Cynthia Madison explains why counselling is essential for athletes.
What does it take to become a pro athlete? A lot of physical training, you might argue, and you would not be wrong. On average, a pro athlete trains for around 5-6 hours a day, for six days a week, and, before important competitions, even more than that.
A few years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo’s coach gave us some insights into the star player’s training routine, revealing that he went on to a gym session after Champions League matches to reach peak performance levels. But while physical training is crucial for athletes, and there is no shortcut for it (not a healthy one, anyway), once you reach peak physical performance, counselling should be just as important as training in your daily routine.
American baseball player Yogi Berra famously said that after you become an elite athlete, the game is 90% mental and 10% physical. To win, you have to fight more against yourself, your insecurities and anxiety, than physically outperform your opponent. And this is where sports psychology comes in.
Counselling boosts pre-game confidence and removes self-doubt.
Am I enough? Do I have what it takes to win this? No matter what sport you play, these are questions that every athlete has asked themselves before a game, and that can turn the tide in critical moments. Sometimes, no matter how well prepared you are, you can freeze before an important match, and emotions can make the better of you.
If we look back at some of the most surprising underdogs wins in history, there were cases when favourites lost simply because they were not mentally resilient, and their opponent was more confident. And that is exactly a sports counsellor’s role: to boost confidence, eliminate self-doubt so that when the game starts, you feel like a winner.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions, and athletes are not immune to it. On the contrary, since athletes find themselves in critical situations more than the average person, they can be more prone to anxiety. But managing this anxiety is critical because if it gets out of control, it can severely impact your performance. Normal levels of anxiety can be good; they can boost focus and awareness and make you overcome your limits.
However, high levels of anxiety can lead to self-doubt, negative thoughts, lack of confidence, and physical symptoms such as muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, and excessive sweating. The mental health experts at UK Therapy Guide also emphasise that anxiety can affect a person’s overall health and wellbeing, causing irregular sleeping patterns and digestive issues, which can impact athletic performance in the long run.
Build mental toughness to perform under pressure
As an athlete, doing well under pressure is part of the job description – especially once you reach a certain level and everyone, from fans to sports journalists, have high expectations of you. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of talented athletes who became famous but could not stay #1 because they could not cope with the pressure. This happens in all sports, but all the more so in individual sports, such as tennis, gymnastics, and golf.
Former #1 WTA Serena Williams once said that, for her, tennis is 70% mental and that her game is mental toughness: the ability to come back when she is down, stay in control under pressure, and avoid negative remarks. She is a fantastic example of what mental strength can achieve in sport and why a sports psychologist is just as important as a coach, nutritionist, or trainer.
Fight stress and burnout.
From the outside, it might look like athletes have an easy schedule but, even during the off-season, they still have to train full-time, and that can lead to stress and burnout. Even the most motivated athlete can feel overwhelmed and lose their motivation, and it is the counsellor’s mission to help address stress and burnout.
Find positive coping strategies.
People cope with stress in different ways, but not all of them are healthy. For example, reading a book, gardening, going for a walk, meditating, or meeting with friends at the end of an exhausting day can help you restore balance and recharge your batteries. However, smoking, clubbing, gambling, drug or alcohol abuse, are not.
They only provide momentary satisfaction, but, in the long run, they cause even bigger problems. They can reduce your sports performance, not to mention that they can end your career because they are prohibited. The temptation will always exist, which is why athletes work with sports psychologists who help them develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Healthy conflict resolution and better communication skills
In sports such as football, soccer, rugby, or basketball, the entire team must be perfectly synchronised and work together like cogs in a well-oiled machine. In team sports, success does not lie in each player’s value, but in how the team works together as a whole, how well they communicate, and how much they rely on each other. “One man teams” do not last long, and there are many examples of teams that flopped after the star player left. When multiple people work together under stressful conditions, conflicts are inevitable, and, in time, those conflicts can affect team dynamics. It is not the role of the sports psychologist to bury those conflicts or avoid them. On the contrary, the team’s counsellor will help players constructively express their frustrations and work on conflict resolution.
You can only do so much to prevent injuries in sports. But if bouncing back after a sprained ankle is relatively easy, getting back in top shape after complex knee surgery can be excruciating. What many athletes discover is that although the body has healed, they have to work extra hard to get back to the shape they were in before the injury and overcome mental blockages. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of self-confidence. After being on the sideline for more than a couple of months, athletes may feel that they are no longer enough, and they start to experience self-doubt. According to sports psychologists, low confidence may increase the risk of future injuries, which is why it is important to work on mental as well as physical recovery.
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About the Author
Cynthia Madison is a young blogger and economics and marketing graduate.