The summer of 2012 was a great one, for the athletes involved and for us spectators who enjoyed the spectacle. I was lucky enough to get some tickets for a couple of the Olympic and Paralympic events, seeing some really memorable performances. I also got closer to the action and organisation of the Games when working with some of the media. Here are some of my ideas about how athletes can become better prepared to perform at big events, such as the Olympics.
The 2012 Olympics summer in London was highly anticipated by many fans, but how much more can it mean for competitors? Well, that depends on how prepared they are and how they handle, what is for most athletes taking part, the most important 3 weeks to perform in their life. Some will achieve their goal(s) for their season or career and walk away satisfied. Many will have a mixed experience. And, unfortunately, for others, they will walk away disappointed, perhaps taking years to absorb the experience.
Here are some of my initial tips for an athlete's success at the Olympics:
- Arrive psychologically ready having developed your psychological skills
- Keep your goal(s) in mind for the event. Ensure these are realistic (SMART)
- Know your Olympic Game(s) plan - how you will manage your sports time during the competition and training times
- Know how you will manage your downtime - take it easy, relax, chill, put your mind on other things
- Be confident - recall all your preparation, training sessions, markers that you are ready for this, trust your preparation
- Manage pre-competition nerves
- Review each performance in a balanced way, so you can spot opportunities to tweak your plan while you are still at the Games (but be careful not to over meddle)
- Focus on you and what you need to do to perform well (don't get too distracted by other athletes or the 'circus')
My experience of competition
I've competed in triathlon races since 1996 and I am used to the demands that competition can bring. While I have not been to the Olympics, I have raced approximately 100 times. My bigger races have included age-group:
- World Triathlon Championships: Cancun 2002, Honolulu 2005.
- European Triathlon Championships: Athlone 2010, Pontevedra 2011
I am currently training for the 2012 World Champs in Auckland.
Some of my blog entries:
Italian football match fixing: What’s your price?
Italian football match-fixing inquiry story on the BBC today (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18000848): 52 active players to answer questions on their behaviour.
This got me wondering, some athletes make the decision to take performance enhancing drugs to perform better (by cheating), but how much money would it take for athletes (footballers and others) to perform worse?
What would it take for us in their shoes to:
- to miss a or every shot on goal?
- to foul another player?
- to false start in a sprint race?
- to fail at each attempt at a triple jump?
- to not finish a hurdle race?
- to finish outside the top 10 in a sprint in a cycling road race?...
Would we never be tempted? Even by a few hundred thousand pounds?
Would our price be high, average, or not so high?
Would it be lower if we are more towards the end of our sporting careers, to earn a bit extra, or because it 'doesn't matter'? How would we justify the decision?
Out with injury? Then plan your successful comeback. See progress in your rehab.
Just as a training plan gives you confidence that you are taking steps towards good fitness and a good competitive performance, so does a rehab program where your physio/sports massage sessions and rehab exercises can give you confidence that you are doing what is required to recover, to get back to usual training, and to be better than before.
Plan your rehab recovery. Look out for progress. Celebrate your efforts and achievements. And don’t ditch your rehab exercises too early.
Learn to shift focus from internal to external when required.
An important element of self-management is the ability to manage attention, focus or concentration. Skilful performers can shift focus when the situation requires it and at will. One dimension is internal-external:
- Internal: this is your body, how it feels, your perceived exertion, your heart-rate, tension, but also your emotions and thoughts
- External: that which is outside your body, the competitive arena, your opponent(s), the weather
Practice in training to shift your attention from internal to external and back again, plus to learn when it is helpful to have an internal or external focus.
Post-marathon blues are common: Here’s why they happen and what to do to bounce-back
With all the time energy, effort, hope, worry and expectation that goes into our marathon campaign, once we cross the finish line and the dust has settled, we can experience a post-marathon dip. For some this dip is mild and not-too-significant and others, the post-marathon blues are more significant.
There are many reasons why we can have this experience. One of the main ones, which is often overlooked, is that when the body is physically tired, along with this can come at dip in mood. Another reason is that the marathon is such a big goal in our lives and when it passes we can feel somewhat lost without another goal to pursue. If we don't have another event planned, training can seem quite pointless. Or, if we have another goal, it can be difficult to get up for it.
So how do we remedy this and bounce-back after a spring marathon?
- If you feel the post-marathon blues, and recognise it as a common and normal experience.
- Rest up and recover, take it easy for a while.
- Do something different: planned another event in, a half-marathon, 10K, 5K, adventure race or something that is different to a marathon, that appears more fun and that makes you motivated and interested again in training for something.
- Mix things up in a training: if you haven't done hill reps for a while to some hill reps, if you haven't done speedwork for a while do some speedwork, the same goes for anything in your training: off-road running, running with buddies, doing shorter runs, whatever that it is interesting to you, that has variety. Just make sure that it's not like what your marathon training was in about – such as logging long miles, and always feeling fatigued.
Where’s your head at? Or more specifically, where’s your attention at? Is it off-task? Why it matters.
I worked with a swimmer a while ago who surprised me. When I asked him what he thought of during swim sets, including the drill sets, where he was supposed to focus on aspects of technique (e.g. hand entry, body rotation etc), he said that he sang songs in his head. Sounds fine, right? Well, no!
If your attention is not where it is supposed to be (i.e. on the aspects of the drills in this swimmer’s case) you’ll get less from your training, less improvement, less good competitive performance, less satisfaction, and achieve less in sporting.
So, attend to what needs your attention, and leave your daydreaming for when it really doesn’t matter.
Elite sport in the public eye, brings risk and reward
On 20th April I presented at the British Psychological Society's (BPS) Annual Conference on Sport and Exercise. Here are some of comments from my presentation via summarised on the BPS website (http://www.bps.org.uk/news/roundtable-sport-and-mental-health):
'Dr Victor Thompson, himself a competitive triathlete, spoke about the pressures on elite athletes. All must attempt to maintain confidence in their own abilities and performance, yet many will eventually have to accept that their careers will not be fulfilled – either because of injury or because they are not quite good enough to reach the very top.
He also spoke of the particular pressures on athletes in the Internet age, when every spectator and armchair fan can be a critic too. A contributor from the audience said that in his experience top rugby players cannot keep away from blogs and Twitter even though they know they should.'
Got a niggle? Do something about it! Seek help, modify your training. Just don’t bury your head in the sand.
If you have a niggle, something is wrong. Perhaps your body is under recovered and will be fine, but often this is not the case and bad things develop after spotting a niggle. Act.
- Consider getting some help: physio, sports masseur.
- Consider modifying your training: back-off, take more rest
- Don’t ignore it, or it might derail this season or your whole sporting career. (It happens.)
- Don’t ignore it (for most people, this is worth me repeating)
Got an injury? Keep moving for your mind and body’s sake.
You know that sport, exercise and activity is good for your body and mind, so if you are injured, make sure that you keep up (when possible and not contraindicated) a good level of activity, even if you have to choose activities that you wouldn’t usually do.
- Can’t run? What about aqua jogging?
- Can’t cycle? What about swimming?
- No matter what, you most certainly can walk, stretch, do some gym work with weights or on core stability.
Use the time to work on other components of health and fitness. Don’t give into the temptation to hit the sofa, biscuit tin and beer – or you’ll have a bigger challenge later when you try to get back to fitness.
Exercise can be good for stress-relief: Why? And, why not share this good news?
Sport and exercise – but not competition for most of us – can be a good way to de-stress. This works for several reasons:
- It takes us away from stressful situations (home or work)
- We focus on what we are doing (e.g, chasing a football, hitting the tennis ball, running drills…) and therefore not on life’s problems
- We have endogenous opiates (‘happy hormones’) released into our bloodstream which feel good
- We might be exercising or playing sport with positive, encouraging people
Those of us who exercise know this already. Perhaps we can share the good news to those who don’t exercise or engage in sport?
Are you stressing about your workout/session before it even starts? Understandable, maybe. But, unlikely to be helpful
If you're stressed before you start your workout or training session, especially if you're cramming training into a busy day, you're unlikely to get the most out of it.
If you approach your session, or worse, sessions, with the thought 'I must...' or 'I have to...' you are likely to be stressed and contribute to being more stressed, as your thoughts are absolutes. There is no leeway, no negotiation, or flexibility.
Be on the look-out for what you say to yourself regarding your training sessions. Instead, of the musts and shoulds, try saying to yourself,
- “I’m training tonight”
- “I’m going to training tonight”
- “I’m looking forward to training later”
That way, you won't create and experience the same tension because you're putting less pressure on yourself. The result will be that you likely to have less psychological and physical tension, a better session, and end-up in a better mood.
Mid-week dip in mood? Get your shoes on and get moving. Exercise helps mood and depression.
It’s what we regular exercisers know based on our experience: exercise boosts mood and missing exercise makes things worse mood-wise.
As a Clinical Psychologist who works in the NHS in London, it is great to see that the NHS and DoH is now including exercise as an important component of treatment programmes for people struggling with anxiety or depression. Last month I was at the launch of the new NHS IAPT initiative called Brain Train, which aims to inform NHS staff about the benefits so they can give guidance to their clients. The evidence behind exercise boosting mood and psychological wellbeing is compelling. And, as we know, not everyone wants to have a sit-down therapeutic consultation with someone like me, so I really welcome this NHS initiative.
So when the week at work is starting to drag you down, don’t give in to the temptation to take it easy and go home and hit the sofa. Instead, make sure you get some physical stimulation: walk, jog, run, swim, cycle, hit the gym – anything really, to get the physical and psychological boost from exercise.
Manage your emotions to excel, or risk ‘doing a John Terry’: lashing out at some inanimate object (or human).
When we think of managing our emotions when performing, we usually think of managing nerves, anxiety or stress. While this is important, these aren’t the only emotions to manage so that we perform well. Top athletes – or any athletes trying to perform at their best – need to learn to manage frustration or they risk expressing their anger or aggression in unhelpful ways. Last night’s Champions League football match between Chelsea and Barcelona showed a ‘great’ example of this, when Chelsea’s John Terry kneed the lower back of Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez. Terry was observed, sent off and will now miss the Champions League final.
Lashing out can be tempting when feeling frustrated at your performance, competitors, officials or something about the situation. However, lashing out in most sporting contexts will almost certainly get you in trouble and give you more to deal with than the original frustrating experience.
The great athletes learn to manage their emotions and how these are expressed in their field of play.
London Marathon runners @ the VLM: Time for post-marathon review?
Reviewing your performance is important. This can be comprehensive and complex – but that is likely to put most athletes off from doing it, as it becomes too cumbersome and a pain. Instead as yourself these brief questions now that the dust has settled after your event:
- What went well that you’d want to do again or learn from? There will be plenty, so make sure you extract this.
- What didn’t go so well, that you’d want to change? There will be some negatives or learning points. Look at these dispassionately.
- Okay, so how will you modify your training and events in the future to repeat the good and address the not-so-good?
Review – learn – move on – improve
How will athletes react to the news that lifetime drug bans might be overturned by the BOA before the Olympics?
BBC website announces today: ‘Former Olympic triple jump champion Jonathan Edwards is happy the British Olympic Association's lifetime ban for drug cheats looks set to be overturned.’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/17818958
Without going into how we as spectators think or feel about this issue, I’m interested in the impact that this issue might have on other competitors – those competing in the sports that the previously banned athletes compete in.
Athlete A: With a strong sense of right and wrong, Athlete A gets further fired-up and motivated to show the drug cheats that they are better, that they can win clean, expecting their performance to do the talking. This news of allowing, or potentially allowing, the banned athletes back in, is motivating, helping them prepare and perform.
Athlete B: With a belief that the sports officials, system or the world lets them down, Athlete B becomes angry at the developments. They may either get fired-up and motivated in a positive way, or frustrated, becoming distracted with a negative impact on their preparation.
Athlete C: With a negative outlook on life, Athlete C believes that things will always go wrong, no matter what they do. The news that the banned drug cheats are being allowed back in leads them to predict that these athletes will either be on drugs still or that they will carry advantages from their last drug cycle into the Games.
I’d back Athlete A to do the best at the Games.
Recently, I was asked on the Runners World Forum, for 1 piece of advice that I would give runners for marathon day. Here is is:
My one piece of advice is to use a calm, helpful, directive, positive inner voice or self-talk. I liken this to the perfect coach. He or she who knows exactly what to say to you at any time to keep you going, running well, enjoying the challenge, soaking up the experience, making the most from the event.
Be good to yourself, have a good event.
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Dr Victor Thompson