In professional sports and gaming, athletes and players invest heavily in gaining even the smallest advantage over their competitors.
There are examples just about everywhere. In Formula 1, where the margin for success can be less than one second per lap, teams will spend eyewatering sums of money to make their cars go that little bit faster.
While there are many variables that will affect exactly how much gets spent on vehicle development, it has been estimated that it can cost a team $10 million just to make a car go one-tenth of a second faster.
We see it in football, too. Ronaldo is a prime example of an athlete who has risen to the top of his field by seeking out every possible marginal advantage. He has transformed his body since he moved to Manchester United (the first time) through a strict regime of exercise, diet, and sleep.
It happens in gaming, too. Esports athletes all undergo gruelling training programmes that can see them practising their craft for hours each day, in addition to reviewing previous games, taking physical exercise, and learning lessons on tactics.
But when every competitor can invest in the same activities to gain a physical advantage, a state of stalemate is achieved. Therefore, they must look to other areas for a chance to get ahead and many turn to psychology.
Psychology in competition
Psychology in sports and gaming comes in many different flavours. For example, if you’ve ever gone for a run, you’ll know that there comes a point on your jog when it is as mentally painful to keep running as it is physically difficult. Avid runners call this “hitting the wall” and it happens, in some shape or form, in just about every sport.
Similarly, if you’ve ever followed the build-up to a boxing match, you’ll have noticed the ritual of fighters trash-talking about their competitor and then squaring up with each other during the weigh-in event. This dance is all about trying to frighten each other to gain a mental edge when they get in the ring.
There are also some more subtle and technical uses for psychology in sports. In poker, it is just as important as the mechanical elements of the game. While players must understand the different values and rankings of all the possible hands to be able to play, it also helps to be able to spot patterns in the body language and playing choices that your opponents have.
In doing so, the most successful poker players can anticipate the moves of their rivals and exploit them for their own gain.
While, just like in general psychology, it’s possible to learn the techniques for getting your mind right in sports, it is much easier to talk them through with a professional.
Athletes that are at the top of their respective sports will often hire their own personal psychologist as part of their support team. They’ll be on hand and be just as important as their personal trainer(s), physiotherapist, and chef.
The NFL’s Tom Brady is a great example of this. While at college, he was a slightly above-average player who, while good enough to make it into the NFL, didn’t initially look destined for the record-breaking success he’s enjoyed. He puts much of his success down to work with his psychologist, saying that football is “so much about mental toughness”.
Some of the most common areas that sports psychologists address to relate to handling nerves, performance anxiety, concentration, and self-confidence. They may also be useful when a player struggles with motivation during a slump in performance.
A psychologist can also play a key role when an athlete is recovering from an injury. This can be a difficult time for professional sportspeople as they can feel lost without the routine of playing and training, and can struggle with the fact that they’ll have lost some of their strength and conditioning during recovery.
When you have a career that may only last for a decade or two and you need to perform at your best every single time you head to work, a psychologist can provide the advantage you need to extract the most from your body.
Zuella Montemayor did her degree in psychology at the University of Toronto. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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