After a challenging year which we have seen various lockdowns, restrictions, all for very good reasons, race season is starting to happen. A lot of us haven't raced in quite some time and the increased stress of competitions can cause athletes to react both physically and mentally in a manner that can negatively affect their performance abilities. These reactions could potentially be even more limiting because we haven't consistently raced.
You may become tense, your heart rate races, break into a cold sweat, worry about the outcome of the competition and find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand.
This has led coaches to take an increasing interest in the field of sports psychology and in particular in the area of competitive anxiety. That interest has focused on techniques that athletes can use in the competitive situation to maintain control and optimise their performance.
Once learned, these techniques allow you the athlete to relax and to focus your attention in a positive manner on the task of preparing for and participating in the competition. Psychology is another weapon in the your armoury in gaining the winning edge.
So here's my guide to helping you prepare for your next race:
Concentration, confidence, control and commitment (the 4C's) are generally considered the main mental qualities that are important for successful performance in most sports.
Concentration - Ability to maintain focus
Confidence - Believe in one's abilities
Control - The ability to maintain emotional control regardless of distraction
Commitment - Ability to continue working to agreed goals
The techniques of relaxation, centering and mental imagery can assist an athlete to achieve the 4C's.
This is the mental quality to focus on the task at hand. If the athlete lacks concentration, then their athletic abilities will not be effectively or efficiently applied to the task. Research has identified the following types of attention focus:
Broad Narrow continuum - the athlete focuses on a large or small number of stimuli
Internal External continuum - the athlete focuses on internal stimuli (feelings) or external stimuli (ball)
The demand for concentration varies with the sport:
Sustained concentration – Triathlon
Short bursts of concentration – Sighting in Swimming or descending at Speed/Cornering
Intense concentration - Transition
Common distractions are anxiety, mistakes, fatigue, weather, public announcements, coach, manager, opponent, negative thoughts etc.
Strategies to improve concentration are very personal. One way to maintain focus is to set process goals for each session or competition. The athlete will have an overall goal for which the athlete will identify a number of process goals that help focus on specific aspects of the task.
For each of these goals, the you can use a trigger word (a word which instantly refocuses the athlete's concentration to the goal) e.g. running technique requires the athlete to focus on being tall, relaxed, smooth and to drive with the elbows - trigger word could be "technique"
Athletes will develop a routine for competition that may include the night before, the morning, pre-competition, competition and post-competition routines. If these routines are appropriately structured, then they can prove a useful aid to concentration.
Confidence results from the comparison an athlete makes between the goal and their ability. The athlete will have self-confidence if they believe they can achieve their goal.
When an athlete has self-confidence they will tend to: persevere even when things are not going to plan, show enthusiasm, be positive in their approach and take their share of the responsibility in success and fail.
To improve their self-confidence, an athlete can use mental imagery to: Visualise previous good performance to remind you of the look and feel and imagine various scenarios and how you will cope with them
Good goal setting (challenging yet realistic) can bring feelings of success. If you can see that you are achieving your short-term goals and moving towards their long-term goals, then confidence grows.
Confidence is a positive state of mind and a belief that you can meet the challenge ahead - a feeling of being in control. It is not the situation that directly affects confidence; thoughts, assumptions and expectations can build or destroy confidence.
High self-confidence traits look like:
Thoughts - positive thoughts of success
Feelings - excited, anticipation, calm, elation, prepared
Focus - on self, on the task
Behaviour - give maximum effort and commitment, willing to take chances, positive reaction to setbacks, open to learning, take responsibility for outcomes
Low self-confidence demonstrates:
Thoughts - negative, defeat or failure, doubt
Feelings - tense, dread, fear. not wanting to take part
Focus - on others, on less relevant factors (coach, umpire, conditions)
Behaviour - lack of effort, likely to give up, unwilling to take risks (rather play safe), blame others or conditions for an outcome
Focus on what you need to do and not what others are or are not. This is more true than ever especially in the age of social media, I can tell you right now that a very large percentage of what gets posted out there does not reflect the reality of the current situation.
Identifying when you feel a particular emotion and understanding the reason for the feelings is an important stage of helping you gain emotional control. An athlete's ability to maintain control of their emotions in the face of adversity and remain positive is essential to successful performance. Two emotions that are often associated with poor performance are anxiety and anger.
Anxiety comes in two forms - Physical (butterflies, sweating, nausea, needing the toilet) and Mental (worry, negative thoughts, confusion, lack of concentration). Relaxation is a technique that can be used to reduce anxiety.
When an athlete becomes angry, the cause of the anger often becomes the focus of attention. This then leads to a lack of concentration on the task, performance deteriorates and confidence in ability is lost which fuels the anger - a slippery slope to failure.
Remember to breathe, it will help you gain some control back and give your mind time to refocus on what's important.
Sports performance depends on you being fully committed to numerous goals over many years. In competition with these goals, you will have many aspects of daily life to manage. The many competing interests and commitments include work, studies, family/partner, friends, social life and other hobbies/sports
Successful emotional states
The following are emotional states experienced with successful performance:
Happy - felt that this was my opportunity to demonstrate an excellent performance. Felt I could beat anybody.
Calm and nervous - Felt nervous but really at ease with these feelings. I accepted and expected to be nervous but felt ready to start.
Anxious but excited - Felt so ready to compete but a little nervous. Nerves and excitement come together
Confident - I remembered all the successful training sessions and previous best performances
If you practice the above principles you may just have your best performance this year...
Sisu Racing Triathlon Coach