What is always interesting in elite sport is how athletes cope when the going gets tough. But which sporting situations are regarded as difficult? It's often the moments in which something unexpected or undesired happens. In football, this might be a passing error or an unexpectedly large deficit, a disadvantageous decision made by the referee or an opponent that is stronger than expected. But it can also be tough-going in competitive sport if there is tension present; most things become laboured and few things happen naturally. In such situations, sports psychologists deploy a number of strategies that are scientifically proven to work and have been practised by elite sportspeople for some time. Some of them can even be applied to everyday life.
As part of the first strategy, it's important to deal with one's own – usually emotional – reactions properly. Logical thinking is required to bring emotions under control. Emotional reactions change people, and we learn how to deal with them more efficiently as we grow up. Small children act out every emotion freely and intensely. As a child ages, it no longer becomes immediately visible what is actually going on in their mind; the child has learnt to "pull itself together". The emotions are under control. Either they are guided in a favourable direction or they are suppressed, tolerated or accepted. In competitive sport, however, one should immediately be on alert if emotions develop and one's state of mind changes – a concept which applies to everyday situations too.
Preventing unfavourable emotions
The development of unfavourable emotions can be prevented by revaluations, relativisation, distraction and distance to what triggered the emotions ("That's by no means a bad thing."). This is an ability that players, coaches and even referees need to master when they are sworn at by the opposition fans. This becomes even more difficult if they are consistently provoked by opposition players. The permanent and active suppression of the emotional reactions – a process which is labelled as inhibition – requires conscious thinking. It's demanding and energy-sapping.
When stress levels are high, one's ability and capacity to engage in conscious thinking may dwindle, which affects the degree to which one can inhibit. That's the best explanation for the unsporting behaviour of Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, who brought down his Italian opponent Marco Materazzi with a deliberate headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final and was given his marching orders as a result. Having been consistently provoked by Materazzi, the current boss of Real Madrid ultimately "blew his fuse" – as a negative reaction is commonly described in slang terms.
"Keeping a cool head" is strenuous and requires energy. When stress levels are high, the ability to engage in conscious thinking can be tested to the limits and a footballer might be drawn into a revenge foul, violent conduct or an insult. The second helpful strategy consists of placing the blame elsewhere rather than laying it at your own doorstep. When things aren't working out and errors happen, or the opponent looks to be in the ascendancy, it's fair and reasonable to look within for an explanation. But attributing the blame to yourself is counterproductive in a difficult competitive situation. Those who simply attribute the unfavourable way an elite sport has unfolded to their own insufficiencies will be lessening their belief in their own competence.
No room for doubt in difficult situations
But this conviction is very important in allowing learned automatic behaviours to be carried out unimpeded. When things get difficult, one should not stand in their own way and turn on themselves. There's no room for doubt in difficult situations. Because those who act with the sole purpose of avoiding failure tend to operate passively and cautiously. Success-oriented sportsmen and women are absolutely convinced of their abilities. They explain away failures using external and temporary reasons ("Bad luck", "The conditions were poor!") and consistently attribute good performances to their own abilities. You can see evidence of this in interviews when reporters ask players about a mistake and the latter disputes that an error was made.
What can also be helpful in difficult situations is to lower your own standards a notch or two. Today you won't be perfect and stand out; instead, things will be simple and pragmatic – but at the same time consistent. Then, it's all about remaining particularly disciplined and working through the small details meticulously. If, in contrast, one tries to force special things to happen through sheer willpower when the going is tough, there will be some cases where even the simple things cannot be done reliably.
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