In any competitive environment, there are many factors that can influence a player’s success or failure. One significant factor, that can differentiate winning from losing, is the internal and external psychological demands of athletics.
An athlete’s thoughts can be a powerful catalyst for their success or their failure. With an infinite number of stimuli that athletes are exposed to during games, it can be difficult to focus on what’s most important in the moment.
In order to achieve peak performance, high-performing athletes need to train themselves to meet the psychological demands of their sport. If these demands are not met, athletes can quickly succumb to pressure, stress and anxiety of their game. Let’s take a look at some of the psychological demands of competing and review several strategies that help athletes stay focused.
External Psychological Demands
During a game, an athlete’s environment can have a severe impact on a player’s mental state. The multitude of external stimuli can hinder a player’s concentration and attention. Simply having home field/court advantage can influence their performance. When the crowd cheers in their favor, players can feed off of it, allowing it to boost their confidence and their performance.
But an away game crowd can have the opposite effect. When there are rowdy fans booing and yelling from the sidelines, players can get distracted and start to doubt their abilities to perform routine plays. Other external psychological demands that can harm an athlete’s performance include:
- Taunting players on the opposite team
- Visual distractions
- Weather conditions and other poor playing conditions
Internal Psychological Demands
Internal stimuli are those that happen within the athlete’s own mind. Like external factors, internal factors can be sports related or non-sports related. They can weigh heavy on a player’s mind throughout the game. These factors include:
- Pressure to win
- Worries about future outcomes (missing a shot, striking out, etc.) or dwelling on past mistakes
- Motivation, concentration and self-confidence
- Distractions from home, school and work (upcoming exam, divorce)
Each of these internal psychological demands can create stress, anxiety and a lack of confidence. If not well managed, these factors can noticeably impact a player’s performance.
Strategies to Help Athletes Cope with Psychological Demands
Recognizing the psychological factors that can affect a player’s performance is the first step to persevering. Then, athletes can apply strategies to tackle their mental hurdles, calm their nerves and focus their pre-game jitters effectively.
Incorporating positive self-talk and positive affirmations into an athlete’s routine can help kick those negative thoughts to the curb. This strategy is particularly effective if athletes are facing heightened internal psychological demands.
Intentional breathing has a long list of benefits from lowering heart rate and blood pressure to relieving anxiety and improving focus. In stressful situations, shifting your focus to your breath can combat psychological stressors and improve performance.
Visualization is another key strategy for coping with the psychological demands of sports. Not only will visualization enhance motivation and confidence, but when you practice visualizing, you are actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as you would when you are physically performing that same action. Consider visualizing the perfect goal, shot or maneuver and picturing your desired outcomes. The more you mentally rehearse, the more the behavior becomes habituated in your mind.
Another great way to mentally prepare is by creating a pre-game routine. Game day routines help reduce anxiety, eliminate distractions and improve overall focus. Choose a routine that helps you “get in the zone” and enter your competitive mindset.
Not only have these aforementioned strategies helped athletes achieve peak performance, but they’ve also found fans beyond athletics. Professionals in high-stress jobs, such as surgeons, firefighters and performing artists, are increasingly looking to improve their cognitive performance.
Like athletes, those in tactical positions, such as paramedics, police officers and military personnel, have to act fast and function in high-stress environments. Similarly, many business executives consult with mental health experts to help them perform at their peak in the boardroom and overcome performance anxiety.
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