described by the NSCA involves running a timed star pattern (returning to the center after going to each point). I like to use 3 to 5 yard distances between cones with 8 cones, and have also toyed with versions involving drop steps and shuffles (the person has to face forward the entire test) to demonstrate actual game-like quickness over a variety of functional skills (like when playing defense). The 5-10-5 Pro Agility is the same test used by the NFL at their draft combine. It too is a very reliable tool to assess quickness, acceleration, change of direction quality, and lateral stability.

    5-10-5 pro agility

    5-10-5 Pro Agility Test

  8. Push-up/Pull-up Challenge:  It is what it sounds like. How many quality push- ups and/or pull-ups can you do in a certain amount of time. Note that if someone cannot perform a full pull-up unassisted, this test can be performed using assisted pull-ups with a superband or tubing. It’s all relative when comparing pre- to post-test numbers, as long as testing means is consistent. Typically the allotted time is 3 minutes or less. This is a great way to measure overall muscular endurance.
  9. Core Endurance testing (plank, side plank R & L, prone double leg raise):  Ah yes, that dreaded “PLANK”. Everyone loves to perform these tests with me – said no one ever. Well, OK, some people enjoy them. The tests are simple: hold a static neutral core position as long as you can until goal is reached, failure, or loss of proper form (I use >1 coaching correction needed). Four positions are used: plank on forearms, side plank on forearm on each side, and a prone double leg raise to horizontal off of a table/bench. These tests are based off of the thorough research of Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the world’s leading researchers on core stability and issues concerning the back. Based on his research, a healthy individual should be able to hold these for a minimum of 60″, ideally 90″. Measurements such as this correspond with significantly lower likelihood of back pain. He also noted that there should be within 5% symmetry when comparing all 4 sides. Note:  make sure to allow for recovery between each test.  I use a 1:1 work:rest ratio between tests, with the minimum rest being 1 minute. That’s even between side-plank sides.
  10. Sprint Endurance Testing: With sprint endurance testing, we are measuring both speed and the ability to maintain that speed for between 30 and 90 seconds (dependent on the level of athlete). Good examples of this would be a timed 300 meter run or a shuttle run with a minimum distance of 15 to 20 yards between reversals. Because of the added time it takes to complete, sprint endurance testing (or anaerobic endurance testing) assesses a different energy system within the body compared to short sprints and agility tests. Yes, even adults should work on improving their sprinting when possible. It’s an amazing total body calorie roaster and a powerful neuromuscular stimulus. Keep in mind, you need to progress your sprint training wisely to avoid injury.

Food for your mind: 10 tests for measuring athletic and/or functional performance, in both the athlete and those who would not consider themselves athletes. Because improvements can sometimes occur very quickly when guided by the correct coaching, these assessments do not always have to take place during an official testing session. Great performance coaches have a keen eye for assessing these tests and patterns on the fly during training sessions as well. In athletes, these are the findings that show you how far you’ve come and what you need to work on to get to the next level. In the latter, they are great tools for determining injury risk, proper progression of your fitness routine, and for reinforcing a sense of personal accomplishment! *Insert High Five!*

“If you ain’t assessin’, you’re just guessin’!”  Tweet:

Dominate those tests,