The extent of excellence at top competitive level in all forms of life is a direct result of how the individuals are capable of asserting themselves at crucial times. Different organisms have unique abilities to survive in peculiar circumstances and environments. How they deal and overcome all the impending hurdles is an important factor in deciding their survival.
How many times have we gazed for hours at our TV sets at the spectacular sight of a deer, avoiding a certain death at the hands of much stronger animal like a lion or an elephant, being hunted by a lesser physically built tiger or say two equally strong and physically built animals involved in a tussle to assert their right over a particular territory or say a prey?
There is a lot beyond the physical struggle that is visible to us. The ability of an individual to be triumphant is as much a factor of the natural strength as the psychological conditioning that cuts through different living beings. The same is equally valid for sports as well.
That vital element separating two equally gifted athletes from one another is their mental strength. It is this factor that often gets neglected as sports aspirants only devote all of their energy and time in honing their physical and technical aspects rather than paying an equal attention to their mental conditioning.
Tennis: What differentiates Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer? Apart from their playing style, physical strength and skills, the perception each has of the other is also a quality that distinguishes them. In their 26 encounters on tennis court till date, Nadal has won 18 while Federer has emerged victorious in 8 matches. Both of them have a nearly equal winning career percentage of matches. It is also argued that Federer has finer tennis skills than Nadal. But then why this anomaly when Roger faces Nadal? How Federer, who has otherwise dominated his every other opponent, fails to do so when facing Nadal? Many would argue that it is just that Nadal has a superior game but this is not the only reason.
Add to it the element of psychological strength. Federer lost the first ever encounter against his famous opponent, Nadal and has not ever dominated the Spaniard the same way he has done with others. Maybe, deep in his mind he always remembers that this is the person who has been his nemesis in his entire career and presto Nadal has secured the initial benefit i.e. the psychological advantage that decides the winner in a tight situation.
The age old theory of `survival of the fittest` is universal i.e. it is applicable in every sphere of human life and so is this equally valid in the sporting arena. However, in the world of sports this tends to take a backseat at times of head to head fights. This is not to say that the theory stands void but just that it seems to acquire another dimension that becomes the deciding factor of whether an athlete out-manoeuvres his/her competitor who is equally as strong and talented or maybe more naturally gifted.
It is this area that is subject to manipulation not only during the course of an event but much before the beginning of such an event by sowing the seed of initial doubt in the mind of opponents that ultimately affects their concentration and confidence. These tactics are more commonly referred to as `mind games’.
The level of competition at the international level or say at the top flight is sky high with numerous talented athletes claiming for a single spot say in a football club or for a glory say a gold medal in Olympics. However, those luckier ones who get a chance to perform at the biggest theatre sometimes crack or fail at the immense pressure or out of sheer nervousness. They fail to translate the promise and potential they displayed that was the reason they left others behind and compete with the best in the world.
Cricket : Close to home, we saw this been employed by the England cricket team as well as media when they produced numerous articles heaping praises on world`s number Test side, Indian cricket team along with giving reasons as to why England should be the true deserving of the number one spot.
The entire hype generated around Sachin Tendulkar`s impending 100th century in international cricket also worked to their advantage given the fact that in spite of showing initial touches of form and flow, Sachin got out playing early shots. That is a handiwork of mental block.
Another example is the famous cricket tournament, The Ashes. The war of words between the competing parties that we cricket junkies enjoy whenever Australia and England are about to clash for the famous urn, are nothing but mind games that are targeted to get a measure of their opponents and to play with their mental makeup.
How a change in attitude can transform an athlete’s performances almost miraculously can be best understood from the example of the current rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Before the start of 2011, Nadal and Djokovic had faced each other 23 times. Nadal dominated those encounters with 16 wins but since the beginning of 2011, the tables have turned head-on for Nadal. In the five consecutive encounters, Djokovic has defeated Nadal and not to forget the fact that all these victories have come in final, so we can safely presume that both of them were in top form and shape compared to all the other competitors.
Nadal played Wimbledon like a champion and on his own terms but for the finale where he was to face the eventual winner who kept him on his toes in every encounter. It was in the back of his mind the four consecutive defeats, handed to him by Djokovic that haunted him the entire match, in spite of playing well throughout the tournament and resulted in defeat. This is not to say that Djokovic wasn`t the superior one of the two but what is to be looked at is the new Djokovic that we now see on the court who earlier would stumble at the final hurdle but was now willing to walk the extra mile and achieve what he should have before.
Football : Spain, who finally claimed their first ever FIFA World Cup trophy in 2010 were the official underachievers considering the fact that with numerous star players in their ranks, the best they could manage was a fourth place finish during 1950 edition and could go no further than quarter-finals(4 times in 12 appearances). This fact remained embedded in their mental set up that prevented them from laying claim to the ultimate crown of World champions.
However, they shed the tag in South Africa, coming on the back of an impeccable qualifying campaign (they won all of their 10 matches).
Again, what was different between them and their predecessors was the attitude i.e. the self-belief that helped them ignore history and inspired them to re-write the history books, becoming the third nation ever to have both the World Cup and the European championship title in their kitty at the same time.
Formula 1 : Michael Schumacher, who dominated Formula 1 circuit during his heydays that made him the most successful F1 driver ever was known for his overwhelming effect over his contemporaries’ courtesy his history of being involved in collisions and aggressive driving ways. This was a major factor in his reign over the racing world.
However, the current crop of F1 drivers seems to care less about the tactics of their opponents (Hamilton) that has seen Schumacher being pushed in the background.
Golf : In the world of golf, Tiger Wood`s name evokes nothing but praises. Such was his aura that it was observed by sports writers and researchers alike that Tiger Woods actually had a detrimental effect on his opponents that led them to perform below par as compared to when they were not competing against him.
It is another fact that nowadays after a turbulent personal life, the golfing legend is struggling hard for a comeback suggesting that he has lost his old magical touch which again explains how the negative psychological effects can affect performances.
Athletes are under constant stress and anxiety to give their best shot and perform better than their competitors. However, a silly mistake on the part of an athlete on a particular moment committed out of anxiety can prove to be fatal resulting in failure. It is very hard to maintain a calm and composed mind under such circumstances when a lot is expected from you under constant vigil.
It is with this area that Sports Psychology deals with to prepare the minds of sportspersons as rigorously as their bodies to compete at the top when a crowd of over thousand individual has their curious eyes fixated on them to see them excel and produce a show that is awe inspiring, leaving them in disbelief.
This is the reason that we have a team of mental trainers with the sportspersons or for a team and that is why there are mental conditioning camps to focus on the mental fitness of the individuals and to train them in a certain way that they are able to cope up with the immense pressure that expectations and success brings with them so that they are able to perform at their best without any trouble mental or physical whatsoever. It is this quality that makes one, a champion and the other, a runner up.