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From pro athletes to amateur exercisers, a sports psychologist explains how to up your game

Hint: it’s all in the mind. Simon Thalmann/Flickr, CC BY

The Conversation organised a public question-and-answer session on Reddit in which Andrew Lane, professor of Sport Psychology at Wolverhampton University, discussed subjects from the Suarez bite to getting yourself out of a performance slump. Here are the highlights.

If you had one main tip for athletes what would it be?

My top tip is having self-confidence and an inner trust that you can do something and do it well. What you require is knowledge of how to get that “winning feeling”. This can be done by analysing your performances and recreating or replaying in your mind times when you have played really well. This is a simple answer but start by reflecting on what works for you and learn to recall times when you have played well and overcame difficult challenges.

What proportion of what you do involves regular therapeutic tools adapted to sports scenarios?

This is a tricky one as there is not a difference in many cases. Goal setting is something that can be done to almost any task and applied to sport. I explain this further in this video.

Why do you think Luis Suarez bites people?

It’s clear that Suarez gets frustrated while playing; he wants to win and struggles to manage his feelings and control his actions. Extreme frustration drives it. Plus, he has bitten before and presuambly thinks it will scare opponents if he looks like he will bite again and he will get an advantage. His comment “it’s football” indicates that players try to get one over on each other in sneaky ways. Shirt pulling is commonplace – Suarez has taken this to an extreme and one that is hard to believe.

Another possibility is that he ran out of glucose stores, which can diminish powers of self-control. But your emotions can provide or liberate enough energy to overcome this in my view.

How can I overcome nerves before a big game? I always find that in the hour or so before the game that I start feeling like my legs are heavier and I feel a bit ‘off’.

Overcoming emotions can be difficult. Rather than overcoming them why not try to work with them? Your unpleasant emotions are telling you: “This is important, get ready.” And they do so by invading your thoughts and feelings. When they come, recognise them by saying: “Hi emotions, you have come to tell me that the game is important to me – thanks.”

Then, what I would do is go through how I play the first five minutes of the game, seeing myself playing successfully and going through a number of scenarios where I play well. In this instance you are using the emotions to remind yourself to think positively. This sounds obvious in a way but doing the technique at the time it is needed can be helpful.

Why do certain players seem to play better under great pressure?

There are lots of reasons. Experience is a great help. In lieu of that, deliberate practice under stressful conditions and reflecting on what happened and modifying performance in the light of that reflection will help. You can also use techniques to manage intense and unwanted emotions.

What advice would you give to help someone get out of a poor performance slump in a sport?

Experiencing a slump in sport, is much the same as experiencing a slump in any other area of life. I would start by thinking through what you want, why are you doing the activity and what do you want from it.

Many slumps have a reason and it’s worth reflecting on previous performances to think about why you started under-performing. Once performance deteriorates, it can become infectious and unpleasant thoughts and emotions which come with anticipated failure invade. This is the cycle that needs to be stopped. We stop these by being successful and recognising that we were successful.

How do we do that? First, set goals that are manageable and within your control. I explain more about this here. I think it helps to set process goals and be easier on yourself. It also helps to recognise when you have done something well, and reward that action as this increases the likelihood you will do it again.

Then, spend some time recreating a winning feeling. I did this video that explains how to use imagery to create positive feelings in running.

I’m a golfer and it find it very difficult to maintain a good mentality throughout an entire round of golf; especially after having a bad hole. What can I do before, during or after a round to keep a good mentality? And, what can I do to have confidence with every shot?

You need a strategy to switch off the emotions of the last point and stop them from affecting the next. The starting point to this process is to tell yourself just this point. I would develop a pre-route routine and part of routine is remind yourself of some specific positive points; and so you keep your mind positive. You could have the points to remember written on a piece of paper in your pocket as reminders. I’ve put together a fuller answer to this here, but in relation to tennis, where players have similar issues.

I’m in a real malaise when it comes to exercising. How can I motivate myself to get back to the gym and losing weight?

What you need is to get back into the habit of exercising; until exercise is a habit again it is hard to do. At the moment, it sounds like you have set yourself a difficult goal. Just getting to the gym is a success as it’s better than not going. Going for a 10 min run or walk is better than no walk or run.

When it’s really difficult, put your kit on and walk outside for five minutes and if you don’t fancy doing anymore, walk back. Say to yourself: “I’ll make the decision five minutes in.” Everyone does more exercise and the normal response is that it’s easier to talk yourself into doing something as simple as that.

How can I get past ‘feeling bad’ or caring about my opponents in competition? I feel as though my empathy really saps my strength and energy during competition and I suffer due to it.

Why not start by looking at how you judge your performance? By focusing entirely on what you are doing then you can be absorbed in your own performance.

Also, bear in mind that if you can achieve your personal best then so can your competitors. For example in running, by speeding up and running fast you can actually help them, causing them to run faster to keep pace with you (even if then finish second or third, 34 or 35 etc).

Remember, when you play well, you bring out the best in your opponents and they will be happy that they played better. By saying this to yourself, you will allow yourself to try harder as the better you play, the better your opposition plays.

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