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The psychological Olympian

Updated Friday, 16th September 2011

Whilst sport is a largely physical endeavour, the psychological aspects of sports performance, and the role of the coach, should not be underestimated.

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Self-confidence has a very important part to play in successful sports performance. People who have a high level of self-confidence or self-belief in their ability to perform well in a particular task are much more likely to do so than people who have low levels of self-belief. But where does this confidence come from? According to the psychologist Albert Bandura our level of self-confidence in a particular situation is influenced by factors such as our previous experiences, role models, feedback from others and our interpretation of any feelings of nervousness. Therefore in sport if an athlete has performed well in training and competition in the lead up to an event, has seen role models similar to themselves perform well, has received encouragement from important people around them (such as a coach) and is able to cope with the pressure of an impending important event they are likely to have high levels of self-confidence and perform well.

When you speak to athletes about how they cope with the pressures of competition, you often find that they have one thing in common – the use of a pre-competition routine. While the content of each athlete’s routine will be different, the overriding goal will be the same: to get them into their ideal performance state ready for competition. For some this ideal state will be relaxed and calm, but for others it’ll be the exact opposite. You’ll see this at the start of a 100m race where contrasts between athletes are evident. Some athletes like to remain still and stare ahead, whilst others like to jump up and down and be active, sometimes talking to themselves.

The exact content and structure of a pre-competition routine will vary from athlete to athlete, but there are three key psychological techniques that athletes commonly use:

Imagery: Sports psychologists Vealey and Greenleaf define this as "using all the senses to re-create or create an experience in the mind.” Imagery is considered an important technique in sport and is associated with many positive outcomes including increased confidence, improved motivation, better skill learning and reduced anxiety. Imagery, can be used in different ways during injury too. Though it sounds bizarre, there is some evidence to suggest that imagining the injured tissues healing can actually speed up the healing process.

Positive self-talk: Self-talk can be thoughts or words spoken out loud. It’s believed that negative self-talk is more likely to lead to negative performance and positive self-talk is more likely to lead to positive performance. Positive self-talk can aid recovery too by helping athletes develop a positive attitude towards recovery and rehabilitation.

Arousal control strategies: Arousal refers to the level of activation in our body, which ranges from deep sleep to extreme excitement. Being able to control arousal levels is an important skill in sport. An athlete needs to reduce their arousal levels through relaxation strategies and increase their arousal levels through ‘psyching-up’ strategies. Examples of relaxation strategies include controlled breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation. Athletes may psyche themselves up through techniques such as vigorous activity and listening to upbeat music.

Coaches play a prominent role in the psychological well-being of a sportsperson too. So what constitutes a successful coach-athlete relationship? Many people have tried to answer this question and have identified several characteristics that are important. These include:

•    mutual trust
•    commitment from both parties
•    mutual understanding
•    confidence in each others abilities
•    good communication
•    a sense of collaboration

In order to further understand the coach-athlete relationship, one group of researchers interviewed a number of Olympic medallists and their coaches. Not surprisingly all of the athletes and coaches stressed the importance of the bond and re-emphasised the characteristics mentioned above. The Olympic athletes also described their coaches as having roles that extend beyond sporting boundaries, describing their coaches in terms such as ‘surrogate parent’ or ‘good friend’. This suggests that to coach an athlete effectively, particularly at an elite level, a coach needs to understand the person as a whole. In relation to this it has been suggested that the coach-athlete relationship has two dimensions: one related to the enhancement of sports performance and one related to caring and wellbeing.

In conclusion it can be said that psychological factors are of the upmost importance in sport - an athlete can be supremely physically prepared, but if their mind is not right then they will not perform to the best of their ability.

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