What You Can Learn from Paralympic Champions


What You Can Learn from Paralympic Champions

In Rio 2016, Team GB finished second in the medal table. Our Paralympians have been labelled as ‘The Super-Humans’, but what psychological skills makes a Paralympic champion?  Is this something that can be taught and learnt? And if so, will it help all athletes get better?

Sports Psychologists studying Paralympians have whittled it down to five psychological traits and skills that help our Paralympic champions flourish, that we will discuss in this blog…

Being Able to Manage Your Nerves

Performing at your best level on the biggest stage in the world without letting nerves get in the way is no small feat. Are Paralympic champions less anxious by nature, or do they have a better ability to manage their nerves?

The answer it turns out, is probably both. Feeling too stressed or anxious can hinder concentration, confidence and the physical execution of skills. It takes a lot of self-composure to deliver your best performance when it matters the most.

Managing emotions in sports can be taught. Some popular strategies (often referred to as self-regulation) include improving your self-talk, using positive imagery and reframing upcoming events as an opportunity rather than a threat. These can be applied to all athletes, regardless of their sport, and are part of an efficient preparation routine.

If you’re having trouble dealing with your emotions on the pitch, check out our 10 tips to manage emotions in sport.

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is perhaps the most overused and misunderstood term in sports. Contrary to what most believe, it is characterised with high levels of motivations, being able to cope effectively with setbacks and being focused on your goals. It is not surprising that these skills are shared by many Paralympians, as the ability to maintain motivation and confidence over a large period of time is vital for success in an event that occurs once every four years.

We can’t stress enough that athletes need to understand what mental toughness actually is; otherwise, it has the potential to be damaging. It isn’t having no weaknesses, or “wanting it”, or being a “born winner” … If you want to understand more about mental toughness, read our sport psychologists’ guide here.

High Levels of Vigour

Vigour is defined as having high levels of energy, effort and drive. Out of the five psychological areas discussed in this blog, this is probably the hardest (if not impossible) to teach someone. To reach peak performance, the drive has got to come from the athlete. The best that coaches can do is to create an environment and motivational climate where those with high vigour can flourish.

Those who are in the right environment with a sense of purpose will flourish and perform better in training and in competition. Creating a sense of purpose is an effective psychological intervention as it is quick, simple and cheap.

There are many ways to improve your team’s culture – check out our 6 favourite strategies here.

Optimism

In psychological theory, optimism is measured by what someone attributes their successes or failures to. Athletes could view them as temporary or permanent (‘today was a bad day’ vs ‘things will always be bad’) and as specific or general (I am not good at this part of the skill’ vs ‘I am not good at anything’).

Being optimistic has been associated with lower levels of dropout and higher levels of motivation, both of which are vitally important for any team – and crucial to maintain the drive needed to spend years preparing for an event such as the Paralympics.

Acting with Certainty and Clarity

The brain gets very emotional when there is a lot of uncertainty around a situation. Not knowing what will happen often leads to nerves or stress. This is why many athletes talk about being ‘process focused’. This means focusing on what they can control, which usually means their strategies, routines and performance.

When we work with athletes, we advise them to ‘control the controllables’. This means identifying what’s within your own power and focusing on that. You can do this by developing a consistent pre-performance routine that will put you in the right headspace to perform or by creating strategies that reduce confusion and doubt. By focusing on what they need to do (i.e. their processes) and not overly focusing on the potential consequences, athletes can build confidence whilst reducing their fear of failure.

Final Thought

The Paralympic Games offer a chance to inspire the nation. As well as the phenomenal physical achievements, it is good to scratch a little deeper and see the psychological strategies athletes employ and how you can apply them too.

To find out more about the sport psychology side of elite performance, we have previously written blogs on a similar subject, that you can read here:

These blogs were based around research interviews with Olympians, though it would be a safe bet that many of the findings would be relevant and applicable to the Paralympics and Paralympic Champions.

We have had the privilege of working with members of Team GB at London 2012 and Rio 2016, helping them work on some of the above areas – and we’re excited to work with athletes who will compete at Tokyo 2020. It has been an honour to see such mental toughness first-hand. As these athlete continue to push the envelope, we hope and expect the exposure and coverage they receive to grow. They truly are super-humans.

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