Sports competition has the ability to continually draw large amounts of spectators. A reason because of this is due to the multiple situations in which no one foresees occurring. The unpredictability of sports can leave fans nervously biting their figure nails, as nothing is certain. Take for example just in the year 2019. In the […]
Sports competition has the ability to continually draw large amounts of spectators. A reason because of this is due to the multiple situations in which no one foresees occurring. The unpredictability of sports can leave fans nervously biting their figure nails, as nothing is certain. Take for example just in the year 2019. In the 3rd round of the F.A Cup, Leicester FC (Premier League) lost to Newport FC (League two); a team 74 places below them. Or in the sport of basketball, where the Milwaukee Bucks (1st) lost to the Phoenix Suns (30th). Or in the sport of tennis, where Serena Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova. These, at first glance, looked like an easy victory for Leicester FC, Milwaukee Bucks and Serena Williams. However, these athletes and teams were unable to produce the performance necessary for victory. Unforeseen situations not only impact the final results of competition but also the individual performance during competition (Doron & Bourbousson, 2017). The unique thing about these situations, however, is that its performance impact is heavily dependent on the perception the athlete has of the situation. Within this article, an exploration of this perception and these situations will be investigated. Practical suggestions will also be made of the psychological skills and techniques which could positively impact this perception and subsequently performance.
Each sport, team and individual athlete has a unique set of demands. These demands are environmental (weather, crowd noise), opposition (skill level, team strategy) and self-demands (self-expectations) (Fletcher, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Neil, 2012). How these demands impact the performance of the athlete is dependent on their perception. When the athlete perceives a situation to be harmful to their performance, exceeding their physical and psychological capabilities, this is referred to as a stressor (Nicholls, Levy, Grice, & Polman, 2009). An athlete, for example, could perceive defending against a faster opponent as a stressor, as they believe the opposition demands exceed their performance capabilities. Stressors can also be experienced team wise (team stressor). For example, a player receiving a red card could be a stressor, as the team may collectively perceive this hole in their formation to exceed their performance capabilities.
A negative perception of a stressor can negatively impact the mental and physical skills the athlete is able to use during this situation; subsequently effecting their overall performance negatively (Neil, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Fletcher, 2011, Nicholls et al., 2009). This is because by negatively perceiving a stressor, an athletes’ focus is narrowed to only that stressor experienced, instead of focusing on the performance necessary for victory (Anshel et al., 2001; Campbell & Jones, 2002). For example, only focusing on the faster players’ speed when they have the ball or only focusing on the hole in the team’s formation. This perception about unforeseen situations could not only negatively affect performance, but could also lead to results experienced by Leicester FC, Milwaukee Bucks and Serena Williams. If however, these stressors are perceived differently, more positively, what impact could this have on the athlete’s performance?
A positive perception of a stressor means that the individual views the situation as a challenge rather than harmful to their performance. This does not eliminate or enable the athlete to avoid stressors as these situations and demands are inherited within their sport. This mental switch however, opens the possibility of finding solutions to the stressor experienced (Folkman, 2013; Lazarus & Folkman, 1987). This is evident, for example in the sport of basketball, wherein the 2016 NBA finals the Golden State Warriors faced off against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was expected that the Golden State Warriors would win after having just set NBA history with the most regular-season victories. This looked to be the case as they were winning the series 3-1. The Cavaliers however, performed in a way that suggests they viewed the situation as a challenge. They made multiple adjustments to their team offensively and defensively and were able to win 3 games in a row and be crowned 2016 NBA Champions.
It is clear that a negative perception of a stressor could have a negative impact on performance and the opposite effect could occur with a positive perception. Because of this, implementing psychological skills would be useful to enable athletes to have a positive perception of stressors which occur. This is enabled due to these skills and techniques drawing the athletes focus to a problem solving (rather than problem focused) mind state; increasing the options available for the athlete to successfully cope with the stressor and perform at an optimal level (Kaiseler, Polman, & Nicholls, 2009). These sport psychological skills and techniques can be used when experiencing both individual and team stressors.
For individual stressors, the technique self-talk could be used to promote a positive perception of stressors. Self-talk is the external and internal dialog a person has with themselves. The underlining principle is that what a person says to themselves impacts how they behave (Hardy, 2006). This suggests then that by initiating the desired thought, the desired action is taken (Hardy, Hall, & Alexander, 2001). There are multiple types of self-talk, however the one which could be beneficial when experiencing stressors would be goal-directed self-talk. Goal-directed self-talk is used to make progress on a task or solve a problem (Latinjak, Font-Lladó, Zourbanos, & Hatzigeorgiadis, 2016). This could be used by creating a cue word which is unique to the individual and their sport. It would also allow them to focus on what is required to perform to the level they can (Hardy, Gammage, & Hall, 2001). For example, if a tennis players’ stressor is their opponent’s defence, the potential goal-directed self-talk cue word could be “target”. This cue word places the focus on the position in which the athlete wants to put the ball and ways to execute this; scoring the point. This cue word therefore, switches the athlete’s perception to viewing the situation as a challenge and attempt to find solutions to cope with the current stressor.
For team stressors, the psychological skill team cohesion could be used for the team to promote a positive perception of a stressor. Team cohesion is the process of keeping a group together and in pursuit of a common objective (Carron, Bray, & Eys, 2002; Kleinert et al., 2012). Similar to self-talk, by the team drawing their focus to the task at hand (referred to as task cohesion), the desired action is more likely to occur. This could be conducted through effective team communication, team leadership and understanding your role within the team. With these techniques integrated within the team, when stressors arise, a structure would be in place to enable everyone to understand what they individual need to do within the team, enabling the collective group to focus on finding solutions to stressors experienced.
In conclusion, unforeseen situations always occur within sports. This is one of the many reasons why sports fans enjoy sports as nothing is certain. These unforeseen situations are referred to as stressors and every athlete experiences this. As stressors cannot be entirely removed, the focus within sport psychology has been placed on the perception the athlete has of these stressors. A negative perception of these stressors can have a negative impact on the athlete’s performance. However, psychological skills and techniques can be implemented to enable athletes to have a positive perception of stressors. With this perception, athletes can focus on solving the issue at hand, putting them in the best position to perform at their optimal level.
Many elite athletes when considering their success in sport, can probably tell you that it didn’t always come easy… in fact it usually comes at a price. When training for the Olympics, United States Gold Medallist Michael Phelps trained 25-30 hours per week. During his 2008 interview with NBC, Phelps quoted “Eat, sleep and swim. That’s […]
Many elite athletes when considering their success in sport, can probably tell you that it didn’t always come easy… in fact it usually comes at a price.
Countless hours of training and competing, often come with great sacrifices. Athletes surrender time, relationships, education, and other opportunities outside of sport, just to name a few.
So, what happens when your athletic career comes to an end? Whether voluntary or involuntary, are you prepared to make the transition into a career that doesn’t include a warmup and cooldown? If this thought scares you, it’s ok, you’re not the only one.
Former Professional Footballer and head of player welfare at the PFA, Michael Bennett says,“It is hard for footballers to think about life after sport when week in, week out you’ve got a battle on your hands to hold down a position”. He added:“It’s constant – players are told what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep.”
Many elite athletes find career termination a tough pill to swallow. Experiences can include a loss of status, identity crisis, and loss of direction and focus, in some cases leading to substance abuse, self-harm, and depression (Ungerleider, 1997).
England Rugby former Captain Catherine Spencer speaks on retirement, “Then suddenly it feels as if you’re not needed on the top of that mountain and you plummet to the bottom. You don’t know where you’re going or how to look up. Your whole being is almost taken away from you.”
But what if I told you that your experiences as an elite athlete actually has the potential to give you a competitive advantage in environments outside of sport? Yes, your life-skills developed throughout your sporting career are not only intangible skills, that many organisations see great value in, but the consistent application during training and competition has assisted in the disciplining of these skills and strengthening them to make them very appealing to the world outside sport.
Life skills are mental, emotional, social, and behavioural attributes. They are learned or refined through sport participation and have the potential to be transferred beyond sports settings (Gould & Carson, 2007). Examples include but are not limited to:
(Danish et al, 1993)
Upon reflection, are any of these skills familiar to you? Do any personally resonate with your own athletic experience? If so, we’re off to a good start!
Well, there are actually several studies on traits and skills that link to business success. These qualities include the need for achievement, innovativeness, “proactive personality”, generalised self-efficacy, stress tolerance, need for autonomy, high degree of self-control, and risk (Collins & Porras, 2005). Articles have been written to help business professionals maximise their potential by comparing them to Olympic athletes. Some of these comparable qualities include supreme grit and courage to fight until the end, an appetite for feedback and critique, seeking situations to be pushed by other elite performers, planning out paths for long-term goals, maintaining an inner focus, and self-direction (Kerr et al, 2017).
Professional development expert Dale Carnegie once said,“Knowledge isn’t power unless it is applied.”
It is only by becoming aware of these life skills and understanding how they are not only transferable, but contain immense value beyond a sporting scope, can athletes apply them through preparation, process, and continuation of career transition, all to give them a competitive edge beyond sport.(McKnight et al, 2009).
Give yourself time to reflect on your athletic experience, what have you gone through that has strengthened you as a person? What strengths and abilities have you acquired? Has your role and responsibilities as an elite athlete given you immense leadership ability? Maybe your experience of academies, trials, and multiple contracts, has given you resilience and the ability to perform under pressure.
Having trouble getting the ball rolling? Ask people who know you well, they may be able to provide perspective and insight that you don’t see.
It’s very important to understand the similarities between elite sport and environments outside of sport. People, process, purpose, values, etc. have all been things that elite athletes are constantly exposed to, and a lot of the same variables apply to other contexts. Start to bridge the gaps in your mind and get excited about what’s to come. For example, how have you grown to develop successful relationships with your teammates? Developing relationships is a critical skill in many areas of life which can then be transferred from sport in to different environments. Once you can then identify what the transferable skills are, and how you applied them within your sport, you can start to build on how these can be transferred in to new settings.
What have you enjoyed doing in your free time outside of sport? What questions do you find yourself asking? Did you have favourite subjects in school? Did you have any dreams that you put on hold while in your athletic career? Maybe you still have a passion to remain involved in your sport, have you thought about coaching? Scouting? Many athletes seek competitive drive and goal-setting, and therefore choose to pursue careers involved in the business and finance sector. Don’t be afraid to visit career fairs and attend workshops. You don’t have an obligation to commit, just dip your feet in the water!
Once you’ve developed a clear idea of your potential career paths; research, research, research. What qualifications do you need to attain? What are the steps? Is there a timeline for it? Gain a clear understanding of the occupation. Contact professionals in the potential career and ask them about the job, how they got it, if they have any advice for you. Try to make sure that you’ve gained a clear understanding of the occupation and its demands before pursuing it.
It’s also important to understand that although your intangible skills and behaviours have potential to transfer in to success in new industries, you are in new competition, up against people who are industry qualified. You should be prepared to work hard and educate yourself in these new areas. Then, your intangibles have the potential to thrive even more.
Network yourself as a former elite athlete, use the platform and people that you know to start building bridges and making connections. Start attending networking events in your city and keep contact with former retired athletes that you know. Think about how you can build you CV or create a LinkedIn profile. Athlete Network is a social networking and job search platform that helps athletes and organisations connect, also using a data driven algorithm to match you to companies based on traits and culture. To help you in the process, utilise resources like interview training, seminars, educational modules, workshops, individual counselling, or referral networking (Stambulovaet al, 2009). And don’t forget, your story as an elite athlete can inspire others, so be courageous to tell your story even when you are networking, you never know who might take real interest.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for support and guidance from friends, family, and mentors. Are you close with your coaches? Ask them about their experience in career transition, you may find helpful advice or support.
There are a number of organisations who understand that the career termination can be difficult and seek to support and/or hire elite athletes undergoing career transition. To name a few:
The most commonly known use of the ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches have been with education settings, with Carol Dweck conducting most of her mindset research in education settings. Through this research Dweck repeatedly found that students with a Growth Mindset seek out difficult situations and respond to failure by increasing their effort and finding effective strategies […]
The most commonly known use of the ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches have been with education settings, with Carol Dweck conducting most of her mindset research in education settings. Through this research Dweck repeatedly found that students with a Growth Mindset seek out difficult situations and respond to failure by increasing their effort and finding effective strategies to overcome the challenge. Individuals who take this approach therefore hold the belief that you can improve which leads to outcomes that make it more likely that you will improve (Dweck & Leggett, 1988),
Within this article we will provide an overview of what a Growth Mindset is, how it can transfer from education to youth sport and some suggestions for applying the Growth Mindset ideas that we have outlined.
What is the Growth Mindset?
The view that you have of yourself can determine everything. If we look at the belief that your basic qualities are unchangeable then you are likely to take more of a fixed mindset approach to challenges. This means that you want to prove yourself correct in these beliefs and therefore you don’t embrace challenges or learn from mistakes or setbacks.
In contrast, the growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. Changing your beliefs to this growth mindset approach can have a powerful impact and create a passion for learning and improving. “why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better” (Dweck, 2006).
From Education to Youth Sport…
Due to its value within education environments there is scope for the idea of fixed and growth mindsets to transfer in to other environments where individuals are aiming to develop and improve e.g. youth sport.
Research in youth sport has shown that individuals have developed fixed mindsets when they have been praised for their ‘talent’ or results and outcomes. Children who have these experiences of praise often for their talent often then find themselves in situations where they chose easier options and give up earlier than children who were praised for their effort (Dweck, 2006).
If we look more specifically at this, praise can have a huge impact on an individual’s motivational mindset. Praising winning might make a young athlete happy and proud for a short while, but when they lose, their confidence may spiral as they don’t receive the same level of coach or parent approval. From a fixed mindset approach the individual may see losing as an indication that they lack talent and therefore can not overcome this challenge or similar challenges in the future (Vealey, Chase and Cooley, 2018).
While young athletes should be recognised for their accomplishments, excessive praise and focus on outcomes should be avoided as it can often lead to pressure to keep repeating the outcomes (as well as the fixed mindset outlined above). Think about this, instead of saying:
“way to be a winner”
You could say:
“your practice on…really showed today – great job”.
(Knight, Harwood and Gould, 2018, pg102)
Coaches can help young athletes develop a growth mindset by:
Some suggestions to help you with the Growth Mindset
Dweck (2006) has a few exercises to help you out.
It is important to have patience with yourself. You will encounter many challenges and setbacks as a young athlete and no matter how hard you try, it might be a long time before you see the results you hope for. But just remember you will never see those results if you give up. Adopt a lifelong growth mindset, and you will see the benefits.
Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity? The most obvious is […]
Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity?
The most obvious is the “think positive” approach. Focusing on our positive qualities can breed confidence, and allow us to build on our strengths. Thinking about the “positives” may create optimism. But equally, athletes will want to consider their weaknesses and shortcomings, to see how they can be improved. If an athlete is to evaluate themselves realistically, they cannot purely focus on their strengths and positive qualities.
Handling the side of oneself that falls short of the “ideal” isn’t easy. Weaknesses and obstacles are seen as threats to future success, and sources of frustration. And unfortunately, in the dog-eat-dog environment of competitive sport, the emphasis tends to be on pushing hard and being “tough”. Athletes can easily become excessively critical of their weaknesses or how they handle obstacles. They may see self-criticism as a “must” for motivation and improvement. But are these actually the best approaches to use?
Researchers have actually found self-criticism to be negatively associated with motivation and progress towards goals (Powers et al., 2011). Some athletes even quit sport due to self-criticism (Ferguson et al., 2014). A more constructive way of responding to challenges and weaknesses is by taking a self-compassionate stance.
Self-compassion refers to the ability to recognise distress in oneself, with the commitment to alleviate it. According to Neff (2003), self-compassion includes three major components:
Self-compassion is related to fewer negative thoughts and feelings in response to sporting challenges (Reis et al., 2015). Self-compassion interventions have also succeeded in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts following mistakes in athletes (Mosewich et al., 2013).
Ferguson and colleagues (2014) interviewed female athletes about how self-compassion could help in their own sporting lives. They identified various potential targets for self-compassion:
However, athletes are often naturally wary of the idea of self-compassion. Self-criticism is seen as necessary for caring about improving and avoiding complacency (Ferguson et al., 2014). Self-compassion can be seen as self-indulgent or being “too nice”. However, research has found the opposite.
Self-compassion is negatively related to being passive, and positively related to taking responsibility (Ferguson et al., 2014). It means caring about one’s wellbeing and performance, and then encouraging oneself to take action to achieve their goals (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion provides an emotionally safe and non-judgmental context in which to consider one’s weaknesses and how to improve them. This affords more realistic self-evaluation (Breines & Chen, 2012). Without fear of self-condemnation, the athlete is freer to explore their weaknesses and gain greater awareness (Neff, 2003).
Breines and Chen (2012) found that individuals encouraged to be self-compassionate demonstrated better outcomes in various tasks over those encouraged to focus on their own positive qualities:
Self-compassion is neither a show of indulgence nor complacency, but one of courage. It requires an athlete to look at the reality of their situation, and decide how to move themselves forward. The take-home point is that harsh self-criticism is not necessary for improvement. Encouragement and realistic evaluation of one’s strengths and weaknesses is more productive.
So what does self-compassion look like in practice? Firstly, it involves noticing and engaging with whatever the difficulty may be; a mistake, setback, or the realisation of a weakness. It means recognising that the experience is tough, and allowing the natural uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up without judging them. This enables realistic self-appraisal.
Upon recognising this difficulty, self-compassion involves engaging with oneself in a way that helps, not hinders progress. This means speaking kindly to and encouraging oneself, like one would a friend. Providing this reassurance and honesty reduces the tendency to self-criticise, and offers the security to solve the problem.
Finally, self-compassion requires tapping into one’s motivation and committing to solving the problem. It means asking oneself: “what do I need to do to move closer to where I want to be?” A self-compassionate approach may provide the athlete with the resilience they need to face and overcome adversity.
Adding daily mental skills practice into your practice routines can be beneficial. Believing in the power of practicing those mental skills will be a game changer for your program. The mental game is given a lot of emphasis by many great coaches. From Coach K of Duke University to Phil Jackson of the Bulls and […]
Adding daily mental skills practice into your practice routines can be beneficial. Believing in the power of practicing those mental skills will be a game changer for your program.
The mental game is given a lot of emphasis by many great coaches. From Coach K of Duke University to Phil Jackson of the Bulls and Lakers to Joe Madden of the Rays and Cubs, these coaches have implemented daily mental skills practice into their daily fundamental practices. Of course, they have the luxury of having great players who value working hard and getting the most out of each practice. It is more than just writing down “4:00pm to 4:10pm Mental Practice” and having the team be quiet for 10 minutes. It is the coaching staff’s belief that those initial 10 minutes out of a 120 minute practice will lead to an enhancement of the last 110 minutes of practice – and permeate their mental game.
Many years ago, advances in sport science proved to us the value of warming up our bodies, so now we all efficiently utilize the time before practice begins to warm up our bodies and get prepared to move, which benefits that day’s practice, as well as, future performances. There are still some coaches who downplay and de-emphasize warm-ups. They possibly think they are a waste of time- and may not even be present during warm-ups, which can give the players a sense that they are not important, which may lead to an inconsistent warm-up routine which leads, to at best, inconsistent performance and at worst, injuries. These same developing coaches will look at those initial 10 minutes of practice (before or after warm-ups) and find a “better” use for it than mental skills. But, as I am here to describe (and highly encourage) that focused daily mental skills practice is the best use of that time, for that day’s practice, as well as, future performances.
Have a Seasonal Plan
Similar to sport specific skill acquisition and retention, coaches plan practices based on the team’s development and progress throughout the season. For example, in basketball, coaches will practice simple “press breaks” at the beginning of the season, and as the season progresses and players become proficient in that, coaches will move forward to teach new and more advanced ways to breaking full-court presses. If a coach is not adequately trained in mental skills, there are plenty of resources (books, websites, mental skills consultants, etc), that can highlight and explain a productive season long program. For example, during preseason practices, team can work on their sport-specific mental routines, as well as, understanding what is controllable and not in their sport. As the season progresses, players would progress to various focus exercises and ways to control emotional intensity.
Prioritize Mental Skills
We have all been on teams, where the practices consisted of primarily “scrimmage games” where the losing team runs or picks up the equipment. This gave the team an underlying message of game performance is everything, individual skill development is minimized, and outcomes are the most important part of sports. Similarly, if a coach does not properly prepare players for daily mental skills practice; does not participate in mental skills practice; and does not try to implement new mental skills, then the players will know that the coaching staff does not value mental skills nor that part of their development. Players will not invest their time and effort either and will not get the most out of that part of practice. If the coaching staff does value this important part of the practice- based on their effort, implementation, and feedback loop – then the players will benefit from this practice time and their performances will improve.
Be a Role Model
Coaches who understand and value mental skill development will exhibit those mental skills. Players watch and take cues from the coaching staff on what’s ‘really’ important to them. When a coaching staff focuses a pre-game speech on uncontrollables (such as winning, opponent’s injury report, officials, etc), then the players will be conflicted and distracted. They have practiced mental discipline but the coach is highlighting external events as a focal point. However, when a coaching staff stays true to the development of the players and continues to focus the players’ attention on their own thoughts, emotions, and actions, then the players will be free to perform confidently and without restriction.
As you can see, daily mental skills practice plans and how they are implemented can really enhance certain aspects of players’ and teams’ development. Warm-ups before strenuous work-outs are proven to enhance performance- now and in the future. Daily mental skills practice is also proven to enhance performance- now and in the future. Elite teams and coaches not only schedule mental skill development into daily practices, like warm-ups, but they prioritize it and model it for the team. I encourage every coach, from volunteer youth coaches to highly paid professional coaches, to prepare, schedule, and value daily mental skill development. It will pay off tremendously during the current practice and throughout the season.