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These are The Mental Training Tools A Performance Psychologist Uses On Elite Athletes
The importance of mental health for athletes, especially when it comes to their performance, has become part of the discussion now more so than ever. Like never before, elite sports players are focusing on meditation, mindfulness and other techniques to ensure they are at their best, both on and off the field.
And this is exactly where Performance Psychologists come in to play – something that Kate Gordes, who works with the North Melb AFLW team, is, and has become incredibly good at.
Her actual title – the North Melbourne AFLW Psychologist – sees Gordes providing practical tools and guidance to the league’s elite. Since undertaking her Masters of Professional Psychology, Kate has also worked at the Richmond Football Club and Table Tennis Australia.
Here, we speak to her about what a day looks like on the sideline, and how we can incorporate the techniques that take her players to the next level.
WH: What is a Performance Psychologist?
Kate: A Performance Psychologist or Sport and Exercise Psychologist is a qualified psychologist who has specialised knowledge and training in working with athletes and teams to assist them with optimising their performance while managing different aspects of their life. While they are particularly skilled in techniques to improve and drive performance, manage emotions, assist with managing pressure, team cohesion, motivation and confidence, they are also able to assist with a range of mental health concerns, not only associated with sport/performance but also external concerns such as work/life balance, sleep, stress, depression/anxiety & other mental health concerns, focus, and resilience.
As a generally registered psychologist myself, while I have a number of years of experience working with athletes and increasing their performance and output, I am still working toward being able to qualify for the specific Sport and Exercise Psychology endorsement
How much does mental health have an impact on performance?
Mental health plays such an important role when it comes to performance and being able to deliver your best. Once athletes get to an elite level, and even before then, they have usually had years of consolidating their physical skills meaning they are now second nature. It then becomes about making sure they are looking after their mental health in order to be able to perform those physical skills to the best of their ability.
There’s a quote by a past American Baseball catcher Yogi Berra who says sport is 90% mental and 10% physical. While I’m not sure there is a specific figure you can put on it, every moment on the field, every decision we make, is directly related to and driven by our mental training and mental health.
Some of the best athletes are able to make themselves so competitive in spite of skill limitations, because they spend time making sure they are mentally fit. I always tell athletes that it’s just as important to train the mind as it is to train the body. We wouldn’t go to the gym and just train the left side of our body! Setting aside even just a few minutes a day to do some imagery, mindfulness, self-talk or deliberate breathing could be the difference in getting the W when you’re out on the field.
I always tell athletes that it’s just as important to train the mind as it is to train the body
What are some of the tools you use with your athletes to cope with pressure on the field?
I encourage the athletes I work with to have a routine in place to help prepare them to perform. The best way to handle pressure in the field is by preparing yourself before you get there.
A good routine that prepares the athlete can be the difference between going out there ready to play, or going out there flat or over anxious.
I also work on them increasing their understanding around how to best prepare for a game, as every individual will have a different optimum level of arousal that they need to get to in order to perform at their best (explore the inverted u hypothesis for more information).
To assist with this, using calming or energising breathing techniques, listening to music, or doing some extra preparations with teammates can be helpful. I also encourage athletes to identify some key words, phrases, or goals for each game that will be able to keep them grounded and focused on the task at hand. Or that they can use to refresh in between plays! This can help when the pressure becomes overwhelming or when they are feeling lost on the field. Sometimes we will also write out their words on a thin strip of tape and wrap it around a wrist or a boot so they can actively see the reminders as they are out there.
When setting goals it’s always important to keep these realistic and achievable. If you had an average of 10 disposals last season, it’s probably not realistic to set yourself a goal of 30 in a game. This would just be setting yourself up to fail and adding unnecessary pressure to your game. Instead setting yourself a target of 11 or 12, means the goal is more achievable while still demonstrating those improvements.
How can these be translated to non-athletes?
All of the tools and strategies I use with athletes can be translated to non-athletes. Creating routines for example. In sport we use them to prepare for a game, but in life they can be helpful for getting to sleep, psyching yourself up before a big presentation or helping with managing your emotions.
Goal setting is also great to use in all aspects of life! If you’re setting realistic, achievable goals (often referred to as SMART goals) it can lead to an increase in your productivity as well as your self-efficacy and confidence. Sometimes the performance concerns athletes are having actually stem directly from life stressors, so I try to make sure when we are going through different tools and techniques, that they are taught in a way where the athlete can generalise and apply them across different contexts.
Do you have any mental training strategies you use?
I use a lot of mindfulness and breathing strategies in my own life. While I’ve never been great at long meditations or mindful practices, I definitely try to incorporate many small mindful moments throughout my day.
Taking some slow deliberate breaths to break up a long task, doing some chair yoga, mindfully eating my breakfast or drinking a cup of tea, or even just putting my phone away for a while, particularly when I’m taking public transport so I can just be present in the moment. The small moments add up across the day and I find that I’m able to keep going for longer. It’s also good to mix things up occasionally.
I’m generally the kind of person who likes order and structure in my day, but when it comes to working with athletes I always try and bring fresh ideas and strategies for us to work on, or bring about some flexibility in what a session might look like. If we aren’t meeting in my office, we might be going for a ride on the exercise bikes, or having a chat while the physio is working on a calf. Being flexible and changing things up is also helpful if you’re finding yourself feeling flat or like you’re just moving through the motions.
What are your tips for nurturing our mental health?
My number one tip for nurturing your mental health is to make sure you take the time to look after yourself. So often we fall into the habit of making sure those around us are ok, or life gets too busy and we lose track of ourselves just going through the motions.
Breaking habits can be hard! Have you ever thought about which leg you put into a pair of pants first? Notice this next time and try switching it up. It might feel uncomfortable for a while, but if you keep at it it will get easier!
The same goes for looking after yourself. Scheduling in regular “me” time is so important. Sometimes we might feel like we just don’t have the time, but if you are able to sit down and work through what your week looks like, you’ll find that there are always windows of time to dedicate to yourself!
It’s the time you set aside to read that book, learn that hobby, have a bath, or go on that walk. Not for any reason other than because it’s something that you want to do or it makes you feel good.
If we can get into the habit of looking after ourselves, slowing down, and allowing ourselves to recharge, then we will be much better prepared for whatever comes next! In addition, it’s so important to make sure you are sleeping well, eating well, and exercising regularly! Your physical and mental health go hand in hand. If you are physically feeling good, your mind has time to recharge and refocus and if you are mentally feeling good, you have more energy and space to focus on looking after your physical self.
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