Posts Tagged ‘performance fear’

Olympic Pole Vault: Hooker Needs a Better Imagination

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

 

Pole Vault London 2012Anyone who has ever watch the pole vaulting knows its not for the faint hearted!

Sticking a long bendy pole into a hole in the ground and positioning yourself upside down as you patiently wait to be catapulted into the air and over a 5-6 metre bar before landing on a mat can seem nuts to the average person.

Of course this is what happens when it all goes to plan – but sometimes it doesn’t go to plan and its then we see the true character and mental toughness of these outstanding, if not a little crazy athletes!

At the recent London 2012 Olympics, Lazaro Borges’ (Cuba) pole snaps into multiple pieces during his qualifying jump, throwing him upside down into the mat.

He simply dusted himself off, returns to his very long kit bag, selects a new pole and does it all again – he clearly has the right mental toughness.

Pole vault has always intrigued me, I love the biomechanics of the sport, the sheer guts and determination required and the mental difference that these athletes have – its a very primal sport and one that resonates well with my days as a Gymnast.

When I first saw Australia’s Steve Hooker jump, I was amazed that this fuzzy haired dude could actually jump – I almost wrote him off before he had even put one foot in front of the other let alone sunk the pole into the ground to launch himself skyward!

But Steve Hooker clearly has massive talent and incredible guts. He has been Olympic Champion 2008, World Champion 2009, World Indoor Champion 2010 and Commonwealth Champion, so the guy knows how to jump despite his unassuming appearance.

That being said, this past year or so Hooker has a very public nemesis who has recently been beating him, who trains with him, lives with him and, dare I say, sleeps with him.

No, not is partner – but himself, his mind and his own very maverick imagination.

Last year Hooker misjudged a jump and toppled off the landing mat and onto the ground, damaging his knee. Of course the physical damage could be repaired and after physical therapy he was able once again to jump.

The Australian Athletics community gave a collective sigh of relief, thinking this sporting champ was once again back on track and heading towards the London Olympics to defend his title.

However, he was physically repaired but the psychological damage was running much deeper. Hooker had lost his nerve and confidence in jumping and London 2012 was looking shakier than ever.

As a gymnast, who had practically come to be on first name terms with many of the medical staff at the local hospital, I can certainly understand what an injury of this nature could do to your mind.

The random thoughts of it happening again, the physical changes you would subconsciously make to the pragmatics of the technique would rock your sense of familiarity and control and feeding an over active imagination…

… Your mind running through multiple worse-case scenarios as you stand there looking down the lane towards the jump, trying to collect your thoughts and think about what needs to be done…

It’s not like twisting an ankle on the track, the emotional monster goes into active overdrive, thinking that maybe next time it could be more than just a buggered knee, it could be spinal or even worse.

And so I imagine this is what began Hooker’s internally animated downward spiral, missing and avoiding jumps and worrying about what could be just around the corner. The knee was the catalyst but the mental torture was relentless in proving to himself why he shouldn’t jump.

Hooker publicly acknowledged at the 2011 World Championships whilst defending his title he felt lost on the runway. He admitted to being very nervous and even scared of the jump, choosing to run through three times, culminating in his being eliminated from the competition.

Back home in Australia, Hooker was dubbed as having the ‘yips’. (Urban dictionary – The Yips: Overthinking something so much you become unable to do it. You will often proceed to implode.)

Steve Hooker is just one example of an athlete mentally letting something in, something that eats away at you, as your confidence collapses and your imagination takes on a life of its own.  I have seen this in a number of sports and with a number of different catalysts.

Steve Hooker may not have even thought about the Rio 2016 games just yet as he comes to terms with his dramatic loss in London. However, as a Mind Coach, I think it needn’t have been this way, there are as many ways to combat the ‘yips’ as there is to get them and Hooker just needs to learn a better strategy of dealing with his imagination and more specifically his fears.

Hooker needs to learn to acknowledge what he fears and then, without emotion, deal with it. This very straight forward strategy could have enabled Hooker to have a different outcome in London 2012.

Something that I feel is paramount for all athletes is learning how to read, understand and effectively manage their emotions, they can drive you forward but can also hold you back, so understanding them is paramount.

To have such a grasp on what makes an athlete tick and what is likely to give them the wobbles can help manage them when a sniff of the wobbly wheel occurs, nipping it in the bud and bringing them back on track, maintaining direction and ultimately giving them back their control.

Fear becomes debilitating when our primal imagination becomes overly active and we begin to not only imagine all sorts of hairy things, but ultimately convince ourselves that its a forgone conclusion.

Having strategies that bypass this and keep you well and truly on the straight and narrow enables an athlete to do what they do best, whatever sport it is and to leave the worrying to the parents in the stands.

 

 

Image Credit: Flickr mrtopp

Performance Strategies to Combat Fear

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Learn How To Overcome The Invisible Pull of Irrational Behaviour

Performance FearIn male gymnastics, the horizontal bar is a singular steel tube typically 10-11 feet (3-3.4 metres) off the ground and 3cm in diameter. Male gymnasts swing around the bar conducting many one and two hand combinational movements, directional changes and release and catches before a multiple somersault and/or twisting dismount.

It is a spectacular event to both watch and take part in. It is also one of the more dangerous apparatus too as a fall at best is quite painful and has occasionally been fatal.

As someone who excelled at this complex discipline over and above the other five apparatus in this sport, I made my name as a dynamic and innovative High Bar (Horizontal Bar) worker.

Back in the 80s my routines consisted of some complicated one and two handed release and catch moves and a very intricate and unique one arm sequence before my multiple somersault dismount – for it’s time a radical and difficult routine by International standards.

Not being a very tall gymnast, the High Bar always appeared so incredibly high to me. This was both daunting and advantageous at the same time. It gave me more time to fit in complex somersaults and my small stature made the biomechanics of the moves more efficient… on the other hand I also had further to fall! A big disadvantage when things didn’t go to plan.

Our disciplined team trained hard and it was all about dominating on competition day.

I can still remember the feelings as I nervously waited for the judges to give me the nod to commence my routine. As I paced up and down in anticipation, I felt the butterflies in my stomach more so on High Bar than any other apparatus but this seemed to give me an edge.

I had earned the reputation as being a tenacious competitor and one who was reliable during tough times, however we had one of Great Britain’s tallest gymnasts in our club, Alan Hay, so the bar was often placed on extension blocks to increase it’s height by another 10-12 inches. This was something I found particularly unnerving on competition days (…interestingly, it was not an issue during training?). At the time, I believed my nerves came from my fear of what may happen to me if I fell or injured myself, I had certainly experienced my fair share of injuries as a Gymnast during my training over the years.

I can vividly remember one particular competition day when I was the last to compete… the atmosphere was electric! The competition had been fiercely close and the expectations placed on me from my peers, my coach, my parents and the audience were overwhelming.

I had trained my high bar routine hundreds of times without mistake and it was my specialty – a ‘good’ routine from me was all that was required for our team to win – yet I was scared, more scared than any other time or competition before.

The fear I was feeling was consuming my every thought! It was uncontrollable and all I wanted was to find a way out, to run away and not have to do the routine at all.

The pressure was too intense, the bar had grown to 20 feet tall (at least in my mind anyway) and I was sure I hadn’t done enough preparation.

‘Just one more practice run,’ I thought, ‘One more training session was needed – surely if I explained it to the judges they would understand! They would allow me a little more preparation time – I mean they had taken so long doing their thing a little ‘me’ time was only fair, right?’

As every moment ticked by, I was creating multiple scenarios in my mind…

The longer the judges took to be ready for me

The more unready I became for them

The more possibilities of failure I could imagine…

The more damage to my body I could think of…

And the more ways my parents, my peers, my coach and the audience could voice their disappointment in me

…Aaaahhhh! It was all too much.

For many years after I thought of that competition and the wild thoughts that had been dominating my mind – maybe it was the danger of the sport that made me fearful that day… maybe I hadn’t prepared enough… or maybe I just wasn’t as brave as I had initially thought I was?

Whatever mind malfunction had caused the mental meltdown for me that day – it had left a lasting imprint and impacted greatly on my performance as I missed both my release and catch moves and fell on my landing.

We came second.

It was many years later when as a performance coach I began looking at managing emotional states in other athletes that I realised what exactly had gone on in my head all those years earlier. What I thought of as pure, debilitating FEAR was in fact not fear at all – well, not fear in it’s purest form anyway. It was an irrational anxiety I had personally created in my mind around the self-manufactured, fictional outcomes that would probably never eventuate.

It was a set of worst case scenarios, strung together to create a catastrophic outcome that had little or no rational basis. I had created a horror movie in my mind that I believed to be completely true. Not only did I believe it – I convinced myself it was inevitable. I had trained and competed that routine countless times without catastrophe, without incident and without injury… yet, my IMAGINATION had built an outcome that stopped me dead in my tracks… because I allowed it.

So if I was not FEARFUL of hurting myself – as there was no credible foundation to that basis – what was affecting me? What I was doing was allowing my very vivid and creative imagination to fool my reality, to be out of control, fueled by my ‘heightened emotions’ which, in turn clouded my rational judgment process. Together these two became unstoppable in my systematic personal destruction of my own self-confidence.

Essentially, I believed my own virtual world or doom.

I have seen this same self-destructive pattern affect athletes in every imaginable situation and sport. From world class platform divers to competitive school chess, Formula One racing to lawn bowls, Olympic Ski Jumping to Synchronised Swimming. irrespective of the perceived or actual physical threat level, the perception of imagination and emotionally fueled fear was the same and just as debilitating.

When we explore the science of this situation, when we are faced with physical or psychological threat we become fearful and our ‘Fight or Flight’ mechanism kicks in to preserve our life. Our brain fires into action, our thalamus, sensory cortex, hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus all kick into gear, hardwired to protect us from harm. When activated, a sequence of nerve cells fire off and chemicals like adrenalin, norepinephrine and hydrocortisone are deployed into our bloodstream – charging into action like the cavalry.

These chemicals, once deployed, cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes, our respiratory rate increases, blood is moved away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, giving extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our awareness heightens, our sight sharpens, our impulses quicken, our perception of pain decreases and we become prepared physically and psychologically for action.

Clearly a ‘controlled’ amount of these physical, psychological and neurological responses would have enhanced my performance greatly that day and on any other day. A heightened sensory awareness without the debilitating emotional drain would have optimised my performance.

Yet I had allowed my imagination to consume me and my senses, my imagination was far greater than my actual physical FEAR so dominated my energy, my clarity and my emotions. My fictional scenario had won the day causing me to succumb to uncontrollable nerves and loss of focus.

So how do we overcome our powerful imagination and emotionally charged responses in favour of a more controlled heightened sense of awareness during performance?

Step One:  Dis-Association

Performance Strategies

Learn to look and assess an action pragmatically and with a degree of dis-association, teach our minds to remove all emotional baggage associated to that action or outcome and look at it for what it is, what it has achieved, what needs improvement and what it can do as an end-step outcome.

Understanding a move, a sequence or a performance as a single action and something that is replicable. So we put it into perspective – removing the emotional charge.

Of course during major events our emotions do increase anyway, however starting from a lower point enables us to control them more.

If you watch tennis and in particular Roger Federer, he plays with a great deal of disassociation, almost appearing disinterested – this allows him to assess a play and choose to replicate it, correct it or remove it without getting emotionally attached to the past action.


Step Two:  Use Your Imagination For Good Not Evil

Visualise the action, the outcome, how it should be performed and lower any anxiety associated to the skill or the event.

Visualisation creates the SAME neural paths with the SAME intensity as actual performance. This allows us to remove the ‘unknown’ factor – lowering anxiety.


Step Three:  Train As Though It Is A Competition

Desensitise your emotions to being judged or the perceived importance of THAT one performance. Use specific words, phrases – add rhythmical chants and affirmations to reinforce continuity.

These three key skills can make the difference between a successful performance and one you wish you could forget.