Everyone who has ever competed at a high level has suffered with the jitters, or succumbed to the pressure of competition and not performed as well as they know we can at one time or another. Losing a competition where they were tipped to win or a title they knew was theirs, that was until they stepped out onto the arena and their world crumbled around them.
How would you react to this? would you brush it off with a blasé comment such as “I just didn’t feel right today”, or maybe “the venue isn’t up to what I am used to” or some other excuse. For some of us this is an all too familiar problem. Sometimes, we are never able to “be alright on the night” no matter how often or hard we train. For many a promising competitive careers is destroyed by this phenomenon and it all happens from within your own mind.
Its ‘normal’ to have an off day, or to just not get it right once or twice however for some athletes it’s more serious than that its a regular occurrence week after week, competition after competition. So why do some athletes show phenomenal talent in the training hall but crumble when it comes to competition day?
It’s a common enough scenario in elite sport, we have all watched and cringed as a player self destructs before our eyes, apparently with no control over it, almost like a spectator themselves to their own demise, one who has a front row seat. It is a scenario that is played out in every sporting discipline on every continent every week of the year.
So what is it? Is it the external pressure? Is it the different venue? Or is it something more sinister?
I used to train and compete with a guy who was probably one of the greatest Gymnastic talents I had seen come out of the UK. He was everything a Gymnast should be – he was physically ideal, as though he was a kit gymnast built with a specific purpose in mind. An athlete that had been made to measure and assembled like a high performance sports car – with nothing to spare. He certainly had the talent, the skill set, the attitude and fantastic family support.
I used to watch him as he would pick up new moves easily, remember set routines without a second glance and had an arrogance that intimidated.
He was a couple of years older than me and the time had come where I was due to compete against him. I woke the morning of the competition feeling nervous, reflective, overwhelmed and sick to the stomach – I knew he was better than me and he was odds on favourite to win.
As we warmed up prior to the competition I could see him hitting his routines with fighter pilot accuracy, as he had done all season in the gym – yet I noticed something new, something in his face, in his stance he almost looked shorter, far less intimidating more intimidated. He appeared uncomfortable and agitated, I wondered why? He certainly was a class above the rest of us and he knew it or so I thought. So what could be bothering him.
And so he took to the floor to perform his first routine, he was fidgety and he wasn’t acting in his usual confident – arrogant – strutting way. On his opening line he fell! I had seen him perform that line hundreds of times without a second thought and never had he fallen!
His routine was second rate and when all was said and done, after all six apparatus he finished 11th place and I had won the competition.
We competed many times over many years after that day. He continued to be the champion of the training hall and never won a competition over me, falling in to the category of an under achiever and fading into the background never to be seen again.
So what can we surmise from this? Is it that physical ability or even talent isn’t what wins competitions or defines a true champion? It has to be something more. Sure, you have to be able to compete in the competition in order to be competitive, but it would appear the edge is your mental strength not your physical – that is the defining aspect!
So what defines the former Olympic swimming legend Ian Thorp as a champion? His physical technique had been studied, scrutinised and copied by many swimmers around the world. His physical strength had been surpassed by others yet he continued to get better and better results, dominating the pool for many years. So you have to ask yourself – why? What do these all time great have, the rest of us are searching for?
I believe it is their control over their mental performance and their ability to manage the pressure, to perform as they have practiced no matter where they are or what the situation. For Thorp it didn’t matter whether he was competing in a local swim meet or the Olympic Games, the same swimmer enters the pool time after time after time with the same objective. He produced the same consistent, repetitious results that earned him the status he obtained! We have all heard Ian talking about competing against himself and himself alone and that’s what mattered to him, mentally eliminating his competitors before he enters the pool as their results didn’t impact on his objective.
We now see the same patterning with the Tennis ace Roger Federer, consistently producing results, time after time in a calm almost clinical manner. He appears unfazed by the other players on the court, he merely follows his predefined game plan. Its these results that have seen him being called the greatest Tennis champion of all time.
Going back to that Gymnast, he had trained himself to succeed in the training hall but he would perform differently at competition, drawing on a different learnt behaviour and a different set of neurological points of reference. He would spend 50 hours a week honing his approach to the routine and on competition day would not apply the same ‘triggers’ or thought process – so essentially he was turning up without preparing. He left his best performance in the training hall, never achieving anything near his potential and never utilising his natural talent purely because no one taught him how to.
When I was competing, I was always told to train as though it is a competition, prepare with the same objective, think the same, act the same and believe the same. I never knew why at the time. I now know however there is a sound scientific philosophy behind those throwaway statements and one that defines champions.
Every action we perform creates a unique chemical imprint in our brain, this becomes our neurological point of reference for the next time we perform that action! So when you go to cross the road you will look left and then right (In the UK) as taught from a very young age What starts as a conscious action becomes an unconscious action, or more commonly known as our behaviour.
So if you moved to a country where the traffic travelled in a different direction? (Such as In the USA) You would need to retrain your behaviour, creating new neurological points of reference to look Right then Left. Obviously this can be done – it just needs some conscious thought processes for a period of time before again it becomes an unconscious action, or a new learnt behaviour.
So obviously if you train a bad habit, it then becomes your point of neurological reference and your behaviour! Our cerebellum doesn’t differentiate or even assess its relevance, it just does what is asked of it and that is replicate, replicate, replicate like a civil servant.
Using the same philosophy, if you train for perfection in the training hall but when you come to compete you draw on a totally different neurological point of reference? It would mean all that you have perfected will stay under wraps, not called upon and a ‘different’ set of references would be utilised, most likely an inferior set.
Following this logic of neurological points of reference, you may spend hours saying to yourself “What if I fall?” or “Don’t fall!” So when you start to compete you are concentrating on not falling but actually focusing on falling and what the consequences of that action would be!
Inevitably you will fall because your mind is focused on that action, it has been taught to concentrate on the act of falling – this focal point becomes your competition neurological point of reference. You may have noticed either yourself, or other competitors consistently stumble or fall at the same point of a routine or the same stage of a race or they may not make the crucial pass / catch time after time. This is because they have trained their brain to fail, to focus on the negative outcome. – We all get what we focus on.
The England Football squad (soccer) have an on going issue with penalty shootouts, often crumbling at this critical point. Is it because they can’t kick a penalty? Of course not its because they believe they will falter when asked to take ‘That penalty shot.’
This is graphically highlighted by the ball that David Beckham blasted into the stands when he missed a crucial penalty in England’s Euro 2004 shootout and was defeated. He was at the time arguably the worlds best striker so why would he miss such a pivotal shot? The answer is because he believed England were no good at penalties and unfortunately his brain proved him right – as it always will.
So it wouldn’t matter how many hours had been spent practicing and to what standard – you would only ever perform at your competition blueprint – your neurological point of reference for that action / situation.
Unless you retrained this behaviour or broke the belief pattern.
These internal and external pressures increase an athletes anxiety levels, increasing a need for richer oxygen level intake and saturation. Yet anxiety restricts the quality of an athletes breathing thus allowing less quality oxygen into the body and subsequently the blood. The heart panics and beats faster, the muscles are starved and cramp up, the bodies extremities are the last to be fed and the brain then gets starved of necessary oxygen rich blood which increases confusion and increases our natural anxiety levels and so perpetuates the cycle of anxiety / oxygen battle.
So how do we change these negative neurological behavioural trends and also decrease anxiety?
Well the easiest way is to first understand your behavioural patterning, what makes a successful pattern and then replicate your successful behavioural pattern in the training hall and put it in the competition venue. We do this by training how you wish to compete, create neurological triggers, behavioural patterns, multi level game plans and strategies that deal with all possible outcomes.
Train as though it’s a competition, giving your mind less available areas to falter and more ideal options when it is under duress or looking for instant answers.
When devising training programs, incorporate a formal competitive module in every training session, increase the number of these modules as you build towards the competition date. Teach the brain to look for successful options and to refine its search to what you have trained and your objective.
Utilise visualisation techniques, positive chatter, specific neural patterning, multi-task patterning, scenario training and effective breathing techniques etc. All these and many other will training the brain to perform at its optimum every time whilst being fed the best possible fuel.
By breathing correctly increases Nitric Oxide into the blood system which is a vessel dilator enabling more oxygen rich blood to be pumped around the body feeding the hungry engine. This reduces the effects of anxiety allowing the body and mind to perform at its optimum.
If, however you have had ineffective behaviour for a period of time, it may be necessary to scramble the old neurological imprint. This will render it useless as a point of reference, like a broken link on a web page making your mind look for a more suitable reference point again This allows us to give it that new option a more designed, desirable option, for this a Peak performance Mind coach would be required.
This is a psychological pattern re-imprint, just replacing the old negative point of reference (action) with a more desirable one, if we can do this for you think of the possibilities open to you and your performance with total understanding of what your mind can achieve.
Your first step is to assess your performance and ascertain if in-deed you need to improve? I am sure you will find some areas of your performance you could do better in, we all can. Decide where you want to be and what you want from your sporting career, now and into the future. Then when you have a clear idea of your direction then let us help put you onto that right path and retrain your brain to support you and your success.