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About Ben Marks
BASES Probationary Sport and Exercise Scientist (Psychology), MSc, Passionate about Human Performance and currently working within Professional sport
For many years athletes dedicate themselves to the path of elitism within their respective sport. Hours upon hours of practice, military like regimes combined with mental preparation and focus assist an athlete in achieving their goal. Finally the hard work pays off and they are recognised as the elite within their sport. Now another chapter in their career begins as they fight to retain that elite title. This can be hard for many athletes as being at the top brings about additional demands which could have an effect on mindset and focus. This article aims to discuss the demands on athletes which could potentially influence their status within their respective sport.
Pressure can be described as a feeling which is created by one’s reaction to performance within sporting situations, potentially influencing the mind (Paccagnella, 2012). Even though pressure is a concept which is primarily created by our minds, it can have both positive and negative effects. Athletes can use pressure to gain an edge in motivation, concentration and enjoyment (Paccagnella, 2012), or it could have a detrimental effect and stress can influence an athlete’s mindset. Pressure can be either internal (expectations, repeated errors) or external (crowd effects), therefore it is crucial for athletes to have coping strategies and mechanisms in place. It is important that when a situation of pressure arises, athletes have the mental tools and capacity to cope.
If athletes are to deal with pressure effectively, there are documented concepts which could be beneficial. A potential reason for athletes reaching the top and maintaining this position could be related to their ability to love and embrace the pressure (Jones, 2008). For many athletes this is a common reason for not only playing sport but for also being extremely successful within their sport due to them stepping up when the pressure is on. For example, Liverpool coming back from 3-0 down in a Champions League final to win the game. To remain calm and collected in extremely high stressful situations is a critical trait of elite athletes (Jones, 2008). Pressure poses implications for coaches, and it is important that high pressure situations are encouraged in their training as this will better prepare them for actual real life pressure scenarios. Furthermore, this training would benefit their responses to these situations. Moreover, an athlete’s mindset will be just as important in these situations, posing implications for psychologists. It is essential for athletes to focus on themselves when it comes to managing pressure (Jones, 2008), eliminating potential distractions.
Another concept to assist athletes in managing and dealing with pressure is viewing it as an illusion. Ultimately, it is essential for athletes to realise that pressure is a feeling acquired from their perception of a situation, therefore could be argued as nonexistent and constructed by an athlete’s own thought processing (Paccagnella, 2012). This is of great benefit to athletes, as this means pressure can be controlled. Therefore having a mindset that can deal with pressure is invaluable. This is even more critical when an athlete has an unassailable goal of staying at the top! It could be argued that pressure becomes more of an issue at this stage in an athlete’s career due to the fact that reaching the top is automatically accompanied by additional demands (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick,). Expectations, training and rest, sponsors, fans, competition and personal relationships are factors which could affect an athlete’s success (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick,). At this phase in an athlete’s career it is important they are surrounded with the correct support and guidance to move forward positively. It is at this stage that a plan be implemented to take control of the situation and ensure distractions do not interfere with an athlete’s training and mental status.
To help athletes deal with potential pressure and remaining at the top, training and using the competition is an ideal way of progressing. For example, David Beckham has had a hugely successful career and is still playing at the highest level today. He has played for many of the top clubs around the world but it is his insatiable desire to remain at the top that has served him well. Quite simply, he managed this most effectively during his time at LA Galaxy. The height of their season differs from the Premier League and therefore during his time off, he kept on top of his game by training with teams in the Premier League. By using other teams’ resources and potential competition Beckham has stayed at the top of his game, mentally and physically, more successfully than some of his professional counterparts, potentially a reason why he is a world renowned icon, not to mention an extremely successful ex England international.
This leads me on to an effective advantage an athlete can give themselves above others using marginal gains (extra components or assets which can enhance an athlete’s or a team’s chances of success by breaking elements down in an attempt to improve them). Beckam’s achievement during the off season has allowed him to benefit from marginal gains; something Jenson Button believes is a reason for success. In F1, new components can assist in helping the driver obtain a 0.1 – 0.2 second advantage (Button, 2013). However, marginal gains could also include the fitness, nutritional and psychological edge an athlete can achieve over their counterparts. These are vital components required to stay at the top; moreover the support an athlete receives for these components can be even more influential. For example, with the additional demands of winning to stay at the top, psychological support can assist the athlete in comprising a plan which encompasses a manageable schedule, still providing time for quality training, rest and personal life alongside sponsor demands and other engagements. Needless to say this would be hard work; however staying at the top is arguably harder than getting there. This requires the athlete to push their limits. This shouldn’t faze the athlete by any means, after all they have had to be dedicated, committed and focused alongside overcoming adversity and challenge previously. Overcoming adversity many times before could better prepare them for the challenges which they face at this stage in career. For any elite athlete and player, marginal gains could be perceived as the edge which separates the good from the great.
“The greatest pressure comes only from myself” (Button, 2012). This statement could apply to every professional athlete. However the athletes who learn to control this pressure and channel it into their performance are the ones who prevail into the elite. This provokes an implication which is necessary for successful performance, focus only on what the athlete can control. “Don’t over-analyse; it’s important to recognise your own strengths and to maintain your own belief” (Button, 2012). By doing this they begin to reinforce their strengths and improve on their weaknesses through training which in turn assists with building mental superiority, gaining control of performance and building on previous successes.
It would appear incredibly simple for an athlete to continue with the processes they have been implementing on course to the top, however this is always easier said than done, hence a support network is essential. It is crucial that the athletes, in conjunction with their support network, reviews the successful components which helped them achieve elitism and try to implement these within the post winning programme in order to continue their success. From a psychological perspective, these include finding the self-belief they had prior to winning, relaxation and “Autopilot Connection” (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick,), also referred to as either “The Zone” or “Flow”. Following on from this, research suggests athletes set subsequent goals post winning period and approaching the next competition as they did the last was deemed a successful attribute for continued success (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick, ). An implication of this for psychologists is to ensure that they assist the athlete in approaching the next competition with the same focus and belief as the last, and in this process, ignoring distractions, purely focusing on process and performance rather than outcome.
Even though pressure could be perceived as an illusion, there is no doubt that athletes will always encounter pressure in their sporting career. As much as they could convince themselves it is not there, at some point, the pressure could mount. Hence it is paramount to assist the athlete in developing effective coping mechanisms. If the athlete can utilise these mechanisms, the world is their oyster. Have a game plan, focus on that, keep thoughts positive and in perspective, and finally challenge yourself!