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The 4 A's - How To Optimise The Mind

Updated: 6 days ago

George Mumford, author of The Mindful Athlete, uses a framework he calls the 4 A’s to help athletes minds and mental states in all that they do, both for sport and in life. It is a beautifully linked and powerful framework, that once you become aware of, can be useful and impactful. The 4 A’s is also a loop that should be repeated. The 4 A’s are:


Awareness - Acceptance - Action - Assessment

If you are a member of SquashSkills.com you can view my discussion on the concept of the 4 A's here. Below is a short video teaser for the full playlist also.



This blog will explore the 4 A’s in depth, both from a zoomed in (short-term/immediate squash example) as well as a zoomed out (longer-term life example) perspective. The framework can be used in both these contexts and when you become more aware of its power, can be used in almost any situation time and again. Let’s get to it!



AWARENESS


The entry point into understanding and practicing the 4 A’s is awareness. Nothing can really be done or changed without becoming more aware. Awareness is a very easy concept to understand but arguably one of the hardest to do in the real world. So many of us just rush through life, reacting to whatever appears in front of us in the moment, and repeating this on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Before we know it, a significant amount of time has elapsed with a complete lack of awareness.


With mindfulness practice you can help improve your awareness. Awareness is a skill, and like any skill, needs an environment to be cultivated in. Mindful meditation is a great place to start and creating a daily habit of this will train the mind. Brain scanning found that meditators brains grew bigger and stronger in the regions related to attention, learning and compassion. Similarly, pausing and being mindful in day-to-day moments, even for just a few seconds, helps improve this skill. To be aware, first you must learn to live aware.



Squash example (zoomed in/immediate): You have had a good lead in a game but have let it slip and the score is now even. You cannot recall the previous few minutes and it’s a complete blur. You should pause for a moment just before you next serve or return and become aware of the situation. Your momentum has gone, and you are feeling fearful and tentative in your shots. Your emotions are about to take over and all tactics seem to have gone out the window.


Even getting to the point of having this awareness is key if you are to employ the next steps of the framework and ultimately help you regain the game you know and want to play. A lot of times players do not even get to this point and the first time that awareness takes place is in the change room or on the journey home after the match has quickly been lost.


As mentioned above, working on your mindfulness will help bring about awareness in these key moments. You could look to employ a few simple triggers also to try and help your awareness. Examples such as taking longer to wipe your hand on the wall. A few slow deep breaths in and out your nose. Centre yourself by the physical sensation of playing with your strings. Gently tap each foot on the floor to feel grounded. Anything of a physical nature that can bring you back to the here-and-now.


AWARENESS - is the first step in the 4 A's concept. You need to keep checking in with yourself and heightening your awareness to each and every moment. It's the continual moment-by-moment effort to stay in the here-and-now that is the real winning and losing. And this game never ends

{AWARENESS - is the first step in the 4 A's concept. You need to keep checking in with yourself and heightening your awareness to each and every moment. It's the continual moment-by-moment effort to stay in the here-and-now that is the real winning and losing. And this game never ends}



Life example (zoomed out/long-term): Your life is hectic. Everything feels like a rush. You are just reacting and responding to everything that comes your way. You never seem like you have enough time, and you are on a constant treadmill of emails, obligations, deadlines, and distractions. You are short and snappy with loved ones around you. You do not like the person you have become. You feel extreme highs and lows in all you do. Your diet and exercise regimens are tanking. And overall, you are close to burnout and pushing away loved ones if you continue this way. As in the squash example above, catching yourself and becoming aware of this is the first and most important step. Without awareness there is nothingness. People can go through a lifetime feeling and behaving like this and then on their deathbed all the regrets come flooding over them. Become aware of this hedonic treadmill you find yourself on and begin to take steps to readdress.



ACCEPTANCE


The follow up and the second step to the 4 A’s is acceptance. Once you have become aware of something this is the time to quickly and kindly ACCEPT where you are. This is not the time to become frustrated and try and force anything. But rather, to accept the situation with a kind, gentle and positive voice. Acceptance to some may seem like inaction. But this is false, acceptance is part of the process and is a deliberate action!


Squash example (zoomed in/immediate): Now you have become aware of the precarious situation, this is not the time to admonish or be too hard on yourself. You need to quickly accept where you are and be ok with it. There is nothing you can do about the past, but you can use the past to positively influence the future. You need to stay in this moment and not get frustrated with yourself. If you can be calm and stay focussed, you will give yourself a great chance to get yourself back in the game. If you are angry and start to try and force yourself to do better, this often ends up in disaster.


{ACCEPTANCE - is the second step in the 4 A's concept. Once you have become aware, be sure to accept where you are in this very moment. This is not the time or place to berate yourself but rather to willingly accept the moment and what is going on. Acceptance is not passive but leads nicely onto the 3rd A which is action}



Life example (zoomed out/long-term): Do not be too hard or critical on yourself. Accept where you are in this given moment of your life. Maybe you have become too work obsessed or chasing status and recognition too much. This is fine right at this moment. Be kind to yourself. Be grateful in the fact that you have a new awareness of this state of your being. You do not want to dwell too much on the past negative actions and you also do not want to forecast doom or gloom too far into the future. You need to look at where you are here and now and begin to reframe the situation.


You are on a journey up a mountain trail. There is no point focussing on the top of the mountain as this is too big and large and very far away. Your focus is on the first step, and then the next, and then the next. Being aware and careful of your footing in the uncertain and rocky trail ahead. Being aware and mindful of the view around you in this moment and also how it changes as you begin to ascend. ACCEPT and work with, not against, the here and now.



ACTION


Once you have acceptance where you are right here and now, you then need to put an action in place. This can take many different forms and can easily overload and burden yourself. Be cautious here to not try and change too much too quickly. Very often the simple basics are the best actions right now.


You need to be aware and practice compassionate action also. Compassionate action often should or does not want to be hard or forceful. Compassionate action is also intertwined with acceptance. As mentioned before, forcing anything is never really the right way and often adds fuels to the negative spiral that may already be happening. Use a kind and gentle hand to guide you to your actions.


Squash example (zoomed in/immediate): An action now needs to take place. You are aware and have accepted the moment you are in. You are not frustrated and are calm and clear thinking. Being clear and concise with what you need to do next is important. Try and not overload yourself with too many things or too many ways you want to try and play now.


Often at this time it’s about doubling down on your basics and getting back to what got you the lead in the first place. Simplicity in this example is key! Getting the ball straighter and deeper, then getting in front of your opponent, and then taking it in short at the right time are the three basic guidelines of squash. You may need to do one or all of these and there may need to be some more nuance in each of them. Basics are your friend. Be sure to use them.


For example, use more varied height with your length, be a little quicker out of your shot to get high on the T, be positive and commanding in your body language on your straight drop shot. The best players in the word fall back on these three strategies often, and even more so when the chips are down.



{ACTION - is the third step in the 4 A's concept. Now that you have become aware and accepted the moment and situation you now need to be proactive and put an action in place. Be clear and concise with your action and try and not put too much pressure on yourself by trying to do too much right away}



Life example (zoomed out/long-term): You have completed the first two stages of the 4 A’s and now you need to begin to take action to get yourself where you want to be. The key here is to not try and fix and do everything all at once. The temptation may be there, and you may think you have enough drive and willpower to succeed, but you don’t! It is so common to overreach and fail. But rather, what you need to do, is to start small and cultivate strong and lasting habits. Iterate your life one step at a time and begin to get in the habit of creating habits. Master the art of showing up. If you want to slow down more and be present begin a meditation intervention. If you want to be more grateful of your life and loved ones begin a gratitude journal. If you want to sleep better begin to put away screens and technology an hour before going to bed.


I have written extensively about this subject and if you are serious about taking action for your life I would suggest to read Habits and their Effectiveness as well as Goal Setting – Redefined! In the words of James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits:


“Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, they are a lifestyle to be lived”


ASSESSMENT


Now that you have completed the first three parts of the loop you need to make an honest assessment of the impact of the action and how this also now leads back to the beginning part of awareness. Awareness and assessment are woven together. You cannot have a good assessment of the situation if you are not aware.


Squash example (zoomed in/immediate): Is what you are doing working? You need to assess this. Try and avoid the trap of reacting too quickly i.e. only after a few shots or few minutes of trying your action. You need to observe and be aware if your action is making any impact. This sometimes does not mean the score will be favourable and at this point it is easy to panic even more because you do not have the data on the scoreboard to back up your action. It is great if the score is now ticking over in your favour, but also beware of this, it may just be because your opponent has lost their concentration rather than your action doing the work. Cultivate assessing your situation in a mindful manner.


You need to try and be objective about assessing the impact of your action. Give it time, trust in what you have told yourself. You need to be highly aware of how your action is progressing. You need to begin to loop back to the first of the 4 A’s. Awareness becomes folded into and is interwoven to your assessment. A good assessment will lead you right back to the start of the 4 A's which is awareness.


{ASSESSMENT - is the forth and final step in the 4 A's concept. This is you closing the loop, and using this closing to repeat the process. Try and have a mindful assessment whether your action worked or not. It may not work right away and may take time. The link between assessment and awareness is strong and should be closely tethered and then helps you complete and repeat the loop}



Life example (zoomed out/long-term): As discussed in Action above, when looking to make changes you need to start small. Not only this you need to also make your environment as easy as possible to achieve your new habits. Habit tracking is a powerful tool when it comes to the assessment phase of your new habits. Advice from the famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld goes:


“Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on 1 page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step is to get a big red magic marker. For each day that I do my task of writing I get to put a big red X over that day. After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”


A tiny change in your behaviour will not transform your life overnight. But turn that behaviour into a habit that you perform every day and it absolutely can lead to big changes. Changing your life is not about making big breakthroughs or revolutionising your entire life. Rather, it’s about building a positive system of habits that, when combined, deliver remarkable results. In the beginning, the effects are fractional, but given time, they become radical!


Tracking your habits and behaviours is hard, but it is a sure-fire way to assess yourself and the understand that your actions are taking you towards the person you want to become.



TIMI SNELL


I was recently sent the below example out of the blue from one of my junior students after watching my 4 A's playlist. Timi Snell in a junior high level player and lives on the isolated and beautiful Norfolk Island off the coast of New Zealand. Timi has been looking to develop a new skill in skim boarding whilst the courts have been closed due to lockdown restrictions.


This filled me with such joy and pleasure reading through this and her thought processes. I can tell that she will be successful with learning this skill and even if she does not reach her ultimate goal, the MOST important thing is the person she will become and the character she will develop along the way. A more mindful, present, accepting, aware, driven, and grounded person. And this is where the true value lies. Well done Timi!




In summary, each part of the 4 A’s are closely intertwined and all work together. When you can create these links you can run these 4 A’s over and over again. When looking to employ the 4 A’s in a squash or sporting context, this loop can be very short and be closed within a few seconds, sometimes between points or between games. This is a skill to learn and hone and the best athletes in the world can do this quickly without a huge amount of conscious effort. However, when looking at the same framework for something linked to daily life, it can take a lot longer; days, weeks or even months. The 4 A’s can become a lot more of a directed and conscious behaviour that you write down and keep records of.


You can use the framework but also be flexible and adapt it slightly for situations that require this. Do not feel you need to be overly rigid with the framework but now that you have a greater understanding and appreciation of it, this is powerful. You may need to be conscious and directed with it at the start to get used to it and really feel it’s benefits, but with time and practice, you can run the loops seamlessly in your mind in any given moment to give you true clarity and ultimately a better and more tranquil way to live.



If you liked this blog, please do share with others that may be interested on this subject and find it of use. I work closely with players on all aspects of their game and mind. I offer online Zoom lessons and become a mentor and accountability partner for players. I find 1:1 online lessons immensely powerful for learning and am now using the court more so for practice. Being able to learn away from the ‘distractions’ of playing is proving to be highly valuable.


“Learn online, practice on-court.”


Please do get in touch by emailing me: jesse@squashmind.co.uk



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