In the interests of disclosure let me clarify; I’m not a Sports Psychologist. In fact, in the world of Sport Science I’m far more Physiology, Coaching or Strength and Conditioning involved.
I came back from a basketball game today. I scored 6 points in the first quarter, missing what should have been easy shots. I was substituted out, and sat as the rest of the team struggled to get into any offensive rhythm. At the half we were down by 8 points. In the second half we came back at them taking over the game down the stretch, and winning by 8 points. I came back into the game toward the end of the 3rd quarter, and in the final quarter I scored 12 points, including 3 of 4 free throws, finishing on a respectable 21 points. What was the difference? I was no quicker, no stronger, no more powerful, no greater agility; physiologically I was the same player. At half time we had talked about calming down, playing our game, not getting flustered, and so forth. It was all mental, literally. But we took control. A close friend and well respected Lecturer in Sport Psychology iterated to me some time ago;
“There are two fundamental rules in the psychology of sports:
1. Control the controllables
2. Play in that moment”
She’s absolutely right, and with my involvement at high level coaching this is something that we try to live by with all of our players. You can’t control your opponents shooting, but you can control your defence. You can’t control whether your shot rattles around the rim and rolls out, or whether it goes swish, but you can control the technique of your shot. And in the same sense you can’t change what’s been, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you live in that play at that moment. I say to players I coach that if they carry every mistake on their shoulders then it will weigh them down, and it’s absolutely true.
Another well respected coaching colleague and I wrote a series of mantras for our Women’s team at the Wheelchair World Championships last year in Birmingham (we’re both assistant coaches);
“If I make a mistake, I will forgive myself and my team will forgive me”
“I will not dwell on past mistakes or try to fix them by playing outside our system”
“I will re-focus on how I play and how we play”
We listed 4 team goals, three of which mentioned communication, aggression, focus, belief, and one of which was more physically orientated.
Our players identified personal goals for the same tournament, stating; aggression, confidence, calm, assertive, belief, commitment, communication, not over-thinking things. One of twelve players listed skill or physiological based goals, the other eleven were psychologically orientated.
I'm watching Manchester Utd beat Southampton Football Club in the fourth round draw of the FA cup (1-0 to Southampton at half time; 2-1 to Manchester Utd at present). But what was the real difference. Perhaps Man Utd came out complacent in the first half conceding that first goal. And perhaps they re-grouped with their belief, and confidence, and composure, playing their game, and knowing they were the better team. What about Southampton, maybe they started aggressive, confident, but even when leading 1-0 they knew that they were playing Manchester Utd, (sickeningly) one of the best teams, two leagues above Southampton. Imagine the complexities of what could have been going around the players brains.
With all this in mind; what’s the most important part of an athlete?
As a coach I always say that I would rather have an athlete with the right mental attitude and perhaps lacking physiological attributes than vice versa, especially in a team sport. I think most coaches would agree, and perhaps this is what makes the great players truly ‘great’. Not their ability, but fit within a team dynamic, or a team system. As a physiologist or strength and conditioning coach I might be able to improve their fitness, strength, endurance, agility, power, which in-turn might enhance their skill and ability, and at best might improve confidence. But what lies in the heart, or more importantly; in the head of an athlete might be even more important.