The Psychology of Athletic Competition

mental toughness

Barbara Walker, PhD, is a health and performance psychologist within the UC Health Center for Integrative Health and Wellness and a professor at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Walker is an expert in sports psychology, so we wanted to hear her insight about the Western & Southern Open that happens every year in Mason, Ohio.  


Is there such a thing as “mental toughness,” and do elite athletes need this to be successful?

Yes, there is such a thing as mental toughness.  Being mentally tough usually requires one to be at the top of their game not only physically, but mentally.  The ability to maintain confidence and belief in oneself despite losses is mental toughness.

We’ve all heard the term “the agony of defeat.” How does an athlete best recover from that blow?

In order to recover, they have to have a short-term memory and let it go.  I like to use the acronym WIN, which stands for “What’s Important Now.”  WIN is the point or moment you are currently on, not what happened during the last match or set, or anticipating a future outcome.

What are some mental practices you advise before a big competition?

When athletes consider they are now on the “big stage,” most put too much pressure on themselves, and then they tighten up physically.  The mental part of this practice includes deep breathing and either instructional words (slow, long reach, light) and/or cue words (relaxed, confident, focused) along with their established physical routine.

John McEnroe, retired American tennis player, will always be remembered for his anger on the court. Could that have been a coping skill?     

Many athletes use anger on the court as a coping skill—whether that be getting angry at themselves, their opponent or the referees.  Displaying anger and frustration on the court is a great way to show your opponent that you are out of control and not happy with yourself, which gives them an advantage.  While I think it is reasonable to have a tiny emotional display of disappointment when you miss a great shot, one needs to get themselves under control immediately and move on (utilizing breathing and WIN as described above).



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