Psychology of Throwing: An Athletics Competition Guide
BY JOSH DOUGLAS
For athletes, competing and nerves pretty much come hand in hand. They are unavoidable and, if not dealt with, can have some detrimental effects on one's performance.
Even if an athlete is in the best shape possible physically and is all set to throw PBs, if they aren't mentally able to cope with competing, all the effort feels like it's gone to waste. Some athletes are naturally able to deal with the feelings that come with competing. Some even find the nerves help them as they view the feelings as pure adrenaline. Whilst that's great for some, not all of us are that psychologically gifted, and may have to put in some work to get to that level. This skill tends to be developed through simply competing. However, there are some that may require some extra assistance or want to quicken the process.
The rest of this article will provide you with some valuable strategies for dealing with nerves.
One tactic agreed upon across the board for helping with competition stress and performance is developing a pre-performance routine.
These routines aim to mentally and physically prepare oneself for the competition, and they can be either habitual, subconscious, or intentional. They have been used in various sports and are usually employed to help an athlete achieve a state of focus. Whilst most research does not state what pre-performance routines are most effective, a more recent meta-analysis of 112 effect sizes concludes that PPR interventions are beneficial regardless of their form. There isn't much of a consensus as to what role PPR actually fulfils (i.e. we know that it works, but we don't know how it works).
Stephen Boutcher proposed five main benefits of PPR while researching attention and athletics performance in 1992 to address this issue. These benefits include improved concentration, shifting the performance's focus internally and preventing overthinking. Boutcher ultimately concluded that PPR provides increased attentional focus. However, he never went on to test experimentally if this was true. Regardless, PPR is considered to be effective in improving performance under pressure.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A PRE-PERFORMANCE ROUTINE FOR THROWS COMPETITIONS?
Things that you could include in your pre-performance routine as a throwing athlete may involve:
- Doing specific stretches
- Listening to a particular playlist
- Doing drills
- Doing some breathing techniques
By having a routine that you do repeatedly, in training or competing, you develop a sense of familiarity and comfort as it is something you've done before. It's also warranted to suggest you have a routine you can perform anywhere that requires minimal equipment. This reduces the chance of you worrying that you've missed something.
Acclimatisation is a tool to help athletes gain confidence under stressful situations. The rationale behind acclimatisation training is that as an athlete can train under pressure, they may get used to the negative stimulus and learn positive coping mechanisms to combat them.
Analysis of athletes' interviews reveals that the simulation but not replication of high-pressure situations can help athletes better cope in competitive environments. Meta-analyses have also found that pressure training could be used as a choking intervention. The best way to explain this is that you get good at what you practice. If you "practice" being relaxed at training, taking your time and taking as many throws as you like with minimal effort, then that's all you'll be good at, and you'll be unable to cope with high-pressure situations with a limited number of throws.
A way of applying this principle to your training in the case of throwing would be to engage in mock competitions or even reduce the number of throws you're allowed in training. If you do 30-50 throws per session, all you teach your brain is that it doesn't matter if this throw is bad because I have as many attempts as I like to get it right. Limiting your throws sessions to 6-12 throws once in a while makes you more comfortable with having to perform at your best with limited attempts. This strategy is something you employ closer to the competition season, as you wouldn't be making massive technical changes.
ATHLETICS TRAINING IN DIFFERENT SCENARIOS
Whilst acclimatisation is getting used to stress, training in different competitive situations is another way of reducing stress.
Too often, athletes believe that competitions are ideal environments to perform their best and sometimes come unprepared as a result. By being prepared for different situations, you ensure that even if something unexpected were to happen, it wouldn't affect you as much as it could have done if you weren't.
Whilst athletics is predominantly a summer sport, British weather doesn't always conform to what 'summer' is meant to mean. Many people may not attend training if it's raining, which can often be a recipe for disaster when their competitions come around. Many athletes are also used to having their coaches at competitions and struggle to compete if they are not there. Some will try to combat this by having parents record the competition and send it to the coach for feedback. This may cause even more stress for the athlete, and thus, I recommend that athletes learn to train or have mock competitions by themselves to learn independence.
By ensuring you've trained and have simulated competitive experience in various environments, you'll be much better equipped to deal with stress when the big day comes.
REFRAMING FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Reframing is a mental skill similar to positive self-talk that can help calm your body.
Simply put, it is the recognition of negative self-talk and reframing it in a more positive light. Whilst reframing is commonly used after injury or to combat depression, it also appears to affect athletic performance positively. A reason to add reframing to your list of mental skills is that it can help reduce ironic effects.
WHAT ARE IRONIC EFFECTS?
Ironic effects can be described as overthinking adverse outcomes that inevitably lead to the eventual negative outcome. A real-life example would be skiers thinking not to hit the trees and then hitting them rather than thinking of following the snow. We can think of reframing as a form of self-talk. Whether that self-talk is positive or negative can directly impact the subsequent performance of the athlete.
In application to throwing, an example of an ironic effect would be if you were worried about throwing the discus in the cage, you'd start thinking, "Don't cage it", which ironically makes you cage it more. Consequently, a better cue would be to "throw it in the sector". This also applies to movement cues, changing "don't under rotate" to "rotate more". Moving away from "don't do this" to "do this" improves the chance of your desired behaviour manifesting itself a lot better.
Not only does reframing help with ironic effects, but it also helps with nerves more generally. This, however, is a more advanced technique as it requires a lot of self-monitoring, and the presence of a coach to call you out on your negativity may be helpful. By changing thoughts like "I throw terribly at this track" to "my past experiences have not been great, but that doesn't mean I'll always throw bad there", you take power away from external influences, and it allows yourself to have a better chance at performing better.
STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH NERVES IN ATHLETICS
These are good examples of methods you can use to prevent stress in preparation for competing. However, not all methods, like acclimatisation, are necessarily great at tackling the issue if you are already stressed. Some ways to reduce stress at the competition itself are:
- Relaxation techniques: breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation
- Distraction methods: listening to music, socialising with others
- Focus techniques: grounding, visualisation
Sadly, many methods require some practice to get good at, and not all of them have the same effect on everyone. For instance, I know that when I get stressed or riled up at a competition, I get a very overactive upper body when I'm throwing, so I do what I call a "body scan" to try and relax my muscles from the hips upwards.
By experimenting with different methods through trial and error, you'll be able to develop a good arsenal of mental skills to deal with nerves.
ABOUT JOSH DOUGLAS
Joshua Douglas is an U23 shotputter and discus thrower, who competes across the UK and is a high placing athlete in many of the events he participates in.
He is also currently undertaking an undergraduate degree in sport psychology, and is very passionate in helping other athletes in this area, as well as other areas in throwing and athletics!
Josh will mainly be talking about discus throw in his content. However, as he is studying sport psychology at university, he also cover this area in his blogs where he can!