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Sports Psychology: The Meaning of Winning in Sport

Legendary England rugby fly-half Jonny Wilkinson recently appeared as a guest on the High Performance podcast. He was joined by BBC presenter Jake Humphrey and Professor of Organisation Psychology and Change, Damian Hughes. The World Cup winner spoke openly about his struggles in regard to perfectionism and the difficulties he experienced throughout his career. Jonny […]

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Legendary England rugby fly-half Jonny Wilkinson recently appeared as a guest on the High Performance podcast. He was joined by BBC presenter Jake Humphrey and Professor of Organisation Psychology and Change, Damian Hughes.

The World Cup winner spoke openly about his struggles in regard to perfectionism and the difficulties he experienced throughout his career.

Jonny Wilkinson became a national hero in 2003 when he kicked 14 out England’s 20 points in the final in Sydney against the Wallabies. After this acme in his career, most would presume things would be filled with joy — in fact, this was far from the case.

The star said you’d expect to wake up the next morning and bask in jubilation. But you don’t. You just go onto the next one, and the pressure intensifies. England failed to win the following Webb-Ellis, and the duress that Wilkinson placed himself under became unbearable.

Passion develops into what can only be described as pain…

Having recently partnered with the RFU, Charles Tyrwhitt delves further into the conversation approached in the High Performance podcast. Here, we take a look into the psychology behind winning sport.

Importance

While coaches and trainers are searching for those final percentages in the smallest of margins, you will often find them look into psychology. This means having their players or athletes search with passion for that inner strength.

All champions are in agreement that sports psychology can improve performance. Training your mind will not only aid the enjoyment that you can have on the pitch, but it will also alleviate stress both on and off it.

But what do you need to?

You need to be confident in your ability, be able to focus amid a wave of distraction, and find consistent motivation during times of difficulty.

Former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray opened up last year about his difficulties when it came to battling injuries. He revealed how detrimental it was to both his mental health and ability to enjoy the sport he loved so much. The three-time Grand Slam winner admitted: “I was getting no enjoyment out of playing at all because it hurt. I’d win some matches, but I wasn’t getting any joy out of that.”

Murray’s statement highlights just how important it is to be able to understand that you won’t be able to play all of the time. When injuries do occur, you need to be able to take your foot off the pedal, or your hip off the court in Murray’s case, and take stock.

Emotions

As an athlete, being emotionally agile is incredibly important.

Knowing when and how to react to negative emotions is crucial. Much like we would visit a physio or a doctor if we were experiencing muscle pains, having the ability to do something about emotional pain, can nip it in the bud prematurely, rather than allowing it to develop into a serious issue that will, in turn, inhibit performance.

If things are going well, don’t be afraid to note down your emotions. How you felt in the moment, how you felt in the aftermath, and what the results of this peak performance allowed — penning these emotions can provide an ideal reference point for when things aren’t going your way.

Planning and focus

Focus on what is within your control. Stressing over perfectionism when the situation cannot be altered by your actions is counterproductive.

Coaches will consistently tell players to play their own game rather than think about something else that is going on. It might sound childish, but the philosophy reverts back to one instilled into us from a young age — go out there and play your best, as it’s the best you can do.

Next, is planning in line with an attitude driven by making things work. Replace “can’t” with “can”. As opposed to saying that you can’t make a training session, for example, because of alternative commitments, as yourself how you can rejig your schedule to ensure that both are feasible.

Understand what is important, what needs your time, and what you need to prioritise — then begin your goal-setting agenda.

It’s easy to spread yourself too thin and apply a shotgun-based approach. “The inability to triage goals is single-handedly the reason so many people fail to see their goals through to completion.”

This statement isn’t just unique to sports and can be applied to various walks of life regardless of circumstance. Have you ever considered why the world’s most successful do so little as part of their daily routine? Because overcomplicating processes and overlaying task on top of one another results in poor execution.

Start on the important goals as a priority, and you’ll discover the additional tasks will fall into place.

Failure

Dr Stan Beecham is a sports psychologist and author of Elite Minds: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success. Speaking to Forbes, Beecham suggests that the best performing athletes don’t even think about how they are going to win because they already know they’re going to win thanks to unwavering confidence within.

Remember, failure isn’t something that those who excel simply ignore. On the contrary — they believe it is something which comes as part and parcel of success and without failure, you will never truly succeed. Terina Allen wrote: “It is my contention that the moment people decide that failure is indeed not an option, they inherently decide that success is not either because creativity and innovation cannot thrive in a life of fear and perfection.”

For many, the most enjoyable time of their sporting career is a youth level — and we mean primary school age. You have nothing to lose, and you’re just playing because you enjoy it. Capturing that essence as an older athlete, enjoying each game while continuing to learn, really is what exists as the key to a successful mindset in sport.

When you strip back everything else in sport, even at the highest levels, you need to be experiencing enjoyment otherwise it all becomes somewhat worthless.

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