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Mental Set

The right mental set in sport and being 'in the zone'

The right mental set in sport

The ice skating champion Robin Cousins has said:

When I get changed, I have developed this habit of doing everything right first. My right leg into my trousers first, my right skate on first, and I tie up my right lace first. I even step on to the ice right leg first

This is an example of someone creating a mental set for themselves. Basically, a ‘mental set’ is a state of mind that a person finds right and which allows them to reach their full potential because it allows them to approach the game, or whatever, in the right frame of mind. In general terms it is simply ‘psyching themselves up’. Billie Jean King is known to have done this before her tennis matches and Duncan Goodhew, the Olympic swimmer, did it also. These are by no means isolated incidents. Weightlifters do it before each lift, and in their case you can actually see it in operation: the way they chalk their hands, the way they walk and approach the bars; and, most especially, the way they focus their eyes.

Not all mental sets take the form of a ritual, as in the case of Robin Cousins, but ritual is by far the simplest technique for creating one. Some mental sets deliberately use visualization techniques, as in the case of Duncan Goodhew, who before each swim would lie down and after closing his eyes visualize the swim to be undertaken in very fine detail – even to the extent of feeling the water. Others, as in the case of Daley Thompson, relied on relaxation techniques that are suggested in works on self-hypnosis and autogenic training.

Mental sets can be both positive and negative. A typical negative mental set is created by psychological limits in a number of sports. For a long time, four minutes remained a psychological lower limit for fast runners of the mile. It was believed that the mile could not be run in under four minutes, until accomplished by Roger Bannister. A similar barrier of 30 minutes presently exists in the women’s 10,000m. In the 2002 European championships, although Paula Radcliffe won gold with an outstanding performance of 30.01.09, she said that there was still a slight disappointment of not breaking the 30-minute barrier. A more revealing psychological upper limit was that of 500lbs in weightlifting. Again, it was believed that this could not be exceeded. Valery Alexis broke it. He was ‘fooled’ into believing that he was lifting less than 500lbs, when, in fact, it was just over this weight. The importance of these illustrations is the fact that belief, along with training, plays a role in performance. Training is absolutely essential, but, as Daley Thompson has said:

The only limitations are mental: you can do anything you want, and the guy who thinks most positively will win.

Put more simply,

            We are what we think we are.

Which leads to some positive affirmations:

            I am what I think I am, and I am the greatest

            I am what I think I am, and I am the best

            I am what I think I am, and I aspire to excellence

            I am what I think I am, and I always do my best

There is also a Zen affirmation, which captures the essence of positive thinking that leads to positive action.

I will do what has to be done, when it has to be done, as well as it can be done, and do it that way every time.

Creating a right mental set is basically activating the right hemisphere of the brain. But not only that, it is establishing a relationship between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, in such a way that they do not conflict with one another. This is the basis of ‘inner games’, which we shall deal with in the next section. The rituals that many people go through when they engage in sport provide a means of achieving this relationship. But this is unstructured and without form. It is often established by trial and error.

What, then, must a correct mental set achieve, or deal with? There are basically five aspects it must deal with.

  1. The environment
  2. Faults in technique
  3. Mental limits
  4. The right amount of tension
  5. Competitive attitudes

The Environment. Every sport is done in a particular environment, whether it be outdoors or indoors, whether in courts or in/on water. You cannot usually change the environment. The correct approach, however, is to ensure that the environment has the minimum adverse effects on your performance. If you happen not to like the umpire then you do not want this to hinder your performance. If you happen to have had an argument with someone just prior to performing, you do not want this to upset your performance. The list is long, but all it means is that your environment should not adversely affect your performance. The use of creative visualization, which we shall show in a later section, can deal with this problem.

Faults in technique. We pointed out in the first section that it is possible to over train. Alternatively, it is possible that training is creating faults, even if not over-done. Such faults must first be noted. But having noted them, there is the difficulty of knowing how to correct them. Some of these types of faults are quite frustrating. The person knows that they have such a fault, but repeatedly carry it out. Even training does not seem to eliminate it. In fact, the repeated training may lead to even greater frustration, since the lack of success becomes more obvious. It is at this problem that ‘inner games’ are specifically directed towards.

Mental limits. Mental limits, personal mental limits especially, generally lower performance. They act like a barrier. They are invariably psychological barriers and, as such, cannot be eliminated by more training or by logically analyzing the problem. They require a different technique altogether. This is certainly one area where self-hypnosis can help.

The right amount of tension. There are many forms of relaxation techniques. What is required in sport, however, is the ability to relax for short spells between performances, or just before performing. Progressive relaxation, which begins with the feet (or head) and then progresses slowly through all the major muscle groups, is very therapeutic, but it is hardly suited for sports people. What is required is a method that can establish relaxation quickly, that can be done while sitting, lying or even standing. Possibly even more important is having the right amount of tension at the right moment and not relaxed. A track athlete, for example, if relaxed will not likely get off the starting block at the right moment. There needs to be a certain degree of tension that provides the right amount of adrenalin for alertness and quick movement. The last thing required is total relaxation at this moment. Of course, what an athlete does require is to be able to relax in between performances.

Competitive attitude. Finally, we come to the question of the right competitive attitude. This will vary from person to person and from one sport to another. Suppose you lack the competitive spirit that is claimed to be so necessary in a number of sports. You may even know this. But what can you do about it? Training cannot give you a more competitive spirit! Again, it is a mental state and so a mental technique is called for. Visualizing yourself being more competitive is one such method. But utilizing self-hypnosis along with creative visualization is even better.

Each sport is almost certain to have its own best mental set, and even for any given sport it is certain that the ‘best’ mental set for one individual will not be the same as for another. So little attention has been given to mental sets that individuals have had to find their own by trial and error. Such a person as Duncan Goodhew gleaned information from a variety of sources and evolved his own approach. His case is a good illustration of the difficulties that can be encountered when trying techniques designed for other purposes. Many relaxa­tion techniques have very specific instructions on breathing. But in swimming, the breathing rhythm is tied very much to the stroke. In the case of Daley Thompson, the decathlon champion, the variety of events does not readily lend itself to a single technique. Having read a variety of sports analyses and techniques (probably self-hypnosis or autogenic training) he developed his own approach: the most important feature being his ability to relax between events.

For professional sports people the coach can play a very significant role in creating the right mental set. In broad terms they provide three functions.

  1. Help
  2. Faith
  3. Knowledge

Their role in helping with the acquisition of skill and their role in training are well attested. But where they generally fail is in developing the necessary mental attitude, and consequently achieving the full potential, of their protégé. This is quite understandable because generally they are not trained psychologists. Even so, sport is very much the co-ordination of mind and body. If a coach simply concentrates on the body, to the exclusion of the mind, then he or she is only doing part of their job. It is quite straightforward for a coach to learn how to use creative visualization and to help his or her protégé to use such visualization to their best advantage. Sports people can help themselves by learning self-hypnosis.

Being 'in the zone'

This is an expression used especially by Americans to denote a peak experience in sport in which the individual feels as if things are in slow motion, they are focused and relaxed, are confident to the extent of feeling invincible and feel fully in control. It is the state when athletes perform at their best. It is perceived as a zone rather than a particular level, as shown in the following figure. The exact optimal performance might not be readily identified, but an athlete may be able to establish that if they can achieve an arousal level between A1 and A2, then they will be in their zone and close to, if not achieving, optimal performance. Certainly, ‘being in the zone’ has very identifiable characteristics.

A state of hypnosis has many similarities with being ‘in the zone’. This means that a sports psychologist can aid the athlete to recognize what it means to be ‘in the zone’ and also provide a means by which to enter the zone. Without hypnosis, entering the zone is problematic: almost random. Hypnosis helps athletes to enter the zone regularly and predictably. However, it is not the usual passive and relaxed state created by many hypnotherapists. It is an active state, with the eyes open and the athlete appearing in almost all respects ‘normal’. The therapist needs to remove the misconception that hypnosis requires the individual to be totally relaxed; have their eyes closed; be silent and simply following the suggestions of the hypnotist. This is necessary because the therapist needs to convince the athlete that they can enter a trance while at their sport, with noise and distractions present, in different venues and even in different climates. The ‘normal’ approach to hypnosis is limiting, especially to the athlete. By knowing and believing it is possible then it becomes possible.

Cues for going ‘into the zone’ are simply posthypnotic suggestions, but they need to be specific to the sport. Also the context needs to be included. Some typical cues are:

  1. Being at the starting block
  2. Putting on cap, helmet, costume or running shoes
  3. Picking up the sabre, gun, bow, etc.
  4. Climbing the stairs to the diving board
  5. Sitting on (favourite horse)
  6. Taking out my putting iron
  7. When the whistle blows

Of course there are many others.

In carrying out posthypnotic suggestions for creating the zone, the following should be considered.

  1. The athlete must be able to choose to do or not to do it while in immediate surroundings.
  2. If the posthypnotic suggestion is required regularly, then the cue must be present whenever engaging in the sport.
  3. If the posthypnotic suggestion is required only occasionally, then the cue can be available if the athlete want it so.
  4. The suggestions should include the following phrases:

         a. ‘When the cue is given, you will go into the zone as quickly as is necessary
            given the situation.’

         b. ‘The cue will elicit as much as is desired in the circumstances.’

         c. ‘I will go as deep and as optimal as is necessary on this occasion.’

         d. ‘… and I will be in this state for only as long as is required on this occasion.’


The right mental set in sport

Being ‘in the zone’

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