As a player or a coach have you ever struggled to get yourself or your team to the optimum mental level needed for a top performance?

The following article will explore how optimum performance can have links to the world of Sport Psychology. It will cite personal examples, cases from high performance sport and will aim to generate ideas for athletes and coaches.

The Individualized Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) (Hanin, 2000) argues that different athletes have different arousal levels for their best performances. Some athletes needing a relaxed approach, whilst others need to be ‘chomping at the bit’.

The following extract is from the autobiography of Owen Mulligan, a three time GAA All-Ireland winner. It paints a vivid picture of the different approaches taken by elite players to ensure they are mentally ready to perform.

“On match days the whole place is busy busy busy.. I climbed under a bench lay with a towel over my head trying to get into the zone. Some lads say a prayer, others kick a ball, if thats what lads wanted to do to get themselves ready that was ok. Everybody deals with things in their own way.” (Owen Mulligan, Mugsy My story,  2013, P 4). 

Similar observations were made by golfer Graeme Mc Dowell when talking about the management style and approach to picking partners of the recently successful Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley.

“You have to consider if a player can handle the emotional energy of Ian Poulter or would prefer the relative calm of Martin Keymar. You have 12 different personalities, needs and of course games.” (Graeme Mc Dowell

Both quotes, whether intentionally or not, integrate Sport Psychology theory (IZOF) with high level performance.

During a two months stay in USA this summer I was privileged to attend the International Management Group (IMG) sports performance academy, specifically with their mental conditioning department. One of their core themes is ‘control’. They spoke to their athletes about knowing their number (1-10) in terms of how aroused they feel they need to be at in order to achieve optimum performance. For an athlete, having the self-awareness of what works on an individual level to reach their ‘zone’ comes with experience mixed with trial and error.

The above point was evident to me through the contrasting experiences I had in two club championship finals. On my first appearance in 2005, as a 20 year old, I took the approach of psyching myself up (to what would be referred to as  a number 9) before the game.  Even though I thought I was mentally prepared I froze on the day and performed poorly. Fast forward to my second appearance in 2012. Through having more experience and self-awareness of what works for me as an individual, I took a much more relaxed approach (around a 5). I had a much better performance and, on reflection, my preparation was a big factor in this. 

If I could rewind the clock to 2005 I would have tried some deactivating methods to lower my arousal levels in the lead up to the game. Examples of techniques adopted by athletes to help them relax include deep or controlled breathing, listening to slow tempo music, or rephrasing their sentences to have a high content of relaxing words. Even keeping the company of team mates that are laid back by nature can have a ‘number lowering’ effect. As I like to be at a lower number before a game, I would be chilling with Owen Mulligan!

Other athletes may require a different approach. If an athlete has an awareness that their level of arousal is too low, they may need to engage in activating techniques. Examples include sharper shallow breathing, listening to upbeat fast music, doing a small bout of physical activity or finding themselves an Ian Poulter type team mate to spend time with pre-match.

It is beneficial for coaches to be aware of these IZOF principles. Whilst delivering support to a rugby team, I observed that at half time during a tight game one coach took the forwards to one side whilst a second coach took the backs. On enquiring after, it was explained they were unhappy with the lack of aggression from their forwards in the scrum – they needed ‘pumped up’. However, in the context of this particular game, the backs needed more calm instructional feedback on quickness of hands and it was felt that increasing their arousal levels would be counterproductive to the execution of fine motor skills that are associated with their position. 

This approach to coaching realised the needs of the two different sub-units were in complete contrast to each other and addressed this in a specific and relevant manner. This again highlights the practical side of sport applying sports psychology theory in a subtle and effective manner.

In the build to a game, a coach needs to develop awareness of which players needs psyching up, which need calming down and which, simply, need to be left alone. Essentially having a different approach for different players pre-match/pre-session. This idea ties in with the widely renowned basketball coach John Wooden, who often stated he didn’t believe in treating individuals the same.

To summarise, IZOF states that everyone functions optimally at different levels of arousal. The key message for any player is to have an awareness of the specific level in which they perform best at. To reach this level, the individual may need to implement some activating or deactivating techniques. For a coach, they must get to know their players and what is needed for them to get into their zone. This however, is a balancing act dependent upon the individual’s needs, the sport and the situation. Do they need to take a Red Bull, a Valium, or something in between!

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