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.”
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.”