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Get your head in the game: mastering the mental aspect of sport

By in Features

As athletes and coaches we spend a lot of time working on physical, technical and strategic skills in our particular sport. But is that enough? What about the mental aspect of the game? How important is it for athletes to prepare their psychological mindset?

According to Tom Graham, clinical research coordinator with the University of Saskatchewan’s psychiatry department, training the mind for sport is extremely beneficial.

“The mental part is huge because it can either unleash or derail those technical, tactical and physical preparations that we spend so much time on,” Graham said.

Graham earned his PhD in health and exercise psychology from the U of S in 1998. He also owns and operates Graham Consulting, a consulting firm that primarily works with coaches and athletes through the Sport Medicine and Science Council of Saskatchewan to help improve physical results by focusing on the mental side of the game.

Here are four key areas Dr. Graham addresses to help athletes hone their psychological sport skills.

Adherence to physical training

As a former Olympic athlete, Graham knows that while elite athletes are expected to follow a physical training program, not everyone does. When an athlete enters competition, their mental preparedness for the event depends, in part, on the quality of their physical training. By adhering to a physical training regimen, an athlete can gain confidence in that area and a mental edge on the competition by extension.

Failure to reach one’s physical goals and to follow a training program, however, can impact an athlete’s mindset, transforming what should be an area of confidence into an area of worry, concern and doubt.

“There is something inside us that says, ‘I was supposed to get this much stronger, I was supposed to adhere to my program [but] I didn’t do it,’ ” Graham said. “Subsequently, the athlete is entering competition with a question mark on their forehead, where they should be entering it, had they done everything, with an exclamation mark.”

The ideal performance state

Every athlete uses mental tactics to get themselves ready for sports competitions. Graham emphasizes that, even though this process is different for each individual, there is a systematic way to go about it.

How athletes feel before they compete has a tremendous impact on how they perform. Thus, when athletes perform exceptionally well, it is important to recall how they felt prior to the event.

Graham calls this pre-competitive mindset associated with exceptional performances the “ideal performance state.” Once athletes recognize what their ideal performance state is, that mindset becomes the target for the athletes to reach before every competition.

Psychological skills like relaxation and visualization are often used by athletes, and these skills are far more effective when directed towards a targeted state of mind.

“You can relax and visualize but you may end up anywhere,” says Graham.

“The value in identifying your ideal pre-competitive mindset is that now those relaxation and visualization skills have a destination.”

Combating self-doubt

Once an athlete can identify and target their ideal performance state, one of the issues they must overcome is preventing self-doubt from creeping into their psychological preparation.

“The worries, concerns, doubts and fears are really the major monkey wrench issues that prevent achieving an ideal performance state or positive frame of mind before competition,” Graham said.

Negative thoughts are common and almost all athletes experience them at some time or another. They often occur while an athlete is experiencing a slump in their game and hasn’t been competing well. Self-doubt makes athletes feel anxious about aspects of their game that they have been struggling with and it often leads to delayed decision making in competition.

The repetition of negative thinking patterns can quickly turn into negative results.

The key to conquering self-doubt and preventing it from affecting performance is to identify the areas that cause worry, concern or doubt during competition. Then ask “what can I do about it?”

Answering this question provides the athlete with a strategy to improve their performance. This strategy increases the athletes’ sense of control and they can begin to combat the self-doubt before it enters into their pre-competitive state of mind.

Graham says the coping strategy needs to be simple. Athletes are already on edge as they enter a competition that is important to them. Trying to stay on top of a complicated strategy only adds to their pre-competitive burden.

“Contrary to popular belief, athletes play better when they think less,” Graham said.

“Take the complicated strategy and simplify it as much as possible. Take the five points or 10 points in a complicated competition plan and boil them down to priorities.

“If we’re thinking about priority one and two, we are focusing on the big picture and, hopefully, this will take care of priorities three through 10 in the process,” Graham said.

Season-long preparation for the big game

Too often athletes expect career-best performances at important end-of-year competitions such as playoffs, but do little during the course of the season to make that happen.  Athletes often acknowledge that they could get nervous at provincial or national championships at the end of the year, but hope it doesn’t happen to them when they get there.

“Consequently, they do nothing to prepare and, guess what, they get uncomfortably nervous at the end of the year,” Graham explains.

Competitive simulation is a method used to prepare for important competition. This involves using the progression from early season training to exhibition games to league and tournament competition to prepare for the most important competition at the end of the season. At each stage, the athlete induces a measure of playoff emotion by visualizing what makes playoff competition a remarkable experience.

This may include crowd size, larger venue, investment in one another, representing your city or province, and the consequences of winning or losing among other things. By doing this, the athlete completes their different stages of the season under conditions of elevated competitive arousal mentally.

As the season progresses, they have several exposures to playoff pressure and are better able to manage the most important events at the end of the season.

“We want to perform with abandon in playoffs. To do this, we have to apply some competitive simulation to the flow of our season,” said Graham.

Some athletes won’t put in the training time to try extra steps, like improving their mental game, until just before the most important competition of their careers. But top athletes prepare all season in order to be in the right frame of mind when the stakes are the highest.


Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf

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