Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and strategies to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes and universal issues associated with sports settings and organisations. Sports psychology is an exciting field of study that is expanding all the time, and in a demanding sport such as swimming, enhancing the mental aspect of a swimmer’s arsenal is important to successful performance. Poor results, attitudes and behaviour have been the main reasons of the Australian Swimming Team to underperform and drop in their world rankings and an immediate change is required. Through the critical analysis of strategies such as concentration and focus, mental rehearsal and visualisation, relaxation techniques and goal setting, this may assist in encouraging and motivating the floundering athletes by managing their anxiety and arousal and therefore having them prepared for ‘peak performance’.
Concentration/Attention Skills (Focusing)
Concentration is the ability to link movement and awareness to the extent that the individual can focus on doing – rather than on thinking about doing. Similarly, attention is described as the process where individuals use their senses to perceive what is going on around them. The ability of an individual to maintain appropriate stimuli during competition is referred to as attention, focus or concentration. This involves focusing attention on suitable environmental signs and cues whilst sustaining that attention. E.g. American shooter Matt Emmons was well in front in one of his events at the 2004 Olympics, with one shot to go, when he shot at the wrong target, earning zero points and being relegated to eighth place, being distracted, even if it is brief can lead to errors in judgement. It is tremendously important for athletes to focus on the task at hand to ensure they are performing at their optimum level. This means they must concentrate on what they’re doing and ignore all distractions. Even the shortest bit of distraction can have negative and severe consequences for an athlete when performing. When concentration and attention skills are applied when an athlete is performing, this can lead to their feelings, personal reactions become the focus. This can relate more directly towards execution, as they try to focus more on technique and try to understand why they might not be executing it perfectly and how they may improve. Furthermore, during competition, concentrating and focusing can reduce anxiety and positively affect confidence and levels of arousal. This is because athletes realise they can rely on their physical and mental preparation to enhance and support their performance.
In order to climb up the world rankings again, the Australian Swimming Team will need to achieve optimal arousal and manage their anxiety effectively. The most important part of concentrating is focusing on the appropriate cues while being able to ignore everything else such as external and internal distractions. When competing, noise of the crowd, movement in peripheral vision, sledging from an opponent, overanalysing a performance and worrying about a mistake which you have made can all be factors of which can lead to the loss of concentration and provoke ‘peak performance’. It is crucial to remember if concentration and focus is lost, and you have made a mistake, you stay calm. A skill which will enhance performance is learning how to refocus again within a few seconds. Elite athletes such as Olympic shooters and divers need to regain their focus within several seconds. For example, a diver was found focusing on the scoreboard and results of other divers around her rather than her own dive, and realised she needed to refocus. A strategy which can assist with concentrating and remaining focused can be by implementing distractions into training routines. This involves deliberately introducing various types of distractions such as load noises, comments to throw you off and poor referee calls. This will test the concentration of each swimmer and ensure they stay focused on the task at hand. If they become distracted, they will be tested on how quickly they can refocus. This strategy will ensure the Australian Swimming Team perform to the best of their abilities by guaranteeing they are concentrating during competition and remain to stay focused.
Mental rehearsal relates to athletes being able to practice a process or activity in their minds. Mental rehearsal requires an athlete to take their own perspective and imagine completing their entire performance perfectly, whilst ensuring they visualise the entire scenario including movements, sounds, colours and the environment around them. Likewise, visualisation or imagery, is a mental preparation technique which involves the individual creating a picture of an aspect of their performance in his or her mind. This differs from mental rehearsal, which involves envisioning the entirety of the performance. Visualisation is active and purposeful. When visualising certain changes, they tend to occur to an individual even if they are unaware of the underlying mechanisms. Mental rehearsal and visualisation are important techniques to guarantee improved levels of concentration, confidence and ensure decreased levels of anxiety and stress. If mental rehearsal and imagery is practiced before competition, athletes can practice complex skills and key components of their performance by slowing it down. During performance, in a break period, mental rehearsal and imagery can be used to manage stress by imagining a relaxing and peaceful environment. Furthermore, after competition, athletes can use mental rehearsal and imagery to review their performance and emphasise the positive aspects and correct the negatives in preparation for their next competition. Overall, these two strategies improve performance by optimising arousal and improving concentration.
Research indicates that mental rehearsal and visualisation enhances learning and performance. This is what is needed for the Australian Swimming Team. If a situation such as perfecting a stroke has been mentally rehearsed several times, when the real situation arrives, the swimmers will be prepared for it. Mental rehearsal and visualisation will allow the swimmers to feel confident in what they are doing rather than feel any self-doubt. As well as seeing and feeling the positives, the swimmers can also use mental rehearsal and visualisation to picture things not going to plan, and to work out what they would do to manage a mistake such as not diving off the blocks correctly at the beginning of their race. Rehearsing and imagining the ‘what ifs’ will allow them to work out the best way to respond to these situations if they occur. Moreover, a strategy to reach optimal mental rehearsal includes having vivid detail; this means the closer the images are to reality, the better the mind-to-body connection. An athlete should feel emotions associated with their performance, the environment and recreate their own movements when visualising their performance. Furthermore, make sure when mentally rehearsing the performance and visualising all aspects, all expectations are realistic. If you are rehearsing your performance with a crowd of 50 people, rather than a realistic amount of around 200 people, it will be a shock to your body on competition day and all rehearsal would have been ineffective.
Relaxation techniques are a series of methods that seek to control the body’s response to stress. Relaxation techniques control anxiety levels, these techniques are needed when an athlete’s arousal and anxiety levels are too high. Athletes who are susceptible to states of over-arousal require relaxation techniques to calm their arousal levels and stay in optimum arousal. By using relaxation techniques, the nervous system will respond by lowering breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. When arousal is in optimum state, the athlete will have more control over their movements and greater focus during performance. Relaxation techniques are important for any athlete striving to peak performance. When arousal levels become too high, this can tarnish efforts and can be detrimental to performance. So, for an athlete, relaxation is essential. Relaxation techniques improves an athlete’s anxiety and arousal levels. This is done in order for an athlete to remain calm and concentrated during performance. Furthermore, relaxation methods improve an athlete’s positivity throughout their training and games, while ensuring that their perspective of their training schedule and competition is enhanced as well.
Along with the use of concentrating & remaining focused and mental rehearsal and visualisation, relaxation techniques will be a key strategy to further improve the Australian Swimming Team’s performance and is another stepping stone to perfect in order for them to achieve ‘peak performance’. There are numerous strategies which the swimmers can use to relax. The important consideration is finding one which the swimmers will feel comfortable with and that produces the desired effect. The most effective technique for these elite athletes would be controlling breathing, in the period where they’re trying to put themselves in a fully relaxed state, this technique will come with positive side effects such as increased lung capacity, increased oxygen intake and increased carbon dioxide exhalation. Controlled breathing will allow the swimmers to clear their mind, relax and focus on what they are doing. This strategy can be used before and during competition which means the swimmers can practice this technique pre-competition or even post-competition.
Goal setting are targets which we direct our efforts towards. This can either be performance or behaviour orientated. Goal setting is a process that identifies a destination (long term goals) and how to get to that destination (short term goals). Setting goals that are directly proportionate to performance to focus certain aims can have direct positive impact on an athlete’s performance. Setting both short and long-term goals encourages athletes to focus, improve skills and reduce anxiety. Goal setting helps an athlete’s motivation and enables them to measure progress. Goals are achievement-based targets used to direct drive and focus. Setting goals allows athlete to target specific areas of training while also providing purpose and motivation. Goal setting improves performance as it creates measurable goals that can be reflected upon regularly. This is very useful as it allows athletes to establish whether training regimes is working. Setting goals can improve an athlete’s psychological wellness as they feel that their training is more meaningful and have a deeper understanding of how it will allow them to achieve goals.
To top it all off, with the aid of the other three psychological strategies, goal setting is the most important one. The Australian Swim Team will need to set both long term and short-term goals. For this group of elite individuals, setting goals will increase focus and reduce anxiety levels. These swimmers should begin with setting outcome goals which are generally long-term goals, such as winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Additionally, they should start adding process goals which are short term goals such as swimming a personal best. Achieving these simple short-term goals, which are easier to control compared to outcome goals, will keep the swimmers motivated when training and guide them in the right direction to achieve their long-term goals. A strategy which the athletes can use is SMART. This is a popular guideline for setting effective goals. It should have the following characteristics, SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ACHIEVEABLE, REALISTIC and TIME. This SMART goal setting strategy sets athletes up for success rather than failure by setting realistic goals within an accurate amount of time. The SMART method will help the swimmers push themselves further, give them a sense of direction, and will assist them in organising and reaching their goals.
To conclude, psychological strategies such as concentration and attention skills, mental rehearsal and visualisation, relaxation techniques and goal setting will serve an imperative part in aiding the Australian Swimming Team to strengthen their position on the chart and reach top world rankings. These approaches will be integral in uplifting the team’s poor results, attitudes and behaviour. All four psychological strategies will succour in motivating the swimmers, whilst managing their anxiety and arousal and have them equipped for ‘peak performance’ and success.