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The Effects of Psychology on Physical Performance

Kristina Yarovinski ’18 News Editor Emeritus
The stands are packed with cheering crowds, eager to watch the athletes compete. At this point, it is too late for the athletes to train harder, eat healthier, or sleep more. Their physical preparation is done, leaving their mind as their most powerful tool.
Varsity Swim Coach Chuck Elrick said, “The mental state that you are in at the moment you start your race has a lot to do with your performance. Your physical ability and your strength certainly are important, but your mental preparation has just as much significance.” Varsity volleyball and crew captain Sam Dies ’18 explained, “With a sport like crew that’s so heavily based on endurance, being able to work through the pain and stick to your goals is the only way you’re going to succeed. With sports like volleyball, pushing through the pain isn’t as important as being able to focus and stick with it after messing up a couple times.”

Joshua Brant, the school psychologist, has conducted research on the significance of mental preparation. From his sample size of one hundred athletes, Brant concluded, “the most important aspect of playing your best is the mental aspect.”

Good psychological preparation requires careful planning. Surroundings can be very impactful for an athlete. Elrick explained, “Everything you do affects your swim. Say you had a bad test grade that morning. You’re going to be upset. You’re not going to be in the right frame of mind to swim your fastest.”

One  of  the  most useful strategies for preparing and avoiding last-minute distractions is visualization. Brant said, “I’m sure that long before Olympic athletes got to the Olympics, they were practicing visualization. As the competition approached, their anxiety levels started to rise. It’s important that athletes address that as well--not only to recognize it but to do something about it.”

Elrick added, “You can’t just step up on the block and expect that you are going to do everything right. Visualizing your event before you swim it is a good practice. Seeing all of your turns properly, your finish properly. And I think just the state of mind that you’re in at that moment has a lot to do with it.”

The audience can also impact an athlete’s performance. For example, a rivalry can often improve performance through a social component. Brant explained, “Social facilitation is the tendency to play better in front of people.” However, too much pressure from an audience can also be harmful to athletic performance. Brant continued, “If you’re really good at a particular skill, then having people doesn’t affect you. But if you have to perform at a level that you’re not used to performing at, then that could be negative.”

Similarly, nerves can be both helpful and harmful. Eleanor Doolittle, a tennis player, described how  anxiety can affect her performance; “[Being nervous] can help me move faster on the court. After the first point, however, I’m not as nervous because I’m more into it.” 

Alex Hughes ’19  claimed that anxiety is an important aspect of  sports: “My hockey coach used to tell  us that if we were not nervous, we were not prepared to play.” A crucial part of mental preparation is emotional regulation--recognizing one’s emotions and actively making adjustments. Brant said, “Anger is not an athlete’s best friend. I would say stress, anxiety, worry, and self-doubt are very destructive. Confidence is by far the number one psychological variable that athletes report as being most helpful.”

How can athletes regulate their emotions and mentally prepare before their competitions? Brant said, “One of the easiest things you can do is to breathe. A popular saying among psychologists is that it’s impossible to feel anxious and relaxed at the same time. When anxiety dissipates, it allows us more access for performing the way we want to perform.” Thus, if athletes replace their anxiety by breathing or visualizing a successful race, they will effectively get rid of their nerves.

Coaches can also help their athletes by stressing the importance of mental preparation. Brant said, “Successful coaches probably address the mental aspect more than they realize. A lot of coaches know that success on the team is conditional on the team being in a good mindset.”

Dies agreed, saying, “My crew coach talks a lot about setting reasonable goals and being mentally strong during practices and races. With a sport like crew, being as strong mentally as you are physically is really important, and he makes a point of coaching us to be mentally determined.”
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