Hosting a Christmas gathering can sometimes prove challenging, much like a critical sports game can for an athlete. And while they have prize money, world rankings and pride on the line, your festive spoils – happy guests, a tasty lunch – can feel just as important.
So borrowing some mental skills and strategies from the world of sport could be just the thing to help you succeed with your Christmas get together.
To begin with, ahead of a big competition, athletes make sure they train diligently. It’s not just about clocking up the hours – it’s the quality of those hours. So maximise the quality of your preparation time for cooking, wrapping and decorating, so that any remaining tasks on the day itself go as smoothly as possible.
One key strategy that athletes use to keep them focused and motivated on the route to competition is goal-setting using “SMART goals” – targets which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.
Following the SMART system helps you to keep on track to get those small wins. Many athletes will tell you that accomplishing small goals increases the likelihood of accomplishing big goals – for them, winning a game; for you, achieving a special, memorable and stress-free Christmas.
Before a big competition, athletes will also work on “game day” strategies. Start by reflecting on what was successful at past holiday gatherings as well as what didn’t go so well. That way, you can incorporate the more successful elements and be well prepared for the ones that didn’t work.
Sport psychologists sometimes use “if–then” scenarios to help athletes strategise for the big day. The idea is that you think about possible scenarios and how you would respond to them. You are then “action-ready” for potentially tough situations.
Developing your self awareness to play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses is another key strategy in preparing for sporting competition. In festive terms, this means that you might be a great entertainer but not such a great cook.
In this case, research and practice recipes beforehand so you’ll feel more confident about pulling them off on the day. According to research, past successes can be a big boost to self-confidence so you’ll be feeling good about your food and you’ll be more relaxed about entertaining your guests.
After putting plenty of work in, game day is a chance for athletes to shine. It usually involves a heady mix of excitement and nerves, but some athletes deliberately interpret their nervousness and anxiety as signs of excitement to sink their teeth into the big day.
Harness those nerves
If you wake up on Christmas morning feeling a bit nervous, try employing this tactic, which is known as “arousal reappraisal”. Research has shown that reevaluating your nerves as positive rather than negative can lead to more positive outcomes like self confidence. It’s all about your interpretation, so try to see things in a good light.
Another option is the pre-performance routine – just like in rugby, penalty kickers engage in a very specific process of physical preparation before every single kick. Some sport psychologists suggest that these routines may result in an optimal emotional state prior to performance.
Christmas morning can be one of the most stressful parts of the day. So what would your routine look like? Something as simple as taking a few deep breaths or doing a few invigorating yoga poses can really help set the tone of the day, and is something you can go back to later if you feel overwhelmed.
If you don’t respond to the pre-performance routine then try positive “self-talk” – or use both. Many athletes employ several mental strategies to help them on game day, before and during their performance, and self-talk can be especially useful during play. Self-talk is your inner dialogue with yourself, and is used by athletes to achieve a number of positive outcomes like reducing cognitive anxiety.
We are all constantly engaged in a neverending stream of internal dialogue and it can be on maximum volume and speed when we’re facing a game situation. Whether it’s your uncle bringing up Brexit or a distant cousin sulking, your thought stream can become incredibly overcrowded.
Simple cue words and phrases like “breathe” or “keep going” can give athletes a boost when they need it most. Start thinking about what cue words and phrases you can use and try them out to see what sticks.
Finally, successful athletes are usually a part of a larger team which offers support when needed. Even individual athletes have support staff, including coaches and physiotherapists, so think about who you can ask for a helping hand.
The social support provided by teammates may improve physical and emotional well-being so think about how best to use the support around you. Simple tasks like making the music playlist, peeling sprouts, or sorting the dessert can be handled by one of your support team, freeing you up to focus on achieving your personal best.
So this Christmas season, take a page from the training books of successful athletes all around the world. Be sure to engage in meaningful training and use mental strategies before and during December 25 – and you’ll be well on your way to victory.
Nadine Sammy received funding from the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission for her doctoral research.