The Psychology of Individual Sports – The Williams Record

“It’s just a matter of going out there and executing,” alpine skier Riley McHugh ’26 (Theo Duarte-Baird/The Williams Record).

Swimmer, alpine skier, heptathlete, sprinter and pole vaulter. Although their events differ in terms of season, sport and content, these athletes share the distinctive quality of competing for their teams individually, excluding any relays. They all strive to earn points that contribute to the overall victory of the team. But in the small amount of time each athlete is given to contribute to that team result, they need look no further than themselves to achieve success.

For Riley McHugh ’26, a member of the women’s alpine team, the main difference between individual and synchronized team competition is the added flexibility that co-competition allows. “I am [definitely] part of a team [during skiing], but when you’re in the field, you can rely on other people to correct your mistakes,” McHugh said. “When you’re skiing and you make a mistake, [it] it could cost you a second – and that’s the difference between first and 30th [place].”

Last season, Sophia Verkleeren ’25 brought home national titles in the 200m individual medley and 200m backstroke for the women’s swim team and was named the CSCAA Division III Swimmer of the Year at the NCAA Championships. For her, individual competition protects against uncontrollable variables that are introduced in simultaneous team competition. “In some ways, it’s nice to know that your individual success is purely a result of what you do and not [as] affected by what other people do.

Sam Riley ’23, a pole vaulter for the men’s track and field team, echoed this sentiment, stressing that individual results provide some objectivity. “[In track]it is not so ambiguous what the problem is [when it’s just you]Riley said. “It makes the challenge of how to improve a little more clear and manageable.”

However, the strict nature of the results can sometimes be counterproductive, according to men’s heptathlete Jackson Anderson ’24, who won the competition on the national stage in the NCAA Div. III indoor athletics championship. “Because the results are so clear, it can be easy to get caught up in the numbers,” he said.

Results can also lead to feelings of disappointment when performance does not meet the athlete’s standards. Fellow men’s track sprinter Jack Davis ’24 talked about the disappointment he felt after not performing as well as he had hoped at the NESCAC Spring Championships in late April. “Even though you’re competing individually, there’s still a team goal [to win NESCACs]Davis said. “It was definitely frustrating when I felt like I couldn’t contribute as much as I wanted to, but the biggest thing I learned was to acknowledge that frustration and move on to the next one [race].”

For some athletes, the walking classes provided to them at Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS) provide a space to work through stress related to the quality of their performance. Psychotherapist Paul Gitterman, who helped pioneer athlete-focused services at the College, highlighted the unique challenges facing those competing in individual timed sports. “These timed events are part of a larger team effort,” Gitterman said. “But in some events, only individuals will really progress; the team is not always fully represented.’

To combat performance anxiety, IWS employs a dual strategy. First, Gitterman encourages athletes to harness pre-competition jitters and repackage those jitters into intrinsic motivational tactics. “Imagine that feeling in the heart of butterflies,” Gitterman said. “Instead of being out of control and disorganized, imagine that energy consolidating so that you have this energy reservoir at your core.”

The second part involves shifting the athlete’s focus away from a purely quantitative, results-oriented grounding and back to a fundamental appreciation of the sport. “There’s something about [the sport] that they love, that they sometimes lose touch with,” Gieterman said. “I often try to get athletes to think of an image that conceptualizes what they love most about the sport.” This reframing of mindset can make it easier for some athletes to repackage their anxiety and more easily enter the vaunted “state of flow,” characterized by a level of extreme focus, he said.

All five athletes echoed Gitterman’s strategy of avoiding results-oriented thinking. For McHugh, this looks like choosing one area of ​​the race to focus on, such as being patient while competing. “I [usually say]”Do your best and forget the rest,” she said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.” Another constant among the five athletes? The bonds they form with their teammates ensure they never feel alone while competing individually. Verkleeren pointed to a strong team culture as a motivating factor for success. “When I’m behind the blocks at NESCACs or NCAAs, my thought process is, ‘I’ve got to do well for my team,'” Verkleeren said. “I think that’s something that’s pretty unique about Williams.”

Riley agreed, noting that the support Williams’ teammates give each other is sometimes unfairly overshadowed by perceptions of the inherent individuality of time-trial sports. “Having a community that is there for you — not just on the track, in the pitching circle or on the track — is extremely helpful,” Riley said. “It creates a space where you feel like you can take the necessary risks that will actually be the things that lead to success.”

Davis expressed his gratitude for the track community as a source of foundation during competition. “I finished my freshman year, so I feel very grateful to be in this position,” he said. “I get to go to these races and be with these people. So no matter what the stakes, [I try to] boil it down to “That’s a fun thing you’re doing.”

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