Over the last week I’ve seen a couple of interviews by leading sportsmen where the issue of the importance of the mental game and strength of mind has come up. In a Ski Sunday piece, extreme freeride skier Candide Thovex said “ a lot of sport is in the mind, the mental is the most important. I’ve lernt that through the years in terms of contests and recovery … you have to stay positive and be really patient.” He went on in discussing recovering from a career threatening back break to say, when faced with the long haul to get back to performing, to say: “You have fun for yourself, one turn is a good sensation, in the long run you have a lot of good sensations.” And when asked about how long he might continue in such a demanding sport he said: “I’m having fun and it’s a real passion for me …. It’s a lot in the mental too.”
In Hardtalk on the BBC a week ago, when Stephen Sackur interviewed Mark Cavendish, his opening question was: “What’s been more important in your cycling career – strength of body or strength of mind?:
Cavendish’s answer: “For sure, strength of mind, physically I’m actually not that good, if you look at lab tests and that, growing up I was actually told I wasn’t very good and it was my will to win that got me winning and it was my love for cycling that kept me riding.”
Neither of these are particularly surprising, however both have three things in common:
- The mental element of sport is far more important than the physical, to the extent that Cavendish talks about his physiological unsuitability for cycling that he has had to overcome.
- Thovex talks about having fun
- He goes on to say that his sport is a real passion, while Cavendish encompasses both in describing his “love of cycling” as a key motivator.
There are increasing numbers of publications that discuss the mental elements of sport, as there are self-help books that a targeted at helping us overcome obstacles to performance in our lives. However, rarely do they express the cornerstones of performance in terms of “having fun” and only occasionally does “passion” get a significant mention. Yet when we are having fun and taking part in something that is our passion we are far more likely to be in ‘flow’ – a term that was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and describes a state of complete absorption which invariably results in optimal performance – doubt and uncertainty (key performance inhibitors) are absent.
I recnetly decided to move from working for myself to joining an established consulting firm that was engaged in the same type of work. While it was important that the firm I have decided to join is involved in work that I am technically equipped to do, a key decision factor was in repeated conversations with one of the senior management team the use of the term ‘fun’ being used. We’re aiming to develop a business and it’s capability further but at the same time, amidst the challenges, we aim to have fun.
Similarly, elite athletes cannot compete at the highest level without the requisite technical skills but they’re unlikely to perform at their best if they don’t love what they’re doing.