Lessons from Elite Sport
I love sport at the highest level. I love my work as a sports psychology consultant and motivational speaker. The lessons we can learn from watching sport alone are fascinating and I love sharing these lessons with people.
Recently I was engrossed by the Athletics World Championships.
The best athletes from each country competing against each other, pushing themselves to their limits.
The reason why I love athletics so much is because the sport I believe is one of hardest sports to maintain such a high level of dedication and passion for. These athletes are not decorated with the same benefits as most sports, many of them are living off funding. They’re not living the high life that many elite sports stars are. They are truly dedicated to the sport and have an unrelenting passion for it.
There is a lot to be said for that.
Most of these athletes still have that sense of pure motivation. Intrinsic motivation. They are doing it because they have a true passion, because it lights them up on the inside. The training, the discipline, the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears. There are blood, sweat and tears too, I have witnessed it with my own eyes.
In athletics many of the athletes are competing for themselves. This means that when it comes down to the pivotal moments, they are alone. This is where focus means everything. They don’t have team mates to rely on if they have a bad performance. They cannot afford to put in a bad performance.
Also, the very best athletes know that while they are lining up and competing against others just as driven as themselves, actually they are really only competing against themselves. The only person they need to beat is the person they were yesterday.
Are you beginning to see how much we can learn from this?
Let’s take another sport for a moment. Let’s look at football in England and what is happening there.
The money involved in the game now is astonishing. And it comes with a price.
You see, once somebody fixates their focus on something outside of themselves, (ie, a huge financial incentive), it changes their internal drivers. Suddenly the external rewards for being good at something become more compelling than the actual task itself – being a good footballer.
I’m not saying that external rewards are bad. They are part of life and they serve a purpose but they can also damage and hinder performance, especially if they start to consume a person’s focus.
Psychologist research shows that when people are performing at their best, the highest state of mind that we can enter is a state known as ‘flow’. Flow refers to a state of concentration, a place where you are lost in the moment, only thinking about what you are doing at that particular time and nothing else.
Consider these scenarios for a moment;
An England footballer walks up to the penalty spot to take his penalty in the Quarter Finals of a major tournament. He knows what he is doing. He has successfully done this thousands of times before in training. He has been practising this skill all of his life.
But as he is walking up with the ball in his hand he begins to think about other things. Like, how many people are watching him right now. Like what will happen if he scores and what the media will say about him. Or even worse, what will happen if he misses and the criticism and ridicule that will come his way.
Suddenly he is not in flow any longer. No. He is not in the moment. He starts to think about the outcome of his actions, instead of being fully focused on the task at hand.
What happens next?
Well you know, because you have witnessed it in real life many times before.
Let me give you another.
A young talented female sprinter lines up in the 100 Metres World Championship Final. All the way up to the final she has been the fastest qualifier, winning every race with ease. Looking relaxed, confident and happy.
The final comes and she is drawn in the middle lane and at each side of her are two world class athletes. The former World Champion and the reigning Olympic Champion. Nothing internally has changed. She is just running another race, like all the qualifiers. She knows what to do and she does it brilliantly.
Just as she goes to get in her blocks to start the race, she glances over at the two athletes beside her and notices the focus and determination in their eyes. Suddenly her mind starts to wander. I am really going to have to push hard in this race she thinks. She is not in a full state of flow any longer and as the gun goes off, her usual bullet like start doesn’t happen. She is behind and 30 metres into the race she starts to think she is being left behind. I need to push harder she thinks. So she does and her game plan is out of the window. Not even half way through the race and it’s over, she struggles over the line in last place. If only she had kept relaxed, focused solely on herself and ran a time she was capable of she would have won a medal, maybe evena gold one.
Can you see the impact of being or not being in the moment can have?
This doesn’t just apply to sport. But you were already thinking that weren’t you.
And this is part of the problem in football at the moment. The external distraction is money. It doesn’t have to be money, it can anything. But in football at the moment it is money and suddenly we are seeing that many footballers are starting to lose their focus and they don’t develop their talent as we would have predicted.
We see a lot of talented youngsters in all sports reach a certain level and once they get that first contract or endorsement or national praise, suddenly their performance levels begin to fade.
What is happening here?
One major influence is the switch from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic.
Suddenly they are more focused on external rewards and consequences than they are on the internal rewards and feelings they get from mastering their particular set of skills.
Ironically, when we stay focused solely on mastering our skills, the results follow naturally.
If we go back to athletics, you can only be as good as YOU can personally be.
You are only really competing against yourself.
When you become focused on other people too much and what they are doing, you begin to lose concentration and make mistakes. If you are not careful you can also end up in a cycle of always comparing yourself to others and this will begin to tear your self-esteem to shreds.
If we look at the recent Men’s 100M World Championship Final as an example we can see that going into the race was the fastest athlete of the year, a man named Justin Gatlin. He was unbeaten in 29 races going into the final and had run the best times by some distance, consistently over the season.
But this race was different. He was facing the sprint king, known as Usain Bolt. The fastest man to have lived. The difference this time was that going into the race Usain Bolt was not in great shape and he had not been clocking great times, certainly nowhere near as fast as Gatlin had been.
As long as Gatlin stayed focused on his race, he would have won. If he had ran the time he ran in qualifying, he would have won Gold. But he didn’t. He finished second, behind Usain Bolt in a much slower time than he was capable of.
Obviously he had let the fact that he was facing the greatest sprinter ever to pierce his mind. And it is this interference that prevented him from winning a gold medal.
So what is the message here that we can take away?
The message is that when we begin to take our mind away from the task at hand and think about external things, inevitably our performance suffers.
When our performance suffers, our results suffer.
Paradoxically, when we forget about outcomes, we forget about the result and we lose ourselves in the task at hand, whatever that may be, we give ourselves much more chance of delivering our personal best, which in turn means we achieve our best results.
Delivering your personal best is all you should be focused on because that is all you are capable of doing anyway.
Nothing else matters.
Thanks for reading.
Martin Robert Hall - Motivational Speaker and Sports Psychology Consultant