Sports psych is the new edge

By Greg Wilmot

It’s difficult to imagine Schalk Burger lying on the couch describing his feelings while at the bottom of a  ruck to the umms and aahs of a bespectacled psychologist but modern sportspeople can use psychology to their advantage.

Sportspeople’s ability to recognise, manage, and change their emotions and thoughts is vital in enhancing
their performance and giving them the competitive edge. This is what sports psychology is all about. The
central tenet of all sports psychology is Emotional Intelligence (EI). Dr Ronel le Roux believes there are a
number of facets to EI of which the most important is emotional awareness, the ability to recognise, understand, distinguish between, and react to your own and other’s emotions.

The second important facet is cognitive awareness. That is understanding, expressing and controlling your
thoughts before and during competition and training. Together, emotional and cognitive awareness constitute an understanding of your inner state and functioning. Dr Le Roux states further: “Recognising the intense feelings that may hamper your performance will not distract you or influence your performance in a negative way; it will instead give you a competitive edge.”

So what is it about your emotions and thoughts that make them so important to performance? Surely
physical training and preparation is enough? Cyclists are concerned about bonking (low blood sugar) and runners with hitting the wall but little time is dedicated to choking and managing distractions. It is often believed that any thoughts and feelings, whether positive or negative, will reduce the efficacy of physical training and so are suppressed. Top athletes take lengthy precautions and training regimes to prevent bonking or hitting the wall, so what training do athletes use to improve their psychological stamina?

Greater emphasis is being placed on psychology as athletes attempt to gain the competitive edge over their rivals and strive to go further, faster, and higher. Understanding and accepting your positive and negative thoughts trains you to manage these thoughts and feelings while in competition. This will enable you to cope with the issues before it hinders your performance.

To see sports psychology and emotional regulation in action, watch Roger Federer. You never see him lose
his temper and when he’s a set down, he’s at his most dangerous. Fatigue doesn’t compromise his focus or will to win as he is able to recognise that losing his temper or being distracted on any point could be the difference between winning and losing.

The energy channelled from recognition and control of thoughts and emotions can be used to increase an
athlete’s motivation and self confidence. The will to win and the belief in your own ability is crucial in enhancing performance. Athletes with high levels of motivation have a greater probability of achieving their goals as they are able to change their attitude pro-actively, improve performance and dictate what happens during performance.

Motivation is an innate sense an athlete develops, as they invest energy into a discipline and towards
achieving goals. You can increase your own motivation by visualising goals being achieved. At the same time, positive thoughts and images are used to increase the investment of energy into achieving the desired goals. Self-confidence and belief in your own ability are vital tools in achieving set goals. Self-confidence is described by sports psychologists as the highest mental state for achieving success.
Without high self-confidence, athletes will be unwilling to put in more than 100% effort. Key to self-confidence are positive emotions and benefits such as heightened or prolonged concentration, increased
effort, reduced distraction from noise or other athletes, reduced muscle tension, accurate decision-making and the ability to more clearly remember game strategies. In this context, consider the likes of Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Graeme Smith (on a good day), and Kelly Slater. These athletes have self-confidence which allows them to be relaxed while riding, putting, batting and getting barrelled.

When athletes with high self-confidence hit a poor run of form or miss the cut, they have the ability to
overcome these failures quickly and get back on top. The ability to accept yourself and particularly knowing what you can’t change is the start of success. Athletes must however heed caution, as over confidence can have a detrimental effect on performance.

Right now, you might be asking, “So how do I, as an average sportsperson, make use of sports psychology,
boost my self-confidence and develop the ability to identify and manage my emotions and cognitions?” There are a number of techniques used globally that can have a positive impact on your performance. Yhese include: relaxation, routine during preparation, routine during performance, visualisation,
correct coping strategies, maintaining focus, centring, self-talk. So when reviewing your training
schedule remember that time researching yourself is as critical as time on the field.

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