What makes elite athletes thrive or dive under pressure? | The Economist video transcript

For top level sports people it's not just skill and athleticism that count. So often it's mind over matter. Psychology is now seen as increasingly vital to winning. Having a sports psychologist is just as valuable as a strength and conditioning coach. In elite sport, a difference between success and failure is often the finest of margins.

It's all about raising the bar one year to the next. The annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities is one of the oldest and most prestigious events in the sporting calendar. For the competitors, it's 20 minutes of pure pain but also pure pressure.

When they walk outside that boathouse there will be 100,000 people standing on the bank. That is something you just can't get your head around until you actually lived it.

How the rowers cope with that intense pressure can make the difference between glory and failure. The Cambridge women's team have won the last two races and this woman has been one of the secrets of their success. So I work on managing their thinking, knowing that they are in control of their psychological state.

Sports psychologist Helen Davis has worked on specific techniques to help the team at the most mentally testing moments in the race.

When the pain kicks in they have trigger words that they've planned for in advance that they will say to themselves, to get across the finish line.

As training for the 2019 race intensifies, just trying to keep up with team mates is mentally gruelling. Trying to make those crews is huge pressure. I get off the water and I've just been trying to keep up with people who compete at World Championships and then I work on my PhD and I'm trying to keep up with people that I feel are so much smarter than me so it's pressure that I put on myself.

So I will very much encouraged them to view pressure as a challenge. Focus on certain things with their thinking that's going to help them with their performance rather than focusing on the uncertainties of their situation.

Understanding what makes athletes cope or panic at those crucial moments is an ever growing obsession in professional sport. It's the multi billion dollar question that sports psychologists are constantly trying to answer. Dr Jamie Barker lectures at the world's leading sports science university Loughborough in Britain. What is the reaction that individuals go through and how does that contributes how they perform? That’s the intrigue that we have.

In 2013 Jamie help devise a cardiovascular test. It compared the physiological reactions of athletes who thrive in a high pressure situation with those who flop. A group of aspiring professional cricketers were set a specific target. We had a scenario where they were would have to score 36 runs off 30 deliveries when facing a bowling machine. The cricketer's were warned that their results would be made public and would decide who makes the team and who doesn't. Nearly half the players hit the test for six and scored the runs and most of them went into what psychologists call a challenge state. With a challenge state my body releases adrenaline which opens up my arteries which means his blood glucose and oxygen going around my body. I'm able to make better decisions I'm able to move quickly. Over half the batsman found themselves on a stickier wicket and failed to make the runs. They mostly entered the so-called threat state. In a threat state I experienced the release of cortisol which constrict the arteries around my heart so there’s less blood going around my body and hence my performance may suffer. As a sports psychologist we can then start to go in and say how can we help you to go from a threat state to a challenge state. Jamie employs a mental visualisation technique that sports psychologists have used with a variety of professional teams. Athletes are asked to picture a set of scales. On one side are their demands, the obstacles to success. They’re taught to tip the balance the other way, towards their resources. The attributes they possess that can help them. It is about trying to develop a perception of control. Can individuals really focus on the things that they can influence rather than worry about external factors?

Sports psychology is sometimes criticised as a phoney science but many major sports teams and personalities now use psychologists and there's a growing acceptance that this boosts performances. In sports as in the world beyond, a mental edge can bring a winning one. Everyone in this team pushes themselves to incredible limits and that's why they've come so far academically and in sports.

What makes elite athletes thrive or dive under pressure? | The Economist video

Back to Challenge and threat in sport