Improving your performance – consistency

This is a guest article originally written and published here by Ronny Wilson. It’s one of our more technical articles, but it describes some of the science and philosophy that sits behind all that ultratraining.club does. Consistency is king!

Ronny is an MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology student at Loughborough University, with a particular interest in High Performance. He has a regular influence on our coach Shane and as a National standard runner, knows what it takes to perform at the top of his game. Ronny is also officially Lincoln’s fastest man…2022’s Lincoln 10k Champ (much to Shane’s chagrin!).

Running is just like cooking…

The first time you made Christmas Dinner will probably have been a real test of preparation, timing and execution. Floundering an industrial protocol in your domestic kitchen. Throughout, you remained at risk of ruining any (or all) components of the dinner. The prospect of Grandad’s teeth cracking on your burnt carrots quashing a congratulatory, champagne toast. The presentation was far from a Michelin star, yet it turned out edible, and the performance was acceptable.

Learn from your mistakes, or gamble again?

If you’re anything like me, the second time would have been a similar gamble, resulting in a similarly nervous result. Whether a memorable success or a laughable mess, we have a tendency to react to the outcome and attribute the relative success or failure to some other correlate. Those practical remarks, “The oven is old so the temperature is inconsistent” or “I just knew that extra knob of butter would make the difference” are passed around the table and we put our novelty chef’s hat away until next year.

However, rather than wish for success in our performances in the kitchen, we can learn and identify improvements for next time. We can improve our food preparation ‘skills’, choose better ingredients, follow more adventurous recipes; the performance in the kitchen will be better. It still has the potential to be a mouth watering, standout meal, but Grandad’s teeth look safer than past years. We’ve raised the floor.

We’re booked for next year, and branded as someone to turn to for ‘a good meal’.

You are here because you want to perform well

You will have dedicated time, attention and likely, money to the pursuit of performance. High performance translates across all domains whether it be in a sporting endeavour, an artistic expression, or a business pursuit.  In our own pursuits of high performance, we seek that perfect “in the zone” moment. Unfortunately, our performances tend to swing up and down. If we were to chart our performances on a scale of 0-100, perhaps they may look something like this…

Whilst you have the potential to perform exceptionally on your day, you know there is still a chance of a confidence-shattering bad performance. Through experience, we realise how rare “the zone” can be.

Luckily, what has been learned from the highest performers is that there is a way to give ourselves a better opportunity to achieve that feeling more regularly[9] [16]. Instead of shooting for 100, we should first aim to increase our expected outcome by raising the floor and improving our ‘worst’ day. The key is to aim for consistency. Consistency in attitudes, behaviours and therefore, performances. Developing focus towards cooperation, effort and mastery[1] as opposed to performance result and perfectionism[10]. Would you expect the person cooking Christmas dinner to be making ready meals every other day of the year?

Why consistency?

Firstly, it is important to understand performance is a process. Rarely do we perform only once. Whilst it is natural to place the spotlight on the highs, my suggestion to you is to bring your attention to reducing the frequency of the lows.

Focusing on consistency of performance leads to continuous progression[1] [2]. You can trust that following the same behaviours with a similar attitude will produce a narrowed range of results. Your default will be higher. By ensuring you’ve placed that safety net beneath you, you can begin to identify the areas of improvement in a rational and premeditated way. Even the bad days look a little brighter as you begin to recognise their contribution to the overall performance picture.

By aiming for this, we invoke a level of discipline and stability that means we can predict our performance to a smaller range. In a study of factors contributing to successful football team results in a tournament setting, it was found the most consistent performers across the key performance indicators survived the longest in the tournament[18]. They may not have been producing the ‘best’ results in every category, but they were the most consistent throughout the tournament.

The sprouts are cooked just right every time…perhaps it’s time to add some bacon and even a drizzle of honey.

From consistency comes improvement

You are always looking forward in the process. Starting from a stable position allows for the correct layering, meaning you can build towards higher performance goals. This happens through psychological adaptation[13]. Consistency brings automation – when you think about your performance domain, you already know to do X, Y and Z. Like unconscious habits, automation reduces cognitive load[14], freeing up the capacity to focus on the important decision making instead. Surely this is much more attractive than showing up on the day and not knowing which version of you will be the result.

How can you improve your consistency?

Consistent performers exhibit the same attitudes and behaviours despite the situation. This requires three interlinked characteristics: emotional stability[11], psychological resilience[5], and mental rehearsal[2].

As with all performances, the management of stress and emotion is imperative. Recent research[4] models the relationship between stress, emotion and performance as a cyclical process. We encounter a stressor that requires an appropriate evaluation to understand how we will react, and whether we have the resources to cope. The evaluation is dependent on our personal and situational characteristics and the valence of the response informs the outcome. The next time we encounter a stressor, we have had the opportunity to learn from our responses.

Like the heat we place our potatoes under in the oven, we place our bodies under stress to facilitate an appropriate adaptation. Too much stress and the potatoes will burn. Whilst we cannot (and do not want to) avoid the stressors we encounter, our appraisal of the situation and the available resources to respond effectively can be developed, giving ourselves a greater chance of having the desired behavioural responses[6]. No one wants raw potatoes…

Emotional Stability

Emotional stability requires emotional intelligence[12] to recognise and understand the emotions we are feeling. How are we feeling? Through developing this intelligence we can regulate and process our feelings and control the emotional labour we find ourselves under. This means we must think holistically. An overload of emotional labour can be a cause of behavioural outbursts – think David Beckham’s red card in the 1998 World Cup.  (if you are old enough to remember that!).

Ask yourself: Am I aware of my overall state of mind? Can I label my emotions with precision?

Psychological Resilience

High performers are exposed to similar stressors as the general population[8] and similarly can experience overwhelm when it is not appraised effectively, contributing to a lower performance. The difference is, they have a greater ability to withstand and adapt to their stressors[5]. This is psychological resilience. Developing this entails preparing for pressurised situations through self and social awareness[3] [7], effective goal setting[17] [19], regulation of arousal[3] [17]and planning for both the expected and unexpected[17]. This approach hones our automaticity when in the pressurised situation. This is not eliminating stress – but flexing to it. Now, think Beckham scoring that 93rd minute free-kick against Greece to send England to the World Cup.

Developing resilience is therefore vital to improving consistency. If we are able to withstand more pressure, we are less likely to experience a bad performance.

Ask yourself: Is the performance stress optimal for me? Do I have the optimal resources and support to cope?

Mental Rehearsal

Both of the above require mental rehearsal. Your attention and thoughts should be focused towards rehearsing the situations incurred and the emotions that develop from them; it allows for more control during the actual performance – you’ve been through the experience before, only in your mind. Greater exposure will decrease avoidance and reduce negative responses[2]. Research believes this is also a function of dreaming[15] – visualising specific situations in the ‘safe’ environment of your sleep can create an emotional adjustment that prepares us for real life. Think ‘Cool Runnings’ when they’re practicing in the hotel bathtub.

Try asking yourself: Have I prepared for multiple scenariosAm I confident in my ability to perform whatever is thrown at me?

Developing these skills can boost your performance consistency. By optimising focus, confidence, efficacy and stress management, you will gradually raise the floor and increase your opportunities for performance success.

The four take-away points to help you raise the floor:

  1. Consistent performances are the basis for continuous and long-term improvements.

  2. Emotional stability requires self-awareness – how is this performance making you feel?

  3. Stress is necessary. How we withstand and adapt to it is our choice – prepare for stress.

  4. Use your head – it’s the most accessible resource to practice your performance.


[1] Abrahamsen, F. E., Roberts, G. C., & Pensgaard, A. M. (2008). Achievement goals and gender effects on multidimensional anxiety in national elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(4), 449-464.

[2] Bertollo, M., Saltarelli, B., & Robazza, C. (2009). Mental preparation strategies of elite modern pentathletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10(2), 244-254.

[3] Brick, N., MacIntyre, T., & Campbell, M. (2014). Attentional focus in endurance activity: new paradigms and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 106-134.

[4] Fletcher, D., & Arnold, R. (2017). Stress in sport: The role of the organizational environment. In C. R. D. Wagstaff (Ed.), An organizational psychology of sport: Key issues and practical applications (pp. 83-100). London: Routledge.

[5] Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of sport and exercise, 13(5), 669-678

[6] Folkman, S., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2004). Coping: Pitfalls and promise. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 55, 745-774.

[7] Hays, K., Maynard, I., Thomas, O., & Bawden, M. (2007). Sources and types of confidence identified by world class sport performers. Journal of applied sport psychology, 19(4), 434-456.

[8] Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2015). Sink or swim: Adversity-and growth-related experiences in Olympic swimming champions. Psychology of sport and exercise, 16, 37-48

[9] Humphreys, J & Hughes, D (Eds.). (2021). High Performance: Lessons from the Best on Becoming Your Best. Random House Business.

[10] Koivula, N., Hassmén, P., & Fallby, J. (2002). Self-esteem and perfectionism in elite athletes: Effects on competitive anxiety and self-confidence. Personality and individual differences, 32(5), 865-875.

[11] Lane, A. M., Devonport, T. J., Soos, I., Karsai, I., Leibinger, E., & Hamar, P. (2010). Emotional intelligence and emotions associated with optimal and dysfunctional athletic performance. Journal of sports science & medicine, 9(3), 388.

[12] Lane, A., Thelwell, R., & Devonport, T. (2009). Emotional intelligence and mood states associated with optimal performance. E-journal of Applied Psychology, 5(1), 67-73.

[13] Luthans, F., Avey, J. B., Avolio, B. J., & Peterson, S. J. (2010). The development and resulting performance impact of positive psychological capital. Human resource development quarterly, 21(1), 41-67.

[14] Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational psychologist, 38(1), 1-4

[15] Paller, K. A., Creery, J. D., & Schechtman, E. (2021). Memory and Sleep: How Sleep Cognition Can Change the Waking Mind for the Better. Annual Review of Psychology 2021, 72:1, 123-150.

[16] Rice, S. M., Purcell, R., De Silva, S., Mawren, D., McGorry, P. D., & Parker, A. G. (2016). The Mental Health of Elite Athletes: A Narrative Systematic Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(9), 1333–1353.

[17] Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2014). Psychological resilience in sport performers: A narrative review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32, 1419-1434.

[18] Shafizadeh, M., Taylor, M., & Peñas, C. L. (2013). Performance consistency of international soccer teams in euro 2012: a time series analysis. Journal of human kinetics, 38, 213–226.

[19] Wikman, J. M., Stelter, R., Melzer, M., Hauge, M. L., & Elbe, A. M. (2014). Effects of goal setting on fear of failure in young elite athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 12(3), 185-205.

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