When you can manage your emotions, you can perform at your best
George Karseras explains how managing your anxiety in a competitive situation will improve your confidence to perform well.
At the top level, it is not your physical or technical expertise, which separates you from the competition but your mental toughness. To be outstanding, you have to hold your nerve, perform under the most intense pressure, and consistently turn it on even when you do not feel at your best. Mental toughness is what made Michael Jordan and Pete Sampras so special. These athletes knew their real battle was not so much on the court but inside their heads. You must manage your mental side if you want to be the best.
Given that mental strength is so vital, then why is it so neglected in training routines? If you are one of those athletes who spend all your training time on technique and fitness while paying no attention to your mental side, you are doing yourself a serious disservice. We know from countless studies that mental skills are acquirable, and you can, with practice, learn to perform mentally. You can improve your confidence, concentration, motivation, and anxiety levels if you chose to.
Four important principles
Feelings affect your performance. Whether you are aware of them or not, how you feel affects how you perform. Feelings are based on what you imagine or interpret from an event and not from the event itself. Two players appearing in the Wimbledon final for the first time will imagine different things about the match. One might imagine she would be unable to play well in such a big final. This player is likely to feel nervous and uncertain, and her performance will be poor.
The other might imagine it as the experience of a lifetime for her to go out and enjoy. She might feel liberated and relaxed, and her play is likely to reflect these emotions. The same event evokes two different responses, which result in two very different performances. The message here is straightforward, learn how to change your interpretations, and you learn how to manage your emotions. When you can manage your feelings, you can perform at your best.
The mind and the body are inextricably linked; how you feel physically affects how you feel emotionally. This means that we can improve our mental performance using physical interventions (relaxation exercises) and vice versa. You operate within a system, and your performance is just a symptom or outcome of how your system operates. The parts of your system are all interrelated. A cricket player's self-confidence may be affected by his technique, which may be affected by his fitness, which may be affected by his lifestyle, which may be affected by his time management.
It is always more potent to look to remedy the underlying causes of a problem than the symptom itself. If Alan Shearer is not scoring goals, the problem might lie not with him but with the midfield who are not creating chances for him. You can divide mental skills training into two approaches, individual work, and group work. A standard programme for both may last for a minimum of six weeks with sessions of 60 to 90 minutes.
In the first phase, the objectives are to gain as much of an understanding as possible of your situation. We need to know your goals, skills, experience, resources, background, any factors, which are constraining you, and any factors, which are supporting you. The aim is to increase your self-awareness during this process so that wherever possible, you find the solutions and suggest changes yourself. The second phase is the strategy or intervention stage. Here the objective is to formulate a strategy to reduce your constraints and increase your resources. Without buying into a programme, you would be far less likely to stick to it.
The interventions would fall into two types, associative and analytic. Associative interventions, such as visualisations and relaxation exercises, use the right-hand side of the brain. Analytic interventions, such as goal setting and self-talk exercises, use the left-hand side of the brain. Particular attention is paid to associative exercises because more right brain activity has been recorded in athletes during peak performances. The final phase is to support you as you progress through your programme.
We start a team workshop with a "warm-up". We ask the team members to arrange themselves so that their "place" suits the purpose of our meeting. Usually, we ask the team to sit in a circle of chairs so that the whole team can see each other, rather than focusing on the coach or us. Before discussing the purpose and agenda, team members would pay attention to themselves, then another person in the team, and then the team would perform some team activity. At the end of the warm-up, the team has turned into its team identity (what it is and what it can be) and is ready to achieve its potential. Our approach to team building is based on our early work with Tottenham Football Club during the early '80s. We focus on the relationships, which exist within the team system. A football team of 11 players has 55 different relationships. Anyone of these relationships can affect someone else's performance.
Our work increases team members' understanding of what they need from each other to perform at their best. We aim to improve team member's self-awareness, their awareness of others, their awareness of how other members are different from them, and their appreciation of these differences. Only when they have gone through these phases can they see their team colleagues as they are and not as they imagine them to be. Communication and change then become easier. We also teach team members communication skills, which enhance trust and respect. These are typically speaking, listening, questioning, and feedback skills. The latter is probably the most important. We teach descriptive rather than evaluative feedback.
This means that instead of saying something like, "you are a selfish player, you never pass the ball to me", we would ask Garth Crooks to say to Steve Archibald "during the last game I was in a scoring situation three times, and each time you failed to pass to me. I get frustrated when that happens". We encourage the latter way of talking because descriptions provide more information than opinions. Also, Steve Archibald could not have argued that he did not pass the ball three times, but he could have argued that he was not a selfish player. Nor could he argue with the impact of frustration he had on his team-mate. Both events happened. After receiving this type of feedback, Steve was more likely to change his behaviour. Whether you compete as an individual or as part of a team, your performance can be improved by practicing your mental skills. If you do not work on your mental side, it is about time you started.
Billy was a junior county rugby player who had tried several times to get into the England team without success. He came to see me with six weeks to go before a trial for the Under 18 team.
1 - Understanding the system
Billy's goals were to perform well in the trial, to get into the team, and to have a bearable life leading up to the trial. He complained of being so nervous during the weeks and days before a trial that he would stop eating and sleeping and become incredibly anxious. Billy was a talented and consistent performer outside the trial situation. Everyone expected him to get into the trial on this occasion, and this was making him feel even more nervous. Billy's main concern was scoring high enough on the fitness test.
As a 14-year-old he had been labelled as lazy and unfit by a school coach and had dreaded fitness tests ever since. Billy also tended to think a lot about what other people said about him and during trials would let his colleagues' performances, especially if they were good, affect his. Billy needed to improve his self-confidence and reduce his pre-trial anxiety to perform at his best.
2 - Strategy
Billy's main constraints were:
Supporting him was his commitment, his technical and physical skills, his experience of being in the trial situations, and the supportive resources he had around him (parents, club, and peers). Working together, we minimised his constraints. By conducting a self-assessment of the most important criteria required for trial success (physical, technical and mental), we developed a training strategy that realigned his training time more appropriately. This also served to put his fitness test into perspective, as it was only one of 17 criteria he had to satisfy. By increasing his fitness preparation, Billy was able to improve his self-confidence.
By visually re-editing past fitness failures with pictures of him performing well in the test, Billy was also able to increase his fitness confidence. By mentally rehearsing the whole trial performance, Billy was able to increase his general levels of confidence. Together we conducted the gestalt therapy technique of the 'empty chair', which involved having a conversation with himself. As a result, Billy increased his self-awareness, becoming more conscious of his internal dialogue. Practicing giving descriptive feedback in the moment (saying only how he was feeling or what he could see or hear), allowed him to move from imagining the future (which usually made him feel anxious) to paying attention to the present and with it what he needed to do at the moment (thereby increasing his effectiveness). Billy also recorded insights and learning experiences in a journal, which further increased his self-awareness.
Billy began to maximise his resources by choosing to spend his time only with people who were supportive of him, and by channelling his drive and energy into our mental skill programme.
3 - Support
Billy saw me six times and worked extremely hard in between our sessions. I encouraged him to persevere with the programme as well as challenging him whenever appropriate. For example, when he said things like "everyone else is so relaxed and confident" I would say, "you imagine they are confident, but what exactly do you see or hear which suggests that they are?" Billy soon began to recognise the difference between reality and his interpretation of reality. With this followed a different emotional response and with it a different, more supportive behavioural response.
Billy's ratings in seven out of his 17 criteria improved, with none decreasing. He reported feeling less anxious about his trial and more confident in his ability to perform well. At the trial itself, he did exactly that. He even put himself forward to demonstrate a few skills, which is something he has never done before. Ultimately Billy was successful in getting through to a core England team for the first time.
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