Mental Disintegration: Strategy or Poor Sportsmanship?

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.


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Business and Sport – and the Business of Sport

Recently I sat down with Heather Porter and Andrew McCauley of Autopilot Your Business about key practical tips that work, not only for the elite athlete, but also for the elite business person.

During this short interview we explore some current thinking on successful performance philosophies and the link between creating a successful athlete and a successful business person, rewards and momentum, team building and sustainable success – and the need for everyone to calibrate.

Olympic Winter Games: Where Has All The Consistency Gone?


With an increasing number of my clients coming from the extreme sport culture, I have been paying a lot more attention to the mental game and reality of life as an extreme sportsperson. And from countless hours watching and learning about these subculture sports – their endeavours taking them from the depths of the ocean to the harshest land conditions to the dizziest of heights – I have realised these fringe athletes really are no different from “other” elite athletes. In fact, despite being seen as more party dudes than seriously competitive professionals – there really isn’t any difference!

Having worked with bobsleigh and ice skaters over the years, and more recently for the Games, has given me unique insight into those who live their lives inside an ice-chest and strive for sporting equality alongside the more traditionally viewed sports.

With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in full swing I have been enjoying the introduction of some of these extreme sports into the Olympic family. As an ex-gymnast I am mesmerised, and technically intrigued, by aerial skiing (albeit my knees hurt just watching); the athleticism of the slope style; and the creativity of the half pipe.

As with any world event, it tends to magnify what we already know. There has been much media-driven controversy about the quality of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, predominantly focused on the local living conditions, social issues, politics of different disciplines and in some cases the dangerous performing conditions some athletes are finding themselves in.

Of course the physical and mental health and safety of the athletes should be paramount and the consistency of the equipment is vital when you are speaking in fractions of a second between first and third and where athletes are putting their bodies – and often lives – on the line for glory.

No one is contesting the need for stringent regulations for world class events to ensure an even and fair playing field. But from a performance consistency perspective, I feel these 2014 games have shone a light on the glaring areas that need to be more accessible for these outstanding winter wonders.

As a professional Mind Coach working on the mental framework of athletes, building a behavioural structure conducive to them producing a consistent performance, I have been bewildered by the number of consistent fails in consistency.

Top Ice skaters are succumbing to hoodoo pressures and fall on skills they really shouldn’t, speed skaters are making novice mistakes, aerial skiing and slope style athletes are not holding their nerves at that crucial time.

There is no doubt these are phenomenally talented and gifted athletes who do things us mere mortals could only visualise performing. However there is something at play that is hampering the rise and rise in extreme pursuits that could be addressed in order for it to burst through into the platform it needs to.

Is it as simple as accessibility? Or is it maybe they see themselves as “different” and not in need of more traditional athletes tools such as mental coaching? Having spent some serious time with the more traditional sports, there really is a culture where some of the performers clearly do see themselves as different and the thought of needing someone to help them balance their emotions and train the mental efficiency is seen as a weakness.

This saddens me as I, for one, love these out-there sports, the guts and glory athletes who do amazing things. I see them as just another discipline of professional sport, in need of the same physical and psychological advantages.

So come on you extreme sports athletes – don’t be shy. There is no shame in treating your mind the way you treat your body! Lets begin thinking big picture and gain the edge the smart way.


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Resilience for Athletes

Over the years, I’ve seen coaches create a reaction in their athlete by saying inflammatory things. They often do this to try to evoke an emotion. For some athletes, it works. For most athletes, it has a negative outcome. It may initially give coaches the reaction they are after, however, any enhancement in performance is short-lived.

It has a lot to do with the mental and emotional resilience of an athlete.

I was recently working with an athlete and their coach. The coach is very knowledgeable about their sport, they’ve got some great results out of their sport, and they’ve been around a long time; so they know how to coach.

While I was working with the athlete, I asked the coach to do what they’d normally do, to coach the athlete so I could observe the interaction, and work out what I could do to make it more effective and efficient. When the coach was watching the athlete doing some specific skills, the coach was imparting some great technical knowledge to the athlete. You could see this athlete actually adored this coach and hung off every word they were saying. Every time they gave an opinion, thought, or directive, this athlete was keen to apply what they’d just learned.

As the coach turned around to walk back to observe this athlete doing what he just told him to do, the coach made a flippant remark.

I watched the athlete completely deflate…

The next performance wasn’t what was expected…

The athlete was down, no longer processing information and was focusing on this flippant remark.

I could see the emotional weight they were carrying with them.

I asked the coach if they knew what they had just done. They had no idea. They’d given information, made sure the athlete was aware of what to achieve and how to achieve it, and then in their mind, the job was done.

So I asked the coach what their role was. They said “My role is to coach and teach.”

I asked them to be more specific and the coach was silent.

This coach has a long history of success in the sport; a great technical knowledge of the sport; knows how to coach, and how to get a result for athletes.

What he didn’t understand was the key role he played.

Their role is to give information and make sure an athlete takes it on in a way they can use, see relevance to, and have a tangible application of.

This coach didn’t see it in that way.

The throwaway comment and the reaction from the athlete undoes all the great information just given.

Where does that leave a coach? Does it mean we have to be conscious of every single word we have to say?

In a way, yes.

Does it mean we can’t joke and have that human interaction with athletes?

Of course not. It’s part of the responsibility of the coach, and part of the athlete, to make sure they understand what they’re getting and what they’re giving.

From a coach’s perspective, being aware that once the information is given, the comments also given will be associated to an emotion. If you give information that makes the athlete feel really good about that, they’re more likely to apply it. If you give information and they feel great, then you give a parting comment that changes the associated emotion, you no longer have a clear and concise application of that information.

That all sounds technical, what it means is if you want an athlete to do their best, leave them with a positive emotion. Make sure you’ve left them feeling comfortable when trying to apply something new – let them use that information in the most efficient format.

From an athlete’s perspective, it comes down to having emotional and mental resilience. There are couple ways to do this.

For older athletes, it’s more about recognition of the relevance of the information. Take a logical approach of “This is what I need for this skill, let me sort that from my coach”. The relationship from the coach to the athlete has to be equal in communication. The information needs to sit well and they have to have an open relationship of good communication.

With younger athletes – teens and lower – building emotional resilience is asking them to see things through a ‘protective layer’. We all have filtering systems that have developed over our life spans and are formed by things we’ve experienced in life. Young athletes are influenced by themselves, parents, social groups, peers, etc. These are inbuilt, cultivated filtering systems.

By tweaking these filters to become more relevant for the younger set is to teach them to create an image in their brain. That is, when anyone is trying to give them information, having a set of filters to put that information through, in order to keep the relevance of that information – is key.

I explain the process of how to build resilience in athletes in detail on my Brain in the Game podcast.

The resilience process gives the athlete wider control over the information they receive, to apply the bits they need, or put it away for later. It also allows athletes to unemotionally bounce the negativity away.

As a coach, how do you give your information? Are you undoing all that great work with your throwaway comment, or not making information relevant?

If you’re an athlete saying “That’s me! My coach has made me feel really negative even after giving me great information…”, then be proactive about managing that information, more aware of what you need to use, to keep, to store and to bounce off.

Also being conscious about how you ask the questions will help this process. Asking in a certain way is more likely to get the response in the same way. If you ask very emotionally-charged questions, you’re more likely to get emotionally-charged responses. How you ask questions will often dictate how you receive the answer.

This process of emotional resilience is about being specific with what we get, how we get it, and how we used it; and letting all the other stuff that comes with it, go.