Getting the mental edge

The increased stress of competitions can cause athletes to react both physically and mentally in a manner that can negatively affect their performance abilities. They may become tense, their heart rates race, they break into a cold sweat, they worry about the outcome of the competition, they find it hard to concentrate on the task in hand.

This has led coaches to take an increasing interest in the field of sport psychology and in particular in the area of competitive anxiety. That interest has focused on techniques that athletes can use in the competitive situation to maintain control and optimise their performance. Once learned, these techniques allow the athlete to relax and to focus his/her attention in a positive manner on the task of preparing for and participating in competition. Psychology is another weapon in the athlete’s armoury in gaining the winning edge.

The 4C’s

Confidence, concentration,controlcommitment  (the 4C’s) are generally considered the main mental qualities that are important for successful performance in most sports.
• Concentration – ability to maintain focus
• Confidence – believe in one’s abilities
• Control – ability to maintain emotional control regardless of distraction
• Commitment – ability to continue working to agreed goals
The techniques of relaxation, centering and mental imagery can assist an athlete to achieve the 4C’s.

This is the mental quality to focus on the task in hand. If the athlete lacks concentration then their athletic abilities will not be effectively or efficiently applied to the task. Research has identified the following types of attention focus:
• Broad Narrow continuum – the athlete focuses on a large or small number of stimuli
• Internal External continuum – the athlete focuses on internal stimuli (feelings) or external stimuli (ball)
The demand for concentration varies with the sport:
• Sustained concentration – distance running, cycling, tennis, squash
• Short bursts of concentration – cricket, golf, shooting, athletic field events
• Intense concentration – sprinting events, bobsleigh, skiing

Common distractions are: anxiety, mistakes, fatigue, weather, public announcements, coach, manager, opponent, negative thoughts etc.
Strategies to improve concentration are very personal. One way to maintain focus is to set process goals for each session or competition. The athlete will have an overall goal for which the athlete will identify a number of process goals that help focus on specific aspects of the task. For each of these goals the athlete can use a trigger word (a word which instantly refocuses the athlete’s concentration to the goal) e.g. sprinting technique requires the athlete to focus on being tall, relaxed, smooth and to drive with the elbows – trigger word could be “technique”

Athletes will develop a routine for competition that may include the night before, the morning, pre competition, competition and post competition routines. If these routines are appropriately structured then they can prove a useful aid to concentration.

Confidence results from the comparison an athlete makes between the goal and their ability. The athlete will have self-confidence if they believe they can achieve their goal. (Comes back to a quote of mine – “You only achieve what you believe”).
When an athlete has self confidence they will tend to: persevere even when things are not going to plan, show enthusiasm, be positive in their approach and take their share of the responsibility in success and fail.
To improve their self confidence, an athlete can use mental imagery to:
• visualise previous good performance to remind them of the look and feel
• imagine various scenarios and how they will cope with them
Good goal setting (challenging yet realistic) can bring feelings of success. If athletes can see that they are achieving their short term goals and moving towards their long term goals then confidence grows.
Confidence is a positive state of mind and a belief that you can meet the challenge ahead – a feeling of being in control. It is not the situation that directly affects confidence; thoughts, assumptions and expectations can build or destroy confidence.
High self confidence
• Thoughts – positive thoughts of success
• Feelings – excited, anticipation, calm, elation, prepared
• Focus – on self, on the task
• Behaviour – give maximum effort and commitment, willing to take chances, positive reaction to set backs, open to learning, take responsibility for outcomes
Low self confidence
• Thoughts – negative, defeat or failure, doubt
• Feelings – tense, dread, fear. not wanting to take part
• Focus – on others, on less relevant factors (coach, umpire, conditions)
• Behaviour – lack of effort, likely to give up, unwilling to take risks (rather play safe), blame others or conditions for outcome
Concentration, confidence, control

Concentration, confidence, control

Identifying when an athlete feels a particular emotion and understanding the reason for the feelings is an important stage of helping an athlete gain emotional control. An athlete’s ability to maintain control of their emotions in the face of adversity and remain positive is essential to successful performance. Two emotions that are often associated with poor performance are anxiety and anger.
Anxiety comes in two forms – Physical (butterflies, sweating, nausea, needing the toilet) and Mental (worry, negative thoughts, confusion, lack of concentration). Relaxation is a technique that can be used to reduce anxiety.
When an athlete becomes angry, the cause of the anger often becomes the focus of attention. This then leads to a lack of concentration on the task, performance deteriorates and confidence in ability is lost which fuels the anger – a slippery slope to failure.

Sports performance depends on the athlete being fully committed to numerous goals over many years. In competition with these goals the athlete will have many aspects of daily life to manage. The many competing interests and commitments include work, studies, family/partner, friends, social life and other hobbies/sports
Within the athlete’s sport, commitment can be undermined by:
• a perceived lack of progress or improvement
• not being sufficiently involved in developing the training program
• not understanding the objectives of the training program
• injury
• lack of enjoyment
• anxiety about performance – competition
• becoming bored
• coach athlete not working as a team
• lack of commitment by other athletes
Setting goals with the athlete will raise their feelings of value, give them joint ownership of the goals and therefore become more committed to achieving them. All goals should be SMARTER.
Many people (coach, medical support team, manager, friends, etc) can contribute to an athlete’s levels of commitment with appropriate levels of support and positive feedback, especially during times of injury, illness and poor performance.

Successful emotional states
The following are emotional states experienced with successful performance:
• Happy – felt that this was my opportunity to demonstrate an excellent performance. Felt I could beat anybody.
• Calm and nervous – Felt nervous but really at ease with these feelings. I accepted and expected to be nervous but felt ready to start.
• Anxious but excited – Felt so ready to compete but a little nervous. Nerves and excitement come together
• Confident – I remembered all the successful training sessions and previous best performances
Psychology Skills Training
Training for the athlete should aim to improve their mental skills, such as self-confidence, motivation, the ability to relax under great pressure, and the ability to concentrate and usually has three phases:
• Education phase, during which athletes learn about the importance of psychological skills and how they affect performance
• Acquisition phase, during which athletes learn about the strategies and techniques to improve the specific psychological skills that they require
• Practice phase, during which athletes develop their psychological skills through repeated practice, simulations, and actual competition.

Bring yourself into this frame of mind—it is the only place to be. You are not
asking yourself to do anything unreasonable, only to focus as well as you can
and perform as well as you can. Execute your task the way it can be done, the way you can do it. Focus on the doing—that is your goal. Your body follows your focus. Send a clear, positive message and then just let it happen. Trust your preparation. Trust your body. Focus ahead and go.

Creating a Refocusing Plan
Think of a recent situation at work, practice, competition, or in your daily life when you lost it—blew your cool, lost your temper, abandoned your positive focus, or lost your connection with your performance. Think about how you could have responded more positively or more effectively. Then imagine that you are confronting the same situation, but you don’t let it bother you. You stay positive, focused, and in control. You rise above the distraction. Everything that you might have previously seen as negative bounces off you with minimal disturbance. You stay cool, calm, focused, and effective, and you get back on track quickly. That is what I want you to be able to do in your real world.

How can you get yourself to do it?
Your focus dictates whether something becomes a distraction or problem
for you in the first place. Your focus also has the power to eliminate the distraction or potential problem. Essentially, your focus can create the problem or distraction and can also allow you to eliminate it, which is why developing an effective focus is so critical to your performance and your life. Every self-initiated positive change begins with three simple steps:

1. Create a vision. In this case, create a vision of a better way of viewing
and responding to potential distractions.
2. Form a plan. In this case, develop a plan for how you can respond to
distractions or potential distractions in a positive, effective way.

3. Make a decision to act on the plan, again and again and again.
Developing a personal refocusing plan and acting on it will help you make
the changes that you are seeking, so that you are more in control and more
focused on the right things when you face potential distractions in your
performances and your life. You can begin designing your personal plan for
distraction control right now by responding to the following questions:

1. What do you want to change about how you see and respond to distractions or potential distractions in your practices, performances, work,  or life?

2. Why do you want to change how you see or respond to distractions or
potential distractions in these parts of your performance or life? Why
is it important for you to make these changes?

3. If you come up with a personal distraction control plan right now, can
you decide to act on this plan repeatedly until you gain control over
your focus and your distractions? If your answer to this deciding question is yes, then you will make the changes that you are seeking. If your
answer is no, then rethink why it is important for you to act on your
plan, because to control distractions or to focus through distractions
in the real world, only action counts.
After you have answered the three distraction control questions, you are
ready to complete the distraction control plan (see separate page). Many of the athletes I have worked with have successfully used this tool to help them
pinpoint their distractions and their reminders for dealing effectively with
those distractions. Some of them carry that one-page plan with them to competitions and major events until their reminders are automated and inside their heads.

➤  Breathe, relax.
➤  Focus, focus, focus.
➤  Decide, decide, decide.
➤  Change channels.
➤  Focus only on my preparation—my game plan.
➤  Focus only on what is within my immediate control—nothing else
Some tips :
➤  This does not have to bother me—park it or tree it.
➤  Let it go and focus on the next step.
➤  I can perform well regardless of what happened before this moment.
➤  Be totally here. Be in this moment.
➤  I control my focus—it’s my choice.
➤  Shift focus back to what will do me the most good—now!
You only need one or two simple but powerful reminders that you decide
to act on to stay in control or to regain control. Remember that the control
switch always lies within you. Decide to flip the switch. Decide to change
channels whenever you feel that it is in your best interest to do so.

Acting on Your Plan
Once you have a refocusing plan that specifies how you would prefer to focus in specific important situations, your goal is to act on your plan. Use every available opportunity to practice responding more effectively to situations that have distracted you in the past as well as other situations that arise when you are distracted or begin to lose your best focus. Practicing will help you fine-tune your skills for focusing and refocusing through distractions and improve your overall performance.

The next time that something distracts you—a negative comment, a missed
move, too much thinking, a loss of focus—challenge yourself to turn it around within that setting. Set a goal to regain your positive focus or total connection with your performance as quickly as possible. The next time that you are about to become upset because of someone or something, shift to a focus that will allow you to respond in a more positive way. Refocusing in a constructive way is one of life’s great challenges. If doing it was easy, everyone would be good at it—but few of us are. Nevertheless, each of us can significantly improve our ability to sustain our focus in more positive and connected ways. Make this your daily goal. Whenever you are successful, make a note of what you focused on to achieve success. Doing so will help you reach your desired destination.

The inverted U theory
The basis of this theory is that performance level relies on the athlete obtaining their optimal level of arousal (on the relaxation-anxiety continuum).  This level of optimal arousal will depend on interpersonal variables, as well as the specific requirements of the sport, i.e. the optimal level of arousal for triathlon will differ from that of sports like golf or weightlifting.

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Relationship between Arousal and Performance

Introduction – The science
Competitive state-anxiety usually follows a pattern of subjective feelings of tension and inadequacy, combined with heightened arousal of the autonomic nervous system, (e.g. Hackfort & Schwenkmezger, 1989). The intensity and duration of the anxious state alternates according to; the amount of stressful stimuli the athlete encounters, and the period of subjective threat created by the stimuli (e.g. Hackfort & Schwenkmezger, 1989). Originally, it was thought that the connection between performance and arousal was an uncomplicated Inverted-U (Yerkes and Dodson, 1908), i.e. the best performance could be guaranteed with an average level of arousal.

Primarily, the theory is based on the assumption that competitive anxiety is comprised of two distinct parts; a cognitive component, and a somatic component, both having dissimilar effects on performance. Hence, theoretically, the components can be manipulated independently of one another. The cognitive component has been defined as the negative expectations and concerns about one’s ability to perform and the possible consequences of failure. Whereas, the somatic component is the physiological effects of the anxiety experience, such as an increase in autonomic arousal with negative physiological effects, like palpitations, tense muscles, shortness of breath, clammy hands (Morris, Davis & Hutchings, 1981), and in some cases even nausea (Harris & Rovins, 1981).

 A quick explanation: The autonomic nervous system (ANS or visceral nervous system) is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system functioning largely below the level of consciousness, and controls visceral functions. The ANS affects heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils and micturition (urination). Whereas most of its actions are involuntary, some, such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind.

A quick explanation: under arousal versus over arousal, under aroused athlete will perform as bad if not worse than over aroused athletes.
Anxiety can be recognised on three levels:
• Cognitive – by particular thought process
• Somatic – by physical response
• Behavioural – by patterns of behaviour

Cognitive Somatic Behavioural
Sense of confusion
Feeling heavy
Negative thoughts
Poor concentration
Loss of confidence
Images of failure
Defeatist self-talk
Feeling rushed
Feeling weak
Constant dissatisfaction
Unable to take instructions
Thoughts of avoidance Increased blood pressure
Pounding heart
Increased respiration rate
Clammy hands and feet
Butterflies in the stomach
Adrenaline surge
Dry mouth
Need to urinate
Muscular tension
Tightness in neck and shoulders
Incessant talking


Pacing up and down
Distorted vision
Voice distortion
Loss of appetite
Loss of libido Biting fingernails
Lethargic movements
Inhibited posture
Playing safe
Going through the motions


Uncharacteristic displays of extroversion
Avoidance of eye contact
Covering face with hand
[Table Reference: Dr Karageorghis, Competition anxiety needn’t get you down, Peak Performance Issue 243]
Breaking this theory/hypothesis down to make it relevant
1. understanding your emotions
The simple training diary can give you a sense of what you have done and help give you confidence towards your immediate race, by simply reviewing your personal data and comparing your training times versus expectations you will arrive at a point of understanding your goal a bit better. Your training diary should be reviewed on a weekly basis, thus bringing calm in the weeks leading up to an event; test sessions will and should be able to predict what you then should expect to do in a race

2. Excepting that you are going to feel many different emotions on race day
The 4’c of confidence, control, commitment and concentration if applied to your training will help race day emotions and help racing performances on race day by realising your personal triggers.

      3. How do you recognise your optimal level for performance?
These will differ from person to person. Each athlete should right a personal race report and compare these emotions and feelings with training experiences. Learning to personally recognise each cognitive/somatic feeling and apply the trigger word to each of these will help on race day. Relate this back to distraction control, those tips will really help you focus.

Imagery: another tool for your arsenal on race day and training
Imagine what you want to do and go do it!! Put simply

A topic for another discussion, but why not research it yourself, it requires all the senses and requires dedicated practice to be effect.

This article was written with the help of Lizzie Burcher- Horse sport Ireland, Oonagh Morrissy Ul sports Science. A big thank you both for your contributions and for answering all my questions.

Yours in sport

Train Smart: Train Happy

Stephan Teeling Lynch

Getting the Mental Edge

One thought on “Getting the Mental Edge

  • June 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm


    You should get paid for these articles.

    Great stuff and ideas to ponder over.



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