A small red spot on the glove of golfer Louis Oosthuizen is credited with playing a critical role in his winning of The Open Championship at St Andrews last Sunday. The coloured spot was a visible manifestation of the growing influence of psychology in sport – it was designed to help the 27-year-old South African concentrate on his swing in the crucial moments leading up to a shot.
Sporting professionals are increasingly turning to similar mind-training tricks to improve their performance on the field. It may involve mental imagery that allows them to rehearse a game in their heads, or psychological blocking techniques that stop them from dwelling on past mistakes. In the case of Oosthuizen, an outsider who was widely expected to collapse under the pressure on the final day, it was a simple dot on his glove to make him focus on his swing.
The idea came from Karl Morris, a Manchester sports psychologist who was asked to help Oosthuizen improve his concentration before starting his swing after a string of disappointing results in previous golfing events.
"His pre-shot routine was all over the place. I suggested he changed his whole game plan after he told me that when he played in the US Open last month he was making split decisions instead of thinking about what he should have been doing. One of the tips I gave him was to put a red spot on his glove and to focus on it during his swing," Dr Morris said.
The ability to focus on the task in hand is one of they key techniques that sports psychologists try to refine when dealing with professional sports people. "There is a lot of evidence that the best sportsmen and women have a lot of psychological skills that allow them to concentrate and to control anxiety," said Tim Rees, a qualified psychologist who specialises in sport at Exeter University.
Psychological skills may be more important in some sports than others. Endurance sports such as rowing, for instance, require a very different psychological approach from less physical sports like golf where the actual playing of shots constitutes a tiny fraction of the time it takes to complete the course. Rowing and other endurance sports involve intense activity for prolonged periods, whereas there is so much more time for psychology in sports like golf. There is a lot of evidence to show that once someone gets to a certain level of skill, it is the differences in their psychological approach that differentiates people at the very top," Dr Rees said.
The red spot on Oosthuizen's glove was one way of focussing his mind on the process of playing a shot, rather than thinking of the consequences. It is a classic example of what it known as "process goals" in sports psychology, when the athlete is asked to focus on something, however minor, to stop them thinking of what happens if the shot goes wrong – it brings them back to the here and now before the shot is actually played, Dr Rees explained.
Other mental tricks may focus on "thought stopping". Instead of dwelling on a missed shot, whether it is a failed penalty or disastrous return on the tennis court, the athlete is trained to put such negative thoughts into a mental "black box" that can be dealt with after the match.
A simple trick is to get the athlete to think of a stop sign immediately after they make a mistake. "It allows them to park the problem so they can deal with it later. It takes a lot of practice to get it to work but it allows them to focus on what they have to do next rather than what they have just done," Dr Rees said.
Almost all sports involve what psychologists call imagery. Athletes often describe how the day or night before a crucial game they mentally rehearse what they intend to do – even to the point of walking up to the winner's podium. (According to Rees this is why so many first-time winners often look relatively relaxed and at home on a podium because they have rehearsed the moment so many times in their heads).
David Beckham, for instance, is said to have stored and replayed mental "video clips" of how the ball will bend when he takes a free kick at goal. Skiers at the top of a run often close their eyes briefly and sway from side to side just before they take off down a slope, as if they are rehearsing the difficult movements they are about to make.
"Imagery is most effective when it is used in conjunction with actual practice," Dr Rees said.
Physical perfection, skill and technique are obviously critical to athletic performance, but the whole point about sports psychology is that the mind can so often be employed to overrule matter. This is never more true when it comes to the sort of psychological support that can decide whether a player wins or loses.
Several studies have shown that the emotional support given to an athlete from family, friends and even professional managers can make a significant difference to sporting performance. Olympic gold medallists Dame Kelly Holmes and Sir Chris Hoy, for instance, have both cited the support of their loved ones as a major factor in their success, and this is supported by empirical research.
In one study of 197 male amateur golfers, for example, Dr Rees found that the social support they received before a game affected how well they did. "While training, tactics and luck all play a part, the encouraging words or kind gestures of a partner or friend can make the difference between a footballer scoring that winning goal, or a sprinter achieving a record time," he said.
Even the emotional support of a relative stranger can boost performance, according to another study by Exeter colleague Paul Freeman. Just listening to an athlete's problems and offering simple advice and encouragement can make a significant difference to an athlete's success, Dr Freeman said.
"It is significant that the support I offered, as a relative stranger, had such a marked influence on their results. The findings suggest that amateur and professional athletes would benefit from seeking social support, whether this is from a friend or family member or even from a professional," he said.
This is why even a manager can make a psychological impact that makes the difference between winning and losing. Tell that to Fabio Capello.
Only 19 men have refereed a World Cup final and with each one the pressure has grown greater and greater as the global audience has expanded . Howard Webb cut a remarkably calm figure in Johannesburg despite issuing a record number of 14 yellow cards as the time he spent ahead of the game with a sports psychologist paid off. "We understand the stakes and how important it is to everyone involved but we also try to put it into some perspective," said Webb.
Chelsea's "mind room"
It's top secret, but somewhere hidden in Chelsea's Cobham training ground in Surrey is the Mind Room – it exists, but exactly what's in it and what it does is jealously guarded. It was set up by Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea's manager, who had used something similar during his time in charge of Milan in Serie A. It is overseen by his assistant Bruno Demichelis, who is also a sports psychologist. The Italian version was designed to relax players and then encourage them to stay calm as they watched their performances, good or bad. "It allows players to improve their resilience through mental training," said Demichelis.
The American skier was earmarked as the pin-up girl of the 2010 Winter Olympics before a ski had even touched the slopes. The pressure as she took the lift to the top of Whistler was immense and not helped by injury problems that had dogged her build-up. She used a technique taught to her by Sean McCann, the senior sports psychologist with the US team, visualising how she felt the race would pan out. It worked for Vonn; she swept downhill to a gold.
Britain's Olympic cyclists are regarded as one of the best prepared teams in any sport and have a record of spectacular success at the last three Games. They won seven of the 10 events in Beijing, and it is Steve Peters, the team's psychologist, who is credited with a key role in putting the riders on the mental road to gold. Dave Brailsford, the performance director, describes him as a "genius". Pendleton was a particular triumph. She has been overwhelmed by the Olympic experience in Athens and spent some intensive time with Peters in the build up to the 2008 Games. "I was a mess, I was really down," said Pendleton of Athens. "It took me about a year of working with Peter to get my head working in the right direction." That direction was straight to the top of the podium.
And when it doesn't work...
"Own the podium" was the decree issued to Canada's Olympians ahead of this year's Winter Games. The team was equipped with 14 "mental performance consultants". Kristi Richards, already a world champion freestyle skier, was told to write all her negative thoughts on a piece of toilet paper and flush them away. She qualified fourth for the finals, but on the big night ended up in a heap after her second jump. She finished 20th, and last.
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