By Saurabh Bhattacharya
Sports has for long been considered the mainstay of muscle power. But the powerof the mind that fuels those incredible sporting feats is no less potent. An in-depth look into a champion’s mind
Year: 2004. Time: early morning. Place: a hotel room. Ulka Singh, first Indian ever to reach the finals of the women’s 100m sprint in the Olympics, opens her eyes after a long and restless night. She can feel the bed-sheet soaked in sweat. Anxious eyes look at trembling hands trying to feel numbed legs. Ulka drags her feet to the room’s bay window. A hard lump of fear slowly forms in her throat. She can’t do it. She just can’t run tomorrow… Ulka has got the best physical training in the world. Her country has spent millions of dollars on her. Her coach has primed her in all the sprinting techniques necessary to compete at an international level. There has been no physical problem or any freak accident on the tracks. Till now, she has been performing like a dream. Till now…
What goes on in the mind of a sportsperson? What makes a winner? Does physical skill alone make a Carl Lewis or a Monica Seles? Questions like these generally don’t come up when you are watching the players in action. At that moment, what attracts your attention most is the fluidity of movement, the breathtaking display of technique, the raw power of the physique. But all that is just one part of sports, albeit an important part. “You might be a great player,” states Dr Samiran Chakravarty, a sports psychologist at the New Delhi-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Physical Education. “But if your mind does not comply, all your skills will go waste.”
The secret of a good sportsperson, therefore, lies not in his brawn but his brain. When asked what was the recipe for a champion, Valeriy Borzov, 1972 Munich Olympics gold-medallist in 100m and 200m, stated: “First talent, second work and third control of mind. The modern athlete should be intellectual.” Mental skills that make a champion demand as much of attention and training as physical technique. And, in the top rung of competition, they provide the much-needed cutting edge. “Every sportsperson,” points out Dr Chakravarty, “no matter how skilled he or she may be, is bound to go through pre-competition anxiety.” The reason, he says, is the player’s need to recoup all the skills that he has learnt over years of training and put them to work on one particular day. The crux lies in resolving this crisis.
At the stadium, her regular exercises over, Ulka sits down on a bench beside the empty tracks. Her eyes scan the oval white chalk lines running round and round and round. How did she reach this place, Ulka wonders. She remembers that even when she first began running, at school, her dream was to run at the Olympics. That goal never changed throughout her athletic career, although many other goals came and were accomplished. Goals like winning the inter-university athletic meet, breaking the national 100m record and the Asian 100m record. But accomplishing each goal always seemed just another step towards the Olympics.
Probably the most important aspect of mental training in sports is achievable and pragmatic goal setting. In his introduction to the book Mental Skills Training for Sports, B.S. Rushall states: “Despite excellence in physiological conditioning and skill preparation, it is an athlete’s appraisal of what is to be done, how well he is prepared to do it, and whether he thinks it can or cannot be done, that affects the quality of a performance… An athlete without goals will lack direction, purpose, and adequate assessment criteria…”
Correct goal setting does not, however, imply a blinkered approach. While describing the technique of archery in Eugen Herrigel’s classic Zen and the Art of Archery, the Zen master states: “The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
This is the best way to achieve your goal—a dissociated state of awareness. Winning is secondary. What matters is whether you are aware of your goal and how you are going to achieve it.
Ulka trudges towards the starting blocks. She takes the sprinter’s pose—left foot crouched over the block, right leg hunched forward, head down, both arms hanging parallel to the right leg, fingers lightly touching the tracks.
She begins a breathing exercise to relax, but to no avail. Crouched in a desolate stadium, she can hear the pounding of her blood, sense the contraction of her abdominal muscles. Fear. Apprehension. Where is the self-confidence of the winner?
Mental blocks and self-doubt creeping in at the last minute are not uncommon in sports. A classic example is former West Indian cricket captain Vivian Richards. Before the Australia series of 1975, Richards suddenly lost form and kept failing in the field. To the extent that he completely lost faith in his ability. What went wrong? According to Dr Narottam Puri, former Indian sports commentator, Richards’ consistent low form made him doubt his own capabilities. States Dr Puri: “If you go through a dip in temperament, you immediately begin to suspect your technique and this leads to a total loss of form. In any sport you must have belief in yourself.”
Self-efficacy is a form of self-confidence that involves the appraisal of what a sportsperson can do with existing skills in a specific situation and at a given time. While feelings of high self-efficacy raise the duration and strength of effort in adverse situations, low self-efficacy can lead to not engaging at all. However, mental training can help build the belief in one self. One of the best ways to increase self-efficacy is through centering. The practice of centering is not very different from its football meaning—you simply focus on the target and then let go. Nothing else matters then. You are alone out there on the field with just the goal post in front of you. But this state of mind can be achieved only through dissociation from your own self.
Another mental exercise that helps maintain the player’s positive attitude and self-confidence is emphasizing on positive self-talk. As England cricketer Ian Botham once said: “Half the battle of stress is you think you’re under stress.” American hurdler David Hemery described how one year he tried to prepare himself for disappointment by imagining realistically how he would cope with failure. That year he lost. The next year, throughout training, Hemery thought only of success, of winning. That was the year he won his Olympic gold.
As she squirts water over her sweating face, Ulka feels as if everything is happening in slow motion. She focuses on the racing track before her, her vision blurred by the droplets on her eyelashes. She remembers her first major win at the Asian track and field meet. There she is, taking position on the starting block. The stadium is crowded and the cheering is deafening. But Ulka can hear nothing save a distant, comforting rumble. She can see nothing save the white-laced track curving into the horizon. Her ears cock at the first command. Every part of her mind is in quiet alertness. The gun pops and Ulka launches herself. There… there she goes….
The mind is a strange machine. It records everything that ever happened in your life and stores all the images for posterity. And this storehouse provides the sportsperson mental strength and a positive frame of mind. To play well, you must visualize all the positive games you have played before the big day. This conditions the reflexes to react accordingly. Imagery allows the player to practice and prepare for events and eventualities he can never expect to train for in reality. Krishnamachari Srikkanth, the former swashbuckling opener for the Indian cricket team, says: “Before any match, you prime yourself by visualizing the balls the opponent team will be bowling. I, for example, used to visualize how exactly Michael Holding (former West Indian pace bowler) would bowl a particular ball and how I would tackle it.”
With practice, this imagery allows you to enter a situation you have never physically experienced with the feeling that you have been there before and achieved whatever you are trying to achieve. Golf pro Jack Nicklaus provides a unique example of using imagery even while playing. Nicklaus has sometimes been criticized for his slow play. But this slowness is not without cause. Before each shot, he forms a mental image of the location and rehearses the shot in his mind. In his book Golf My Way, Nicklaus claims this has been partially responsible for his success as a professional golfer.
Visualizing past achievements and future goals is an unconscious exercise that almost every player performs. Describing ace Indian athlete P.T. Usha’s medal haul at the age of 33, when other athletes call it a day, Dr Chakravarty says: “Usha might have retired from the tracks. But she never left the game. Throughout the period when she was not competing, Usha must have kept in mental touch with all her achievements and even her failures. She must have reviewed each aspect of her career minutely. So, when the time came to perform, she was ready.” This continuous touch with the sport is what makes a true sportsperson.
Becoming a competent sportsperson involves giving up a great deal of free time and putting yourself through a considerable amount of physical effort. Without a strong motivation, it would be difficult to keep up the required tempo. One of the most important distinctions that sports psychologists make is between internal and external sources of motivation. An internal source of motivation is one that derives from your intentions, ambitions, and personal goals. External motivators include rewards—such as money—as well as avoiding punishment and living up to other people’s expectations. But external motivation has its flip sides as well. A basic commitment to the game is probably a more long-lasting source of motivation than winning a medal—albeit the medal also helps. Night. A dream. Long legs pound the track, rippling muscles shivering with each impact. Elbows jab at invisible air currents—forward and backward, slowly yet inexorably. Chest heaves with each inhalation, trying to outrun the legs and touch that red tape there. And the face? Ah, the face! Sweat glistening on a skin stretched thin by grimacing, flashing teeth. Eyes bulge out, sparkle with the certainty of victory. And then, suddenly, feet leave the track. The body rises, sprints forward in sheer space. Whirling galaxies pass through. Legs pound infinite stars, elbows graze nullity.Complete bliss…
A higher state. A state where the player transcends even the sporting arena and its activity. In sports psychology terms, this is known as peak performance. And at this level the realm of sports comes closest to spirituality. Athletes who push themselves to the edge of endurance often experience something verging on, sometimes even going beyond, mystical illumination. This experience takes the player by surprise, as it comes at a moment of intense physical effort and mental concentration. It is almost as though he bursts through space and time into another dimension. Athletes refer to this state as ‘the zone’.
The Sports Center of New Age guru Michael Murphy’s Esalen Institute deals exclusively with this spiritual angle of sports. Established in 1972 in San Francisco, the center soon became, in the words of Theodore Roszak, “a gathering place for those who have come to regard athletics as a contemplative therapy of body and soul.” Cultivating this ‘zone’ has become increasingly important in sports psychology.
The attainment of this state of being makes possible superior or peak performances. What follows is a performance that seems effortless, encased in a timeless envelope of space, in which the player allows his mind and body to do what they have been trained to do. Many describe this moment as being on automatic pilot.
It is virtually impossible to give tips on this state of sporting nirvana, as it were. But the definition that probably comes closest can be found in these words of Herrigel’s Zen master: “You can learn from an ordinary bamboo leaf what ought to happen. It bends lower and lower under the weight of snow. Suddenly the snow slips to the ground without the leaf having stirred… So, indeed, it is: when the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall from the archer like snow from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks of it.”
Year: 2004. Olympics. Time: early morning, the day of the 100m finals. Place: hotel room. Ulka Singh, first Indian ever to reach the finals of the 100m sprint in the Olympics, opens her eyes after a long and restful night. Bewildered eyes try to capture the last, fleeting glimpses of a brilliant dream. Ulka gets up from the bed and walks purposefully to the room’s bay window. A golden sunray glints off her set jaw. She can, she will win today…
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1. Focus on a point.
2. Be willing to accept and learn from mistakes.
3. Stop comparing your performance with others’.
4. Don’t let the discomfort of learning new techniques worry you.
5. Notice the things you are doing to make yourself successful .
6. If you feel tired, don’t stop doing what you are doing. Dissociate yourself from the physical aspect of tiredness.
7. When you are tense, picture yourself in flowing, perfect performance.
8. When you feel tense, let your body relax through affirmations.
9. Play with people who want to succeed.
10. Challenge yourself
WHEN YOU ARE IN FLOW…
There is a merging of action and awareness: you have no dualistic perspective.
Questions like “am I doing this correctly?” do not enter the mind
You narrow your consciousness to a specific locus
You transcend your individuality
You control actions and the environment without conscious effort
You require no goals or rewards external to the feeling