Interesting article from Aled Blake and the Wales (in the UK):
Defeat for Andy Murray at Melbourne on Sunday was the latest misfire for a British athlete in a major event. Aled Blake takes a look at the psychology of success, and failure, in sport
WHAT is it about choking on the big stage? He might be Britain’s brightest tennis talent in 70-odd years, but Andy Murray has so far failed to do what so many hoped he could – break the national duck in the sport’s major tournaments.
His defeat at the weekend in the Australian Open to Serbia’s Novak Djokovic was his second successive loss in the tournament’s final.
Murray’s personal dejection at the loss was plain to see, his body language through the final dipped as the realisation that the trophy would not be his hit home.
Of course, the Scotsman’s defeat is not the end. He has, no doubt, a successful career ahead of him – he has time on his side to make his Grand Slam title dream a reality.
But there was an air of deja vu about Murray’s defeat, something quintessentially British in the inability to win when it really matters – cruelly referred to by aficionados down the pub as “bottling it”.
From Murray’s predecessor as British tennis No.1 Tim Henman’s annual travails at Wimbledon, to Paula Radcliffe’s epic marathon battles in each Olympic Games, there are examples of Britons in whom we instil massive hope.
It’s not only in individual sports where the phenomenon seems prevalent.
Take the England football team in major finals – reaching the semi-final stage only to stumble out in a penalty shoot-out.
Or Wales’ rugby side, which has so often left fans disappointed by performances when so much more was hoped for.
And what about Cardiff City in last season’s Championship play-offs? After beating Leicester City in the semi-finals, the Bluebirds went on to lose what was, on paper, the easier game to Blackpool in the final at Wembley.
Down the years there have been countless other examples of sides and individuals not performing to the best of their ability when the occasion really mattered.
Sports psychologist David Shearer, of the University of Glamorgan, says the ability to focus on the job at hand is essential for an athlete competing in a major event.
But there can be a long list of variables affecting performance.
“The big buzzword is ‘mental toughness’,” he said.
“One of the main facets of mental toughness is an unshakeable belief in your ability and the ability to bounce back from defeats and setbacks.
“That resilience will stand you in good stead in difficult situations during a major game.
“That resilience and belief is what’s likely to pull you through.
“Within games for individual sports, it’s very much about being in the moment, not focusing on little mistakes that you have made.
“What you are focusing on is what you have to do right now.”
Dr Shearer says the ability is something some athletes have naturally, while others have to learn it.
But it is something the brain has the capacity to do, it is a matter of athletes focusing their thoughts on the positive and shutting out any distractions to the job at hand.
“It is the ability of the athlete to control their emotions and understand those emotions,” he said.
“It is not something that can simply be plucked out of the sky.”
Sports people can tune into their thoughts and positive ideas to achieve this. While we might, in day-to-day life, have momentary and passing negative thoughts, if that happens in a sporting event – such as a major final – it can impact on the athlete’s ability to succeed and compete.
Dr Shearer said: “The mental challenges can differ from individual to individual – one person may struggle with motive and someone else might struggle with some anxiety problem.
“What affects an athlete’s performance is unique to that performer, that’s what makes my job so interesting – no two athletes are the same.”
Increasingly, psychology is being used by athletes to help them compete, with some sports more open to the science than others.
But while the Olympic athletes and teams are more open to incorporating psychology into their training and preparation, traditional sports such as rugby and football are less so, said Dr Shearer.
He added: “The Olympic sports have received new money in the past 15 years or so and they have become more scientifically based because there has to be a careful watch over how that money is spent.”