You have the talent, you’ve been working hard at your game, you’re physically in great shape and you’ve won plenty of times in the past – but when it comes to the big events, you just can’t finish off that winning position.
If we were to take elite golf as an example, let’s take a fictitious player called John and have a look about how he could be helped to win that elusive major after several near misses.
There are a variety of psychological approaches that can be used to help John deliver his ability on the biggest stage and achieve a life-long dream.
In this example, I’m going to show how a Cognitive-Behavioural (C-B) approach of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) can be employed in this instance (for those who are not of an academic persuasion, please wake up, it’s not all jargon from now on!)
At the most basic level, a cognitive model would suggest that thoughts, actions, behaviour and your physiology influence, and are influenced by, each other.
So, if John is having negative thoughts when he’s winning going down the back nine of the Open (e.g. “I have been in this position before and lost” or “I can’t beat these players who are chasing me and have won Majors before”), these could be triggering negative emotions such as anxiety, confidence loss, sweaty palms and muscular tension.
Combine the negative thoughts, emotions and physiological effects and it’s no wonder that the performance level that got him into a winning position is massively at risk!
So, how would REBT (devised by Albert Ellis in the 1960’s) be able to deal with the thoughts that enter John’s head during winning positions in Majors?
REBT uses an ABC(DE) approach. ABC(DE) stands for Activating Belief, Irrational Belief, Negative Consequences, Disputing Irrational Beliefs and Creating an Effective New Belief (see below)
So, in John’s case some work would be needed to be done to tease out exactly what situations result in the negative thoughts and what those irrational thoughts actually are.
The next stage is to allow John to recognise the impact that these thoughts and beliefs are having on his performance – in this case, if he wasn’t aware, then the media would be more than happy to remind him in the week prior to a Major!!!
It’s likely that these beliefs have been reinforced each time John’s performance has suffered under pressure, and become more and more embedded. The first thing is to work with John to dispute those irrational beliefs, to undermine them, to allow him to begin to question how true these beliefs are, and how they limited him.
Once dents have been made in the irrational beliefs, it’s time to replace these with new beliefs, beliefs that John can accept as true and do not have the debilitating effects on emotions, physiology and performance – ideally, beliefs that have a positive impact on emotions, physiology and performance! A key aspect here is for John to come up with the new beliefs – this will make them more personal to him and more readily accessible when it really matters on the course.
Once these new, positive beliefs are in place, the work can begin to put them into practice. A programme can be developed to include visualising the winning position with the effective new belief in place; training can be structured to attempt to recreate the pressure (as much as possible!), and time should be taken during other tournaments to practice and embed these new beliefs.
This highlights some of the difficulties of mental work – there is often an expectation of a “quick fix”. However, there is an acceptance that it takes hard work and repetition to prepare yourself technical and physically, and there now needs to be a desire to work on the mental side with as much vigour – and if it becomes a deciding factor between winning a Major or not, then John may just commit!
Although this example is focused on golf, if you’re an athlete in any sport, I hope you can spend some time thinking about what thoughts you might have which may be limiting your performance.
You might be goal-scorer who questions whether they can score in the big games, you may be a boxer who is spot-on in sparring and on the bags, but struggles to deliver your ability on fight night – maybe this approach might help you start to overcome some of these beliefs and allow you to replace them with beliefs that will allow you to excel.
If you would like to comment or have any questions on this subject or indeed any subject related to mental performance, I’d be delighted to hear from you at Sean@DeliverYourAbility.com
Learn more about why athletes choke in sport here