Mind your Mind

Sport Psychology is something I always believed was a central element in elite performance. But I didn’t really know what it was. What happens when you work with a sports psychologist? Do they lie you down on a leather divan and ask you about your childhood? Do they pontificate about waking up earlier than the competition? Over the last 3 years, I have had the opportunity to find out exactly what’s involved.

The first thing I would say about it, is that sport psychology is not some hocus-pocus, black magic area of high performance. It’s very much a science. Certainly, many of the questions addressed in psychology have philosophical, sometimes quite abstract, themes. It is the application of the scientific method, however, that pervades all of psychology’s many disciplines.

A second key point to mention is that sport psychology deals with issues that affect every single athlete. Psychology, at its very core, concerns matters of the mind. We all have one. It would be misleading to assert that the work of sport psychologists only applies to elite sportsmen and women. What’s more, it would be unfair to say that sport psychology can only help those that are struggling to meet the demands of their sport. Sport psychology can absolutely be applied to make an already accomplished athlete even better. It is simply a tool to give you a sharper edge, no matter what stage you’re at.

Since I started training more intensively for freestyle kayaking, I have had quite a number of sessions with one of Ireland’s leading sport psychologists. Each meeting lasts about an hour and every one is different. Generally, I determine the direction they take. Sometimes, I’ll want to review a competition performance. Others, I will want to plan for a major event. Occasionally, themes relating to day-to-day training will be front and centre. One thing every meeting has in common is that I am listened to. As simple as this sounds, I think it is a hallmark of excellence in coaching. When someone is listened to, they feel respected and valued. It allows them to discover the best of themselves. If you’re a coach, ask yourself; do you take the time to stop talking and listen? If you’re an athlete, do you get the opportunity to express yourself openly and honestly? I imagine that subservience to an autocratic, dictatorial management style can only be damaging to someone’s potential; as an athlete and as a human being. So, if you’re considering engaging with a sport psychologist and you’re not quite sure what it is they’re going to do for you – that’s it. They will listen to you. You might be surprised how valuable this can be.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ll try and go through a few specific lessons I have learned from my continued engagement with sport psychology:

1. Planning – The Devil is in the Detail

I have always considered myself a good planner. I’m in my element making schedules, charts and graphs. In spite of this, I have had some epic fails in my plans. On one training trip to Augsburg, Germany, I unknowingly arrived on a bank holiday weekend. This meant all the grocery stores were closed. So, I did my shopping in a petrol station and subsisted on Pringles, Pot Noodles and stale bread for 2 days. I also managed to lock myself out of my AirBnB, break my phone and crack my boat on my first day too – not ideal. Another trip to Millau, France, all my kayaking gear was lost in transit and on 3 consecutive days I snapped my paddle, got a puncture in the rental car and put two sizeable holes in the bow and stern of my carbon Jed.

Some of these were simply unfortunate twists of fate, others were absolutely avoidable. In some of the earlier psych sessions, I had the opportunity to examine these circumstances at length. I realised doing things slightly differently could have avoided a lot of hassle. Arrive on a Saturday. Bring a packed lunch (thanks Mam). Bring a spare paddle. Make bumpers to protect your precious carbon boat in shallow holes.

Perhaps you’re thinking, why did you need a sport psych to teach you that? These particular lessons are simple ones. What’s important here is that working with a sport psych provides a review structure that ensures you actually learn from the mishaps you will invariably experience along the way. Further to this, a sport psych allows you to review your experiences through the lens of an expert. A good sport psych will have seen all these errors before, recognise them instantly and have a simple solution to hand. Just hearing about similar cock-ups, even at an Olympic level, is welcome reassurance if nothing else!

2. Your Imagination is a Valuable Tool

Mental imagery is something that I had read about that seemed to be accepted as a credible training resource. However, it wasn’t until I discussed it with my sports psych that I fully bought in to the concept. It was the perfect opportunity to learn how to effectively implement it and to discuss the studies that had investigated the technique. Not everyone will be interested in the evidence-base for this sort of thing but, for me, it was a bit of a watershed moment.

More recently, I would credit the consistent and innovative integration of mental practice into my training as a significant contributor to a number of breakthroughs. I have found this to be a fascinating area and something that I intend to write more about.

3. What Do I Do on the Morning of a Competition?

Everybody’s pre-competition routine is different. For some, it will be a detailed sequence of events in the hours leading up to their heat. For others, it will simply be a fire playlist they like to listen to as they get their gear on. As a starting point, working with a sport psychologist highlighted that what I do, or indeed don’t do, in the lead up to a big event can impact performance. Simply being more acutely aware of this can yield substantial insights in itself. Each time we compete offers an opportunity to trial new things and refine our pre-competition routine. A sport psychologist can help you explore how your mind views competition and what it needs to allow you to perform optimally when the time comes.

4. How to Train Smart

When you get on the water for a training session, do you have goals? If you do, do they align with your larger aims in the sport? Are they moving you closer to the objective or do they exist separately in their own right? If you’re learning a new skill, should you train it at the start or the end of a session? What happens in the middle? How much time should you spend training it before moving on to something else? What is your mind doing when your training? If you interrupt your stream of consciousness, what happens? Can you change habitual patterns of thinking? What impact would these changes have? What impact do relationships have on your training? Do you have social connections integrated in your training? What impact does this have on your rate of learning? Wow. That’s a lot of questions. These are some of the themes I have had the opportunity to address with my sport psych. Some of them are fairly obvious. Others are more obscure. The list could probably go on indefinitely.

I don’t believe that there is necessarily a ‘right’ answer to all of these questions. The perfect training session probably looks a little bit different for you than it does for me. But certainly, psychologists have studied them and can provide insights on the types of things that might have an impact on you and how you might consider adjusting them.

These four lessons are perhaps some of the easier ones to articulate and describe in written format. There are many others that, much like the mind, are perhaps a bit more complex or convoluted. I won’t attempt to put them down on paper. Our minds impact so much of what we do. Subsequently, sport psychology has a role to play in a hugely varied and far-reaching array of factors that contribute to an athlete’s development. Perhaps you’ll go on to work with a sport psychologist, perhaps not. Regardless of your intentions, the moral of this story should be that investing in the maintenance of your mind is a sound investment. Sport aside, it’s always a good idea to truly listen to others and to find someone who actually listens to you. The rest often takes care of itself.

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