Winning the breakdown in our mind
There are increasing demands being placed on professional athletes all the time. Players are continually looking for ways to improve on their performances. These pressures have filtered into school’s sport. There are many educationalists who believe that this is totally unnecessary, but some young sportsmen want the opportunity to play sport professionally. Performance in sport is often attributed to 70-80% mental strength and the remainder as physical. Cognitive distortions in our mind can impact negatively on our performance. I have been compelled to write this post to attempt to share some useful ideas on how to help all of us win the breakdown in our minds. If we can change the way we think it can help us fulfil our potential.
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”Vincent Van Gogh
Negative vs. positive thoughts
I learnt a wonderful way of putting things into perspective for a player when he makes a mistake during a match from Paul Feeney (Stormers Attack and Skills coach). While working with our players he asked them to tell him how many mistakes they thought a top international player like Dan Carter will make during a match. They said up to 3 to 4 times. He then asked them for the amount of mistakes that they would make. How could they make fewer mistakes than him? His final message was: if you have made a mistake it means that you have one less mistake that you will make in that match; so just get on with it. If only we could get our players to understand this it will prevent them from having any self-defeating thoughts.
When a rugby player thinks negative thoughts and experiences negative emotions he will secrete more inhibiting chemicals like cortisol, which will inhibit and slow down electrical transmissions between cells according to Vermeulen (2005). This will have a direct impact on the rugby players’ performance resulting in him making mistakes or wrong tactical decisions. These inhibitors also weaken the immune system, drain energy levels, thus leading to ill health and bad physical performance.
It is suggested further that if a player thinks positive thoughts and experiences constructive emotions he will secrete facilitating chemicals like serotonin and endorphins that will transmit electrical messages between cells, strengthening their immune system, enhancing mental activity and increasing their performance.
The superego which is often referred to as the “inner voice” prevents you from getting into the “zone” because it works on you by making you doubt anything and everything and in turn reducing your self-worth according to Rana (2007). As described by Burns (1989) these feelings are distorted thoughts which must be unrealistic for them to be creating these unhealthy negative emotions of anxiety. However, Burns goes on to state that these negative thoughts and feelings of anxiety may not always be unrealistic. Burns does state that if one is able to think about these thoughts in a realistic manner you can change the way you are feeling. All rugby players should be equipped with mental re-patterning skills to ensure that they replace negative mindsets with positive ones according to Vermeulen (2005). Emery (1981) suggests that these negative thoughts are generally wrong and don’t reflect reality. There are numerous steps that one can take in order to change the way one is feeling. Emery lists the following three steps:
Step 1 – Awareness: is to become aware of your self-defeating thoughts.
Step 2 – Answering: answer these thoughts with more realistic ones.
Step 3 – Action: act on the new thoughts.
I have personally used these steps in an area in my own life. I can certainly vouch for them because they have helped me deal with an issue that I had difficulty with. I found the lesson of writing down what my feelings were useful. This allows you to read through them and to make a realistic and more rational decision.
Techniques for performance
In the book Legacy by James Kerr he refers to a “cool head” and a “hot head”. Reference is made of the techniques that are used by some of the All Black players to ensure that they keep a “cool head”.
Examples of these individual techniques are as follows:
- Richie McCaw – breathes, holds his wrist, and stamps his feet
- Brad Thorne – throws water over himself to cool his thoughts
- Kieran Read – stares into the distant edge of the stadium to regain perspective
There are many useful techniques that can assist in the performance of an athlete. Tim Goodenough suggests some of the following techniques in his book Raising Talent. I am sharing them with you because I believe that they can help your players achieve success. They are also easy and practical to implement.
“Champions never complain, they are too busy getting better.”John Wooden
Circular breathing: Breathe in through the nose on a count of three and expand your body. Hold for three and exhale through your mouth for another count of three. We have implemented this technique successfully during our halftime team talks. I have found that it relaxes everyone and allows us to have a constructive team talk.
Eyes wide: Fight/flight mode narrows our vision e.g. tunnel vision. You need to widen your vision. This technique involves holding your arms out wide like you about to give someone a big hug. While doing this you try and see if you can see both of your arms out the corner of your eyes. Read’s example of staring into the distant edge of the stadium would be a similar example of widening your vision to prevent tunnel vision from effecting ones performance.
Relaxed tongue: Your inner voice causes your tongue to get tense. Focus on relaxing your tongue flat across your mouth. Notice how this quietens the mind. This will then get rid of those negative thoughts that one experiences.
All of these examples illustrate how different each player is. It is important to encourage our own players to explore what techniques are best suited for them. This is often an area of the game that gets neglected. I have found Goodenough’s book Raising Talent very useful if you are looking for practical ways of developing your player’s mental strength. I can highly recommend it.
“Sometimes, things may not go your way, but the effort should be there every single night.”Michael Jordan
Changing our mindset
There is no doubt that from the information I have researched hard work beats talent. Having the correct mindset is more important than talent. Dweck (2012) suggests that in a growth mindset there is no concept of failure. Just imagine coaching a team that believes in the growth mindset.
Dweck illustrates her points by using examples of athletes who have gone on to make the most amazing achievements in their respective sporting codes. Mohamed Ali was not a natural boxer. He did not have the perfect physique to be successful, but he was. “Ali’s brilliance was his mind.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 84) Michael Jordan wasn’t a natural either. “He was the hardest-working athlete, perhaps in the history of the sport.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 85) Wilma Rudolph was referred to as the fastest women on earth after her achievements at the Rome Olympics in 1960. “At four years of age, she nearly died of a long struggle with double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio, emerging with a mostly paralyzed left leg.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 87) Once again it was hard work and not talent that got her to achieve what she did. She is quoted as saying, “I just want to be remembered as a hardworking lady.”
“The naturals, carried away with their superiority, don’t learn how to work hard or how to cope with setbacks.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 91) A growth mindset creates character. “Character – it’s the ability to dig down and find strength even when things are going against you.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 92) In contrast to the growth mindset, a player with a fixed mindset won’t admit their faults or be able to learn from them according to Dweck (2012).
There is no denying the fact that for someone really to make it in their field it comes with plenty of hard work. “They were people who worked hard, who learned how to keep their focus under pressure, and who stretched beyond their ordinary abilities when they had to.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 97)
Someone with a fixed mindset doesn’t want to be pushed beyond their perceived limitations because of their fear of failure. They are not comfortable to be in this area of potential growth. A growth mindset, on the other hand, doesn’t see entering into this territory as a possible failure but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 21) If we can teach our players to see things in this way it will allow them to really achieve their full potential.
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”Michelangelo
We all need to get out of the habit of jumping to conclusions too quickly before thinking things through properly. This issue has hopefully taught us to look at things rationally and to not always look at things that are not there. I think that it is important to encourage people who are struggling with cognitive distortions to follow the processes that have been suggested because they are hugely beneficial. If we can master this it will make a massive difference to achieving any of our goals. Our goal as coaches should be to develop people’s potential and to use all the lessons of the growth mindset to do this. I trust that this article will encourage us to look for ways of improving the mental side of our players’ performance.
Burns, D. D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York: Plume.
Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset. London: Little, Brown Book Group.
Emery, G. (1981). A new beginning. New York: Simon & Schutter.
Goodenough, T. (2012). Raising Talent. Penguin Books.
Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy. London: Little, Brown Book Group.
Rana, S. (2007). HOW TO GET INTO THE ZONE. www.ezinearticles.com
Vermeulen, A. (2005). BRAIN POWER. Rugby News Annual 2005.