For most of us, sports are a recreational activity to stay healthy and have a good time with like-minded friends. For sportspeople, however, it is literally a different ball-game.
Think Nicole David, who started playing squash at the age of nine; the Sidek brothers who started training as soon as they could hold an adult-sized racquet; and Datuk Lee Chong Wei, who started playing badminton at the age of eleven.
But if you think playing at international level is only a physical achievement, think again. Apart from the gruelling daily training, what set these top performers apart is the rigorous mental training to increase their emotional and psychological strength.
“In high performance sports, physical preparation for a tournament takes around 6-18 months. But the mental and emotional preparation will require between 1-3 years,” states Datuk Lawrence Chan Kum Peng, a Peak Performance Coach and Mental Trainer who is also the founder and Executive Chairman of Personal Development Leadership (P.D.L.) Management Corporation.
Having trained top badminton players such as Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock, Rashid Sidek, Wong Pei Tty and Chin Eei Hui, 66-year-old Datuk Lawrence knows exactly what makes sports champions tick. No matter how well-trained an athlete is, success remains evasive if he or she is not equipped with the mental capacity to play at international levels, he says.
Datuk Lawrence outlines the 10 winning qualities of top players who aim for nothing less than gold:
1. Burning desire to win
Believe it or not, we are often our own worst enemies. Going for a tournament with thoughts such as “I’ll try my best” or “I hope I can win” are defeatist thoughts that downplays the urgency and desire to bring a trophy home. Datuk Lawrence relates he once met world-renowned boxer Muhammad Ali before a game and asked how he would celebrate IF he wins. “I’ve already won, in my mind!” proclaimed Muhammad Ali. Sure enough, he came out champion as always.
2. Mental toughness
The atmosphere of tournaments and competition can reach fever-pitch and one who is not mentally prepared to face the pressure-cooker is bound to have their performance affected. Most pressing are the need to face up to the local and international media pressure and not buckle down when one sees how strong the opponents are.
3.Purpose and passion
Winning is not just about getting the prize money or trophy, says Datuk Lawrence. Top players know why they want to win, which is the passion and pride of achieving something beyond themselves. If you were playing for your state or country, how you perform reflects upon your entire state or country. Yes, winning is not for the weak-hearted!
4. Confidence and courage
Competitive play requires absolute confidence that you have practised hard enough. Most sports require split-second decisions during the game, which can only be executed if the player is confident enough with his ability to deliver the winning moves perfectly.
No matter how well-prepared a player is, all that goes to naught if he or she is not given mental training to stay focused during a game. “The audience from the opposing team will play psychological tricks to distract you, calling out obscenities and such. You need to learn how to black out and focus 100%. That’s why tournaments take so much out of sportspeople; the mental intensity is more energy-draining that the actual game,” explains Datuk Lawrence.
Training to be world champions takes years, sometimes more than a decade, mostly through trial and error. You need to keep trying and keep improving your game bit by bit despite being knocked down time and again before you reach a tipping point of your sport.
7. Determination and persistence
Every champion must begin with the belief that “I am a winner”. That sets the foundation and commitment to achieve success through continuous training and visualisation exercises. “Find out what are the stumbling blocks that stand in your way of winning,” says Datuk Lawrence. “Sometimes it has nothing to do with the sport. It could be a sick child or a dying parent back home that makes you feel guilty for not being there to take care of them. Instead of worrying about what you cannot change, it would be better if you could just focus on the moment and bring home a trophy to make them proud.”
8. Patience and tolerance
These values are particularly crucial in team sports such as hockey, volleyball or football, where you need to play as a team to win. Datuk Lawrence points out that all players need to have good rapport with one another to think and act as one when they are on the field or court. “It takes a lot of patience and tolerance to know and accept each other, warts and all.”
9. Sense of fun and joy
What comes first- the desire to win or the love for the game? You’ll need both if you intend to go far, says Datuk Lawrence. Yes, trophies and monetary rewards are great, but life is not only about winning, he insists. What happens then if you lose or retire? Sportspeople who love their game will continue to make something out of it such as former badminton stars whom he has trained who now owns badminton clinics, teaching children how to excel in badminton. “Don’t be like the China players; they are trained like robots and don’t seem to enjoy what they are doing; so it seems meaningless even when they bring home a string of medals,” he comments.
10.Dedication and commitment
High performance sports require unusual dedication and commitment, to the sport, the training, the country or club that one represents. Without the dedication, success is nothing but an elusive dream!
The Power Of Visualisation
Visualisation is one of the most widely used mental exercise among top sportspeople and corporate leaders. In a simple demonstration, Datuk Lawrence stands with two feet apart and holds out his right hand. Gently, he swings his body behind to the furthest point he could reach.
“Now I’m going to target going two feet beyond that, effortlessly and comfortably,” he said. Closing his eyes for two minutes, he repeated his goal resolutely a few times. As he opened his eyes, he swung to his back again- and sure enough, he managed to go two feet beyond his first attempt.
When I tried the same ‘experiment’, it worked too, like magic!
“I used the same mental exercise for badminton doubles Wong Pei Tty and Chin Eei Hui, who managed to twist a metal spoon using their mental strength when training for the 2005 Sea Games in Manila and 2006 Commonwealth Games where they came out tops. Never underestimate the power of your mind!” he stresses.