“The ability to perform successfully under pressure is a crucial aspect of sport performance.” (Mesagno, 2010, p. 343). A major problem for elite athletes is to deal with the feeling of ‘choking’ under pressure. Although there is no exact definition for choking, many researchers claim that it is the “critical deterioration in skill execution leading to substandard performance that is caused by an elevation in arousal levels.” (Mesagno, 2010, p. 343) Current research has highlighted strategies that can be implemented to help the athlete overcome this issue (Tod, 2011).
Research has found that athletes are becoming more conscious about their performances; resulting in an upsurge of athletes administering special techniques aimed at lowering arousal levels and stress through mental skills training (MST) (Howden, 2007).These techniques are known as coping strategies.
Coping strategies are being used as a way of eliminating an athlete’s level of stress and arousal before a game (Morgan, 2010). Coping strategies used are self-talk, imagery and muscular relaxation. Imagery is a form of cognitive restructuring. The idea is that athletes “re-interpret previous negative experiences by seeing the ‘silver lining’ in the cloud.” (Shaw, 2005, p. 378). Research has found that imagery can build confidence, motivation and decrease state anxiety levels before and during a game (Shaw, 2005). It is important the psychologist ensures the athlete sees competition in a positive light, by thinking of something difficult as a challenge rather than a threat to performance. Gregg (2005) found that psychologists should employ an alternative outcome measure where they would break down an event into composite skills so that the athlete can mentally rehearse each stage of a technique they struggle with. Athletes may be able to imagine themselves performing a technique but may not be able to imagine the crowd applauding such an effort (Gregg, 2005). Gregg (2005) believes psychologists should teach athletes to become “better visual and kinaesthetic imagers,” (pg 98). However Hall, (2009) stated that “observational learning use is not appropriate for contributing to certain outcomes in every sporting context,” (pg 336). Moreover, psychologists should pay more attention to the demands of the task and ensure the techniques used will reach the desired outcome (Shaw, 2005).
Hardy et al. (2005) defined self- talk as “a dialogue we have with ourselves, sometimes spoken, sometimes engaged in internally.”(pg.377). Self-talk is often used to motivate and enhance confidence levels in athletes prior to or during a sporting situation (Hall, 2009). Much research has focused on the comparisons between positive and negative self-talk. A series of studies have found that positive self-talk “enhances performance through increases in confidence and anxiety control.” (Hamilton, 2007, p. 227). Whereas negative self-talk is viewed as being inappropriate and counterproductive (Shaw, 2005). Contrary to this, a study by Morgan (2010) found a positive correlation between negative self-talk and an increase of performance.
A study by Hamilton, (2007) supports the notion that both types of self-talk aid the athlete regardless of how they are delivered and that “the nature, content and delivery of self-talk may not be as important as individual interpretation of that self-talk.” (pg.237). It is important that care and consideration is present when the psychologist implements negative self-talk (Hamilton, 2007). In relation to sport, psychologists must focus on examining self-talks effectiveness on discrete skills and performance processes rather than on the competitive outcome or global performance (Shaw, 2005). An athlete who is in the early skill acquisition phase will benefit from an assisted positive self-talk intervention as they will “stay motivated for longer, acquire the skill more rapidly and bring about performance increases earlier.” (Hamilton, 2007). To conclude, it is more beneficial to the athlete if the psychologist uses positive self-talk rather than negative self-talk. The latter should only be used once the athlete’s performances have improved (Plaatjie, 2011).
Progressive muscle relaxation techniques are used to help lower cognitive and state anxiety levels in athletes (Navaneethan, 2010). Research has concluded that this training method can be implemented to decrease competitive anxiety; thus increasing athletic performance (Shaw, 2005). Navaneethan suggests practitioners should target a muscle group that is primarily linked to a specific sport. For example: the arms in golf, the legs in cycling.
The effectiveness of an MST program depends on how it is implemented. Many sports psychologists follow an effective sports psychology framework in order to give the athlete the best chance of succeeding (Holland, 2010). Shaw, (2010) suggests that it is important that thoughtful and considered approaches are used within an applied setting. To help the psychologist produce an effective MST program they must implement four phases. The initial phase is the first phase. Poczwardowski, (2010) discovered that a good consultant- client relationship will help develop and maintain the performance of enhancement interventions. This phase involves the coach meeting the athlete, and addressing the individual needs of the athlete. For example: what part of their performance they struggle with (Poczwardowski, 2011). Furthermore the consultant should aim to use psychometric tests for finding out everything about the athlete and what coping strategies should be administered (Howden, 2007).
The second phase is education. Educating the athlete is just as important as developing a solid rapport. Research by Howden (2007) suggests that the athlete is much more likely to succeed if they know that what they are doing is effective. Therefore the relationship between MST and performance must be known by the athlete; though the psychologist must not confuse the athlete by making themselves sound clever (Morgan, 2010).
The third phase is acquisition phase. Research suggests this phase is responsible as to whether the athlete succeeds or fails (Shaw, 2005). This phase focuses on the strategies and techniques for learning and developing psychological skills (Mesagno, 2010). Poczwardowski established that goal setting is an integral part of MST programmes. To ensure the psychologist and the athlete work together; a common ground must be sought. He also suggests that the athlete should reflect after each session as this may induce a positive mental state.
Practice is the final stage. Implementing the psychological skills into the athletes training regime and competitive performance occurs in this stage (Poczwardowski, 2011). Furthermore, literature suggests that in this stage the practitioner should recreate a competitive environment (Shaw, 2005). By doing this the athlete will be more prepared to deal with situations he/she they try to hide from.
The four stages of implementation are the building blocks of a successful MST program (Howden, 2007). Although this is the essential framework, a study by Poczwardowski discovered that the implementation of heuristic MST has a few limitations. Views of successful consulting may not be an adequate framework to account for successful work. Furthermore new theoretical efforts are needed to validate factors that contribute to effectiveness of sport psychology delivery (Poczwardowski, 2011). As well as this, psychologists must be aware of ethical issues, especially confidentiality. Any information that is leaked could be embarrassing for athletes and may hinder their progression and the relationship with the psychologist (Shaw, 2005). Professionalism is paramount also. Practitioners must only implement strategies in the best interests of the athlete. Contrary to this, previous research by Gregg (2005) suggested that the psychologist should use any method possible to gain results even if the athlete disagrees. Although this is a valid conclusion, questions should be asked as to is it really an ethical method.
In conclusion, there are many tools available for psychologists to use in MST. As previously mentioned, MST is an effective way of aiding athletic performance providing the methods are correctly adhered to (Mesagno, 2010). There is enough evidence to suggest that the athlete-consultant relationship is the main reason why MST programs succeed or fail.