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Sport psychology inside the mind of champion athletes 2020

Sport psychology inside the mind of champion athletes 2020


Mohand Habchi Reviewer: Elisabeth BuffardWhen we look at Olympic sport, sport at the highest level, there are clearly some athletes who always seem to get it right. For example, Usain Bolt: Olympic 100m, 200m champion, twice over, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in the London Olympics. Michael Phelps: the most bemedaled Olympian of all time.

These are athletes who clearly get it right, both psychologically and physiologically all of the time. It is also interesting to note that they have contrasting approaches. Usain Bolt, with all his comedy antics, prior to his event, when he is on the start line. We’ve all seen this. (Laughter)Michael Phelps, however, a much different approach.

He sits down, he is listening to music, he has a much more cerebral, contemplative approach towards his event. But it’s both very effective. Sports psychology may play a part in their preparation for their events, and maybe a reason why they’re successful. What happens when things go wrong? Here’s another example. In the 2012 Olympics in London in the soccer final, there were two finalists, Brazil and Mexico.

Brazil was the undoubted favorites. They were expected to win. They were the reigning Olympic champions. They were extremely skilled, on paper, they were the best team. Mexico had made it to the final playing well, but they were unfancied. In the final, Mexico went to Brazilin an incredible display of attacking football. It was incredibly impressive to watch.

And if you watched the Brazilian players, their heads dropped. They seemed slightly defeated. They could not understand why they were not performing quite as well as they were. Perhaps they were complacent. Perhaps they’d expected too much. Perhaps they were overconfident.

The Mexicans had nothing to lose, they attacked with fervor and they won the Olympic title, they were the Olympic champions over the fancy favorites. Perhaps sport psychology can explain why fancied champions may be over-confident and may fail when they’re expected to win, and perhaps why underdogs take on the best and win despite all the odds.

Take another example

James Magnussen: a man with seemingly unshakeable self-confidence. He said he was going to win the 100m-sprint final in the pool at the London Olympics. He was extremely confident. But in that race, he was out-touched in the line by Nathan Adrian, by 1100 of a second. And that was devastating for him, you could see his body language after, he was destroyed. Perhaps he was over-confident.

Perhaps though, his obvious confidence in the events leading up to the actual final. Perhaps his confidence belied an underlying self low confidence. Perhaps he was not very confident inside when he should have been supremely confident of his abilities because he was the world leader in the event. So perhaps psychology may have played a part, but in particular, it may help when overcoming such a devastating defeat for the next event.

Another very good example: Roy McAvoy. In the 2011 Augusta masters, he was expected to win, he was amongst the favorites certainly, and he’s an extremely talented golfer. In fact, he is the one player that all the people on the tour, all the golfers on the tour, the PGA tour, fear the most. And yet on the day, when he was leading, on the final day of the even the was leading by four shots.

He’d played superbly on the previous three days. He experienced a catastrophic drop in his performance. He shot a round of 80, and this is something that professional golfers can do in their sleep, certainly very easily, because they frequently shoot rounds of 70 or below and that’s a good shot. So 80 was a catastrophic failure, and he ended up tying for fifteenth place. So you’d think that that sort of devastating performance may have impacted on his mind.

However, only eight weeks later, he won the U. S open, and there was no sign of the lack of confidence and the fact that the pressure had got to him, that was displayed when he was in Augusta. So it seemed that he picked up the pieces. And what is it that made him do so? Sports psychology may indeed have the answers. So, elite athletes, coaches, and the people who surround athletes know very well the importance of sport psychology, and they’re beginning to embrace it.

James Magnussen or Roy McAvoy?

Sport psychologists are often included in the teams that surround athletes nowadays. What is sport psychology? Well, it is the science, study, and practice of mental preparation for sport. It involves identifying the techniques and strategies that athletes can take and use, so they perform on their most optimum. It also helps athletes deal with come back, with setbacks and helps them to come back from devastating defeats. Such as those by James Magnussen or Roy McAvoy.

So we just begin to unpack some of these strategies that sport psychologists talk about. So looking inside of the mind of a winner, what factors are linked to success in sport? Well, clearly an athlete has to be motivated. Often goals that athletes set, describe or. . . will demonstrate how much effort and how much will they have to win in their event. But sometimes motivation is not enough.

An athlete has to be confident, and confidence seems to be ubiquitous amongst high-performing performers. There’s a number of strategies that athletes can use to boost their confidence. Another important factor is knowledge of the sport. So basically, knowing your sport inside out, but also knowing the opposition. What are their strengths and weaknesses? One of the phrases coined by Clive Woodward, who was the England coach at the time they won the Rugby World Cup in 2003.

One of the phrases he coined was total rugby, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to performance. " He was very famous for developing dossiers on the opposition. Knowing their strengths, knowing their weaknesses and where he could attack them and how he could tactically win them. And that’s clearly important in sports these days. So, using psychology to understand the opposition’s well as yourself.

Athletes are also very good at using routines, getting themselves in the right frame of mind. We’ll look at that in a few moment’s time. Athletes are also good at handling pressure. If you look at Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, they are cases in point. And anxiety management is clearly an important aspect of an athlete’s arsenal of strategies to get them in the right frame of mind so that they can perform at their best. So let’s look at some of these strategies in detail.

Motivation is clearly very important, and how do you get athlete motivated? The most important things are the goals that they set. The goals that they set will determine how much drive, how much effort, how much will they have to perform well. But often a goal of winning is not enough. Sometimes, oh, most times, it is important that an athlete has a number of sub-goals that are related to their performance.

SMART Acronym

So things like personal bests, that drive them both in training and in competition. It’s important that these goals conform to certain features. And scientists, psychologists, and practitioners always refer to this SMART- acronym. And that’s because, having goals that are realistic, relevant, specific, measurable and so forth, are really important when it comes to getting an athlete motivated.

As I said earlier, motivation is not enough. It is important that an athlete is confident, and there is a number of ways you can boost an athlete’s self-confidence. Experience. Reminding an athlete of their experience is extremely important. Modeling. I don’t mean catwalk-modeling here, modeling is also an important aspect because that enables an athlete to have a model or blueprint if you like of the optimum performance.

Imagery and self-talk are parts of that and we’ll get on to those in a moment. Feedback is clearly important as well. Positive feedback from the athlete’s coaches. Imagery is a mental rehearsal and it is a strategy that many athletes use. And here are the kinds of things that an athlete or a coach will go through when they’re rehearsing their performance. It is almost like an article about their performance.

They will also use prompts, but they also visualize any contingency that arises. For example, any barriers or problems or difficulties that arise during the course of their competition. Here’s an example of these kinds of strategies in action. This is Blanka Vlašić: she was a former world champion, high jumper, and YWF athlete of the year.

And she was very famous for going through the same performance routine prior to a competition. She would close her eyes, visualize a successful jump. She would clap her hands rhythmically, and use the audience to get the audience on board and that would both boost her motivation and her confidence, and then she would practice some moves shortly before executing her jump. Self-talk is another strategy that athletes use.


It’s an extremely important strategy because it enables athletes to go through in their minds and use mantras to try to boost their motivation, but also to try to manage the competition and the situation. For example, the situation where the pressure is on and they are highly anxious. So, self-talk might have motivational components, but it also might help athletes focus on important things that are relevant to performance, so-called cues, and also might have a calming effect.

Things like breathe and relax. Anxiety management is an important aspect of sports performance. Clearly, at the Olympic Games the World Championships at the highest level, athletes are going to be under pressure and they need to be able to cope with that pressure. Sometimes being too anxious can actually undermine an athlete’s performance. It can be sub-optimal.

So relaxation techniques are extremely important in this regard, and psychologists will work with athletes to try and help them to relax. So it might involve things like breathing, stretching, relaxing the muscles, they’ll also use things like music and meditation. Michael Phelps is a good example, he listens to music right up to the few minutes before is an event, and that music will get him to the right frame of mind for that event. It will help him to relax but it will also motivate him.

Here’s a good example of somebody using those techniques to the greatest extent. This is Yelena Isinbayeva: double Olympic champion at the pole vault, and also the world record holder. This is her in the 2012 Olympics, she’s clearly very relaxed, she lies back, she covers herself in a close, this has the effect of shutting out any distractions but also it has the effect of relaxing her and relieving the pressure.


So in terms of the mind of a winner from a sport psychology perspective, an athlete has to be motivated, confident in their abilities, manage pressure extremely well, and use these well trained-drilled techniques like imagery, self-talk, and relaxation.

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