How To Think Like A Winner
By Yasmin Boland
Applying The Principles Of Sports Psychology To Everyday Life
Imagine being the best…
Imagine being Venus Williams. You’re a set down and your opponent is at match point. If she wins her next serve, she wins the match. You know you can bounce back. But it’s been a long road and just getting this far has taken it out of you. How does a champion like Williams overcome such an awesome challenge, not just once, but time and time again? How does she turn potential defeat into victory with such apparent ease?
It’s called positive thinking and discipline. And it’s also called sport psychology.
These days, no athlete worth his or her salt, would even contemplate competing at world class level without a qualified sport psychologist by their side and every great athlete – from Williams to Tiger Woods to Brett Favre – has a ‘sport psychologist’ on their team.
Using simple and extremely effective mental techniques such as positive affirmations, relaxation and visualisation, this relatively new breed of psychologists teaches competitors how to go one step beyond their talents so they not only play but also “think like a winner”.
Mr Jeffrey Bond, the head of sport psychology at the Australian Institute of Sport (and the man who trained Pat Cash to his 1987 Wimbledon victory) – says that at the AIS, mental toughness is acknowledged as being at least 60% of the battle to win.
Now psychologists are looking into how to translate these successful ‘confidence tricks’ for use in day to day life – so the rest of us can also learn how to think like champions.
Sport psychologist Trevor Dodd, who has worked extensively in the area for nearly 10 years explains: “The principles of the psychology of peak performance can be applied throughout life.
“Anyone who wants to enhance their performance – be it on the playing field, in the boardroom or in the bedroom – needs to think about their mental approach.
But it’s not so much about ‘pschying out’ your opposition as about ‘psyching up’ yourself.
“Studies have shown that up to 70% of our thoughts are negative in nature, even if it’s something as simple as ‘it’s going to be one of those days’ or ‘I’m so stupid because I can’t remember people’s names’,” says Mr Dodd.
“Sport psychology deals with replacing those negative thoughts with positive concentration.”
The Five Basic Principles Of Thinking Like A Winner:
Visualisation is a tool used by sportsmen and women the world over to mentally prepare for their event. But it can just as easily be used to prepare for an important job interview, a major presentation to a boss at work or even for a date with someone new who fills your stomach with butterflies.
Says Mr Dodd: “The first use of visualisation is that it takes the worry out of something potentially ‘scary’ by making it familiar.
“Our Olympic swimmers for example, have already been shown photographs of the swimming arenas where they will compete in Atlanta. This means they can actually visualise the day of competition in detail. They can imagine what will happen when they arrive on the day, work out where changing rooms and toilets are, where they’ll chat to their team mates and warm up.
“Then they’ll go one step further and imagine the actual race, visualising the scene and even imagining the smell of the chlorine, the sounds of the crowds cheering them on, the feel of the water.
“When the actual day of competition dawns, they1ll have a lot less to worry about. It will be that much less of a shock to the system,” says Mr Dodd.
The rest of us don1t always have the swimmers’ advantage of being able to visualise our future environments in such detail but that doesn1t mean we can1t use visualisation to ‘train’ our mind for important events – be they personal or professional.
Before a job interview, for example, you can visualise how you would like the interview to proceed, using your imagination to fill in blanks about where the interview will be or who you will be speaking to, if need be.
“Visualise yourself responding confidently and well to all the questions that you are likely to be asked, what body language you will need to use, what you1ll wear, how you’ll sit,” says Mr Bond.
“Also spend time visualising how you will cope with any difficult queries, questions about pay and so on.
“Not only will you feel more familiar with the situation when it happens for real but you will create a memory blueprint of how you want to behave in the interview.
“If you have practised this mentally in detail often enough, old, bad habits – bad body language, nervousness and being tongue-tied – are less likely to re-emerge under pressure.”
As we said at the start, how often do we watch a champion like Monica Seles or Steffi Graff pull herself together to win a match only moments after being on the verge of losing? How do you stare defeat in the face and turn it around? How do mere mortals like the rest of us put our past failures behind us – promotions we’ve missed out on, targets we failed to meet, even men we1ve failed to seduce? – to function at our peak when the pressure’s on in a meeting, an interview or even a dinner date?
The answer, according to sport psychologists is to “stay in the present”.
Explains Trevor Dodd: “All of us have a little voice inside our head which chatters away to us non-stop, often dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. We need to become more aware of this voice and to learn to control it.
“You can indeed learn from the past and plan for the future but while you1re actually in the middle of a race – or an important meeting or even a candle lit dinner you1ve been dreaming about – you must focus on the present.
“Recently I worked with an AFL player who, in the closing moments of an important match, had an easy kick for goal to make. If he got the goal in, his team would win, if he missed, his team lost. He kicked and missed.
“Several days later I had the chance to ask him what he was thinking about as he kicked and he admitted that instead of ‘focusing on the now’ and lining up the ball with an object behind the goal posts as he usually did, he was imagining being carried off the field as a hero by his team mates. That was his mistake.”
Says Jeffrey Bond: “It’s called ‘task and outcome’ focus. There is a lot of pressure today on ‘outcome’ but when you1re actually in a pressure situation, you need to focus on the ‘task’ at hand.”
In other words, don’t concern yourself with what your interviewer thinks of you, what your date is going to say next or whether your mascara has run. Concentrate on what is.
“We talk a lot about having positive thoughts but sometimes it’s better to have no unnecessary thoughts at all. If you become distracted with thoughts – even positive ones – you can lose control of ‘the now’.”
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For athletes, relaxation of the body is obviously very important. If your body1s too tense, there1s no way you can play effectively. So athletes learn how to relax âEUR~on demand1, even during actual competition.
But mental relaxation is just as high a priority, particularly for those prone to nervousness under pressure.
Says Jeffrey Bond: “A relaxed mind thinks more clearly. One of easiest ways of learning to relax on demand uses a technique we call âEUR~Favourite Place1. 3
With this method, we need first to think of a time where we were most relaxed and happy – perhaps on a beach side holiday in our teens, for example. Remember the sights and sounds, the feel of the sand, the smell of the ocean.
Mr Bond then advises sportsmen and women to slip into this ‘favourite place memory’ even just for a few seconds – when they feel nerves start to overcome them. The rest of us can conjure it up as we sit nervously waiting for an appointment or meeting.
“This technique works well for nearly everyone. If you can master the art of being able to relax quickly under pressure you will give yourself a great advantage over our opposition.”
To explain the value of positive affirmations, Trevor Dodd tells the story of a tennis player he was working with at the time that ‘tie breaks’ were introduced to the game.
“This player was in the world’s top 50 but he just couldn1t win a tie break. It was driving him mad with anxiety and as a result he lost seven tie breaks – and seven matches – in a row. He realised that there was no point in competing at an international level unless he could beat this bete noire.
“I taught him to brainwash himself in reverse cycle – into believing he could play tie breaks.
“He did this by, in relaxed situations, convincing himself that in fact he loved tie breaks. He stuck notes saying ‘I love tie breaks’ on his bathroom mirror, so they greeted him first thing in the morning, he repeated ‘I love tie breaks’ over and over to himself throughout the day and scrawled this mantra on whatever paper he could find, even on serviettes in restaurants. He won the next nine out of eleven that he played.
“What’s important is that there is no way that he actually believed that he loved tie breaks when he started the ‘brainwashing’. He programmed himself into believing it.”
If we tell ourselves often enough that we’re useless or a failure we start to believe it. By the same token, if we tell ourselves we’re successful, quick thinking, sexy or interesting often enough, we start to believe it – and believe it when it counts. Promise yourself you’ll tell yourself what it is you need to here 10 times a day. Don’t feel stupid about it. Just do it and watch the results.
Obviously, we all perform better when we feel good. What we must remember is that feeling good is our responsibility.
Says Mr Dodd: “Tests which monitor chemicals and hormones in our bodies have proven that ‘putting on a happy face’ (ie: smiling) actually releases chemicals which make us feel better about life within 10 seconds of us breaking into a grin. Contrariwise, when we fall into depression, our bodies release different, misery-making chemicals.”
In other words, we can cheer ourselves up, at least to an extent. Correcting our posture – shoulders back, chin up – has also been shown to help ‘trick the brain’ into feeling happier.
In its simplest form, this means we can control our emotions when it counts most, even if we1re suffering from tiredness, PMT or simply feeling low.
If, for example, if you are about to walk into a room filled with people you have never met before – either for business or pleasure – you can give yourself an instant and scientifically proven pick-me-up in as little as 10 seconds, safe in the knowledge that you will get results.
Says Mr Bond: “The challenge is to take responsibility for your emotions. There’s no need to perform badly just because you’re ‘having a bad day’.”
As Jeffrey Bond says: “Even for champions, there are only so many tactics and technical shots they can play, there’s only a certain level of peak fitness they can achieve.”
What sets champions apart from the also-rans is their ability to go beyond these physical basics and to perform well mentally.
And these rules apply to life. You can be a strong person, someone with a lot to offer, well dressed, smart, confident and well prepared. But unless you have the ability to take all that strength with you wherever you go – personally or professionally – opportunities are going to slip away from you.
The mental toughness that our elite athletes show is something everyone can achieve. And many of us live out the basics of ‘thinking like a winner’ without even realising it.
But it also takes repetitive practice and determination so that, like a perfect serve in tennis, or the ability to kick a winning goal, these confidence skills never let us down when we need them most.
As they say at the Australian Institute of Sport says, “If you take care of your personal best, the winning will take care of itself”.
c. Yasmin Boland
This article first appeared in Australian Women’s Forum