This was originally published on the blog site for The Litmus Paper, the daily newspaper for the Times Cheltenham Science Festival. The events referred to were part of the programme at the 2012 festival.
Although I knew the crowd filling the stadium was whooping and screaming, I couldn’t hear them. My legs felt numb. As I stepped out onto the pitch I was keenly aware of an unsettling churning going on in my stomach.
It was February 2007 and I had been selected for a tour of America with the England lacrosse team. I was stepping out onto the pitch as a Senior International lacrosse player for the first time. As I entered the stadium at Duke University, the fact that I was representing my country had just become very real. Despite the countless hours I had put into physically preparing myself for this moment, psychologically I was a wreck.
“There are so many factors that could have influenced you in that situation,” explained Sports Psychologist Dr. Iain Greenlees, who will be taking part in ‘Going for Gold: Think Like a Winner’ today at the festival. “Your own personality will have had a big effect on your response to your full debut. In addition, the environment (or more importantly how you see the environment you find yourself in) will also determine how you respond.
How a person responds to this internal turmoil varies but many, like me, are overwhelmed by the situation and fail to perform. In simple terms, they choke.
On my international debut that chilly day in North Carolina I was useless; my mind felt like it was full of cotton wool and my legs could barely move. “The latest thinking is that there are two causes of choking.” Explained Dr Greenlees. “The first is that, as we get nervous, we get more distractible and so we are less able to focus on what we need to focus on: executing the skills we need in order to perform. The second explanation is that the more anxious that we get, the more we try to consciously control our movements and this is something that is damaging to performance”.
As we began to warm up I couldn’t help but glance at my opponents at the other end of the pitch. They were intimating. The sports set-up at American universities rivals most professional clubs in the UK and Duke’s women’s lacrosse team, in their latest sports fabrics, each holding the most advanced equipment, made my school-style kit and old lacrosse stick look clunky and outdated.
The benefit of advanced technology isn’t just psychological though. Seemingly minor technological advances can have a dramatic impact; in Formula 1, millimeter changes can be the difference between first and second place. But in Formula 1, technology plays a much more pivotal role than in other sports. Mike Gascoyne, Technical Director at Caterham F1 racing who will be taking part in ‘Formula One’, knows this only too well. “[The drivers’] physical abilities play a huge part in helping them extract maximum performance from the car, but they cannot make the car go any faster than its physical capabilities will allow it to,” he explained.
In Formula 1 a large team of people, each with their own unique specialism, work tirelessly to design a car which can out perform their opponents. The rules governing car design are increasingly strict. “Interpretation of the rules is the key. The rules are not always black and white and this allows the teams to exploit the grey areas to find crucial tenths of seconds,” Mr Gascoyne explained. Interpretation of the rules, and money to drive the technology, is at the heart of success in many sports. Although this may be obvious in Formula 1, it is also true to many sports, and it can be intimidating to find yourself faced with an opponent who looks better equipped than you are.
But as I did, and as the Team GB athletes will do this summer, when you’re representing your country in a sport, you have to dig deep and find what Dr Greenlees describes as mental toughness. “[Mental toughness is] believing that you are in control of your own destiny and that there is always something that you can do to improve your performance and is seeing the world as a series of exciting challenges rather than a series of threats.”
As the tour progressed, I realised that I needed to ignore the technological advantage that the Americans might have, and by the end, I had overcome my initial nerves and was performing well. My experiences showed me that it is not enough to to be physically fit; to win the gold you need to be mentally fit and have the right technological support.