Case Study 3 - It's all in the mind
As a former professional ballet dancer for 11 years, including as part of the world renowned Moscow Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Misha Botting has first-hand experience of the mental and physical rigour demanded of athletes who aspire to consistently produce ‘medal-winning’ performances.
And for the past five years, the Russian-born sport psychologist, as part of a multi-disciplinary team at the sportscotland institute of sport, has been imparting his expertise to support athletes with ambitions of gold.
Misha commented: “In Russia, ballet is perceived as the highest physical art form. The training is hard, relentless and tough. Developing mental resilience is vital to succeed and that’s what attracted me to performance psychology. In fact, there are very few differences, from a psychological perspective, of what it takes to produce a world-class performance in ballet, rugby or swimming.”
Working with Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls in swimming, rugby 7’s, curling and disability sport including wheelchair tennis, he also believes there is a growing awareness among coaches and athletes of the beneficial role of sport psychology in performance sport.
And he emphasises that ‘nervousness’ prior to competition isn’t necessarily detrimental to performance – indeed it can be the opposite.
As Misha explains: “Feeling nervous is a natural and essential element of high performance. In fact, if people don’t get nervous and maintain a completely relaxed state of mind, you could argue he or she isn’t mentally ready to compete. Without a healthy dose of nervousness, an athlete is unable to mobilise their potential to perform at their very best.”
However, the sport psychologist, who works with the likes of swimmers Hannah Miley and Robbie Renwick and wheelchair tennis aces Kevin Simpson and Gordon Reid, observes that the key is for the athlete (and psychologist) to be able to recognise what is a healthy level of nervousness. “It’s when the athlete’s psychological skills are insufficient to cope with demands of the competition, self-doubt comes into play and the level of performance decreases,” explains Misha.
And while a sports psychologist provides highly individualised support throughout the year, he highlights that, in swimming, the moments prior to a major race when swimmers gather in the Call Area are when athletes can reveal a preferred method of maintaining focus.
“Different swimmers deploy different techniques to deal with those moments in the Call Area. Some like to chat as a distraction from the forthcoming race; others like Michael Phelps (multiple Olympic gold medallist) spreads his arms across the seat to his left and right so no-one can sit there. Many competitors choose to listen to their iPod – some to get into the rhythm of their race or simply to play motivational tunes. However they choose to prepare, it’s our job to help the athlete achieve the right amount of mental activation.”
Of course, the role of the sport psychologist isn’t confined to within the pool environment or on the training pitch. And as Misha confides, one of the most challenging aspects of his role is to help athletes maintain their focus and minimise the psychological impact of performance expectation among more experienced athletes.
“It can be very difficult for an athlete to handle expectations. Though training hard, they are fully aware of media reports about their race and they constantly communicate on the likes of Twitter. So to keep the athlete focused and feet on the ground, we encourage the athlete to set highly specific goals to be worked on, for example, in a single training session.”
Moreover, as swimmers taper (reduce the intensity of their training) prior to major competitions (and have more time to think ahead), the psychologist has a role to play in helping the athlete recognise the impact of changes to their sleeping and eating patterns, and to remain highly focused on only those aspects in their training that they can control.
And while the psychology techniques deployed will differ from individual to individual, Misha notes that the challenge markedly differs when switching from an individual to a team sport like rugby 7’s.
“In the likes of wheelchair tennis or swimming, the unit of coach, athlete and support staff is very tight. However, in a team sport like rugby 7’s, you have to consider how the mindset of every individual impacts on both himself and other team members. Players will react differently to perceived pressure. It’s my job to raise awareness of how players affect each other and to help achieve the collective goal.”