Basic Sports Psychology

Rowden February 2013

This involves the study of how the mind affects performance and how we can educate the mind to improve how we perform. We should bear in mind from the start that we are all different and our personality can affect performance: in addition consider that some sports may be more suited to extroverted or introverted individuals. Equally we should bear in mind that we can work in the mental area, just as we do in the physical, to improve how we deal with our sport.

Self-confidence is reflected in the trust we have in our own abilities and in the certainty we have in our own minds that we can function as we want when we need to. An athlete’s confidence is demonstrated in how he/she appears to others. In how he/she talks, acts, is dressed and in all aspects of body language: even posture, facial expressions and mannerisms tell others a great deal about our mind and how we are liable to act.

There are a number of common signs and areas where an athlete can be seen to be developing low self-esteem:
• Fear of failure or even being afraid to win/succeed
• The feeling that he/she must be perfect and that however good the performance it’s never quite good enough
• Failure to make the right decisions, especially under pressure
• Thinking about the mistakes just made and by such reinforcement, continuing to make them
• Lack of real self-belief even when it’s blatantly obvious to all around that he/she has enormous talent

Of course we all face stress at one time or another, but we must face up to the fact that stress within a sporting event can be good or bad. It’s how we cope with it that is the defining factor!

We all need to be in the right state of ‘readiness’ before competing, but we should be aware that this feeling of arousal is brought about by the release of a chemical in the body called adrenalin. There can be number of physical and emotional symptoms of an aroused performer and some will be negative and some positive: aspects such as heightened heart rate and blood flow, nausea, sweating, tension, breathlessness, nervousness, excitement, frustration and many others.

Good stress will improve performance, bad stress will harm it. It’s therefore vital that we are able to:
• Identify which physical and emotional symptoms positively or negatively affect our performance (bearing in mind too that we are all different)
• Relax as relaxation techniques will help us achieve peak performance and are crucial for any athlete striving to reach the highest levels
• Have a plan to cope with the stress symptoms which are most relevant to you and your development
• Fully understand that mental strength and power can, just as physical strength and power, be strengthened and developed (and changed) by the application of a regular program

One of the first aspects to focus on is after-match evaluation: what went wrong, what was right, why did you win or lose, what was your attitude to winning or in defeat, what must you work at for the next meeting with the same player? But do not just dwell on the negatives: what went well, what caused problems for the opponent, what picked you up some cheap points, what frustrated him/her? You should wrap some positives round the negatives in your performance and over a period of time you will find that the ‘whole’ you (not just the table tennis you) will become a more positive person!

Of course you should also set up your mental program, which is something you will do on a regular basis. Base this on 4 aspects:
• Relaxation and the use of relaxation techniques
• Imagery and visualisation
• Pre-performance routines
• Self-talk

Relaxation is particularly crucial for reducing self-worry and anxiety and increasing focus and concentration. Focussing on your breathing is one good way of relaxing, on the rise and fall of your chest allowing this to become deeper and deeper or even on the sound. Equally you could imagine sitting under a waterfall and the clean water flowing into your head and filling your body. Then imagine dirty water spurting out from your fingers and toes and all your cares and tensions being washed away. Relaxation exercises should be carried out on average from between 10 to 15 minutes per day.

Similarly with visualisation relax first, then take yourself back to a previous recent victory. See yourself playing a winning game and relive the feeling, savour the winning shot and the shaking of hands with the opponent. After a while you will be able to shift in and out of this imagery quite quickly and prepare for a performance before you play.

Pre-performance routines will also help to reduce anxiety, increase confidence and help preparation and focus. Try to take 5 to 8 minutes before you play a competitive match to be alone, to relax and focus on what you need to do. As well as visualisation, think to focus your mental energies and if you have met this opponent before, revisit the tactics which have worked before.

Self-talk is of particular importance, your own commentary on how you are performing at any one time. We tend to ‘self-talk’ mentally as we perform in either a positive or negative manner. This has a direct impact (whether we realise this or not) on our performance and we should not under-estimate its value. Three main steps are used by top athletes to help turn negative thoughts into positive self-talk:
• Identify when and under what circumstances/pressures you are using self-talk
• Assess why, how and what you are saying and how you feel at the time
• Initiate change if necessary – if emotional, be calm, if your talk is mainly negative introduce more positive alternatives

The above may seem simple, it isn’t. In some cases it takes time (a great deal of time) to effect change, especially where negative habits have been in place and reinforced for many years. But change is possible and can be achieved if only athletes have the tenacity to work to a program and the desire to succeed!