Preparation is the key to success

We have already established that there are numerous psychological factors which affect athletes’ performances, in both individual and team sports, and for both women and men.

But what, in practicality, can athletes do to enhance their performance? If they need to make themselves as familiar as possible with the situation at hand (by Matthew Syed’s very professional and experienced standards) what are some techniques of doing this?

Practice makes perfect

This may seem like an obvious one, and the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ can feel a little overused, but coaches and psychologists alike agree that practice is one of the most effective ways of improving an athlete’s performance and, according to Matthew Syed, the best way to make yourself familiar- and therefore not stressed about- a pressured situation.

Not only does practice build confidence and ability, but it allows athletes to experiment with new (and possibly brilliant) skills and techniques. That crafty backhanded drop-shot that wins Federer points? It would have been meticulously engineered through hours, and hours, and hours of practice. And that impulsive and deceptively casual through-the-legs shot?

Being totally familiar with the basics of the game allows you to be spontaneous on the court.

It’s not always fun: it’s grueling and usually time-consuming, but it’s the best way to ensure success.

Mental visualisation is one of the most common tools used by sports psychologists


Mental visualisation is one of the most common tools used by sports psychologists and coaches. It can be used as a training tool, a preparation tool, or a warm-up tool. It can calm athletes down, relieve stress and/or achieve a winning mindset.

As Matthew Syed pointed out, choking can result from mentally picturing the worse-case scenario when under pressure (a snowball effect where ‘I’ll lose this championship’ leads to irrational thoughts like, ‘no one will respect me’), and athletes can have involuntarily recurring images of past mistakes which stop them playing to their potential in the present.

But turn it on its head, and mental visualisation can be incredibly effective: when athletes visualize a successful competition, they in fact stimulate the same areas of the brain as when they physically perform that same action, and the more they mentally rehearse, the more their brain gets used to it.

Pre-game, it can be used as a tool of concentration and relaxation: in this sense, visualisation can be one of the few intersections between sport and mindfulness or meditation. It involves spending a few minutes relaxing and focusing on the present, so that negative thoughts of what will happen in the future or the past are blotted out and concentration on the task at hand is pure and unadulterated.

During training sessions, athletes might be asked to mentally imagine the perfect technique. Or when learning a new skill, coaches might guide them to create an image in their mind of how the skill should successfully be executed. It’s a bit like imagining how you will deliver your lines before a play or how you’ll perform a certain song in a concert.

For some athletes this isn’t just mental: it can even involve mimicking what you’ll do (think tennis players acting out a winning forehand ahead of a point). For others, it’s a multi-sensory experience. American freestyle skier and three-time Olympian, Emily Cook describes how visualisation encompasses all the senses: “You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it.”

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