Golf, like all sports, is a head game – something that 32-year-old LPGA superstar Cristie Kerr is well aware of.
“I practise mental conditioning as much as I practise hitting chip shots,” she says. To keep her nerves at bay and her mind focused, Kerr regularly works with sports psychologist Dr Joseph Parent. He explains that just as important as all the physical training done by Kerr– and other sportspeople – is the training that nobody really sees, the kind that happens inside an athlete’s mind.
Sports psychology, once written off as a New Agey field, has exploded in recent years – in fact, many of today’s top athletes have a sports psychologist on their payroll.
And while most of us will never land a back handspring, attempt a triple axel, or set a record in the giant slalom, we can still prevail on the playing fields that matter to us (the office, the gym, even the bedroom) by employing these simple strategies.Have a mental rehearsal
Ever notice how top athletes never seem to be overwhelmed by the big moment? Usually, it’s because they’ve been there before – either in real life or in their mind. “Studies show that the parts of the brain used when thinking about a task are the same ones used when actually doing it,” says sports psychologist Dr Shane Murphy, editor of The Sport Psych Handbook.
So visualising a good performance can give you the same confidence that comes from having performed well in the past – something that Australia’s 2010 swimmer of the year and five-time Delhi Commonwealth Games gold medalist Alicia Coutts can attest to. “For me, visualisation is really important. I use it right up until I go onto the blocks. I visualise myself doing a perfect start, perfect turns and perfect finishes.”Got a presentation coming up at work? In the days leading up to the event, try closing your eyes and imagine hitting all of your talking points, getting (intentional) laughs, and the audience rewarding you with a big round of applause at the end. When it’s time for the real deal, you’ll be more relaxed.
In fact, you’ll feel as if you’ve done it before. Because, in a way, you have.Know when to let go
During training sessions, athletes are hyperaware of every move they make. But under the pressure of competition, overanalysing what they’re doing (taking a penalty goal, say, or doing a figure-skating jump) can lead to indecision and tightening up. The result? Costly mistakes. One way to calm an overactive mind is by using diversionary tactics, says Dr Sian Beilock, author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. For example, before making a free throw, some basketball players will distract themselves by concentrating on the logo on the ball. Beilock instructs golfers to count backward by threes starting at 25 a few seconds before striking the ball on a crucial shot. When you’re swallowed up by a wave of performance anxiety, try using the same technique.
Discover how the Hockeyroos stay focused
Find the words
Sports psychologists often tell athletes to find words or phrases that can bring their performance into focus. “Key words help you get connected with the way you want to feel,” says sports psychologist Dr Wayne Halliwell. Julie Corletto, Melbourne Vixens and Australian Diamonds netballer, has an arsenal of key words up her sleeve. “Before a game we’ll sit down with the coach and discuss our key words,” Corletto says. “I have a few that I use depending on who we’re playing, but as a defender one that I use a lot is “eyes up” – it reminds me to not only keep my eyes on the person I’m defending, but also on the ball.”
Coutts, who hears nothing but her own thoughts while slicing through the water, also has a key phrase to keep her on track: “When I’m racing I think “hold water, hold water,” which reminds me to get a good hold on the water and not rush my stroke – because if I rush I try too hard,” she says.
Ask yourself, what do I want to achieve? If you want to stay open-minded on a blind date, your key word might be open; if you’re running a 5km race, it might be steady.Ignore the haters
Athletes are always trying to psych each other out, and sometimes your detractors can be just as intimidating and cutthroat. Letting negative thoughts sink in can rattle your nerves, so when rivals try to play mind games, sports psychologist Dr Nicole Detling Miller, tells her athletes to consider it a compliment. “If they’re targeting you, it’s probably out of jealousy,” she says. “Own that. Tell yourself, if they’re gunning for me, I must be doing something right!”WORDS: LAURA BEIL.
ADDITIONAL WORDS: CRYSTELLE COULON.
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