For my first post I wanted to illuminate an area of performance that is often talked about but rarely practised- performance psychology.
People spend hours upon hours practising the physical aspects of sport, practising their free kicks tirelessly until they’re starting to resemble David Beckham’s, but attribute their lack of mental strength to personality.
Tell me, were you born a brilliant footballer? No! You started off terrible and worked until you were as good as you are now (people who started brilliant have had hours of transferable practice but that is a different story). Why should the process be any different for your mental performance?
It doesn’t matter if you are successful ten times out of ten on the training ground, when it comes down to it and you’re in a game and the pressure’s on, no amount of practice will save you if you choke. That ball will go sailing over the bar.
Choking is an extremely common and often debilitating problem amongst athletes caused by over arousal (settle down! arousal in this case being excitement, on a scale from being asleep to paralyzed with fear)
The way arousal relates to performance can be viewed as an inverted U (parabolic) relationship as can be seen below. Everybody is different. Some people like to be really relaxed to perform at their best while other people prefer to be really fired up for the same activity; however everybody will have their own peak level of arousal. This is an important reason for everybody to develop their own individual pre performance routine as the ‘one size fits all rocky quotes to inspiring music’ approach may not be what everybody needs.
To achieve optimal performance, both in training and in competition, you should aim to be at the top of your performance curve. It is a level of excitement that is on the border of too far. Most people will have felt it at some point in their life, the world around you seems to go in slow motion, everything goes your way, and you are the very best version of yourself. If there ever was a time you needed theme music, this was it.
People’s curves may be further to the left or further to the right of the one shown but the important point is that you must find out when you are most effective and then put into place training that allows you to come as close to that optimal mind set as possible, as often as possible.
Here I will provide you with some techniques to manipulate your excitement levels to aid your performance:
Self talk. Self talk isn’t strictly for increasing arousal. It can be used to help you focus, regain confidence and to decrease arousal, but for these purposes I will concentrate on getting you fired up. It can be used before and during performance. A great example of this, and one I have used myself, is when Tom Hardy was getting mentally prepared for his role as a cage fighter in the film ‘Warrior’. Before he performed he would repeat to himself “Who the f**k does this guy think he is? This is MY ring! How dare he step into the ring with me?” Repeating phrases like this with feeling, even if only in your head, will begin to change your mood. You really will feel insulted that your opposition is daring to compete with you, your anxiety levels will increase and the second you hit that pitch/court/ring you will be raring to tear the offending party apart.
Another great example of self talk was Muhammad Ali’s tireless repetition of “I am the greatest.” He repeated it so often that not only did he believe it, but the people around him believed it and his opposition started to believe it.
Imagery. Like self talk, imagery has a huge amount of benefits and should be practiced by anyone from walking through your big meeting in your head to remembering past victories on the pitch.
“Imagery is an experience that mimics real life experiences. We can be aware of seeing an image, feeling movements as an image, or experiencing an image of smell, taste, or sound without actually experiencing the real thing. It differs from dreams in that we are awake and conscious when we form an image.”
White & Hardy (1998)
What you can probably take from that quote is that with enough practice, imagery becomes more than just a video reel in your head; you can completely experience what you are imagining, from sounds to smells. To increase your levels of arousal before a performance you can imagine anything at all that will get an emotive response from you. Have a practice and find out what works for you. A common visualisation is bringing up past performances in which you have excelled, be it whole games or just single moments like a big tackle, and make it your personal highlight reel. Bring up emotions as well as experiences, think about how you felt, the reactions of your team or coaches or even your loved ones on the sidelines. Make it as personal as you can to elicit the biggest possible response from you.
Emotive music/video Both of these techniques can be used to compliment Imagery. Playing music that you enjoy is important, but again if you can find an emotional connection between the music and your mood then it will be even more effective. It is extremely common to use loud rock dance or hip hop music because of the aggressive nature of the music, but just as effective can be more classical music or music of any genre that slowly rises. If it starts off slow and slowly builds it can directly relate to a story you are building up in your head. The same goes for songs with emotive lyrics. If a song makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck you are on to a winner.
Breath control Personally I find techniques to decrease arousal are a lot harder to master and therefore take a lot more practice (try before you go to sleep) but of them all I think that breath control is the easiest. It is as simple as taking a second, breathing deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. The same concept as counting to 10 when you are about to lose your temper, it will decrease your heart rate and blood pressure and help you think clearly and make the right decision.
Clearing your mind This one takes some work. The ideal end product is an ability to completely clear your mind of everything but the task at hand. Known as ‘putting the chimp in the box’ it is incredibly hard to do. Begin by practicing in a quiet dark room, breath slowly and evenly and think of nothing at all. Once you can manage this, start to move to more and more distracting environments until you can master this technique under the pre- performance pressure. When in this focused state is achieved you shouldn’t hear the little bangs of your family in the kitchen or the kids playing in the park outside. Complete clearness of mind. While this technique is extremely hard to get a grip of, it is unbelievably rewarding. Professional golfers are known to have been able to turn this state of mind on and off with a squeeze of their thumb, or a key word after years of practice. The ability to block out all distractions and focus on the task at hand is worth every second lost in practice.
Progressive relaxation This is a slightly different technique that can be used to completely relax your body. It can help and be helped by clearing your mind and are often used together. This is another exercise to start of by practicing before you go to bed. Lie still on your bed and start of by squeezing your toes as hard as you can for eight seconds before relaxing, then start to progress up your body, squeezing your calves for eight seconds then relaxing etc. until the process has been repeated on your whole body. By the end of this method your whole body should be more relaxed and after enough practice, you may be able to repeat the same feeling by only squeezing some of the larger muscles in your body.
With enough practice and the correct application, these techniques should help you improve your performance in any facet of your life you choose.
Thanks for reading and I hope this helps
George Studd Fitness Training
White, A. and Hardy, L., An In-depth Analysis of the Use of Imagery by High-Level Slalom Canoeists and Artistic Gymnasts, The Sport Psychologist, 1998, 12, 387-403.