Creating and developing an internal self-awareness within athletes is, for me, the most important job a sport psychologist has within applied work, and is something I care a great deal about when working with others. When it comes down to it, it is not we – the psychologist who will be scoring goals in the Barclays Premier League on a Saturday afternoon, or executing a perfect backhand during the opening game of the French Open. It is our job to support these athletes in all their endeavours, developing them as sportspeople as well as human beings, ultimately improving confidence and performance in their chosen sport.
So what is it exactly do I mean when I’m referring to an internal self-awareness? A sportsperson – like me, you, or any of the other billions of people in the world, have an internal monologue they use every single day of their lives. This can be used in a number of ways. To assess a situation, heap praise on yourself or – like most people, systematically disregard any achievements we make and continuously underrate our ability to succeed and promote confidence in ourselves. This is mostly done without us even realising it and you’d be surprised just how many people you talk to throughout the day will underrate themself. Just think how many times over your life or within sport have you said to yourself you won’t achieve something – all because of a simple mistake (which we all make), and then your whole performance collapses along with your confidence.
So how can we manage this? First of all we need to assess what it is we’re saying to ourselves that’s affecting our confidence. This can be anything from: dwelling on a mistake, i.e. “Why have I just done that? I can’t believe I did that.” To already doubting your ability to perform before a game, i.e. “I hate playing against spin bowlers. I never perform well against spin bowlers.” In my experience these types of negative thoughts have come from single occasions of doubt that manifests and leaks into future performances, affecting confidence, concentration and causing poor performances.
I have found the most effective ways of developing a positive internal self-awareness in athletes is through deliberate practice, (Ericsson, et al., 1993) and positive self-talk, (Hardy, 2001). By deliberate practice I am referring to improving confidence through a number of ways that is built around their personal program of training and competition. This effectively revolves around the athlete’s preparation – training preparation, and pre and post match preparation. How are they preparing for their sport and are they developing this preparation in training? A midfielder in football may use recent footage of an opponent they are about to face in an upcoming game and see where their weaknesses lie and replicate this within training. This effectively allows the brain to develop memories, which provides the athlete with much quicker responses within competition by engaging long-term working memory at a much faster pace. This will increase decision-making, and provide the athlete with a plan of how to prepare to succeed, allowing them to visualise achievement, which improves confidence within the athlete. Athletes should then be encouraged to reflect on their performances post-performance and see where potential improvements could be made as well where their greatest strengths lie. This is not difficult to do, and even the most amateur of athletes has the necessary utensils at their disposal to prepare for competition in their own unique manner as well as engaging in reflective practice and assessing their own performances. It should be noted that there are always positives to take from any performance and I believe as a sport psychologist we need to promote these positive, healthy behaviours that will increase confidence and potentially remove those self-doubts that can arise. This essentially comes down to deliberate practice of match preparation, preparing to succeed efficiently and effectively through the methods mentioned above. (Remember: repetition, repetition, repetition is key).
Positive self-talk is another great psychological tool to introduce to athletes, as it can be easily taught and managed. The main issue involving self-talk is replacing the already negative processes that have been developed over time with more positive focused processes. This can be done through continued, repetitive use of positive self-talk. This will eventually raise athletes’ self-awareness to their own emotional state. By being able to recognise when negative emotions and thoughts are affecting performance, athletes are able to use positive self-talk and the experiences gained through deliberate practice to actively overcome negative processes by engaging positive processes they, themselves have personally adapted. As previously this all comes down to preparation. Preparing for a competitive performance both physically and psychologically will engage long-term working memory and allow for much quicker decision making procedures, which will ultimately improve performance. Prepare to succeed, plan for every eventuality and have the utmost confidence in your abilities to perform, develop and progress as an athlete.