Updated: Aug 15, 2018
Professional Sport is entering a psychological revolution.
Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player of all-time, Georgia Hall-winner of the British Open and European Champion cyclist Laura Kenny have all shone a light recently on the multi-faceted nature of sports psychology.
Serena Williams almost lost her life after the birth of her baby and has since opened up about her struggle to build a strong relationship with her child..
“Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk,” Williams wrote, “Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom.”
This of course is something I admire. A high profile athlete opening up about something she has been affected by in a show of solidarity to other women who have been through similar experiences. Many women have commented on the impact of reading Serena’s social media posts and how it has helped them see their own relationships in a different light.
On to Georgia Hall who is a self confessed superstitious performer.
She won The Open with the help of her caddy who’s lucky socks were unwashed for the 4 day event. This part-time caddy of course happened to be her dad...
“I’m quite superstitious and my dad is even worse. He said he would keep them on and hoped it would be worth it, and it was.”
Asked about her own superstitions, she added: “It’s just silly things, like I have to get my boyfriend to close the curtains every night!
“I have to touch every golf club before I tee off to make sure there are 14 as well.”
What one thing ties all three of these high profile women with professional football?
The underlying misconception in sport that psychological strategies and superstitions are of any use to an athlete or anyone else!
Boom! It’s a statement that would imply a sports psychology degree is worthless and neurologists have failed to pin down a complete understanding of the human mind.
This is true 100%. This doesn’t mean sports psychologist themselves haven’t supported players and coaches over the years because they have and many do a great job. In addition, neurology has also helped develop drugs and treatments to help individuals with brain injuries which is fantastic because it improves people’s lives.
So if neither has the answer to human performance then what is the answer?
Let’s look at Georgia Hall, it’s a light hearted example of superstition. Dad doesn’t wash his socks because that would impact his daughter’s performance. This is obvious, we all know that having parents with dirty socks or clean socks doesn’t impact performance.
I played with players that had similar superstitions to Laura. I remember a player who had a great night out on a Saturday and then scored on Tuesday night. He would then repeat that sequence for the next Tuesday night game, as he tried to replicate his prior performance. Also, the more common rituals of kissing their wedding ring before kick-off, putting their right boot on first, visualising themselves scoring before a game and not putting their shirt on until they got out of the tunnel. All these were attempts to impact the level of their performance and/or influence the result of the upcoming game.
I had my own strategies and superstitions that included doing NLP visualisation and hypnotherapy in an attempt to control how I felt during or prior to games. The impact yielded the same results I achieved as a child putting a lucky 5p coin in my boot. It was something that happened by accident prior to a game we won and I scored in, I then ran with it for the rest of the season.
All these players (including myself back then) may answer when questioned ‘I know it doesn’t really impact performance’ but they still continue. Therefore, they really don’t know their ritual doesn’t directly affect their performance.
One of the biggest defeats Serena Williams suffered was after she walked away from her child to compete with strong feelings of guilt and concern about her ability to be a mother. It is interesting that Laura Kenny described a similar experience prior to her winning her gold medal in the European Championships...
"In the back of my head, I'm thinking when I went off this morning, 'I've just left Albie for this. I had mum guilt, he wasn't very happy, he didn't sleep very well. I was thinking 'I don't want to leave him for nothing, I want to take a medal home so he's smiling.'"
So, the feeling can appear from the outside to reduce performance in one athlete, as it consumes her and in another it seemed to have no impact on reaching maximum performance.
All 3 of these female athletes have faced the same challenge, a scenario that they created in their mind which is being perceived at the time as a fact but it was actually just a temporary perception, more temporary for one mother than the other. This is where we are up to in sports psychology, our perception of the mind is distorted and not in line with the facts. The fact that we are at the beginning of a psychological revolution in sport and the wider world is going to become clearer to everyone in the near future.
Psychology cannot be based fully on factual science because the functionality of the mind isn’t yet understood so we are still working with assumptions, filling in the gaps.
The different perceptions, all three female athletes created, were not in line with the reality. Serena’s feelings of guilt were not telling her she is a bad mum and neither were Laura’s prior to taking gold in the European Championships. Georgia’s insecure feelings were not telling her that her dads socks could impact her performance in the Open.
Why do we currently place so much emphasis on controlling these negative feelings and thoughts in the false belief that manipulation can impact performance?
It’s because we fail to scientifically and more importantly, experientially, grasp how our minds work. When an athletes performance is below par or they are struggling with personal matters, we look to remove the negative thoughts by manipulation and try adding artificial positive thoughts.
This may or may not coincide with a short term gain for the athlete but it is never causal. It usually causes more problems because it is working against the operation of the mind.
There are always times when we believe that our feelings come from someone or something else. Weather it’s your son, daughter, lack of goals or dad’s socks. To different degrees we take our perception as gospel when sometimes it is far from it. We believe our thinking is how things are and that the feelings are informing us of the current state of play in the world and of our place in it.
In fact any feeling is a reflection of only the state of our current thought system, it’s a live feedback system that tells us how we are perceiving the world and ourselves. It can’t tell us how we are going to perform or if our family relationships are doomed to fail or if we will become stronger than ever.
Until we experience that change and realise that the thoughts we had are no reflection on performance or our well being, then nothing will change.
All athletes need to do is experience the way their mind works and they will able to perform at the top of their game with and without thoughts of guilt, fear or superstition, in the same way Laura Kenny did.
She may have reasoned that her capability to win the gold medal was uninhibited by fear because she couldn’t justify leaving her child at home upset unless she returned home with a medal but it was neither the fear nor the thought of bringing home a gold medal that played any part. It was all down to technical ability minus overwhelm from negative thoughts.
Many perform close to their maximum in spite of tough feelings already but for those who struggle to operate consistently at the levels they are capable of, I want to let them know the answer they have been looking for has been unearthed. It’s been unearthed for many athletes and it can be unearthed for them when they are ready to call time on the psychological strategies and superstitions that are still rife in professional sport today.