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BEST FIT Issue 20 -Inside The Mind Of Winners

PSYCHOLOGY ISS 20 1

PSYCHOLOGY ISS 20 1

What makes the world’s greatest sports star so good? Ability is only the half of it, writes Sam Morshead. It’s as much about the psychology as the physiology…

To become the best in the world, sportsmen and women need more than just talent. They must have a mind to match. For champions across the globe, winning is the end product of years of training, dedication and personal sacrifice but it’s also down to mental fortitude, a natural inclination to persevere and the ability to tap anger, humour and focus at appropriate times.
So how do the sports’ elite think? And what challenges do they face on a psychological level?

“You have to believe that you’ve got what it takes to win or to succeed but you also have to back it up. It’s no good just dreaming about being a winner, it has to have some foundation on ability. And you have to take risks,” says Dr Victor Thompson, who’s well qualified to answer.

Thompson is a London-based sports psychologist, endurance runner and our guide into the human psyche.

“The other side is coping when it doesn’t go well – if you miss a penalty or fail to win a race,” he says. “You have to know in yourself how you’re able, why you’re able and how to deal with it if and when it doesn’t work out.”

While competitors may be conditioned by the experiences of their childhood, Thompson emphasises the point that sport acts as a release valve; an outlet for self-expression denied at school or at home.

Sam MorsheadBasketball megastar Lebron James grew up without his convict father; Australian international cricketer David Warner has spoken of how his parents could barely afford to buy him a plastic bat – ‘I got told ‘no’ so often, eventually I learned not to ask’; rugby icon Jonah Lomu suffered in a house riddled with domestic violence – ‘dad got angry and wanted to bash us’.
All three, and many dozens more besides, found solace in sport and, given their previous experiences, their chosen events made their focus intensify and fuelled their drive to succeed.

“Even if you’ve not had a great start in life, you can still develop a more confident mindset, which then can act as a catalyst for your personal improvement,” says Thompson.
“A lot of sports people who do well come from hardship. They’ve found success in sport and a contrast to some of their hardship within sport. If a teammate or coach believes in them, that can be very reinforcing.

“When a sport gives you meaning and belonging it makes you more determined.”

To reach the top, athletes need to have durable emotions and an understanding of how they react to certain situations.

Thompson illustrates an evolving sportsman by pointing to Andy Murray’s self-education in controlling his on-court tantrums and redeploying them as a turbo charge – “he’s learnt to use those experiences to help him, whereas five years or so ago he might have become distracted” – while he also picks up on a champion’s ability to stand back and assess the situation.

“The best in the world are able to reflect on what they’re doing and not just go hard all the time,” he says.

“Training needs to be approached intelligently and workload needs to be adapted accordingly, and that requires a balanced state of mind.”

Dealing with the media and public scrutiny is a complex process, particularly in the modern world of celebrity – and athletes must rise above the bitchiness of gossip magazines and the intense glare of sports journalists.

“For most of us, the negative stuff stands out,” says Thompson. “It’s difficult to cope with for a lot of people over the long term. The top athletes will be able to avoid the stories or dismiss it without thinking too hard about it.”

In what Thompson calls “explosive” sports – notably boxing, UFC and sprint events – posture is hugely important.

Usain Bolt’s trademark celebrations and pre-race fun and games have become a staple part of top events; Conor McGregor recently showed tremendous bravado moving up 20 pounds to fight

Nate Diaz; trash talk is synonymous with any major heavyweight world title contest.

Thompson describes this as “animal behaviour”. Sport’s stags lock horns to get inside the mind of their opponents. Those who can cope with the psychology usually prevail.

“Ten years ago, before Bolt came on the scene, everyone was serious, staring down the line, trying to psych people out. It is all about display behaviour – showing off your plumage,” he says.

And those who like to laugh should not be told to wipe away their smiles. Novak Djokovic – a known prankster on the ATP Tour – has become the most dominant tennis player in a generation but still finds the time to sing for the crowd, rally with ball boys or dance ‘Gangnam Style’ at Flushing Meadows.

“It goes to show that you can relax a bit during big competitions and still win. You don’t have to be a super-serious machine, like a robot, to do well,” says Thompson.

“It can work for you and can work against you – if you’re trying too hard to be funny then it can be distracting. If it comes naturally then sometimes putting a lid on it can be more problematic.”

In the cut-throat world of elite sport, then, the answer Thompson provides is stark. Ability and mindset by themselves cannot make a champion. Stitch the two together, however, and it’s a completely different story.

“Training needs to be approached intelligently and workload needs to be adapted accordingly, and that requires a balanced state of mind.”

Dr Victor Thompson’s eight tips for the sporting pysche.

1. Focus

“Establish your focus – what needs doing and when? The focus can be internal, external, narrow or broad. It’s not just about being focused or not focused. You need to figure out what you need to be focused on.”

2. Body Language

“Establish your focus – what needs doing and when? The focus can be internal, external, narrow or broad. It’s not just about being focused or not focused. You need to figure out what you need to be focused on.”

3. Look into the Future

“If you get angry with yourself and have a strop it can make you more focused and motivated, so it’s not overly destructive. We all know people who throw a bit of a wobbler and they’re out of the game for the next 20 minutes. Other players almost need that to get them into the game. You need to work out your individual pattern.”

4. Deal with Expectation

“Take Mo Farah, for example. If the expectation is you’re going to do the double double it means you’ve done something good in the past and you’re a high quality athlete. He’ll be able to think back on what he did right before, what his body felt like before and how it compares to how he is before his next race.

5. Treat your Event like a Job Interview

“If you think you’ve got the skills to do the job and you’re comfortable conveying it then it’s easy. If you’re not sure you’ve got the right skills and experience and you’re unprepared, you’re going to feel the pressure.”

6. Strut only if you’re Comfortable with Strutting

“A lot of top competitors have a bit of swagger and convey their confidence but a lot of people on the high street convey the same sort of swagger. It’s not necessary at the top level. If you believe you’re ready and you can dominate, you don’t need to strut around to convince yourself that you’ve got it.”

7. Encourage Copycats

“Usain Bolt is more laid-back, strolling around a bit and having a joke. More and more of the top runners are now copying that because they’re trying to emulate the top dog. That’s associated with the person you aspire to be.”

8. It’s Okay to have a Laugh, but only if you want to

“Humour releases tension, makes you more likeable and allows you to have fun. People vary in their sense of humour and how humorous they are.”

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