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Athlete Scenarios



Case Study Examples


  1. Player Kicking for Goal to Win or Lose the Game


An AFL player competes hard physically to earn a free kick and gains an opportunity to kick the winning goal in the final stages of an important game. The club he plays for has struggled to win a game during the long season, and this is a chance for the club to post its first win. The club is coached by a very charismatic, physically confronting and powerful coach, who is renowned for his blistering verbal attacks on players who make mistakes. The player is acknowledged in the club and across the AFL competition as one of the very highly skilled midfielders. He has received the free kick a mere 35 metres from, and directly in front of the goal.


Under normal circumstances this player would kick the goal easily. He could possibly have kicked accurately over the distance with either foot, such was his skill level. In this instance the player looks very anxious and physically tense. He stutters in his run up and proceeds to kick the ball out of bounds on the full. The team loses yet another game and the player is admonished by the coach in front of the other players immediately after the game. The player is in tears feeling he has let his coach, the team, and the fans down.


I spoke directly with the player very soon after he received the coach’s dressing down, and asked him to describe for me what he was feeling, saying to himself, and visualizing as he lined up for the free kick.


The player told me that he was momentarily out of breath after having to fight hard to get the ball and earn the free kick. As he lined up for the kick at goal he realized how important scoring the goal would be for the team, the coach and the long suffering supporters. His mind turned to the many consequences that would follow if he missed the goal. He stated that he ‘forgot’ to take his time and to breathe slowly to settle himself down. Instead he rushed his preparation for the kick, feeling very hesitant and anxious. His self talk included reminding himself not to miss the shot, not to make a mistake. He also reminded himself how angry the coach would be if he missed the goal. He said that incredibly, as soon as he said these things to himself, he felt his heart rate accelerate, he instantly began to tremble, and he had a crystal clear image in his head of the ball going off the side of his boot and out of bounds on the full. As he ran in for the kick he remembered stuttering in his run up, he felt unbalanced, he did not feel as though he had his usual hand control of the ball drop, he realized too late that he was looking at his hoped-for target rather than at the point of contact with the ball, and sure enough the ball went out of bounds on the full, exactly at the position he had visualised.


  1. A Men’s Rowing Four at the Olympics


It was customary in Australian rowing to pick the best 10 or 12 men’s sweep rowers to fill the seats in the men’s pair, men’s four and the men’s eight. The rowers were put through an exhausting selection process that stretched over several months. This process comprised ergometer competitions, long distance (5 kilometre) trials with various combinations in pairs, and performances at the national championships. Selections were then made for men and women in both sweep oared and sculling categories, and the team flown to a series of World Cup events in Europe and/or North America before final selections for each boat were made for the Olympics.


It became clear that selections for the seats in the men’s straight (uncoxed) four were going to be problematic. The four very experienced and highly skilled rowers who won the gold medal at the previous Games were not in good international form, and there were no standout four combinations that seemed to be a certain pick for the selectors.


It came down to a vote by the selectors and the Head Coach of the Olympic Rowing Team. The vote was tied across two possible combinations, and the final seats allocated on the casting vote of the head Coach. His view was that the experienced crew that had won the gold medal in the four at the previous Games knew how to win under pressure, and although their form was not at the standard just yet, he felt that they would rise to the occasion.


The results from the final World Cup regattas leading into the Games were equivocal. The experienced four did not win at any of the regattas. The murmurings were that perhaps the combination should be changed. The Head Coach stuck to his decision and the four arrived at the Games, but not in any way as favorites for the grueling 2 kilometre event.


The crew and their very experienced coach worked diligently with the team sport psychologist on a positive and robust performance mindset, self belief and composure, supported by high quality visualization of themselves performing successfully in the final. These experienced rowers worked very hard on their psychological skill development and became expert at the use of visualization, to the extent that they were able to repeatedly visualise their finals race from their arrival at the course, through their warmup, into the start, and then through every stroke of the race. 


They raced in the morning heat at the Games, but failed to make it through to the final. They had to return to race in the repecharge, and just managed to make it through, but were seeded in the very outside lane for the final. In rowing (like swimming) it is a clear disadvantage to be racing in an outside lane, because of the wake from other boats making balance and speed control difficult.


They requested another, final visualisation of their race plan, between the repecharge and the final. They had put together a very detailed warm up and race final plan, and as they had done previously, sat together in their seat order in the boat. The coach ran through the standard start procedure announcing each country by lane, and gave them the normal start signal.  As a crew they then visualized their against-the-odds final attempt to win the gold medal (moving together, breathing together, and with the planned calls in the boat) over the 2 kilometres. They knew which countries would start quickly and their plan detailed exactly where in the race they would get to the front, and then power on to win the gold medal.


The race unfolded exactly as they had visualized. They knew which teams would jump out from the start, but they were determined to stick to their race plan for the first 1,500 metres. They rowed the final 500 metres to the plan, put their bow ball in front exactly at the point in the race they had planned, and went on to win the gold medal from the very outside lane.


  1. The Olympic Freestyle Swimmer


An aspiring Olympic freestyle swimmer consulted his team sport psychologist to discuss an important issue that was likely to potentially limit his success at the upcoming selection trials. The swimmer had joined the team as a ‘mature age’ recruit, having participated in other sports prior to deciding to focus on making an Olympic swimming team. He was short on elite competition experience, but possessed the right physical capacities and swimming technique to be a serious contender. It seemed that the closer the selection trials, the more difficulty he had in finishing off his 100metre freestyle races.


When asked by his sport psychologist to provide details of what he was experiencing, he explained that he would typically be in front of his main competition with 25 metres to go, and then he would notice them closing in on him, to the extent that some of them would swim past him to touch the wall in front. A little more probing by the psychologist led to the swimmer explaining that when he looked out of the corner of his eye as he breathed at the 75 metre mark, he would see them coming and begin to worry that they were going to swim past him again (this had happened on several race simulation sessions in training). He was asked what happened then to his stroke (did he shorten his stroke in an effort to get to the wall first?). He explained that his reach at the front stayed long, but that he pulled out of the water at the end of his stroke in the rush to increase his stroke rate. He stated that this shortening at the end of each stroke led to inefficiency and he would continue to panic about being swum past by his ‘opposition’. When asked about what he felt towards the end of his stroke when he was swimming fast and efficiently, he described feeling the pressure of the water in the palm of his hand as he pushed at the end of each stroke. This was to be a significant feature in his race plan. 


With this knowledge and understanding, the swimmer and his psychologist first developed a plan to address his mindset by shifting from a focus on the outcome (trying harder to get to the wall first, in order to make it through selection to get onto the Olympic Team) to a process focus on a continuation of his long stroke freestyle technique. An important part of the final 25 metres of his race plan, was to focus intensely on ‘feeling’ the water pressure in the palm of each hand as he pushed at the end of each stroke. This was undertaken with his full acceptance that all of his background training in physical and technical capacity would be enough to gain selection and overcome the reputation he was developing as a ‘poor finisher’, providing he remained mentally disciplined and stuck to his race plan. 


As part of this mindset strengthening, the swimmer developed a detailed race (and pre-race) plan that clearly defined the processes he was required to execute under race conditions. One of the tasks he was set by his sport psychologist was to practice segments of his race plan every time he had an opportunity in race-related work in the training pool. This was further strengthened by his regular, planned use of visualisation of his race plan, including the all important last 25 metres focus on ‘feeling’ the water pressure in the palm of each hand as he pushed to finish each stroke. He used salt water flotation tanks as the best place to practice his visualisation of the race plan, announcing to his sport psychologist after one of his final flotation sessions before the selection trial, that he could ‘feel’ the water pressure in the palms of his hands when he visualised the last 25 metres of his race plan.


With his self belief at an all time high, he had successfully raced against his regular opponents in the training pool under simulated race conditions. He subsequently swam at the selection trails, posting a personal best time for the 100 freestyle and booking his place at the upcoming Olympic Games. 


At the Games, he won his morning heat in a time that placed him in one of the middle lanes for the afternoon final. He was seeded next to the current World and Olympic champion. He rested as planned between the heat and final, and for some reason decided not to attend practice start training with the starter who was to officiate the final of the 100 freestyle later that afternoon. He was confident in his preparation and race plan and backed his ability to be mentally disciplined during the final race.


As it transpired, his main opponent’s coach did research the starter’s technique and realized how quickly he fired the start pistol after the ‘set’ call. He modified his swimmer’s start between that heat and final to take advantage of the anticipated quick start. At the start of the final of the 100 metres freestyle, he read the quick start style of the official starter and beat all of the others in the race off the blocks. It looked like he had false started, as he had a full body length advantage off the blocks. Our swimmer was still grabbing his starting block thinking that the second start pistol shot would call the false start, as his opponent hit the water. What a disaster!


To the very full credit of the Aussie swimmer, rather than panicking and thrashing through the water trying to make up for his poor start, he stuck exactly to his race plan, swam in his own lane and progressively reeled his opponent in. With 25 metres to go our swimmer kept his stroke length and pulled alongside the Olympic and World champion. In a photo finish (none watching could determine who won) our swimmer was beaten into the silver medal position by 0.4 of a second. The winner broke the Olympic record for the event. Some 30 years later the gold medalist admitted that he still felt guilty, and further that if it had been a clean start, our Aussie swimmer would have won the gold medal.

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