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Control the Head (Adam Kelly: Sports Psychology Researcher Southampton Solent)

Top athletes train day after day to meet the demands of competition as best they can at the big event. Unfortunately this can be just the time when things go dramatically wrong. Then it is far too easy for the wrong phrases to spring unbidden into the mind: ‘Am I really good enough?’ ‘I can’t understand why I put myself through this time and time again!’ ‘This always happens when I’m under pressure’.

How can the athlete really perform with thoughts like this running through the head? So how do you change and minimise the effect of a crisis? The very first thing is to take emotion out of the situation and look at this time of acute difficulty as a chance to start making changes or as a turning point in your development!
Most coaches are only too well aware that staying objective and taking emotion out of the situation is the best thing the athlete can do, but this is easier said than done. The key to dealing with crisis is to stay calm. We are always receiving a variety of stimuli from all around us, we cannot control the stimuli but we can control our reaction. A commentator may say an athlete is ‘as cool as a cucumber’, when actually his/her strength is just controlling the reaction to the present stimuli. The primitive part of our brain wants just to react, when in fact we as humans have developed to use our brain to make decisions based on our previous or similar experiences. We don’t just have to react automatically, we are better than that; we can come up with a variety of solutions/alternatives. In sport there always comes a moment when the athlete faces up to and conquers adversity. Why do some succeed more easily than others? Surely preparation for and experience in such situations is a key factor in success!
What we need to do is to introduce unexpected or ‘panic’ scenarios into the training hall, so we start to have experience in dealing with situations before we encounter them in the big event. Equally if we react in a bad way, make regular technical or tactical errors or can’t cope with certain situations or pressures, then the occasion to tackle this is again in training sessions. Don’t think this will always be easy or straight forward: many deep-seated problems will take considerable time to sort out and we will usually have to change our mental approach in a number of areas. Another aspect which can help too is to visualise possible ‘worst case scenarios’ and to see yourself coping with these; if you can do this, often when you have to deal with the reality, you are in fact more prepared.
When you implement such scenarios into training, this helps provide experience of crisis situations or helps players to correct technical or mental deficiencies. They can try new methods or reinforce certain tactics, mindsets and techniques without being in a pressure situation. When the athlete is familiar with such situations and corrective techniques he/she is more experienced/prepared to cope on the bigger stage. Positive work in the training hall will pay dividends in efficiency and self-confidence and is the best way to change habits and attitudes.
But also bear in mind the positive side of the coin. In many cases the athlete only has to make small changes to achieve big results. To go up from 50 in the world rankings to 5 may only require improving by one or two points per game; marginal improvements can mean big steps forward. Too often at the higher levels in sport athletes feel there is too much to do to achieve real top results and this impacts on their motivation. In fact often they are wrong and less is needed than they think.
To summarise we need to be calm at all times, to control our reaction to the stimuli or situation we are facing, by thinking and not reacting on our primitive instincts. This will give us the best chance of making good decisions, which can turn the performance around. Try to plan future training, competition tactics and techniques in detail to include back-up plans for crisis situations and recurring technical/tactical problems. Have a plan. Coaches and players need to work together to provide clear direction and a rationale for facing present and future difficulties.
Even when we have doubts, we can still turn the performance around. But what performers who can do this have in common is an inner belief that they will succeed and that gradually they are getting closer to the ‘breakthrough’. They trust their training regime, believe they are going in the right direction and will eventually get to the higher levels. Self-believe can be built up by various other factors too: previous experience, the performance of team or club-mates, which can give you more confidence, your physical condition (high level condition gives you a big boost) and verbal persuasion/encouragement by coaches and team-mates.
The underpinning for success in any sport is preparation. Coaches can provide the best training but if you, the athlete, do not buy into the session, then it becomes pointless. Athletes should be looking to improve every day and every training session and once in the training hall should utilise every minute. In conclusion we all need to take emotion out of the ‘crisis’ situation and work only with the facts. Coaches understand that the athlete looks to them for guidance and direction, equally the athlete should take on board that the coach expects him/her to believe in his/her own abilities.
A final word of warning. Problems which have been with you for a long time will take time to eradicate and will require mental effort. You will often be pulled back into the same old habits and unless you pause and make a definite commitment to change and do something different, you will automatically react in the same old way. If you don’t change, you stay as you are and you don’t move on. Change is the cornerstone of life, the one fact you can rely on absolutely, everything changes constantly.
Sadly many of us become locked into a circle of stagnation from which there seems no escape. We do the same old thing, react in the same old way and don’t seem to understand that change is even possible! You cannot change everything around you, it’s not always within your power, so don’t try to do it: but you can change yourself, you can learn new things, to react in different ways and to adapt and perform better in your environment. So go for it, don’t get left behind!

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