Mental strength in sports

How mental fitness is key to sporting success

When it comes to sports, having mental strength is nearly as important for players as physical fitness. Pressure can get to the best sports stars and mental training is therefore a vital skill to possess. With sports psychology a growing field of study, more athletes are looking to improve their mental prowess as well as their physical exercise routines. Here, we look at some of the great cases of sporting mental collapse and how we can all learn from these examples.

There's a thin line that exists between mentally-strong sporting success and under-pressure failure. World sport is packed with examples of those who have come so close to glory yet mentally collapsed at the final moment. Here, we give you a run through some of the most famous sporting moments when the mental pressure proved too much , and give you the experts view, plus some top tips to help you with your mental game.

man playing golf

Last-minute sports mishaps

Golfer Jean Van de Velde proved another fine sportsman crushingly defeated by a last-minute mishap. The Frenchman was on course to pull off a surprise victory in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland, only needing a double-bogey to win the championship. He had birdied the 18th hole in the two previous rounds but disaster was imminent.

Van de Velde played an awful first shot, barely escaping the water. Things soon got worse as the golfer then hit a shot towards the green, which ended up hitting the grandstand and shooting backwards 50 yards. This sudden catalogue of errors concluded with a tired third shot which got tangled in the rough and flew back into the water. Cue Van de Velde taking off his shoes and socks to try and play his way out of trouble. The Frenchman eventually putted with a triple-bogey seven but, after previously being three shots ahead, lost a three-way playoff to Paul Lawrie.

The line between sporting glory and notoriety is incredibly thin and the margin for error shortens each year. For every Nick Faldo, holding his nerve to stage a remarkable comeback in the 1996 US Masters tournament, there is another tale of psychological self-destruction. Even highly focused competitors have fallen foul of unwanted pressure. Steve Davis famously lost the 1985 World Snooker Championship final to Denis Taylor on the last frame’s black ball after initially leading 8-0. This was despite him staying focused enough to win six other titles. Similarly, Jana Novotna’s stunning collapse in the 1993 Wimbledon final – after easily leading 2-1 against Steffi Graf – was so painful it led her to cry on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder during the prize-giving ceremony.

Sports psychology

With the stakes for sporting glory at an all-time high and increasing media scrutiny, help is thankfully at hand for sports stars feeling the pressure.

Sports psychology is a developing science that gives competitors mental and emotional support to deal with aspects of their physical performance, including things such as self-belief, concentration and coping with pressure. The role of the sports psychologist is to boost an athlete’s confidence, as well as improving their mental endurance for long-term periods of concentration.

Research into penalty shootouts by the Dutch psychologist Geir Jordet has revealed that sporting pressure mounts the longer a contest goes on. His research recommended that players can only overcome their fears of failure by rehearsing their entire routine in advance, composing their thoughts before each kick.

UK-based psychologist Rachel Foxwell agrees with Jordet’s analysis, of mounting pressure increasing nerves and lowering players’ confidence. She believes this can be further applied to sports other than football.

Mental strength in sports

'Sports psychology is a growing trend that aims to get players to battle through the pressure of their game and not bottle it by being affected by the noise of the crowd or even the size of an imposing competitor,' she says. 'The ability to get over the fear of failure can definitely be taught through psychology; it just requires a lot of mental strength.

'Players need to learn to focus on their goal, taking each kick or shot at a time and removing the crowd and tiredness from their thoughts. I believe this can be taught through sports psychology.'

Paul Dent, a London-based sports psychologist who has worked with Great British hockey team players, agrees over this need to focus on the present.

He said: 'The task is to focus on what you are doing, i.e. having a narrow attentional focus on the here-and-now – not the fact that millions of people are watching (which is a broad attentional focus) or the implications of missing (the future).

'Mental strength is the ability to do the above in the most difficult of situations and comes from experience.'

Beating the pressure of sports through mental fitness

While many sports stars have crumbled under pressure, others thrive on the tension. Whether you’re a fully-fledged pro or a fun-loving amateur player, here are’s top tips to beating the jitters that can badly affect sports players of all levels:

  • Stay positive. No matter how tough a match gets, competitors should not give in to their fears or be put off by previous results. In the case of football, the Germans always seem to have this winning mentality, with their self-belief guiding them to penalty shootout wins more often than not.
  • Concentrate. Pressure can get to anyone but it can be avoided through close concentration on the matter in hand. Instead of thinking about the crowd or what prizes are at stake, players should try to clear the mind and focus on each shot or kick, one at a time. It’s vital to slow down the mind to purely view the present situation.
  • Make the most of breaks. During recesses in a sports game, it’s important to relax and loosen up, to prepare for the next battle. Don’t focus on what has gone on before; look to your positive future performance.
  • Look confident. Even if a player is losing, it’s important they continue to look confident. Any show of weakness will only play into the hands of competitors.
  • Stick to your guns. It’s important to maintain a consistency in all aspects of your game preparation. Don’t chop and change your pre-match routine; have a fixed plan.
  • Stay tough. Sporting upsets are proof that talent is not always a substitute for sheer dogged determination. Even if you face a stronger competitor, drive, passion and integrity may see you through.
  • Plan ahead. Strategies can change depending on the conditions of a game but it’s always best to have a forward action plan going into the match. Don’t come up with a grand strategy when you step out on the pitch.
  • Keep going. Entire tournaments have been won and lost on a misplaced final stroke, shot or play. You may be tired and bruised but stay focused until the end. Don’t give your competitor a last-minute gift.

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