Goal setting is a key ingredient for success, especially at elite level. Goals that are ambitious but attainable will stir the right level of arousal and anxiety (as per the ‘Inverted U model’) to produce peak performance. An athlete who is only motivated only by winning is more likely to lose motivation when the competition doesn’t go his way.
Intrinsically motivated goals that are focused on the process rather than the outcome, allow the athlete stay present to the task at hand and avoid the external pressures and expectations.
For example, a bowler should breakdown the aspects of his bowling such as run up, delivery stride, point of release and follow through – making sure he executes them perfectly rather than just setting an outcome goal of bowling fast.
Tiger Woods was renowned for sitting quietly and mentally rehearsing his swing before a major tournament rather than spending hours on the course. This technique, called visualization, makes a competitive situation feel familiar because you have already imagined it in detail. When an athlete pictures himself reacting successfully to a competitive situation, his body responds by reinforcing the neural pathways needed to complete the action successfully.
Self-Talk and Confidence
A successful athlete must learn not only to handle pressure, but to thrive on it. A sports psychologist teaches athletes to use self-talk and repetition to enhance motivation and reinforce self-esteem. Muhammad Ali used self-affirmation to become a champion. Ali stated “I am the greatest” so often that he believed it, and so did his opponents, giving him the competitive edge.
Relaxation and Concentration
Many athletes who have achieved breakthrough performances say that it was “effortless,” or that “everything else disappeared.” This feeling that some call “flow” and others call “the zone” is a state where the athlete acts without thinking.
Relaxation techniques such as meditation and Progressive Muscular Relaxation are some of the most underrated aspects of sports psychology. If used correctly they can help lower anxiety and optimize arousal to induce peak performance.
Coping with Injury
An athlete’s identity, self-esteem and stress relief may come primarily from his sport. When he is injured and must take a break from competition and training, his sense normality is breached. His identity as a team member dissolves. He misses important competitions and loses fitness as his competitors get stronger.
A sports psychologist can help an athlete cope with these issues by teaching him to explore other aspects of his personality. Lance Armstrong describes his identity transformation while fighting cancer in his book “It’s Not About the Bike.”
In a matter of months, Armstrong went from an elite cyclist to a man who might not live through the year. After Armstrong recovered from cancer, his efforts to fight cancer became as important to him as his efforts on the bike.
A common phenomenon in sports occurs when players lose to lesser opponents based on their own mistakes. Players “choke” when they tank simple skills they regularly perform in practice. Choking occurs when players develop fear and play conservatively, using different shots and strokes than when they are winning.
Sport psychology helps players deal with fear by preparing them to deal with choking. These techniques may include breathing, pre-game rituals, music or other triggers. By using pre-planned patterns, the player focuses on the moment and his/her strategy, rather than the opponent or score.
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