The sight of the ‘birds nest' Olympic stadium in Beijing is about to become a daily feature of our lives as the global media prepare to report on the games. For the participants, the difference between winning and losing could be measured in milliseconds. Records will be broken and World Class athletes will weep with joy as they stand on the podium to receive their much deserved medals. But when all other things appear equal, what is the difference between the athlete who wins and the one who loses? To what extent does the psychology of the individual matter?
Recently, I've become more aware of some of the chatter surrounding the build up to the Olympic Games. A good deal of this involves the psychological preparation of elite athletes. Some of the focus stems from our understanding of issues like anxiety and how this can negatively affect the performance of athletes. However, a new terminology is beginning to appear and this is largely due to the contribution of Sports Psychologists. Now, I can read about, ‘mental cues that promote the consistent execution of an optimized movement pattern', or more broadly, ‘balanced management of creative tensions that arise from a team of specialists' (Collins, 2008).
In broad terms, the competitive athlete needs to reduce or prevent issues likely to inhibit their performance, whilst enhancing things likely to help them achieve their performance goals. The reality is that these issues tend to coincide so whilst focusing on anxiety reduction may help somewhat, it can never account for the full psychological picture affecting performance.
One of the most consistent themes to emerge in the literature relating to athletic performance is self-confidence. Self-confidence is really something of an amalgamation of psychological factors that include motivation, emotions and various cognitive processes. The fact that the athlete believes in their ability to succeed and is not overwhelmed by the occasion, the crowd or their opponents, could dictate the difference between a mediocre performance or an outright win.
So how does a World Class athlete acquire such confidence in the first place? Research by Kate Hays, reported in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2007, has identified no less than nine key sources of confidence and six types of sport confidence.
Hays, from the School of Science & Technology, Nottingham Trent University, UK, and her colleagues, interviewed 14 athletes, 13 of whom had received medals in at least one major World Class event and who had been competing at the highest level for between five to 16 years. The athletes were representatives of a variety of sports including diving, swimming, athletics, pentathlon, hockey and others.
Analysis of data revealed the nine sources of confidence to be: preparation, performance accomplishment, coaching, innate-factors, social support, experience, competitive advantage, self-awareness and trust. In terms of sport confidence the factors to emerge were: skill execution, achievement, physical factors, psychological factors, superiority over the opposition and tactical awareness.
Such findings, Hays argues, points to a need for "the development of interventions targeted towards protecting and enhancing an athlete's sources and types of confidence" (p.454). The fact that all athletes cited multiple sources and types of confidence suggests ways that sporting consultants and coaches might adapt their approach away from any particular idea, towards encouraging athletes to derive confidence from a wide variety of sources.
As for the rest of us, why can't we learn from these same principles? Is it sufficient simply to teach someone with anxiety to relax? Should we be encouraging a broader and more inclusive way of building confidence that involves the client in ways of seeking out their own positive influences and embracing them? In fairness, many therapists both try and succeed in doing just this. Yet there are plenty of ‘therapists' out there, who try to manage complex psychological processes with a simple blunt tool or two. If it seems too simple - it quite possibly is.
Published On: August 04, 2008