Sports Psychology: The Secret to Success?
The secret to success, as we all know, is hard work. As Holton girls, we know what it’s like to work hard, and we know how to work hard. But is there another secret to success? Is there a hidden power we are all capable of using but don’t know about yet?
As a figure skater, I find competitions to be a time of heightened stress and anxiety. Being on the ice alone for three or four minutes with everyone in the rink watching you is just as nerve-wracking as it sounds. I used to be a very nervous competitor; I struggled to perform up to standard because I let my nerves take control. Of course, I still get nervous, but it’s not a bad thing. We get nervous because we care about how we are going to perform. But now I am able to use those nerves to help me perform better each time. So, what happened?
Nearly a year ago, I started meeting with Dr. Caroline Silby, who was the sports psychologist for the US Figure Skating Team at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and she also attended Holton! At first, I was reluctant. I saw myself as “weak” for seeking help that I didn’t realize at the time just how much I needed. Looking back on it, I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to meet with her. I would always leave our discussions feeling inspired and enlightened by her wisdom. She has helped me tremendously by providing strategies for success, so I thought I would share some techniques that I found particularly effective. But keep in mind that everyone is different; what works for me is not going to work for everyone and vice versa. My hope is that everyone can at least find something helpful or even just interesting to know about, whether you’re a competitive athlete or not.
1. Focus on the knowns. Pre-competition anxiety is simply just curiosity. It’s your body’s way of anticipating the unknown: the outcome of your performance, the result, the score, etc. Curiosity is completely normal; however, focusing all your attention on the outcome may not be the most effective strategy. Instead, try focusing on the things you do know. For example, you could think about the successful season you’ve had so far or the great practices you’ve had all week. But it can even be simpler. Personally, I prefer to state the knowns in my head that I can see right in front of me, ones I don’t really have to think about. I would tell myself things like “There is a small table in front of me. There is a blue and pink water bottle on it” and so on. It may sound ridiculous, but focusing on the knowns allowed me to divert my attention away from the outcome. It also gave me something to keep me occupied until it was time to compete, so I was doing something other than sitting there worrying and letting my anxiety intensify.
2. Ground yourself. You may have heard of athletes “getting in the zone,” but it’s actually much more crucial to performance than you may think. At earlier competitions, I used to struggle with feeling like someone else was controlling my body and that I was just going along with it. If we aren’t 100% present or “in the moment,” it’s difficult to take control over what happens next. Grounding techniques can be as simple as feeling the ground beneath your feet or pressing your toes into the ground. You can even make up your own method, as long as it tells your brain, “Look, I’m in control over my body and my performance, and only I control what happens out there.”
3. Don’t compare yourself to others. Okay, this last one isn’t specifically for competitions, but I know this could be helpful for anyone, athletes and students alike. Even as I continued to grow and improve, comparing myself was still something I struggled with a lot. When I brought it up with Dr. Silby in one of our meetings, she provided me with a different outlook that I feel has been life-changing. I always found it discouraging to see other skaters, even friends, landing very difficult jumps, winning more competitions or getting higher scores. But now when I see a friend land a difficult jump in practice, instead of thinking, “Wow, she’s so good, I wish I could be as good as she is,” I think to myself, “I can’t wait to continue to work hard so I will land that jump too.” I often remind myself, “We’re all on a journey. Everyone’s journey is different, and everyone is at different points in hers. She might be ahead of me right now, but eventually, I’m going to be where she is. I’m going to get there.” Whenever you feel the urge to compare yourself to others, remember that although some people may seem way ahead of you in their journey, you’ll be there too. Just wait and see.
“The journey is never ending. There’s always gonna be growth, improvement, adversity; you just gotta take it in and do what’s right, continue to grow, continue to live in the moment.”
--Professional football player Antonio Brown