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  • 10 minutes

Why mental fitness is as important as physical fitness

Athletes explain how they use their mind to give themselves the edge, as they pursue their Olympic Dreams




Athletes, on a whole, I think they need to be adaptable, physically fit, obviously, good hand to eye coordination, stay cool and calm under pressure, and then in rugby have a controlled aggression.

I think mental is ten, just as important as the physical.

I think it’s half-half really because if you don’t have like the mental side to it then you’re not really going to go far, you’ve got to have both, half-half basically.

Mentally, for an athlete is how to deal with pressure, how to deal with the most intense situation so, you know, the final of the Olympic Games, this is what you’ve been building up to for four years, you are the favourite but everybody expects you to win, you know, a lot of things that go through your mind is, “Am I going to mess this up?” you know, de-de-de-de. You know, mentally you need to be able to cope with all that pressure and to kind of execute what you’ve done that makes you so good and do it in the most intense situations.

Pressure is a big part of being involved in a sport so the pressure of, for example, preparing for an Olympic Games in terms of being selected for Olympic Games is a big pressure in its own right, but also the pressure of actually being in the Olympic Games and the unique environment that that brings.

Before a competition you just feel relaxed and just pretend that you’re in training and not doing a competition, but all it is is just doing one routine on each piece.

I’ve done a lot of different things over the years. I’ve done, you know, I went through a stage where I did a lot of visualisation on sort of how the rowing, you know, how I was going to do the rowing stroke, you know, how I’m going to race the opposition etc, etc, what the race would look like.

But then I’ve also, what I do, you know, a lot of now is I write down a lot of, kind of, how I need to be prepared, what we’ve been working on, what are the strengths, what are the weaknesses, what are our threats, you know, from the opposition, from how we could go wrong and then have a very clear plan of, you know, what we’re going to achieve when we get to the race or when we get to the Olympics. And I think writing it down is really important because then you know exactly what it is you’ve been working towards.

By putting together a game plan, being aware of what you’re going to do, again it gives a sense of control so people know what’s going to happen.

I think everyone’s different when it comes to preparing mentally for a game. Some people like to be on their own and going through it on their own. Some people like to be called in as a group and everyone sat together and go through the tactics and the mental side. And I suppose you find out what works best for you. I mean personally I like to run through everything as a group so that you get everyone’s perspective and then, you know, and then I spend some time on my own while I’m warming up thinking, “Right, this is what I need to be doing,” and going through my own specific role.

What you sometimes find is in team sports it’s a lot harder for someone to prepare as an individual, so some athletes like to be alone and quiet, as Noel outlined in the clip that we saw. Noel spoke about how some people like to be nice and quiet and calm and be on their own whilst other people like to be in amongst the team discussing strategies.

And depending on the team set up, sometimes only the latter option is available, so people have to prepare as a team. So in an individual sport you’ve got a little bit more flexibility about how you prepare; you can go off on your own, you can talk to people, and in a team sport it’s a little bit more restrictive because you’ve got that interdependence on your team mates.

You need to be able to overcome unpredictable situations, so in any scenario you can get your best performance whether, you know, your boat is destroyed in the transport on the way over to China or there’s a bomb in the village at the Olympic Games, you need to be able to still put your best performance forward and mentally you have to be able to deal with that. You know, you have to be able to concentrate and focus your energy, you know, down the route that you want to go.

It’s really important for athletes to plan for unexpected events, and I think what Alex described is kind of preparing for ‘what if’ scenarios. So I think his example of what would happen if there was a bomb in the village, what would happen if equipment didn’t arrive, and what that does is if an athlete thinks through things that could possibly go wrong and put plans in place for how they would deal with those, then it gives them a sense of control and a sense of confidence.

I've just learned to do some breathing exercises before I start, just close my eyes and just try and relax my body and it seems to be working for me.

I don’t think I’m the best but like I’ve just got to think, “Yeah, I can do this today, this is the day where I could do it,” and keep thinking this is the day where I could do it until 2012 comes and then I’m going to have to think, “This is the day I could do it.” So I just keep thinking, “This is my day,” and for some reason I keep getting second and thirds but some day will be my day, you get me.

In terms of the strategies that people use to help them cope with pressure, it’s very much based on the individual, there’s lots of individual differences in how people prepare. For example, some people like to use relaxation techniques to make sure they’re nice and calm and relaxed, and we saw the example of Tezza explained how he uses a breathing technique to help him do that.

Other athletes use different techniques, for example something that we call positive self-talks where people say positive phrases to themselves. Ashley used a good example of that where he used a phrase along the lines of, "This is my day." So repeating that phrase to himself helps him get into a positive frame of mind and kind of gets him psyched up for competition.

Other strategies that people use are quite varied. Alex mentioned that he used to use visualisation, or what we sometimes term imagery, where people visualise themselves in different scenarios in their minds. They might visualise themselves performing really well in a competition before they go into that competition just to help increase their confidence.

What I do before I go onto the floor, I just stand there when the judges are still writing down the scores for the other people that just did it. I just stand there thinking that I’m going to land it and I’m not going to fall, so when they present I just get in the floor and just do it.

It’s really important for athletes to have a set routine. If you talk to athletes you’ll find most of them will have a set routine for what they do before competition. That will be in terms of their standard warm up but it will also incorporate some of the mental strategies that we spoke about already, so things like the visualisation and imagery, the positive self-talk, the relaxation.

On top of that, sometimes people have little superstitions that they like, so people might have a particular order of putting on their clothes, they might have a lucky pair of socks or a lucky key ring, that type of thing.

But what a routine does, and the important thing with a routine, is it gives people a sense of control because they know exactly what they need to do at different components, so they don’t feel when they’re under pressure that they don’t know what they’re doing because this routine is so engrained they know what to do at what particular point.

Our athletes were talking in 2008, as they started their bid to represent Team GB at London 2012.


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