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Mental skills needed for athletes’ optimum performance (continued)

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Imagery and Visualization

Imagery is the process of simulating sensory experiences in the mind in the absence of external stimuli. Whenever an athlete daydreams of or imagines a sporting event, imagery is being used. While visualization typically describes simulation of visual stimuli, imagery may involve the simulation of many factors: sound, touch, body awareness, psychological states such as confidence, and numerous other mental and physical experiences.{{more}}

Imagery is popular in tennis and cricket, and much research evidence suggests that it positively improves performance. Factors believed to improve an individual’s ability to benefit from imagery include the ability to form vivid images, control the images, and relax before producing images. Imagery is used to help tennis players and cricketers anticipate and solve problems, prepare for tournaments, rehearse particular strokes and sequences, cope with adversity, and reinforce positive performance. Imagery may be performed individually or in a group, and it may be guided by a sport psychologist or a coach. Like all mental skills, imagery and visualization must be practised by athletes consistently and correctly to produce positive effects.

Concentration and Attention Control

Concentration and attention control are perhaps the most important mental skills to master in sports. As there are so many potential distractions during play (sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts), remaining optimally focused pays dividends. Selective attention is the ability to choose the most appropriate stimuli to focus on, while concentration is the ability to sustain attention over time.

Players need to be able to shift attention rapidly and accurately. For example, a player first broadly scans internal thoughts to find a winning strategy. He or she then shifts attention quickly to external elements, such as the strengths and weaknesses of his or her opponents. This constant mental shifting from external to internal, broad to narrow and back is the essence of attention control. Proper attention control allows a player/athlete to choose what is important, stay focused upon it as long as necessary, and shift focus as needed.

Concentration and attention are often enhanced with strategies such as reciting key phrases to oneself, remaining centred in the present, sustaining attention during distractions, and using imagery and self-talk to refocus when distracted.

Motivation

Many athletes and players are primarily motivated by task goals such as the desire to learn and improve, regardless of outcome. Others are motivated more by ego-centred goals, such as displaying competence over others, which makes winning and losing extremely important.

According to research findings described in Weinberg and Gould (1999), males appear to score higher on competitive and win orientation, whereas females score higher on goal orientation (oriented more toward improving performance). Elite athletes appear to be higher on both win and goal orientations than less skilled athletes.

Another area of motivation is intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivational factors are states within the athlete, such as pride or satisfaction, while external motivational factors are rewards from outside the athlete, such as money or attention. Each sport is played for so many different reasons (such as joy, money, ego, learning, or recognition); each athlete must be treated as a unique individual and seek an approach that is optimally motivating for that person. Pitfalls occur when athletes are primarily motivated to please others rather than themselves, or when outcomes are so important that players become threatened by fear of failure or base their self-worth solely on how well they play their sport.

Relevance:

The use of psychology in sports may extend far beyond mental skills training. For example, problems such as academic stress, strained relationships, time management, family conflict, and financial concerns affect everyone at one time or another. Although these issues rarely represent severe distress, they may easily compromise an athlete’s overall performance.

When such problems arise, it is very important to discuss them with your players and seek professional assistance when needed, as there is much at stake for both of you. As a psychologist, I recommend this service to coaches, athletes and parents who are serious about their children’s sporting career — whether for mental skills development, resolution of sports issues, or treatment of more serious distress – I guarantee that there is great merit in achieving these mental skills and reducing distractions.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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