How we perceive things in life greatly impacts the thoughts and behaviors that follow – for better or for worse. When athletes “see” challenges instead of seeing threats, their mind and body flow in synchrony and often the athlete improves mental toughness and reaches his or her full athletic potential as a result. Conversely, sport psychologists have found that otherwise talented athletes can actually offset their athletic abilities by perceiving sport situations as scary, intimidating, or threatening.
What You “See” is an Individual Experience
Human perception is a fluid, delicate, and personal experience — this means that when two people see the same stimulus, they often come away with different accounts of what they saw. Using a sports example, when athletes think about their upcoming competition they often perceive the experience in very different ways. A confident athlete will “see” a challenge on the horizon, while a less confident athlete will “see” all the reasons why he or she won’t be able to compete successfully. Same competition, but very different perceptions about the upcoming game.
Take for example the following image — do you see an old woman or young woman in the picture? Actually, both are present but different people will “see” different things:
Reviewing the example above, you “saw” what you looked for, illustrating how malleable and varied our perceptions can be when looking at a stimulus.
All Athletes Deal with Perception Challenges
What makes this discussion around sports perception even more interesting is the fact that these differing perceptions happen at all levels of sports — from pee-wees to the pros. In all of these cases, the perception the athlete experiences actually triggers neurotransmitters (“fight or flight”), which in turn activate congruent behavioral responses (i.e. the scared athlete will experience physiological nerves – like sweating and increased heart rate). Perception, therefore, can be best understood as the trigger that determines whether the athlete will experience confidence or fear.
The good news about all of this is that sports perception is controlled by the individual, and even athletes who regularly experience fear when thinking about the competition can change their thinking relatively quickly if they are committed to the change. In other words, you don’t have to continue to be nervous and worried about who you are going to compete against if you no longer want to fear your opponents!
Change Your Perception – Improve Your Game
A great way to start with this change (if you are an athlete who struggles with sport perception fear) is to begin by thinking about how rational your fear is in sports. For example, are you truly worried about real fear (like being injured), or is it more irrational fear you struggle with (like what people will think if you fail)? In the vast majority of the cases I deal with, it is the second type of fear (irrational fear) that most athletes struggle with when answering this question.
Perhaps the greatest value in exploring how perception impacts thinking and behaviors is that this discussion goes far beyond the sports playing field – in fact, how we perceive life events has everything to do with the following success (or lack thereof) we experience. Improving sport perception, therefore, is actually a life skill and not limited to the playing field.
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