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The psychology of success: Strategies for coping on the big occasion

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Jeremy Snape 1

Jeremy Snape interviews cyclist Mark Cavendish during a Leaders In Performance Conference at Stamford Bridge

  • Everyone has a psychological breaking point.
  • Developing mental toughness and resilience will give you a competitive advantage.
  • Choking can occur at every level, whether that’s the Wimbledon final or the Wimbledon fun run.
  • Simulating pressurised situations and discussing scenarios that may trigger the flight-or-fight response is critical.
  • Learn to expect the natural bodily responses, and devise a routine that suits you to help you stay calm and rational.
  • Champions don’t raise their game in defining moments of competition, they just maintain their game.

As discussion topics go, they don’t come much hotter than how the mind affects performance, which continues to dominate the coaching agenda.

The Internet is awash with information, advice and research findings that can bamboozle and overwhelm even the smartest mind if a person wades in impulsively.

So to save you some time, effort and a thumping headache, I spoke to one of the foremost experts in the field of sports psychology on the importance of managing stress as an athlete and for some strategy tips on how to train your brain for pressurised situations.

A common criticism of coaching advice articles is the paucity of fitting examples given to support the argument and provide clarity for the reader.

Jeremy Snape has been there, done that and worn the England T-shirt. The examples he gives are based on first-hand experience at the highest level, and because they involve world-renowned names like Shane Warne, Sachin Tendulkar and Alan Pardew, his words carry gravitas.

He explains: ‘I played cricket for 19 years and have had great highs at domestic level, like hitting the winning runs in a Twenty20 final and winning six trophies in three years with Gloucestershire. There were some arduous seasons too, where I was low on confidence and lost some form.

‘Through my experiences, I had some fascinating insights into the leadership styles of some incredibly charismatic coaches who could manage mavericks, and some others who were more schoolteacher types who created great systems but wouldn’t allow any flexibility.

‘My underlying feeling through all of that, after monitoring my own path from a domestic player having some great days and some poor days, and playing for England in front of 120,000 people in India, was that I was always more fascinated by the psychology than the tactics and techniques.’

Feeling the heat in Calcutta

Jeremy passionately believes that your mindset is the key to success, whatever level of sport you operate in. He also maintains that each individual in each team has a psychological breaking point when thrust into high pressure situations.

‘There is absolutely no doubt for me on that,’ he says. ‘I remember how my body felt completely different bowling at Sachin Tendulkar that first ball at Eden Gardens in Calcutta to how I felt at Gloucester on a regular Tuesday. That was a psychological pressure that I became very aware of first-hand.

‘I also saw amazing team dynamics, where hard-working journeyman pros had a shared mission and delivered amazing results, while incredibly talented teams with gifted individuals failed to work together and never won a trophy.’

So the message is, you can run but you can’t hide. No matter who you are or what coaching you have received, at some point, you will reach your psychological ceiling. And at that point, your thinking will be the defining element.

‘Sometimes, in high pressure situations, you will start to take silly risks or do the wrong things, or just freeze and find you can’t make a decision in a team setting,’ adds Jeremy.

‘Teams get into high pressure situations and the conflict starts to break out. It’s been buried under the surface for weeks and then, as you get closer to a tournament, the pressure and the nerves start to bring these out into personal differences and actually fracture the team in half. That is why being able to deal with pressure is such a critical thing.’

Crowning glory with the Royals

For Jeremy, the first seeds of a career in performance psychology were sown at Durham University, aged 18, when he embarked on a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Geography.

The roots took hold during a long and successful career as a right-handed batsman and right-arm off break spin bowler for Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire. He went on to make 11 appearances for England – 10 one-day internationals and one T20 World Cup match.

Before retirement beckoned, Jeremy enrolled on a Master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University, graduating in 2006, two years before his retirement from playing.

During this process of retraining as a coach and expert in sports psychology, he founded high performance consultancy Sporting Edge in 2005 with the vision of working with the world's biggest corporate brands and elite sporting teams.

‘My master’s degree provided a theoretical underpinning to all the stories and experiences that I’d had first-hand as a professional cricketer,’ says Jeremy.

The opportunity to put his new-found academic insight into practice came when a Board member at Leicestershire CCC, who was also one of the investors in the Indian Premier League (IPL) team the Rajasthan Royals, asked Jeremy to go over to India to support Shane Warne. It was a baptism of fire, but Jeremy responded to the challenge with expertise and enthusiasm.

‘Working with Shane was my first job in psychology,’ explains Jeremy. ‘The Rajasthan Royals was a team worth $67million that was brought together with players from all over the world. It was a fascinating project because we had a week to pull together the most diverse team I have ever seen and to play against some of the biggest names on the world stage.

‘Warney hated coaches, and he hated psychologists with a passion, and I later found out he had secretly booked a return flight to the UK for me after 48 hours in case things didn’t work out, but thankfully we hit it off and he asked me to stay for the full six weeks. We went on to win that first IPL with the cheapest team, which was a great success, and I worked with him for six years.’

It was the start of an incredible journey. Then captain of South Africa, Graeme Smith, was part of the Royals’ star-studded line-up and had seen Jeremy play and coach, and he used his influence to secure him the job of Performance Coach with the South Africa national team.

‘I remember him telling me: “It’s your time to stop playing and start coaching!”’

He joined the Proteas halfway through his testimonial year in 2008, and during his tenure, they rose from fourth to first in the world Test rankings.

He has gone on to work with Sri Lanka, in Australia with the Melbourne Stars – where Kevin Pietersen is currently plying his trade – and more recently has been employed by Crystal Palace, engaging with coach Alan Pardew and individual players to help them develop a winning mindset. He is also a non-executive director at the League Managers Association (LMA) and has interviewed the likes of Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Fergusson at various high profile conferences. 

Balancing the see-saw

Jeremy admits he wishes he knew then, in his playing days, what he knows now about how the mind affects your ability to cope in pressurised situations.

‘Everyone talks about the skills and dissects the tactics but very few people are able to articulate the psychological elements of high performance or distil these in practical terms,’ he says.

‘I think I have been very fortunate, having played and wrestled with a lot of those challenges personally, that I can speak from a player’s or a coach’s point of view about how to integrate psychological skills into every day preparation.’

So, getting down to the nitty-gritty, does he believe that the mind can be a sportsman or sportswoman’s worst enemy, no matter at what level they play sport?

And do the same doubts and fears plague the brain of a club tennis player about to serve for the match in a midweek league game, or an athlete awaiting the gun at a school sports day, as those apprehensions affecting the mind of a world-beating high performance athlete?

‘Absolutely,’ says Jeremy. ‘We are human performers, and very simply, our mindset in a particular moment – the stress equation – is a balance between how we perceive the challenge we face in relation to our perceived coping skills.

‘So for me, playing in that game in India, in front of 120,000 people and the game closing down and the run rate escalating and someone needing to do something amazing to win the game, my emotions got the better of me and I failed because I chose a stupid option. It was all because I thought I needed to do something ‘exceptional’ right then to cope.

‘The context was it was the biggest game of my life and strangely I had bowled well, but when it came to batting, my thinking became irrational and I took too big a risk.

‘What happens in these high threat situations is that the perceived challenge heightens through negative self-talk and lack of self-belief. Your coping skills are eroded in that moment, and you get this imbalance. That’s what choking is, and it doesn’t matter whether you are in the Wimbledon final or in the Wimbledon fun run.’

Make time for some straight talking

Think of two batsmen walking out to the crease. They may have completely different mindsets. The key word, according to Jeremy, is your ‘perception’ of what’s going on.

It boils down to the way you perceive both your coping skills (how confident you are of success based on how your training has gone, evidence of past successes against this opposition, current form etc) against the negative thoughts you are harbouring (the strength of the opposition, the partisan fans in the stadium, what the press are going to say if you fail, your need to secure your place in the team).

Before we address the specific strategies you can use to improve your mindset, is it true that some people are inherently better equipped to deal with stress than others?

‘I think that’s true,’ says Jeremy, ‘but I also think that we put more pressure on ourselves by  defining who we are by what we do.

‘Because we’ve over-invested in our identity as a footballer, for example, seeing ourselves as just a footballer, when the ACL ligament tear comes, we think we are worthless because that element of our identity is gone. It’s so immediate, we need a more balanced view of ourselves as we approach our challenges.

'The striving, learning and courage to chase down our dreams is a defining characteristic and there is life beyond the setbacks because if it’s all down to this binary result of what happens in this next hour, you are piling pressure on yourself.’

Jeremy passionately believes that discussing pressure is the perfect starting point for athletes to begin making inroads into alleviating its negative side effects.

A deeper understanding of the complexities of the mind and why we suffer rabbit in the headlights, freeze-inducing responses in moments of stress can help reshape your mindset over time.

There is no one-size-fits-all quick fix, but a little education can go a long way, enabling you to take the edge off.

As the old adage goes, learning to cope with stress really can make the difference between winning and losing, so athletes who can refocus the brain on the big occasion will be at a distinct advantage.

‘We’ve all got this proud approach, especially in Britain, where it is frowned upon to show vulnerability; you have to be perfect, especially at the top of the tree. But all that does is bury things under the surface,’ says Jeremy.

‘The best teams in the world talk about the things that can derail them or put them under pressure as individuals.

'Making these conversations a normal part of preparation is important because so many people fail in so many games, and the biggest driver of that is our mindset, not our tactics or technique. When we discuss pressure openly it’s power reduces and we also learn about our team-mates so that we can support them when the game is turning against them.

‘You very rarely hear people say, “I choked.” Yet it is a bigger regret to lose your mind than to lose to the opposition. Most people can cope with being beaten, but choking under pressure takes some getting over.’

Jeremy Snap 2

Jeremy celebrates Leicestershire Foxes' victory over Nottinghamshire Outlaws in the 2006 Twenty20 Cup Final

Fighting the fight-or-flight response

Jeremy recommends that coaches highlight the times their athletes have thought clearly under pressure and made good decisions, and celebrate those in group sessions.

Then, when discussions are had in the future, singling out those who perhaps haven’t coped quite so well, the athletes are comfortable talking about it.

‘One of the challenges around the mindset and psychology is that we often only look at it after we’ve failed, and people are very raw and defensive in that state,’ says Jeremy. ‘Asking people to describe their thinking patterns in the moment that they did really well is a really positive thing to do to build self-awareness and to reinforce successful habits.’

Jeremy encourages coaches to embrace these discussions.

'How many coaches have prioritised a discussion about pressure ahead of another training session? It could be so beneficial but we generally choose another skills practice despite its diminishing returns.'

Simulating responses to an event is a simple and effective mental game. Ask the group what things could derail the team in different situations and what things could stop them from being at their very best.

By choosing to react in a certain way should that scenario materialise, it reduces the risk of triggering an emotional reaction when you least want it.

‘The ultimate thing we are trying to do with this is to override the brain’s primitive fight-or-flight response,’ says Jeremy.

‘With our identity at stake in the arena, our brain defaults to fight-flight-freeze. These reactions back in our ancestry as cavemen were brilliant. We either fight, we run as fast as we can, or we freeze and the dinosaur can’t hear us because their eyesight wasn’t very good. But to stand still rigid and not kick the ball into the back of the goal because you fear missing is not a good position to be in.’

Freeing our athletes up to stop worrying about the consequences is easier said than done but when we emphasise continual learning and the courage to take risks, we see liberated players breaking free from the mental shackles.

Confidence is preparedness

Another coping mechanism is to tell yourself not to panic when you begin to sweat profusely, feel sick just by looking at a pre-match meal of chicken and pasta, or hear your heart beating like a drum in your chest. Learn to expect these natural responses.

‘We were built for safety, not high performance. Your brain may be telling you that your injury is bad enough to rule you out of the game, or you may pray that the team bus is held up in a traffic jam on the way to the stadium to force the game to be postponed. That’s completely normal.

‘I’ve seen international sportsmen vomiting before big games. It’s just because your brain is trying to keep you safe. Accepting and acknowledging these physiological symptoms as useful rather than being debilitative is key. Learning how to manage your emotions comes with experience but music, routines and controlled breathing exercises can really help.’  

Whatever works for you to help you stay calm and rational, so you don’t escalate the irrational fear, is down to the individual to decipher.

So while discussions should become a feature of the weekly coaching cycle, it is critical too for individuals to show some self-awareness.

Jeremy feels athletes are generally over-coached in the modern professional arena and that they should be more accountable for their mindset.

‘We have to push some of the emphasis and ownership on to the athlete to find their space.

‘Athletes should be asking themselves what is their perfect mindset? Is it listening to some dance music to get you fired up, or is it reading a calming book on the back seat to take your mind off it? Whatever it is, that should become a routine. I always tell players, "you are the CEO of your own performance business and the choices you make each day affect your share price".'

If you are a coach who loves a good sound bite to get your message across, then try this for size: “champions don’t raise their game in these defining moments, they just maintain their best game while others get distracted by the pressure”

A little bit of sports psychology can go a long way: you ignore it at your peril.

As Jeremy concludes: ‘Champions constantly push themselves into pressure situations as they know that that’s where they learn the most about themselves and their sport.’

To learn more about Jeremy’s work at Sporting Edge and see interviews with coaches like Sir Dave Brailsford and Boris Becker visit www.sportingedge.com or follow Jeremy on twitter @thesportingedge  

Have you developed any strategies for helping your athletes become mentally tough? Leave a comment below.

For some further reading on this topic, see my previous blog featuring the views of ConnectedCoaches members Nick Ruddock and Chris Chapman – Blessed or stressed: Dealing with pressure in sport.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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