How to succeed in sport

Posted by Steven Wills on 15 Sep 2015

Basketball falling into hoop

The secret that everybody wants to know. How do you really succeed in your sport? Sports psychology has the answer and it’s a lot simpler than you think.

Curious yet?

There are three key elements in order to succeed in sport. Actually, we are firm believers that applying these are the key to success in any aspect of life. 
1. Do the work
2. Follow processes that have worked for you before
3. Don’t stop

Allow me to break it down:

1. Do the work

The first part can be summed up in a maxim that applies universally – you have to do the hard work and the training for any amount of sports psychology to have any impact whatsoever.

I once worked with a hockey player who, previously, had never gotten out of bed before 7 am in their life. But they had to get up at six to go and train, and it was tough for them. But it paid off – they made it to the Black Sticks the following year.

One thing that needs to be taken into account, at all levels of sport, is that you must keep improving and increasing the level you’re operating on. It’s something that develops on itself – the more work you do, and the harder you push yourself, the more that then flows on to improvement, and the more that improvement encourages you to work even harder.

But, because motivation is so key, a huge amount of sports psychology literature is devoted to it: how do you keep people pushing themselves, how do you get others to ramp themselves up?
At its heart, motivation is simple – you either want to do it, or you don’t.

Brian Lochore summed it up perfectly when describing the 1987 All Blacks team that he was coaching, saying: “Every boy growing up in New Zealand wants to be an All Black, and I’ve got the 15 who wanted it the most.”

But because your desire to achieve is impacted by how much you have already achieved, it can sometimes be difficult to make that first step. It’s all about having success, which makes you want more success. 
Goal setting has been heralded as the definitive method on getting started, and motivating yourself and others. To do goal setting right, though, requires a lot of hard work. Not only that but a lot of effort, thought, and time. This article on goal setting explains it more in depth. 

So, however way you look at it, you’ve got to do the hard work first – keep increasing the level you’re working at, tap into your source of motivation, and build your success.

2. Following the processes that have worked for you before

The key to being consistently good has to do with the word itself – be consistent. With your training, preparation, fitness, and all-round lead up, do the same things that have worked for you in the past over and over again.

Consistency is especially crucial when playing someone who should be an easy beat. The Springboks lost to Argentina, and the Blackcaps lost to Zimbabwe, and it is likely that in each case, the ‘better’ team failed to follow the processes that have worked for them before and weren’t geared up mentally for the game. They were complacent and (however tacitly) thought they’d simply steamroll the opposition.

The right level of activation (mental readiness) has to be reached beforehand, and that’s found by thinking back to ‘when did I do best? What was I like beforehand? Was I running around like Gordon Tallis, or was I relaxed and prepared?’

But as important as that is, the reverse is also true. If things aren’t working for you, and if the things you’re doing aren’t giving you the desired outcomes, change them.

However cliché, there is truth in the old saying that ‘if you do the same things expecting a different result, that’s the definition of insanity.’

People tend to do the same things and then expecting change, and they expect fire and passion to be a replacement for skill, preparation and readiness. It’s really – and I cannot stress this enough – not.

Take the Silver Ferns, and their notable victory over Australia in the first game of the recent netball World Cup, as an example.

Were they more ‘fired up’ going into that match than they had been in their previous nine matches against the Australians? Probably not. What’s the bet that they were just as pumped for that match as their other ones?

The difference was that they made changes. Plenty of them, in fact. They cut players who weren’t up to scratch, and brought in those who were fit, fast, and could jump. They changed the things that hadn’t worked for them in the past and that change brought about some tangible results.

3. Don’t stop

The rowing coach, Dick Tonks, nailed it when he said ‘don’t do any rubbish miles’. Sure, you can just go out there and paddle around, but that does nothing to help you improve. Commit to only doing what makes you better. And don’t stop.

In the case of Tonks, when he goes out with Mahé Drysdale, he’s behind him on a motorboat. He sets the speed and that’s it – if Mahé slows down, he gets run over. That’s a pretty good motivator, if you ask me!

So those are the three factors that make for success. The big question now, though, is how do you go about achieving all of that?

Making it happen

Goal setting is your first step but the key to that is doing it properly from the onset. You can do that through identifying the most important things to work on – ask yourself, your coach, and even your teammates. Once you’ve worked out what areas you need to work on the most, then you can act on them.

This is where you should probably need to find an expert to help. Need to get stronger? You’ll often hear things like, ‘oh, just go to the gym’. And while you can pump iron all day long, will that actually make you stronger?

You might need to get bigger. Again same thing – ‘oh, just go to the gym’. But again, will that actually make you bigger in the way you want to be? That’s about nutrition as well. Anyone can get big – that’s just a matter of spending plenty of time eating bad food. But to get big in the right way, you’d need to consult with nutritionists and fitness experts.

Then comes skills work; identify the skills you need and build them up without neglecting other areas of your game.

It’s simply a matter of hard work, making sure you understand and realise both your strengths and weaknesses, and then follow those three key steps outlined right at the start.

Now go out there and succeed!