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.
So let’s look at some of these strategies in detail. Motivation is clearly very important, and how do you get an athlete motivated? The most important things are the goals that they set. The goals that they set will determine how much drive, how much effort, how much will they have to perform well.
But often a goal of winning is not enough. Sometimes, oh, most times, it’s important that an athlete has a number of sub-goals which are related to their performance. So things like personal bests, that drive them both in training and in competition. It’s important that these goals conform to certain features. And scientists, psychologists and practitioners always refer to this SMART- acronym. And that’s because, having goals that are realistic, relevant, specific, measurable and so forth, are really important when it comes to getting an athlete motivated.
As I said earlier, motivation is not enough. It is important that an athlete is confident, and there are a number of ways you can boost an athlete’s self-confidence.
Experience: Reminding an athlete of their experience is extremely important.
Modeling: I don’t mean catwalk-modeling here, modeling is also an important aspect, because that enables an athlete to have a model or a blueprint if you like of the optimum performance. Imagery and self-talk are parts of that and we’ll get on to those in a moment.
Feedback is clearly important as well. Positive feedback from the athlete’s coaches.
Imagery is a mental rehearsal and it’s a strategy that many athletes use. And here are the kinds of things that an athlete or a coach will go through, when they’re rehearsing their performance. It’s almost like a video of their performance. They will also use prompts, but they also visualize any contingencies that arise. For example, any barriers or problems or difficulties that arise during the course of their competition.
Here’s an example of these kinds of strategies in action. This is Blanka Vlašić: she was a former world champion, high jumper, and IAAF athlete of the year. And she was very famous for going through the same performance routine prior to a competition. She would close her eyes, visualize a successful jump. She would clap her hands rhythmically, and use the audience to get the audience on board and that would both boost her motivation and her confidence, and then she would practice her moves shortly before executing her jump.
Self-talk is another strategy that athletes use. It’s an extremely important strategy because it enables athletes to go through in their mind and use mantras to try and boost their motivation, but also to try to manage the competition and the situation. For example, the situation where the pressure is on and they are highly anxious.
So, self-talk might have motivational components, but it also might help athletes focus on important things that are relevant to performance, so-called cues, and also might have a calming effect. Things like breathe and relax.
Anxiety management is an important aspect of sport performance. Clearly at the Olympic Games, the World Championships at the highest level, athletes are going to be under pressure and they need to be able to cope with that pressure. Sometimes being too anxious can actually undermine an athlete’s performance. It can be sub-optimal. So relaxation techniques are extremely important in this regard, and psychologists will work with athletes to try and help them to relax. So it might involve things like breathing, stretching, relaxing the muscles, they’ll also use things like music and meditation.
Michael Phelps is a good example, he listens to music right up to the few minutes before is an event, and that music will get him to the right frame of mind for that event. It will help him to relax but it will also motivate him.
Here’s a good example of somebody using those techniques to the greatest extent. This is Yelena Isinbayeva: double Olympic champion at the pole vault, and also the world record holder. This is her in the 2012 Olympics, she’s clearly very relaxed, she lies back, she covers herself in a close, this has the effect of shutting out any distractions but also it has the effect of relaxing her and relieving the pressure.