Athletes spend countless hours training their bodies to be able to exert a maximal output of strength, speed, and power. They spend time out of practice reviewing tape and videos of professional athletes performing their sport flawlessly. The hope is to gain insight into technique or movement that separates the best from everyone else. What is not shown and always missed in these highlight reels and PR performances are the numerous hours that these professional athletes spent developing their mental game. Think about an instance where you watched an extremely talented athlete who was undoubtedly physically prepared for competition, who performed exceptionally in practice or training but then competed like a completely different athlete on the day of competition. Essentially, they choked due to performance anxiety.
They choked because they lacked a strong mental game. The hours of training and preparation became irrelevant because something threw off their ability to focus and execute. This isn’t a phenomenon specific to sport; in fact an individual’s mental game can affect one’s daily interactions at work or school.
Think about the first time you had to present to a large group. Did you experience performance anxiety? Were you nervous or anxious? Did you stumble on words or forget content? How did you physically feel? Were you sweating or shaking? Did you feel sick to your stomach? All of these feelings can be extremely debilitating and affect an individuals performance.
These feelings are not limited to presentations and public speaking, they can arise whenever a person feelings stressed or anxious. Athletes who experience performance anxiety report feeling the same things during big competitions. So the question is, how can we eliminate these feelings and lower our performance anxiety? The answer lies within Physiological Skills Training (PST).
What is Psychological Skills Training?
PST, also known as mental skills training, is the process in which an athlete mentally prepares him or herself for competition. It incorporates many different methods that are all used to train the athlete’s mind to perform at maximum potential. These skills are specific to an individual and must be adapted to the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. The better an athlete performs, the more important these skills become.
Professional athletes across all sports practice PST. In fact, these skills have been proven to enhance an athlete’s performance as 50-90% of the game can be attributed to “what is in the athlete’s head”. The better you become, there more that is at stake and the more important the mental game is.
Types of Psychological Skills Training
PST incorporates many different approaches to enhancing an athlete’s mental game. It includes imagery/visualization, self-talk, enhancing mental toughness and mental preparedness, and arousal regulation, just to name a few. As mentioned, they must be specific to an athlete’s individual needs.
Every athlete can benefit from PST, but some may benefit from specific aspects of PST more than others. For example, if we look at an athlete who can effectively visualize themselves performing before competition but finds them-self getting extremely nervous and unable to focus when competing, they may want to start with learning how to control their nerves. This particular type of PST is known as arousal regulation.
Arousal Regulation for Performance Anxiety
Arousal is an emotional state that comprises of both positive and negative feelings. It can range from intense, extreme excitement, to debilitating fear or embarrassment. Arousal can be expressed as both psychological and physiological symptoms – meaning someone can experience both an emotional and physiological response to a situation. An example of this performance anxiety would be the nervous thoughts that flow through an athlete’s mind, in combination with the sweat, nausea, or increased heart rate the body is experiencing.
Arousal Regulation refers to understanding and determining what your best level of arousal is. Some people perform really well when nervous and even argue the nerves enhance their ability to focus on the task. Others find that the presence of any nerves at all negatively affects their performance. Some people will notice they perform best at a certain level of nervousness – so it’s important to be able to find that level and harness it! Now understanding this, where do we start?
Before someone can control their arousal levels, they must become aware of the physical and mental state before, during, and after competition. They need to be able to pin point when the stress became too much and they passed that “healthy” state of arousal. Once the athlete is aware of WHEN it happens they can start to employ methods to control it.
Next the athlete is going to want to determine their “optimal state”. An easy way to do this is to use a numbered ranking scale, starting with 1 being no stress and lowest state of arousal and 10 being the most excited, nervous, or stressed, with the highest amount of arousal. The question to ask would be:
“On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the most nervous you have ever been and 1 being un-affected by a situation, how nervous do you get while competing?
Is there a number that you feel most confident at? I.e. A 5 where you are nervous but excited and the nerves help you stay focused. “
After some thought, the athlete should be able to determine what level and at which point their optimal state of arousal is reached. This is when the athlete can begin to employ regulation techniques.
Arousal Regulation Techniques
This is where the work and commitment comes into play. Practicing PST is not easy and it can be very time consuming. This is where the professionals begin to separate themselves from everyone else. Here we will provide you with four different methods that may be utilized to reduce and control anxiety. It is important to note there are many methods that can be used to achieve the same outcome.
Progressive Relaxation involves the tensing and relaxing of specific muscles, moving from one muscle group to the next until all muscle groups are completely relaxed. The tension-relaxation cycles require that the athlete maximally contract one muscle group and then attempt to fully relax that same group while focusing on the different sensations.
This is a method commonly seen in the practice of yoga. It is based on the assumption that the body can learn and differentiate between a state of tension and relaxation, that tension and relaxation are mutually exclusive, and that relaxing the body through decreased muscle tension will, in turn, decrease mental tension or anxiety.
The idea behind redirecting one’s thoughts is that we often allow our mind to run wild when we become nervous or anxious. Instead of focusing on what we are in control of, we let negative thoughts invade and cloud our focus. In this specific instance, thought redirection would require the athlete to pick a positive outcome and solely focus on the tasks that he or she CAN control in order to achieve it.
These thoughts should not be complicated or excessive in number, are best when simplified to one word or cue. They are often best developed during practice.
For example, an Olympic Weightlifter may chose the words “close” and “fast” to focus on while warming up for Snatch. The athlete must believe that focusing on these cues will lead them to a positive outcome.
Instruct Your Mind
Nerves often interfere with our ability to focus and execute. Instead of looking at the desired outcome, we often end up dwelling and focusing on what we don’t want to happen. Take golf for instance. Imagine you have to make a challenging shot that requires you to drive across a body of water. What are you thinking? Most individuals would focus on not hitting the ball into the water. This is a perfect example of the mind telling the body what NOT to do. “Don’t hit the ball in the water”. A more positive and effective approach would involve the mind telling the body WHAT to do. For example, “Hit the ball on the green”. Our body’s function better when we are instructing it on how to execute a skill, not when we are trying to tell it how not to achieve the desired outcome.
Become an Optimist
Finally, your attitude is everything when it comes to success. It is often said that optimistic people see life through rose-tinted glasses, while those who are negative are always squinting through dark-gloomy lenses. Both types of individuals would look at the same situation and see a completely different outcome.
Being a successful athlete requires optimism. You might even consider optimism a perquisite to Thought Redirection, as it requires the athlete to focus solely on a positive outcome. In the instance where an athlete is experiencing anxiety or nerves, it is not hard to let the mind spiral through all the potential negative outcomes. Thus, understanding how to work through these thoughts and see the optimist outcome is a valuable skill.
Optimism begins in practice. You’ve probably heard coaches instruct athlete’s to leave their baggage or personal life at the door. Negativity and pessimism should be no different. When an athlete steps onto the platform or field, their primary focus should always be on success and ways to achieve it.
Psychological Skills Training (PST) is the process of training and preparing the mind to execute a skill and perform at maximal potential. In the instance of athletics, PST is what separates the good athletes from the great. PST requires time and commitment to learning, and must be developed specifically for the athlete’s individual strengths and weaknesses. This article addressed arousal regulation and the effect that anxiety can have on an athlete’s performance. It reviewed the method of detecting one’s optimal state of competition arousal and reviewed 4 specific methods on how to stay in control during competition.
(Image courtesy of crossfitperpetualondon.com, tabatatimes.com, prettytough.com, sppsychology.wordpress.com)
Morgan Hall obtained a bachelors degree in Health Sciences and Masters in Kinesiology from Western University. She is a Strength and Conditioning coach in London Ontario, as well as a Speed/Sprints Coach, previously working with the varsity Track and Field Team at Western. She is a fitness enthusiast with a competitive background in both Weightlifting and Crossfit™.
“What is Psychological Skills Training?” PDF/PPT Retrieved from http://www.d.umn.edu/~dmillsla/courses/sportpsychology/documents/Implementation.pdf
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Robertson, C. (2013). A Guide to Controlling Competition Anxiety, Retrieved from http://believeperform.com/performance/a-guide-to-controlling-competition-anxiety/
Human Kinetic. (2014). Foundation of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The Institute of Applied Human Excellence. Retrieved from http:// www.theiahe.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Arousal-Regulation.-Chapter-12.-Weinberg-Gould.-Foundations-in-Exercise-and-Sport-Psychology.pdf