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Health, Sports & Psychology

Succeed like an athlete!

Updated Tuesday, 28th July 2020

Many of us view athletes as a breed apart. When you think about how an athlete would prepare for a competition, you might imagine that they have done countless hours of training to ensure that their bodies are physically ready for their event.  However, in addition to their physical preparation, many athletes work with psychologists to prepare mentally.  

Women athletes running track Creative commons image Icon Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license Often, this mental preparation can be the difference between achieving or not achieving a goal.  In this article, we will discuss some of the mental and physical preparation that athletes use to maximise their chance of success and explain how you can use some of these tips in everyday life.  

Whether you are preparing for a driving test, an exam, a presentation at work or an interview, consider your event as a challenge, just like an athlete treats competition. Athletes aim to thoroughly prepare before an event, empower themselves during the event and ensure recovery and recuperation after the event. How can you follow this routine to increase your chance of success in your own everyday challenges?

Plan like an athlete

At the start of their training cycle, Olympic and Paralympic athletes have a 4-year long term goal to win gold at the Olympic and Paralympic games. To help them achieve this long-term goal, they also set much shorter goals (e.g. daily, monthly goals). Setting realistic short- and long-term goals, in the same way, can provide you with something to focus on and achieve. Completing these goals can then help to increase your confidence. So, what do you want to achieve today? Whatever it is, ensure that you make your goals challenging, but achievable. 

Coaches and athletes will spend time analysing a future event/match to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and identify multiple strategies for difficult parts of a competition (e.g. wind, hills, falling behind) to ensure that they are fully prepared. How often have you thought about what will happen in your day and planned how to overcome potential obstacles? Planning for the day ahead can help you to deal with any issues that you may face during difficult periods of the day and provide you with strategies and confidence to overcome them.

Think like an athlete 

In order to perform at their best, athletes will prepare both mentally and physically for an event. In addition to the setting of goals, mentioned above, various other psychological techniques (e.g. self-talk, imagery, relaxation) can support the athlete to achieve their best performance on competition day. The key to an athlete choosing the most effective techniques to use is to first increase their own self-awareness. For example, knowing whether the athlete needs to get more energised (psych themselves up using self-talk) or to be more relaxed (calm any nerves using breathing techniques) is crucial for optimum performance. This would be influenced by not only what makes them tick as an individual but also what the event is – think about the differences in how an athlete would prepare for shooting in the biathlon versus making a tackle in rugby.

So, think about what would help you to perform at your best – you might see a friend preparing for an exam by laughing and joking with others, while you would prefer to sit quietly and read through your notes. This just means that you might both need to use different techniques to perform at your best and get into the best mindset, your friend needs distractions but you might need to use rehearsal. Think like an athlete and create a toolbox of techniques, such as breathing techniques to relax and self-talk to help you focus, that you can draw on when you need them to build your confidence and perform at your best.

Learn like an athlete

Most people love to succeed. But think about it - in any race there can only ever be one winner.  How athletes respond to failure and learn from it is an essential part of an athlete’s development.  In 2012, Andy Murray had lost four consecutive grand slam finals.  Rather than focus on the negatives, Andy identified what he needed to improve, and this led to him winning the London Olympics, 2012 US Open and then Wimbledon in 2013. Andy has stated that “failing is not terrible … I have been learning from all of my losses. That's what I've done throughout most of my career”.  

Psychologists can help athletes to reflect on their performances to ensure that they can learn from both what they did well, and what they did less well. Looking at failure from a different point of view is very important.  Try not to downplay, deny or ignore failure, but acknowledge it.  Take control by reflecting on your performance to identify not only what went wrong, but what you did well. You can then practice more effectively by ensuring that you do not make the same errors again and plan how you can utilise your strengths more in the future. Adopting a positive attitude of how to improve can boost confidence and improve future performance. To support this reflection on their performances, athletes often use a diary to log successful events and training episodes. Keeping a record in this way would allow you to reflect and remind you of your strengths and your successes to boost confidence.     

Putting it all together: succeed like an athlete

The next time that you have something challenging to face in your everyday life, approach it like an athlete approaches a competition. Plan ahead and set goals to ensure that you are confident and ready for the challenge ahead. On the day, increase your confidence further by blocking out any negative thoughts, using the best psychological techniques for you and focusing on your strengths. After the challenge, remember to reflect on your performance, record your strengths and any areas in which you would like to improve to continue to learn and build your confidence for future events.






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