Time, the hidden menace at big competitions and how to harness it
There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.
Alfred Hitchcock
There are 3 ways to slow down time. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the faster anything travels, the slower time passes, known as ‘time dilation’. The next method is doing all-out, full-gas exercise, say for example 30s maximum effort, during which someone might shout “Well done that’s the first 10s done”, and you mind reacts with, “You’re kidding, that felt like 2 minutes.” The other occasion that slows time is when you are anticipating something of great significance, where you’re really hoping for a particular type of outcome. Anticipation warps time by making each tick of the clock feel like a life time as your mind whirrs with a snowstorm of thoughts.
Now, of course, exercise and anticipation don’t actually manipulate space-time intersections, they play with our perception of time!
Boredom: the desire for desires.
Leo Tolstoy
Anticipation of a big event can be a hazard at major competitions such as the World Cup. During the build-up, between games, at the hotel, in the airports in fact all around the competition, except for training and playing, there is a chance that a player will be sat with their thoughts in full anticipation of the eventualities that might lay ahead. “Will I get picked?”, “Will I play well?”, “What will the crowd be like?”, “Will I take my chances”, “How will my opposite number play?” and of course, “Will we win?” The natural tendency for anyone who has ever sat an exam, gone for a big job interview, pitched for a sales contract, auditioned for a big part – is that one’s hope and ambition creates a flurry of thoughts, doubts, and forethought that craves knowledge of the outcome. If you’re anything like me you just want to peer through a looking glass to see what the outcome will be.
But here’s the paradox, at a major competition – players do less. For an event such as Russia 2018, the travel requirement for teams is unusually high, therefore placing a demand on the team. However, the management and fitness staff will be carefully balancing the need to prepare, practice and train with actually doing less than normal so that the players are on the right side of fatigue. If players are over training and over practicing then there is a chance of tiredness setting in. So ultimately they’ll be doing less. Added to the need to taper there will be the removal of the normal day-to-day activities, travelling to training, doing the shopping, preparing meals – which adds further that players will be doing less.

Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil. Aristotle

Doing less can be a menace because it gives extra time to think, anticipate, allowing concerns to spiral, causing time to slow down to an agitated, stir-crazy crawl. The danger here is that camp-fever can set in and any restlessness can spill over into negative behaviours, tensions and difficulties between team-members.
The threat is that the gaps between performing can deteriorate performance, but if dealt with properly can turn this threat into improved performance. Here’s some suggestions about how to combat doing less to get more;
Engage the influencers
Gather up the members of the team that are particularly influential and around which team dynamic is created and involve them in the decision making about team activities and environment. If you have the leaders and key followers already invested in the set-up then there is a likelihood that others will quickly follow. News of Lionel Messi withdrawing from team activities in the wake of Croatia defeat, might be understandable for him to reflect and process the performance, but his absence is likely to have a more pronounced effect on the team cohesion.
Communicate the schedule with real clarity
Eliminate the risk that people drift from one thing to the next by communicating what will be happening and when, but crucially what people will be required to do at that time. A detailed plan of events plus expectation provides people with a structure and focuses them on the steps they will be taking that day in pursuit of their goal, rather than letting them fill in the blanks themselves.
Provide activities that create a routine
We are creatures of habit and so the loss/change of a normal day-to-day routine can in itself create a stressor. It can certainly have an influence on subsequent sleep patterns. Team management need to programme in bursts of activities that are both required and optional. On top of training and along with tactical de-briefs and performance reviews, dedicated sessions that facilitate team unity on a regular basis can not only fill the routine, but pull people closer. Some structured sessions that specifically develop team purpose and motivation, normally facilitated by a psychologist and head coach, are important but just as effective are the seemingly trivial fun games, that create entertaining and engaging moments, competitiveness, camaraderie and connections (personal favourite – is a Question of Sport). By the way, anyone could benefit from this technique, especially those performers or executives that travel alone – create an healthy and productive routine, rather than hoping the hotel room will provide it for you!
Harness the environment
Creating a home-from-home environment that becomes familiar, supportive and aspirational can nudge people into a healthier mind-set. A team lounge or communal area with pool tables, wifi (that actually works), board games or otherwise, can create a place that people want to be in. It can draw them out of the hotel room confinement and encourage them to fill the void of time and connect with each other. Even better if the environment is branded consistently with imagery and cues that remind everyone of their fundamental purpose at the major event.
At the start of a major competition, when people first come together and are naturally full of excitement and energy, working meticulously to fill the voids, providing routine, developing a supportive environment might seem superfluous. However, as the event unfolds, time drags on but also as the pressure, expectation and potential reward escalates these factors become even more important in order for the team to share the pressure, diffuse the expectation and focus collectively on the process.
We humans actually need help controlling our impulses.
Richard Thaler

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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