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Back You are here: Home Sports Other Sports Psychology Sports Psychology: The Soft Stuff
Tuesday, 09 May 2017 00:00

Sports Psychology: The Soft Stuff

The Olympic motto is well known: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger). That’s what the Games are all about, human feats of athleticism that we all love to watch. But what people forget is that there is more to the Olympic movement than just striving to be the best in the world.

Friendship. Respect. Excellence. Equality. Courage. Inspiration. Determination. These are the 7 Olympic and Paralympic values, and I can almost guarantee few people would be able to name even 2 or 3 of them off the top of their heads.

How is it that we so easily remember performance but not the ‘softer’ values? I am even more surprised when I know that YouTube videos such as Derek Redmond’s has over 15 000 000 views ( It’s the story of how Redmond, one of the pre-race favourites in the 400m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, tore his hamstring during the race, but refusing to give up, and with the help of his father who runs onto the track despite the protesting officials, hops on one leg to the finish line.

Recently I have worked with a few young athletes that have experienced what can only be described as bullying on the sports field. They came to me with a similar problem: being nervous and worried about not doing well, which of course meant they inevitably made mistakes and messed up their performance. I asked the normal questions about why they may be feeling like this (Do mom or dad shout if you do badly? Does your coach make you feel bad? What are you afraid will happen if you don’t perform well?). To my surprise none of the usual suspects were named.

These athletes had grown to be afraid of performing badly not because mom or dad were putting pressure on them, not because they were worried about being dropped by the coach and not because of their own perfectionism or expectations.

Their own teammates were the issue.

The in-built support system athletes are supposed to have in the form of teammates was actually the root cause of the problem. Their teammates would shout at them if a mistake was made or laugh if they attempted something and got it wrong. It was their teammates that broke their confidence and spirit, making them afraid of playing the game they loved. The very people that should be the most encouraging because they are in the thick of it with you, were the ones creating doubt and negativity.

Since when did mistakes become something to be avoided? And what examples are young athletes looking at that make them think that it’s okay to make a teammate feel bad about messing up?

I know there can be a ‘toughen up’ culture in sports (especially in boy’s teams) with an aversion to anything ‘touchy feely’, but as the All Black Rugby team – one of the best performing teams over the past few years – say:


Sometimes values and principles are seen as separate to the hard stuff of technical and tactical proficiency that is performance. Butvalues actually undergird physical performance and allow skills honed over hours and hours of practice to be performed under pressure, and reminding athletes why they performing in the first place.Encouragement, caring, friendship, respect and support deliver performance; humiliation, fear and intimidation do not.

We all (athletes, coaches, parents and fans) need to make sure that the soft stuff is not relegated to an inspirational 4min Youtube video.

Kirsten van heerden copy

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