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Nico W. van Yperen: what can you do as an athlete to win more often?

What can you do as an athlete to win more often?

Competitive sports are typical zero-sum games: you either win or lose. In this context, winning is therefore often the most important goal. One of the problems, however, is that thoughts about winning or not losing undermine the athlete’s focus on the task at hand, and consequently, their performance. What can athletes do to optimize self-regulation and performance in a competitive context? In our research, teaching, and consultancy work we focus on four effective psychological principles.

Nico W. van Yperen

First, athletes should focus on the building blocks of their desired outcome, and on process goals in particular. Process goals are set by breaking down uncontrollable outcomes such as “winning” into controllable chunks and by creating a plan to achieve this. Because process goals rely on standards that are inherent in the task itself, athletes receive direct and ongoing feedback during their performances. Such a strategy strengthens concentration and involvement and increases the chance of getting into a flow.

In addition, it is important that athletes formulate approach-oriented goals, not avoidance goals. Athletes who pursue negatively-defined goals (avoiding deterioration or stagnation) often perform worse than athletes with positively defined goals (task management, self-improvement). Athletes with approach-oriented goals tend to be higher in self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, and lower in anxiety and fear of failure. A third principle is that athletes distinguish between the competitive context and their psychological reactions to it. When engaging in a zero-sum game, athletes have the prospect of unequivocal normative evaluation.

Particularly when the stakes are high, most athletes will perceive this as a high-pressure situation. Athletes cannot change this situation, but they can control and change their own reactions to their increased arousal level. Rather than a hindrance or threat, athletes may interpret it as normal, as a physical reaction that helps to achieve their goals.

Finally, when the pressure is tremendous, it would be wise to register, release, and re-focus. Changing, controlling, or reducing internal distractors such as emotions (e.g., uncertainty, fear of failure) and thoughts (e.g., thoughts about losing and quitting) typically do not increase the chances of reaching the desired outcome. Like ebb and flow, emotions and thoughts are temporary. Therefore, register these internal states in a nonjudging way (rather than as being bad, awkward, fatal or wrong). Release, that is, disentangle them from goal-oriented and effective choices and actions. Refocus or mindfully re-engage in the task at hand, for example, by making a conscious choice on how to proceed or by re-establishing a connection with your core values.

Engaging in deliberate practice to apply these psychological principles will likely enhance optimal self-regulation and performance in competitive contexts. This will help competitive athletes to ultimately achieve the outcome they embrace: emerge victorious.

prof. dr. N. (Nico) van Yperen
First name
Professor of Sport & Performance Psychology
Mental aspects of sport and performance, achievement motivation, talent development
Last modified:06 September 2019 2.54 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands