How Modern Athletes Utilize Psychological Training For Performance

The great Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” He might have gotten his math mixed up, but he made a valid point, and it applies to not only America’s favorite pastime, but to all sports. Classic one-liners aside, competing in sports is about mental toughness as much as it is physical prowess. Eastern European nations recognized early on the importance of the mental aspect of sports, and incorporated sports psychology into the training regimens of their Olympic athletes. Now, virtually all-professional teams and modern athletes utilize psychological training in every major sport around the world by either employing sports psychologists or partnering with them.

Most psychologists believe that having a great skill set does not necessarily ensure success in sports. Elite level athletes need to be mentally strong. Psychologist Richard Koestner claims that at an elite level (e.g., professional leagues, world championships, and the Olympics), mental skills are “responsible for between 50% and 90% of the variance in performance during important events or competitions.” In other words, when two elite athletes face off, the winner will most likely be the one with the better mental acumen. 

Mental training has become a crucial part of sports, notably individual sports like figure skating, diving, and golf, which are “at the high end of the mental skills continuum.” The goal of mental training, therefore, is to prevent the mind from short-circuiting, and creating conditions where the athlete can no longer perform the skills they have perfected from years of practice.

Below are three examples of how athletes from different sports dealt with psychological strain during major sporting events:

Greg Norman

Sometimes, adversity can get the better of athletes, and that is exactly what happened to golfer Greg Norman, whose final round 78 in the 1996 Masters ranks as one of the most stunning collapses in golf history. Norman had shot a blistering 63 in the third round to take a huge 6-hole lead. Then things started to unravel for the affable Australian, who simply couldn’t get back on track in the final 18 holes. Norman’s anguish was none more evident than at the 15th hole, when his eagle chip came ever so close to the hole, but ultimately lipped out. 

Norman, in sports lingo “choked” in that final round. Psychologist Sian Beilock attributes choking to information logjams in the brain, which in turn causes suboptimal performance.This usually happens when an athlete, or anyone in any field for that matter, feels pressure to get everything right even as everything is seemingly going wrong. In Norman’s case, Beilock believes that the golfer began overthinking when he started getting bogeys rather than birdies and pars. As things started going downhill, Norman began suffering from “paralysis by analysis” as he began trying to control everything to right the ship, but as he tried to do so, he also began “disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.” 

Paul Gascoigne

Ladbrokes published a long form article on the history of the World Cup and it features one of the most iconic soccer images of all time. The image is of English soccer star Paul Gascoigne in tears after getting booked in England’s semifinal match against West Germany. The yellow card Gascoigne received for fouling Thomas Berthold meant an automatic suspension for the next game, which was the final of the World Cup. The enormity of the moment, sheer frustration, and the realization of a looming suspension clearly took a tremendous toll on Gascoigne, so much so that the England manager Bobby Robson spent the rest of the game consoling his distraught midfielder. The rising star was so shaken that he withdrew from the penalty shootout, which England ultimately lost after Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle (Gascoigne’s replacement) both missed their spot kicks. 

Gascoigne disintegrated emotionally because the stress consumed him. Paul Gascoigne is the perfect example of how stress can move players to different areas of the Stress Responsive Curve Graph. The International Journal of Physical Education, and Sports and Health describe the ideal balance between performance and stress as the Comfort Zone. Before getting the yellow card, the British midfielder was playing well and was within the Comfort Zone. Receiving the yellow card pushed Gascoigne out of this zone and into an area of overwhelming stress. As a result, he let the yellow card affect his ability to continue playing.

Isaiah Thomas

Grief can also take a psychological toll on any athlete. For Isaiah Thomas in last year’s NBA playoffs, he did not want to  allow grief to affect his play on the court.

Thomas had lost his younger sister to a car accident on the eve of the playoffs. Despite personal circumstances Thomas decided to play the match, and played well for his Boston Celtics, even torching John Wall and the Washington Wizards for 53 points in game 2 of the conference semis.

Playing through pain is something that athletes do well according to sports psychologist Stephany Coakley. While pain can have a detrimental on the playing ability of athletes, it can also have the opposite effect. It isn’t uncommon for athletes to play through physical injuries and be very successful in that moment. Elite athletes are constantly showing that they have mental toughness, resilience, and discipline. They also have great support systems that include their family, teammates, and the organization they play for.

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aleiyah-kristin

Aleiyah Kristin

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.

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