WHAT'S YOUR SECRET? IT'S ALL MENTAL.

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Sunday afternoon. The weather was bad and I turned on the live stream of the lead world cup semi finals which took place in Edinburgh this weekend. Just about at the right time I guess. The commentators did an interview with Domen Skofic after his superb climb in semis, nearly topping the route. 

To sum this interview up, the commentators said that they were under the impression that Domen, who had won the overall lead world cup in 2016, had not enjoyed every world cup in 2017, but looked like he really enjoyed this competition in Edinburgh. They shortly talked about the route and him putting up a great fight. And then they asked him what had changed compared to the other world cups this season. Here's Domen's transliterated answer:

"I'd say it's all mental. This year was an experiment year, doing both bouldering and lead climbing which is super hard for super. If the bouldering season went well, I would have been relaxed and everything would have been good. But if it doesn't go as you planned, then everything starts falling apart and suddenly you start doubting yourself and your skills and you start climbing unrelaxed and tensed which is hard because all the moves become ugly and not rational. I think it's all about mental to get back to the relaxed mode while climbing. And then everything comes together!"

Later the commentators where discussing the importance of sport psychology, saying "It proves how much sport psychology makes a huge difference. So many athletes, so close together in their physical ability. It really is the ones who have their mental game on."

Of course, being a sport psychologist I start listening more attentively whenever I hear comments like this. And of course (being biased as it's my job 😉 ), I would totally agree that sport psychology can make a difference, particularly if the field is physically close together. I guess everyone who specialises in a certain field welcomes an open, honest, positive approach towards your field (and I think I can speak for many other sport psychologists when I say that particularly in the field of sport psychology, this "openness" is rather new and therefore specially welcome).

At the same time, I want to say that sport psychology is neither a magical solution to every problem nor can guarantee a win. Coaches, trainers, parents, training partners, facilities and obviously, most importantly, the athletes themselves (their strength, abilities, skills, technique, determination, etc.) – the whole environment together (among these of course maybe the sport psychologist) plays a huge and important role.  

But let's come back to Domen's statement. He said that he had a bad start into the season as it didn't go as well in bouldering as he would have wished for and therefore, he lacked self confidence for the start of the lead season which led to an ineffective, tensed climbing style. At this point we should also remember a statement by Sean McColl last season when he said that "confidence really is the key to success". The more successful we are, the more confident we become – and the more confident we are, the more likely we are able to succeed. It's a hen-egg situation... what comes first? However, we can train our self-confidence and self-efficacy.

How can you gain more self-confidence?

When we experience failures or competitions that didn't go the way we expected, we often tend to only focus on the negatives. We rarely focus on (little) improvements or personal senses of achievement. We take one mistake that possibly influences our result as a summary for the whole competition or as a negative reflection of training, often forgetting that results are influenced by many different (also external) factors, some of which we can't even control. This focus on the negatives puts our "inner scale" into an imbalance – negative thoughts, feelings, feedback always weigh heavier than positive experiences. 

So if you're ever in a situation of self-doubt and lack self-confidence, try to focus on what you did well during the last competitions instead. What did you improve compared to last time? What did you enjoy about that competition? What were/ are your strengths – as an athlete, as a person, in a competition, etc.? Maybe e.g. bouldering isn't your strength, but lead climbing is. What did you like about the competition? What did you not like about the competition? Was it the whole competition or only parts of it? Which parts need to change so you'd like it again? How can you enjoy these parts nontheless?

(You can take a paper & pencil and try to answer these questions yourself now).

Trainers and coaches can do their bit by confirming positive development and improvements and not only focussing on the negatives, either. At this point we have to distinguish between grown-up athletes and young athletes. Adults normally have a more stable self-confidence and self-efficacy. They therefore might not need that much external positive feedback. However, positive confirmation plays a big role for youth athlete. Since the self confidence of young athletes (kids and adolescence) is not as stable compared to grown up athletes due to their psychological development, they need a lot more external positive feedback and confirmation to build up their confidence. Negative comments/ feedbacks by coaches/ parents, etc. can have a long-term negative impact on the development and self-confidence of young athletes. Also note that young athletes who develop self-confidence and good mental strategies to deal with pressure at a young age are more likely to become professional athletes as adults.

As mentioned in another blog post ("You really could be extra-ordinary"), coaches and trainers can influence their athlete's behaviour, thinking and acting as well on the following levels:

  • VISIONS: Convincing, prospective visions, uttered by e.g. the coach, are generally seen as inspirationally motivating. So when the "leader" gives an outline of the future potential of an athlete, this can be very inspiring. 
  • BEHAVIOUR: Coaches can foster inspiration by encouraging and showing athletes how to deal with difficult situations and circumstances, serving as positive example to follow, supporting them, and fostering opportunities to be inspired. Last but not least, positive emotional reactions to athletes' accomplishments can be an inspiration, too. 

The aim is to (re-)gain trust in your own abilities and skills as an athlete. In psychology, we talk about "self efficacy" (Bandura, 1977) when we believe that our skills and abilities are adequate to successfully execute an action in order to reach our goals ("knowing what we can expect of ourselves"). 

Based on the self-efficacy model by Bandura we can also increase our self-efficacy and therefore self-confidence by verbal encouragement. This can either be – as just said before – external (e.g. by coaches, trainers, parents,...) or internally.

How does internal self-talk work?

In order to focus on positive self-talk, we firstly have to recognise our negative thoughts. Take a second and think of how you normally approach situations, problems, failures – in climbing, in sports, in your every day life, in school, at work...? What goes through your head? You can play this game where you put about 100 paper chips into your trousers pocket during training and whenever you have a negative thought ("Oh this is shit", "I can't do this anymore", "I'm so exhausted", "I hope this ends soon", "I feel like I'm too weak", etc.) you take one piece of paper out – and at the end of the training session you can count your "negative thoughts". Once recognised and aware of them, you can start reframing them. What can you think instead? What can you tell yourself in this situation?

Positive examples of positive self talks are Katha Saurwein or Sasha DiGiulian who successfully use this technique when climbing big walls and trying to overcome their fears.

Last but not least, imagination of positive pictures and personal senses of achievement.

When we get frustrated, upset about negative experiences in training, competitions, etc. negative images take over. A very strong technique is trying to remember past experiences of success and focussing on these images in your head. What did it feel like when you were successful? What was your personal impact on that success? What did you do to be that successful? What image comes to your mind? How are your other senses involved in this picture? (What did you hear? What did it smell like? Smelling is indeed one of the strongest and most memorable of our senses... Maybe you remember the fragant smell of the flowers you got?) Focussing on past achievements can really strengthen our self-confidence. By realising that our own actions, decisions and skills led to a successful outcome, we also reinforce our self-efficacy. And having positive images of the past in our mind before starting into another competition, makes us feel more positive and confident toward this new competition.

Have you experienced a lack of confidence yourself? How did you deal with it? How did you (re)gain trust and belief in your own abilities? 

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