Former baseball player Ray Knight said, “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary” and very succinctly summed up about half of the tenets of sport psychology. Much-loved Longhorn and coaching legend Darrell Royal summed up the other half when he stated, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
In sports, what keeps us coming back for more, week after week, year round, is the good chance we’ll get to see a miracle or two. Someone will be able to stay airborne for an impossible length of time and make a ludicrously difficult but successful shot at the basket in the midst of utter chaos. Our team will win at the Rose Bowl in the last 19 seconds of the game because a symphony of improbable actions in perfectly trained human bodies and minds delivers the goods at the right moment, against the odds and under the gun.
Sport psychologists like Dr. John Bartholomew and Dr. Esbelle Jowers in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education are among the first to admit there’s a lot that scientists don’t know about how or why top athletes’ minds and bodies work together so well. After all, when you say that someone broke the four-minute mile by ignoring those who said it couldn’t be done, have you really solved the deeper mystery?
What experts do know, however, is that there are strategies that athletes can nurture in training and then during competition to put them in that elusive state of “flow,” where they surpass conscious thought and all of the elements of peak performance come together–concentration, physical expertise, focus, calm, discipline, unwavering confidence. They’re in the coveted “zone.” Self-consciousness has fallen away and they’re transcending limitations.
“Sport psychology, to put it simply, focuses on the psychological factors associated with physical performance,” says Bartholomew, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. “When it comes right down to it, you’re just trying to help an athlete consistently execute those behaviors that he’s practiced to virtual perfection so many times in training. During a match, Tiger Woods doesn’t have to puzzle over how to make a particular swing and the mechanics of his arm movements–he’s executed every single one of those physical moves before and could do all of them in his sleep. What he’s got to be able to do is allow his body to deliver the desired results. Ironically, you want to keep the mind from getting in the way of the performance.”
In addition to the necessary physical gifts–without which an athlete couldn’t excel no matter how well-schooled his mind–according to Jowers and Bartholomew top athletes first of all need a strong, overriding internal motivation that carries them through the pain of competitions like the Tour de France or the training that’s required of an NFL player during football season. The expectations of a dad who wants you to be a baseball pro or simply a desire for more money probably won’t fuel you.
Along with a high level of internal motivation, top athletes must also be able to quell mental and emotional demons like stress, loss of focus and fears of losing. Unlike many of us, they’re regularly placed in situations where there’s exceptional pressure, intense scrutiny by large numbers of evaluators and a very high incentive for success. Crippling stress can creep in. Distractions like a screaming crowd of 98,000 or an excruciating knee injury can wreak havoc with focus. The skill of athletes on the opposing team may be intimidating. The numbers on the scoreboard can take the mind off the moment and introduce fears of defeat.
“Experienced athletes have found ways of coping with all of this fairly well,” says Bartholomew. “But even they can lapse into trying to impose conscious control over something that’s been practiced enough that it should be automatic. They’re not trusting themselves and, worst of all, they’ve started to focus on the outcome.
“For athletes to deliver their best performance, they have to have the necessary physical gifts and aptitude, of course–the mental discipline and emotional steadiness don’t mean anything without that. If they’re more focused on the implications of their actions or what will happen if they win or lose, though, then their speed or strength won’t mean anything. We help athletes do their best by introducing techniques like deep breathing, positive self-talk, visualization and pre-performance routines that can remove distractions and stress and put them mentally where they need to be.”
A pre-performance routine can be something as familiar as a player bouncing the ball three times before a free throw or striking the same pose in the dugout each time before stepping up to bat. According to Jowers and Bartholomew, routines can help a player separate the thinking and planning time from the time when he must act. To help infielders silence distracting thoughts and shed tension, sport psychologists who work with baseball teams often draw a circle in the dirt and have the infielder do all of his mental prep outside the circle–once the player is inside the circle, thought is to stop and it’s time to react. Practiced often, stepping into the circle becomes a solid, effective cue.
With visualization, an athlete may run a very detailed mental “film” of swimming laps, sinking a putt or running around a track, effortlessly clearing hurdle after hurdle.