Category: Performance Anxiety

Performance Anxiety

By: Premier Intern Staff

There are butterflies in your stomach and you start to feel weightless. Your legs feel a little numb and you don’t feel like moving. Your hands slowly start to sweat and you’ve given up on wiping them off on your uniform/jersey. You start to feel like your stomach just flipped and you need to hurl. Your heart is beating very rapidly. You feel your muscles tightening up as game time gets closer and closer. You start to wonder about what is going on and if it will ever stop. Your focus is off the road and you already forgot what the game plan was. More importantly, these physiological actions affect your play and getting benched is a distinct possibility. 

Extremely uncomfortable right? Now, what if I told you that you could be the best player on the team not despite these feelings, but because of them?  What if I told you that they could affect your play in a positive way? Would you take them? Would you elect to have all of these symptoms in order to be the best on your team? The best in your conference? According to Hanin (2010), research actually shows that functionally high anxiety, especially in top-level sport, is beneficial for athletic performance. 

Most would just say that these feelings are normal and that you can’t do anything about it. But they would be wrong, at least partially. In sports psychology, all of the above symptoms are considered signs of performance anxiety and performance anxiety is indeed very normal. However, plenty can be done about its symptoms. All of these signs are telling you that your body is gearing up for competition. It is getting ready. Your body is moving into a fight-or-flight response and your adrenaline is pumping. Performance anxiety is a very normal bodily function and it can actually be extremely beneficial. The reason there is a bad rap around it is because people do not know how to “tame” or “control” it per se. Those who can control their performance anxiety normally see increases in performance.

There are many things that can lead to performance anxiety in athletes. Yes, it is normal for the body to enter fight-or-flight mode, but there are many variables that can contribute to the amount of performance anxiety an athlete experiences. Ohuruogu, Jonathan, and Ikenchekwu (2016) believe that performance anxieties can arise from three origins: the personal, the motivational, and the environmental. Personal characteristics seem to play the largest role because performance anxiety is happening within ourselves. There are a number of personal factors that can play into anxiety levels. For example, an introvert may have a tougher time heading into a performance because they may tend to be more shy and secluded. The same can occur if an extrovert were to be doing a task that is very intimate or quiet. Sports with this style would be those such as golf, tennis, or darts.

There are also a number of environmental factors that play into performance anxiety. One’s lifestyle can also be a factor. Homelife and your support system can play a significant role in performance anxiety. Having a home life where your family does not support your choice of sport can be very difficult. Going into a competition knowing your family doesn’t necessarily agree puts a lot of pressure on you to perform and perform well. Having your family behind you is extremely important, but so is a support system outside of them. If your support system isn’t really a support system, it is hard to channel any outside energy to use for your performance. Your support system could even be your team. If your team has cliques and/or groups that ignore the others, it is hard to go into a competition knowing everyone is on the same page and will perform their jobs correctly. This situation can play into the performance anxiety you may already have because not only do you have to do your best, you are wondering whether or not your team will bring their best.

Motivation can also be a huge problem for performance anxiety. Being too motivated could cause arousal levels that are too high, resulting in poor performance. Poor performance could also be linked to not enough arousal due to low motivation levels. With low motivation, it is hard to perform at a high level. Due to feelings of failure and anxiety before competitions, it may be hard to find an optimal motivation level. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that increased levels of arousal will increase performance. However, this is only until the optimal level is reached. Each person can have their own Yerkes-Dodson Law graph because not everyone performs at a high level at the same motivational level. 

Sport psychology tells us that confidence may be environmental if it relates to a venue you perform well at. However, confidence is internal more than anything. Confidence is something that may be hard to find if there is a slump in performance, but that doesn’t mean confidence can’t be found. Some people are naturally more confident than others and there is nothing wrong with that. Confidence can come both internally or externally (i.e. from your team). It can help with performance anxiety because with it comes a sense of control in order to reduce anxiety. Having that “swagger” about yourself is something that is looked upon as very admirable for those who handle it in the right way. It is also important to know that there is no correct level for motivation, focus, or confidence. Everyone has their own optimal level of arousal. Having control over these three along with a few other characteristics is going to be very beneficial. 

Hanin (2010) created a chain that explains why athletes may not be able to perform at their highest level.

 

1. Instability of technique and failure to deliver consistently expected results

2. Sudden breakdown or loss of skill

3. Habitual performance errors under competitive stress     

 

With this chain, he is saying that in order to improve all of them, deliberately improving the first one will allow the others to fall in line. He says that the biggest component would be to influence the chain and enhance awareness of how it affects other components. Hanin (2010) talks about the ICC (Identification, Control, and Correction) model that plays a key role in helping with performance. Identifying the situation for what it is, controlling the things only you can control, and then correct what you may have done wrong in the past. A breakdown in any three of these areas could contribute to your level of anxiety. For example, a sudden loss of the ability to make solid contact (on a golf club) can leave you worried about that instead of focusing on routine and picking a small target to aim at. It is also going to be hard to perform at a high level when a negative habit has been developed due to stressors from the first two sections of the chain. 

As amateurs, most people think that professional athletes do not have issues like performance anxiety. However, professional athletes are human just as we are and are subject to the same doubts, insecurities, and anxieties. US Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin found herself struggling with performance anxiety for some time and was able to rid herself of it in time by switching up her playlist. Yes, music was her escape. All she did was switch up her song choice which put her in what she called the “dark place in my mind, where I’m really aggressive.”  Some cases are resolved as simply as that. Others are more complicated. 

Professional golfer Graham DeLaet was struggling so nervously with his chipping and pitching before the 2016 Masters that he actually withdrew. He wasn’t a rookie at this point by any means; he was a seven year veteran. The Masters is also one of the most coveted tournaments in the sport, so withdrawing had to be tough. DeLaet had been playing golf for 22 years and never experienced anxiety this intense. He started to work with a sports psychologist and has since seen a great increase in his confidence levels. He also remains optimistic by saying, “I know that it might just take one good shot under pressure to know that it’s in there and kind of change that confidence level.” DeLaet is on a slow climb to get his game back to where he wants it, but understands it is a process. 

Mikaela Shiffrin and Graham DaLaet show that there is no right or wrong answer to how performance anxiety should be dealt with. For people like Mikaela, it could be as simple as a song. For someone like Graham, it might take longer to gain confidence back on a certain task, specifically his chipping game. Gaining confidence will help Graham combat the anxiety that bubbles up when he has to hit a chip shot. He can use his newfound confidence to essentially override the self-doubt that anxiety can foster. Either way, it is important to note that it is a process and believing in something or someone may be all it takes. Reaching out to a sports psychologist does not show a sign of weakness, it shows that you have the strength to recognize a weakness that you want to turn into a strength. 

Overcoming performance anxiety is a very interesting topic because there is no certain way to do it. We wish it were that easy, but nothing worth having is easy. If that something is worth it, then going out and doing the work for it should be an adventure in itself. Trial and error may be one of the best ways to overcome performance anxiety. Finding something that works directly for you is what is important. 

Butterflies come to life in your stomach and the world starts to feel weightless. Your legs start to feel a little numb and you don’t feel like moving. Your hands slowly start to sweat and it is a lost cause to continue whipping them off on your uniform/jersey. You start to feel like your stomach just flipped and like you might need to hurl. Your heart is beating very rapidly. You feel your muscles tightening up as game time gets closer and closer. You start to wonder about what is going on and if it will ever stop. Your focus is off the road and you already forgot what the game plan was. More importantly, these physiological actions affect your play and…

This time you recognize all of these physiological happenings, and you welcome them. You realize that they are normal and that pre-performance anxiety happens to even some of the most elite athletes in the world. You understand that the body is gearing up for competition and actually preparing you to perform at a high level. Knowing that this is normal, you are more relaxed and correctly focused. Because you have been working on your confidence, you know you can use it to combat the anxiety you feel maybe building. Due to building confidence, it is helping you with your motivation levels. Now that you are motivated you are excited to compete, as opposed to shying away from the high of competition.  

Were you uncomfortable and anxious a bit ago? More than likely. You probably are still a little uncomfortable now, but are you excited? Now that there is a little understanding of pre-performance physiological symptoms it poses the following question. Do you have performance anxiety or performance excitement? 

A renowned sports psychologist by the name of Dr. Bob Rotella was once quoted saying, “If you want to feel ordinary, stay home.”

 

References

Ohuruogu, B., Ugwuayi, J., Ikechukwu, U. (2016). Psychological Preparation for Peak Performance in Sports Competition. Journal of Education and Practice, 7(12), 47-50.

Hanin, Y. (2010). Coping with Anxiety in Sport. Coping in Sport: Concepts, Issues, and Related Constructs. (159-175). Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Krucoff, C. (1996, May 14). OVERCOMING SPORTS PERFORMANCE ANXIETY. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/wellness/1996/05/14/overcoming-    sports-performance-anxiety/b7df5cb9-d687-4a72-a23e-117d22457152/?utm_term=.880fd6cfe85f>

Cohn, P. (n.d.). Blog Home. Retrieved from http://www.peaksports.com/sports-psychology-blog/performance-anxiety-in-sports/

Layden, T. (2018, January 29). How Mikaela Shiffrin conquered her anxiety on slopes. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/olympics/2018/01/29/mikaela-shiffrin-winter-olympics-2018-pyeongchang

 

The Use of Healing Imagery and Pain Management Imagery in Injured Athletes

By: Premier Intern Staff 

 

Not everyone gets the opportunity to suit up for one more game or practice. Time goes by so fast and you never know when an injury will strike and take you out of the game. Being able to participate in the game you love is an honor and being part of an individual or team sport is indescribable. Being an athlete, highs and lows are inevitable and can have a major impact on an individual. As an athlete, many skills are taught and learned to allow for individuals to cope and succeed in a healthy manner. Some skills that athletes may learn include time management, responsibility, control, and many other important lessons and experiences that allow individuals to grow and to improve. Skills for overcoming an injury are not often the forefront of conversation when teaching an athlete to be successful. Without adversity and learning how to cope with it, athletes often lose their love for the game. With the help of sport psychology, athletes can continue to elevate athletic ability by focusing on the mental piece of performance and rehabilitation. 

 

Unfortunately, injuries are part of being an athlete and will likely affect the majority of individuals. Sometimes, enduring an injury can sideline you for a few days. Othertimes, it can take you away from the game for months or even a full season. Understanding the differences in each individual and their biological makeup allows us to be aware that each athlete will react differently to injury — no matter the severity. When athletes are cleared, they are physiologically cleared, meaning that the athlete is allowed to go back to full contact and no restrictions because the injury is healed. On the other hand, psychologically speaking, the athlete may not be ready to return. Athletes are typically eager to get back into their sport after an injury. However, when they are finally able to participate again, the feeling isn’t quite the same. When performance isn’t familiar upon return, athletes may be discouraged and upset, which may lead to aggravation and loss of passion for the game. This could furthermore lead to the athlete portraying symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

 

In the past, the psychological piece of healing has been severely overlooked, which in turn has the potential to cause the athletes’ performance to be tentative or hesitant when returning to play. Within the last few years, the field of sport psychology has grown substantially. The growth of sport psychology allows for medical professionals and athletic trainers to see the importance of a positive and understanding force to guide an athlete along in the healing process. Sport psychology also provides different techniques that will stick with the athlete even after the individual has recovered from the injury and is ultimately done with the sport. With that being said, it is very important to implement a variety of skills and techniques that can allow the athlete to have optimum performance when the athlete returns to play. An example of some skills and techniques involve goal setting, imagery, relaxation techniques, self-talk, and social support (Kamphoff, 2013).

 

Imagery is a very useful technique in the healing process. Cumming and Ramsey state that imagery can be described as, “…an experience that mimics real experience, and involves using a combination of different sensory modalities in the absence of actual perception”. An example of this may involve sitting and closing your eyes, imagining you are sprinting after a ball and your knee is stable, strong, and healthy with no pain. It is going through the rehearsal of the skills your mind has already mastered and refined — which can be another really important piece in recovery. An article from Psychology of Sport and Exercise describes imagery as having four different types: cognitive, motivational, healing, and pain management. The imagery that seems the most intriguing in regards to the rehabilitation process is healing imagery and pain management imagery (Wesch, 2016). 

 

Healing imagery symbolizes recovery, meaning that one can picture the body healing (Dworsky & Krane). When imaging healing, it is the process of  “watching” broken bones fuse or muscles and ligaments start to slowly intertwine and become healed. According to AASP, to develop healing imagery, asking oneself a multitude of questions regarding images that associate with injury and pain will imitate the feeling. Therefore, imagining being strong, mobile, and healthy, can allow one to feel healthy (Dworsky & Krane). Imagery is such a powerful technique that it actually allows bodies to heal more quickly and return to sport sooner with less fear of re-injury. Imagery allows individuals to put a positive mental note in their head of healing, getting better, and having an opportunity to perform better than before. This positive mindset allows healing to quicken and confidence to build. 

 

On the contrary, there is also negative imagery. Negative imagery can include visualizing a sport and, for example, you kick the ball and miss the net. Another example would be coming off of a shoulder injury and the other team hitting you, resulting in you re-injuring your shoulder. Negative thoughts and images reduce healing and confidence. Being positive about certain situations is definitely not easy, but through the use of the various types of imagery, it may make the healing process quicker and more effective.

 

Another type of imagery that athletes’ can use is pain-management imagery. This type of imagery allows an individual to be more aware of what is painful and what is hurting within their body. It allows one to use their mind to imagine the muscles relaxing and being put to ease. Imagine ending a week of hard practice and walking down the stairs is a difficult task. Visualize the tight muscles relaxing and finally being able to sit and stand without wincing in pain. Visualizing the various muscles and fibers relaxing actually leads to tense muscles calming down and reducing pain within your body. AASP mentions that “sometimes it is helpful to distract yourself from thinking about pain (Dworsky & Krane)”. Distractions from pain could consist of visualizing something one thinks is relaxing. For example, laying under the sun or listening to the birds chirp in the morning while drinking coffee. Imagery will differ from person to person, but it can allow you to be calm, collected, and relaxed. 

 

Combining pain and healing imagery allows the athlete to heal quicker and more effectively. Using imagery and medicine can make a world of a difference in the healing process. Imagery itself will not make the injury heal quicker, but using imagery along with a rehabilitation plan will allow the athlete to return to the sport strong and confident. Another piece that sport psychologists touch on with imagery is having a positive outlook and an open mind to imagery itself. Having an open mind and an understanding of what imagery is may make it more effective in terms of the healing process. Imagery is a great tool to use, especially when it is being used positively. Being able to take responsibility, understand the given situation, and be aware of the progress within their rehabilitation program is a big step in the healing process. Being aware and not letting the injury define you or take you away from the sport that is beloved is a great way to have success in the recovery process. The positive thoughts will allow an athlete to become a stronger, more patient, and a more understanding person. 

 

References:

 

Dworsky, D., & Krane, V. (2018). Using the Mind to Heal the Body: Imagery for Injury Rehabilitation. https://appliedsportpsych.org/resources/injury-rehabilitation/using-the-mind-to-heal-the-body-imagery-for-injury-rehabilitation/ 

Tubilleja, K. (2005). Sport psychology strategies, types of social support, and adherence to injury rehabilitation among university student-athletes. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. ProQuest Information & Learning.

Kamphoff, C. S., Thomae, J., & Hamson-Utley, J. J. (2013). Integrating the psychological and physiological aspects of sport injury rehabilitation: Rehabilitation profiling and phases of rehabilitation. In M. Arvinen-Barrow & N. Walker (Eds.), The psychology of sport injury and rehabilitation. (pp. 134–155). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Walker, N., & Hudson, J. (2013). Self-talk in sport injury rehabilitation. In M. Arvinen-Barrow & N. Walker (Eds.), The psychology of sport injury and rehabilitation. (pp. 103–116). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group 

Wesch, N., Callow, N., Hall, C., & Pope, J. P. (2016). Imagery and self-efficacy in the injury context. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 24, 72–81. https://doi-org./10.1016/j.psychsport.2015.12.007

 

 

 

Beating the Odds Against Chronic Injury

By: Premier Intern Staff

It was a chilly October night in downtown Boston. I looked around as I walked onto the field for one last time. The leaves on the trees ruffled as the cool crisp air blew through them. The lights of the scoreboard caught my eye as I read off the names of my teammates as they appeared. I looked back and saw my teammates walking behind me listening to their music, laughing, and smiling. Across the field, our bench was filled with posters with the seniors’ names on them and other decorations. I caught myself reminiscing on all I had overcome to get to this point in my soccer career. I thought to myself, “I really made it against all odds.”

 

As a child, I, like so many others, had big dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. I wanted to be the next Mia Hamm; I was a good athlete that might have been able to make it if not for my unfortunate circumstances. Even at a young age my parents and coaches recognized I had the natural ability to be a great soccer player. I was skilled on the ball, an excellent passer, shooter, and most of all, I had a passion for the game. By the age of nine, I was recognized by a scout and joined a premier program in my home state where I was able to further my technical skills and advance my talent. I remember being able to play outside midfield and run up and down the field. I would chase down any ball and felt like I could run forever. 

 

After years of consistently grueling practices, fitness sessions, games, and tournaments, my knees gave in under the pressure. During a tournament weekend, I recall an incident where I slid to make a tackle and something happened at that moment that changed my athletic career forever. I felt sharp, extreme pain coming from my left knee and I was momentarily unable to get to my feet. After analyzing my leg with absolute fear I hesitantly got up and began limping down the field, trying so desperately to continue playing. I was extremely concerned about my chance of recovery from this injury because I could tell how serious it was. The thought that there could be a chance I would never be able to play soccer again terrified me. As with any dedicated athlete, this was my worst nightmare becoming a reality. 

 

Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school; I was a three-sport athlete playing soccer, basketball, and track, as well as playing for my premier soccer team year-round. I had been experiencing excruciating pain in both my knees for a while and finally felt the need to address this with my parents. I did not want to go to the doctor. I was afraid to discover what was actually wrong with me. I knew my knee pain wasn’t going away this time. This persuaded me to make an appointment with an orthopedic specialist. After the doctor examined my knees and took an x-ray, I was told I had a condition called bipartite patella. Even before I knew exactly what that meant, I was petrified. What did this mean for my athletic career? Was I going to be able to continue to pursue my dreams of playing soccer at the collegiate level? A million questions rolled through my head as I waited to discover my fate. 

 

As the orthopedic specialist explained to me, the structure of the knee, and how with bipartite patella the kneecap is made up of two bones instead of one. When you are born, your kneecap is made of mostly cartilage and blood vessels. When you are around three to five years old, the cartilage starts to turn into bone and by the time you are 10, your kneecap should be developed into one piece. Most cases of bipartite patella are considered asymptomatic where it is usually discovered incidentally after getting an x-ray or MRI scan due to a separate injury. Whereas, symptomatic bipartite patella can be caused in adolescent athletes from a specific trauma to the patella or overuse. (Christanio, https://www.healthline.com/health/bipartite-patella). 

In agreement with research presented by Ferrari et al. (2017), I was identified as having symptomatic bipartite patella from experiencing anterior knee pain from overuse. I had the option to either have double knee surgery to correct the abnormality or learn to manage the pain through conservative treatment options. Either way, the specialist told me I should consider putting a halt on my athletic career since that would be best for my knees.

 

I decided to limit my athletic career to just soccer in an effort to reduce the strain on my knees. I was simply unwilling to give up soccer, a sport I had poured my heart and soul into, and something that had come to define me. Somewhat against the doctor’s recommendations, I declined to have the surgery. Being so young when facing the option of double knee surgery was overwhelming. I was afraid that if something went wrong, I would lose soccer forever. As an adolescent, I had always thought overcoming an injury only related to the physical pain associated with the injury. However, there is much more to it. The 2015 World Cup Champion Abby Wambach wrote, “For 30 years, scoring goals was my currency, the one skill I could barter for security and acceptance and love. Rarely did I pause long enough to consider what might come next, and how the shape of my life would look without soccer to fill it up.” (Abby Wambach Facebook page) The problem many athletes have when dealing with injuries is losing their sense of identity, self-esteem, and constructive way of coping with stress during the time they cannot play (Goldberg, 2016).

 

According to Goldberg (2016), the psychological pain of losing everything you worked for, whether it is temporary or permanent, can be more devastating to an athlete than the physical pain associated with the injury. I used soccer as a coping mechanism to deal with anger, stress, or any other negative emotions I felt. I was now faced with the chance of losing a critical piece of my identity. I was always known as the “soccer girl,” and I felt as though if I no longer had soccer, I’d lose my sense of self. The thought came over me, “Who would I be without soccer?” 

 

To answer this, it is important to understand athletic identity, which is defined as how much an athlete identifies with the athletic role and can be conceptualized as a cognitive structure or plan as well as a social role (Horton & Mack, 2000). By high school, if not college, an athlete should have dedicated enough time and have enough psychological commitment to have a strong sense of identification with the athlete role (Johnson & Migliaccio, 2009). A concern to many athletes, including myself, is what to do after an injury when there is an over-identification with the athlete role? Counselors and sports psychologists working with athletes look to interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) as a solution because it focuses on how identity influences a person’s roles and relationships. This framework can help athletes who strongly identify with the athletic role cope with a temporary injury, permanent injury, and even retirement from sports. 

 

Having a sense of over-identification towards the athlete role can have negative consequences in regards to one’s social well-being and identity as a whole. Obtaining an injury can lead to social isolation from teammates and retirement from sports, whether it is chosen or forced due to injury. It can also lead to grief and depression. Another adverse effect of having a strong sense of identification with the athlete role relates to help-seeking behavior. Steinfeldt et al. (2009) found help-seeking behavior was the most stigmatized for football players who have the strongest sense of identification with the athlete role. 

 

A tragic example portrayed by Hochman (2010) is the suicide of professional football player Kenny McKinley, former wide receiver for the Denver Broncos. McKinley was depressed over several knee injuries that occurred over a period of eight months and had made statements about not knowing what to do without football. The isolation athletes (who strongly identify with the athletic role) experience resulting from injury can have devastating effects when not treated. Interpersonal psychotherapy can help athletes deal with their losses and hopefully prevent any future situations similar to that of McKinley by exploring the grief the individual experiences, discussing role transitions, and role disputes. (Heird & Steinfeldt, 2013)

 

When dealing with a condition like bipartite patella, it is important to be resilient and to overcome adversity. There were many times on the field that my knees hurt so bad I felt like I could not continue playing, but because I was resilient, I learned to acknowledge the fact that I do have limitations now. Also, I learned it is okay to accept the emotions you are feeling in regards to the injury — anger, sadness, and disappointment are all common and completely normal feelings. Accepting negative emotions allows you to grieve with the loss or change you are facing and is part of the process of overcoming those feelings. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone in your recovery process! Your family, friends, teammates, and coaches are all there to support you no matter what. Feel no shame in confiding in someone for support, because at the end of the day, it will benefit your physical and emotional recovery. 

 

During my ongoing recovery, I used sports psychology to change my mindset and chose to focus on process-oriented goals; i.e. making an accurate pass or having my mark on defense. Goldberg (2016) concluded that changing your mindset and recognizing more realistic or attainable goals for yourself allows for more reward once you reach the goal you set. Instead of focusing on limitations, I focused more positively on the task I needed to complete and made sure I did it. Trust me, the feeling of achieving a goal you set, no matter how small, is enough to keep you motivated to set more goals along the way. Nothing about recovery is easy, but it is important to be positive, patient, and have trust in the process! 

 

Since discovering I have bipartite patella I have had a great soccer career: being on the starting lineup for my high school varsity team freshman to senior year, having a wonderful 10-year experience playing premier with teammates, I was able to grow and develop skills with, and more recently, finishing my soccer career as a Division III athlete where I played in every single game of my four years on the team, as well as receiving athletic honors. I hope you are able to learn that if you are resilient and work with your condition using sports psychology, there are ways to persevere and deal with the long-term effects of injuries so you can continue to do what you love. 

 

I think back to my senior night. During the national anthem, I felt butterflies in my chest for the last time ever and smiled as I thought back on the journey that had got me to that point. During the game I played well, I focused on the task at hand despite the distractions like the internal emotions or any discomfort my knees were giving me. Finally, I heard the final whistle blow and the game came to an end. I was so lucky to have this amazing opportunity and be able to continue on with the journey I started when I was just five years old. In the world of athletics where an injury is so common, resilience is possible — you just need to learn how to cope with the physical and psychological aspects in a way that works best for you.

 

 

 

Mentality Makes the Difference

By: Premier Intern Staff

As a kid who grew up in Mason, Ohio, I have always eagerly and impatiently waited for the month of August to approach — a time of year when the Cincinnati suburb fills with energy and excitement as the world’s top tennis professionals flock to the area for the ATP World Tour event. I have had the privilege of watching these elite athletes perform on court for numerous years at the Western and Southern Open tournament, which is hosted within just a five-mile radius of my house. As a young, novice tennis player sitting in the stands, I remember watching in awe hoping to acquire their skills, strokes, and strategy — it was not until my more recent years that I realized it was actually their mentality that I should have been striving for.  

Every sport has its unique physical challenges, but there is one challenge that all athletes face: the mental game of sports. This sports psychology component is critical, and it became evident to me when I signed to play Division I college tennis. I had entered a playing field where everyone’s skill set had mostly leveled out and it was an athlete’s mentality that prevailed to be the differentiating factor. I learned that the mind could serve as a hindrance or a competitive edge and make the difference between a win and a loss.

Unfortunately, the mental aspect of sports is often overlooked by the technical, tactical, and physical side. In addition to the importance of training one’s body, it is essential to train one’s mind to obtain optimal performance. Achieving inner excellence is a process — building mental muscle, just like acquiring any other skill, requires time, effort, and commitment. The more an athlete works on their mental skills and inner processes, the more it will show in their outside performance, given that the way one thinks affects how one acts (Mack & Casstevens, 2002). Athletes can take their game to the next level by choice by learning to control and use their minds to their advantage rather than letting their minds control them and serve as a disadvantage. 

Understanding the importance of the mind as a weapon was not achieved solely on my own — it was catalyzed by my coaches and mentors who not only helped me rebound from defeat, but also provided me with the mental skills and strategies necessary to enhance my performance on a daily basis. Over the years, I have learned, developed, and applied several of these sport psychology skills and strategies in aims to optimize my athletic success and assist others. As a recently retired collegiate tennis player looking back at the mental skills I added to my repertoire, I found that “playing to progress” and “playing in the present” were vital mentalities to embrace in reaching peak performance. 

One of the most common questions an athlete comes across is “Did you win?” It is undeniable that we live in a society where athletes are defined by numbers — performance stats, rankings, wins, and losses. Societal pressure creates a tendency for athletes to be outcome-oriented rather than process-oriented. Outcome goals are the results people would like to achieve and are not in an individual’s control, while process goals are the action steps that are taken to help reach the desired result and are in an individual’s control (Taylor & Wilson, 2005). Outcome goals are important in recognizing one’s desired destination, but focusing on the processes day in and day out is what will lead to reaching that destination.   

Athletes are inclined to have an outcome focus over a process focus for two main reasons: people are wired to be discontent with the present and have a desire for a better future, and because results are easier to measure and evaluate (Taylor & Wilson, 2005). This human tendency in culmination with societal pressures leaves athletes susceptible to direct their focus on outcomes such as beating an opponent, winning a tournament, or attaining a ranking as opposed to focusing on the process that will get them there. Having an outcome focus interferes with reaching the outcome by diverting focus from the actions that will encourage peak performance and lead to the desired results. There is no denying that good results are necessary for being a successful athlete, but it is important to recognize that the best way to attain those results is by not focusing on results and focusing on the continuous process that will enable performance and progress instead. 

Novak Djokavic, a top-ranked ATP player stated, “We don’t know how much we can really achieve until we have this kind of mindset of wanting always to evolve and improve.” Players on the pro tour will rarely speak of their desire to win a tournament or attain a certain ranking, but rather, they talk about wanting to continuously progress and improve their game. This process-oriented over outcome-oriented mindset is what gives these professional athletes their best chance to reach their desired results. In order to achieve a process-oriented mentality that fosters the idea of “playing to progress,” it is important to embrace the mindset of “playing in the present.”

No one is usually harder on athletes than the athletes themselves — often dwelling on past failures and future results. It is easy to linger over a lost match, a missed shot, or a careless error and to feel pressure to please a coach or parent, earn a scholarship, or win a title. But sports psychology tells us that this is a detrimental mindset to performing one’s best. If a player comes to the court thinking “If I don’t win this match my coach is going to take me out of the lineup,” their focus isn’t on the task at hand, which is where it needs to be. 

The overwhelming thoughts revolving around past mistakes and future outcomes deter focus from the present moment. The present moment is where athletes perform their best because there is no pressure in the present moment. Pressure stems from anxieties about the future and remembered setbacks from the past (Mack & Casstevens, 2002). Athletes are also more likely to have optimal performance when they are in the present because they have a sense of control, whereas an athlete has no control over past or future occurrences.  Athletes often find it difficult to focus on the present due to ideals promoting perfectionism and high expectations (Taylor & Wilson, 2005). In order to counteract a poorly focused state, athletes should direct their minds towards one essential question: “What do I need to do now to perform my best?” 

When the Western and Southern Open tournament begins, the players aren’t at the Roger’s Cup tournament that just finished or at the US Open tournament which shortly proceeds, they are within the perimeters of the Lindahl Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio on their respective courts. These professional players often talk about not only playing it “one match a time,” but “one point at a time” — they are playing in the present. 

As I go back home to Mason this August and the countless years to come for the ATP event, I will continue to watch with the same excitement as I did growing up, but this time with an appreciation and awareness for the distinguishing factor that brought these world-renowned athletes to the center stage — not their strokes and skills, but their mentality. 

 

References

Mack, G., & Casstevens, D. (2002). Mind gym an athlete’s guide to inner excellence.

Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary.

Taylor, J., & Wilson, G. (2005). Applying sport psychology: Four perspectives. Champaign, IL:

Human Kinetics.

 

 

 

 

How Modern Neuroscience Research Can Help Athletes Perform Under Pressure

By: Premier Intern Staff

As athletes, we’ve all experienced a high-pressure situation at some point in our careers. For some, the stress of the situation has no effect on their performance. But for most people, these situations can lead to athletes choking under the pressure.

One type of situation that specifically leads to athletes choking is when there is a significant amount of time leading up to a routine play, shot, or throw that gives the athlete time to think. It may be a birdie putt to stay alive in a golf match, a serve on game point, or maybe a game-winning field goal attempt after the other coach attempted to ice your kicker with a time out. 

Whatever the sport, there are always going to be situations where things slow down and you can start to think about the upcoming situation. 

Time to think, you may say, is a good thing to have. The pressure is on, and your performance in the upcoming moment matters a lot, so you want to make sure you get it right. However, modern sports psychology research has revealed that time to think is actually detrimental to optimal athletic performance in these situations, and here’s why. 

In Sian Beilock’s revolutionary book Choke, she outlines what her research on performing under pressure has revealed about humans in these high-stakes situations. In short, athletes choke because they try to over-control. And they over-control because they worry about a host of different things like how important the game is, what others will think, and even how it could go wrong. They worry about these things because their performance is either important to them or because something is at stake. 

As humans, this is natural. We are hardwired to be wary of threats in our environment, and a high-pressure situation is exactly that. Our worries trigger our conscious brain to take control of the muscle movement because we perceive the situation as highly important to us and therefore we want to exercise control. This is exactly why we choke.“Paralysis by analysis occurs when you attend too much to activities that normally operate outside conscious awareness,” or in other words, you attempt to consciously control a task that is best performed via subconscious processes. 

When we start to learn a new skill, we need to devote our brain’s working memory to the task. Our working memory can be thought of as the cognitive horsepower needed to carry out the action we are trying to learn. Taking golf, for example, a beginner golfer may hear from her instructor, “Okay good, now keep your shoulders square on the backswing” followed by “Okay you got that, now make sure you rotate your back foot as you swing through.” 

There are dozens or even hundreds of little pieces of skill that must be learned one at a time in order to perform the full movement correctly. Each additional aspect requires your working memory and conscious awareness to implement the new piece. 

As time (and practice) goes on, however, the movement becomes more grooved into our brain’s internal process for performing the skill and our working memory is no longer needed to execute it correctly. In sports psychology, we know that those complex motor skills are driven by procedural memory – knowledge that resides in brain networks such as the basal ganglia and motor systems. These regions operate outside of the prefrontal cortex, the conscious area of our brain that contains our working memory. This motor learning process explains why most adults do not need to think about how to walk or how to ride a bike, because they just do it. These skills are ingrained in our subconscious memory systems and do not require attention or working memory to perform. 

 So, what makes conscious control over learned movements detrimental to our performance? As Dr. Beilock explains, “people attempt to control execution in order to ensure success, but this can disrupt normally fluid movement patterns, making them more rigid, coupled together, and error-prone.” Increasing our awareness to the task at hand actually leads to the opposite intended effect — choking under pressure. 

There is a wealth of data to support this claim. Inside Beilock’s Human Performance Lab in Chicago, Illinois, she ran a study in 2002 assessing highly skilled soccer players’ dribbling performance under two conditions. In one, they were instructed to pay attention to the side of their foot that was making contact with the ball. Normally, a highly skilled soccer player would not be consciously aware of their foot as they dribble, so this instruction effectively caused the group to become aware of their movements. In the other, they were given no instruction at all. 

The result: When the players were told to be aware of their foot, they dribbled slower and made more errors than when they were given no instructions. As Beilock puts it, “paying attention to specific steps of what you are doing can be detrimental if, under normal conditions, these steps are not under your conscious control.” 

In a similar sports psychology study, Division I baseball players were instructed to be aware of whether their bat was moving upwards or downwards during batting practice in a hitting simulator. Much like the soccer players, they did significantly worse than when they were given no instruction at all. When the researchers looked back at the study, their analysis of swing biomechanics revealed that the timing of different swing components was off because of the players’ attention to their movements. 

So how can sports psychologists prevent athletes from choking under pressure? There are many strategies that athletes can implement to improve performance under stress. All of these outlined by Beilock have a common goal in mind: preventing the prefrontal cortex from regulating previously learned movements. The key for you as an individual is to find the one(s) that work best for you. Try some out, modify them, change them — do whatever you feel helps you to remain fluid in your movement. 

One of our favorite strategies at Premier Sport Psychology is to distract my attention away from trying to control my movements by focusing my consciousness on something productive or neutral. At the free throw line in basketball, I’ve had success by counting numbers in my head to allow my muscle movements to flow naturally. “8, 6(dribble), 9, 2 (spin), 7 (shot)!” 

For a soccer, softball, or baseball player, perhaps focusing your attention on the spot you want to place the ball would be the best way to distract you from thinking about your movements. Again, it’s important to find what works best for you.

Another tip Beilock offers is “Don’t slow down.” As Nike’s motto puts it, Just Do It. You’ve practiced the skill thousands of times, so there’s no need to think about how you’re doing it to get it right. Speeding up your approach to the movement can be very effective in eliminating that self-questioning. You can also get used to the stress of a high-pressure situation by actively trying to replicate that pressure in a practice setting. Similar to traditional exposure therapy, exposing yourself to stressful situations before they arise in competition increases your ability to deal with them. You can do this by self-imposing a certain negative outcome for a practice activity. For example, a tennis player may mandate that she has to run a one-court suicide if her next serve goes out in a training session. Of course, for this to work, you would need to consistently adhere to your training plan in order to truly feel the pressure. 

An alternative way to busy your prefrontal cortex during a movement is to come up with a short mantra that you can say to yourself as you perform the skill. If you’re a golfer, you may say “smooth” as you hit the ball, which allows your focus to be on the spoken words and not the mechanics of the stroke. 

A final, more general strategy sports psychologists recommend is to focus on the positives and let go of the negatives of your performance. A lot of times, the outcomes we think about as athletes are often exactly the outcomes that transpire. If you’re taking a penalty kick and think about all the different ways you could miss it instead of thinking about all the different ways you could make it, you’re most likely going to miss because that is the signal your brain is sending to your body. 

To reiterate, these strategies are helpful for situations in your sport when you’re performing a highly practiced skill and there are time and pressure. Keep in mind that these tips would most likely be detrimental to performance in live play, fast-paced situations where quick thinking is critically important to your success. Try out some of these strategies and see what works best for you! For further mindset training skills and sport psychology tips, check out mindsetprogram.com.

 

Citations:

Banjari, I., Vukoje, I., and Mandić, M. (2014). Brain food: How nutrition alters our mood and behaviour. Hrana u zdravlju i bolesti, 3.  

Beilock, S. L. (2010) Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have it. New York, New York. Free Press.  

Beilock, S.L., Carr, T.H.,  MacMahon, C., Starkes, J.L. (2002). When paying attention becomes counterproductive: Impact of divided versus skill-focused attention of novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 8, 6-16.

Gray, R. (2004). Attending to the execution of a complex sensorimotor skill: Expertise differences, choking, and slumps. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10, 42-54

 

 

 

Coping with Times of Uncertainty- Building Resilience

During times of uncertainty, we can start to feel a little anxious and lost. Resilience is something that can help us cope with times of uncertainty. Below are 2 different exercises to help foster the development of your resilience through your support system and accountability through group activities.

Exercise 1: Identify three teammates you want to reach out this week and how you want to give and maintain support. A key pillar of resiliency is to identify your support system. Get creative in the ways that you can support each other virtually or from a distance. Click Here

 

Exercise 2: Movement feels good and boosts your immune system! Here is a workout you can do with your teammates, with instructions on how to set up a “workout meeting” via Zoom. Which exercises will you enjoy more with the support of teammates? Click Here

The Infinite Wait for Perfect Conditions

By: Premier Intern Staff

With the Paralympics just days away, there have been multiple stories regarding the living conditions in the Olympic village. News of trash fires and flooded rooms darkened the first impressions of Rio heading into the Olympics. Conditions were so bad that the USA Basketball teams are stayed on a luxury cruise ship. Obviously, conditions are less than ideal for these athletes. Should this affect their play?

Seldom is the case that conditions will be perfect for you during competition. For outdoor events, playing conditions are subject to the weather, with the wind, rain, and even snow becoming a factor. Away teams travel on cramped buses or sit for hours on a long plane ride, while the home team sleeps comfortably in their regular beds the night before. For every athletic event out there, there are just as many things that can go wrong. It is easy to get discouraged under difficult circumstances or blame a poor performance on the conditions. However, there is always something you can do about it. You can always control how you react to it.

John Wooden famously stated, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” You will never be able to control how your sport plays out, but you are always in control of your actions. If it’s pouring rain during your competition, a constructive way to respond is to accept the rain for what it is and determine how you can play your best even though you are soaking wet. While others are complaining about the wet conditions, you can focus on the game and what you need to do to win.

Another common distraction is when things go awry leading up to competition. Similar to the disturbing events leading up to Rio, things can go wrong before you get to the contest site. Your transportation may break down. Heavy traffic might delay your arrival. You, yourself, might be someone who typically misplaces your gear. These scenarios may increase your anxiety or distract you from you pre-performance routine. However, if you can accept the present conditions and make best with what you have, you can maintain a high level of play under difficult circumstances.

Perfect conditions rarely happen in athletics. You cannot control what happens around you. If you wait to act until the situations are perfect, then it is likely you will be waiting forever. However, if you accept the adversity that surrounds you and react accordingly, you will be much better off. Megan Kalmoe, a member of the US Olympic Rowing Team, understands this. In a recent blog post of hers, Megan eloquently stated that she “would row through [expletive] for you, America.” We all know the water conditions are poor, but how does dwelling on that help our athletes succeed? As Megan says, it does not help. The competitors who can focus on their performance, rather than let themselves be distracted by poor conditions, are the ones who will give themselves the best shot of winning medals in Rio.

What you choose to focus on is in your control. If you focus on the adverse conditions and wait until If you decide to focus on your behavior, instead of the adverse conditions that surround you, your chances of a better performance will increase.

 

 

Food for Thought — Emotions at the MLB Trade Deadline

By: Premier Intern Staff

At 3:00pm CST today, many MLB players will exhale a sigh of relief. The July trade deadline will have passed, and players won’t be worrying if they’ll be sleeping in a different city tonight. For fans, trades are exciting—many of us become glued to Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors tracking the numerous transactions. We want to see who is going to make the biggest push for October. As Rays’ pitcher Chris Archer recently tweeted, “If anyone wants to know what it looks like to be all in, check out the Jays.” (Toronto has been just one of many teams moving players around the league.) For players, trades bring anxiety. While the quick trades are fun to follow, we sometimes lose perspective that trades quickly uproot players’ lives.

Now, trading is a part of the game and makes for late summer runs for a few teams, but with the ever-expanding platforms of social media, players are affected by rumors more and more often. Take the Mets’ Wilmer Flores, who thought he was being traded when he received an overwhelming round of applause as he stepped up to the plate in the seventh inning. With many news outlets, including the New York Times, reporting that high-ranking team executives were leaking a trade of Flores to the Brewers, word spread like wild fire around Citi Field. Flores, now 23, was drafted by the Mets on his 16th birthday and had been with them ever since. He was visibly upset on the field, wiping away tears on his sleeve as he took the field in the top of the eighth. After the game when Flores was addressing the media, he said he was upset because he would have had to leave his teammates and the only organization he has ever known.

Once players are traded, they have to move their families, find new homes, and start anew in a different city. While all teams have personnel to help make the transition as smooth as possible for players, it’s still an emotional process that could always use more assistance. Players move the minute they’re traded and go play for another team; their families are the ones who have to deal with the stress of moving or not moving (which can leave months of being away from husbands/fathers). While trades have been and will be apart of sports always, a new method of coping around the trade deadline may be needed.

 

 

Feeling Anxious? Lucky You.

By: Premier Intern Staff

 

You are feeling anxious? Lucky you.

I am going to get on my soapbox for a couple minutes here. I think everybody can thrive from anxiety. However, the feelings of anxiety often make us uncomfortable. The root of this anxiety is because neither you, nor I, really know how to use our anxiety. Because here is the thing, anxiety could just be one of the most powerful innate skills we as humans possess, and instead of running with it, we run from it. If you look up the definition of anxiety this is what you will find:

“a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

Then scroll down and take a peek at the synonyms: worry, concern, apprehension, apprehensiveness, uneasiness, unease, fearfulness, fear, disquiet, agitation, angst, misgiving, nervousness, nerves, tension, and tenseness.

Well I think, while I am up here on my soapbox, I would like to pick a fight. I would like to pick a fight with the idea that anxiety is a negative thing. I would argue that anxiety is indeed a positive thing. I’ll use with another word, excited. The definition of excited reads: stirred emotionally, agitated, stimulated to activity, aroused, to cause; awaken. Now I may be the only one, but I have experienced both these feelings and have come to realize that the feelings can overlap a great deal. Are you going on a first date? How do you feel–anxious or excited? Are you buckling your seat on a roller coaster? Is that feeling anxiousness or excitement? Competing in a game? I ask you the same question. Are these feelings only anxiety or only excitement–often times it seems hard to have one without the other.

An excessive amount of anxiety is not beneficial, I agree. When it creeps its way into places it doesn’t belong, anxiety can cause problems from a physiological standpoint. And that is not going to do anyone any good. But, what if we can channel small amounts of anxiety into positive performance. Even an abundance of anxiety can be transformed into a wealth of energy and excitement. We can change the way our body responds to anxiety if we first change the way we think about it. People do not walk up to a podium in front of 500 people without anxiety. The players in the NHL, NFL, MLB, and NBA have all had their share of this feeling. However, the athletes and people that view anxiety as a strength and a skill for performing are the ones that can reach optimal performance.

If you asked every person if they have experienced this feeling, I would be surprised to hear if even one person had not. It is a natural response developed with our “fight or flight” reflex many years ago. And we still find it prevalent today. The role of anxiety has clearly left a genetic imprint that is crucial to our evolution (and to your success). So before I step down from up here where the view is great, I will ask you to remember one thing. The next time you feel your anxiety kick in, heart racing, sweat going, palms sweaty, and body shaky don’t run from it. Run with it. I am willing to bet you will run much faster with it, then without it.

 

Want to hear more about this topic? Watch this TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal.

The Social Stigma about Sport Psychology

By: Premier Intern Staff

As world views alter, acceptance for those who contrast our own appearance and ideologies steadily increases. Why is it then, that the thought of being mentally unhealthy is so frightening? The mind is undoubtedly complex. Complications with the organ that is responsible for so many aspects of our body should not be a monumental bombshell. Perfection is impossible, resulting with everyone’s brain being slightly different. Of course, some people pose a greater risk in developing a mental illness – not excluding athletes. The vulnerability that mental illness creates is not an image anyone wants to elicit – especially not an athlete whose whole being is to be stronger than their competitors.

Mental illnesses in sport are often overlooked. Part of that is a result of societal expectations. “Mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness and is absolutely the antithesis of what athletes want to portray.” Stated by Dr. Thelma Dye Holmes, it shows that many athletes are idealized for their work and are placed into positions as role models; they are people who physically go above and beyond what others would do (Vickers). To be labeled as anything less than the perfection they aspire to be is damaging. But why does seeking help have to be viewed in this way? Sport psychology is tailored to athletes – even those who are no longer competing. At every level, athletes should understand the fundamentals of mental health and know how to implement coping strategies when necessary.

Stress, anxiety, and depression are all felt to some degree by athletes, particularly during competition. When they are put in high pressure scenarios and then expected to perform at their peak each time, relying on the physical aspects of the body is not enough. Training the mind and body together gives a competitive edge that is more powerful than the body alone. Four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington discusses with CNN how her mind is the greatest tool in her arsenal. “The brain is the master computer of the body. Even when we are working on the efficiency of the peripheral components – the legs, the arms, the butt cheeks – we can recruit the seat of all power to enhance the effectiveness of our work.” (Wellington). She goes on to say that there is an obsession with log books and data, to track how far the athlete has come, but the body can only handle so much discomfort until the brain has to take over. When it becomes overbearing, a sick mind won’t be help the athlete strive to their peak. Doubt will be created, and with that, the athlete will falter.

In addition, when the body is under stress, so is the mind. Fatigue, depression, and anxiety stem from this stress, which in turn increases cortisol levels. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkley have found that chronic stress and cortisol lead to damage within the brain. Their research has uncovered that the fatty tissue surrounding axons, known as white matter, increases in number the more exposed a person is to stress. The severity of this phenomenon is not fully understood, although it is agreed that an increase in white matter decreases the efficiency for communication in the brain leading to problems with memory, decision making, and emotions. They are now looking into how white matter affects such brain disorders as schizophrenia, autism, depression, ADHD, and PTSD (Bergland). A future goal for psychologists and scientists alike is not just to treat these disorders, but to provide information to the public on how to prevent them. Despite opinions of mental illness, getting help when needed is without a doubt the best option for improvement.

The stigma society afflicts on seeking help, whether it’s from professionals or a trusted person, prevent people from reaching their full athletic and mental potential. A sound body needs a sound mind to operate it; avoiding treatment will never fix the problem. There are resources out there to help those in need. Utilizing them doesn’t lessen a person’s worth or abilities, it simply helps strengthen them.

 

References:

  1. Bergland, C., (2014, February 12). Chronic Stress can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity
  2. Vickers, E., (2013, December 19). The Stigma of Mental Health; is it Increased for Athletes?. Retrieved from http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/the-stigma-of-mental-health-is-it-increased-for-athletes/
  3. Wellington, C., (2012, July 13). Ironman Champ: Your Mind Matters More. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/13/health/mind-over-matter-wellington/index.html