Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Recently one of our senior performance psychologists, Gareth, had a chat with Tim Webster from Macquarie Sports Radio (Australia). Below is both the actual recording of the interview and below that the transcript and below that … space to write your comments, thoughts and questions. Enjoy!
Tim Webster: All right, let’s talk a bit of psychology. They do say sometimes that sport can be 80% in your head and 20% ability – or is it the other way around? Well let’s find out. When you hear that our sports people turn to sports psychologists for help and you wonder how prevalent that is. Well let’s find out I’ve got Gareth Mole from Condor Performance Sports and Performance Psychology on the line. G’Day Gareth!
Gareth J. Mole: Hey Tim! How are you doing?
Tim Webster: Good, how often do sports people turn to you?
Gareth J. Mole: Not as often as you would think, Tim. I suppose the peculiarity of our profession is that most people are completely aware that the mental side plays a massive role. The old cliché that golfers seem to use is that their sport is 90 percent mental. And yet for some reason it doesn’t transfer into a massive percentage of athletes and coaches using our services to the degree where you would think based on what we specialise in.
Tim Webster: Yeah interesting you should mention that because I actually asked Greg Norman that question some years ago. He didn’t say 90% but he said 80. He said we can all play on the tour, we can all shoot rounds of golf under par, and then it becomes the mental side of it and you see golfers, don’t you? Often, and they seem to implode and that has to be it, it can’t just be the ability to play the game. It has to be mental.
Gareth J. Mole: Yes Absolutely. My response to Greg’s 80 percent would be two things one, as athletes improve the mental side becomes more dominant. The fact is that with an eight-year-old playing golf with his buddies it is predominantly technical. The guy who can chip the best is probably going to do the best. It is very technical at that level but what happens (and there’s a growing amount of research for this) is that as athletes improve everybody becomes good at the technical. I mean let’s be honest and look at tennis as an example. If we look at the top 100 tennis players in the world technically they’re all very, very good. Physically (that means fitness strength, cardio fitness and flexibility) they’re all very, very good. So therefore what’s making the Roger Federers of this world consistently better than the guys ranked 100 or 500 given that physically and technically he’s not that much better than them. It really boils down to what’s left and of course what’s left is the mental side. A good way of adding a little bit of detail to that 90 or 80 percent mental debate is; golf becomes 80 to 90 percent mental when you get to the point where you can’t really improve your back swing or your fitness and therefore the remaining improvement needs to come in things like concentration, confidence, motivation and the like.
Tim Webster: There’s so many examples to use. Currently Novak Djokovic is in a real bad patch with his form, and he was the dominant player in the game for many years along with Rafa and Roger of course and he’s only 30 and Roger is significantly older than him. Rafa is about the same age now he’s coming back from an elbow injury. But you’d think he wouldn’t be playing if the injury were still plaguing him physically so then is it plaguing him mentally?
Gareth J. Mole: The interesting thing about Novak is of course a couple of things happened. He got married and that massively improved his performance for a patch. There’s a reason for that, which essentially is based on the distribution of pressure. If you’ve got a successful home life then suddenly getting knocked out in a semi-final of a Grand Slam isn’t the tragedy that you thought it was compared with if you were unhealthily obsessed as a single person. Then of course the injuries, the changing of the coaches is quite an interesting thing to observe from afar. At that level the fascinating thing about the coach-athlete relationship at the highest level is the likes of Boris Becker or Stefan Edberg are not telling the likes of Djokovic how to hit backhand.
Tim Webster: No, no.
Gareth J. Mole: They must be predominantly coaching the mental side and the fascinating thing from our perspective is – is being a former player a sufficient qualification to dispense psychological advice?
Tim Webster: Good question….
Gareth J. Mole: My gut instinct is no it’s not. With all due respect to somebody who’s won five or six Grand Slams as Boris Becker may have. What mental strategies that have been recommended by the scientific research (which of course is what we use to make sure that there’s no guesswork involved in our work) is being used? What I think is going to happen over the next five to ten years – and we’re only just starting to see it – I think you’ll start seeing a much greater percentage of coaches consulting with sports psychologist. We started to see a shift in the last couple of years and the theory behind that is you don’t want to send an ex-athlete off to university for seven years to get a psychology degree because by the time they’ve finished everyone would have forgotten about them. And you probably don’t want to force a psychology student to play 200 games in the NRL either.
Tim Webster: Understood.
Gareth J. Mole: So, the ideal combination is where you get the people who really know their stuff in this area (which of course is us) and you put them with a coach and the combination of our knowledge with their experience in sport should be pretty useful when it comes to them coaching athletes at the highest level.
Tim Webster: Yeah look there’s so many examples currently to use but I’ll tell you one that worries me and tell me if I’m being worried unnecessarily. Young rugby league players and there’s probably a few we could nominate, Jackson Hastings for example, who’s had all sorts of dramas at Manly. Now the kid is only 21 and the pressure that the game places on him mentally worries me. Should I be worried about that?
Gareth J. Mole: Look it’s a good question. The short answer is no. This is a question that we’re constantly weighing up (me and my colleagues) regarding the overlap of mental health and what we call “mental toughness”. Going back to my initial comment about sports psychologist being used less than you would think. My feeling is one of the major contributing factors to why that is, is the confusion between mental health and mental toughness and a very simple way of separating them is mental health is serious stuff such as depression, anxiety and stress (which anybody could be suffering with). It’s a real issue and it shouldn’t be taken lightly and me and my four colleagues at Condor Performance are a tad controversial in that we personally believe that sports psychologists probably shouldn’t be helping rugby league players with clinical depression given that there are fifteen or sixteen thousand clinical psychologists in Australia.
Tim Webster: To deal with that.
Gareth J. Mole: Who are very experienced at dealing with that and therefore we believe that mental health should be taken very seriously but shouldn’t be confused with mental toughness. Mental toughness is like the technical side and the physical side and would apply to all athletes of all levels. We’re talking about basic concepts such as concentration. Can someone who’s concentration is pretty good be improved to become excellent so that it’s almost infallible.
Tim Webster: So, when athletes come to you, what’s the main thing that they want to improve? Performance?
Gareth J. Mole: Yes, it’s a whole bunch of words which start with the letter C. When people first contact us they fill in a mental toughness questionnaire. It’s a self-report measure. It’s just one of the other weaknesses of psychology unlike a fitness test which you can’t fake it, so you can’t fake a beep test. You can totally fake a psychological test because you can give answers based on what your dad wants to hear for example. Our self-report measure generates a whole bunch of scores and scores relate to areas that we regard as critical for performance and are entirely mentally related such as concentration confidence, commitment, creativity, communication. The term mental toughness is actually a little bit broad because it’s quite possible for someone to contact us whose commitment level is excellent, but their confidence is way down.
Tim Webster: yeah yeah…
Gareth J. Mole: And one of the reasons why we insist on working with almost everybody one on one whether they be a team sport athlete or an individual athlete is because of the fact that everybody’s mental profile is different and therefore the solutions are different too.
Tim Webster: I could talk to you for a long time but let’s just finish with this. Jason Day has recently said he’d love to be the world number one again but he had all of these things going on in his life. Golfers are going to concentrate, there’s that C word again, over four days in a major championship surely that requires a lot of mental toughness, focus, what?
Gareth J. Mole: Yeah, Test cricket and golf require amongst the most amounts of concentartion because they go for so long …
Tim Webster: Hours and hours.
Gareth J. Mole: Yeah, the way we do it very simple, and if there’s any cricketers or golfers listening there’s they can implement this. During a four-hour round of golf you only really want to be concentrating for about seven or eight minutes. So, the majority of the time during a round of golf (and this applies to Test cricket as well) is not spent playing cricket or golf. Think about it. You hit a tee shot.
Tim Webster: And then have you walk.
Gareth J. Mole: So, the huge mistake made by most of those “start-stop athletes” is they try to concentrate from beginning to end unaware that human beings just aren’t capable of maximum concentration for longer than about an hour. Most of us will peak at about 45 minutes. One of the simplest mental strategies for this is the use of routines, pre-shot routines, whereby you only start your concentration about 10 seconds before each attempt and you are intentionally switching off about five to 10 seconds after each attempt.
Tim Webster: I’m with you. You’ll see Jason Day do that the pre-shot routine where he does that little flutter with his eyes and it’s exactly the same thing every time and then you’ll often see him laughing and smiling with his caddy or his playing partner whereas Tiger Woods on the other hand looks like he’s focused and zoned in all of the time is he?
Gareth J. Mole: My feeling is that Tiger wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he achieved at his peak if he wasn’t using some pretty effective switch on / switch off strategies like I’ve just mentioned.
Tim Webster: The whole subject fascinates me. Thanks Gareth, thank you very much.
Gareth J. Mole: Thanks Tim.
Tim Webster: That’s Gareth Mole from Condor Performance.