The Premise As a sportsperson, you train hard the whole year round; putting every other aspect of your life on a backseat. You put in hours of technical training and physical conditioning; practicing your strokes tirelessly hour after hour. You remain undefeated in the practice arena. You maintain discipline when it comes to what you eat and when you sleep. Everybody is sure that you’re on your way to becoming a champion.
And yet, on match day, something strange happens. Rather than being your usual composed self and focusing on your shots, your mind starts to play tricks on you – What if you’re not good enough? What will people say if you fail? What if you get a difficult opponent? Self-doubt creeps up on you. Suddenly your heart start pounding and you find it difficult to breath. You start remembering all the times when you’ve lost and all the things that could possibly go wrong. Concentrating on the game becomes next to impossible, and you just can’t get your shots right.
This is a story which almost every athlete is only too familiar with – be it a penalty shoot-out in a Euro Cup, or facing the first ball of a new innings in an inter-school tournament.
Unfortunately, in the midst hectic technical training schedules, somewhere the need to train one’s mind goes unnoticed.
The Role of Psychology in Sports
At the end of the day, the way we think impacts the way we play. Sport psychology then deals with this area also known as ‘mental toughness’ – the ability to deal with one’s emotions before, during and after a game. The challenges that each player experiences are unique, and so are the methods of dealing with them. Some of the common areas where psychology really begins to matter are as follows:
- Motivation – when was the last time you asked yourself “Why do I play?” Is it because you want money and fame, is it so that you get admission into a college or make a career, is it to make your parents happy? Or is it because you simply love to play? Studies have found that athletes who are motivated by the joy of playing, who have FUN while playing, who enjoy competing and pushing their limits, they’re the ones who tend to do much better in the longer run.
- Coping with high pressure moments – Very often, what players practice in the nets does not materialize on the playing field. The reason – practice sessions do not equip players to deal with stress. Often, how we play changes in the face of pressure, and getting players used to playing their level best in the face of psychological pressure is of paramount importance. Breathing techniques, refocusing attention on the present moment and positive self-statements are all techniques that can be put to great use in beating the stress.
- Self-Confidence – What sportspersons think about themselves plays a huge role in what goes down once the game begins. Telling yourself repeatedly that you’re a failure more often than not sets off a self-fulfilling prophecy where this negative self-talk can actually set you up for failure. Athletes, just like all others, can fall prey to self-doubts and negative self-evaluations which affect how well they play their game. Changing one’s thoughts from “I can’t do this” to “I’m going to play my best game” can be the difference between winning and losing.
- Setting goals – Setting goals might sound like an easy task, but the way we set our goals in itself can often be the very reason we’re unable to achieve them. I once asked a player what his goal was, and his response was ‘to be famous’. While this is might be an inspiring vision to have, it does little in way of guiding him towards what he wants to achieve. Rather than being a faraway destination, goals should be a road map that guides us in our journey. They need to be specific, time bound, and most of all, achievable.
- Recovering from injury – For an athlete, sports form a big part of their identity, and an injury can deal a serious blow to their psyche. Rehabilitation after an injury requires a lot of resilience and commitment, and the ability to overcome the fears and anxieties of re-entering the game and once again creating their space in the team.
The ability to deal with stress, to deal with one’s emotions, this psychological ‘toughness’ is not something players are necessarily born with; rather, these are skills that sportspersons can pick up and practice over time. Sport psychology does not come into play just for athletes who are in distress or are under-performing. It’s not about an athlete struggling with a problem. Instead, it is for anyone who is looking to harness their psychological potential to take their game a notch higher.