Finding Joy in Competition- The Key to Thrive Under Pressure
Imran Nadaph, Program Manager for High Performance at ELMS Sports Foundation and a Certified Executive and Life Coach, explores why having a positive experience while competing is probably the best way to succeed in sports.
Competitions can be more stressful than they are fun. However, if we are able to reframe our expectations about their outcomes and train accordingly, we will not only be able to improve our performances but also experience great joy in the process of competing.
“It’s your first competitive game! Don’t worry about the result, just go out there and enjoy the experience,” said the coach in his warm assuring voice.
The athlete Nikita (name changed), a talented 14-year old badminton player, smiled nervously as she looked at her opponent who seemed to be physically superior to her and one of the top players in their age-group. At this moment, Nikita could only think about the difficulty of the challenge in front of her and if this was going to be the end of the tournament for her.
When the game started, the opponent was quick to dominate the proceedings and establish her lead. Nikita tried to fight back but with every lost point, it became harder for her to ignore the scorecard and keep her focus on enjoying the game as per the coach’s instructions. By the end of the match, all Nikita could feel was a sense of utter frustration and disappointment which totally contradicted the intended purpose of her participation viz. — to enjoy the challenge of competing! Unfortunately, Nikita’s experience is rather the norm than an exception, especially in youth sports.
Despite having access to well-intentioned coaches and good training opportunities, for a lot of young athletes, enjoying competition is a skill and an attitude that doesn’t come naturally. In their inability to cope with the intense pressure of competition, they often fail to enjoy the game. If left unaddressed, it can lead to a lot of children and youngsters dropping out of competitive sports during their teenage years. In many cases, such individuals may completely give up on being physically active as well. Understanding how to deal with competition and developing a positive attitude will help athletes look at competition as a way to improve themselves and this is something that coaches can definitely address.
So, are there better ways to help young athletes approach competition with the right mindset? To begin with, any approach that seeks to address this challenge must provide answers to the following key questions –
Firstly, do athletes really understand what the goal truly is? In this case, merely asking them to enjoy the experience is not enough. Coaches need to probe whether the athletes ever have experienced the feeling of enjoyment during competitions.
Secondly, can athletes prioritize and focus on things that are under their control in order to achieve the goal?
To address the first question, coaches must really get to know their athletes in order to be able to help them understand their true motivations. Over the course of several training sessions, coaches must observe and spend at least a couple of minutes discussing with the athletes what they enjoyed the most about the game. This will help athletes develop self-awareness about what truly matters to them in a game. Once that clarity is achieved, it becomes easier for athletes to recreate the same state of happiness or joy in an actual competition as they have a frame of reference to draw from their previous experiences. This, in turn, will help them look at their competition objectively and focus on enjoying the game instead. Now that the athletes are clear about their goal that of enjoying a competition, we are left to address the second question. Can the athletes actually put a plan of action in place to achieve the goal? Responses to this question will invariably revolve around athletes’ abilities to shift their focus from external outcomes to internal achievements. In competitive sports, it is generally accepted that the way to deliver your best performance is to forget about the outcome (winning or losing) and stay “in the now” (by not critiquing your every action as good or bad). Those who are able to do this, not only are most likely to get the desired outcome, but also experience tremendous satisfaction. They are also able to maintain higher levels of concentration which leads to better performance and therefore increase in happiness. This is what makes competition exciting to athletes and allows them to enjoy their sport even in the toughest of situations.
A large part of this success comes from the support of coaches and parents to the athletes. As much as it is the athlete’s ability to deal with a stressful situation, it is also the responsibility of those supporting the athlete to create the right environment with the right training. So, as a coach or parent of a young athlete, if you can find ways to make competition enjoyable and more importantly incorporate some of the above-mentioned approaches into the training regime, athletes will not only be able to develop their sport-related skills but also develop the ability to thrive under pressure, skill that will serve them well beyond sport.