Being an elite athlete requires more than physical training. Sara Coen spoke to sports psychologist Ruth Anderson about calmness and clarity in competitive sport.
Shortly, Australia’s best athletes will be proving their prowess at the 2012 London Olympics. Yet not all the hard work will happen in the arena. Having the concentration, confidence and control to perform are just as important as having the athletic ability.
ACU graduate Ruth Anderson is Head of Psychology for the Australian Olympic team, and is busy helping focus anxious minds.
“Athletes are not super-human,” she said. “In reality, they get nervous, fearful and anxious – and this is completely normal in a fiercely competitive environment like the Olympic Games.
“Obstacles such as doubt and insecurity often creep in, impacting an athlete’s ability to compete – and it’s my role to help make sure psychological factors don’t hinder their performance and skill execution.
“I help athletes develop a sense of self-awareness, particularly in relation to obstacles such as fear, doubt and insecurity that can impact their performance. This, along with assertiveness and self-esteem can make a huge difference.”
When it’s not an Olympic year, Ruth spends most of her time at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), where she is a Senior Sports Psychologist based in Queensland, working with athletes in the elite swimming, tennis and diving programs.
The 39-year-old said different sports are very unique in their psychological challenges, and the real art in her job is to devise coping strategies which take into account both the individual personality of the athlete and the demands of their sport.
“Tennis for example is a game of endurance, and athletes need to recover rapidly from error and regulate their emotions over a long period of time,” she said. “It’s all about having a calm mind. Tennis players need clarity to make fluid decisions quickly on court about what they need to do technically and tactically.
“Athletes competing for shorter durations on the other hand, particularly divers, need to be in the right psychological state prior to performing. They need to be prepared in advance because they simply don’t have time to adjust once in full flight – it’s all over in a split second.
“There is an extremely high level of control required in diving. Athletes need to know how to regulate things like fear, anxiety and adrenalin which rush through the body naturally– especially when jumping from a 10-metre platform.”
Ruth said observing the athletes’ performance is an important part of her work – to gain a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and uncover any psychological factors which may be limiting their potential.
“It’s not always just about physical performance enhancement,” she said. “It’s vital for athletes to be confident, happy and have good mental health outside of the athletic environment if they are to function effectively in sport.
“It’s especially rewarding working with athletes who are constantly willing to challenge themselves -to grow, develop and move forward - particularly those who have experienced diversity and overcome difficulties in their lives.”
Ruth said athletes are people great to work with on a daily basis because they are generally highly motivated, and always striving to be the best they can be.
“They really inspire me to reach my own goals in life,” she said. “I live on the coast so lately I’ve been learning to surf. I love the challenge it brings and I’m constantly trying to overcome my own performance anxiety as I ride bigger and bigger waves.
“I’m not an elite athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but getting a feel for what it might be like helps me in my work.”