Saturday, October 23, 2010

Psychological Preparation and Performance

Psychological preparation is a critical component of performance for any serious athlete. This is also referred to as mental preparation.

I first learned about this concept when I was attending a basketball camp as a teenager. The camp was put on by Jim Spencer who was the most successful high school basketball coach in the state at the time. He continually stated that "mental is to physical as 3 is to 1" as he stressed the importance of being mentally prepared. I have never forgotten this, and over the years I have seen many real life examples of this concept.

The many Cinderella stories in sports are examples of this concept. There have been many David vs. Goliath examples where a more experienced and physically superior opponent is defeated by an underdog. Buster Douglas knocking out the then invincible Mike Tyson, the 1980 US hockey team upsetting the Soviet team for the gold medal, and Villanova knocking off the heavily favored Georgetown team in 1985 for the national championship come to mind. One reason March Madness is such an exciting event is due to these types of upsets.

There are many factors that go into these upsets, but one of the biggest ones is psychological preparation and the state of mind an athlete is in during an event. I remember seeing footage in the news when Hank Gathers died. A friend of his was notified while he was playing in a basketball a game. Once he heard the news, he sat on the bench, covered his head in a towel, and started crying. He was devastated and was no longer in any condition to compete, although just minutes before, he was performing very well. The only thing that had changed was his state of mind.

Psychological preparation is crucial to overcome fear, nervousness, and intimidation. This is evidenced in games when an opposing coach will try to ice a kicker or a free-throw shooter to put more pressure on them. The physical feat does not change any, but extreme pressure can make it a completely different scenario if one is not mentally prepared. When athletes are unable to perform in such a clutch setting, then they are said to have "choked", but when they are able to block out distractions and complete a task while under pressure, they are lauded for being mentally tough.

When an athlete is in a positive state of mind, has a great deal of confidence, and is performing at a top level, they are referred to as being "in the zone". On several occasions, I remember Michael Jordan being interviewed after some amazing shooting performances. He said the hoop just seemed like it was twice as big as usual. The circumference of the rim had obviously not changed but his perception and mind set had.

How do you mentally prepare for an event?

1)  Familiarity- Familiarize yourself with the surroundings where you will compete. When a team goes to a bowl game they usually arrive several days early as opposed to the day of the event. This gives them time to mentally prepare. Many high school varsity players are required to watch the JV game prior to theirs, so they will be thinking about and focusing on their sport prior to the event. Familiarity to the environment where one will be performing is important. That is one of the benefits of a home court advantage.

2) Visualization- Many professional athletes use the practice of visualization to prepare for an event. It is a common practice for them to see themselves performing successfully in their mind before they compete. You see this with golfers before they putt and players at the free-throw line as they mimic a shot. A marital artist will do several dry runs as he visualizes breaking a board or bricks before the actual attempt. They are creating their results mentally before they attempt to do so physically.

3) Practice- Psychological preparation improves when one has been properly conditioned to compete and if they have a sound understanding of their sport and confidence in their teammates. This confidence is only accomplished with repetition and practice.

4) Coaching-  Scouting efforts by a coach help a player to know how to prepare and give him the confidence that he will be ready for his opponent. One reason coaching is so important is because it eliminates fear of the unexpected.

While genetics, conditioning, experience, and motivation all play a role in determining how an athlete will perform, one's psychological state of being can be just as important in determining success or failure. If you are an elite athlete dealing with intense competition or just a casual runner wanting to set a new 5K personal best, mental preparation can help you reach your goals.


Julie @ HotlegsRunner said...

great post! exactly what I needed to read today when self-doubt is slowly creeping in. =)

Raymond said...

For sure it should be in everything we do .. I don't do any serious sports but I know when it comes to something like simple dead lifting say if my mind has taken part my body wont either and the lifts go pear shape

Dave said...

This is a very underrated tool. If I recall, a study was done where experienced lifters were told to spend their rest time focusing and visualizing on their next set. They were able to lift significantly more than when they spent time distracted.


great article. there is also a book that war written on the same subject called "Peak Performance" Are you familiar with it?