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The Key To Winning: Is It All In The Mind?

We look at how mental toughness affects sporting performance

18Jun

The success of an athlete is often put down to several factors, form, fitness and lifestyle generally being seen as three of the key reasons for success or failure.

The truth is that it has more to do with what is happening in their head than what is happening within their body. Of course, their body is the vessel through which performances are achieved, but their mind is where the difference between winning and losing takes place.

We have seen a huge amount of success coming not only from the way teams are training, but where and who they are training with.

A winning mentality is a frequently used phrase, but it is accurate, as the use of psychologists in some of the world’s top teams have shown. Being able to assess mental aptitude is essential to knowing how successful a player will be when thrown into a specific situation.

Andy Murray is a prime example of this as he had always been tipped for greatness and has achieved a considerable amount in his career, but his mental toughness has consistently been called into question.

Take his defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final in February, which was so severe that Pat Cash is reported as saying that he ’melted down and collapsed’. He was frequently heard shouting ‘how many times?’, during the match when points were being lost. In the fourth set he won just 11 points.

He showed leading up to that point that he was physically capable of winning the match, but his mental toughness failed, which is why he eventually lost the match.

Dr Steve Peters is the embodiment of the importance of mental toughness in sport and has been at the heart of some of the most successful athletes of the past 10 years, spearheading wins in a wide variety of sports.

Two of the most successful olympians in British history, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, put their success down to the work they have done with Dr Peters with Pendleton claiming the he is ’the most important person in my career’. He has also worked with Bradley Wiggins and Ronnie O’Sullivan, two of the most successful British sportsmen of all time.

He discusses the use of their brain as a machine which has two sides, the human side and the chimp side.

The chimp is the side that puts thoughts into your head that aren’t necessary and the human is the side that tries to control it. His job is to put together a system where elite athletes can control these emotions and not allow the chimp to take over.

Even some of the most experienced and successful athletes are in danger of losing control, in Steve’s words:

‘Anxiety starts getting the better of them. They start saying things like, 'I really don't want these feelings, I really don't want these thoughts, and they're stopping me from competing at my best'.

‘Chris [Hoy] is a very anxious man at times. In the keirin, his chimp can threaten to take over six or seven times.’

It is no coincidence that it was 2004 when Chris Hoy broke onto the scene at the Athens Olympics, it was the same time that he had started to work with Dr. Peters.

He is quick to point out that this kind of work is not needed with every athlete, some can do it naturally, whilst others need to have support to literally get the chimp off their back.

The question is how much of any athlete's performance is about mental toughness and how much is about physical strength and with the monkey off their back, how many of the lesser known athlete’s could end up as world beaters? 

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