Every year while watching Wimbledon tennis I think about how it must feel to be an athlete.
The discipline required for training, the immense physical and mental strength involved – and the fear of finding myself facing Novak Djokovic on Centre Court in Roger Federer’s place and having to play as Federer, as if in a new ‘Freaky Friday’ film – are all thoughts that occupy my mind.
For the time being, I’ll dwell on the questions I have which relate to sports psychology. I reckon we could all benefit from a bit of athletic know-how in our everyday lives. Athletes’ minds must be as strong as their bodies, so how can we arm ourselves in the same way?
The nerves an athlete could experience before a sporting event are similar to those we might all have before a job interview. Except, I’ve never seen an athlete consumed with nerves. How do they do it?
Clinical sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson (http://www.sportspsychologist.com) tells me, “Nerves are common for athletes and everyone. They happen for a couple of reasons: first, that this situation is important to you, and second, because it is not certain how things will go. Instead of spiralling out of control and thinking of all the ways that it can go wrong, think about how it might go right. Think of how you have prepared, all of your relevant good experiences and how you plan to handle the occasion. This will lift your levels of confidence.” Athletes cope with the pressure the profession brings, adds Dr Thompson, by interpreting each match as “a good challenge.” I like this.
Jonny Short, Sevenoaks RFC’s Strength and Conditioning Coach, advises breathing exercises and focusing your mind to fully calm yourself. Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword when we talk about stress and anxiety. To put it very simply, mindfulness is the notion that worrying is future-focused, and a way to offset that is to bring your mind into the present moment. But aren’t athletes told to visualise clutching a golden trophy in advance? Or is mindfulness now actively practised in sport? “Visualisation is important still as it can help us to learn new skills”, says Dr Thompson. “However, if your skill level is so low that you don’t realistically stand a chance of winning the event, then imagining it will not have much of an impact, as your mind is too clever and filled with so much other evidence of your level that it just won’t be believable. Mindfulness helps you to notice without responding, and to relax, which is a great skill for performance situations and life in general.”
James Short, professional rugby player for the Exeter Chiefs, says that he visualises “Skills more than holding trophies”. “The skills”, he says, “are what get you into a position to win.” By focusing on the current task, you essentially block out other peripheral thoughts that could distract you from your ultimate goal.
But what if the distractions are impossible to ignore? This is something that has always eluded me when it comes to tennis. How does a player avoid being put off at Wimbledon if he is playing against Andy Murray, with the crowd on Murray’s side and bursting into rapturous applause every time his opponent misses a shot? Surely it must feel like the crowd is celebrating every mistake they make?
“The player doesn’t have to interpret the situation negatively. They could instead think along the lines of: ‘I don’t need the crowd’s support’, or ‘Perhaps all of this crowd noise will get to Andy’, or even, ‘This is like a comedy club, with people just reacting to stuff. I don’t need to notice to respond to it,’” Dr Thompson suggests. By extension, thinking of any negativity you might face in this way might stop it from really getting to you.
No one likes to feel low or dejected. But when these feelings seem like a natural response to a situation, it’s interesting when emotions appear to go in the opposite direction. I’m an optimistic person, but I always watch with surprise and admiration when a tennis player, moments away from losing the entire match, continues to pursue the ball with such conviction as though a win is afoot. I couldn’t even fathom swinging a racket in their position, so how do they keep going?
James Short explains: “For me, a game is never over until the final whistle goes. Some of the more exciting finishes are when you come from behind. Every minute you are on the pitch there is an opportunity to do something special that could turn the game around. Being positive about the position you are in is the answer. Giving up isn’t going to get you anywhere.” Top athletes clearly don’t make time for defeatist thoughts.
Another important lesson that athletes can impart is how to move on from failure. Dr Thompson recommends that we “frame failures as setbacks, and recognise that setbacks happen and to seek to learn from them, so you become more robust and able for the next time.” There is room for improvement through failure. James Short reassures us that “All athletes lose. You need to lose to win. It is making sure you learn and keep developing and improving that is important.” Learn from past experiences, but don’t dwell or ruminate.
Athletes often develop their own approaches. They are renowned for being superstitious, as Short admits, “I can’t help but try and stick to what I feel is the best pre-game routine, from the food I eat, even down to how I tape my fingers. I know that if I diverged from this routine it wouldn’t have much effect, but I try not to.” Dr Thompson explains the reasoning behind it: “Athletes seek confidence, control and certainty. If they perform well, they try to think of why this was, and they will think, ‘was it something different that I did, said, ate, wore’?”
We are all familiar with the adage ‘Preparation is key.’ But did you know that it can help us to handle rage? Dr Thompson explains: “Rage and anger happen when we perceive that we have been wronged. For example, that an opponent has cheated, behaved unsportingly or an official has treated us incorrectly. It is good to know the situations that rile you and how you are likely to respond.” So a little thinking ahead will allow you to plan an appropriate response.
I think I’ve met my mental exertion limits for one day. If only my imagination, which currently sees me umpiring an intense match between Johanna Konta and Garbiñe Muguruza, would take note.