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Mind games

Mind games - Hockey
Mind games - Hockey

Dr Grigori Raiport worked as a sports psychologist for the Soviet team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics before defecting to the United States. A year after arriving, he penned a letter to the New York Times detailing his inability to find a similar job in his new home country.

“When I tell people I am a sports psychologist, they just look at me blankly,” he wrote. “As far as I can tell, locker-room pep talks are about the only psychological conditioning a US athlete receives. A first-grader in the Soviet Union gets more help than Olympic-calibre athletes do here.”

Fast-forward 40 years and sports psychologists are in high demand – in the US and elsewhere. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, the US squad was accompanied by no fewer than eight of them. 

Managing your mind
Today elite sports stars are household names. Symbols of high achievement. We are familiar with the idea that they have put in 10,000 hours-plus of practice to master their skill. Less understood is that most of them have also spent time training their minds to be the best. 

“Over the past 20 years, the main thing that has changed has been people's attitudes to mental training,” says US-based performance consultant Dr Stan Beecham. “As we continue to maximise the physical abilities of human beings to gain an advantage, athletes and coaches realise there is a great opportunity to be had by teaching people to manage their own minds, both thoughts and emotions.”

Simply put, says Beecham, if you take two athletes who are physical equals, the one better able to deal with stress or uncertainty will have the competitive edge.

Mind games - Rugby
Mind games - Rugby

Human doubts
There are plenty of examples of the impact of sports psychologists. The now-serene Roger Federer sought help in his teens to quell the outbursts of anger that were derailing his game. The All Blacks finally won the Rugby World Cup in 2011 after a 24-year drought, working with the mental-skills coach Gilbert Enoka to make some of the world's most macho sports stars receptive to the notions of sharing, trust and vulnerability. 

Rikard Grönborg, head coach of the Swedish men's ice hockey team, says sports psychology played a significant part in his team winning the 2018 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship in May, a tournament sponsored by Pirelli. “Back in the old days, it was considered a weakness to seek help as a player or a coach,” says Grönborg. “Now we use a sports psychologist and a behavioural scientist for all our teams.”

So what are sports psychologists dealing with? The spectrum of needs in solo and team sports is broad, but at the elite level it is often about basic mental stumbling blocks such as self-doubt and big-match nerves, lack of motivation and dealing with outside distractions. Some of the more common approaches involve coaching in techniques such as positive self-talk, focus on process and visualisation.

“Elite athletes are endowed with certain genetic gifts, but psychologically they are really quite human,” notes US-based sports psychologist Dr Jim Taylor, author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success.

Stay positive
According to Taylor, confidence is the single most important mental factor in sport. He cites the example of US alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who he worked with as a teenager at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. In recent years, Shiffrin's performance anxiety has caused her to vomit before races – despite winning two Olympic golds and more than 40 World Cup races. 

Now, as part of her pre-race routine, the 23-year-old sends herself positive text messages to lessen the weight of expectation and focus on the present rather than fretting over the future. “Value love, not triumph,” she texted herself this year shortly before she won giant slalom gold at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. “Remember moments, not victories. Count memories, not medals.”

“Even the best athletes in the world, including Mikaela, can go to the dark side where they turn against themselves,” says Taylor. “With positive self-talk, you begin an upward spiral of high confidence in which positive thinking leads to better performance. If you're thinking positively, feeling relaxed and energised, experiencing positive emotions and are focused on performing your best, you're going to have a lot of fun and you're likely going to perform well.”

Mind games - Tennis
Mind games - Tennis

Loss of instinct
For some athletes, reaching the highest level can lead to a peril that's been dubbed “choking”; when they fail to perform their best under pressure. 

Australian swimmer Cate Campbell was clear favourite for gold when she competed in the women's 100m freestyle final at the Rio Olympics in 2016, having broken the world record only a month earlier. Instead, she could only finish sixth, and in a post-race interview blamed an ostensibly encouraging text she'd received from a friend just minutes before the event: “I'm so excited to watch you race,” read the message. “I've booked out a boardroom in the office so we can all watch you.”

For Campbell, the seemingly innocuous words had a catastrophic effect, making her “nervous and anxious” as she became acutely aware of the weight of her country's expectations. “I remember thinking this was bigger than just me. I was responsible for other people,” she explained. 

Think process, not outcome
This shift towards a conscious mode of thinking can cause an athlete to lose the skill they've mastered through years of practice and repetition. As the mental autopilot switches off, the harder they try; the more they fixate on the outcome, the more likely they are to choke. As Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success, puts it: “Choking is about thinking too much… [It] is about loss of instinct.”

The solution, according to sports psychology, is to learn to focus on the process rather than the outcome. By thinking about results, rankings and beating your rivals, you are turning your attention to factors outside of your control. Focusing on the process, on the other hand, involves zoning in on what you need to do to perform at your best: preparation, technique and tactics. All of which are under your control.

“We know that as human beings we are at our best when we are in the zone, when we're not concerned about ourselves. In fact, it's when we don't even think,” says Beecham. “It's not that high-performance athletes think differently; it's that they don't think. It's the absence of thought that is really the advantage.”

Just like the real thing
Likewise, visualisation – or mental rehearsal – is often seen as a standard tool in sport psychology, but simply imagining yourself on top of a podium or taking a chequered flag is not particularly helpful. Instead, he says, we should visualise what we need to do to perform, rather than the fantasy result.

Studies have found that visualisation exercises trigger responses from the autonomic nervous system – the part responsible for breathing and heartbeat, for example – while at the same time causing the brain to generate electrical signals comparable to those an athlete would experience when actually competing.

“I don't know a world-class athlete in any sport who doesn't use mental imagery, whether it is racing an Olympic ski course or a Formula One track in their mind many times over before they race,” adds Taylor. “It's a way they can compete in the event before they actually do so for real.”

Mental training
Not all elite athletes are receptive to such methods, but even those sport cultures notoriously resistant to new or different thinking are shifting. Taylor believes there has been a change in the perception of what sports psychology is – helped by evidence of its success.

“The unfortunate thing about sports psychology is that it has the word psychology in it,” he says. “That word carries baggage. I prefer to use the phrase mental training. 

“Are athletes embarrassed about seeing a conditioning coach? No, they go because they know they need to be strong, mobile and agile. I try to get athletes to realise I offer the same thing. The mind is made up of muscles and athletes need to train their mental muscles as much as their body muscles.”