What makes elite athletes thrive or dive under pressure? | The Economist

For top level sports people, it’s not just skill and
athleticism that count. So often, it’s mind over matter. Psychology is now seen as
increasingly vital to winning. Having a sports psychologist is just as valuable as a strength
and conditioning coach. In elite sport, the difference between success and failure is often the finest of margins. Go! It’s all about raising the bar one year to the next. Keel’s good. The annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities is one of the oldest and
most prestigious events in the sporting calendar. They’re moving out to nearly a half a length here. Very encouraging for Cambridge. For the competitors, it’s 20 minutes of pure pain. But also, pure pressure. When they walk outside that boathouse there will be 100,000
people standing on the bank. That is something you just
can’t get your head around until you’ve actually lived it. How the rowers cope with
that intense pressure can make the difference
between glory and failure. The Cambridge women’s team
have won the last two races and this woman has been one of
the secrets of their success. I work on managing their thinking. Knowing that they are in control of their psychological state. Sports psychologist Helen Davis has worked on specific
techniques to help the team at the most mentally
testing moments in the race. When the pain kicks in,
they have trigger words that they’ve planned for in advance that they will say to themselves to get across the finish line. As training for the 2019 race intensifies, just trying to keep up with
teammates is mentally grueling. Trying to make those
crews is huge pressure. I get off the water and I’ve just been trying to keep up with people who compete at world championships and then I work on my PhD and
I’m trying to keep up with people that I feel are
so much smarter than me. So it’s pressure that I put on myself. So I will very much encourage them to view pressure as a challenge. Focus on certain things
with their thinking that’s going to help them
with their performance rather than focusing on the uncertainties of their situation. Understanding what makes athletes cope or panic at those crucial moments is an ever-growing obsession
in professional sport. It’s the multi-billion dollar question that sports psychologists are
constantly trying to answer. Dr. Jamie Barker lectures at the world’s leading
sports science university, Loughborough in Britain. What is the reaction that
individuals go through and how does that contribute
to how they perform? That’s the intrigue that we have. Okay and James, if you just try
to relax as much as you can. In 2013, Jamie helped devise a cardiovascular test. It compared the physiological
reactions of athletes who thrive in a high pressure situation with those who flop. A group of aspiring
professional cricketers were set a specific target. We had a scenario where they would have to score 36 runs of 30 deliveries when facing the balling machine. The cricketers were warned that their results would be made public and would decide who makes
the team and who doesn’t. Shot. So what’s he on, then? 10 of 10. Nearly half the players hit the test for six, and scored the runs. And most of them went into
what psychologists call a challenge state. In a challenge state, my body releases adrenaline which opens up my arteries,
which means there’s blood, glucose, and oxygen going around my body, I’m able to make better decisions. I’m able to move quickly. Over half the batsmen found themselves on a stickier wicket, and
failed to make the runs. They mostly entered the
so-called threat state. In a threat state I experience the release of cortisol, which constricts the arteries around my heart, there’s less blood going around my body, and hence my performance may suffer. As a sports psychologist we can
then start to go in and say, how can we help you to
go from a threat state to a challenge state? Jamie employs a mental
visualization technique that sports psychologists
have used with a variety of professional teams. Athletes are asked to
picture a set of scales. On one side are their demands, the obstacles to success. They’re taught to tip the
balance the other way. Towards their resources,
the attributes they possess that can help them. It is about trying to develop
a perception of control. Can individuals really focus on the things that they can influence,
rather than worrying about external factors. Sports psychology is sometimes criticized as a phony science. But many major sports
teams and personalities now use psychologists. And there’s growing acceptance that this boosts performances. In sports, as in the world beyond, a mental edge can bring a winning one. Everyone on this team pushes themselves to incredible limits. And that’s why they’ve come so far academically and in sports.

44 thoughts on “What makes elite athletes thrive or dive under pressure? | The Economist

  1. Good opening to the power of the cognitive processes to affect emotions; and as a result: performance. Would love to get the next step in the presentation that gives more information, in detail, about the normal operations of personal control. What ideating helps the most during the performance challenge, itself…i.e., while in the fires of competition? (i.e., What kinds of personal performance control thoughts alleviate stress and what kind of personal performance control thoughts hinder achievement?)

  2. That's interesting. I've thought about it in a way that when people go for thrilling rides, what goes through their mind that makes them able to enjoy and what makes them scared. Perhaps it is similar to what explained here.

  3. Psychology of winning? Don't join the losers in the EU and parade around the world stage with somebody else flag and anthem that advertises to the world that you don't think you're quite good enough to run your own affairs. There is a start! 🙂

  4. So true. When all things being equal (physical, skill, talent) between athletes, the mentality is what separates the good from the great.

  5. The road to success is non random, but few have the mental capacity that keep on going.

    I'm from Malaysia and I'm proudly to share that my Prime Minister is 94yrs old this year and you will be very surprise to see how sharp his mind is….What make him different and standout? Most probably sustainable strong mental health

  6. What I think is important to point out is that the picture represents the common racial and sexist institutions we unfortunately still operate in. I would hope the Economist could do better. All I see here is privileged white men and the word winning. Please try to rise above the current paradigm Economist.

  7. She works on her PH.d and feels others are better than her? Wtf
    Edit: She should meet me she might end up saying she doesn't want to live anymore xD

  8. Pressure in having to score some number of runs of an over is one thing but what about pressure where you have to grind it out in a test match and bat out the entire day ? It's not the kind of pressure where you get an adrenalin boost which gets over quickly.

  9. So this vedio is telling only whites play sports not blacks brown or asian…
    These small details matters. economist you have to politically correct….

  10. Well we all know women put unnecessary additional pressure on themselves because of the mere fear of embarrassment from losing…while men can soak up a loss by taking a shower, grabbing a beer and laughing it off with their mates. It’s not just psychological, it’s genetic.

  11. 2:07 yes its pressure u put on urself but the question is why are you judging urself and compare urself with others… coz you are using the wrong chamber in ur brain. This girl would hugely benefit from meditation.

  12. There are ways, sometimes very precise, to help athletes – plus leaders and workers alike – shift from the Threat State to the Challenge State, and thus improve their performance. I'm a PhD in clinical psychology, not sports psychology, and such ways include re-balancing their focus on speed vs accuracy (or productivity vs efficiency) for a given situation.

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