It is often heard of for curlers to have a “feel” for draw weight, or on some days, not have a concept of what draw weight feels like at all. This becomes tricky for a coach, due to the fact that you cannot teach an athlete what a certain skill ‘feels’ like. It has to come from within their own perception of what they’re doing. Consider the specific weight required from the drive of an athlete out of the hack to complete a draw shot in curling. The athlete has to think about all mental cues when practicing mental imagery. By simply increasing the awareness of them, the athlete will have a clear image of the task they need to perform at an elite level.
Consider injury rehabilitation, for example. Aside from just using mental imagery to aid sport performance, athletes are now encouraged to use imagery to return to sport following any potential injury. Depending on the injury, athletes can use mental imagery to focus on their skills, aid rehabilitation goals and promote healing within their own body. Substituting mental practice can offset time taken off from their sport. In a study conducted it becomes clear that their suggestion was true: the use of mental imagery to aid athletic injury rehabilitation works just as effectively as it does to increase overall sport performance. At the time of the tests, the athletes completed at least two weeks of physiotherapy for their injury. The cognitive specific function of imagery is the rehearsal of specific movements. In this case, it is rehabilitation exercises. Injured athletes indicated that rehearsing the rehabilitation movements before and while preforming each exercise helped them “re-learn” the previously automated functional movements. The athletes within this study claimed that the motivational function of imagery was the most important part within their own rehabilitation. The injured athletes would mentally visualize their goals of the activities. This would then be broken down into individual processes of the individual and outcome goals. They imagined themselves fully healed and back to winning competitions. Healing was also a major part in their rehabilitation process. This was portrayed in detailed images of internal physiological processes. Imagery rehabilitation process will aid the athlete to organize goals and it also provides the motivation to achieve their goals. (Cool, eh?) What the athlete focuses on will expand. This is then channeled towards what they want to accomplish opposed to what they cannot.
Self-talk is one of the dominant psychological strategies for developing a great mental state in relation to sport context. This comes in many forms: positive, instructional and negative. Self-talk can also be used for coaches as well to handle pressure and have the ability to maintain focus during intense competitive situations. Positive self-talk is used to increase motivation, energy and a positive attitude. On my curling team, positive self-talk is often used from one player directly talking to another. Before we throw a shot, we often say “You got it” or “you’ve made this shot before” to the player throwing to give them an extra bit of positive encouragement before they actually throw it. Positive self-talk can also be used internally as the player must have belief in themselves that they are going to make the shot being called. Instructional self-talk focuses more specifically on making the athlete pay an extra bit of attention to the technical and specific tasks that are required in a particular sport specific action. This is now very relevant in curling. Having mental ‘cues’ are a new aspect of the game that allows the athlete to ‘self coach’ themselves while preforming. Before every game our team has a meeting to talk about the upcoming game and strategies we will use to win. One of the things we discuss is the cue word that we will each say in our heads to ourselves before we throw. Personally, my cue word is usually ‘strong slide’, reminding me to have a solid slide as I throw which better prepares me and gets me focused before throwing every shot. This is a type of positive reinforcement that aids the athlete in succeeding in what they are trying to accomplish. With self-talk there is the dysfunctional possibility of negative self-talk. This kind of self-talk often diminishes performance and is not recommended for athletes. Phrases associated with this type of self-talk often include “I can’t do this” or “This is impossible.” Thinking negative thoughts will not improve overall performance and can add stress and anxiety to athletes as it increases their self-doubt. It is interesting that a study has revealed that “70-80% of approximately 66 000 thoughts are negatively charged” suggesting that there is a large potential for the development in this area for everyone, not just athletes. However, athletes specifically should put more effort into their mindset if they want to excel at performance.
Disposition however is the tough one. Disposition is how the athlete feels mentally overall, whether they’re having a good day or a bad day. This is always a choice, sometimes being subconscious. As much as physical fitness is important, putting the brain to work will contribute in making good athletes great.
Balancing pressure and performance is key in all sports, particularly in curling. Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson created the Inverted-U model in 1908. (Psych isn't new, people!) This displays the relationship between arousal and performance. According to this model, peak performance is attainted when athletes experience a moderate level of pressure. Too little or too much pressure can cause a decline in performance, and sometimes completely inhibit their ability to perform. On my team, each of our players is different. We all need different things before, during and after the game to allow each of us to perform at an optimum level. Some of us need complete silence and relaxation before the game to get us in the zone and contrary, some of us need loud music and energetic movements to get us ready to play. On the ice we all need different things said to us after a missed shot to allow our focus to get back to where it needs to be. This suggests that the Inverted-U hypothesis can be different for everybody and it is the responsibility of each individual athlete to know where his or her head needs to be to perform at an optimal level. In a study conducted that was focusing on the motor performance level under stress, the Inverted-U hypothesis was tested. Results concluded that, “this relationship between performance and arousal is not a generalized notion, but susceptible to modification by such factors as individual personality dispositions”. This proves that each individual athlete will have different needs that will allow him or her to perform at a peak level. The same study also looked at drives and its relationship to performance as well. Basic drive theory predicts that high drive should be facilitating throughout the range of drive especially with continued practice as the habit strength of a dominant response increases relative to the habit strength of competing responses. The results of this study, however, have shown the that high drive can lead to performance decrements with more moderate drive levels being optimal for performance. These findings support the Inverted-U hypothesis as it relates to sport performance.
At an elite level of performance, the psychological aspect of the game is what separates good athletes from the great ones. Individual athletes can spend countless hours doing physical training but if they do not have the right mindset, all of that hard work might not necessarily pay off when the athlete is put into high-pressure situations. Mental imagery can be as simple as closing your eyes and imagining a certain shot or skill in real time with perfect execution. This gives the brain a mental rehearsal, which will have a positive effect on the actual physical performance.