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Elites Do. Do You? #2: Simulate Yourself.

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm

Here is part two of my 5-part post on the ways that elite athletes manage pre-competitive anxiety. This post explores simulation training.

In my previous post, I gave a general overview of the 4 advanced psychological strategies that elite athletes use to manage their pre-competitive anxiety. Today, I'll focus on one: Simulation training.

What is simulation training? The easiest way to start to answer that question is begin with simulation training's sibling, visualization. Or, more accurately, visualization the way most of us have been taught.

If you've read any of the popular books on sport psychology or taken any mental prep workshop (my own included) you've come across the technique of imagining your perfect performance. We generally tell you to get as clear a picture as possible of the ideal competitive situation, to feel yourself in the zone, and to see yourself triumphant with a gold medal around your neck. Or something to that effect. The point is that with the basic technique of visualization you make everything you see perfect.

Not so with simulation training. If traditional visualization is the good twin, then simulation training is the evil one. Hanton, Wadey, and Mellalieu, the authors of the study of elite athletes, describe two main components of simulation training: mental rehearsal and physical practice. Elite athletes don't just imagine the perfect race condition when they train, the visualize and train in imperfect conditions. As the authors write:

"Specifically, they imagined and trained in the presence of stressors associated primarily and directly with competition (e.g., poor officiating, competitive rivals, crowd noise, and adverse weather conditions), which brought about thoughts and feelings associated with their usual anxiety response."

What would these athletes do? They would hold mock competitions with other athletes. They would play crowd-noise over the loud speaker when they were trying to focus. They would have teammates intentionally try to disrupt their attention, they would turn on the sprinklers before training to practice in wet-weather conditions.

But that wasn't all. At the same time all of this was going on, they would imagine themselves successfully coping with, and thriving under these conditions.

How does this work?

Well, it doesn't get rid of the elite athlete's anxiety. These athletes are well aware that anxiety is a natural part of the athletic experience. What it does do is allow the athlete to feel more in-control of their anxiety response. It also allows them to feel more comfortable when they do experience pre-competitive anxiety. This allows them to focus on the important aspects of their competition. Here's how one of the athletes from the study put it:

"It [simulation training] really helps me to prepare for competition... Then when I'm at competition, it's a familiar feeling, like I've been there before...Yeah, I still get nervous, don't get me wrong, you always need some nerves to perform well. But, because I know it's coming, I'm in control. And if you're in control you will perform better."

The nice thing about this advanced strategy for coping with anxiety is that you do not have to be an elite athlete to use it. You can imagine things that might be hard or difficult and how you will cope with them. You can see yourself hurting and yet continuing to compete. You can practice running hills until you're ready to puke so that running hills in a race is no big deal. The possibilities are endless.

Reference: Hanton, Wadey & Mellalieu (2008). Advanced psychological strategies and anxiety responses in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 472-490.

And this is just the first of the four strategies I'll be writing about. Next up: Cognitive Restructuring.


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