The date was 10th October 2017. The hearts of 325 million people were racing with nervous excitement as their country played for a spot at the FIFA World Cup 2018. A win was needed against underdogs Trinidad & Tobago to qualify (1). With so much on stake for USA, a world cup regular nation with a formidable […]
The date was 10th October 2017. The hearts of 325 million people were racing with nervous excitement as their country played for a spot at the FIFA World Cup 2018. A win was needed against underdogs Trinidad & Tobago to qualify (1). With so much on stake for USA, a world cup regular nation with a formidable team, the intensity was understandably high, passion and emotion filling the atmosphere at the Ato Boldon Stadium in the Caribbean. They had 90 minutes to prove that they belong with the best in the world…could they deliver? In what is considered a big upset, Trinidad & Tobago won the match, and shattered those 325 million hearts, all at once. The loss was almost incomprehensible, and when the reality of it dawned on the players, the staff, the fans, questions were asked: They were not going to Russia…
How could they lose? What exactly went wrong? Veteran footballer Geoff Cameron, who was part of the squad, says it was not about one match, but about the environment behind the scenes.
“After Jürgen Klinsmann was fired, and Bruce Arena took over, we got too comfortable. We lost our ambition and sense of progress. But more than anything, we lost any sense of competitiveness.” (2)
What is this ‘too comfortable’ environment that Geoff talks about? The term ‘too comfortable’ has been used in the media and by pundits very often (3), with club legends Ian Wright (4) and Thierry Henry (5) among those blasting manager Arsene Wenger’s dressing room environment in the last couple of his years at Arsenal Football Club for being ‘too comfortable’ for the players.
Earlier this year, the England men’s cricket team lost the first Test of a home series in summer for the first time in 23 years when they suffered a nine-wicket defeat by Pakistan at Lord’s (6), and according to former England skipper Michael Vaughan, the English players were too comfortable and needed some ruffling in terms of the playing XI to get the best out of them.
“They’ve got all the skill and talent on paper, but I want to see more in terms of their mentality of how to play Test cricket. It might trigger the team into thinking none of us are safe. I think it’s too comfortable.” (6)
Reading the examples, it appears like certain features in the atmosphere around the athletes seem to create a feeling of too much comfort and safety that can be disastrous for performance, both individual and team. It has well been established that the environment impacts an athlete’s performance (7) and among various elements in the environment that influence an athlete, the interplay of Challenge and Support is known to affect performance significantly (8,9). Challenge refers to a part of environment that consists of high expectations from athletes to instill accountability and responsibility for their actions, whereas support is all about helping athletes develop their skills and grow, providing a setting that encourages learning and helps build trust among athletes and coaches and includes esteem, emotional, informational and tangible support (9,10).
The balance between challenge and support determines the kind of environment that envelopes the athlete and effects various aspects, including well-being and performance, and in sport, the 2×2 matrix formed by challenge and support include a Stagnant environment (Low challenge, Low support), Unrelenting environment (High challenge, Low support), Facilitative environment (High challenge, High support), which is considered to be the most effective environment that promotes development, well-being and improves performance, and the environment that is usually meant when criticisms of ‘too comfortable’ are made with regards to athletes or teams, the Comfortable environment. It comprises of a high level of support, but low level of challenge to push the athletes or team harder (10). Not the ideal condition to thrive in, the comfortable environment has certain characteristics that can cause dips in performance, making it imperative to try and increase the challenge in order to transform the environment into a facilitative one.
An important point to note here is that although a facilitative environment is the ideal aim, it is not a static environment, but a dynamic one which requires consistently high challenge and support over a period of time and not at any particular moment (10).
The question that arises here is one that related to what it is like to be in such an environment, and how someone can identify a comfortable environment. There are certain features of such an environment (10) and if majority of those frequently surround the athletes, it is highly likely that they are getting too comfortable. The general atmosphere in a comfortable environment is an over-protective one, with everyone always being ‘nice’ to each other. This leads to an avoidance of difficult conversations, and underperformance is often not addressed. This may be a consequence of personal relationships between people, like in the case of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, whose form dipped significantly in 2017 (after an amazing 2016), and according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, one of the reasons for that was his relationship with the new offensive coordinator.
“…there was a feeling that, following the firing of former coordinator Bill Musgrave, he got too comfortable, because he was too close to Musgrave’s replacement, Todd Downing.” (11).
Complacency is also prevalent, with athletes getting too cozy working in their comfort zones. All this leads to stunted professional and/or personal growth, causing individuals who want to be stretched to feel constrained, which could make them look for alternatives, especially in a professional context. For example, some Premier League youngsters have moved away from England, playing abroad to escape the environment which can get too comfortable for them.
“I think that’s the problem with players my age today, especially in England. We get too comfortable, too quickly…I knew moving here to Germany would put me out of my comfort zone, but I really wanted to make it and I understood that at a young age.”
-Kevin Danso (12).
Danso rose through the ranks of MK Dons before moving to FC Augsburg, where he later became the youngest player in the club’s history to make an appearance in the Bundesliga (13).
These are some of the characteristics of a comfortable environment that can be very useful for a coach in identifying such a setting where the performance is dipping because athletes are not being pushed hard enough.
For a coach, it is imperative to try and balance support and challenge over time to get the best out of his athletes (9). Since various psychosocial training programs that promote stress desensitization and inoculation in sport have been found to be effective in enhancing performance (10), to balance challenge and support, coaches can introduce a procedure called pressure inurement training during practice sessions.
Pressure inurement training refers to an approach that manipulates the environment in a relatively controlled setting with an aim to evoke a stress-related response in athletes (10). The manipulation is done in order to ensure maintenance of functioning and performance under pressure. This kind of training is done after skill acquisition and automation, and it involves gradually increasing pressure/challenge on an athlete using two ways:
Increasing challenge is only a part of pressure inurement training, and care should be taken that the support provided through learning and practice does not get taken away too much, and monitoring the individual responses to the aforementioned increased challenge training in terms of both mental well-being and performance can indicate whether the person has successfully adapted to the challenge or not.
Successful adaption will be manifested as facilitative responses and positive outcomes, which can be further enhanced by developmental feedback and increased challenge. On the other hand, unsuccessful adaption can be seen as debilitating responses complemented by negative outcomes, which calls for motivational feedback and increased support.
Along with pressure inurement training, rigorous team selection might act as a trigger for athletes to push themselves harder, ensuring that players don’t get complacent by thinking their spot in the team is safe. This brings us back to the comments of Michael Vaughan, and it seems like dropping players can actually help them perform better. Take the case of Mallik Wilks, the 19-year-old Leeds United footballer currently on loan to Doncaster Rovers. In October, the striker was dropped for a match, which motivated him to prove his worth by training harder and play well when he got the chance.
“It taught me that I cannot get too comfortable. There’s always someone fighting for your spot, which is a good thing for this team…My performances had dropped. I was careless on the ball.” (14).
He scored in the next game that he started (15).
To conclude, it is important to realize that players can and do get too comfortable if the environment around them provides good support but little or no challenge, which can affect performance negatively. Hence it becomes imperative to actively reflect on the environment and its characteristics in terms of challenge and support, and identify the onset of a comfortable environment, if there is one. In that situation, then, working to reduce support and increase challenge for athletes to improve performance and push them to get the best out of them becomes important for the athletes and the team to realize their potential and reach their goals effectively.
How can anxiety affect performance? There are many theories and models that explain anxiety in a sporting performance, an early theory implied was the inverted-U theory. Yerkes & Dodson (1908) theory states that anxiety’s relationship with performance is similar to the inverted-U shaped continuum, low level of anxiety leads to a decrease in performance and […]
How can anxiety affect performance?
There are many theories and models that explain anxiety in a sporting performance, an early theory implied was the inverted-U theory. Yerkes & Dodson (1908) theory states that anxiety’s relationship with performance is similar to the inverted-U shaped continuum, low level of anxiety leads to a decrease in performance and an increase in anxiety means a more optimal performance. Nevertheless, if anxiety exceeds beyond the point of optimal performance then there will be a decline seen in the athlete’s performance, Yerkes & Dodson (1908) theory didn’t take into account that each athlete is different and that the optimum level of arousal maybe lower or higher for different individuals. Another approach was put forward that looked at a more directional perception this theory was by Jones (1995). Jones states that anxiety can be perceived as both harmful (debilitative) or favourable (facilitative) by the athlete; if the athlete can cope with anxiety then it is seen as facilitative however, if they struggle it is seen as debilitative. An example of this is two football players in a penalty shootout might experience the same level of anxiety however they may interpret this level of anxiety differently. Some athletes have higher levels of anxiety compared to the average athlete these athletes are said to focus on the wrong stimuli, by doing this the athlete will be more focused on external factors like the crowd or the opposition rather than the current task they might have to complete like a game winning freekick. If anxiety increases and becomes too much for the athlete, then they are seen to deteriorate and disregard current skills learnt and focus on a past skill level (Grossbard et al. 2009; Pijpers et al. 2003); a goalkeeper who recently learnt to catch the ball from corners will decided to punch the ball away in an important game due to an increased level of anxiety therefore focusing on a previous skill.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a psychological reaction that includes emotions such as fear and negative thoughts as well as physiological responses that include sweating, not sleeping and feeling tense. A definition of Anxiety is an individual’s tendency to perceive situations as threatening and respond with an increase in a state or trait anxiety (Encel, Mesagno, & Brown, 2017). Another definition that relates to a sporting context is that Anxiety is a common emotional state that has an effect on all athletes no matter the level of their performance (Arvinen-barrow, 2017). The most common way to test an athlete’s levels of anxiety is the CSAI-2 created by (Edward and Hardy 1996); this psychometric test that looks at: somatic anxiety, cognitive anxiety, trait and state anxiety. These four components are considered the important areas that define anxiety, each athlete will be individually difference in each area depending on their levels of anxiety before, during and after competition (Arvinen-barrow, 2017). Lundqvist et al (2011) defined cognitive anxiety as worrying thoughts these include things like whether an athlete perceives that they have the ability to be able cope with a situation that is being presented to them. An example of this is a young player playing in the first team they might not believe they have the ability to cope playing with the first team. Lotfi, Tahmasebi, & Rabavi (2016)defined somatic anxiety as oneself perception of physiological arousal, for example a golfer who must put to win, they are most likely to experience sweaty hands and an increased heart due to an increase in somatic anxiety. Alongside both cognitive and somatic anxiety there is trait (personality) and state (situational) anxiety, state anxiety is considered short term anxiety that is in response to a perceived threat, such as anxiety prior to walking out onto the pitch. Trait anxiety is individual differences in responding to an anxious situation, which means producing an arousal response. This could be an athlete that is seen to have a higher level of trait anxiety, this means that they more likely to be aroused in certain situations when compared to an athlete with lower trait anxiety. Anxiety is not necessarily a negative for an athlete as each athlete has a preferred level of anxiety that allows them to reach optimal performance (Pijpers et al. 2003). If athletes accept that anxiety is a normal psychological reaction then the athlete will be more aware of the effect and less likely to allow anxiety affect their performance (Arvinen-barrow, 2017). This point is supported by Jones (1995) who stated that it is key for every athlete to understand what anxiety is as well as helping them understand that anxiety isn’t always a negative response to a stimulus.
Strategies used to help anxiety
Arvinen-barrow (2017)stated that sport has the potential for high levels of anxiety and that practicing and employing a range of psychological strategies can be beneficial in anxiety management. Depending on the athlete different interventions can have different affects, most interventions provide athletes an ability to manage their cognitive responses, debilitative emotional responses and physiological symptoms, some of these interventions include goal setting, imagery, relaxation strategies and self-talk (Arvinen-barrow, 2017). Self-talk has seen to be beneficial in many sports (McPherson,2000; Hatzigeorgiadis & Biddle, 2006) both looked at self-talk within many sports finding positive correlations between using self-talk and sport. Self-talk is considered to benefit an athletes cognitive control, this is done by reducing internal negative stimuli thoughts so that the athlete can regain focus by using a verbal cue (Hatzigeorgiadis & Biddle, 2006), i.e. head up or touch, pass, move for a football player who keeps giving the ball away when it’s passed to them. It is suggested by Johnson (2004) that the verbal cues should be brief, simple and personal to the athlete to increase the effectiveness of the cue regaining the attention of the athlete so that they can concentrate on a positive stimulus. Lotfi et al., (2016)investigated motivational self-talk and instructional self-talk on a football shooting task, they found that both types of self-talk significantly improved the participants when performing on the football shooting task. Both (Chang et al, 2014; Hardy et al, 2005) supported the above findings on the other hand, Tsiggilis et al (2003) found that self-talk didn’t have a significant effect on the football task implemented. The above findings were reviewed by Lotfi et al., 2016 who cited (Tsiggilis et al 2003)concluding that these findings could be due to the level of participants they used as well as individual differences stating that at a higher level athletes might disregard new techniques as they already have psychological techniques they use. In conclusion self-talk can be seen as an effective tool to use when helping athletes address anxiety.
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.
“Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” – Dan Reeves (Former NFL athlete and head coach) Resilience. It has become a buzzword of modern self-help inside and out of the sporting world. It is touted as necessary for success; but has been criticised heavily for the use of ill-defined terminology and unqualified results. The term […]
“Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” – Dan Reeves (Former NFL athlete and head coach)
Resilience. It has become a buzzword of modern self-help inside and out of the sporting world. It is touted as necessary for success; but has been criticised heavily for the use of ill-defined terminology and unqualified results. The term seems to have become disingenuous, with every organisation and leader claiming to be building resilience. The whole murky business needs demystifying. What is resilience? Can it contribute to sustained high performance? Can we develop or teach it, and should we? Recent evidence would suggest that it can, and we should, given the right conditions.
The first thing to tackle then; what is psychological resilience? most simply, it refers to the ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). Otherwise known as mental fortitude, it encompasses the protective ability to maintain our well-being and performance levels under pressure; and the ability to bounce back from small challenges with a swift return to normal functioning.
How does this translate into world of athletic performance? Examples of sporting success through resilience are abundant. Baseball star Babe Ruth said,
“every strike brings [you] closer to the next home run” – Babe Ruth
and arguably the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan has been the first to hold his hands up to his own mistakes:
“If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordan
As with many abilities, psychological or otherwise, resilience levels can change over time. At times of vulnerability, people are more likely to succumb to the pressure, and as a result their performance and well-being can suffer. To combat this, the role of psychologists, coaches, and other support staff is to seek to influence, and hopefully improve people’s psychological resilience.
However, before we delve into how to develop mental fortitude in athletes, a few words of caution; psychological resilience training is not the cure-all solution for any athlete performance or mental health problem. Researchers Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) recommend that any training program for psychological resilience should be part of a holistic approach that includes other psychosocial support such as ethical awareness, emotional intelligence and counselling. The aim should be to develop well-adjusted, high performing athletes (for more research on these additional elements see Breslin et al. 2017; Laborde et al., 2016; and Longstaff and Gervis, 2016). There is a risk that comes with not giving enough consideration to these other psychological assets. On its own, psychological resilience can ultimately become a vice that undermines well-being and performance. We refer back to the wise words of coach ‘Irv’ Blitzer in the film ‘Cool Runnings’ (because… when is that not the answer?) who told his athlete:
“Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing; but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it”
Resilience is not about placing your well-being or your values at risk. It is not about being under stress and denying it in order to keep pushing on. It is not about being so single-minded and focused on performing that everything else falls by the wayside e.g. in the case of Derice, when he began to alienate his friends and tried to be something he wasn’t. At a team level, this can occur in the forms of rewarding or celebrating dysfunctional behaviour, such as trying to play through an injury, and mislabelling them as badges of honour ‘for the good of the team’. According to Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) these are considered weaknesses that should not be misconstrued as strength. On the flip side of this however, a lack of resilience should also not be misconstrued as weakness. Everyone can and will, at some point, give in to extreme pressure or hardship. This is not weakness. In fact, for some this adversity is the platform from which they spring forward to withstand and thrive on pressure at the highest levels. For example, Laura Bassett, an England defender who scored an own goal in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals has just joined a new club and continues to represent her country internationally.
How then, do we train to improve resilience in the right way? Last year, researchers Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) developed and published their evidence-based mental fortitude training program, aimed at sustaining success through developing psychological resilience. They created a three-pronged approach to increase mental fortitude for sustained success. We’re going to explain the three main elements, and make suggestions on how coaches, athletes and support staff can go about implementing them. Firstly:
Protecting against negative consequences starts, unsurprisingly, with the individual themselves. Personal qualities are psychological factors that are a combination of personality and skills, and we need to start with a quick run down of the difference. Personality is about people’s more stable characteristics that build the patterns in the way they feel, think, and behave. Practitioners should look to identify these traits to get a better idea of the athlete’s starting point. Examples of some personality characteristics to look for include extraversion, conscientiousness, optimism, perfectionism, and self-confidence. Also, being intrinsically motivated, which means enjoying doing activities and tasks; or task-orientated which relates to wanting to demonstrate competence through personal improvement.
We need to think about what Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) refer to as a person’s ‘resilience bandwidth’. Each individual athlete has their own potential of psychological resilience. Some start high in resilience, while others start low and each may respond differently to resilience training. This is crucial to consider before starting any intervention; remember we want to get each individual to his or her personal highest point of resilience potential, so we teach them skills.
Psychological skills are the mental and emotional processes people use to improve their functioning. These are much more malleable than the personality characteristics. For example, we can develop self/social awareness. This means having an awareness of oneself, others and the environment, and practitioners can recommend exercises such as daily self-reflection to work on it. Athletes (and anyone) can set some time aside each day to honestly look at yourself as a person and an athlete. This process can be aided by using a journal. Looking at yourself objectively can help you get a better idea of who you are and what you want. Directing thoughts, mental images, and attention are also important skills to master for resilience e.g. self-talk, imagery, mental rehearsal etc. We will give a few suggestions on ways to practice these a little later.
If we consider personality as the foundation, and psychological skills as the bricks we build with, the desirable outcomes are the overall structure we’re aiming to build. While developing psychological skills may be beneficial, it is important not to do so for practice’s sake. The desirable outcomes should be specific and measurable. We would like to develop individuals who are able to maintain concentration when it matters, who are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions, who are able to handle pressure and deal with distress, and who are able to recognise the support they have. For a full list of these qualities, see Fletcher and Sarkar (2016, p.139).
We know, of course, that aiming to develop personal qualities to help athletes resist any stressor at any given moment is rather aspirational. No matter what their personal qualities, in the end this alone is not enough, and anyone can reach their ‘breaking point’ under enough adversity. So, we need to look outside of the individual to their surrounding environment.
Our knowledge in this area originated in the field of education. In 1967, Sanford argued that for students to improve their academic performance, the environment must balance the challenge and support presented to them. Challenge refers to having high expectations of the athletes, and involves instilling accountability and responsibility for each individual role. For example, the goalie in football or the point guard in basketball are both very specific, well-defined and high-pressure roles. The challenge for these is clear and can be quite easily set out. Attention should be paid to others in the team to ensure their roles are clear, expectations are high, and accountability is upheld. This is achieved through developmental feedback, which informs athletes on how to improve and develops resilience.
This, however, must be balanced with support. Support refers to enabling athletes to develop their personal qualities (discussed above), and helps to promote learning and build trust. In this case, motivational feedback is most appropriate to encourage and inform athletes about what has been effective in the past and what is now working to develop their resilience.
Too high or too low in either, or both, of these elements and you can end up with environments that are highly ineffective for developing resilience. A facilitative environment consists of people thriving in a challenging but supportive environment. There are good relationships between athletes and coaches and people crave constructive feedback. There is healthy competition, and sensible risk taking is encouraged. People are supported to learn from mistakes and failure, and success is celebrated. To build resilience to help with sustained high performance, a facilitative environment must be created and maintained. Essentially, “comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We understand though, that no single individual can create or control a whole environment. Any practitioners who want to implement this training program should try to identify the main decision-makers and influential opinions in your organisation. These are key people to get on board, and to educate. Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) noted that the effectiveness of this program can depend on the amount of commitment from all personnel in a team. You should encourage open discussion and positive change.
The final ingredient of Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2016) psychological resilience training program is known as the challenge mindset. This is where we focus on how people react in different ways to adversity as a whole, rather than to the specific events themselves.
Wayne Dyer said, “change the way you look at things and the things you look at change”. This is the essence of the challenge mindset, and is crucial for developing resilience. The first concept to tease out here is known as appraisal. This is an ongoing psychological process where, in any situation, people assess the external pressures by asking themselves questions such as ‘how might this affect me, and do I care?’. This is known as primary appraisal. People then assess their own ability to cope with those pressures e.g. ‘what can I do about this and will it be enough?’. This is known as secondary appraisal. On top of this, people assess their own thoughts and emotions in any given situation, and this is known as meta-cognition and meta-emotion, respectively.
Keeping all this in mind, as practitioners we need to work on helping athletes to positively ‘appraise’ and interpret the pressures they experience, in relation to their own resources (secondary appraisal), thoughts and emotions (meta-cognition/emotion). For example, some individuals find it easy to evaluate experiences as a challenge, however for others achieving this challenge mindset is more difficult and the are more likely to evaluate events as threatening or harmful. This is where the psychological skills and facilitative environment discussed previously become particularly important. Psychological skills need to be practiced regularly. Athletes should have an awareness of any negative thoughts that make them more vulnerable, and they should be mindful that they have a choice in how they react to things that happen. Here are some of the top thought regulation strategies Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) outline to deal with negative thinking and improve the challenge mindset:
As with developing personal qualities, it is important to realise that everyone will, at times, engage in negative thinking. This is ok, and people should try to be accepting and non-judgemental of any negative thoughts they are experiencing, so they can begin to work on how to deal with such thoughts and beliefs.
A proper understanding of what resilience is (and is not), is crucial to create a productive training program. Coaches and practitioners can develop psychological resilience through a three-pronged program. This includes spotting and developing personal qualities in the athletes, creating a facilitative environment, and teaching techniques to encourage the challenge mindset. Get as many of your team on board as possible, and make sure any work you do is part of an ethical and holistic approach.
The 6 Steps to a Winning Mindset course is a highly practical guide to understanding and building your own version of these tried and tested ingredients. Developed by Dr Chris Shambrook and used within his applied sport psychology work with the GB Rowing Team, these key ingredients link together to form a foundation to your […]
The 6 Steps to a Winning Mindset course is a highly practical guide to understanding and building your own version of these tried and tested ingredients. Developed by Dr Chris Shambrook and used within his applied sport psychology work with the GB Rowing Team, these key ingredients link together to form a foundation to your preparation and performance thinking.
The course takes you through 6 separate ingredients and shows you, one by one, what each ingredient is, why it’s important, how to build it, how it can be relevant for specific sports and how it relates to other ingredients.
The course is a chance to evaluate your existing mindset and build simple strategies that will form the foundation of the psychological side of your performance for a long time to come.
Hello! I am Hannah Stoyel (formally Cooper) and I am a HCPC registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist. I work in private practice in London with a range of athletes who are of all ages and participate in a wide range of sports. I am also a sport psychologist for Swim England where I work with […]
Hello! I am Hannah Stoyel (formally Cooper) and I am a HCPC registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist. I work in private practice in London with a range of athletes who are of all ages and participate in a wide range of sports. I am also a sport psychologist for Swim England where I work with swimmers along the talent pathway and with coaches around the country. I am also a qualified gymnastics coach and have experience working with gymnasts, tumblers, and cheerleaders. I am currently a PhD candidate at University College London where the subject of my research is eating disordered in athletes.
Resilience is a hot topic in today’s world. From sport psychology to military psychology, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of resilience, and how resilience training should be administered. Going back to my previous article titled “Empirical vs. Non-empirical Resilience Strategies – Outcomes and Consequences,” resilience will be defined as: …one’s ability to […]
Resilience is a hot topic in today’s world. From sport psychology to military psychology, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of resilience, and how resilience training should be administered. Going back to my previous article titled “Empirical vs. Non-empirical Resilience Strategies – Outcomes and Consequences,” resilience will be defined as:
…one’s ability to overcome cognitive obstacles (e.g., stress, negative self-talk) and maintain composure during high stress activities. Multiple factors have been identified and linked to outcome performance related to resilience. These include, but are not limited to: determination, confidence, spirituality, and one’s ability to adapt (Gonzalez, Moore, Newton, & Galli, 2016).
In order to address whether or not resilience can be coached, we need to take a step back and look at the fundamental principles of resilience: 1) the definition of resilience (see above), 2) resilience as it stands in objective literature, and 3) resilience as it subjective observation.
When looking at the definition of resilience referenced by Gonzalez et al. (2016), several key words can be extracted for further interpretation. The first is the word cognitive and how it relates to obstacles. The word cognitive emphasizes the mental approach to an, potentially multi-faceted, obstacle. In other words, a cognitive obstacle is not something that is readily foreseen, nor is it something that can be moved by physical force. A cognitive obstacle is one that must be experienced and subsequently adapted to through means of different mental strategies and/or psychological skills [e.g., visualization, deep breathing, goal setting] (Fitzwater, Arthur, & Hardy, 2017). This is not to say you cannot plan for cognitive obstacles drawing from past experiences, but it is to say that not all cognitive obstacles can be predicted.
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
This quote is applicable to cognitive obstacle idea, and sets us up for the next key word connected to resilience: outcome(s).
It is not uncommon for athletes to spend hours at the gym counting reps and forgetting the two most basic principles of training: purpose and outcome(s). Purpose and outcomes are fundamental concepts of sport performance. Without purpose, why participate? Without an outcome, what are you striving for? Granted, outcomes are not always black and white, but a purpose should be fairly clear and concise on either a personal and/or team level.
With the fundamental principles of purpose and outcome(s) in mind, it is just as important for athletes to plan for failure as it is for them to plan for success. Some common approaches seen throughout the literature are the concepts of goal setting, deep breathing, and visualization (Adler et al., 2015). These are all equally important, but most are approached in a positive light (success) and not a negative light (failure). Coaches may want to embrace these mental training approaches from both perspectives in order to prepare their athletes for what may be an unexpected outcome.
The third, and final, key word in the definition of resilience is composure. Composure, while listed in the second position in the definition of resilience, is a key component for any athlete and/or coach. One’s ability to maintain composure in the face of uncertainty may make the difference between success and failure; life or death. As there is not a readily available and common definition of composure from a research perspective, we will think of composure as one’s ability to maintain a level head in the face of uncertain or trying circumstances.
In my experience as a researcher, composure is, more often than not, a subjective measure based on observation. However, it is not something that cannot be quantifiable. Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a great starting point for coaches that wish to seek out the impact of components related to composure. Empirically supported, SDT emphasizes three major sticking points: relatedness to the task, comprehension of the subject matter, and the autonomous means of approaching a task. One’s ability to maintain a level head in the face of adversity may rely on these factors. While not directly correlated with composure, SDT does show promise on the overall impact of performance (Mellinger, Cheek, Sibley, & Bergman, 2014) and should be considered moving forward with a basic mental performance plan.
Resilience is a high interest topic in the field of sport psychology, no doubt. But, the delivery of which resilience training programs are ‘best’ remains quite elusive, if not controversial. The US Army has the Comprehensive Solider Fitness (CSF) program; the US Navy SEALS has psychological skills training (PST); and professional athletes, more often than not, use life or skill coaches (Fitzwater et al., 2017). So which on is best? Based on the literature, the answer varies.
In order to determine which delivery method and/or program is the most effective, researchers need to be able to measure the outcomes related to resilience. In the case of Fitzwater et al. (2017), researchers sought to quantify the effects of mental skills (e.g., visualization, goal setting) as they related to overall performance. In more simplistic terms, they wanted data to support the notion that mental skills training could make an impact on military performance. Taking soldier’s from the British army’s para recruit program (n = 173), researchers revealed that mental skills did have general support for enhanced resilience and military performance.
So what? These results are important because they are what researchers call objective. In other words, they are results that are independent and apart from any personal bias. Proven test measures with high rates of validity and reliability were utilized to collect information to support or nullify a hypothesis. This is important because now one who may seek mental skills training has something to base a curriculum. This is contrary to the CSF program which is subjective. In other words, a subjective result is something that is based on observation, and personal experience which data may or may not support. This becomes an issue when personal biases may have a negative impact on the message one may be trying to deliver.
Studies such as the one described above are not without limitations. However, they do help take a proactive, data driven, approach to resiliency training.
With the previous section describing objective vs. subjective approaches to resilience training, it is important to note that many great programs may result from subjective experiences. However, before developing a complete mental skills regiment for the purpose of facilitation, an extensive search of the literature should be considered.
Having been exposed to both the CSF program and private based mental skills programs, I have learned that mental skills are highly independent and may be more effective through an individualized delivery method, rather than a generalized group setting. In other words, a strategy that works for a solider, may not work for an Olympian. The same goes for position specific sports. For example, a sprinter may need a different mental coaching strategy than a distance runner. The same applies for physical training: a sprinter wouldn’t want to run a 5k to train for a 100m dash, right? With that said, this may be extremely time consuming, thus simply exposing athletes to the potential benefit of cognitive performance may be a good preliminary delivery method for mental skills training.
Mental skills are important for enhancing performance, this is clear. What is not clear is what the best delivery method is. Both objective studies and subjective programs have their strengths and weaknesses, but the objective methods provide valid and reliable results from which one can be more comfortable in developing a comprehensive mental skills training program. As coaches, we need to be active in keeping up to date with the research. As athletes, we need to be open to new and innovative ways of gaining another competitive edge over an opponent. In the end, the advancement of our understanding surrounding mental skills and performance is only limited by our fear and/or unwillingness to try new things.
Mindfulness is thought to be a tendency to be present in the moment and to mindfully accept naturally occurring events, emotions and thoughts. As a trait-like variable, some people are able to achieve this state more regularly than others. When considering a mindful, let it be, present moment approach it could appear to be counterintuitive […]
Mindfulness is thought to be a tendency to be present in the moment and to mindfully accept naturally occurring events, emotions and thoughts. As a trait-like variable, some people are able to achieve this state more regularly than others. When considering a mindful, let it be, present moment approach it could appear to be counterintuitive to achieving success that requires persistence, grit, resilience against stress and pushing one’s limits/boundaries. However, to be ‘mindful’ is not a passive state but rather a deeply engaged state but one that accepts each and every moment exactly as it is. Understanding the motives, drives and goals of individuals’ is a complex and multi-layered process. In order to better understand the various layers of complication, an athlete can employ mindfulness techniques to be present with, reflect upon and change emotional responses and behaviour.
The use of mindfulness techniques originated in Eastern philosophy and culture and have more recently been incorporated into Western practices. Particularly in sport, mindfulness has grown in popularity as athletes strive to achieve a performance advantage. Perhaps an innovative approach to sport psychology consultancy should include the simplistic models of traditional psychological skills training, mainstream psychological practices such as rational emotive behaviour therapy and also incorporate mindfulness based acceptance practices. In doing so the athlete starts to develop a deeper understanding of their motives, drives, responses to competition (success, failure, set-backs, key transitions), has a clear observable focus and goals and engages with these processes mindfully in order to deepen and enhance learning and growth. It’s important that practitioners look beyond the use of psychological skills training and begin to integrate theoretical approaches and techniques from different philosophical domains and contexts.
Confidence is probably the most frequently talked about psychological factor. Confidence is typically noticed the most when it’s gone missing, so as a result effort is typically invested in restoring confidence. If you build your confidence systematically through your training you can aim for a situation where you always know that you’re in the situation […]
Confidence is probably the most frequently talked about psychological factor. Confidence is typically noticed the most when it’s gone missing, so as a result effort is typically invested in restoring confidence. If you build your confidence systematically through your training you can aim for a situation where you always know that you’re in the situation where you have optimal confidence at the times when you most need it. It’s worth considering the challenge of getting your confidence to peak at the right times in exactly the same way as you look to get your physiology to peak.
The general principles to be working towards with your confidence are:
To work out the relevance of each of these areas for you, it’s worth getting a feel for what your profile looks like on the 3 scales in combination. Have a look at the 3 scales below and mark yourself on each line to show where you’d score yourself for each of the 3 different components.
If you connect your scores on the three scales and you haven’t got a straight line through each of the 100%’s, then look at the performance benefit you think you might get from raising your score on the appropriate factor.If you can see a direct performance benefit to be gained from making the improvement, then take action.
Here are some key reminders that are worth evaluating relative to building and maintaining confidence.
All of the confidence information above is focused upon you being maximally confident in your capabilities as an athlete – being confident in the process of training and performing, being confident as a result of the qualities that you carry around with you because of who you are and how you’ve developed your abilities.
There is very little reference above to getting confidence simply from winning or beating other people. Winning is obviously critical and having confidence that you know “how to win” is the kind of winning confidence you should be striving for.
In terms of the well coined “control the controllables”, your quest should be to make as much of your confidence as possible all about you.
The more that you take steps to ensure that your confidence is defined and refined by factors that are directly under your control, the stronger your confidence base will become.
Your confidence is such a valuable commodity that it’s worth making sure that you’re putting as much of it in place a possible, so that you can draw on it whenever you most need it.
Remember, confidence is ultimately knowing that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to! So, are you practising doing what you say you’re going to? Think ahead to a crucial time on a start line, and you’re sitting their absolutely knowing that you’re going to do what you’ve planned to do… now that’s a position of confidence.
Consistent preparation prior to competing is a key influence on the actual performance that you deliver. From a mental perspective it’s worth remembering;Consistent preparation = consistent performance. Knowing that your pre-game preparation has such consistency to it that you’ll always deliver yourself to the start line in absolutely the ideal mental state to perform is […]
Consistent preparation prior to competing is a key influence on the actual performance that you deliver. From a mental perspective it’s worth remembering;Consistent preparation = consistent performance.
Knowing that your pre-game preparation has such consistency to it that you’ll always deliver yourself to the start line in absolutely the ideal mental state to perform is a great element of your performance armoury. Consider the position of strength you’ll be in knowing no matter what the circumstances, conditions, venue, or opposition, you’ll always be mentally 100% ready to deliver everything that’s available to you on any given day. You can see how ultimately that the more challenging the circumstances you faced, the more confident you’d become that you’d be able to deliver more effectively than your opponents.
There is no guarantee that you’ll wake up on the morning of your competition feeling absolutely 100% or that the conditions you’ll be face will be 100% ideal. Therefore, knowing that even if this is the case, you’ll be able to go through your tried and tested pre game routine, will bring a great sense of confidence and control to you.
So, what’s your current level of confidence in your pre-race routines?
Begin with the start in mind.
How do you know your pre-race routine works for you? Consider the following questions:
If you know the answers to the questions, then the next question to consider is, how confident are you that you can create this mindset, these feelings and thoughts every time, through your pre-game build up?
The more confident you can be that you’ll always be sitting on the start line completely focused in the right way to deliver a great performance, the more you’ll know you’re going to produce a great performance every time you compete. No hoping and wishing – just knowing!
Did you think as you’d intended?
Throughout competition you’re very used to reviewing whether you delivered the right technical pattern and executed the required tactical changes. You’ll benefit hugely from being able to determine whether you “thought the way you intended to think”, both prior to the competition starting and during the competition. From a completely bias perspective as a psychologist, it’s my view that before you review technical or tactical components of a race/game, you need to have determined whether you mind was working in the best way possible for you.
If you haven’t delivered the ideal thinking approach, chances are technique and tactical execution will be affected. There’s very little point simply focusing on those areas when your thoughts or focus might be responsible for the slightly off-key performance. Equally, if you’re 100% sure that your mind was totally in the right state before and during competition, then any inconsistencies in technique and execution can be looked at with much greater confidence that there has been no mental reason for any drop-off.
Get in control, stay in control
Ok, back to the start line and delivering yourself there in the best possible mental shape to perform the way that you want to. One concept that is very useful to consider is that of control, and more accurately, the sense that you are in control of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
When it comes to performing, when you’re really firing on all cylinders, chances are you feel fully in control. Chances are you feel totally in control of every push and every response you have to make.
From a psychological momentum perspective, you can maximise the chances of being in control by working on the concept of being in control prior to the competition. From the moment you wake up on the day of a race/game, you can think get a theme of being in control going. Just as you’re going to choose how you go off the start and get up to race speed, controlling your actions, you can get a great sense of effective pre-race preparation by knowing what the choices are that you can make in the build up that will help you to feel as positive and prepared as possible.
This concept of control and choosing what you want to do is usually demonstrated really effectively in the pre-game warm-ups, choosing exactly how you want to physically and technically put the finishing touches to your preparation. Pre game chats will also take place at a pre-determined time of your choice, so you control when it happens and the kind of things you’ll focus on. From an individual perspective it’s important that you have your own game day recipe of choosing to do the right things that put you in control and keep you in control.
All common sense questions and all common practices for most people. You’re all pretty much at the top of your game and will have great ways of preparing for races that help to get the mind and body in absolutely great shape to race.
The point of the questions above is to get you thinking about the consistency with which you apply your pre-game build up strategies and to get you think specifically about how well you’re controlling your mind and choosing your thoughts to help deliver a great performance when it really matters.
The more you can get in control prior to the race, then more likely you are to be in control during the race. So, the race starts before the light goes green. If you can get in control more consistently that your opposition prior to the race, you can sit on the start line feeling a sense of competitive advantage in the knowledge that you’re more ready, have more ability and have more motivation to deliver.
Whether at the training ground preparing for a 2k run, getting ready for an ergo test, or sitting on the start line of the Olympic Games final, your mental management of the build up can make a critical, final difference to how much you exploit the opportunity and take control of a key performance moment. With enough practice of your pre-game routine, you should be able to be 100% sure that there will never be a psychological factor that leads to an underperformance.
I previously wrote an article on here titled, ‘why am I doing this at my age? Physical activity or competitive sport? Which looked at the contrast between why individuals over the age of 35 participate in one or the other. This article will focus more specifically on masters sport and the negotiation of the ageing […]
I previously wrote an article on here titled, ‘why am I doing this at my age? Physical activity or competitive sport? Which looked at the contrast between why individuals over the age of 35 participate in one or the other. This article will focus more specifically on masters sport and the negotiation of the ageing process. The masters athlete population has become one of the fastest growing sport participation cohorts in Westernised countries (Bennett, Seguin, Parent and Young, 2014). You only need to look at the news sections on Sport NGB websites to realise that providing opportunities for these age groups has become more of a priority with events taking place at club, National and International level. For example:
In terms of a specific definition, Young (2011) defined masters athletes as individuals who participate in competitive sport, with organised events typically beginning at age 35 and extending into the 90s. Masters Athletes are characterised by formal registration to an organisation (e.g. club) or event (e.g. 10km road race), and a sufficiently regular pattern of involvement in preparation for an event (Young 2011).
Many older individuals still participate in mixed age group sport environments. However, participation in masters sport provides an indicator of what a person is capable of through competition against peers. The performance feedback received during competition is relative to the highest functioning members of the cohort and has been found to influence motivation for continued participation, or optimism for the ageing process (Horton, 2010).
There are key themes that are relevant to the continued participation of this age group and how they negotiate the ageing process (Dionigi, Horton and Baker, 2013):
Dionigi’s (2010) findings simultaneously presented stories of personal victories and private desperation, highlighting the perceived benefits and potential consequences for engaging and maintaining an ‘athlete identity’. The masters athletes who challenge the standard definition of ageing by competing in sport at elite levels beyond middle adulthood and into the later decades of life are resisting the ageing process by maintaining physical activity levels and gaining additional social and psychological benefits (Young, Weir, Starkes and Medic, 2008).
Masters sport is a beneficial environment for athletes to maintain an involvement in competitive sport after the age of 35, and experience opportunities to compete with and against their peers. However, this continued participation can link to contrasting approaches to negotiating the ageing process and how this links to the individual’s athletic identity that has developed through years of participation.
It goes without saying that sport provides us with some competitive mismatches. When looking for examples of these it is difficult to look past the FA Cup or League cup which give us numerous instances of underdogs vs competition favourites. Just this season we have seen Bristol City knock out Manchester United in the League […]
It goes without saying that sport provides us with some competitive mismatches. When looking for examples of these it is difficult to look past the FA Cup or League cup which give us numerous instances of underdogs vs competition favourites. Just this season we have seen Bristol City knock out Manchester United in the League Cup and Newport County take Tottenham Hotspur to a replay at Wembley after a draw at Rodney Parade. But it isn’t only football that gives us these mismatches. Recently, Kyle Edmund took a stunning 4 set victory over the number 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov at the Australian Open.
The very nature of sport means that groups and individuals are in direct competition with each other. From this we are very aware that there are expectations around who will win and lose. These expectations can be based on formal rankings (e.g England expected to win vs Iceland due to world rankings), prior outcomes (e.g. a run of strong or poor results against an opponent) or differences in ability or resources (e.g. Newport vs Tottenham).
The terms underdog and favourite have been used in several disciplines to describe such instances of clear competitive expectations towards certain outcomes. Common among them is a general definition of underdogs as those who are expected to lose, whereas favourites are expected to win (Kim et al., 2008).
Every sporting scenario provides an example of competitors showing a strong desire to come out on top. However, individuals or teams can approach situations in different ways in relation to their orientations, motivations or goals (Ten Velden, Beersma, & De Dreu, 2009). Favourites and underdogs approach competitions with different motivational orientations which begin with the differing expectations that are held for each. Indeed, the labels underdog and favourite are laden with the very expectations they describe (i.e., to lose and to win respectively) and it is well established that people are sensitive to, and internalize, the expectations that others hold for them (Steele & Aronson, 1995).
More on the Favourites…
• The favourites often have little to gain by winning as the outcome meets existing expectations but in stark contrast they have much to lose if they are outperformed by the underdog.
• The goal of winning is seen as a minimum standard that must be met, and as such, winning becomes an obligation or duty that favourites ought to fulfil to secure their standing (Higgins, 1998). When winning is viewed in these terms, people translate the goal of winning (a positive outcome) into a focus on not losing (elimination of a negative outcome) (e.g., Molden, Lee, & Higgins, 2008).
More on the Underdogs…
• Underdogs are, by definition, expected to lose (Nurmohamed, 2014). As such, they have little to lose but much to gain if they perform better than the favourite.
• Underdogs may feel that winning when a loss is expected will cast their group in an especially positive light, whereas losing will come with few costs because it matches expectations.
• The goal of winning is seen as a maximum standard that one hopes to achieve, and as such, winning becomes an aspiration or an ideal for underdogs to advance their standing (Higgins, 1987). When winning is viewed in these terms, people should be primarily concerned with obtaining a desired positive outcome.
What have been the key ingredients when the underdogs have come out on top?
• Accept the extra attention – There is often a ‘frenzy’ around events that see the top dogs facing underdogs, so this is a massive part of the competition build-up for both teams. Of course, it is particularly relevant to the underdogs who are thrust in to the limelight that they are not used to. How a team or individual manages this increased attention will impact upon their ability to focus when they are finally face-to-face with their opponents.
• Pinpoint the favourites complacency – Travelling to an underdog’s ground can massively take top players out of their comfort zones as they are used to much better facilities. Cramped changing rooms and bobbly pitches can be a real challenge and if not addressed effectively by the favourites can mean trouble. Favourites that have been knocked out in the past have talked about seeing themselves already through to the next round and overlooking the current task.
• Sow the seeds of doubt – Those that have previously defeated the favourites have often found that the longer they are in the game the more confidence they gain. They may start with tackles flying in, and long balls over the top but as they settle in to the games the favourites start to doubt that their credentials. This doubt in their usual game plan not being effective will eventually be their downfall if not managed effectively.
• Believe in yourselves – The Underdogs need to believe that they can achieve the unexpected. This will come from team spirit, being clear on what is needed to prepare effectively and of course everyone will need to be playing to the top of their game.
Not every competitive mismatch will see the Underdogs achieve the unthinkable, but you will often see that these 4 points have played a part for the teams that have achieved the unexpected. Every athlete will face a challenge where they are either seen as the underdog or favourite. How that expectation is managed will be key in breaking down the processes and performance to get the desired outcome.
• The Psychological experience of being an underdog needs to be characterised by potential advancement opportunities that are possible if they win and what steps they need to take to achieve that.
• The Psychological experience of being the favourite needs to be managed so that the expectations are not internalised to a level where you forget the process required to reach the desired outcome.
The purpose of this article is to outline the concept of mental toughness amongst runners in a marathon with the use of mental skills. Mental toughness associates to the ability of coping under pressure with self-belief and focus. One can assume that mental toughness in marathon runners would be important given its duration. Performers can […]
The purpose of this article is to outline the concept of mental toughness amongst runners in a marathon with the use of mental skills. Mental toughness associates to the ability of coping under pressure with self-belief and focus. One can assume that mental toughness in marathon runners would be important given its duration. Performers can implement the following specific mental skills to manage both their training and actual performance.
Before any Basketball game, every player gets nervous about missing that one free-throw that results in their whole team going down. In fact, losing games and missing shots are the most common thoughts racing through players’ minds. What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” – Napoleon Hill Hence, over the past few decades, sports psychologists and coaches […]
Before any Basketball game, every player gets nervous about missing that one free-throw that results in their whole team going down. In fact, losing games and missing shots are the most common thoughts racing through players’ minds.
What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” – Napoleon Hill
Hence, over the past few decades, sports psychologists and coaches have emphasized on ‘Mental Training’ along with their Physical training, which encompass techniques such as Positive self-talk, Goal-setting and Imagery etc.
Visualization, also known as imagery or mental rehearsal is the most common technique athletes’ use worldwide to achieve their goals and it simply means putting up a mental image in your head that you want to see happen in your next performance. For example, imagine yourself perfecting the act of your free-throw and imagining the ball swish through the net at every attempt.
In this blog, the power of imagery and visualization is discussed for the purpose of helping players enhance free-throw performance in Basketball.
“I can see a free throw vividly in my mind if I so choose. Countless mental reps help a lot,” Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic, NBA), https://www.marketwatch.com/story/these-young-nba-stars-are-rising-because-of-meditation-and-mindfulness-2016-08-01
Sport psychologist & mental skills coach Graham Betchart started working with Gordon when he was 13 years and focused on his mindset training. In high school, Gordon’s free-throw percentage was only 30%, that has now significantly increased to 70%. Besides physical training, what else can we attribute his success rate to? Clearly it was – ‘Mindset training’.
During the Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto, 2017, Gordon was known to have his biggest moment in Basketball to date.
“His success was all made possible by the mental strength tools he’s worked on for years with Betchart”. John Denton, http://www.nba.com/magic/news/aaron-gordon/sports-psychology-meditation-denton-20170112
“I was visualizing each dunk over and over so that by the time I got to the contest I had already finished those dunks in my mind multiple times,” said Gordon, who finished runner-up to defending champion Zach LaVine.
So does it come to you as a surprise that numerous sportspersons from Muhammad Ali and Michael Phelps to Wayne Rooney and Novak Djokovic, all deploy this technique to achieve success in their games?
Let us look at the importance of a free-throw in a basketball game-
The difference between winning and losing in sport to be decided by minute details is becoming more and more common.
If you are even slightly familiar with Basketball, you would agree that the game requires mastery of several distinct skills such as abilities to pass, dribble, block shots, rebound and score points through lay-ups, jump-shots and free-throw shots. Amongst all these, Free-throws are particularly important, as they not only offer a chance of scoring a basket without an opposition player intercepting the ball, but also because the free-throw action is known in advance and hence, can be rehearsed till perfected. I remember my school basketball coach once saying to me, “Collect the maximum points as you can through free-throws. They’re free.”
Need more information to be convinced about the importance of free-throw shooting?
Well, Sampaio and Janiera (2003) found while studying three different professional leagues, including the NBA that free-throws made up 19-25% of the points in a game with teams shooting 70-75% from the foul line. Pim (1986) studied 316 Division I basketball games and found that 71.53% of the time the winning team shot the most free-throws.
Of course shooting a proper free throw begins strong fundamentals. All basketball players comprehend the true fundamental of shooting a free throw by the collegiate and professional level, as they have practiced and converted thousands of shots from this free throw line. However, as players lose their mental focus, problems arise. Sport psychology in Basketball claims maintaining a positive mental outlook and focus is as vital as physical training for successful preparation.
It is an age old adage that ‘practice makes a man perfect.’ Consistency through pre-game visualization routines helps the body relax and perform better and is therefore, important to have the same pre-game routines. The first step to gaining mental toughness is understanding the power the mind plays in the success of any athlete. Top class performance seems to have a direct correlation with mental exercises.
Why do many top players’ struggle to convert free-throws when they actually provide rare opportunities where players can score points without any defensive pressure?
Even though the name suggests, free-throws only seem free. Standing on the free-throw line, can be quite a lonely place and fans usually underestimate how nerve-wrecking free throws can be for NBA players.
“Imagine standing in front of 20,000 people that either really want you to be successful, or really want you to fail”, Dave Love (Shooting coach for Orlando Magic), https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/nov/22/free-throws-foul-shots-science-of-sports
Players are taught free-throw routines that may involve visualization to help block out distractions, which can then be replicated before attempting every free shot.
So what is mental imagery and visualization in Sports?
Visualization and imagery are not abstract concepts but quantifiable and well documents in Sports Psychology. Driskell, Copper, & Moran (1994) have defined mental imagery as the “cognitive rehearsal of a task in the absence of overt physical movement”. In simpler words, everything that we visualize is a form of mental imagery.
According to Kanthack, Bigliassi, Vieira, & Altimari (2014) motor imagery has been studied as a catalyst to improve free-throw performance. To put it simply, motor imagery is using your imagination to create a mental picture and does not involve moving any of your body parts. You mentally visualize the completion of the task in a manner that you would like to perform it actually.
Imagery can be:
But how is it that mental imagery can be used to improve free-shooting performance?
The Psychoneuromuscular Theory (Carpenter, 1894; Jacobson, 1931) is one such popular theory for answering this question. According to this theory, when a performer practices using imagery, the brain interprets imagining the movements vividly without actually performing them. This provides similar impulses in the brain and in the muscles. Minimal firings from the brain are recorded on a mental blueprint, making it easier to perform that movement in the future.
Free-throws are known as closed skills– which are performed in environments that are predictable and allow performers to plan their movements in advance. Therefore, pre-performance imagery may be an effective mental rehearsal activity for improving free throw accuracy.
To determine whether imagery training sessions can improve free throw performance amongst young children and high school players, several studies since the 1990’s have been undertaken.
The Landmark Basketball Study:
In 1996, University of Chicago conducted one of the pioneering tests of mental imagery.
Researcher Dr. Blaslotto segregated his sample participants into 3 groups, and tested them on how many free-throws they could convert.
After this initial measure…
After 30 days, Dr. Blaslotto noted the improvement scores as:
This study was an important milestone in demonstrating that a combination of physical practice and mental imagery could help achieve outperformance.
Later, Plessinger (2005) in his study stated that if teachers, coaches and athletes were looking for an additional advantage for enhancing free-throws, a combination of mental imagery and physical practice could be beneficial.
Post et al. (2010) through their study concluded that pre-game imagery exercise had a positive impact on free-throw shooting accuracy amongst a high school girls’ basketball team.
Kanthack et al. (2014) found a significant beneficial short term effect on the first two out of ten free-throws after watching a one minute video and engaging in a three-minute motor imagery session among young players with a mean age of 17.6 years.
Why do NBA stars like Aaron Gordon, Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry, use visualization before competition? And could it help you too?
“Visualization is an important tool for me”
One of the Most Successful Coaches in NBA History, http://sportsandattitude.blogspot.co.uk/p/visualize-like-athlete.html
The sports psychology techniques deployed by Phil Jackson while he was a coach is a landmark of sorts in terms of developing the mindset of his players along with practicing physical play. He considered visualization and relaxation an important exercise in pregame routine
Interestingly, during the 2001 NBA Finals, Phil Jackson made Lakers guard Tyronn Lue wear a sleeve while he practiced because he wanted Tyronn to get used to guarding against Philadelphia’s guard Allen Iverson, who always wore a sleeve during games. Any guesses for who won the championship?
It turned out to be the Lakers…
Stephen Curry, Ranks third on the NBA’s all-time free-throw percentage list
Curry’s high school coach was Shonn Brown, who introduced him to the technique of visualization before the game. Curry would routinely sit on a bench and make a mental imagery of the game to watch what the game would look like.
Curry continued this practice and further enhanced his visualization skills during his career at Davidson College. He was convinced about its significance as he heard about it again in the pros. Shortly after being drafted by the Warriors, then-assistant coach Keith Smart told Curry to take a minute before every game and watch it pan out in his mind.
Sasha Vujacic, Shooting guard, New York Knicks
The show Sport’s Science demonstrated what goes on in a Superstar’s head by bringing in Sasha Vujacic and tested him in free-throw performance while he was blind-folded.
Considering Sasha’s exceptional free-throw shooting skills, he shot a perfect 10-for-10 on his first three sets, after which he was blind-folded. Sasha’s mind had structured itself to be able to visualize the basket with photographic memory according to the experts at Sport’s Science. With the use of muscle memory and visualization, he shot an amazing 8-for-10 blindfolded.
How Can You Use Visualization For Successful Free-Throw Performance?
Some Tips For Getting Started:
Try these visualization techniques and watch your free-throw performance improve!
2018 offers elite sports stars many opportunities to win their respective tournaments/competitions/finals. The Australian Open, which begins in mid-January and offers an opportunity to win the first major of the season. Success in the Australian Open can provide positive momentum going forward into the rest of the season. Whilst technical, physicality and energy systems will […]
2018 offers elite sports stars many opportunities to win their respective tournaments/competitions/finals. The Australian Open, which begins in mid-January and offers an opportunity to win the first major of the season. Success in the Australian Open can provide positive momentum going forward into the rest of the season. Whilst technical, physicality and energy systems will all play a part, one must not underestimate the use of psychology. The science of psychology becomes instrumental as fine margins can dictate the difference between winning and losing.
Tennis performers need to mentally prepare in order to succeed and a number of factors will influence this opportunity:
In the summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to volunteer with a football academy in Ghana as a mental skills trainer. Many of the athletes I worked with in Ghana had minimal knowledge on the principles of sport psychology. I was given full autonomy with respect to the strategies used when implementing interventions for the youth […]
In the summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to volunteer with a football academy in Ghana as a mental skills trainer. Many of the athletes I worked with in Ghana had minimal knowledge on the principles of sport psychology. I was given full autonomy with respect to the strategies used when implementing interventions for the youth soccer players. This led to weeks of preparation prior to my trip and intensive research on the most effective teaching method in order to maximize my efforts with the youth. The purpose of my trip to Ghana, as a student of sport psychology, was to teach the principles of the subject to athletes who may have never been previously exposed to the field. However, the result was learning more from the athletes than I could have imagined, establishing lifetime friendships with these players, and most importantly, solidifying my passion in the field of sport psychology. Additionally, this internship fostered a fascination in cultural sport psychology.
Cultural sport psychology is a developing research category that investigates marginalized topics and cultural identities, while challenging the normative sport psychology assumptions. Cultural issues have emerged as a significant aspect of the sport psychology field. The ultimate goal of cultural sport psychology is to develop the field to become more socially just, inclusive, and ethical. This goal will result in the ongoing recognition and support of diversity and difference in terms of identities and practices. Furthermore, cultural sport psychology attempts to develop life skills that have the potential to change an athlete’s life. A developing country is defined as being in a state of growth in the direction of standard situations such as economic, political, administrative, and living standard. Currently, there is lack of sport psychology research regarding emerging countries, as most academic discourse favors specific established countries.
Culture can be defined as the customary beliefs, material traits, and social forms of a particular group. Furthermore, it includes common features of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time. There are numerous cultural characteristics to consider while interacting with individuals, such as norms, values, beliefs, behaviors, enculturation and acculturation, collectivism and individualism, goal-directed behavior, space, time, and gender.
Basic Cultural Awareness Considerations for Sport Psychology
Why Cultural Sport Psychology is Necessary
Rugby union is a dynamic collision team sport requiring the coordination of various team positions and roles, where players are frequently required to move seamlessly between offensive and defensive situations. The structural and strategic aspects of playing rugby place extensive demands on a rugby team’s resilience . Team resilience is defined as a “dynamic, psychosocial […]
Rugby union is a dynamic collision team sport requiring the coordination of various team positions and roles, where players are frequently required to move seamlessly between offensive and defensive situations. The structural and strategic aspects of playing rugby place extensive demands on a rugby team’s resilience . Team resilience is defined as a “dynamic, psychosocial process, which protects a group of individuals from the potential negative effect of the stressors they collectively encounter. It comprises of processes whereby team members use their individual and collective resources to positively adapt when experiencing adversity” . This can be further divided into “robust resilience” and “rebound resilience” . Robust resilience consists of a protective quality demonstrated by a team maintaining their well-being and performance when under pressure. Whilst rebound resilience consists of a bounce back quality demonstrated when teams experience minor/temporary disruptions to their performance under pressure, quickly returning to normal performance. It is common for elite rugby teams to experience adversity: hostile home fans at away games, injuries to key players or it being necessary to score points in the last remaining moments of a match to win a final or avoid relegation. Consequently, it is essential for their sustained success that they are able to overcome challenges and maintain performance. Teams that thrive, rebound or positively adapt to adversity have a considerably lower likelihood of experiencing the detrimental effects of challenging situations . One of the most detrimental effects is choking under pressure [5.], which consists of the athletes failing “to perform to whatever level of skill and ability the person has at the time” . Individuals and teams that are able to withstand stressors have a greatly improved chance of experiencing higher levels of sustained success . For example, regularly performing well in their respective professional league to secure their rugby club’s future funding and revenue. Due to the professional nature of these athletes and coaching staffs’ jobs they rely solely on their income from this sport for their livelihood.
Collective qualities essential to team resilience
Collective qualities protect teams from the negative consequences associated with experiencing adversity and stressors, involving a number of psychosocial factors [3, 8] –
Defined roles and responsibilities: It is essential that all individuals within the team clearly understand exactly what is required and expected of them and their other teammates. All team members should also assume personal accountability and responsibility for the team’s outcomes.
Group goal commitment and alignment: It is important that all team members are strongly committed to the collective goals of the team and they prioritise the collective needs of the team over their own individual needs. Individuals’ aspirations should also be aligned with the team’s aspirations, so that they are mutually supportive and result in shared pride when goals are achieved.
Nurtured supportive and caring relationships: Individuals should feel valued and experience a sense of belonging within the team, which can be achieved via everyday sociability. For example coaches could encourage team opportunities to socialise outside of working hours, such as going out for team meals. Individuals’ opinions should be listened to and support/advice should be readily available. This could be aided through senior coaching staff having an ‘open door policy’ encouraging players to come and talk to the coaches in their offices about any issues they might have, e.g. to do with injuries or selection, whenever they feel they need to.
Further key underlying psychosocial processes have been identified in the 2003 world cup winning England rugby team  –
Leadership: Transformational leadership consists of building relationships between leaders and the other team members based on personal, emotional, and inspirational exchanges, aiming to envisage an environment in which team members can achieve their optimal potential. This helped the England team to be resistant against the collectively experienced setbacks via collective vision development and inspiring the players. This process also helps aid the construction of a facilitative collective climate . This necessitates that leader’s frequently reinforce the team’s strategic priorities. This process positively influences team members’ collective interpretations of adverse events, for example, Clive Woodward reminded the England team their aim was to become the best team in the world, not just in Europe after losing a Six Nations Championship . Similarly transformational leadership was important for the 2011 Rugby World Cup winning team New Zealand who after two negative incidents in the previous 2004 and 2007 World cups utilised several transformational leadership approaches i.e. the development of a leadership group and the transference of responsibility to the players . Another related process is shared team leadership where leadership responsibilities are distributed throughout the team . This helps team members positively adjust their efforts to fulfil team tasks in challenging situations and improves coordination when stressors are encountered through promoting implementation of roles and responsibilities for team members’ performance .
Opportunities for learning: Team learning processes underpin a team’s resilience i.e. the ability to file away knowledge following setbacks and apply this learning to future challenges. Team mental models are shared knowledge structures relevant to the team’s task environment . These influence the team’s resilience via utilising collective sense making during adverse situations , allowing team members to anticipate each other’s actions and to coordinate their behaviours under taxing circumstances . It is important for team members to organise their knowledge about how to act during challenging situations by identifying specific information from significant defeats, such as losing in the final of a competition, as improvement areas for their future preparations. So, positively using knowledge gained in adversity to improve performance in a specific area of the game in the future. For example if the team performed poorly in their line outs, they could designate more time in training to practising the skills related to this and consider inventing new line out calls and movement patterns, having understood what went wrong under pressure. Collective, positive evaluations of setbacks by all team members, accompanied by a desire to move forward to achieve team goals, breeds success. In the short term, for the above example, by improving their line out success percentage and in the long term by winning the Aviva Premiership , or another league/significant competition.
The influence of facilitative environmental factors
A facilitative environment consists of a balance between the challenge and support presented to individuals . Challenge involves having high expectations of the players, helping to instil accountability and responsibility. Support refers to the process of enabling teams to develop their collective qualities and helping to promote learning and the building of trust between teammates. Alongside this it is important to provide developmental feedback through the use of constructive criticism about specific techniques, or decision making processes, to enable the players to improve and develop their performance, which in turn will help improve their resilience individually and collectively. E.g. The scrum half and forwards may need to communicate better and be more focal in ensuring the forwards know whether to run lines up the open or blind side depending on the width of the opposition’s defensive alignment and where there is space and/or numerical advantages. Furthermore the players should be provided with motivational feedback by encouraging and informing them about what has been and is effective e.g. if the front row set at a low height with a good body angle in the last scrum. If athletes within a team environment are exposed to an environment where too much challenge is imposed and not enough support is provided this can create an unrelenting environment that is detrimental to the athletes’ well-being, potentially negatively impacting their mental health. Conversely, if athletes are exposed to an environment where too much support is provided and not enough challenge is present, this creates a comfortable environment that will not enhance their resilience or performance. If levels of challenge and support experienced are both low this creates a stagnant environment that offers no benefit to the overall team’s performance . Athletes need to be exposed to optimally high levels of both challenge and support to successfully create the optimal facilitative environment necessary to maximise the enhancement of the overall teams’ levels of resilience and subsequent performance.
Pressure inurement training (PIT): is an effective method for varying challenge and support experienced by the players through environmental manipulation to produce a stress-related response whilst aiming to retain functioning and performance under pressure , helping athletes manage stress in sport [16, 17, 18]. PIT involves progressively increasing the demands placed on the players via levels of challenge experienced and manipulating their environment by increasing the demand of the presented stressors by varying the type of pressure e.g. competitiveness, property, novelty, dimension or frequency. Also by increasing the significance of the players’ appraisals of the situation, via their perceived importance/beliefs about a situation and/or the consequences attached to it e.g. being selected, or not, for the team. The environment should be manipulated to increase the support provided where necessary to improve learning and also enhance the team’s collective qualities. It is pivotal coaches closely monitor how players respond to these manipulations psychologically e.g. their well-being and their performance. If the induced pressure exceeds the players available coping resources this leads to debilitative responses and negative outcomes, consequently the provision of motivational feedback should be increased and levels of presented challenge temporarily reduced. Conversely, if individuals exhibit more facilitative responses and positive outcomes, indicating they have successfully adapted to the current levels of pressure then increased developmental feedback and challenge should be imposed.
The importance of a challenge climate
In any situation individuals appraise how relevant and significant what is happening is to their own goals and correspondingly, the implications of what is personally at stake for them. For example, they may think about to what extent this situation affects them and how much do they care about the outcome of it. This is a continuous process called primary appraisal. Individuals can react negatively when evaluating a situation by evaluating the encounter as potentially harmful/threatening, or potentially leading to some form of loss. Alternatively they can react positively by evaluating the encounter as a challenge to be overcome. Next individuals evaluate their team’s perceived availability to cope with the harm, threat or challenge of the present situation. For example they might think about what they and their team mates can do about this situation and whether or not it will it be enough to effect the outcome in the desired way in accordance with the team’s goals. This is a continuous process called secondary appraisal .
A challenge climate occurs when members within a team positively evaluate and interpret pressure they encounter together with their own and each other’s resources . This is primarily predicted via the combination of the collective qualities of the team and the immersion of the members in a facilitative environment. All of the team members need to buy into this concept to create a challenge climate within the team via the way the members envisage and approach difficult tasks collectively in the future. Specifically this entails a shared conceptualisation of how team members will react to stressors and adversity. There are a number of processes that can be utilised to develop a challenge climate [21, 22]. These include influencing how the team members perceive the team performs as a whole under pressure. This is greatly affected by the language coaches and team members use to describe pressure-related events, e.g. an important upcoming cup final, or the behaviours they display when under pressure. This refers to whether individuals talk about pressure situations as challenges to be overcome and consequent opportunities to perform, which would help facilitate the creation of a challenge climate or, if they describe them as potential opportunities for failure, instead resulting in the pressure evoking fear through the creation of a threating climate, leading to the players experiencing negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Within professional rugby teams it is not only the coaches that can positively influence this but also the support staff e.g. physios and leaders within the team such as captains, vice-captains and other senior players within the club. All of these individuals have a vital role in creating and role-modelling this desired climate and culture within the team environment. This can be effectively achieved via the utilisation of appropriate developmental and motivational feedback to the players. Moreover, it is important that a club has an authentic vision based on their heritage and desired legacy that inspires the players to establish a collective identity, embodying the behavioural and culture norms of positively responding to pressure. This can be reinforced by stories of team members withstanding and thriving under pressure and consequently achieving success. For instance, when the England rugby team had a player red carded in the first 5 minutes of an international match but still won the game, despite having one player missing .
Two types of team resilience have been covered-robust and rebound, plus how it can be fostered collectively. Also discussed is: how to develop collective team success qualities, the role of leadership and how to create climates fostering team resilience. Other contexts where team resilience is essential include the: fire service, armed forces and many business environments.