Rushall, B. S. (1995). This excerpt is the introduction to Section 8, "Competition Mental Skills" in Rushall, B. S. (1995). Mental Skills Training for Sports (pp. 8.1-8.3). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.

Performance outcomes are more likely to be achieved when what is done prior to and during a competition has been planned, practiced, and shown to be successful. In contests, an athlete should never use new approaches, techniques, or strategies without them first being tested, refined, and trained. An athlete should compete with only what is known and has been practiced.

Athletes can learn to think very clearly in physical activity. Training sessions need to combine thinking practice with physical practice to allow the skill of thought control to develop so that it can be used in a competition. Mental functioning should be trained for physically stressful conditions. At all times, in practices and competitions, an athlete should remain in mental control. The initial stages of developing this capacity will require concerted effort by the athlete.

The development of strategies, with the athlete having the major portion of content decision-making, produces an enhanced approach to competing. Strategies must be specific in content and extreme in detail. They should be of sufficient volume to consume and direct all the thinking that occurs in a competition. The affects on performance of this athlete-centered approach to competing are:

  1. uncertainty and interpretive distractions are reduced;
  2. the stress of negative situations is reduced;
  3. performance consistency is enhanced;
  4. the coping capacity for problem situations is improved; and
  5. performance drop-offs are minimized.

When athletes are given the major responsibility for planning and deciding what is to be included in competition strategies, performances are enhanced. This differs to the common practice of the coach "instructing" an athlete what to do in a contest with minimal athlete input.

Competition strategies consist of developing all the thoughts and consequent behaviors which need to occur in an actual contest. This content must be the only thought activity that occurs. Distractions and irrelevant thoughts must be eliminated. There are some significant structures that need to be included in the way competition strategies are formed.

  1. If the event is of long duration, it needs to be broken into partitions. Those partitions should be short enough for the athlete to totally concentrate on what needs to be thought and done at that time. This assists focusing on the completion of successful competition elements. Structuring performances in this manner is called "segmenting."
  2. How and what an athlete thinks during a contest is of paramount importance to maintaining maximum performance efficiency and exertion. The exercises in this section embrace three forms of thought content, i) task-relevant, ii) positive self-statements, and iii) mood words. Those types of thoughts have been shown to increase the level of performance in training and competitions in elite athletes.
  3. The energy of performance should not be used only for physical exertion. Thought intensities during a contest need to change if athletes are to remain in control of their efficiency and combat fatigue or pain. The exercise involving "intensification" addresses this modification of thought effort.
  4. Each competitive effort produces information that could assist in beneficial planning of subsequent training sessions and competitions. To maximize the value of that information, it is necessary to evaluate the feedback from competing when it is richest and strongest, that is, immediately after a contest. Thus, post-performance debriefing is proposed as an essential feature of competition strategy execution. It promotes the maximum learning potential of a competitive experience, a feature that is lost if it is delayed too long after a performance.

The exercises contained in this section cover the psychological content of competition strategies. Primarily the athlete should provide the particular content that is essential for each sport. The athlete is the person who best knows his/her knowledge, most meaningful descriptions of task-relevant items, and significant language. There often is a tendency for coaches and consultants to tell athletes what they should be thinking of and concentrating on in competitions. Unfortunately, such advice is often wrong. Coaches have to rely on their effectiveness as teachers at training and practice for developing the knowledge and skills that are to be "transferred" to competitive situations by athletes. Each athlete interprets a coach's instructions and teachings in a unique manner. Unless that unique understanding is allowed to surface in competitions, athletes will perform with foreign content in their competitive repertoires, a factor that will not enhance performance and usually is more counterproductive than beneficial.

Athletes should form competition strategies with advice from coaches. The content of competition strategies has to be developed in a step-like fashion (the order of exercises presented in this section is a sequence that has proven to be successful), and practiced at training. It is an aspect of mental skills training that should be included in practice activities.

Competition strategies are the content of what is thought during a contest.

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