How elite athletes keep their heads in the game

Outside the mound, Trevor Bauer can tell you about the movement of each stream of air above the seams of a baseball. But when he starts a game for the Cleveland Indians, he does not dare to think about the physics involved.

"This game is extremely complex, and when I'm on the mound or on the box, I can not think of that sort of thing," Bauer said. "You have to train to be able to close your brain, you have to practice not to think."

Although the physical presence of professional athletes is the most visible part of their game, their mental training is just as important – and can be just as rigorous. Distractions are inevitable, failures are looming and the mind has the power to disrupt a victory as easily as any physical injury. Thus, professional athletes must train to control their minds, regulate their concentration, control emotional chaos and achieve the state of flux that creates outstanding performance. And that must start early.

"The more young people are able to acquire these skills, the better. So as you progress through these levels of sport and the pressure and demands increase, you will be resilient and able to meet those demands, "says Natalie Durand-Bush. , Professor of Sports Psychology at the School of Physical Activity Sciences of the University of Ottawa. "Like all the other physical skills you have to devote to mental training – you do not develop this overnight."

Concentrate on your concentration

"The ability to focus is where to place your attention and how to make those changes very quickly, almost subconsciously, because everything happens so fast," says Durand-Bush. To learn how to do this, you have to train with different sources of distraction that can cause an athlete to lose concentration during a crucial moment, and then to focus on the game.

Tiger Woods implemented this method by practicing his golf swing while his father rang the keys or threw coins to make noise. By anticipating distractions and creating emergency plans for different seasons, events and even specific competitors, Durand-Bush explains that athletes can avoid losing their concentration in the middle of the competition. "All that [training] go for it so that you are completely prepared and you minimize the unknown and the effect of surprise. So, if it happens in real life, you do not press the panic button and you do not lose your focus. You have just gone through your planned answer. "

To learn this level of concentration, Aidan Moran, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Dublin, believes that it is useful to think of concentration as a projector. His method turns the focus of something that can be lost into a state of mind that can be practiced and altered. "If you consider concentration as a projector, I think it's a very powerful idea," Moran said. "You can never lose your concentration, it's always somewhere."

Failure is inevitable

Of course, paradoxically, focusing can sometimes have the opposite effect. No matter what an athlete does to prepare, failures will occur, but often the intense emotions associated with competition, frustration and sadness can snowball and become a source of anxiety. "You are so emotionally invested that you try harder and harder, your body speeds up, your brain goes up a gear, everything goes faster, but it's not better. That's what happens in smothering experiences, "says Moran. "People are choking when they are anxious."

In general, choking indicates that the athlete's attention is on their own, which, Moran explains, is often due to a phenomenon called paralysis by analysis. "If you focus on something really technical while trying to execute a skill, it always leads to a deterioration of that skill."

As a hitter standing at the plate, you might worry about putting your elbow to the hip before the finish of your hand so you have enough power to hit a fastball, Bauer explains, or not not having four seconds to react to a throw. before you have to swing. These things are both true. But then you have a batter who swings too early or too late or who dominates on bad throws.

"You try to exercise conscious control over better controlled actions automatically," says Moran. Under the timed pressure of a thrown ball, this causes errors. If an athlete does not pay attention to controlling their mental routines and regaining their concentration, a failed game can become a collapse. This is true even for amateur players who have nothing to lose, it is a casual game. At professional levels, there is the added fear of embarrassment (often on national television), losing a spot on a list, losing sponsorship. And all this causes even more concern.

"Your performance goes down, then your confidence goes down," says Durand-Bush. It's a vicious circle. At this point, she says, the best thing for an athlete to do is to rely on external support to cope with anxiety and get back to basics. "You do not lose [your skills] overnight. It's like riding a bike. You do not forget how to ride a bike, pitch or bat. "

Even professional athletes need coaches

An excellent coach is at the heart of all this mental training because not all practices are created equal. Most athletes practice the elements of the game that they like or on which they excel, says Moran. "What makes some players exceptional in their performance is that they have engaged in a deliberate practice. It's about identifying areas in which you can not perform well, if at all, and deliberately working on your weaknesses to improve their game. "

The best coaches are those who teach their athletes to think and play, says Jim Denison, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Alberta. Training for this type of performance requires a practice that does not always look like success, he says. It's more complicated, allows athletes to make mistakes and takes longer.

The typical exercises – whether it's sprints in a pool or on a football field – are great if you just want to get in shape, but if you try to acquire a competitive mentality, the preparation is mediocre. It does not do anything to prepare an athlete for bursts of energy and emotion or pain of exhaustion. "To do something extraordinary," says Denison, "you must be prepared to enter areas you have never been to, which are extremely uncomfortable and painful."

To train athletes for this space, a coach must make an athlete feel pain and risk, which can be scary. "The coach would talk more with the athlete [like]"I want you to explore the feeling of pain," says Denison. They would discuss with the athlete how to understand their pain and meet that mental challenge. It's not just about preparing an athlete, he says, it's about designing physical and brain training.

"Coaches who are considered the best in the world expect all their athletes to get a PhD in their test," says Denison. "It's pretentious to say that you have to get your doctorate in your test, but they want the athletes to think. "

The zen of sport

But there is a disadvantage to becoming a thinking athlete. The best performance usually occurs when you think of nothing at all, in a space called a flow state. "It's a rare, very elusive and coveted state, where there's no difference between what a person does and what a person thinks," says Moran. "The state of flux is when everything is together."

Fans can have a lot of trouble reaching this state. "People who start playing on the first golf tee always know who's watching, and they start playing faster and faster," says Moran. But the faster they swing, the poorer their game is.

Professional golfers have figured out how to handle this. From time to time, says Moran, you'll see a golfer talking with his younger brother before a shot. "Golfers talk to their caddies not for advice but to distract themselves from their thoughts." He even saw golfers singing for themselves so as not to over-analyze. Preventing conscious thinking keeps them ready to execute the movements they have learned to do perfectly and automatically. And it is this ability that sets them apart from others.

"Most top athletes, whether they are amateurs or professionals, have a higher level of mental abilities and a better ability to use them consistently under pressure," Durand-Bush said. Learning to let go and play the game is a skill like any other professional repertoire.

"There is a Zen paradox that to take control, you have to give up control," says Moran. "Generally, in music and in sport, when the flow levels occur, maximum performance tends to follow."