The Commonwealth Games are approaching fast. Soon a few handfuls of Solomon Islands athletes will make their way towards the UK for final preparations and acclimatization. Another major event virtually around the corner are the second Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing in August. For talented youngsters this may be the first international platform to get a taste for bigger things. But as you may know, with such international events comes enormous pressure to perform. Which brings us neatly to this month's subject.
When we think of training in sports, we firstly think of getting our bodies fit and strong, up to the task at hand. However, what sometimes lacks is the preparation of the mind. A strong body with a weak and untrained mind will sooner or later, and surely at international level, cause your performance to break down. We need mental fitness in sports!
So why is it important to train your mind as an athlete? Simply put, competition causes nerves (stress or anxiety) and nerves can cause bad performances. Being nervous can have effects on your body and on your emotions. Hence for an athlete to maintain their performance, he or she must learn to control this anxiety. It is important to realize that stress or anxiety are perfectly normal! Even the elite experience stress in competition. We can all remember situations in which the million dollar soccer player put the crucial penalty over the cross bar, the tennis star hit a double fault, the golf player missed the easy put. Skills that they have performed maybe a hundred thousand times suddenly become impossible because their mind in that one instant has let them down.
So what mental qualities do people and athletes with a strong mind display? These qualities are referred to as the four Cs:
Concentration: they are able to focus
Confidence: they know what they are capable of
Control: they can handle emotions and can recognize stress
Commitment: they are willing to do what is required to be successful
Through mental training the athlete learns to recognize the signs of stress and use techniques to control it. What are the signs to look for?
Mental signs include:
- Indecision and doubt
- Negative thoughts
- Poor concentration
- Loss of confidence
- Feeling weak
Physical signs include:
- Increased blood pressure and pounding heart
- Fast breathing
- Butterflies in the stomach and having to use the bathroom
- Dry mouth
- Tense muscles
- Nervous talking and pacing
- Blurry vision and shaky voice
- Nausea and vomiting
Now that we know what to look out for, how do we cope with anxiety? There are four main techniques namely 1. physical relaxation, 2. mental imagery, 3. self confidence building through self talk, and 4. using a trigger routine.
Relaxation techniques are designed around muscular relaxation exercises in which you deliberately tense and then relax certain parts of your body. They are often coupled with controlled breathing exercises, for example breathing in and out to a certain count. Often athletes use a focus word which they repeat to themselves during these exercises. This word could be as simple as saying 'relax' or 'calm' each time you breathe out.
Imagery is done once you are in a relaxed state, i.e. after the above relaxation techniques. Athletes imagine seeing themselves doing their performances perfectly. It is important that imagery includes all senses: imagine seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, tasting and smelling everything that you would in real competition! Imagery techniques are used before, during and after training and competition. Imagery will allow you to see success! It will motivate as you bring images of past success back into the front of your mind. It allows you to perfect skills and key elements of the game such as set plays. You can familiarize yourself in your mind with the competition site and even the opponent. It is a strong technique to learn to focus and refocus if something went wrong. It allows you to develop confidence and competition strategies.
They say talking to yourself is the first sign of madness. Well if that is the case then all elite athletes are completely nuts! They use self talk all the time. Repeatedly giving yourself positive feedback and a pat on the back, keeps you going. 'C'mon man you can do this, you have done it a hundred times... Go for it!' What do you think goes through the kicker's mind in a rugby game as he tries to get the crucial kick in? Don't you think he says words along these lines to himself before he runs up?
The last technique is the use of a trigger routine, an 'on' switch if you like. It is used to stop you worrying about anything too soon and wasting energy. You use the routine to switch on in the last half a minute before you need to jump into action. Your routine should contain a physical, an emotional and a focus cue. The best way to explain this would be to share the trigger routine I used when I still competed in karate with you. I used to get very nervous and often my nerves got the better of me. But I was able to control my nerves when I started doing this:
I imagined putting all my feelings about the competition and the fight in a small box which I locked, only to be opened at the right time. When my weight category was called, often many hours after the competition started, I would take my training shoes off, walk to the mat and let my bare feet feel the mat (physical cue) whilst saying to myself very decisively 'OPEN THE BOX!' (emotional cue). I would then take a few bounces on the mat and visualize myself doing my favorite combination perfectly and with lightning speed (focus cue).
So there you have it, albeit in a nutshell. A brief introduction to mental training. If you are serious about training, you should include some routines based on the above techniques in your daily practice!
Next month, following on from mental preparation, we will look at a further confidence building tool: goal setting! Until next month, happy training!
Yours in sports, Andy.
About the author: Andy holds a PhD in Sports Biomechanics and Motor Control from Loughborough University in England, which is generally regarded as the home of Commonwealth Sports Science. In his competition days, he won the 2000 Copenhagen Karate World Open. He has authored a book on martial arts injury prevention and management as well as various scientific articles. He has resided in Honiara since 2005 and is the national coach for karate.