“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”.
Muhammad Ali.

Within sport, team cohesion and unison is of paramount importance. For a team to succeed and prosper, individuals must neglect their personal strive for greatness. A team is made up of players, coaches, medical staff, nutritionist, sports psychologist, kit man, sponsors etc. For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on the role of the background team.

Jose Mourinho (Chelsea football manager) deems motivation as the key to success, but what motivates a player/athlete? Some athletes are intrinsically motivated and some are extrinsically motivated. Intrinsically motivated Kieran Perkins (Olympic Gold Medalist Swimmer) admits he was motivated to compete to improve his own performances. Likewise the fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt, is motivated to better himself and break his own world records and will not retire until he becomes, in his own words, a legend. In his acceptance speech on being presented with the UEFA ‘Best Player in Europe’ trophy, Christiano Ronaldo claims that success is as a result of hard work, sacrifice and passion (Irish Times, August 29th 2014). “You have to dedicate yourself 100% all of the time. It’s not easy”, he added.

By contrast, others are extrinsically motivated by reward or to avoid punishment. Sir Alex Ferguson claims that players who are not intrinsically motivated can be motivated by country representation, money or simply by authority (Moran, 2012). The coach can motivate a player/athlete in their action or in their speech. The famous Al Pacino motivational speech in the sports movie ‘Any Given Sunday’ saw the team win from behind due to the passion, determination and belief shown by their mentor. The players were made to appreciate not only their own efforts and achievement in getting to the final but also that of the vast back-up team that had made it all possible. Indeed by contrast, it is interesting to note the position taken by Roy Keane in Saipan in 2002 when he perceived that the preparatory work of the FAI support staff was inadequate and served only to de-motivate him and the players. His potent “Fail to prepare, Prepare to fail”, quote was a damning indictment of those charged with optimizing the squad’s performance. Therefore, however a player/athlete is motivated, this drive to succeed will aid optimal performance but only if all elements of support needed are adequately provided and no stone is left unturned.

Performance is driven by motivation but also by good decision-making. A coach/manager in this context is termed as an expert decision maker with the player/athlete in the role of the novice. Cognitive psychology suggests that experts and novices differ in how they problem solve. Elite performers can be impatient and therefore can be faced with the challenge of automaticity yet by contrast, the expert has developed the necessary cognitive skill for rapid accurate execution. Literature shows that the implementation of deliberate practice coupled with repeated exposure to the area of interest will result in peak performance (Erickson, 2006) and this ultimately stems from the expert’s instruction. Novices rely on an analytic step-by-step problem solving approach whereas experts have an unconscious superior ability to decipher the situation rapidly (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). So what makes a good manager? Football is a prime example showing the difference between novices and experts. Ferguson, Wenger and Benitez were all moderate players in their day, yet with their emphasis on the deliberate practice effect, exposure to the domain of interest and efficient executive functioning, the once novice players became the expert managers we know today. The expert aids the novice to perform to the best of his ability.

An athlete can be motivated and work in unison with the coach but may seek external professional assistance (e.g. sports psychologist) to aid their self-belief and overall preparation. Goal setting offers the athlete a step-by-step measurable and attainable approach towards optimal performance. The SMARTER goal setting approach is well known but the goals must be hard, specific and challenging otherwise optimal task performance will not result (Locke & Latham, 1990). Sport Psychology categorises goals into three types: outcome, performance and process goals. Outcome/Result goals are objective targets and mirror the reasoning behind the motivation (e.g. winning a competition) but can be largely uncontrollable (Moran 2012). Performance goals are quantifiable and personal (e.g. lowering marathon personal best by 6 minutes). Lastly, process goals are specific behavioural strategies (e.g. focus on the left corner of the backboard in basketball when taking a free throw). These goals are challenging, specific, attainable and measureable and are, of course, individualized for the athlete. Achieving the goals set with the psychologist brings great satisfaction and enhances self-belief, which will in turn aid performance. Why? Goal setting allows for increased concentration, focus, and attention.

It is evident that through motivation, good decision-making and goal setting, that the back-up team proves its importance to attain the optimal performance of an athlete. The coach/expert must encourage team cohesion and unison and the novice (player/athlete) must trust the coach to make the correct decision in any given situation. The sport psychologist can help develop the right mindset through the employment of specific techniques like setting achievable, realistic goals and monitoring and maintaining the motivation of the athlete. Success is never an overnight phenomenon. Success is built step-by-step. Success is as a result of a team unit’s graft and coherence.

So what is the take home message? Peak performance and success is impossible without the support of an expert team dedicated to working together to achieve the common goal of optimal performance of the individual athlete or team. There is no ‘I’ in team.

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