“Higher, Stronger, Faster,” as the Olympic motto would suggest, has been the goal of many athletes around the globe. To help them achieve their goals they have often relied too heavily on solely physical programs and various forms of equipment to aid in their performance. However, athletes at the elite level possess very similar physical abilities. The athletes that succeed are usually those who have a stronger mental mind. When athletes are able to train their mind to see images of them preforming a certain skill, this will assist in their overall performance.
Sports psychology is a science that draws on knowledge from many related fields such as biomechanics, kinesiology, physiology and dominantly psychology. By looking at various aspects of sport psychology and how it relates to curling and my own personal experiences as an athlete, it will be evident that the mind is the key to elite performance.
Curling is my passion. I love how this game can bring four players together into a single unit in such a high precision and tactical game. From my personal experience being a competitive and university level curler, I can confidently say that the teams who stand at the top of the podium are those who have very strong mindsets. I have been curling for 14 years. Curling is currently a sport where young athletes such as those my age are becoming increasingly talented more rapidly than ever before. Fitness is a huge part of the game, as seen in the Brad Jacobs Olympic gold winning team from Northern Ontario, lifting weights before every game and being the ‘face of fitness’ in the modern game. While physical fitness obviously plays a huge role in the success of a curling team at any level, mental preparation really separates the good teams from the great ones. Even at the young competitive level that I am at right now, our team is putting just as much time into our mental game as well as the physical aspect. In my short curling career, our team has captured two provincial championship banners, won an international silver medal and numerous events on the Ontario Junior Curling Tour. Our goal for the upcoming season is to win the Junior Women’s Provincial Championship to represent Ontario at the National Canadian championship. In regards to Laurier curling, my personal goal is to win the CIS National Championship and represent Canada at the World Universaide Games. These goals are achievable, but I know that it requires extensive mental preparation; and that is where sport psychology comes in!
In a modern day sport environment, it is rare to see athletes competing for pure pleasure and recreation. Rare too is the phrase “it does not matter if we win or lose.” The world of sport today is obsessed with success and athletes have the desire and drive to win. The thought of being the best and most powerful is extremely captivating and encompasses the drive for success. Top athletes realize that winning at an elite level goes far beyond just physical skill and technique. The ability to handle pressure and stress at crucial moments is known as mental toughness. Curling is a sport that requires a great deal of strong mental toughness. This is becoming increasingly important in the elite game. I have spent a large portion of my summer training physically, but also focusing on my mental toughness and how to deal with high-pressure situations. These situations happen most often when throwing the winning shot, or throwing a shot of high importance that could either make or break the game. When we encounter these stressful situations or are faced with any kind of adversity, the outcome is either positive or negative in terms of our emotional and mental response to such condition. The effect that these responses have on our performance is influenced by our ability to successfully manage our internal (our mind) and external (the shot being played) demands. As suggested, our team spends a large amount of time on physical fitness. Generally speaking, an athlete who is considered fit would be one who is in the ideal physical condition required for their particular sport. In our case, curling requires muscular endurance and power. However, in present day sport there is a huge emphasis on athletes being required to get themselves into a state of optimal mental fitness. Talent alone does not directly translate into success. Elite athletes have succeeded at professional levels due to their mental strength.
A personal experience with mental toughness that my team experienced was at the International Championships last April. We were playing in the gold medal game and we had a shot for the win. We were down two points and had a shot for three. We made the shot but unfortunately the rock for the third and winning point had to be measured against an opposition’s stone. We only got two, so we forced an extra end. During the extra end we again lost in a measurement and had to settle for silver. Being this close to gold was really tough to deal with at the time, so we had to be mentally tough during the closing ceremonies, which were held immediately after our game. This has only made us more motivated for the future with a bigger drive to win.
To be motivated suggests that the individual athlete is determined to complete a task or reach a goal they set out for themselves. In Self-Determination Theory, different types of motivation are distinguished between based on the different reasons or goals that give rise to an action. The most basic distinction is between intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a desirable outcome. Most often in high-level curling, the athlete is driven by extrinsically motivated behaviours. There is a prize to be won, which is usually a provincial, national or world championship (or money haha). What an athlete does to get there is completely up to them, as no one else can set the right mindset needed to achieve their personal goals.
Athletic identity is how an individual classifies them in the role of an athlete and how they look at others to acknowledge that role. Athletic identity is a type of self-schema meaning it is how they perceive themselves. This is developed through skills, social interactions and confidence within sport. Looking at the cognitive aspect, athletic identity provides the framework for which the individual interprets information and copes with tough situations. The social aspect of athletic identity allows the athlete to maintain behaviour that is consistent with their specific athlete role. In curling, confidence is key. We must know how to act in the ‘curling world’ and know how our actions directly affect our reputation as a team. This means no partying at competitions and holding high respect for all of our opponents. A strong sense of athletic identity in curling allows our team to be a highly respected team, which exudes confidence on us when we play. It is important for athletes as well as the coach to be aware of the benefits and risks associated with athletic identity. Positive attributes include high self-confidence, self-identity, a value of health and fitness and enhancement of performance. Negative risks include emotional difficulties dealing with injury and a hard time adjusting after the end of athletic career. Also, there is such a narrow focus on their athletic career that individuals are often left with no other career options after the completion or ending of their time as an athlete. Findings in a study conducted studying athletic identity and career maturity suggest that “failure to explore alternative roles and identifying strongly and exclusively with the athlete role are associated with delayed career development in intercollegiate student athletes”. It is crucial for athletes to have a strong sense of their own athletic identity to prohibit negative psychological effects, and to maximize the positive self-concept that is present in the majority of athletes.