The England national side’s success rate in penalty shoot outs is currently 18%. For Germany it’s 87% Why is this? Why do some teams and some individuals consistently do better in high pressure environments?
We can name the moments when top performers choke. Their collapse is often spectacular. Over the years we’ve seen it in different sports: Don Fox in Rugby League, Jana Novotna in tennis, Jimmy White in snooker, Roberto Duran in boxing, David Bedford in athletics, Greg Norman in golf, Eric Bristow in darts. The list goes on…
What happens when a top performer loses mental toughness and chokes? Can a coach make an athlete mentally tough?
Researchers cite the links between arousal and performance. They talk about managing attention and about coping strategies. Some causes of choking are said to be stable – for example personality and self-consciousness. Others are labeled unstable – such as expectation, the perceived reward, the audience or the competition.
For some time now I’ve worked with footballers to help them improve the mental side of their game. Accommodating the stable and managing the unstable causes. There have been some successes and some failures. All performers have ups and downs. Everyone will ‘choke’ now and again. For a performance coach it’s how to help the player manage this to reduce its likelihood and then deal with it should it happen.
Why bother with mental toughness?
Elite performers have the edge. At the top-level in every sport, elite performers use mental toughness strategies. Some are learned and some are natural.
Chris Hoy worked with his psychologist prior to the Athens Olympics 1000 metre sprint to mentally rehearse every possible thing which could go wrong so that they were perfectly prepared. The kilo was the hardest sprint event of all. With Hoy going last, he watched on as three of the four competitors before him successively broke the world record. He required a personal best to take the title. He won gold by 0.185 seconds.
When pro basketball players mentally rehearsed throwing shots for 15 minutes prior to practicing, their success rate went up by 9%
The beam in gymnastics is only 10cm wide and is 125cm above the ground. You could walk along it with confidence. How confident would you be if the same beam was placed 25 metres above the ground?
Adrenaline and cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate change when you are anxious. Your anxiety levels are determined by your thinking. Control your thinking and you control your body and your performance.
Brain scans show that mental rehearsal stimulates and sends messages to the muscles used in the real experience. This means that you can speed your recovery from injury by visualisation. Slalom skiers improved performance by 12% through regular visualisation sessions before racing.
I tell players to take 10 to 15 minutes before you train to go through what quality in training looks, feels and sounds like. Give yourself an edge – the body follows the mind. Using the techniques improves the quality of preparation and remember nothing replaces hard work in training
A key part of mental toughness is to use the techniques to train at a better quality level. If it’s all about the match day then it’s too late. Performance psychology is not about a rousing speech! Produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas in which you need to improve.
My strategies for developing mental toughness in top performers – or at least, the first few strategies
1. Learning about arousal up and down. Focus on managing your emotional state so that you can lower their heart rate and blood pressure and experience what the difference between anxiety and calm is like. Use visualisation and relaxation techniques. Do so regularly during the week.
2. Mental rehearsal. Prior to training take ten minutes to go through how you will produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas which you need to improve upon.
3. Directed Practice – suggestions for Technique improvement. Take areas of your game where you feel you must be even better. For example a centre forward might focus on:
- Holding the ball up
- Positioning for diagonals
- Winning headers
- Getting across your man
4. Benchmark against a higher or desired standard. Watch the people who are the best and use training as an opportunity to practise the techniques and do what they do. Again, mentally rehearse in detail the performance improvements
5. Competition. Use competition in training to hone skills and build belief. Competition in training sharpens your competitive instinct and plays a big part in building confidence. Competing against yourself and your own Personal Best in skills sessions also builds self-belief.
6. Showing off! Showing your individual skill, doing what you are good at and letting everyone see it can be another way of giving your confidence a little boost. Do it in warm ups, after training and every now and again as a reminder to yourself of how good you are. Showing off what you can do improves your confidence.
7. Set ambitious targets. No-one ever got better at anything by staying in their comfort zone. To have a big impact, set targets for yourself which are at the edge of your ability level. Work towards these demanding targets. Share them with others: until you do so it is easy to cheat!
8. Scaffold the challenges. Don’t try too much too early! Set demanding targets and work towards them. Build up the basics as you go. Top athletes keep performance diaries and are interested in monitoring their own progress.
9. Demand specific useful feedback. Ask coaches, team mates and your family in the stand for specific role and technical feedback. Find out what you could do differently or better.
10. Recovery rituals. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Your performance goes when you are distracted. You suffer 35% in performance losses when you become distracted. It needs up to 40% more mental energy when you lose focus and have to recover. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Dwelling on failures is unhelpful and will destroy your performance.
11. Parking errors. Leave any errors behind. If you are a goalkeeper and you make a mistake you are not going to correct it by dwelling on what went wrong. Park the error up because you know you will be going over it later. Use your recovery rituals to help you stay sharp. Some keepers do things like drink from the water bottle and spit the mistake away, kick the post with their studs or rub mud on the gloves. Little things which tell your brain – we’ve moved on…
Sport is full of cliches. Over a life time of sport, top performers have heard them all. The real work in preparing to perform takes place away from team talks, from motivational speeches, from crowds and stadiums – it starts early on in life. Some of it is learned along the way and all of it is learned at the very edge of what’s possible.