Sport psychology and staying in the zone


by Andrew Sillitoe

It’s finally here, the 2015 Rugby World Cup and it’s in our backyard!

It's one thing competing in the world cup, but it’s an entirely different pressure doing it in your own country. The England team will need another level of mental toughness, although the home support will play a key role in the team’s success.

The area of performance that I am often approached about by both athletes and business leaders is how to develop the ability to stay in the zone.  Rugby players who perform at the highest level have the ability to do this; essentially they are able to manage their thoughts, feelings and emotions, and they deliver under pressure.

Being in the zone will enhance your gravitas; it will increase your awareness, clarity of judgement, decision-making and the ability to take risks at the right time. It will also define your level of mental toughness.

There are moments when an athlete will act irrationally and later reflect on this experience wondering what just happened. Does that sound familiar? The brain doesn’t differentiate from one threat to another and therefore reacts accordingly, whether you’re Jonny Wilkins drop kicking for the championship or sitting a school exam, your brain won't know the difference. Top performing athletes know how to manage this, remain composed and maintain clarity in crisis. They know when there is crisis there is also opportunity and in life it is no exception.

Athletes with a winning mind-set have developed a self-belief, which manifests itself as confidence or at least it is perceived this way. They have learnt how to manage their emotions and behave in a way that is required to perform at their best.

Muhammad Ali said, “To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are”. Whilst he was an extremely talented boxer, he was also very confident and convincing about his ability.

When I work with amateur athletes looking to break into the pro leagues, one of the key factors for their development is to help them look, act and feel like a top performing athlete. The problem is, they will never achieve their goals until they start behaving like a professional player, to become professional they have to look, act and feel like a professional in the first place.

You can adopt successful behaviour; you can assimilate positive behaviours in others and emulate them. You don’t have to be a sportsperson to practise these concepts; you can do this in all walks of life.

If you’re a rugby fan watching the games, be curious about whom you think is in the zone, the ones who have withdrawn from the pressure or perhaps you notice players who hide their fear with bravado.

Look out for the players who look present, who have gravitas and command with authority. They own the very moment and they are ones who are feared the most.

By Andrew Sillitoe

Author of Managing The Mist: How to develop winning mind-sets and create high performing teams