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

Martin Hagger at TEDxPerth

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

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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.

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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.

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