Friday, 27 November 2009

The power of lightening up

One thing that sports performers very often start to do when they get to a certain level is take their sport too seriously. The thinking behind this tends to be that if they want to get to a very high level, they have to take it seriously. Now, I'm not saying that sport shouldn't be important and I'm not saying that sports performers shouldn't strive to reach a high level - far from it. What I am saying is that taking sport too seriously (or anything for that matter) can have a real impact on performance. One thing it does, for instance, is it affects our physiology. When we take things too seriously, we tend to frown more and become more inward looking. The mere act of frowning will then impact on other muscles throughout our bodies and will also have a significant impact on how we think and feel. You can test this out for yourself. Put a frown on your face for a couple of minutes and notice how it affects your mood. Then put a big smile on your face and notice the difference. When we smile we increase the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin which makes us feel happier and also reduces levels of anxiety. It is no coincidence that you are seeing more sports performers smiling when they are in competition. It is a noticeable change in the Chelsea team who seemed to have been playing with a smile on their faces since Carlo Ancelotti became coach (notably bringing with him the eminent psychologist Bruno Demichelis). Even Nicolas Anelka has been smiling. You may have noticed that Andy Murray has lightened up over the last year or so, as has Padraig Harrington with great results. The likes of Usain Bolt, Ronaldinho, Tom Watson and Luke Donald seem to have always performed with a smile on their faces. So if you want to improve your performance, first of all, make a commitment to lighten up, smile and enjoy yourself.

Friday, 11 September 2009


Fabio Capello has stated that Wives and Girlfriends will be able to meet up with the players for one day after each match and not at any other time during the World Cup. This seems to me to be a very sensible approach after the problems from the 2006 World Cup, although I wouldn't always suggest this is the best option.

One thing a player needs when away from home is some sort of normality, so usually the familiar face of a loved one at the end of the day can serve to keep the player grounded. It can also keep the player's mind off their performance, which can lead to over-analysing on occasions. In many sports being surrounded by family when touring is encouraged. Unfortunately, with the huge hype surrounding the World Cup there is no such thing as normality and the media interest in the WAGs only serves to heighten this fact.

In Capello's favour is the fact that he has created a winning mentality in his team. When a team respects and believes in the coach it is very unlikely there will be any dissent from their ranks. We just have to hope that the WAGs are on the same page and keep a low profile throughout the tournament. Something tells me it is a vain hope!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Tim Henman

During Wimbledon fortnight I tend to get a lot of interview requests from the media regarding the mental side of tennis. One of the recurring topics is the question of what the media perceive to be Tim Henman’s failure.

Love him or not, Tim Henman was Britain’s most successful tennis player for decades. He won 11 World ATP tournaments, including the Paris Masters, reached the Semi-Finals at Wimbledon four times, once at the French Open and once at the US Open and ranked as high as number four in the World.

If that is considered failure, it’s a wonder why anyone would want to aim to be at the top of their sport.

Andy Barton
The Sporting Mind - Mental Training for Sport

Friday, 12 June 2009

Insane Golf

A lot of golfers wonder why it is that they spend years and years playing the game, spend a fortune on the latest equipment, spend hours and hours on the driving range, have countless lessons with a swing coach and dedicate the rest of their time analysing and thinking about their game and yet, more often than not, find that they still get the same results they’d been getting for years - or may even get worse.

If you can recognise this in yourself, you may want to ask yourself whether you are doing anything differently to what you have done in the past to change your game. We are by nature creatures of habit. We essentially repeat patterns of behaviour without thinking. So a golfer will turn up at the driving range, get 100 balls and hit them one after another without putting any real thought into it or having any real purpose in mind. These people are often working on the erroneous principle that ‘practice makes perfect’. They feel that the mere effort of turning up to practice and hit balls is going to improve their play. However, because they tend to practise the same way every time, they are only reinforcing what they have already learned, including all their bad habits. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

It was Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If you want to improve, you must start doing things differently. Set yourself new challenges, put more effort into each shot, make your targets more defined, refine your pre-shot routine (if you haven’t got one yet, get one now), mentally rehearse how it would be to be the player you would like to be (we’ll discuss the power of mental rehearsal in more detail in a future blog), play with people you don't normally play with – just do something different. And if it works, keep doing it! Otherwise you are going to be stuck playing insane golf.

Andy Barton
The Sporting Mind - Mental Training for Sport

Thursday, 28 May 2009

National identity and sports performance: Should England have their own national anthem?

The question as to whether the English should have a national anthem of their own has been debated over the years. Whereas the Welsh and the Scots have laid claim to their own anthems, the English retain the British national anthem for sporting events. This gives the bizarre circumstances where, if England plays against either Wales or Scotland, they are effectively playing their opponent’s national anthem twice. When this issue has been addressed in the past, the emphasis tends to have been on the political ramifications of giving England their own national anthem. The psychological implications of playing ‘God Save the Queen’ however are usually neglected in the debate.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the psychology of a sports performer during competition; belief, confidence, a sense of worth, being prepared, the ability to relax and perform under pressure are just some of these.

One factor that has a huge impact on a performer is a sense of identity. A sense of identity will impact on our values, which in turn will affect our motivation levels. It will also impact on our sense of purpose or our will to go the extra mile for the greater good.

Many supporters may despair at the antics of some of our leading football coaches, who seem to spend an extraordinary amount of effort picking fights. They will pick fights with other coaches, the press, officials, members of the FA, even club owners and members of their own board. In the case of Jose Mourinho, he has been known to pick a fight with all of the above and many more. You may wonder what there is to gain from this seemingly childish and pointless behaviour. There is however method in their madness. What these coaches are aiming to achieve is to create an ‘identity’ among their players. This is achieved by establishing a common enemy to give the players the motivation and sense of unity to work together as a team, to achieve their aims.

So what has this got to do with the national anthem? Well, the national anthem is supposed to promote a sense of identity within a sports team. For that to happen, the national anthem should be appropriate to the team that is playing. ‘God Save the Queen’ is appropriate for the ‘British’ team during the Olympics in the same way that the European anthem is appropriate during the Ryder Cup. It isn’t appropriate for England (or Northern Ireland for that matter). The Scots and the Welsh don’t get fired up by ‘God Save the Queen’ so why should the English? Who can forget the Scotland v England rugby match of 1990 when ‘Flower of Scotland’ set in motion the impetus for an unlikely Scottish victory?

Surely, it isn’t coincidence that some of England’s greatest performances in competitions have been accompanied by alternative anthems; New Order’s ‘World in Motion’ at Italia ’90, ‘Three Lions’ in Euro ’96, as well as ‘Swing Low’ at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

There are two songs that tend to be favoured if there was to be an English anthem, ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Either one of these would be more appropriate for England and could give the vital edge that makes the difference between success and disappointment. So why deprive the English of what is their right – a sense of national identity?

Andy Barton

Wider Vision Ltd - Specialists in Mental Performance Training for Sport

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Centring Technique for Powerful Scrummaging in Rugby

The practice of ‘centring’ originates from mind-body traditions from the East and refers to the body’s ‘centre of gravity’ from where all movement and energy flow. This concept has particularly been adopted by the martial arts but its application can be equally beneficial in rugby and many other sports. If you watch the great rugby players, one thing they all have is balance, stability, fluidity and effortless power. This is due to their ability to centre themselves.

Centring involves putting your focus on the centre of your body. This is quite a strange concept for many rugby players to take on as they are more likely to put their attention on the extremities of their bodies, their fellow scrum members, the ball, the opposition or even their thoughts when they are performing.

There is a saying that “where our attention goes our energy flows”. What this suggests is that our centre of gravity actually changes according to where our minds are focused. When we are anxious, nervous and have a strong inner voice chatting away, our focus tends to go to our heads, and, in turn, it seems that our centre of gravity moves up towards our heads. If you were to imagine playing rugby with a heavy crash helmet on you would get an idea of how this affects your balance.

By putting our awareness on the centre of our bodies, it aligns the centre of gravity to where it should be. This not only gives us balance but also increases our power as it concentrates our mind on the area where we have our larger, more powerful muscle groups. This is extremely important for scrummaging, as, by focusing on this area, we are taking the power from the core of our bodies.

The technique that I have used in my work with a lot of forwards when they are scrummaging is to have them focus on the centre of their body and to imagine a ball, about the size of a golf ball, situated approximately an inch below their navel in the centre of their torso. I then get them to give the ball a colour which represents power to them and to imagine the ball spinning inside them. I then ask them to imagine two beams of light, the same colour as the ball, emanating from the ball up through their backs through their shoulders and out far off into the distance like a pair of powerful laser beams. At the same time, I ask them to imagine two more beams emanating from the ball down through their legs and feet and projecting hundreds of metres into the ground. If they wish, they can also imagine the beam giving off a powerful sound (a big favourite is the sound of the light sabres in Star Wars). Finally, they imagine the ball spinning faster and faster, intensifying the light and increasing the volume of the sound (Because our minds respond extremely well to symbols, the focus on colours, sounds and balls spinning in conjunction with focusing on our centre further increases the feeling of power). When the ball reaches top speed, they are ready to scrummage.

Andy Barton
Wider Vision Ltd - Specialists in Mental Performance Training for Sport