Every single one of us, whether an athlete or not, is influenced daily by pressures, distractions and self-esteem. It affects the way we see ourselves and therefore also our performance.
Many of you will recall the result of Steve Hooker's performance in the 2012 Olympics. The Olympics is one of the most incredible sporting events for any athlete to attend, for most being a once in a lifetime opportunity. The pressures of succeeding can be quite substantial, often a matter of the last few milliseconds or millimetres in an event! Steve Hooker not only had the eyes of the nation on him, but he had his own safety on the line.
Pole-vaulting isn't just about getting one's body high enough up in the air to clear the bar. It requires planting the fibreglass pole, drawing it back to the correct length to spring high enough to clear the bar whilst monitoring not only that the pole won't break, but also the weather conditions; to ensure they actually drop onto the mat. So what was Hooker's state of mind during the event?
Psychologist Jeff Bond says, "To me, it's just a massive brain overload. There are all sorts of what-ifs: what if I miss, what if I make a mistake, what if I fail, what if I embarrass myself? It's paralysis by analysis." And Hooker had, quite undoubtedly, become paralysed. He was unable to clear the bar, complete the jump or even make the leap off the ground in the final event, which showed his fear and over analysis had ultimately brought about the downfall in his performance in the London Olympics.
So how can an athlete monitor, correct and adjust their psychological functioning to ensure they can perform optimally? Performance is very closely linked with emotional arousal, shown graphically in an inverted-U shape where under- and over-arousal may lead to poor performance, and somewhere in the middle an optimal level that puts the athlete in an ideal performance zone.
The optimal zone
This optimal zone is different for each athlete depending on their self-confidence and the sport. Some require a lower level of arousal to perform well, however others require a much greater level of arousal – for instance if you compared Archery to Australian Football the optimal level of arousal required is significantly different!
Therefore each individual needs to be very conscious of what level of arousal constitutes their optimal zone and learn to use techniques that will help them to stay within it during their sporting events.
The same principle applies to the athlete's level of confidence. Self-confidence is an individual's belief that they will be successful. If an athlete is overconfident, they may experience low levels of arousal. Likewise, if they lack confidence, they are more likely to be distracted or crack under the pressure and may, like Hooker, not even attempt to perform.
In order to have control over one's mental state there are psychological skills that should be practised during training, competition and recovery. These skills can include mental rehearsal – such as imagery, confidence building, arousal and relaxation techniques and concentration building. These skills can only become automatic however through repeated practice, which is essentially over-learning them, and produces the best results if done so under game-simulated conditions.
Sports psychology doesn't necessarily guarantee instant success though, as seen in Hooker's case where he has spent a fair amount of time working with sports psychologists to overcome the fears he has of making the jump. However, having a sports psychologist as part of an elite athlete's allied health team has become increasingly popular due to the significant benefits that having mental stability and control has on an athlete's sporting performance.