Mental strength: performing under pressure

Mental strength - When you can manage your emotions, you can perform at your best

By George Karseras, senior consultant at Sporting Bodymind, the UK's first sports psychology consultancy

At Sporting Bodymind we help our clients develop mental fitness. At the top level it is not your physical or technical expertise which separates you from the competition but your mental toughness. To be outstanding you have to hold your nerve, perform under the most intense pressure, and consistently turn it on even when you don't feel at your best. Mental toughness is what makes Michael Jordan and Pete Sampras so special. These athletes know their real battle is not so much on the court, but inside their heads. You absolutely must manage your mental side if you want to be the best.

Given that mental strength is so vital, I find it truly amazing that it is so neglected in training routines. If you are one of those athletes who spends all your training time on technique and fitness while paying no attention to your mental side, you are doing yourself a serious disservice. We know from countless studies that mental skills are acquirable and you can, with practice, learn to perform mentally. You can improve your confidence, concentration, motivation and anxiety levels if you chose to. At Sporting Bodymind we show you how.

Four important principles
Feelings affect your performance. Whether you are aware of them or not, how you feel affects how you perform. Feelings are based on what you imagine or interpret from an event and not from the event itself. Two players appearing in the Wimbledon final for the first time will imagine different things about the match. One might imagine she will be unable to play well in such a big final. This player is likely to feel nervous and uncertain and her performance will be poor. The other might imagine it as the experience of a lifetime for her to go out and enjoy - she might feel liberated and relaxed and her play is likely to reflect these emotions. The same event evokes two different responses which result in two very different performances.The message here is very simple - learn how to change your interpretations and you learn how to manage your emotions. When you can manage your emotions you can perform at your best.

The mind and the body are inextricable linked - how you feel physically affects how you feel emotionally. This means that we can improve our mental performance using physical interventions (relaxation exercises) and vice versa.

You operate within a system - your performance is just a symptom or outcome of how your system operates. The parts of your system are all interrelated. A cricket player's confidence may be affected by his technique, which may be affected by his fitness, which may be affected by his lifestyle which may be affected by his time management. It is always more potent to look to remedy the underlying causes of a problem than the symptom itself. If Alan Shearer is not scoring goals, the problem might lie not with him but with the midfield who are not creating chances for him ( a moot point in this case). In situations where your performance was greatly influenced by your relationship with another person, I would conduct a pairs session with you and this person (coach or parent).

As humanistic psychologists, we believe that under the right circumstances you will want to reach your potential. Our focus is not just on your performance but also on your welfare. Often the two are linked. You can divide mental skills training into two approaches: individual work and group work. A standard programme for both may last for a minimum of six weeks with sessions of 60-90 minutes.

Individual work
You would go through three phases. First. you and I would gain as much of an understanding as possible of your situation by me asking you questions. I would need to know your goals, skills, experience, resources, background, any factors which are constraining you and any factors which are supporting you. My aim is to increase your self-awareness during this process, so that wherever possible you find the solutions and suggest changes yourself. The second phase is the strategy or intervention stage. Here, together, we formulate a strategy to reduce your constraints and increase your resources. This is a joint process, so that rather than me telling you what to do, we move forward together. Without buying into a programme you would be far less likely to stick to it. The interventions I would use would fall into two types, associative and analytic. Associative interventions such as visualisations and relaxation exercises use the right-hand side of the brain. Analytic interventions such as goal-setting and self-talk exercises use the left-hand side of the brain . We like to use a combination of both but we pay particular attention to associative exercises because more right-brain activity has been recorded in athletes during peak performances.

The final phase is for me to provide you with support as you progress through your programme. In some situations such as you being irrational I would challenge you as well as offering you continuous encouragement.

Team approach
We start a team workshop with a "warm-up". We ask the team members to arrange themselves so that their "place" suits the purpose of our meeting. Usually we ask the team to sit in a circle of chairs so that the whole team can see each other, rather than focussing on us or the coach. Before discussing the purpose and agenda, team members would pay attention to themselves, then another person in the team, and then the team would perform some kind of team activity. At the end of the warm-up, the team has tuned into its team identity (what it is and what it can be) and is ready to achieve its potential.

Our approach to teambuilding is based on our early work with Tottenham Football Club during the early 80's. We focus on the relationships which exist within the team system. A football team of 11 players has 55 different relationships. Any one of these relationships can affect someone else's performance. Our work increases team members' understanding of what they need from each other to perform at their best.

We aim to increase team members self-awareness, their awareness of others, their awareness of how other members are different to them and their appreciation of these differences. Only when they have gone through these phases can they see their team colleagues as they really are are and not as they imagine them to be. Communication and change then become easier.

We also teach team members the communication skills which enhance trust and respect. These are typically speaking, listening, questioning and feedback skills. The latter are probably the most important. We teach descriptive rather than evaluative feedback. This means that instead of saying something like, "you're a selfish player, you never pass the ball to me", we would ask Garth Crooks to say to Steve Archibald ,"during the last game I was in a scoring situation three times and each time you failed to pass to me. I get really frustrated when that happens". We encourage the latter way of talking because descriptions provide far more information than opinions. Also, Steve Archibald could not have argued that he did not pass the ball three times, but he could have argued that he was not a selfish player. Nor could he argue with the impact of frustration he had on his team-mate. Both events really happened. After receiving this type of feedback, Steve was more likely to change his behaviour.

Whether you compete as an individual or as part of a team, your performance can be improved by practising your mental skills. If you do not work on your mental side, isn't it about time you started ?

Case study
Billy was a junior county rugby player who had tried several times to get into the England team without success. He came to see me with six weeks to go before a trial for the Under-18 team.

1 - Understanding the system
Billy's goals were to perform well in the trial, to get into the team and to have a bearable life leading up to the trial. He complained of being so nervous during the weeks and days before a trial that he would stop eating and sleeping and become incredibly anxious. Billy was a talented and consistent performer outside the trial situation, Everyone expected him to get into the trial on this occasion and this was making him feel even more nervous. Billy's main concern was scoring high enough on the fitness test. As a 14-year-old he had been labelled as lazy and unfit by a school coach and had dreaded fitness tests ever since. Billy also tended to think a lot about what other people said about him and during trials would let his colleagues performances, especially if they were good, affect his own. Billy needed to improve his self-confidence and reduce his pre- trial anxiety in order to perform at his best.

2 - Strategy
Billy's main constraints were his self-perception of his fitness, the exaggerated emphasis he was placing on the fitness test, his tendency to judge his own performance by the standards of his peers, the priority he was attaching to the physical and technical aspects of his game at the expense of the mental side, and the critical way he spoke to himself during his performances (which was draining his confidence). Supporting him was his commitment, his technical and physical skills, his experience of being in the trial situations and the supportive resources he had around him (parents, club and peers).

Working together, we minimised his constraints. By conducting a self-assessment of the most important criteria required for trial success (physical, technical and mental) we developed a training strategy which realigned his training time more appropriately. This also served to put his fitness test into perspective as it was only one of17 criteria he had to satisfy. By increasing his fitness preparation Billy was able to improve his self confidence. By visually re editing past fitness failures with pictures of himself performing well in the test, Billy was also able to increase his fitness confidence. By mentally rehearsing the whole trial performance, Billy was able to increase his general levels of confidence. Together we conducted the gestalt therapy technique of the ‘empty chair', which involved literally having a conversation with himself. As a result, Billy increased his self-awareness, becoming more conscious of his internal dialogue. Practising giving descriptive feedback in the moment (saying only how he was feeling or what he could see or hear) allowed him to move from imagining the future (which usually made him feel anxious) to paying attention to the present and with it what he needed to do in the moment (thereby increasing his efficacy). Billy also recorded insights and learning experiences in a journal which further increased his self-awareness. Billy began to maximise his resources by choosing to spend his time only with people who were supportive of him, and by channelling his drive and energy into our mental skills programme.

3 - Support
Billy saw me six times and worked extremely hard in between our sessions. I gave him encouragement to persevere with the programme as well as challenging him whenever appropriate. For example, when he said things like "everyone else is so relaxed and confident" I would say, "you imagine they are confident, but what exactly do you see or hear which suggests that they are?". Billy soon began to recognise the difference between reality and his interpretation of reality. With this followed a different emotional response and with it a different, more supportive behavioural response.

Outcome
Billy's ratings in seven out of his 17 criteria improved, with none decreasing. He reported feeling less anxious about his trial and more confident in his ability to perform well. At the trial itself he did exactly that. He even put himself forward to demonstrate a few skills which is something he has never done before. Ultimately Billy was successful in getting through to a core England team for the first time ever.

 

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