The era when sports stars concentrated solely on physical prep is long gone.
Today, they are just as likely to use psychological techniques to improve their game. As cognitive hypnotherapist Hazel Gale (hazelgale.co.uk) says, ‘People are realising it’s scientific, not woo-woo.’ Hazel is the current UK women’s welterweight boxing champion and former double world women’s kickboxing champion. Not a lady to argue with then.
Performance consultant Andy Barton (thesportingmind.com) is a sports psychologist who also uses Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Neuro Feedback to help people. He says, ‘65% of my clients are sports people, but the others are actors, musicians and just people who need to perform better.’ Indeed, brain training is not only useful in the gym – it could also increase your self-confidence, lift your mood and stop you procrastinating.
Research into the benefits of brain training is building. US research into basketball players, for example, has shown that those who visualise getting the ball in the hoop before they shoot are more likely to score. Another US study from 2013 showed participants who visualised exercising their biceps displayed a 13% increase in muscle strength. The reason is that visualisation activates electromyographical (EMG) activity in muscles similar to that which occurs in actual movement.
1 Mental Rehearsal
What is it? This is a visualisation technique in which you assume the identity of someone famous or successful in order to copy them and improve your own ‘game’.
How to do it: Think of a sports person who is able to do what you want to do. Maybe it’s Paula Radcliffe if you are a runner or Rebecca Adlington if you’re a swimmer. Now, close your eyes and imagine you’ve got a TV and remote control. Press play and watch a film of your hero practising the skill you want to perfect. Press pause and rewind. Play the film again. This time keep your mentor’s head, but visualise your body performing the same task faultlessly. Press pause, rewind and play again, this time with your head and your body, again doing everything well. Repeat this process once more, but this time step inside the film so that you’re actually feeling what it is like to perform so well. Press pause, step out of the film, look at yourself excelling, breathe in and relax.
What it’s best for: Perfecting tricky techniques that you don’t think you can do, such as a slam dunk in basketball or a serve in tennis.
Outside the gym: The Mental Rehearsal is really helpful if you want to perfect any skill, whether it’s cracking an egg with one hand or playing the violin.
2 Process Thinking
What is it? When you want to achieve something, it is normal to set a goal and then try to reach it. However, this creates performance pressure that may prevent you reaching your goal. Process Thinking is a way of focusing on the present
to reduce this pressure.
How to do it: Set your goal then mentally set this aside. Maybe write it on a piece of paper and put it in a drawer. Then focus on the process of training without thinking ahead. If you do your best each time you work out, you will get to your goal and eliminate anxiety along the way.
What it’s best for: It works well for sports such as triathlon, which require a long training period.
Outside the gym: Any task where the goal is a long way off, e.g. if you have a lot of weight to lose.
3 Resource Anchor
What is it?This is based on the idea that we associate different states (happy, sad, excited, etc.) with ‘anchors’ i.e. sights, sounds, smells or tastes. The key is to anchor one of these senses to a frame of mind (a ‘resource state’) that helps you in your sport.
How to do it: The easiest and most effective Resource Anchor to create is a sound. An experiment conducted at Brunel University in 2001 found that music combined with imagery was more effective than imagery alone at helping athletes complete an isometric endurance task. Choose a song or songs that give you a feeling of energy and power. Now, sit quietly, close your eyes and remember a time when you trained well or competed successfully. As you see yourself excelling, switch on the music
and allow the sound to become associated with the feeling of success. Repeat this three or four times and then play the song whenever you train.
What it’s best for: Endurance exercise like running or cycling where the music helps you to dissociate you from the effort, aching limbs or sore feet.
Outside the gym: If something makes you nervous (e.g. public speaking), you can create a relaxation anchor using a song that helps you to keep calm. Hum your chosen song quietly just before you have to speak to instantly calm yourself down.
4 Flick It Out, Lock It In
What is it? A favourite of Hazel’s, this duo of cognitive techniques helps you to ‘own’ your positive experiences and ‘throw away’ your negative experiences.
How to do it: If you have a really good training session, win a race or set a personal best in anything, lift one arm, bend it as if you are doing a classic bicep curl, then as you clench your fist, pull it in to your chest. This ‘locks in’ the success. If you don’t do so well, ‘flick it out’ by taking the flat of one hand and brushing yourself down.
What it’s best for: Competitive sports with matches that you win or lose, or sports such as weight training or gymnastics that require you to perform difficult manoeuvres you can succeed or fail at.
Outside the gym: In competitive work environments such as sales where missing targets can affect your confidence.
5 Power Pose
What is it? A technique favoured by Andy, Power Pose is based on the idea that body language is infectious. ‘If you are fearful, you adopt fearful body language (you make yourself small by slumping down) and this body language increases your feeling of fearfulness,’ he explains. Power Pose completely reverses this process.
How to do it: Stand with your feet slightly apart, your head up and your shoulders back. Lift your arms up and out as if you are running through a tape at the end of a race. Breathe deeply and hold that position for one to two minutes.
What it’s best for: Increasing your energy and focus for short, explosive exercise such as sprinting or diving. This makes it particularly good just before the start of a race.
Outside the gym: Fantastic just before a difficult meeting or tricky phone call. It can give you the confidence to deliver bad news or ask for a pay rise.
6 Change Internal Dialogue
What is it? ‘A lot of us do ourselves down with self talk,’ says Hazel. This is the critical voice in our heads that many of us have. Change Internal Dialogue is a technique that takes the sting out of that inner voice.
How to do it: Close your eyes and think about some of the negative things you think about yourself, e.g. ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m not fast enough’, ‘I’ll never win’, etc. While listening to this litany of internal criticism, alter the voice into that of Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson. Immediately, whatever they are saying sounds ridiculously silly rather than powerful or strong.
What it’s best for: Events where you might hit a mental wall, e.g. mile 20 of a marathon or any exercise where self-doubt is holding you back, e.g. ‘I’ll never be able
to do 10 press-ups!’.
Outside the gym: A great all-round self-esteem lifter, Change Internal Dialogue can be used whenever you start to doubt your abilities, whatever the context.
WHAT’S YOUR MANTRA?
Mantras are one of the most abused areas of psychology, but framed correctly they can be very effective. Here are the rules to remember:
• Use positive language If you say ‘I’m not nervous’, the brain doesn’t hear the ‘not’. It hears ‘nervous’ and your anxiety builds. Better to say ‘I am confident’.
• Be realistic There’s no point saying ‘I’m going to be a world-class gymnast’ if you can barely get through a Zumba class. Better to say ‘I will get fitter’.
• Mean what you say ‘Mantras won’t work unless the body language and tone of voice is right,’ says Andy. Stand tall with your shoulders back and your head up – and speak confidently.
• Keep it broad A Greek study from 2006 found that motivational self talk, such as ‘I can do it!’, worked better than instructional self talk such as ‘hit the ball!’.
3 MAGNIFICENT MANTRAS
1 ‘I can, I will, I am’ (as in I can do it, I will do it, I am doing it). This creates belief and builds determination to do anything.
2 ‘I will treat my body with love and respect. My body deserves this and I deserve this.’ Helps build resolve to be healthy and boosts self-esteem.
3 ‘Just do it.’ The famous Nike slogan helps combat procrastination and silences a critical internal voice.