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Mental Strength and Relaxation...there are Noe limits to the benefits!

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Noe coaching swimmer

  • Psychological readiness is as crucial as skill and physical fitness in an athlete’s armoury. You can achieve this by talking to yourself.
  • Thinking out loud ‘adds another line of sensory input’ and can help control stress levels.
  • Athletes are encouraged to practise a three-part process of forethought, performance and self-reflection.
  • Learning mindfulness techniques can aid relaxation.

That oft-quoted, sometimes derided, but certainly memorable baseball star, the late, great Yogi Berra, once said sport was ‘90% mental, the other half physical’.

Seeing as he also came out with such verbal gems as: ‘It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future,’ and ‘I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous,’ you’d be forgiven for thinking this sporting legend, who died aged 90 in September, was barking up a whole forest of wrong trees...but strangely, you sort-of know what he meant with that first comment.

For the mind is often the crucial element; the key and overlooked difference between sporting success and failure, and coaches will strive to prepare their athlete in every respect, giving them the physical and mental tools to achieve.

Step forward ConnectedCoaches member Noe Orozco, a psychology of sport and exercise advisor with an MSc from Loughborough University, who believes that talking to yourself isn’t a sign of madness, instead it’s a sensible method of achieving sporting success and one which coaches can and should encourage.

Mexico-born Noe is a sports fan, always has been. He specialises in triathlon, but says he has always been involved in and enjoys team sports too, such as basketball, volleyball and athletics.

And he knows his ideas can help all athletes, whatever their sport, as the same problems and worries feature in so many circumstances all over the world, and similar methods can help so many.

Wiggins Leads the Way

‘I started by delivering visualisation and relaxation techniques. When I met my British partner in Mexico, she said how in the UK I could develop my sports psychology as a career.’

Coaches often think they have to be ‘amateur psychologists’...and this professional in psychology says that’s totally normal and actually very positive that they realise the mind plays such a huge part in sport and want to do things to help.

‘All of us can coach, but to do it better we need some qualifications and knowledge of the nuances involved. Similarly, we can all be psychologists and give advice based on our acquired knowledge, but as we all know, there is so much more.

‘But saying we are all “amateur psychologists” is a normal statement for anyone who is an educator...and it’s certainly a fair thing to say as an expression.’

Noe believes that sport can be pictured ‘as a pie’, saying that one third of that pie is psychological readiness, although this ‘can be a larger, more important part depending on the sport, the age of the athlete or the moment in an event’.

The other sections of the pie are skill and physical fitness, but Noe is adamant you need all three to reach the top, and that they need to be in synchronicity.

‘That was what originally motivated me. A lot of my sport teammates had skills and fitness, but not the psychology. When it mattered the most they could not perform, there was no psychological readiness.’

And this is where the self chat comes in, and for the perfect example he says you need only look at the top of the cycling tree.

‘Bradley Wiggins has always talked to himself a lot. It depends on the stage of the race as to whether he needs to relax or take action. But no-one taught him that, it’s a technique he came up with himself, and it works.’

But it’s not just Noe who recognises the self-talk benefits.

In a study of students learning to throw darts, Athanasios Kolovelonis and his colleagues at the University of Thessaly in Greece found self-talk was effective when incorporated into a cycle of thought and action. They said that ‘forethought’ was first and vital ­– when you set a goal for yourself and make a plan for how to get there. That's followed by performance, when you enact the plan to the best of your ability. Last comes self-reflection, when you carefully evaluate what you've done and adjust your plan for the next time. And all of this done ‘out loud’.

Noe advises that such psychological techniques should also be practised...just like you would anything.

‘What you don’t practise is difficult to do by magic!’ he stresses. ‘You need to practise those skills in training so that you can be on “autopilot” during a game or event as much as possible. The keys are visualisation, relaxation, activation, self-talking and goal setting.

‘I have seen athletes strong mentally, who have done all the work...but then something’s gone wrong. There are so many variables – the weather, other competitors, the influence of the crowd, they are all part of the game, so the mental part is huge.’

Tap Into Your Inner Voice

Of course, talking out loud to yourself isn’t the only thing you can do...you can do it quietly!

Psychologists at the University of Toronto have provided research which suggests exercising your ‘inner voice’ can improve self-control and reduce impulsive behaviour, and this can help sporting performance, while Dr Aggrey Irons, Consultant Psychiatrist and President of the Medical Association of Jamaica, says a conversation with yourself can be absolutely fine. ‘Where you are literally thinking out loud, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is very helpful and adds another line of sensory input.’

Mexican Noe says it’s the combat or control of stress which provides the ultimate key, and the main motivation for coaches and sports psychologists is simply to help people get better in their chosen sport.

‘My skills and fitness were good as a sportsman, but many times it was my mind which let me down and prevented me reaching my true potential. I was not a confident person by nature, so I wondered how I could overcome that. I started to use practical relaxation and it worked well.

‘This mindfulness approach is about being immersed in your body and environment. When you are not worrying about the past or future, you are able to relax. It’s certainly very effective in those sports where you can’t keep active and intense all the time for several hours, such as golf. In those situations you need to disassociate self and mind.

‘It’s the same with American football, a sport where you can go to the bench, then find yourself on the pitch within seconds and expected to perform. In such situations you use visualisation of your best performance, using a scale of 1 to 10 – with 1 being super relaxed and 10 being motivated. Then you take yourself through the stages.’

Noe says the key is being able to determine your own level on that scale of 1 to 10 and ‘regulate’ yourself.

‘I provide them with the tools to do it, as being able to manage yourself is vital in all sports, and regulating levels of anxiety will give confidence.’

This sport psychology advisor sees his role as simply one element of the team, one tool in the tool kit.

‘I love to work with the coach and with the athlete and help facilitate the process. In the end the coach works with the athlete technically, and I do it mentally. It’s a culture of collaboration.’

Of course, as Yogi Berra memorably put it: ‘In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.’

Noe Knows…Five Top Tips:

  1. Use breathing to relax – or psych you up – so that you get into your right ‘zone’ of performance.
  2. Practise as if it was the ‘big day’ and on the ‘big day’ allow yourself to perform as you’ve rehearsed.
  3. Manage and use your emotions in your favour, rather than suppressing them.
  4. When having a bad day, step back and objectively observe the development of your whole journey.
  5. Strive to know yourself deeply to achieve self-mastery, so that you can make a positive contribution.

Note: All the above points are equally applicable to the areas of sport, academia, business, performing arts and relationships.

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