Joy Bringer

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BASES Accredited Sports Scientist helps athletes prepare to prepare.

  • Are you 100% focused? If your mind is elsewhere, 'switch focus' by using a key word to get your mind prepared for the task in hand.
  • Check-in with yourself. If the emotional state you're in doesn't match the state you need to be in, do something about it.
  • Concentrate on what you need to do and don't worry about the 'what ifs'.
  • Imagine. Visualise yourself successfully completing a task. This will help motivate you to finish the project.
  • Reflect and improve. After completing a task, project or event, write down a few points you could improve on, and a few things you did well. It's important to focus on the positive too.

Raise Your Game: How can you use sports psychology to help athletes mentally prepare themselves?

JB: I think one of the most important things that sports psychology can help with is to better prepare for competition and training. One of the old adages that coaches use is that practice doesn't make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.

For instance, when you turn up for work or a training session, how many times do you actually check in with yourself and see how you're feeling at that precise moment? Are you 100% focused on what you're about to do?

If you're about to start a project or sit down and write an essay, are you 100% focused on that or is your mind still thinking about a phone conversation you had, seeing your friends tonight, what you'll have for tea...? A lot of people don't check in on themselves and it's the same in sport as well.

Athletes will turn up for training and will be thinking about other things. I try to increase the athlete's awareness of what they are thinking about and where their concentration is at that moment. If your concentration isn't where you want it to be, switch focus.

Being aware of the emotional state you are in, and the state you need to be in, is really important. If the two don't match up, you need to do something to change it. One of the main differences that I see between consistent, champion performers and others is that the champions will check-in with themselves.

Those who occasionally do well generally wake up on the day, turn up to the track and, if they're feeling good, then things will go ok. If they're not feeling good, then things won't go ok. They leave it to chance. The champions check-in and if they're not feeling ok, they'll do something about it.

RYG: So how do you 'switch focus'?

JB: One technique is as simple as using a key word or trigger word, such as 'refocus' or 'be here now'. That can help change your focus and get you prepared for what you need to do to get the most out of the next half hour.

We can also use pre-performance, or pre-shot, routines. That's simply a routine that someone might do before their game or training to get them in the right frame of mind. It's very individual. It could be something that you do just before a match, or you might spend the whole morning before a game being very meticulous about what you have for breakfast, making sure that everything is packed and ready to go. It can be really brief as with pre-shot routines.

For example, in tennis, if you watch the people who are really consistent, they'll be doing the same thing before each serve, and you'll notice that as they start to mess up or they lose concentration and start to get frustrated, that pre-shot routine will go out the window. A tennis player might look at their strings for a bit and move them around to narrow their focus. Then they'll decide where they want to serve the ball. Then they might bounce the ball a certain number of times.

Some athletes will actually imagine themselves serving the ball in the location they want to hit it, with the type of spin they want on it. Some athletes might include a key word to encourage themselves such as 'smooth' or 'powerful', and again, that's about getting their concentration focused on what they need to do, and not allowing other thoughts to interfere, such as 'What if I hit it into the net?', 'What if I miss?'.

RYG: Have you used sports psychology to help you overcome any personal challenges?

JB: Sports psychology techniques can be used in all walks of life. I used it when I was completing my PhD. I had to write a 300 page report and it would come back from my supervisors with lots of red marks on it and I'd have to do a lot of revision. It was really quite frustrating, and there were times when I wanted to give up and throw the whole thing out of the window - laptop included!

At that time I thought 'Hang on, I'm a sports psychologist. I should be able to use the same techniques that I use to help the athletes, to help myself with confidence, motivation and concentration.'

I used an imagery technique where I actually visualised myself successfully handing in my completed report and it being accepted. I imagined myself at my oral examination and doing very well, and the final bit of them shaking my hand and saying 'Congratulations'.

When I imagined that scene, it brought my mood up so I felt motivated and reminded me why I was doing this and that I actually could finish the project.

It often helps to imagine what you want to do, how you want to perform. The night before a big match, before they go to sleep, athletes might imagine themselves playing successfully. Gymnasts use it a lot to practise their routines when they're not actually in the gymnastics hall.

One of the tools we use to help athletes do this is to record onto a CD-rom a scenario or prompts that will get them to think about going through their performance or playing successfully. A lot of athletes will do this naturally anyway but the CD can help them to focus and not get distracted.

RYG:How do you communicate with athletes when they're away at tournaments?

JB: If they're travelling around the world, it's not always feasible to use the phone, so I use e-mail a lot. After a competition, I encourage the athletes to write down a few points that they can improve on for the next competition and to follow it up with at least three things they did well, even if they didn't win. It's important to focus on the positives as well and carry them into the next session.

I'll ask them to write and tell me what those points were. If they're struggling with something in particular, I can write back to them over email and encourage them, or remind them to do their pre-performance routine.

RYG: Do you do any sports?

JB: I played football from when I was 5 years old until 18. I played tennis too. Now I'm not doing anything competitively, but I participate in a triathlon for fun in the summer to keep myself fit. I've done 2 so far but I don't have another one scheduled yet because I'm coming back from injury. I'm using my sports psychology to help with that [laughs]! I do a fair bit of biking too. The next thing I have planned is a mountain biking trip.

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