How Criticism Can Affect Athletes’ Mental Game

Pressure in Sports

No Athlete is Immune to Criticism and Pressure

How you respond to pressure is what separates great athletes from average ones. Going into the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Birgit Prinz was the name on everybody’s lips. Prinz was the leading scorer in World Cup history with an impressive 14 goals, was named the FIFA world women’s player of the year three times, and has scored more goals for the German team than anyone in history. However, a slow start in the World Cup had fans and commentators questioning if the end of her career was looming.

Amidst a storm of media scrutiny and a less than stellar play by the German squad, head coach Silvia Neid decided to pull Prinz from the starting lineup. In the team’s close 1-0 win over Nigeria, Prinz was benched early in the second half of the game. The soccer great was enraged, bristling at fans and reporters alike. It didn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to see that her body language read anger. She blamed her teammates for the team’s poor play, citing passing issues and not winning enough balls in the midfield. When teammates scored goals following her relegation to the bench, Prinz showed no emotion. In Germany’s final game of the World Cup, Prinz didn’t sing along to the German national anthem.

While wounded pride can lead to aggression and anger, it is important for athletes to practice good sportsmanship and bow out graciously. Influential soccer commentator Günter Netzer wrote, “An absolute world-class player must also show greatness in defeat, personal defeat as well.”

A study published in The Sport Journal, found that distractions and criticism can drain mental energy, decreasing performance. One way to focus better is to decrease anxiety levels. Relaxation training and meditation prior to the game can block out what’s going on off of the field.

A sports psychologist can also be a useful person for helping you stay on top of the game. A sports psychologist can help an athlete focus on goal setting, relaxation, motivation, communication, and focus, while also helping the athlete understand how criticism affects their performance, and how to cope with the negative criticism. Understanding strategies used by sports psychologists or working with one can be helpful as well.

When you’re on the field, let go of the noise. Nothing anyone says matters – just listen to your breath and the beating of your heart. If you focus on your game, let go of the criticism, you will build confidence in your abilities and feel motivated to work hard.

While Birgit Prinz succumbed to negative criticism, athletes can employ a few strategies to block out negative criticism on the field. Meditation and breathing exercises, understanding how the stress affects an athlete and tools to overcome it, and choosing to focus on positive reinforcement can allow an athlete to grow confidence.

(This article is written by guest blogger, Allison Gamble)

About the Author: Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.

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