Planting the seeds of doubt can work in any application. It can be used to destroy a strong and lasting relationship. It can be used to undermine a co-workers authority and it can also be used to psyche out the most adept of athletes – IF you know what you are doing.
Australian cricketer Steve Waugh knew all about the seeds of doubt and used them to reduce his competitors’ confidence. In fact, he was so successful at planting the seeds of doubt he coined a new phrase: Mental Disintegration.
Mental disintegration was the secret weapon that allowed Waugh to use the most casual of comments about a competitor’s performance perfectly timed and perfectly worded to plant the seeds of doubt and break their spirit and their confidence. It worked on even the strongest of resolves and most confident of mindsets.
Waugh has since become a mentor for some of Australia’s top athletes. However does that make mental disintegration a rich strategy or poor sportsmanship?
It is not uncommon to see athletes use cockiness to try to undermine their competitors. A little bit of swagger and overt confidence can do much to psyche the other guys out.
Many athletes hold up proceedings in an attempt to intimidate or fluster their competitors – a strategy frequently used in tennis with the use of medical time-out. An issue that was particularly prominent in this years’ Australian Open.
In fact during my gymnastics career, due to my reputation on the horizontal bar, athletes from other clubs would physically block my access to the bar in warm-up in an attempt to intimidate me or make me feel under-prepared.
More recently, I observed this in motor sport with some precariously placed tools inhibiting a driver leaving the pits.
Intimidation by Sledging
In cricket there’s a lot of “sledging” used to intimidate the other team. In fact it can often get out of hand. At the Ashes in Brisbane at the end of 2013, Michael Clarke’s sledging, which included a very well placed “F bomb”, led to his being fined 20 percent of his match fee for using insulting or offensive language.
Australian cricket players have been hailed for their ability to give their opponents “inferiority complexes” to “crushing effect” according to cricket legend Percy Fender, and it was a quality he admired.
Let’s be clear here – there is a distinct difference between a few strategically executed words and the more commonplace verbal abuse. One is part of the mental game and other generally comes from a place of ignorance and disrespect.
Overcoming Mental Disintegration
England’s Spin Bowler Shaun Udal figures being truly sledged is a testament to your talents. It means your competitors know you are better than them so they have to try intimidation as a final recourse to unnerve you to lessen your performance.
This is the attitude of a well balanced athlete who has the proper psychological attitude to face their competitors, regardless of what is thrown at them.
Tommaso D’Orsogna of the Australian Swim Team sums it up well “…the people that achieve peak performance are those that have prepared themselves psychologically, whether they are aware of it or not. They handled the pressure, the distractions and the nerves and maximised their outcome because of that.”
However the question must be asked, if Udal is thinking about the sledging, where is his focus and mindset at that time?
And if D’Orsogan recognises some athletes are unaware of the skills and how to replicate them, maybe we really should be teaching athletes the mental skills just as diligently as our focus on the physical skills?
Mental, emotional and cognitive training is just as beneficial in todays high tech, high stakes world of sport as is the ability to hit a ball, race a machine or swing around a bar.
So is mental disintegration a legitimate strategy? The answer may very well be ‘Yes’ if smart competitors are using psychology to strengthen their resolve and the art of mental disintegration is admired by legends.
Image credit: smh.com.au