Dealing with mental blocks
Issue: Volume 28 Number 1
In sport we continually come up against opponents that always seem to have the edge over us. In the literature, a number of examples come to mind, especially as opponents struggle with performance slumps of their own and great winning streaks of their opponents.
The recent cross-Tasman rivalry between Australia and New Zealand on the cricket field is a good example of this. This case is relevant, given the Kiwis’ attempts to deal with the seeming invincibility of the Australians, and was reflected in a series of articles presented in the media. The first article, entitled ‘New Zealand bats on the couch’ (Herald-Sun 2005a) commented on how New Zealand’s frazzled batsmen were sent to a sports psychologist to repair the mental damage inflicted by yet another Australian cricketing rampage. The New Zealand cricket coach, John Bracewell, commented on how the Australians ‘got to’ some of the New Zealand batsmen as they steamed to a substantial lead and decisive one-day victory. The coach directed a number of players towards the team’s psychologist, commenting that ‘[I]t’s as much a psychological issue as anything else, at this level the tension escalates and because of that, errors creep into your game ... the problem is it can develop into something of a vicious circle, in that form drops away as do the confidence levels, leaving room for self-doubt and more anxiety’. Often, individual players are targeted relentlessly.
In a follow-up article entitled ‘The Kiwi hopes shrink: Aussies respect decision to call in psychiatrists’ (Herald-Sun, 2005b), the New Zealanders suggested that ‘We’re not the first team to get a hiding from another team …’ , while Australian player Andrew Symonds commented that ‘NZ has enacted the ‘don’t mention the world champions’ policy — fed up about talking about Australia … psychologically, I would much rather be in our position than theirs’.
At the time of going to press and subsequent to these articles, the New Zealanders had suffered another humiliating defeat, despite having Australia under a great deal of pressure at one stage in the game. It does pose the question of how one deals with this situation. Following are some ideas that might be of value in turning the situation around.
- Coaches need to understand the conditions required to ensure that a team remains on top. What it is about successful teams that leads to continued performance excellence along with a psychological or mental edge over their opponents. This is a difficult area, though some interesting and somewhat controversial suggestions might be worthy of consideration. Primarily, successful teams personify a culture of success and at the same time a belief in self, like an invincibility. Successful teams that develop a winning streak seem to have a major hold over their opposition because of the belief they have in themselves and their performance. They may often treat their opposition with seeming arrogance and intimidation. This is further reinforced by the fact that the superior team seems to be able to win from any position, no matter how hopeless it may seem. This is evidenced by the Australian cricket team’s success throughout the recent (2004–05) summer, often from seemingly poor positions.
- Coaches need to perceive losses as opportunities to learn for the future and, as such, to improve. As suggested in Lynch (2001), ‘the main difference between the great athletes and the almost great is that the great ones have cultivated, over a period of years, a high tolerance for mistakes, setbacks and failures’. Furthermore, physical skills only become perfected through the experience of mistakes and loss. All great teams actually go through periods of defeat (this is what makes them great), seeing the ups and downs of performance as part of the natural process of sport, refusing to fight each other when losses continue. Great teams see failure as a step forward and not as something devastating, while responding by encouraging their squad to take risks to improve as a road towards breaking slumps. When teams restate success as more than just winning, by emphasising those aspects that can be controlled, such as skills, set plays, attitudes and mindsets, they plan to move forward and to succeed. Teams are reminded that the actual result or outcome of a match is effectively beyond any control. Coaches are therefore encouraged to keep track of any small gains that might be presented: to encourage the team to play with freedom, risk, challenge, excitement and enthusiasm, despite distractions and the temptation to be continually defined by win–loss ratios.
- Coaches need to be creative in how they deal with the situation. This might include:
- Deceive your opponents. The key here is to remain slightly unknown to them while knowing all you can about them — so the deception is in fooling them somehow while at the same time finding out as much as you can about them.
- Surprise your opponents. Do not leak all-important information to the opposition; plan some surprise in your attack or change your typical approaches to get the opposition guessing or thinking about their own game.
- Learn how to adapt to any situation. Be flexible and ready to adapt to any change or any challenge that comes up, practise simulations that challenge your players to deal with a whole host of different scenarios and develop the skills to deal with them all.
- Stabilise emotions. Train your team to be calm and unemotional, no matter what is presented to them.
- Present a united front despite the situation. Create team missions that ensure that the team presents as a cohesive unit despite other pressures such as media questioning and interrogation.
- Develop and practise momentum breakers within your game plan in order to take some control of the game and its progression. Slowing play, professional free kicks, injury breaks, making full use of time gaps are all useful breakers.
- Plan to deal with slumps. Do not remind the athletes of how long they have been losing; do not disparage athletes about the losses; do not give them the silent treatment; do not focus attention on the problems — get them to focus on what they are doing right; be supportive to build confidence; be positive and hopeful despite distractions.
- Approach each game as a single game — do not overplay or over-analyse beforehand. There is a tendency to view every game as being connected to the previous one (or the previous season), when each competition actually presents a new opportunity for success, completely independent from the past.
- Develop resilience (the ability to bounce back from disappointments, mistakes, adversity and missed opportunities), while at the same time working on reversing any negative self talk which may occur.
- Continue to strengthen the 4Cs of mental toughness: confidence (in self and team despite distractions), commitment (towards training, towards each other and how we react against heavy and continual defeats), challenge (dealing with bad press) and control (reaction to mistakes, reactions to performance fluctuations, coping with biases).
- Value the critical moments or turning points of a match as absolutely vital, as these are the moments at which advantages need to be reinforced and intensity heightened. These moments must be recognised by the team and fully profited from as soon as they present, or else the opposition will quickly wrestle them back.
Clearly, the situation is a major coup if you happen to be the lucky coach to have the momentum over another team (or to have developed a positive mindset). If this occurs, use it wisely and carefully, because these advantages can turn around quickly.
Michael Crutcher, Herald-Sun 2005a, ‘NZ bats on the couch’, Herald-Sun, 24 February, p. 83.
Michael Crutcher, Herald-Sun 2005b, ‘The Kiwi hopes shrink: Aussies respect decision to call in psychiatrists’, Herald-Sun, 25 February, p. 75.
Lynch, J 2001, Creative Coaching, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois.