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Under Pressure

By Jeremy Ireland on September 3, 2021 in Other

It’s all in your head.

Who doesn’t love the Olympics? Two solid weeks of blood, sweat and tears showcasing the human spirit in all its competitive glory. The build up, the dedication, the drama…
I can’t say I didn’t warn my family well in advance that I’d be turning into a couch potato for the fortnight. Luckily the coinciding lockdown gave me the perfect excuse to do just that. To their horror, I sat on the remote and stuck to my word.
For many competitors it’s the pinnacle of their sporting career. After four years of waiting, they need to peak at precisely the right moment. It’s their time to shine and show what they’ve got to offer on the world stage. Who can forget the ‘flying mullet’ Rohan Browning, who punched well above his weight with a blistering 10.01 in the 100 metre sprint, Jess Cox peaking at her third Olympics to finally get gold in the canoe, Logan Martin smashing the freestyle BMX on debut and, of course, the queen of the Australian Olympic team, Emma McKeon, with seven medals. If McKeon were a country, by the end of the meet she would have been in the top ten on the medal tally, ahead of countries like France and Germany!
For the majority of competitors however, there was plenty of strain and anguish lurking beneath the surface. This undercurrent was demonstrated early in the piece when American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team event. Coming into Tokyo, she was considered the greatest gymnast of all time, with 31 Olympic and World Championship medals under her leotard. With Tokyo possibly being her final Olympics, she was expected to clean up. Sadly, during her first run in the team event she ‘cracked’ and withdrew from competition in what was later put down to mental health concerns.
Enter stage left, the sports psychologist. A sports psychologist uses psychology to help an athlete improve their performance and overall mental wellbeing. By focusing on motivation and emotion, sports psychologists examine why some athletes ‘choke’ under pressure, and why others can have the best brought out in them through competition.
Up until these Olympics, Biles, through intense training and coaching, was able to stay at the top. However, she did say the pressure was getting to her and she’d felt in the past that she was doing the sport for the benefit of everyone else and to make them happy.
This can be a common issue with top athletes. The weight and stress of trying to remain number one can ultimately be too much. Not everyone can win, but there are plenty of athletes who have a very high and strict expectation of themselves and may have problems dealing with setbacks and errors that are natural in sport. Who can forget the famous, “You cannot be serious,” line flung by John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981? One of the best dummy spits of all time that’s now part of our lexicon. The young McEnroe clearly losing his shit under pressure when his overly high expectations weren’t met. It’s worth noting that athletes who report depressed mood tend to turn anger inwardly and counter-productively, whereas those free from depressive symptoms can harness the anger and use it in a productive way to enhance performance. Again, professional help can manage these expectations, helping athletes stay composed under pressure when they make mistakes or get frustrated.
Setbacks and performance anxiety aside, there is another role our sports psychologist plays that may not be so obvious. Apart from working on motivation and emotion, they investigate how participating in sport can improve health and overall wellbeing, helping regular people learn how to enjoy sport and learn to stick to a regular exercise program, thus promoting healthy self-esteem in its participants.
But can anyone seek the help of a sports psychologist? Consider this: the very same strategies that sports psychologists teach athletes – relaxation techniques, mental rehearsals and cognitive restructuring, for example – are also useful in the workplace and other settings including examinations and performing arts.
So, next time you’re under the pump and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, consider how Simone Biles felt as she ran towards the vault in Tokyo. If that doesn’t quite give you the concept of pressure, then YouTube ‘Rick Disneck horse crash’.

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