THE BLOG

The Mental and Emotional Game of Sport

10/12/2013 17:36 GMT | Updated 09/02/2014 10:59 GMT

I was interested to read the recent media coverage about cricket's Jonathon Trott's difficulties and, whilst I know nothing about Jonathan's situation, I have been giving some thought to the issue of the sports mentality needed to compete at the highest level.

Much is talked about the pressure when competing on the world stage, and from my experience, it really can be immense. Having to face your emotional or mental demons as they hit when you are in the full glare of the media is a very tough call. And of course if you can't keep it under control then you can't predict what will come out.

One only has to recall those horrible moments in sports history when athletes have suffered mental/emotional melt downs; Rory McIlroy in the US Open, Martina Hingis in the French Open final, Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear off, Zidane head-butting an opponent during the World Cup Final... You can only watch and weep for them.

As every sports man or woman will testify, the mental attitude and discipline you adopt for competing, combined with the absolute belief that you can win, is usually the deciding factor whether you will or not.

That was certainly my experience.

Admittedly, swimming never attracted the same public attention as football or cricket, but the pressure to win comes from inside you and when it's an individual sport its just you against the clock. As long as you have prepared, put the training hours in and done everything you can before a race, then it's just you against time.

As soon as you start worrying about the other guys on the block, you lose your emotional grip, it's then that you trip yourself up; and that's when you are preparing to lose.

Runners say the same thing. Run your own race and keep focused on what you have to do. Don't think about or give consideration to the competition. As soon as you do you have just given your competitors an extra second or an extra yard.

So performing at an elite level of sport requires a tough mental and emotional discipline and that is not a given thing, it has to be learned. Its just as big a part of your training as the hours in the pool, the gym or the track. How you approach the mental and emotional side of sport will teach you more about yourself than any formal education, and probably be the biggest lesson you will learn.

Although when you're young and on your way to earning national colours, you are hungry for success and have no fear. You already have a track record of being the best in your class, the best in your school, county etc and with that experience you have a confidence and a belief in what you can do. This is re-enforced by times, records and those all-important people supporting you as make your way to the top of your sport.

But of course at elite level, you have to learn how to lose and your emotional response to losing is what toughens you up and teaches you who you are.

What helped me most was that the role of Mark the swimmer was not the only thing I was. Swimming was not a great earner so my attitude was that although I was passionate about it and loved the buzz of competing, it wouldn't necessarily give me a living.

So I had to do other jobs - courier driver, window fitter, lifeguard - and I honestly feel that those experiences grounded me and helped with my mental attitude and approach to being a sportsman. That and having a family who would let me know in no uncertain terms if I was getting above myself; But were also there to support me when losing and disappointment threatened to overtake me.

I looked after my body and luckily it held out and I managed to stretch my swimming career for 23 years as well retaining a love of the water and a passion for competing. So sport has been very good to me.

Looking back though, it's no wonder elite sportsmen and women suffer from mental/emotional problems when competing. We are usually very young when we reach our peak and no-one really prepared us for the dizzy highs of sporting success or the crushing lows of defeat.

Perhaps a lot more work is needed to prepare athletes mentally and emotionally for elite completion. Even more important is to offer a lot more care and support to them when the pressure threatens to drown them.