How many of us who have competed at a high level of sport have suffered with the jitters, or succumbed to the pressure of competition and not performed as well as we know we can at one time or another?
How did you react to this? Did 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” and for all intent and purposes many promising competitive careers are destroyed by this and it happens from within our own mind.
So why do some athletes show phenomenal talent in the training hall but crumble when it comes to competition day?
It’s a common scenario in elite sport, and a scenario that is played out in every sporting discipline on every continent. Is it the pressure? Is it the 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 dedication, talent 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 the arrogance to intimidate.
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 and rather overwhelmed – I knew he was better than I and he was 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. He appeared uncomfortable, agitated and almost worried. I wondered why? He certainly was a class above the rest of us and he knew it.
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. I could feel that air of arrogance was completely gone, 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 and after all six apparatus he finished 11th place.
We competed over many years after that day. He continued to be the champion of the training hall and never won a competition, 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 the physical – that is the defining aspect!
So what defines the Olympic swimming legend Ian Thorp as a champion? His physical technique has been studied, scrutinised and copied by many swimmers around the world. His physical strength has been surpassed by others yet he continues to get better and better results. So you have to ask yourself – why?
I believe it is his personal ability to not succumb to the pressure. Whether he is competing in a local swim meet or the Olympic Games, the same swimmer enters the pool time after time after time and produces the same consistent results! We have all heard Ian talking about competing against himself and himself alone and that’s what matters to him, mentally eliminating his competitors before he enters the pool.
Going back to the Gymnast. He had trained himself to succeed in the training hall but he would perform differently at competition, drawing on 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 thought process – so essentially he was competing without preparing. He left his best performance in the training hall, never achieving anything near his potential.
When I was competing, I was always told to train as though it is a competition, I never knew why at the time and to be honest I don’t think my coach did either. I now know there is a sound scientific philosophy behind that throwaway statement.
Every action we perform creates an imprint in the 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 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? 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 behaviour.
So 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, it just does what is asked of it and that replicate.
Using the same philosophy, what if you train for perfection in the training hall but when you come to compete you draw on a different neurological point 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 falling and what the consequences of that action would be!
Inevitably you will fall because your mind is dealing with that action. This fall 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 time after time. The England Football squad (soccer) have an issue with penalty shootouts often crumbling at this crucial time.
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.
So how do we change these negative neurological behavioural trends?
Well the easiest way is to first understand what makes a successful pattern and then replicate your successful behavioural pattern in the training hall and put it in the competition venue by training how you wish to compete. Train as though it’s a competition, giving your mind less available options when it is under duress or looking for 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
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, making your mind look for a more suitable reference point.
For this a behavioural coach would be required.
This is a psychological pattern reimprint, 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.
Your first step is to assess your performance and ascertain if in-deed you need to improve? Where you want to be and what you want from your sporting career.
Then when you have a clear idea of your direction then let us help put you onto that path.