Ask A Sports Psychologist: Making The Bigtime

BrainspiralNovember 14, 2013

Qualification for big races can take more than perfect physical preparation – it takes a mental edge, too. Whether it’s the Olympics, World Junior Championships, or making your region’s squad for junior nationals, many athletes face the pressure of having to perform when it counts, and coming into races with the wrong mindset can be a big detriment.

We talked to Dartmouth College sports psychologist Dr. Mark Hiatt about what it takes to get your head in the game. For more background on Dr. Hiatt and sports psychology in general, as well as an introduction to some of the concepts and tools he advocates, check out our segment from last week, when we talked to him about team and interpersonal dynamics. As always, if his suggestions spark your interest, seek out a sports psychologist to work one-on-one through your own situation. Many universities offer appointments for students and sometimes also the public. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology also has a “find a consultant” online tool.

As in that piece, the FasterSkier staff brainstormed some situations that skiers might find themselves in, and asked Dr. Hiatt to weigh in. Here’s what we came up with.

Scenario 1: It’s trials time, for Olympics or maybe World Junior Championships. An athlete has a very outside chance of making it based on last year’s results, but thinks that he has improved a lot and has a shot. However, every time he thinks about it he gets a little hopped up because he has to have his best race ever. He’s afraid he will try to hard in the beginning of the race and blow it. What’s a good strategy to manage the pressure?

Mark Hiatt: “I would recommend starting with relaxation/breathing techniques. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘energy management’ in the Sport Psychology literature. Athletes can also use visualization strategies to see themselves performing at a pace that is optimal for the race. It may be useful to incorporate cognitive strategies to manage any negative thoughts. These can include strategies to recognize negative thinking, dismiss the negative thoughts, or counter and challenge them.”

Highlights: Visualization can be extremely helpful, but it also holds a danger: if you picture yourself racing perfectly, and things don’t get off to such a great start, you might lose a lot of confidence. Dr. Patrick Cohn of Peak Performance sports has a podcast you can listen to about what might be the most productive way to use visualization. The magazine Psychology Today offers a run-down of relaxation and breathing techniques; one is progressive muscle relaxation, a routine that is more of a long-term strategy to learn how to get, and stay, relaxed. You can find a script for progressive muscle relaxation here.

Scenario 2: Two races into a four-race trials series, an athlete is ranked solidly within the team picked for these races. He still has to have one more good race to clinch his spot, but his success so far is making him relax – maybe too much. How does he stay focused through the whole trials series?

Mark Hiatt: “The athlete may want to review his/her personal goals for the season to reinforce why the particular race is important. One question may be to see if there are ways to make the goals more challenging or interesting to the athlete (e.g., targeting a particular time). Again, we could work on visualization exercises and cognitive strategies to reinforce competitive thinking. Mindfulness breathing strategies have been found to be helpful for some athletes in improving attention and focus. Mindfulness breathing exercises train athletes to pay close attention to breathing while trying to let go of distractions such as thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.”

Scenario 3: A skier is widely expected to qualify for the Olympics, but still must go through the actual trials process. She has been building up for this since the last Olympics, where she just missed qualifying, and has attracted a lot of support from family, friends, even local businesses. It’s a little bit overwhelming to think how many people have bought into this dream and put their money on the line. She feels like if she doesn’t qualify, she’ll be letting them down, but she knows that these thoughts are not productive for racing. How does she put them out of her mind or turn them into something positive?

Mark Hiatt: “It might be useful to spend some time exploring these thoughts and feelings with the athlete, as it sounds like she is putting a lot of pressure on herself to perform. I think that cognitive strategies, such as observing/dismissing negative thoughts, challenging them, or affirming more productive/competitive thoughts could be helpful for her. Having negative thoughts before, during, and after competition is normal and happens to all athletes (as well as everyone). There are a few options for managing negative/unproductive thoughts. In general, the first step is to distinguish between what is healthy and productive competitive thinking versus unproductive thinking for an athlete. I often have athletes think back to their top performances and go through them to help identify what all the thoughts and emotions were that contributed to that great performance.

“Once there is a better sense of what the productive versus unproductive thoughts area, we can practice skills to dismiss the unproductive thoughts and focus on the more productive ones that we want for competition. One example is using mindfulness meditation based skills to dismiss negative thinking. Good competitive thinking may be more general or focused on a specific skill. Ideally we might have a combination of them to use at different times, general thoughts before the competition and skill-bases specific thoughts (e.g., “push off strong”) during competition.”

Scenario 4: Congrats – you were picked for these big races in Europe that have been your goal for years! Several weeks into the trip, though, is your birthday. All of a sudden you realize how much you really miss your family. You just can’t focus because you’re imagining how comforting it would be to be at home celebrating together, but right now your only support on the road comes from teammates and coaches. How can you overcome this?

Mark Hiatt: “I think the first step is to acknowledge these feelings and not try to fight them. These feelings are normal and natural to have in this type of situation and for many people the more you try to fight them the worse it gets. So I think the first step is accepting acknowledging these feelings and accepting them openly. It’s not something to overcome as much as it is to help athletes figure out how they want to act with them. On a practical level, I might ask if there are there some possible solutions in terms of reaching out and touching base with the athlete’s family? Is this something that would help the athlete? Are there ways for the athlete to communicate with coaches and teammates about how he or she is feeling? Again, I might revisit goals for competition and training and work on cognitive strategies, visualization, and relaxation techniques to help prepare for competition.”


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