Sport Psychology: Inside The Mind of Champion Athletes by Martin Hagger (Transcript)

February 19, 2016 12:39 am | By More

Martin Hagger, a Professor of Psychology at Curtin University, discusses Sport Psychology: Inside The Mind of Champion Athletes at TEDxPerth – Full Transcript

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Martin Hagger – Professor of Psychology, Curtin University

When we look at Olympic sport, sport at the highest level, there are clearly some athletes who always seem to get it right.

For example, Usain Bolt: Olympic 100m, 200m champion, twice over, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in the London Olympics. Michael Phelps: the most bemedaled Olympian of all time. These are athletes who clearly get it right, both psychologically and physiologically all of the time.

It is also interesting to note that they have contrasting approaches. Usain Bolt, with all his comedy antics, prior to his event, when he is on the start line. We’ve all seen this.

Michael Phelps, however, a much different approach. He sits down, he is listening to music, he has much more cerebral, contemplative approach towards his event. But it’s both very effective.

Sport psychology may play a part in their preparation for their events, and may be a reason why they’re successful.

What happens when things go wrong? Here’s another example. In the 2012 Olympics in London in the soccer final, there were two finalists, Brazil and Mexico. Brazil were the undoubted favorites. They were expected to win. They were the reigning Olympic champions. They were extremely skilled, on paper, they were the best team. Mexico had made it to the final playing well, but they were unfancied.

In the final, Mexico went at Brazil in an incredible display of attacking football. It was incredibly impressive to watch. And if you watched the Brazilian players, their heads dropped. They seemed slightly defeated. They couldn’t understand why they were not performing quite as well as they were. Perhaps they were complacent. Perhaps they’d expected too much. Perhaps they were overconfident.

The Mexicans had nothing to lose, they attacked with fervor and they won the Olympic title, they were the Olympic champions over the fancy favorites.

Perhaps sport psychology can explain why fancied champions may be over-confident and may fail when they’re expected to win, and perhaps why underdogs take on the best and win despite all the odds.

Take another example. James Magnussen, a man with seemingly unshakable self-confidence. He said he was going to win the 100m-sprint final in the pool at the London Olympics. He was extremely confident. But in that race, he was out-touched in the line by Nathan Adrian, by 1/100 of a second. And that was devastating for him, you could see his body language after he was destroyed. Perhaps he was over-confident. Perhaps though, his obvious confidence in the events leading up to the actual final. Perhaps his confidence belied an underlying self low confidence. Perhaps he was not very confident inside when he should have been supremely confident of his abilities because he was the world leader in the event.

So perhaps psychology may have played a part, but in particular, it may help when overcoming such a devastating defeat for the next event.

Another very good example: Roy McAvoy. In the 2011 Augusta masters, he was expected to win, he was amongst the favorites certainly, and he’s an extremely talented golfer. In fact, he is the one player that all the people on the tour, all the golfers on the tour, the PGA tour, fear the most. And yet on the day, when he was leading, on the final day of the event he was leading by four shots. He’d played superbly on the previous three days. He experienced a catastrophic drop in his performance. He shot a round of 80, and this is something that professional golfers can do in their sleep, certainly very easily, because they frequently shoot rounds of 70 or below and that’s a good shot. So 80 was a catastrophic failure, and he ended up tying for fifteenth place.

So you’d think that that sort of devastating performance may have impacted on his mind. However, only eight weeks later, he won the U.S open, and there was no sign of the lack of confidence and the fact that the pressure had got to him, that was displayed when he was in Augusta. So it seemed that he picked up the pieces.

And what is it that made him do so? Sport psychology may indeed have the answers.

So, elite athletes, coaches, and the people who surround athletes, know very well the importance of sport psychology, and they’re beginning to embrace it. Sport psychologists are often included in the teams that surround athletes nowadays.

What is sport psychology? Well, it’s the science, study and practice of mental preparation for sport. It involves identifying the techniques and strategies that athletes can take and use, so they perform on their most optimum. It also helps athletes deal with setbacks and help them to come back from devastating defeats such as those by James Magnussen or Roy McAvoy. So we just begin to unpack some of these strategies that sport psychologists talk about.

So looking inside the mind of a winner, what factors are linked to success in sport? Well, clearly an athlete has to be motivated. Often goals that athletes set, describe or will demonstrate how much effort and how much will they have to win in their event.

But sometimes motivation isn’t enough. An athlete has to be confident, and confidence seems to be ubiquitous amongst high-performing performers. There are a number of strategies that athletes can use to boost their confidence.

Another important factor is knowledge of the sport. So basically, knowing your sport inside out, but also knowing the opposition. What are their strengths and weaknesses? One of the phrases coined by Clive Woodward, who was the England coach at the time they won the Rugby World Cup in 2003. One of the phrases he coined, was “Total rugby, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to performance.” He was very famous for developing dossiers on the opposition. Knowing their strengths, knowing their weaknesses and where he could attack them and how he could tactically outwit them. And that’s clearly important in sports these days. So, using psychology to understand the opposition as well as yourself.

Athletes are also very good at using routines, getting themselves in the right frame of mind. We’ll look at that in a few moments time.

Athletes are also good at handling pressure. If you look at Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, they are cases in point.

And anxiety management is clearly an important aspect of an athlete’s arsenal of strategies to get them in the right frame of mind so that they can perform at their best.

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