Mind-Body connection in sports performance; How do top athletes win world titles, and what can we learn from them?
Imagine this; you’re playing tennis and about to serve...it’s match point and you’re on the verge of winning your first grand slam tournament. The thousands of spectators in the stadium hold their breath and you can’t afford to think about the millions watching at home and in bars.
You’ve never beaten your opponent before and you remember that in your last match together you dropped a two set lead with a break in the third. As you look over the net you see a player who seems totally focused and confident that history will repeat itself. Then suddenly out of nowhere a thought enters your mind, ‘make sure you get a good solid first serve, don’t try to play it safe...keep playing the way you have so far’. You know it’s not a helpful thought which makes it even worse and you start to doubt yourself. You serve, with lots of power but the ball clips the top of the net and bounces close to the line...you hear the line judge call... OUT!
Suddenly you begin to feel the energy start to drain from your body. In an effort to ensure you don’t double fault, your second serve lands in but it’s way too soft and it’s returned ferociously...you lose the point. From here on in, all sorts of negative thoughts start to enter your mind and no matter what you do to shake yourself out of it, the outcome seems inevitable. Your legs feel like they’ve turned to lead and no matter how focused you try to be with your shots you just can’t find that sweet spot. Your shots either go too long or they’re too easy for your opponent...you find yourself staring at inevitable defeat once again, and to the same opponent. You’re left with a sinking feeling and wondering if you’ll ever get another chance...
For a long time now many sports professionals have been employing the services of sports psychologists and hypnotherapists. From top tennis players, to swimmers, to snooker players, to the British cycling team, all are finally realising that mental strength and belief is the key to winning at the highest level.
There was a time when the common belief was that hard work during training and determination in competitions alone would win titles. ‘Train harder than your opponents and you’re sure to win’. There is a lot of truth to this of course, but it’s not the full story. At the highest level of all sports the difference between winning and losing is measured in fractions of a second and millimetres, so it makes sense to use every advantage possible.
However, the impact of our state of mind goes way beyond creating narrow margins of success. Just think of the many occasions where two competitors are not well matched and yet David beats Goliath. If ability and current form alone were the only determining factors then this shouldn't really happen, should it? Yet there are of course endless examples of the underdog overcoming all odds to beat the favourite. You only need to look at the archives of the FA Cup...which for me instantly brings back a painful memory of watching Liverpool lose to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final.
So what can explain this?
In my previous two blogs I’ve already talked about how our mental state causes physical changes in our body to occur. Clearly similar changes occur in our state during sports performances, and these changes can be opposite extremes depending on what those thoughts and states of mind are. Without going into too much detail about the physical changes, I just want to point out the difference of how it feels.
Those of you who remember taking part in sports and those of you who are keen competitors will probably already know what I’m talking about. I’ve already touched on the negative state in the scenario above... situations where our nerves get the better of us and the simplest task becomes impossible to perform naturally.
The opposite state to this is what is most commonly known as ‘being in the zone’ or ‘Flow’. In this state we feel a sense of heightened awareness and we become totally engrossed in what we’re doing, a kind of relaxed alertness. People who have experienced being in the zone speak of not thinking consciously, as if something has taken over their body, and everything they do is effortless and perfect. If they are playing a shot in tennis for example they know the instant their racket makes contact with the ball that it’s a winner.
Whether you’re playing for a world title or just for fun, it’s possible to experience this state and once you have and realised what you’re capable of the natural instinct is to want to achieve it again and again.
So what are the factors at work here?
There are several ways in which our thoughts and feelings affect our performance through the physical changes that occur in our body. For starters anxiety results in our brain functions not performing at their best, and tension inhibits the fluid movement of your body by tensing minute muscles when you need them to stay relaxed.
However there is one other factor that is often overlooked and I believe it has the greatest impact on how well you perform at any one time. It’s known as the ideomotor effect; it is the influence or suggestion or expectation on involuntary and unconscious fine motor movements (the control you have over minute muscle movements).
When you analyse something like a golf stroke or a tennis stroke you quickly realise that the huge number of muscle movements involved and the timing of tensing and relaxing each individual muscle is far too complicated to carry out consciously, so we rely on our subconscious to do it all for us. And as our subconscious communicates with our conscious awareness through emotions and inclinations, it’s no surprise that when we’re playing well we feel good and when we’re not, we don’t.
In fact I believe that our fine motor movements are so powerful that it can operate within the finest of margins. It can mean the difference between making a winning putt or not or an in-form striker’s shot hitting the post and going in or hitting the post and coming back out. Many people may put such occurrences down to luck, but I believe that it’s more than that. Our subconscious minds are more powerful than we often give it credit and even something like a slip or trip at a critical moment may not be chance but a matter of belief...a Freudian slip if you like (excuse the pun).
Yips and Dartitis
In sports like golf when a player loses belief it can lead something known as the Yips, the loss of fine motor skills with no apparent explanation. Athletes affected by the Yips demonstrate a sudden, unexplained loss of previous skills. They sometimes recover their ability over time, sometimes compensate by changing technique, or they may even be forced to abandon their sport at the highest level. In Darts there is a similar story with something known as Dartitis, where a player can struggle with their technique, especially the release of their darts which again is caused by an apparent psychological issue (Eric Bristow is probably the most famous of the darts players to have suffered with Dartitis. Click here for a ‘must watch’ interview).
Somehow at the subconscious level when a player of any sport has inner turmoil and doubt it results in a break-up of their game. It’s usually put down to being in a slump and the more they beat themselves up about it the worse it gets and the longer it lasts. When this happens more practice is not necessarily the answer as improvements during practice don’t seem to transfer on to the playing field. The only solution becomes to address the psychological issues that may be causing the loss of confidence and belief.
Ultimately, if you want to perform better at any sport or whether you happen to be trying deal with a loss of self belief, making time to see a hypnotherapist or sports psychologist may bring about huge gains in your game (see page on Sports Performance). Sometimes it can be issues outside the boundaries of the game which can affect your performance and a therapist may help to identify what that is and go on to help overcome it.
There are also many techniques that can be taught that will help everyone perform better and hence enjoy a sport by increasing the chance of achieving Flow. I plan to look at some of these techniques in later blogs.