To achieve elite performance and maintain consistency, athletes must possess mental discipline. This involves establishing and adhering to productive routines while maintaining control over their attention.
Elite athletes construct comprehensive routines by gathering valuable insights from reliable sources such as strength and conditioning coaches, mental coaches, technical coaches, nutritionists, agents, physicians, and loved ones. They consider three key aspects of preparation and performance: technical-mechanical movements (e.g., executing strategies and movements specific to their sport), physical components (e.g., sleep, nutrition, overall health), and mental components (e.g., confidence, focus, intensity).
In addition to broader schedules encompassing seasons, weeks, and days, elite athletes focus intensely on two critical time frames preceding their performance: one hour and five minutes prior. During these moments, they assess their "eyes and ears," asking themselves, "Where is my attention?" Following a systematic routine, athletes ensure that their attention remains directed towards actions, thoughts, and emotions that promote peak performance. If they detect distractions, they can shift their perspective (sometimes through visualization), regulate their emotions (controlled breathing to manage heart rate), and adjust their actions by following a pre-game checklist.
This process may be repeated at various intervals during the competition, depending on the sport (e.g., during timeouts or halftime). It can also continue after the competition when athletes evaluate their performance, cool down, or engage with teammates and the media.
The essential aspect of any effective routine is for athletes to be aware of why they need to follow it to maximize their performance, acknowledge the necessity of consistent adherence, and wholeheartedly commit to the process.
How do we effectively get athletes to follow routines under pressure and handle stress more effectively?
The answer lye's in an athletes training environment.
Certain aspects of an athlete's environment can create an excessive feeling of comfort and safety, which can be detrimental to both individual and team performance. It is widely accepted that the environment has a significant impact on an athlete's performance (7). Among the various elements in the environment that influence athletes, the interplay between Challenge and Support has been found to significantly affect performance (8, 9). Challenge refers to an environment that sets high expectations for athletes, fostering accountability and responsibility for their actions. Support, on the other hand, involves creating a setting that facilitates skill development, encourages learning, builds trust among athletes and coaches, and encompasses various forms of support, such as esteem, emotional, informational, and tangible support (9, 10).
The balance between challenge and support determines the type of environment in which athletes operate, impacting their well-being and performance. In the context of sports, a 2×2 matrix is formed by challenge and support, comprising a Stagnant environment (Low challenge, Low support), Unrelenting environment (High challenge, Low support), and Facilitative environment (High challenge, High support). The Facilitative environment is considered the most effective as it promotes development, well-being, and improved performance. However, when criticisms of being 'too comfortable' are raised regarding athletes or teams, it usually refers to a
Comfortable environment. This environment offers a high level of support but lacks the necessary challenge to push athletes or teams to their full potential (10). While it may not be an ideal condition for thriving, the Comfortable environment possesses certain characteristics that can lead to dips in performance, highlighting the need to increase the level of challenge to transform it into a facilitative one.
It is important to note that while a facilitative environment is the desired goal, it is not a static environment. Instead, it is a dynamic one that requires consistently high levels of challenge and support over an extended period of time, rather than at specific moments (10).
How can a comfortable environment be identified?
The question that arises here is how one can recognize and identify a comfortable environment. There are certain features of such an environment (10), and if the majority of these features frequently surround the athletes, it is highly likely that they are becoming too comfortable. A general characteristic of a comfortable environment is an over-protective atmosphere, where everyone always tries to be excessively 'nice' to each other. This often leads to a reluctance to engage in difficult conversations, and underperformance tends to go unaddressed. Personal relationships between individuals can contribute to this situation, as exemplified by the case of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, whose performance significantly declined in 2017, following an exceptional 2016 season. According to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, one of the reasons for Carr's decline was his close relationship with the new offensive coordinator, which made him too comfortable and complacent (11).
Complacency is also prevalent in comfortable environments, with athletes becoming too accustomed to working within their comfort zones. This hinders their professional and personal growth, making individuals who seek challenges feel constrained. As a result, they may start exploring alternatives, such as moving to different leagues or teams, to escape the overly comfortable environment. For example, some young players in the English Premier League have chosen to play abroad to challenge themselves outside the familiar environment (12).
These are some of the characteristics of a comfortable environment that can be helpful for coaches in identifying such a setting where performance is declining due to athletes not being pushed hard enough.
What should be done if the team is becoming too comfortable?
For coaches, it is crucial to strive for a balance between support and challenge over time to bring out the best in their athletes (9). Psychosocial training programs that promote stress desensitization and inoculation in sports have been found effective in enhancing performance (10).
To achieve a balance between challenge and support, coaches can introduce a procedure called pressure inurement training during practice sessions.
Pressure inurement training involves manipulating the environment in a controlled setting to elicit a stress-related response in athletes (10). This manipulation is aimed at maintaining their functioning and performance under pressure. Such training is typically implemented after skill acquisition and automation, and it involves gradually increasing pressure and challenge on athletes using two approaches:
Manipulating the properties of the stressor itself, such as transitioning from non-competitive to competitive situations or from familiar to novel challenges, and increasing the frequency of exposure to stressors.
Gradually increasing the significance of the stressor by making it more personally relevant to the athlete, emphasizing its importance in reaching goals, and highlighting the consequences of failure.
Increasing the challenge is only part of pressure inurement training, and it is essential to ensure that the support provided through learning and practice is not excessively reduced. Monitoring individual responses to increased challenge training, both in terms of mental well-being and performance, can indicate whether the athlete has successfully adapted to the challenge or not.
Successful adaptation will manifest as facilitative responses and positive outcomes, which can be further enhanced through developmental feedback and increased challenge. Conversely, unsuccessful adaptation will be characterized by debilitating responses and negative outcomes, calling for motivational feedback and increased support.
In addition to pressure inurement training, rigorous team selection can act as a trigger for athletes to push themselves harder, ensuring that players do not become complacent by assuming their positions in the team are secure. This aligns with the comments made by Michael Vaughan, suggesting that dropping players can actually motivate them to perform better. For instance, Mallik Wilks, a 19-year-old footballer from Leeds United, was dropped for a match, which motivated him to train harder and perform well when given the opportunity (14). He scored in the next game he started (15).
In conclusion, it is important to recognize that players can indeed become too comfortable when the environment around them offers ample support but lacks the necessary challenge, ultimately affecting performance negatively. Therefore, actively reflecting on the environment and its characteristics in terms of challenge and support is crucial. If a comfortable environment is identified, it becomes important to reduce support and increase challenge for athletes to improve performance and push them to reach their full potential. This is vital for athletes and teams to realize their potential and achieve their goals effectively.