Sport psychology: train your mind to take control

Endurance performance is mentally tough; the best athletes can push themselves to sustain physical fatigue and remain psychologically positive over long distances and durations. But according to Professor Andy Lane, this doesn’t happen by chance; endurance athletes can train the mind to develop emotional control which will lead to improved performance.

In an article published in Peak Performance, the focus was on preparing for the Marathon des Sables, a six-day event that involves distances of approximately a marathon per day. The event  involves coping with searing heat, extreme foot blisters, huge sand dunes and having to carry your own supplies – not for the faint-hearted.

Research by Professor Lane showed it’s normal to experience intense emotions before competition. On intense emotion is anxiety and rarely do athletes get all of these things right and they should expect to feel anxious to some degree. However, they should try to interpret these feelings to mean that they are excited; sport performance is by its very nature uncertain, and even the most confident athletes still have a degree of anticipation regarding how things will turn out. It is possible to feel anxious but to interpret these feelings in a motivational way as being ready to perform. Anxiety can be a good thing.

Endurance athletes experience a mixture of emotional states during bouts of long, intense exercise. Those who cope successfully tend to feel fatigue and happiness simultaneously, whereas athletes who do not cope very well tend to feel fatigued, depressed and angry at the same time. As vigour and fatigue fluctuate during repeated bouts of hard exercise during an endurance event, athletes should expect to feel intense fatigue and learn strategies to cope.

To enjoy repeated bouts of hard exercise during competition you need to have experienced repeated bouts of fatigue. In the same way you train your body to cope with the demands of training, you also train your mind to think positively about the experience.

How to Develop Emotional Control:

  • Know how emotions change, it can be extremely useful in understanding how behaviour can change. One way to get started is to think back to some of your recent performances and rate how you felt before a few races where you performed well (in relation to your own expectations) and a few races where you performed poorly (again in relation to your own expectations). Once you have a profile associated with successful and unsuccessful performance, a psychological skills programme can be tailored for your specific needs.
  • Imagery is effective because it can be used to replay situations. The emotions experienced during those situations can be changed from dysfunctional to functional. Imagery is a good way to do this as the situation can be replayed and aspects of it can be changed. Imagery to help athletes cope with difficult situations. You should try to anticipate a difficult situation and see yourself coping with it successfully. An important part of this process is to imagine successfully tackling a number of the factors that make the task difficult; never underestimate the difficulty of the task as this can create a false sense of self-confidence.
  • For example, imagine yourself coping through the toughest part of the race, when your body feels exhausted. Imagine yourself coping successfully with this fatigue, feeling anger and depression starting to build up as you sense your physical fitness not being able to match the standard of performance you have set as a goal.
    During imagery sessions you should rehearse the psyche-up strategies that would be used to raise vigour. For ultra-endurance events such as the Marathon des Sables, you should imagine how you will feel at the start of a difficult stage. This could be three days into a multi-day event when you have residual fatigue. Imagine how you talk yourself into feeling ready, downplaying feelings of soreness. Imagine yourself as a runner of the course; focus on each step, on the small details, and go through how attainable each part is when broken down in to simple steps. What this can do is to develop effective coping strategies for successfully dealing with unpleasant emotions experienced in competition.
  • Positive Self Talk can turn negative thoughts to positive thoughts. Think back to those runs when you felt tired. Think of what you said to yourself. Write it down. The next step is to change the negative self-statements into positive self-statements., for example, consider the negative self-statement, ‘My legs have gone. I will have to stop’. This relationship between feeling tired and what to do about these feelings is clearly terminal for performance. We need to change both parts of this self-statement. Rather than saying ‘my legs have gone’ we need to change this to a transient statement such as ‘my legs are tired’. This is more likely to be true in any case. Tiredness tends to come in waves during endurance running and intense feelings of physical tiredness can pass. Develop self-talk scripts to change negative scenarios to positive ones. Use a combination of imagery and self-talk to create situations in which you experience unpleasant emotions, and see yourself deal successfully with these situations, using positive self-talk to control the inner voice in your head that can be negative.

To conclude before an ultra-endurance event, prepare mentally and physically. Expect to feel fatigue and have your own personal strategies to cope with this. Expect also to feel anxious before the event but try to interpret these feelings as excitement.

Source: Sports psychology: train your mind to take control

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