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Self-Belief in Sport using NLP

by Peter Cohen and Michael Breen(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 39 - April 1999

"He goes into every game believing he's the best player in the world." – Paul Ince on Michael Owen

"Gold medals are not just won on superior talent alone. It is the ability to keep a strong mind and to truly believe in yourself and your ability regardless of the conditions and the opposition." – Iwan Thomas, 400 meters Commonwealth and European Champion

"Sport is only partly about ability, talent, accuracy and skill – all those lovely things. To think otherwise is to be taken in by sport's great illusion. But talent is not enough in any sport; it is not superior ability that separates champions from contenders, it is superior nerve. It is the ability to respond to a clutch situation by playing your best."

These words were written by Simon Barnes in The Times following Rob Andrew's famous drop-kick in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

The mental side of sport is receiving more and more coverage and attention by the media, by players, managers and coaches. Sport Psychology has failed to have the impact that many believed it originally would as most of the current information is mainly in books which are often too theoretical and technical and thus not really appropriate. From our research it is also apparent that there has been a fair amount of stigma attached to sporting professionals working with psychologists as if it suggested that there was a problem or something was wrong with them. One particular world champion we worked with a few years ago explained that if he had told his team mates that he was training to improve his mental attitude so that he could have more control over his emotional state he would have been the laughing stock of his peers.

Attitudes are changing with many top experts in sport agreeing that the mental side of competition is exceedingly important. Billy Jean King said "more matches are won internally than externally". Many of the top athletes we have spoken with, go so far as to suggest that, on the day of competition, their "focused confidence", "mental toughness" or just plain "belief in myself" is the deciding factor. Graeme Le Saux, the England football International says "So much of football is a mind game... so I go on to the field in a positive frame of mind".

So what is the difference between the world beaters and the wannabeaters? Are these people just blessed with a better genetic makeup? Are they luckier? Or is there more to this than meets the eye?

In our work using NLP and modelling top athletes, we have seen some consistent patterns. It is not possible to cover all of these in this article. We will concentrate on what is arguably the most important element in the mental makeup of world champions.

In reality, at the highest levels of modern sport there is so little to separate performers in terms of technical competence or physical fitness. But when it comes down to the beliefs which athletes have in their ability to be better than the rest, to excel and be successful regardless of circumstance, there is a huge gap between top performers and the rest of the sporting pack.

Sidebar Technique

The SportSuccess(tm) system was created by patterning top performing athletes in many sports. The system allows athletes to systematically create repeatable competitive mindsets which enhance their abilities to succeed.

Here is a basic exercise which you can use to prepare the ground for creating strong self-efficacy  beliefs.

Efficacy Search

1. Think through the experiences of your life, both sporting and otherwise, and find as many experiences as you can where:

• You performed well at any task

• You were praised for a task

• You persisted in the face of obstacles or difficulties

• You gave 110% to some endeavour

• Any activity that you performed that would be worthy of praise if you noticed it happening in someone else.

We are interested in quantity of positive experiences first, then size or "grandness" of experience.It doesn't matter how small or apparently trivial the experiences are to start – as long as you start somewhere.

2. Write them ALL down in a list and add to the listas you recall more experiences.

3. You are now going to make a movie of all of these experiences – a documentary where you are the director. Arrange all of the experiences into a single movie.

4. Watch that movie in your mind from beginning to end several times. On the basis of what you have seen in the movie, what can you truthfully say about the person in that movie? e.g. "They really stick with it even when things aren't going well." "He's got a tremendous amount of focus and concentration on what he wants." "She's got great dedication to learning and improving."

5. Now take that movie and this time go through it as if you are experiencing the events in the movie as you experienced them when they happened. But this time the events happen in the order of the movie rather than the way they happened in life. It's as if you are the actor in the movie and you see everything from that main character's perspective.

Run through the movie to the end, and when you've finished say to yourself the phrase or expression that you said from #4 but say it as an "I" statement. e.g. "I really stick with it even when things aren't going well." etc.

By paying attention to and choosing to dwell upon as many positive reference experiences from your personal life and sporting activities as you can, you begin to build a foundation for strong self-efficacy beliefs which will serve you in your sporting activities.

These distinguishing beliefs are called self-efficacy or expectancy beliefs. This means that you not only believe that a particular outcome is possible (whether that means winning the league or winning an Olympic Gold) but you also know that you have the necessary resources to achieve it.

Our beliefs represent one of the larger mental frameworks for our behaviour. When you truly believe something, you tend to behave in a way that supports that belief. The contribution of belief in one's capabilities to athletic attainment is most clearly demonstrated when someone pursues a seemingly impossible goal. Many performance levels in sport were considered to be physical, impenetrable barriers, seemingly unattainable before they were achieved.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this was the belief that running a mile under four minutes was impossible – reflected by the hundreds who tried and failed. However, Roger Banister decided that this daunting barrier was surpassable. After he smashed the record in his exhausting, historic performance, people immediately believed that it was now possible. Even students now started beating Bannister's record.

Regardless of athletic activity, immediately after a seemingly impenetrable barrier is broken it is often rapidly surpassed by others. A famous African runner named Kip Kpinto bettered the under-four minute mile record fifty times, without even breaking sweat. Once extraordinary performances are shown to be doable they become commonplace.

One of the functions performed for us by our mind is the validation of our ways of thinking about the world. We tend to seek confirmation for what we believe, even if those beliefs are harmful to our well being and better good. If you believe that you are capable and confident, you pay attention to those signals from the outside world which reinforce those beliefs. If you believe that you are not as good as others or that you are being judged badly, you seek the confirming evidence just as readily.

Barriers created by negative self-belief can hinder even the most gifted athletes from realising their full potential. We have heard it said by several coaches that some athletes whose careers had failed could have been champions if they merely performed as well in competition as they did in training. Competitive sport highlights the fragility of an athlete's perceived self-beliefs. Psychologist Richard S Lazarus (84) states that "stress and anxiety primarily arise when we can't handle the approaching problem."

People can become frightened when a stressor is perceived as overwhelming or when they believe that there is no way to escape or solve a problem. Tom Watson, the famous golfer, explained that it wasn't until he won the British Open that he really started to believe in his own ability, as he used to let a poor golf round affect him, but winning that major tournament gave him the confidence to progress. It is apparent that for many the belief in themselves is built upon positive and successful experiences where they performed a high level. What's interesting is that many rely on others to tell them that they played well rather than just knowing deep down that they performed well. These athletes are the ones who question their own beliefs and often expect to lose.

Peter worked as Physical Education Teacher in a Secondary school and believes that many of the foundations of negative beliefs and poor attitudes to sport are started at school. He remembers one extremely talented and skilful football player who had an interesting and fairly typical pattern to his performance in competition. The boy would always excel if he perceived the opposition to be of a lower standard than himself. However, when playing against opposition that he perceived to be as good as him or better he would go to pieces, moving away from physical challenges and hiding on the pitch as if it was the last place on earth he wanted to be. This type of behaviour is called "choking" in sport psychology terminology. It is when we feel nervous, believing we can't manage the situation as it is out of our comfort zone. This type of response is very common even among some of the greater players. When this young boy was faced with these two different competitive situations his mind reacted in two opposing ways. This is commonly called the "fight or flight response". As he did not believe that he could play well against players as good as or better than himself he reacted in a way that supported his belief. Time was spent with him doing some simple reframes around this type of experiences. The first thing suggested to him was, when faced with the situation, pretend that to be better than the rest and imagine that you can overcome any obstacle that is thrown your way. Tell yourself over and again "I can do this, I'm a winner".

The education system in this country doesn't actively encourage children to believe in themselves; it rather makes them aware of their mistakes, i.e. what they can't do, what they got wrong. The way Physical Education is taught has changed, especially since the National Curriculum, with less dictated and more reciprocal styles of teaching being encouraged. However, too many children still experience their first failings and feelings of humiliation on the sports pitch. P.E should provide children with many positive reference experiences that are based on real, progressive development. This would no doubt help to build stronger self-efficacy beliefs, which would in turn, encourage children to believe in themselves more and to constantly achieve. Perhaps then we would produce more consistent world champion athletes rather than having ones who dwell on their failures instead of savouring their successes. When this happens it often creates what psychologists call "learned helplessness". When an athlete lacks self-belief, control and purpose, it can result in excessive negative self-criticism for poor performance, leading him to brood over his mistakes.

We have found that athletes in this predicament tend to conjure up disastrous scenarios in their minds. Instead of planning how to develop and improve, they practise feeling bad about themselves and their capabilities. A sage once said of how the mind operates: "What the thinker thinks, the prover proves."

The average sportsman tries not to worry as he/she thinks about what is at stake and the potential consequences of failure. The ability to deal with failure can heighten or hinder your belief in your ability and learning how to deal with it should be taught at an early age as failure is an integral part of sport. How it is handled can be the most important determinant of how successful an athlete becomes. Baseball players experience massive amounts of failure, even the elite players find that 70% of their efforts end in failure.

Some years ago Michael worked with a client who wanted help with the mental side of his tennis game. He noticed that he became more and more tense as the game went on and every error produced an onslaught of negative messages like, "you stupid idiot" and "what a crap shot". The player explained that he hated playing in tie-breakers as he always lost them and not surprisingly the third set produced one and from there on in his game just collapsed, he went to pieces as he became more angry and frustrated, at one point smashing his racket on the floor. After the game, Michael asked him who he was shouting at when he was playing. He explained that he was shouting to encourage and motivate himself to raise his game.

Michael first asked him what he thought would happen if someone else used the same method on him from the outside. The player said he would tell the outsider to be quiet and allow him to play for himself. It was suggested that the method works no better internally than it would externally. The player began to laugh. Michael encouraged him to start laughing at his mistakes and start looking for his good shots and to continuously praise himself every time he executed a shot successfully.

In addition Michael instructed him in a way to learn to believe how much he loved tie-breakers. After getting over the initial feeling of strangeness in believing something that he previously hadn't believed, the player started looking forward to tie-breakers and when the first one came around, he actually enjoyed it as he had the feeling he could win. It was only a matter of time until he started winning his tie-breakers and enjoying his tennis more. He stayed more relaxed and focused upon praising himself rather than mentally beating himself up.

Michael's client become more prolific as he became more driven to succeed by setting high standards. He was advised to tie his self-evaluation not to winning but rather to his ability to execute his shots consistently well and to being able to remain positive and relaxed regardless of the conditions, circumstances and opposition.

The elite are driven to succeed by setting stringent, high standards for themselves. They tie their self-evaluation to standards of athletic excellence and in meeting those standards, reinforce already strong beliefs.

From our research and our training with top athletes we have observed that the top achievers in sport also have a particular kind of belief in themselves which allows them to block out distractions and control disruptive or negative thinking. Carl Hooper, the Vice Captain of West Indian Cricket Team, recently explained to us "when I bat, I block out everything apart from being one with what I am doing. I am locked in. This requires me to feel supremely confident in my capabilities. I remain focused and positive whatever the situation."

"It is madness to only prepare yourself physically and leave your mental frame to chance. The difference that makes the difference
is learning how to feel strong in your mind as well as your body. Every athlete should understand that you
don't have to have a gold medal around your neck to feel like you're a champion." – Roger Black M.B.E.

Strong self-efficacy beliefs, based on real, progressive development and success, serve as a protective factor against slumps or performance plateaux. The history of sport gives us many great examples, and perhaps one of the greatest was Muhammad Ali.

In 1974, Ali fought George Forman in the fight that was called the 'Rumble in the Jungle'. Ali had been beaten twice and many people believed that, at 32, he was past his prime. The boxing world thought that he would be brutally beaten by a much younger, stronger and seemingly more dangerous man. Even Ali's training camp had serious doubts. However, Ali had a different idea, he told the world he was going to win, saying in every interview: "I'm 32, the stage is set, my legs haven't gone, I'm still strong, I'm still the fastest, the prettiest, the most scientific, classiest boxer, I'm the greatest fighter of all time." He won the fight in emphatic style shocking and pleasing millions of people.

From our research and in using NLP with top athletes it is apparent that a sense of self-belief in the athletic domain is accompanied by lower pre-competition stress and high athletic performance. Athletes have to perform at varying times, in different geographic locations, in variable climatic conditions and in different physical and emotional states. With such a range of potential conditions in their performance environment, athletes frequently re-assess their self-beliefs. But how they do this and what they think about will either help or hinder their performance. The world beaters consistently reappraise their capabilities and potentials positively, generating productive and beneficial thinking. A great example of this was Joe Montana, one of the most famous American Football quarterbacks. Known and loved for his late game heroics, he made comeback victories look ordinary. His high level of self-belief made him think "how am I going to get the job done?" He could think this way even under intense pressure. He never wavered in his belief that he could pull off a victory and he methodically picked apart his opponents under astonishing conditions.

Are winners and top athletes born or made? We say: "Made". Some might be born with better physiological dispositions, but World Champions need more than just high levels of fitness and superior technique. In an article in The Times in December, Dr Totterdell, a psychologist from the University of Sheffield explains that "Psychology alone is not going to make anyone into a great sportsman. It's what makes the difference when talent is equal and technique is the same." He went on to explain that the psychological side of a game needs to be practised in the same way as any other skill. This is how athletes build levels of self-belief far above their counterparts. High self-efficacy and expectancy beliefs give them the ability to perform consistently at a higher level than others.

This is the mark of a true professional, believing that they can always be better than the best and that they have the resources and ability to deal with any situation that might arise.


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About Peter Cohen and Michael Breen

Peter Cohen is a sport psychologist and NLP trainer, working, modelling and training with top athletes. He has worked as a health and fitness professional for ten years. He is the author of the best selling book, Slimming With Pete. Peter and Michael are currently running training courses for sporting participants of all levels that want to learn how to be better than their best applying the strategies and techniques used by the elite athletes. For more details: SportSuccess, Aberdeen Studios, 22-24 Highbury Grove, London, N5 2EA Phone (020) 7704 6604 Michael Breen is an NLP Master Trainer and works closely alongside Dr Richard Bandler the creator of NLP. He is one of the most accomplished and sought after NLP trainer/consultants in Britain today.

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