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The increased stress of competitions can cause athletes to react physically and mentally, negatively affecting their performance abilities. They may become tense, their heart rates race, they break into a cold sweat, they worry about the outcome of the competition, and they find it hard to concentrate on the task.

This has led coaches to take an increasing interest in the field of sports psychology and, in particular, in the area of competitive anxiety. That interest has focused on techniques that athletes can use in the competitive situation to maintain control and optimise their performance. Once learned, these techniques allow the athlete to relax and focus their attention positively on preparing for and participating in the competition. Psychology is another weapon in the athlete's armoury in gaining the winning edge. To know more about an athlete's psychological abilities, try online therapy in the UK or A free reading regarding custom psychics can be a great help.

The 4C's

Concentration, confidence, control and commitment (the 4C's) are the main mental qualities important for successful performance in most sports.

  • Concentration - ability to maintain focus
  • Confidence - believe in one's abilities
  • Control - the ability to maintain emotional control regardless of distraction
  • Commitment - ability to continue working to agreed goals

The techniques of relaxation, centring and mental imagery can assist an athlete in achieving the 4C's.


This is the mental quality to focus on the task at hand. If the athlete lacks concentration, then their athletic abilities will not be effectively or efficiently applied to the task. Research has identified the following types of attention focus:

  • Broad Narrow continuum - the athlete focuses on a large or small number of stimuli
  • Internal External continuum - the athlete focuses on internal stimuli (feelings) or external stimuli (ball)

The demand for concentration varies with the sport:

  • Sustained concentration - distance running, cycling, tennis, squash
  • Short bursts of concentration - cricket, golf, shooting, athletic field events
  • Intense concentration - sprinting events, bobsleigh, skiing

Common distractions are anxiety, mistakes, fatigue, weather, public announcements, coach, manager, opponent, negative thoughts etc.

Strategies to improve concentration are very personal. One way to maintain focus is to set process goals for each session or competition. The athlete will have an overall goal for which the athlete will identify several process goals that help focus on specific aspects of the task. For each of these goals, the athlete can use a trigger word (a word which instantly refocuses the athlete's concentration to the goal), e.g. sprinting technique requires the athlete to focus on being tall, relaxed, smooth and driving with the elbows - trigger word could be "technique".

Athletes will develop a routine for a competition that may include the night before, the morning, pre-competition, competition and post-competition routines. If these routines are appropriately structured, then they can prove a useful aid to concentration.


Confidence results from an athlete's comparison between the goal and their ability. The athlete will have self-confidence if they believe they can achieve their goal. (Comes back to my quote - "You only achieve what you believe").

When an athlete has self-confidence, they will tend to: persevere even when things are not going to plan, show enthusiasm, be positive in their approach and take their share of the responsibility in success and fail.

To improve their self-confidence, an athlete can use mental imagery to:

  • visualise previous good performances to remind them of the look and feel
  • imagine various scenarios and how they will cope with them

Proper goal setting (challenging yet realistic) can bring feelings of success. If athletes can see that they are achieving their short-term goals and moving towards their long-term goals, then confidence grows.

Confidence is a positive state of mind and a belief that you can meet the challenge ahead - a feeling of being in control. It is not the situation that directly affects confidence; thoughts, assumptions and expectations can build or destroy confidence.

High self-confidence

  • Thoughts - positive thoughts of success
  • Feelings - excited, anticipation, calm, elation, prepared
  • Focus - on self, on the task
  • Behaviour - give maximum effort and commitment, willing to take chances, positive reaction to setbacks, open to learning, take responsibility for outcomes

Low self-confidence

  • Thoughts - negative, defeat or failure, doubt
  • Feelings - tense, dread, fear. not wanting to take part
  • Focus - on others, on less relevant factors (coach, umpire, conditions)
  • Behaviour - lack of effort, likely to give up, unwilling to take risks (rather play safe), blame others or conditions for an outcome


Identifying when an athlete feels a particular emotion and understanding the reason for the feelings is essential in helping an athlete gain emotional control. An athlete's ability to maintain control of their feelings in the face of adversity and remain positive is vital to successful performance. Two emotions that are often associated with poor performance are anxiety and anger.

Anxiety comes in two forms - Physical (butterflies, sweating, nausea, needing the toilet) and Mental (worry, negative thoughts, confusion, lack of concentration). Relaxation is a technique that can be used to reduce anxiety.

When an athlete becomes angry, the cause of anger often becomes the focus of attention. This leads to a lack of concentration on the task, performance deteriorates, and confidence in ability is lost, which fuels anger - a slippery slope to failure.


Sports performance depends on the athlete being fully committed to many goals over many years. In competition with these goals, the athlete will have many aspects of daily life to manage. The competing interests and commitments include work, studies, family/partner, friends, social life and other hobbies/sports.

Within the athlete's sport, commitment can be undermined by:

  • a perceived lack of progress or improvement
  • not being sufficiently involved in developing the training program
  • not understanding the objectives of the training program
  • injury
  • lack of enjoyment
  • anxiety about performance - competition
  • becoming bored
  • coach and athlete not working as a team
  • lack of commitment by other athletes

Setting goals with the athlete will raise their feelings of value, give them joint ownership of the goals, and become more committed to achieving them. All goals should be SMARTER.

Many people (coach, medical support team, manager, friends, etc.) can contribute to an athlete's commitment levels with appropriate support and positive feedback, especially during times of injury, illness and poor performance.

Successful emotional states

The following are emotional states experienced with successful performance:

  • Happy - felt that this was my opportunity to demonstrate excellent performance. I could beat anybody.
  • Calm and nervous - I felt at ease with these feelings. I accepted and expected to be scared, but I felt ready to start.
  • Anxious but excited - I felt ready to compete but a little nervous. Nerves and excitement come together
  • Confident - I remembered all the successful training sessions and previous best performances

Psychology Skills Training

Psychology skills training for the athlete should aim to improve their mental skills, such as self-confidence, motivation, the ability to relax under high pressure, and the ability to concentrate and usually has three phases:

  • Education phase, during which athletes learn about the importance of psychological skills and how they affect performance
  • Acquisition phase, during which athletes learn about the strategies and techniques to improve the specific psychological skills that they require
  • Practice phase, during which athletes develop their psychological skills through repeated practice, simulations, and actual competition.

You can get free access to my Sports Mental Toughness Handbook right now. Go Here.

Lisa Brown

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (1997) Psychology [WWW] Available from: [Accessed