You always win or lose by nothing

I am often asked what use the psychologist is to an athlete who is already strong if not even among the top of the world rankings. Several answers can be given to this question, but for me the most significant one is about helping him achieve the goal of his competition. To take part in a competition in which he wants to provide the maximum of which he is capable, comparing himself with other opponents who have the same preparation, the same level and the same will.

So not just running 100 meters as fast as possible but doing so in competition with others who are equally capable. The situation is then further complicated by the context in which the race takes place: the importance of the race, the number of spectators (which sometimes number in the tens of millions if not more), the expectations that the country places on the athlete, his or her popularity, the expectations of donors, friends, family and all supporters. Let us remain, however, with what happens on the field : the athlete and the opponents.

Competizione    Differenza percentuali nei tempi    Differenza percentuali nei tempi

fra primo e quarto posto                  fra primo e quarto posto
Uomini                                                        Donne
Sprints                                     1.83%                                                          1.70%
Distance                                  1.09%                                                             .98%
Throws                                     3.07%                                                          5.35%
Jumps                                     1.98%                                                            3.21%


Source: R. Chapman, E-Magazine, Comitato Olimpico Stati Uniti.

As far as I am concerned, concentration training must be the essential goal of mental training, and the data above are a confirmation of this. Their relevance is such that they were discussed at a U.S. athletics workshop for the purpose of providing guidance on how to improve the performance of their athletes. The topics covered included biomechanics, sports psychology and nutrition. The obvious finding is that 2% improvement in a sprinter leads to a 75% chance of winning against three opponents who have the same abilities. The same is valid in the reverse direction the 2% reduction eliminates any chance of victory. Research on this topic shows that changes of 0.3%-0.5% dramatically increase/decrease the chance of getting on the podium.

So very small changes in performance have a major impact on the outcome that is achieved. American psychologists have moved toward providing guidance on how to reduce distractions and train concentration on the performance to be performed since it is a coachable skill like physical and technical skills. This is valid in all sports. Giovanni Pellielo, in the shot put, did not go to the finals at the European and World Championships because he took only 122 out of 125 skeet instead of 123 (0.8% difference), and Josefa Idem finished second in Beijing by less than 1cm from first.

Had you ever thought about that?

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