MENTAL SKILLS FACILITATE BETTER COMPETING
Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (1999). The acquisition and development of cognitive skills and strategies: I. Making the butterflies fly in formation. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 1-21.
This study extends the findings of previous research that elite performers, compared to nonelites, interpret their pre-performance cognitive and somatic anxiety symptoms as more facilitative than debilitating to performance. In-depth interviews were conducted with male elite swimmers (N = 10) and content analyzed.
It was concluded that participants' skills and strategies were acquired via natural learning experiences and various education methods. Four areas of developmental themes throughout the swimmers' careers were revealed. They are listed below.
- Early unwanted negative experiences. Developmental experiences taught how to cope with or remove these.
Learned at an early age that nerves can be positive.
- Negative competition cognitions -- e.g., Doubts about adequacy of training to support intended good performances; not knowing what to do to achieve performance goals; letting the team down; making mistakes.
- Negative somatic feeling states -- e.g., feeling sick before a race; not sleeping the night before a meet; tired before a race; constant nervousness.
Precompetition routine that maintained a facilitative mind-set.
- Early race preparation facilitation -- e.g., nothing that one can do about how they feel so get on with racing: This was primarily learned from significant others (coaches, older swimmers, parents).
- Early aiding of performance -- e.g., prerace nervousness was related to swimming better; it facilitated "psyching-up."
- Cognitive labeling of symptoms as positive -- e.g., using terms such as "positive anxiety" or "energizing arousal."
Prerace routine, comprising a familiar set of behaviors that are performed in the prerace period. Those behaviors facilitate nervousness and focus mental content on the impending task.
- Imagery -- e.g., training and skill practice imagery related to race simulation; formulation of a task-specific and race relevant series of behaviors.
- Goal-setting -- e.g., for training and competition with both sets being related.
- Rationalization of thoughts -- e.g., any thinking is related to coping with the impending race.
- Control over feelings and thoughts -- e.g., doing planned activities that are related to good performances using techniques such as self-talk, positive thinking, writing down strategies.
- Internal control -- e.g., concentrating on factors over which the athlete has control.
- External control -- e.g., acting positively and planned to "psyche-out" that other athletes.
- Positive prerace imagery -- e.g., rehearsing races and winning.
- Physical strategies -- e.g., doing physical warm-up, stretching, and keeping-warm routines.
- Relaxation -- e.g, performing either a mental or physical relaxation strategy prior to the impending race.
Implication. There are mental skills that need to be learned and practiced to facilitate good competitive performances.
[Note: How the features listed above can be developed in swimmers is described in detail in the book Personal Best (Rushall, B. S. (1995), Sports Science Associates). The value of using that book with age-group swimmers was reported in the following refereed research article: Rushall, B. S., & King, H. A. (Fall, 1997). Effects of a workshop intervention on competitive performances of age-group swimmers: Two investigations. Journal of Swimming Research, 12, 19-26.]
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