Coping with the pressure: the wonders of sport psychology

“Pressure can burst a pipe or pressure can make a diamond” – Robert Horry, seven-time NBA champion 

It’s that time of the year. Where titles, careers and glory are on the line: the stakes could not be any higher. During these decisive moments, athletes have to perform under immense pressure. Failing to maintain composure, even for a second, can end up costing them their season and undo all the hard work that they have put in throughout the year.  

Athletes train for months to be prepared for anything that might come in their way throughout the year. And although historically athletes and coaches have prioritized physical training, the last couple of decades have seen athletes and sports organizations pay special attention to the athlete’s mental and emotional condition. 

Because although athletes are physically gifted, they also feel and fear like the rest of us. They can lose control of their emotions and can lose focus or confidence during a contest. 

This is why sport psychologists have become a necessity for most elite sport organizations. They just can’t risk losing an athlete to his/her emotions or fears for a single second. And history justifies their concern. 

Many Premier League fans might remember well how Liverpool ‘bottled’ the league in 2014. The Merseyside club had a fantastic season, breaking records here and there, and with three games to play placed themselves in a comfortable position to win their first league in more than twenty years. And yet, in the space of five days, the work of a season became undone. Steven Gerrard famously slip­ped against Chelsea and a few days later the club blew a 3-0 lead against Crystal Palace that ended up costing them their chances of winning the league. A team that was consistent for 35 games, lost the league in the last two. 

Roberto Baggio, unfortunately, falls under the same category. The Italian has been synonymous with failing under pressure ever since he missed that deciding penalty at the 1994 World Cup, the biggest stage in World football, and gave Brazil their fourth World Cup. Until this day, many Italians still remember the iconic image of Baggio standing motionless on the spot while dozens of Brazilians erupted into celebrations on the pitch. It was a career-defining moment. 

And just like him, many others have fallen or ‘choked’ on the big occasion: John Terry missed a penalty in the Champions League final, the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Seahawks had a meltdown against the New England Patriots, Jana Novotna collapsed against Steffi Graff. History provides us with endless examples of athletes failing to keep composure in the decisive or final stages of a competition. 

But how can athletes, if at all, avoid this collapse? And how can sports psychologists help them? 

In order to find these answers, I spoke to two sports psychologists to try and understand the psychology behind the elite athlete. 

Bradley Busch is a sport psychologist from the performance consultancy Inner Drive and has worked with footballers from Tottenham, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Fulham. He has experience dealing with athletes under pressure by the end of a long season. 

“I don’t think you can ever fully prevent a choke, the same way you can never prevent an athlete from getting injured,” says Busch. 

“You prepare as best as you can possibly can and go out and execute your game plan and hope for the best. But after that human behaviour takes over and you can never really guarantee anything.”

He also adds that all a sport psychologist can do is help the player get into the right frame of mind that will give him the best chance to succeed. But everything else can’t be guaranteed as the human part enters into play. 

In the same way, Mathew Cunliffe has worked as a sport psychologist for Team GB’s skiers and says choking is essentially anxiety and that athletes can be prepared to deal with it. 

“We put people under pressure in training in order not to choke in competitions, so we simulate competitions as much as we can in order to get people to a point where they are ready, so when they are put under pressure they deal with it.” 

Cunliffe says that as the decisive stages come closer, the athlete gives more value and becomes more focused on the competition and as the athlete’s expectations begin to grow, so does the amount of anxiety, nerves and pressure that she/he feels, and these can take a toll on their performance. 

However, Busch believes that most of the best athletes in the world don’t see pressure as a negative thing.

“They want to be in those matches, they want to play in the big games. They see it as their stage, where they can go out and perform. They see it as something to embrace and some of them see it as a privilege, something that they shouldn’t shy away from but is what actually helps them bring out the best of themselves.”

And we have seen both examples in the world of sports as some big-time athletes like Usain Bolt and Cristiano Ronaldo rarely fail on the big stage and seem to enjoy being in the biggest spotlight there is. While other athletes or teams such as the English Football National team don’t necessarily fare well on the big stage. 

Some find it easier than others and just like training can help an athlete become better at their sport, sports psychologists can help athletes become mentally stronger and improve their performance. 

They can teach athletes key skills and techniques that they can use in order to enhance their performances during the crucial stages of the season. 

Helping them on the big stage

“We need to help the players understand their own thought process and help them through their own self-awareness”, says Bradley Busch as he outlines how every player is given a different kind of treatment and is approached differently by sports psychologists. 

However, some general skills or qualities are needed in order to succeed on big occasions. 

Composure and confidence are key to performing in the decisive moments according to Bradley Busch. He says that athletes lose composure because of stress and that stress leads them to rush and make mistakes. In the context of football, he coaches players to know that even if there are only five minutes left in a match ‘that is still plenty of time to turn things around’. 

He says that by acknowledging this the players have a good starting point for keeping their composure. 

Matthew Cunliffe, on the other hand, highlights the importance of athlete’s maintaining concentration and focus during a contest. 

“They should be thinking about the here and now, the present. What skills and techniques are going to help me win the competition that I am in. They need to be focusing on their technique, the tactics, the game, the key fundamental elements of their sport. Focusing on things that you’re fantastic in your sport, that can help you to win.”

Busch also says that focus during a match is highly important, as losing focus can lead to nervousness and loss of confidence, as often athletes feel nervous because they are not focusing on the things that they can control and they don’t feel confident because they are focusing on all the previous mistakes and setbacks made.  

Emotions and thoughts can make an athlete can lose their focus. It’s not hard to remember Pepe kicking an Espanyol player and Zinedine Zidane head-butting Materazzi in the World Cup final, they both lost control of their emotions and harmed their team terribly.

In order to manage the emotions of an athlete, Cunliffe would have personal therapy with the athlete in order to face the problems that are the root of the problem. As he says sports psychologists have the same training as psychologists in many areas and can conduct a personal session with the player.

Busch says he would teach the player the tools that he/she needs in order to deal with emotion control during a match, the most popular tool is labelling emotions. 

“The technique is called labelling your emotions, simply saying I’m feeling angry is quite a good way, is a good first step to managing that emotion. Doing that for anger or nerves, frustration or jealousy, is the same technique of labelling the emotions. 

Pepe -who I mentioned earlier- is one of many successful cases, as he went through various sports psychologists following his violent conduct inside the football pitch. The veteran defender has now changed his ways and hasn’t received a red car in over five years, which goes to lengths to show how much can psychologists do for a player. 

Composure, confidence and focus are key for athletes during the matches, but previous to them sports psychologists have plenty of work as they try and ‘dampen’ an athlete’s anxiety and nerves.

“Sport psychologists will try to dampen the effect of those (nerves, anxiousness and pressure) by reducing the expectation, reducing the goals, the exposure to the media and exposure to social media,” says Cunliffe.

And he highlights that in recent times a social media reduction could be key, as it limits the athlete’s exposure to other people’s expectations of him/her, which generates pressure on the athlete. 

“Near high-level competitions, if athletes are looking at social media and people’s expectations of them then their anxiety is going to increase. People’s expectation and anxiety takes a toll on how they perform.”

Bradley Busch, however, believes that although it can be an effective measure it can also have a negative effect on some athletes that use social media constantly. 

“It depends on the athletes. For some, it can be a great technique, whereas some athletes find it a bit boring being away from home and they use social media to improve their mood and use it as a hobby and it works well for them.”

He thinks that changing many things previous to a big occasion can be a mistake because focusing too much on changing a routine and on a situation, can make athletes feel pressure and may change the athlete’s behaviour that they need to have in order to be successful.

Once the competition is over, sports psychologists have to be ready for whatever the outcome and when their athletes fail to reach the objective, they will need help recovering from such a blow.

“All athletes have had notable setbacks but they have responded well from them. Although no one wants to fail and have setbacks, seeing them as a learning opportunity or self-reflection of growing and developing puts them in a better position next time to hopefully not make the same mistakes,” says Bradley as history tells us most athletes do learn from their first choking experience and never repeat it. 

Such is the case of LeBron James who famously choked in the 2011 NBA finals against Dallas, but went on to win the NBA championship twice in the next two years. Sports psychologists say that is about using that negative experience to learn and push yourself, and if the athlete can’t do that themselves, then sports psychologists can help them bounce back quicker and stronger from such a fall. 

But sports psychologists do not only help active players but also have to help with those that have been sidelined due to injury. 

Overcoming injuries

A serious injury can change the outlook of an athlete’s career. It is described by players as a time of doubts and stress for what the future might hold. Getting severely injured and recovering from it is a long mental challenge that many athletes have to face during their careers. Most athletes recover physically but how do they recover psychologically from it? 

Matthew Cunliffe says that injuries are a very complex process and that stress and isolation can play a very negative role in the athlete’s rehabilitation if they aren’t handled correctly. 

We know that stress impacts rehabilitation, so we would try to reduce that stress and reduce the impact of that stress, we could do that with psychotherapy, with psychological techniques, with relaxation techniques, with therapies and social support from their family members, from coaches in order to help them reduce stress and increase the likelihood of recovery.  

“Athletes feel isolated and out of the team. Most injured athletes would be made to be involved in the team while injured, they might still be injured but will turn up for training, still be there for competition days, doing their rehabilitation during training so that they are still involved in the team. Support is very important.” 

Bradley Busch, however, downplays the seriousness of athlete’s injuries and says they shouldn’t get themselves down: “There are two types of footballers: those who are injured and those who aren’t injured yet. Everyone gets injured at some stage, so not getting too down when it happens to be your turn is a good starting point.”

He focuses on having the athletes have a positive mindset towards the injury and concentrate the time that they are sidelined to improve and come back better than before. 

“It’s all about having the mindset when going to it that although is not going to be the best time of your life, it doesn’t have to be the worst. If you use your chances to learn, then you can come back better.

“You have time in your hands and that’s time you can spend becoming a student of the game, becoming a student of your own game, developing your psychological skills and working on techniques to manage nerves and confidence and composure.”

And although it is a traumatic experience for many, recently athletes have been coming back with more confidence from their injuries. Lionel Messi suffered a serious knee injury three years ago and came back as if nothing happened just as Jabari Parker, who has now suffered two fractured ACL injuries in the last two years, but made an impressive return to the NBA with the same confidence as he had before the injury. 

Regardless of the incredible advances in medicine and physiotherapy, it is worth noting that during the recovery process, the mind plays a hugely important part, and sports psychologists’ job at keeping it calmed is very impressive.

New Importance of coaching 

As I mentioned earlier, most sports organizations have begun investing more in sports psychologists in the last couple of decades. It’s an extra edge that they can help them achieve their objectives at the end of the season. 

Matthew Cunliffe says that organizations are looking for extra gains that can help them be successful. 

“It’s a performance gain. It’s an extra edge, it’s an extra 1%, an extra marginal gain. The use of psychology is down to that extra gain that these organizations want to get. If you can get that extra, then they are more likely to be successful and that’s what they want.” 

Long before the rise of sport psychology, many people and pundits said that sport is a mental game, that sometimes the team or the athlete that ‘wants it more’ or is more motivated takes the contest. But Bradley Busch thinks that sometimes people can give too much importance to the mental aspect of sports.

“You always hear people saying that sport is 90% mental but I think that the best way of thinking about it is that sport psychology allows people to maximize their ability to perform at their potential. But it is their skills that ultimately decide how high that potential bar can be.

“I think psychology is a key part, but if you don’t have underlying skills you are unlikely to perform at the highest level.”

Busch also says that although many of the top Premier League clubs don’t employ a full-time in-house sports psychologist (they have them as consultants), it is more ingrained in the world of sport than what it was 10 or 15 years ago and will only continue to grow in the coming years. 

He says that although some athletes might not want any help, every athlete can learn something from having a sport psychologist: “Everyone can develop from having a sport psychologist that improves their self-awareness and self-management and that’s for the most talented athletes to the most amateur ones. I think everyone can benefit from that sort of service.”

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