Performance Demands

Athletes face performance demands in many contexts; regardless of emotional state, feeling ill, or daily stressors, an athlete’s performance is supposed to remain unaffected. However, some performance demands can be unreasonable. Athletes are asked to place their performance above all else and, depending on their league, team, coach, teammates, etc., the commitment can be well beyond what most people would feel is appropriate. Professional athletes may lose a parent or close family member and be expected to perform the very same day. Some athletes may be asked to miss the birth of a child if it happens to come at the same time as a scheduled event. Not only are athletes expected to do this, they are expected to play to the best of their abilities and avoid the “distraction” of life and circumstances.
On April 11th, 2017, the team bus for a Bundesliga (German soccer league) club, Borussia Dortmund, was damaged by three successive explosions on its way to a UEFA Championtship match against Monaco (French soccer club). One player was injured to a degree warranting a trip to the hospital. As would have been hoped, the game to which the bus was transporting the players was canceled. However, the game was rescheduled for the very next day. The head coach, Thomas Tuchel, led his team into the match to the best of his ability but stated that he was more concerned about the “bigger picture” than simply getting the game underway. Athletes and coaches alike may be required to put their feelings aside to continue engaging in their profession.
In a show of unity and the true spirit of sport, many of the visiting Monaco fans (who had not anticipated remaining in Germany over night) were housed by Dortmund fans. As wonderful as it is to observe this resilience and human kindness, it is also something that is reinforcing the culture of professional sport that demands from athletes what is not demanded of other aspects of society. Had the governing body of the sporting event informed the fans that the game would be postponed until the athletes were allowed time to process the event, the visiting fans would likely have been able to return home. Of course, there are financial incentives for the governing body and financial investments of the visiting fans that would inevitably be the focus of these parties (but should not be the focus of the athletes). I think we should not ask athletes to perform under unthinkable circumstances, and I will do my part to change the culture of sport so that this doesn’t happen as often; but as long as athletes are asked to perform under dreadful circumstances, here is some advice for how to prepare to perform admirably.
The mental toughness and mental skills needed to overcome such adversities are indispensible, and sometimes they are stretched to the limit unexpectedly and not by choice. If an athlete is well practiced in self-talk, imagery, awareness, arousal regulation, motivation, confidence, goal setting, and focus, they will be better equipped to face this challenge. Implementing each of these mental skills allows the athlete to live completely in the moment and perform to their best ability. The Dortmund players appeared to possess such tenacity in skills. The beginning 10 minutes of the game could be perceived as a result of mental distraction in that they did not move the ball efficiently or in-line with their usual performance. A second interpretation, however, would be that like any game, the first 10 minutes are usually spent in “feeling” the other team out and identifying how to best execute the Dortmund strategy facing the Monaco club.
The ability to compartmentalize life and focus on the task at hand can be observed in a microcosm of sport performance itself. Imagine a tennis match with changing weather (perhaps lighting) that impacts different match points and critical serves. Each situation produces a different distraction from the immediate task at hand. Then multiply this microcosm to a macrocosm of the world events and facing explosions capable of killing — and still being asked to play each moment to the best of your ability. Ultimately, the performance of Dortmund is beyond what we can imagine facing ourselves.

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