Athletes In The Zone
When it matters, what matters?
Updated: May 17, 2022
As we all can agree, most of the long hours of training and hard work put in by athletes are for winning matches and reaching their goals. All those routines and rituals, day in and day out, come to fruition during competitions. But when it comes down to the D-day, how you feel before a performance, be it excited or nervous, pumped or relaxed or downright stressed, largely determines how you perform and the results.
This article highlights how creating helpful emotional and mental states during these crucial moments just before matches can positively impact performance.
On the same lines, we could relate these crucial moments in other high-performance environments like businesses or corporate organisations. Such environments are riddled with responsibilities that require individuals to put their best foot forward in crucial moments like, when meeting a new client, making presentations, attending events etc. Take an example of a senior manager who is conducting a seminar/webinar (in these digital times) with potential and current investors about their company. Now, they would also feel similar emotions as those mentioned above, which would impact their performance. All in all, the sport and business worlds do share similar adrenaline-filled environments which require appropriate emotions and thoughts to perform optimally.
Now, how tempting would it sound if these beneficial emotions and thoughts, which can help the athlete or employee be the best version of themselves, could all be created?
Well, this is not a new concept. Pep talks by coaches have been in the sport for a long which help pump up and motivate the athletes. Pre-game talks can range from focusing on tactics and techniques to evoking emotions through motivational speeches. Its impact has been received interest by researchers in sport and exercise psychology as well. One study by Dr Stephen Gonzalez and colleagues found that athletes feel more inspired to compete and play after listening to an inspirational movie clip. However, they also mentioned how not all types of pre-game talk can be useful and that is where the sport or performance psychologist can help. Having known the needs and requirements of the athlete, it’s easier to tailor them for the individual athlete.
Even in the business world, in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel McGinn highlighted the science of pep talks. Based on the motivating language theory, he mentioned the combination of 3 important elements for an effective pep-talk; direction-giving (precisely describing how to do that task at hand), expression of empathy (concern for the performer) and meaning-making language (highlighting why the task is important). Now how many of us knew all these factors? McGinn also initially mentioned how employers may have their separate tricks and tips which may or may not be effective.
Takeaway? Tailor the pep-talk based on the needs and goals of the individual.
One useful method which we could suggest is the Check- Set- Go technique, which a 3-step technique for quick 15 mins pre-game chats with our clients.
This step is to focus on helping the client become aware of what they are feeling and thinking and if it is how they "wish to feel and think". For instance, you may ask, “how are you feeling currently” or “what are your thoughts about the match/event?” and they may say that “I am feeling nervous and I am not sure how I am going to compete against such seeded players” or “I am feeling for my first presentation in this role as I will be speaking to 200 people” These questions help check-in into their thoughts and feelings. This check-in helps set the tone for the next 15mins.
Most individuals know how they are feeling during those crucial moments before a competition or presentation, but many times they try to suppress that “bad feeling” or nervous energy instead of accepting and working through it. Thus, after checking in, we focus on helping them accept those feelings and "set them into the Zone” of performing.
Several techniques can be suggested to help them attain a state of flow e.g. using music, visualization of best performances/ goals, meditation etc. Few techniques are highlighted below-
Primary goal of these techniques- creating positive emotions
Motivational techniques are focused on eliciting positive emotions like excitement, focus, feeling charged or pumped, energetic, determined, etc. One study by Dr Yuri Hanin showed that a pre-game pep talk by the coach with elite soccer players increased such emotions alongside improving their self-confidence in their skills.
Example- Talk about inspiring role models or leaders. When athletes or people, in general, feel inspired, they feel energised to Approach the desired behaviours rather than adopting avoidance strategies or emotions like shame, self-hostility or sadness. They are also more likely to feel positive emotions like “excited, happy and enthusiastic” while also adopting a positive outlook towards situations.
Sir Alex Fergusson, a legend and a renowned manager of Manchester United football club once said “I was always trying to add images to my coaching, emphasizing the need for players to have a picture in their minds, to visualize how they could have a creative impact on the shifting pattern of a game”.
Example- An example of an imagery technique that we use is called the bubble concept. It involves making the individual 'imagine' wearing a helmet or a bubble over their head which represents a boundary between what they need to keep in that bubble before the match or event and what things need to be left outside. As individuals, we all have various roles and responsibilities apart from the sport or workplace e.g. managing finances, manage relations with one’s partner and family, talking to sponsors, planning for travel, etc. So, just before their match or event, the individual could visualise wearing this bubble and only allow the best performance images, positive thoughts and feelings to be inside that bubble while leaving everything else outside.
Our clients in golf and football used this technique and found it very useful to stay connected in the present moment and cut out all the distractions during his competition.
High-performance settings can create stressful environments, with the focus being on “being the best”. In such situations, helping the client be mindful and stay in the present could be very useful to reduce anxiety and improve focus on the task at hand.
Example- Taking a few deep belly breaths or using grounding techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique can be helpful. In this technique, you use all your senses to list things around you. You start by listing 5 things you hear, four things you see, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
So the last step is to just ask them about how they are feeling now and if they are in a positive mindset. Leave them on a positive note and then Let them GO! Go on to perform their best but also enjoy every moment of their performance.
In summary, this article highlights how a quick chat before a performance can go a long way in helping individuals in high-performance settings to get into the right gear, create positive emotions and be the best version of themselves.