Articles

Sport psychology – inside the mind of champion athletes: Martin Hagger at TEDxPerth

August 30, 2019


Translator: Mohand Habchi
Reviewer: Elisabeth Buffard When we look at Olympic sport, sport at the highest level, there are clearly some athletes
who always seem to get it right. For example, Usain Bolt: Olympic 100m, 200m champion, twice over, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics
and in the London Olympics. Michael Phelps:
the most bemedaled Olympian of all time. These are athletes
who clearly get it right, both psychologically
and physiologically all of the time. It is also interesting to note that
they have contrasting approaches. Usain Bolt, with all his comedy antics, prior to his event,
when he is on the start line. We’ve all seen this.
(Laughter) Michael Phelps,
however, a much different approach. He sits down,
he is listening to music, he has much more
cerebral, contemplative approach towards his event. But it’s both very effective. Sport psychology may play a part
in their preparation for their events, and maybe a reason
why they’re successful. What happens when things go wrong? Here’s another example. In the 2012 Olympics in London
in the soccer final, there were two finalists,
Brazil and Mexico. Brazil were the undoubted favorites. They were expected to win. They were the reigning Olympic champions. They were extremely skilled, on paper, they were the best team. Mexico had made it to the final
playing well, but they were unfancied. In the final,
Mexico went at Brazil in an incredible display
of attacking football. It was incredibly impressive to watch. And if you watched
the Brazilian players, their heads dropped. They seemed slightly defeated. They could not understand why they were not performing
quite as well as they were. Perhaps they were complacent. Perhaps they’d expected too much. Perhaps they were overconfident. The Mexicans had nothing to lose, they attacked with fervor and they won the Olympic title, they were the Olympic champions
over the fancy favorites. Perhaps sport psychology
can explain why fancied champions may be over-confident and may fail
when they’re expected to win, and perhaps why underdogs
take on the best and win
despite all the odds. Take another example. James Magnussen: a man with seemingly
unshakable self-confidence. He said he was going to win
the 100m-sprint final in the pool at the London Olympics. He was extremely confident. But in that race, he was out-touched
in the line by Nathan Adrian, by 1/100 of a second. And that was devastating for him, you could see his body language after,
he was destroyed. Perhaps he was over-confident. Perhaps though,
his obvious confidence in the events leading up
to the actual final. Perhaps his confidence belied
an undelying self low confidence. Perhaps he was not
very confident inside when he should have been
supremely confident of his abilities because he was
the world leader in the event. So perhaps psychology
may have played a part, but in particular,
it may help when overcoming such a devastating defeat
for the next event. Another very good example:
Roy McAvoy. In the 2011 Augusta masters,
he was expected to win, he was amongst the favorites certainly, and he’s an extremely talented golfer. In fact, he is the one player
that all the people on the tour, all the golfers on the tour,
the PGA tour, fear the most. And yet on the day, when he was leading,
on the final day of the event he was leading by four shots. He’d played superbly
on the previous three days. He experienced
a catastrophic drop in his performance. He shot a round of 80, and this is something
that professional golfers can do in their sleep,
certainly very easily, because they frequently shoot
rounds of 70 or below and that’s a good shot. So 80 was a catastrophic failure, and he ended up tying for fifteenth place. So you’d think that
that sort of devastating performance may have impacted on his mind. However, only eight weeks later,
he won the U.S open, and there was no sign
of the lack of confidence and the fact that the pressure
had got to him, that was displayed
when he was in Augusta. So it seemed that
he picked up the pieces. And what is it that made him do so? Sport psychology
may indeed have the answers. So, elite athletes, coaches, and the people who surround athletes, know very well the importance
of sport psychology, and they’re beginning to embrace it. Sport psychologists are often included in the teams
that surround athletes nowadays. What is sport psychology? Well, it is the science,
study and practice of mental preparation for sport. It involves identifying
the techniques and strategies that athletes can take and use, so they perform on their most optimum. It also helps athletes deal
with come back, with setbacks and help them to come back
from devastating defeats. Such as those by James Magnussen
or Roy McAvoy. So we just begin to unpack
some of these strategies that sport psychologists talk about. So looking inside of the mind of a winner, what factors are linked
to success in sport? Well, clearly an athlete
has to be motivated. Often goals that athletes set,
describe or… will demonstrate
how much effort and how much will they have to win
in their event. But sometimes motivation
is not enough. An athlete has to be confident, and confidence seems to be ubiquitous
amongst high-performing performers. There’s a number of strategies
that athletes can use to boost their confidence. Another important factor
is knowledge of the sport. So basically,
knowing your sport inside out, but also knowing the opposition. What are their strengths and weaknesses? One of the phrases coined
by Clive Woodward, who was the England coach at the time they won
the Rugby World Cup in 2003. One of the phrases he coined, was, “Total rugby, leaving no stone unturned
when it comes to performance.” He was very famous for developing
dossiers on the opposition. Knowing their strengths,
knowing their weaknesses and where he could attack them
and how he could tactically win them. And that’s clearly important
in sports these days. So, using psychology
to understand the opposition as well as yourself. Athletes are also
very good at using routines, getting themselves
in the right frame of mind. We’ll look at that
in a few moments time. Athletes are also good
at handling pressure. If you look at Usain Bolt
or Michael Phelps, they are cases in point. And anxiety management
is clearly an important aspect of an athlete’s arsenal of strategies to get them
in the right frame of mind so that they can perform at their best. So let’s look at some
of these strategies in detail. Motivation is clearly very important,
and how do you get athlete motivated? The most important things
are the goals that they set. The goals that they set
will determine how much drive, how much effort, how much will they have to perform well. But often a goal of winning
is not enough. Sometimes, oh, most times, it is important that an athlete
has a number of sub-goals which are related
to their performance. So things like personal bests, that drive them
both in training and in competition. It’s important that these goals
conform to certain features. And scientists,
psychologists and practitioners always refer to this SMART- acronym. And that’s because,
having goals that are realistic, relevant, specific,
measurable and so forth, are really important when it comes
to getting an athlete motivated. As I said earlier,
motivation is not enough. It is important
that an athlete is confident, and there are number of ways you can boost
an athlete’s self-confidence. Experience. Reminding an athlete
of their experience is extremely important. Modeling.
I don’t mean catwalk-modeling here, modeling is also an important aspect, because that enables an athlete
to have a model or blueprint if you like
of the optimum performance. Imagery and self-talk are parts of that
and we’ll get on to those in a moment. Feedback is clearly important as well. Positive feedback
from the athlete’s coaches. Imagery is a mental rehearsal and it is a strategy
that many athletes use. And here are the kinds of things
that an athlete or a coach will go through,
when they’re rehearsing their performance. It is almost like
a video of their performance. They will also use prompts, but they also visualize
any contingency that arise. For example, any barriers
or problems or difficulties that arise during the course
of their competition. Here’s an example
of these kinds of strategies in action. This is Blanka Vlašić: she was a former world champion,
high jumper, and YWF athlete of the year. And she was very famous for going through
the same performance routine prior to a competition. She would close her eyes,
visualize a successful jump. She would clap her hands rhythmically, and use the audience
to get the audience on board and that would both boost her motivation
and her confidence, and then she would practice some moves
shortly before executing her jump. Self-talk is another strategy
that athletes use. It’s an extremely important strategy because it enables athletes
to go through in their mind and use mantras
to try to boost their motivation, but also to try to manage
the competition and the situation. For example, the situation where the pressure
is on and they are highly anxious. So, self-talk might have
motivational components, but it also might help athletes
focus on important things that are relevant to performance, so-called cues,
and also might have a calming effect. Things like breathe and relax. Anxiety management is an important aspect
of sport performance. Clearly at the Olympic Game the World Championships
at the highest level, athletes are going to be under pressure and they need to be able
to cope with that pressure. Sometimes being too anxious can actually undermine
an athlete performance. It can be sub-optimal. So relaxation techniques
are extremely important in this regard, and psychologists will work with athletes
to try and help them to relax. So it might involve
things like breathing, stretching,
relaxing the muscles, they’ll also use things
like music and meditation. Michael Phelps is a good example, he listens to music right up
to the few minutes before is an event, and that music will get him
to the right frame of mind for that event. It will help him to relax
but it will also motivate him. Here’s a good example
of somebody using those techniques to the greatest extent. This is Yelena Isinbayeva: double Olympic champion
at the pole vault, and also the world record holder. This is her in the 2012 Olympics,
she’s clearly very relaxed, she lies back,
she covers herself in a close, this has the effect
of shutting out any distractions but also it has the effect of relaxing her
and relieving the pressure. So in term of the mind of a winner
from a sport psychology perspective, an athlete has to be motivated,
confident in their abilities, manage pressure extremely well, and use these well
trained-drilled techniques like imagery,
self-talk and relaxation. Thank you. (Applause)

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