by Thomas Kurz
In one of mailing to subscribers of Stadion’s e-mail list I answered a question from a Taekwondo fighter who fights below his ability. I considered possible causes of his problem such as poor nutrition and bad eating habits, poor conditioning, and lack of mental training. One of the subscribers commented on my answer. His comment, though, shows the mistaken but still prevailing concept of dealing with mental preparation for competing. So, I decided to write more on the subject of dealing with subpar performance, whether caused by errors in physical or in mental aspects of training. First, the original question with my answer and the other subscriber’s comment.
Question: I think I may have a sport psychology problem, but I am unsure. I am 35 years old, and have recently taken up Taekwondo. I enjoy it immensely, but am having repeated trouble at small tournaments.
When it is my turn to compete, the same thing happens to me over and over again. As I step up to spar, I feel completely exhausted. My legs and arms feel like lead, and the sparring match just becomes one of survival with me, with me doing one basic kick over and over. Anything I learned, any strategies and previous training is totally lost. I have been in 4 tournaments and this has happened 4 times.
Now some things that may be affecting me. The tournaments start first thing in the morning, but I usually have to wait hours before competing. It seems to be a lot of waiting and waiting.
There is also forms and demonstrations before the sparring, and I am wondering if this could be taxing me in some way?
Do you have any suggestions, or could suggest a product that will help me?
Thank you. I sincerely appreciate your time.
My answer: If you are in good physical shape, have healthy meals or snacks (with good fats, protein, and very little high-glycemic carbs) while waiting for your competition, then very likely your problem can be remedied by our Gold Medal Mental Workout.
A typical sign of poor mental preparation is when an athlete does well in practice but gets tense, loses concentration and fights well below his or her skill level in a competition.
If you are in poor shape and/or let your blood sugar go down before competition then the mental training alone will not help. You need to be in good physical shape to benefit from any mental training and the whole process of physical and mental training is explained in the book Science of Sports Training.
Subscriber’s comment: I read the first letter by Mike who says his arms and legs get like lead during a match. I really don’t think that has anything to do with exhaustion or improper training or diet. It is caused by anxiety. I have seen this thing happen over and over. I used to get exhausted during a match because I used to get so excited before a match, that after one round I was shot. I needed to calm down. Now I go into a match calm. Problem is now I don’t fight really hard until I get hit and that puts me at a disadvantage. But… I know what the problem is. There are a lot of people who are absolutely terrified to fight. The only way to overcome this is the same way to overcome any fear… you must face it and spar as much as possible until you overcome the fear.
My answer: You (Jeff) are wrong about several issues: Improper training and/or not eating right can cause performance anxiety. Knowing that one has to perform while feeling weak or unprepared puts doubts in one’s mind. During performance, the lack of stamina keeps one from performing well, and paradoxically causes one to needlessly waste energy and become progressively less effective. All this reinforces the doubts that lead to the anxiety and excessive tension that exhaust the athlete. Haven’t you noticed how relaxed and in-control are the well prepared athletes?
You are wrong also about sparing “as much as possible” as “the only way” to overcome the fear. It is not very effective and in the long run leads to inferior results.
The correct way is to be taught (and learn) systematically and gradually. This applies to all sports in which anxiety may occur—combat sports, gymnastics, or whatever sport in which there is a risk of injury.
Here is what coach Obrebski, who teaches acrobatics said about fear:
“The correct, methodical learning lets you perform each technique surely, with full understanding of the mechanics of each technique. This, to a large extent, eliminates fear. If you choose, however, to begin to practice, for example, a somersault, without mastering the easier lead-up exercises, then you will not fully get to know that somersault.
“Not fully knowing the skill, you will not have a true command of it and eventually you will begin to doubt yourself and feel anxiety when about to perform it. This is why techniques learned without following the correct teaching method begin to go bad, diverge from the mechanically sound form and as a result the fear appears. Then you will have to go back to basics, go through each lead-up exercise. It will give you confidence and the technique learned by following the correct teaching method will not deteriorate, it will be performed solidly and without fear.
“Remember, that attempting to perform a technique without progressing gradually from its easiest lead-up exercises to its final form, you may lose confidence in executing this technique. […] But if you do the lead-up exercises step-by-step, gradually progressing from the easiest, you will learn how to behave in the air and will not fear to perform even the most difficult acrobatic techniques.”
Now, he talks about single acrobatic techniques but the method applies to learning techniques and tactics of combat sports too.
In a rationally conducted training, the trainee does not have to experience anxiety or fear. It does not matter if it is acrobatics or taekwondo. If the trainee’s techniques are solid, automatic habits, that are applied instinctively when needed, and tactics are fully assimilated, then no anxiety, freezing, or overexcitation takes place. Both the techniques and tactics are to be taught through a systematic succession of appropriate drills, which gradually instill the correct habits and mindset.
I will continue with an example from acrobatics because it illustrates so well the point I am making. During videotaping Stadion’s DVD Acrobatic Tumbling—on teaching and learning acrobatics—I asked the acrobats involved in this project how do they dealt with fear, way back when they were learning some risky techniques, such as somersaults. They gave me strange looks—because they never had to deal with fear! Their instructor, coach Obrebski, taught them so gradually and using drills so well designed that they never felt in danger. At no point during learning did they have any doubts that they could do what is asked of them. Coach Obrebski (the star of the DVD Acrobatic Tumbling) knew about methods of dealing with fear because in his career he had students who came to him to learn skills correctly that other “instructors” or the self-taught students had botched up.
Going back to Mike’s question: All such shortcomings that may cause Mike’s poor sparring in competition—poor mental preparation, being in poor shape, and not knowing how and when to eat for optimal functioning—do not happen to people trained by good instructors.
Good instructors address all aspects of training: Physical exercises, mental exercises, adequate rest for either, and optimum nutrition. Good instructors have sufficient knowledge to help with any sports training problems when asked. Actually, they can see a problem and apply or offer a solution before the trainee is aware of it enough to ask.
So why did Mike not go with his questions to his instructor? I guess he sensed it would be a waste of his (Mike’s) time. Because an instructor that is any good would:
a) not let Mike compete before he is ready;
b) notice what happens to Mike during competition and offered effective solutions.
By the way, there is a very effective method of getting rid of anxiety or fear. It quickly and painlessly separates negative emotions from actions (like sparring, for example) or objects (like spiders). I wrote about it in my article “The Mind Rules the Body.” Of course, for this method to have permanent results the physical side of training has to be done rationally. Otherwise errors in physical training will cause mental problems again.
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum.
This article is based on Stadion books Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance, Gold Medal Mental Workout for Combat Sports: A Step-by-Step Program of Mental Exercises to Make You a Winner Every Time, and the DVD Acrobatic Tumbling: From Rolls to Handsprings and Somersaults. Get them now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs!