The world has been amazed and entertained by the brilliance of all sportspeople who recently competed in the recent Rio Olympic Games. Another thought may have sprung to our minds: how do these people keep their cool under such stressful circumstances? How can they maintain their balance on a narrow bar, their endurance on a long race, or their precision as they jump, throw, dive, row or kick? Practice, raw skill and perseverance over many, many hours are parts of this. But mental preparation can be just as important.
Over recent years, one of the most valuable additions to an athlete’s support staff is a sports psychologist. It is often said that medals are gained or missed before the sportsperson even leaves the dressing room. We can all appreciate that if a person is lacking in confidence, then performance will be negatively affected. We have perhaps experienced that phenomenon in all sorts of our own personal aims, and not necessarily relating to sport. But there is more to the psychological approach than merely confidence and positive self belief.
There are many ways that a psychologist can work with an aspiring competitor to draw out and maintain a great performance when it matters.
We may use visualisation to set appropriate goals, to motivate ourselves, to mentally rehearse workouts, or to manage pain during a race. It has been said that if you want to be a champion, you will have to win every race in your mind 100 times before you win it in real life. Visualisation in the mind’s eye is a powerful phenomenon. It can enable an athlete to gain greater control over body, mind, and emotions, and integrate them in order to maximise the performance of workouts and life itself. By changing the mindset, we can transform the other elements of sports training, and other competitive aspects of life.
Visualisation may have an impact on sports performance because images are a great way to code or represent mental instructions for movement. For example, forming an image of an effective swimming stroke provides a simpler, more complete description of the motion than is possible with words.
Additionally, when we imagine ourselves performing an action, we are unconsciously transmitting electrical impulses to the muscles involved in making the action. During imagery, these impulses have the same pattern as the impulses generated when the athlete is actually running. We cannot simply visualise being a world sports champion, but these internal impulses may be strengthening the neural pathways involved when these movements are executed.
So although athlete stands alone on the podium to collect that all-important Olympic medal it takes a team to get that athlete there. These include coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, family, friends, and many more who help along the winding road to success.
A sports psychologist is increasing valued as an essential team member. The Academy of Distance Learning provides a range of courses associated with Psychology; these include a diploma in Sports Psychology. Perhaps this could be the start of a new career or hobby for you?