I was on a recent train journey and I needed something to read so I picked up a copy of New Scientist (1 June 2013). Several of the articles took my eye with immediate links to sport psychology.  The one that really took my eye was from Ecology around intimidation and how predators influence the behaviours of their prey.  This got me thinking (I was visiting a different part of the library, see my previous blog post on this in sport psychology).  Intimidation plays an important part in sport and how athletes develop, use and respond to intimidation can be the difference between winning or losing a contest.

Some players and teams in sport are able to intimidate their competition and their environment and as a result change their opponents behvaiour.  They create a landscape of fear to coin an ecology term (Laundre in Yong, 2013).  They create an environment where all they seem to do to win is show up.  They are the top predators.  They have that eye of invincibility, they are able to intimidate their opponents causing them to change their behaviour.

Think of the greats in sport. Immediately athletes like Usain Bolt, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi and Roger Federer spring to mind.  Due to their past experiences their opponents of these greats have a mental map of risk (Yong, 2013) when they compete against them.  They have developed strategies to minimise the impact of these ‘predators’, their behaviour changes.  They are playing to not to lose (survive in Ecology!) as opposed to playing to win. Their behaviour has been changed because of the fear caused by the intimidation. The predators have already won!

In Ecology an example of this are wolves and elk. The mere presence of the wolves changes the behaviour of the elk, they spend more time looking out for the wolves than grazing. They are playing not to lose (become a wolves dinner!). In sport the consequences are not that serious but when you become an elk you have shifted your focus away from you and what you can control, you have become the prey, you have become intimidated.  In team sports this can be seen when home teams dominate opponents at their home grounds, they intimidate the away team into losing, they change the visiting teams behaviour as they control their environment.  The greats mentioned above and the great teams have that much influence that they can change the environment, just like the wolves in the New Scientist research who changed the behaviour of the elk which then had a knock on effects for other animals.  These greats, these top predators, change the sport that they compete in.  Other athletes have to devise strategies to first survive and then move to become a predator.  These strategies change the game, change the sport.

In sport you can ‘Create a Landscape of Fear’ by remaining focused on the things you can control. Focus on your strengths, play to your strengths and make your opponents change their behaviour, make them become an elk! Think in the present, the past has gone and the future hasn’t happened yet.  Use positive and strong reference points where you have been the predator and refer back to the hard work you have done in training. Make sure you work hard!
If you feel yourself slipping into a landscape of fear recognise the slip, acknowlege that your opponent has done this and then put a stop to this. Have a quick release that will put a stop to the intimidation. Then refocus on your strengths, refocus on 3 simple things that are within your control that if you did would increase you chances of winning.
Become a Wolf not an Elk!

ReferencesShow all

Yong, E. (2013) Scared to Death. New Scientist, 2919(June 1), pg. 36 -39