In the following article from The Malta Independent, Adele Muscat from the Malta Olympic Committee focuses on sports psychology in today’s top-level sport.
Most of us remember when our mental state interfered with a good performance. It might have been excessive anxiety in a school exam or meeting a person you wanted to impress. For an athlete, this might occur in an important competition……
At times I ask athletes what causes their performances to vary so much – is it differences in their physical condition or in their mental condition? Most will attribute the differences in performance to the variations in their mental condition after eliminating health problems and factors outside their control.
Despite recognising this is so, most athletes spend much less time, if any, on perfecting their mental skills than on their physical training. Why? Most athletes and coaches would give the following reasons:
• Physical training takes enough time already; I can’t add more to my training day.
• It’s easy to see when I’m improving with a physical skill, but harder to measure when I’m improving on my mental skills.
• I don’t know how to practise my mental skills.
Mental training covers a variety of skills. The most obvious is the mental state in competition – being able to get into what athletes call “the zone”. This is the feeling that you are at the peak of your ability, where performance is at its best. Getting into the zone is often seen as a chance happening but skill in controlling both relaxation and arousal – factors important in playing in the zone – is more subject to training than we often realise.
Mental training is not restricted to how you perform in competition, but includes several other areas such as learning to gain the maximum from practice sessions.
Mental training helps you learn techniques more effectively and develop strength more rapidly. Learning to focus appropriately, to block out the irrelevant is important both in training and competition. Imagery, learning to practise physical skills mentally helps develop confidence and also the physical skill itself. Mental training also involves dealing effectively with pain and healing. Considerable evidence suggests that an appropriate mental attitude can speed recovery and minimise the frustration of injuries and other performance setbacks.
A sport psychologist is trained to develop these mental skills in athletes. Coaches too are and have long been adept at developing these skills in their team members but increasingly, sport psychologists are included as members of the training teams.
As a sport psychologist, it is important not to assume the role of the coach. When I work with an athlete, I am not teaching the physical techniques of a sport. I am concerned only with developing the appropriate mental attitudes and skills to enable the athlete to practise and to perform at his/her best. I feel it is important to work closely with that athlete’s coach so the coach understands and has an appropriate input for any work I do with the athlete. The two must be complementary in order to be optimally effective.
One of the issues I focus on with athletes is that until they have consistent control of their thoughts and imagination (self-talk and imagery), they will not have consistent control of their behaviour. Sport psychology is all about gaining consistent control of behaviour in the demanding environment of sport.
This demanding environment, especially in top-level competition such as the Commonwealths and the Olympics, creates the need for athletes to increase awareness and control of their thought processes because their athletic performance resulting from these thoughts is measured so precisely.
Big events such as the Commonwealths seem to have their own rules. Increased pressure, media attention and performance consequences are combined with different schedules, logistical challenges and nerves.
Athletes and coaches who are normally in control, suddenly don’t remain so. The coaches and officials really need to make the effort to remain calm at such big events as their behaviour will have a big influence on the athletes’ emotions and consequently their performance.
Younger team members, especially those who are attending such an event for the first time, initially tend to get quite distracted so they need to prepare themselves beforehand for the environment they will find themselves in.
Athletes attending a big event need to set limits for themselves. One needs to consider the pre-event and post-event periods as two completely different situations that require different sets of behaviour.
By setting specific post-event dates for socialising, attending other events, sightseeing, etc, the athlete can then declare the pre-event time period off-limits to distractions.
At such a big event, you cannot afford to worry about failure. You need to go for it even more than at other events. Athletes who go into events trying to defend themselves against mistakes make the biggest mistake of all. They change what they normally do and take themselves out of their preferred performance state.
The same is true of coaches and officials. It is easy to get worried about the errors you want to prevent and you start to become defensive, negative and doubtful. Athletes pick up on that. It can be contagious. You need to focus on your strengths, on what you need to do to perform well and how to stay positive and confident.
It is normal to feel worried and have doubts so don’t worry about worrying!
Reduce your stress by keeping a sense of humour, talk to people who will understand what you’re going through, trust your plans, plan well and stay flexible.
Think of the things you can control rather than those you can’t. And enjoy it!
-Adele Muscat, Sports Psychologist MOC