Developing mentally tough players

August 2, 2020

Pakistan sports authorities need to engage qualified people to apply modern psychological methods to get the best out of athletes

Mental toughness is very important for athletes to succeed. Athletes need mental and psychological treatment during their careers which see ups and downs. There is no culture in Pakistan to focus on this area and only coaches who are taught psychology in their coaching academics pay attention to these matters during preparatory phase and competitions.

I remember Pakistan Boxing Federation (PBF) hired the services of a psychologist way back in 2014 to work with the boxers who were preparing for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Incheon Asian Games the same year. And that worked.

Let’s ask Zaigham Maseel, an Asian Games silver medallist boxer, and he will tell you in detail how important sports psychology is and its role in boxing.

“The mental preparation of a boxer is an important element. They need psychological management,” Zaigham told ‘The News on Sunday’ (TNS) in an interview.

“When a boxer fights in a competition he requires commitment, tolerance, belief, courage and confidence. These are the parts of his character. Physical training, fitness and game skills have their own objectives.

“Cardiorespiratory fitness, strength and conditioning, muscles endurance, muscles strength, agility, speed, flexibility, technique and tactics also are cardinal elements,” he said.

“Although a fight cannot be played without game skills and fitness, during a fight a boxer cannot survive without confidence, courage, belief, tolerance, and commitment,” he was quick to add.

“Psychological management of players started way back in 1920s in Russia. Their athletes were extremely successful in the Olympic Games and used to win most of the medals. They were trained physically as well as mentally.

“Therefore sports organisations started recognising the importance of this aspect of sports,” he said.

“The Americans included psychology in their training programmes too. They always emphasised induction of a psychologist within their team of coaches. Mental training programmes were introduced to Europe late in the 1960s. Today sports psychologists are more and more in demand,” he said.

“Actually coaches are responsible for bringing boxers to their mental peaks. They start their work with psychologists by analysing and understanding the mental state and skills of boxers. They check their self-esteem, anxiety levels, attention, imagination, motivation, stress management abilities and goal setting. They work with boxers in groups but also individually. Not all boxers work with the same level of engagement. But those who are disciplined and believe in using mental tools show results later in the ring,” Zaigham said.

“The coaches’ team starts training with goal setting. The goals must be measurable and achievable. They also set time-frames. They check the results after 30 days. Boxers need to be focused on their goals.

“Coaches help boxers to understand this and to be really clear in their minds about where they want to go,” he said.

“If a boxer decides that he could reach higher than his current position then the coaches outline a specific plan about how to achieve that. They encourage him to go ahead. Next is visualisation of the goal, and the boxer does visualisation sessions every day. In his brain he gets used to seeing himself in the best possible condition. The coaches give specific guidelines to the boxer to help him with the visualisation process. It is crucial that during the visualisation he feels the moment with his emotions and five senses. When he visualises, for example, walking to the ring, he needs to hear his own steps; he needs to feel the lights and the crowd. He visualises the whole fight the way he wants to fight it,” Zaigham said.

“If the boxers connect their minds to their bodies then they will do what their minds want,” he said.

“Some boxers have natural mental strength. But there are many who have difficulties in visualising themselves at the top. They also don’t recognise their own hard work. This is a problem of self-confidence and self-esteem. The coaches help them to reconstruct their self-esteem and to see themselves in a new way. The coaches are conditioned by their past and by negative messages of different people. Sometimes they need to brainwash the boxers to exclude from their minds the negative past in order to see in their brains new and positive elements,” he said.

“It is all about training. The top three mental skills of a successful boxer are self-confidence, visualisation and focus (concentration).

“There is a technique called SPERA. A boxer can exercise a few days before the competition and a few minutes before going to the ring. This technique is to remind him that he is in the best mental and physical condition,” he said.

“S stands for synchronisation: During 3-5 minutes before going to the ring, the boxer synchronises his mind and body to be in the present moment. He concentrates on his breathing and affirms to himself ‘I am here’. There are no thoughts about the past or the future. When he enters the fight he is completely in the moment.

“P stands for power: The boxer focuses on his internal power. E stands for energy: The boxer focuses on balance of energy, good flow of energy.

“R stands for rhythm: The boxer focuses on good and balanced rhythm.

“A stands for activation: The boxer focuses on good and positive attitude.

“The boxer needs to hear his own voice to see where the problem is and how he can do better.

“At the top level, all boxers are trained for the maximum performance. And it is their mental conditioning which makes the difference in the final result,” Zaigham signed off.

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Developing mentally tough players