The Mental Edge: Intensity

By Winning Edge Psychological Services

Intensity in competition is sought by athletes and desired by coaches. An intense athlete performs with purpose, single mindedness, and laser focused energy. One common misconception surrounding intensity is that there is a magical point of intensity that leads all athletes to great performances. This mistaken belief can lead coaches to giving the classic pre-game pep-talk to get the team psyched up. Unfortunately, the pre-game talk may help some athletes while annoying others. Research in the field of sport psychology has composurefound that intensity exists at an optimal zone that is individual to each athlete. Each person has his/her level or zone of intensity where he/she performs best. Optimal intensity refers to the ideal level of physical and mental intensity that allows an athlete to perform his/her best (Taylor & Wilson, 2005).

One common reason that athletes seek out a sports psychologist is because they experience over intensity. Over intensity involves too much emotional, mental and physical energy. The athlete doubts his/her ability, focuses upon mistakes, feels nervous/anxious, feels stiff and has difficulty moving, and overall cannot perform as he/she does in practice. In essence, the overly intense athlete melts down. Although less common than over intensity, under intensity is when an athlete feels over confident, does not view a game as important, has low energy and low motivation to compete. In the under intensity scenario, the athlete may be playing down in a match or game where he/she expects to easily win. The good news is that sports psychology research has developed specific techniques to help the athlete overcome both over-intensity and under-intensity.

When working with the over intense athlete, I first want the athlete to understand what is biologically happening to his/her thoughts, emotions, and body. Understanding what causes over intensity allows the athlete to understand his/her self and is the first step in regaining control. Comparison of past successful and unsuccessful performances offers initial insights into how the athlete behaves differently at different times. Together with their sports psychologist, the athlete looks for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that lead to strong performances. Examining past performances also provides insight into what the athlete is thinking, feeling, and doing when he/she performs poorly. Armed with new knowledge about his/her performance, the athlete will develop a pre-competition routine that includes several key components. First the athlete will learn and practice the physical skills of deep breathing and muscle relaxation. The practiced skills of deep breathing and muscle relaxation allow the athlete to regain control of his/her body, which in turn stops them from fearing that he/she will lose control (of his/her thoughts, feelings, and body). Deep breathing and muscle relaxation need to become integrated into the athlete’s daily practice routine.

Second, confidence skills that we discussed in Part I of Gaining The Mental Edge are integrated into the athletes daily practice routine and pre-game routine. Layering the perspective of confidence with positive thought skills directs the athlete to focused performance. Third the athlete needs to develop and then engage imagery of positive, focused, performance. Imagery often involves dipping into his/her positive image bank of past success to see and feel his/her past successes. Imagery (often called visualization) is not magical; it is a research based skill used to enhance athletic performance. The use of directed imagery before competition can help an athlete place his/her self closer to their optimal zone of intensity. Imagery will work if the athlete regularly uses imagery as part of his/her practice routine.

Fourth, athletes develop and enhance positive thought skills in order to effectively direct his/her focus. The use of positive thought skills keeps the athletes focused in the moment, reducing the possibility that his/her thoughts will drift to unproductive worry. The ability to re-direct focus during competition; remain on task and think positive is critical to optimal intensity. Finally, a sense of humor, an ability to laugh, smile and loosen up before a competition can be priceless. A coach, teammate, or family member’s ability to help a tense athlete smile, and laugh can instantly shift the athlete from over-intense to a positive, relaxed and ready state.

The under intensity athlete requires a different direction of focus. Often the under intense athlete is not mentally or physically ready to take on a lesser opponent. The under intense athlete believes he/she should easily win, and underestimates the competitive task. Learning to direct focus in competition to personal goals and excellent technique helps the under intense athlete maintain focus. Directing focus to his/her technique, provides the athlete with concrete goals, and directs his/her intensity. Second, the under intense athlete needs to remember that he/she once beat higher ranked teams/players, and that every game/match matters. Consistency of performance is a developmental goal, and learning to focus intensity for every game/match is work. Intensity and consistency are mental skills that need to be practiced as much as physical skills do. Roger Federer (number one ranked men’s tennis player in the world), perceives every match he plays as equally important. By maintaining this mindset, Federer is incredibly consistent and on his way to accruing a winning record that may see him become the most dominant male player in the history of tennis.

Confidence and intensity are work! No one will give them to your team or you. It is up to you as the athlete or coach to build them. Confidence and intensity are your job! Learn to build and maintain them and you will see your game rise to a new level.

S² Tip

Understanding what causes over intensity is the first step in regaining control

Success Story

Collegiate wrestler Anthony Roble’s never let anything get in his way. Even though he was born with only one leg, Anthony managed to go 36-0 en route to a National Championship in his senior season at Arizona State.

In Another’s Words…

“Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat everytime”

– Lou Brock