Readiness to Fight: Soviet Sports Psychology

TAGS: USSR Success, Soviet Sports Psychology, Readiness to Fight, boevaya gotovnost, performance, Josh Bryant

elitefts™ Sunday Edition

Whether you are a card-carrying member of the Tea Party or you start your days off with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, you cannot deny the success of the former Soviet Sports Machine! Next time you find yourself at the Coney Island Side Show, head down Surf Avenue to Brighton Beach.  Not only will you get the best Borscht this side of Saint Petersburg, you can still meet old time Soviet holdouts that will confirm the message in today’s article.

USSR Success

Many folks attribute the success of the former USSR to advanced methods of physical, tactical, and technical preparation; others play it off as drug concoctions.

There is one factor that is completely ignored!

The psychology of Soviet Athletes.


Avksenty Tcezarevich Puni (1898–1986) is considered by many to be the founding father of Soviet Sports Psychology.  Puni’s work helped athletes psychologically prepare for competition and perform at their best when it counted!

Puni broke down psychological preparation into a general component and a specific component.  General psychological preparation included developing goal directness, determination, courage, persistence, self-initiative, patriotism and the learning of self regulation.

Sport-specific training works from general to specific; a general base is needed before more sport specific things can be done, like physical training.

Mind/Body Link

Too often we try and compartmentalize the mind and body as operating separately.  The YMCA has it right, “sound mind, body and spirit.”  All are interrelated and work together.

Dr. Fred Hatfield says, “You cannot shoot a cannon out of a canoe.”  Puni coached athletes starting with general psychological preparation then moved to specific.  Under Puni’s tutelage, athletes built a psychological base and once the foundation was built, they narrowed into more sport specific psychological preparation techniques.

Football, golf and marathon running all require an athlete to be mentally prepared but not in the exact same mindset.  A linebacker on 4th down of a goal line stand has a different mindset than a professional golfer shooting a putt in a major tournament.

Puni was after one thing---an optimal performance state!  Your best performance has to be in a competition or a game.  Puni referred to this term ‘boevaya gotovnost’ or the readiness to fight.

Five decrees of ‘boevaya gotovnost’

1) Sensible Self-Confidence- Having realistic self-confidence to perform game time. Believe in yourself and your training plan!  A 2009 study published in The Perceptual Motor Skills Journal showed that athletes believing in their competition training plans are far more likely to be successful in their given sport.

2) Uncompromising Effort and the Willingness to Compete to the Very End of the Competition- Adversity, majority of the time, produces cowardice. If your athletic goals aspire no higher than winning a game of beer pong at the local fraternity house, don’t stress on this one.  If you want to be the best at what you do, repetition is the mother skill.  Human beings are creatures of habit; when things get tough in sport or life, see them through and do your best. Do not form the habit of being a quitter or a coward.

3) Optimal Emotional Arousal- Jack Nicklaus stated many times that he believes golf is 90% mental preparation and only 10% skill. He prepares for tournaments by visualizing problem putts and mentally rehearsing each drive.  When Jack gets on the course, he is just going through the motions. Jack has rehearsed himself playing over and over and has a calm, cool approach. This is the right amount of emotional arousal for his golf game.   An inside linebacker needs to be aggressive but not to the point of reckless abandon; this would result in excessive penalties, over pursuing the football, missed reads and premature fatigue!  Instead, controlled rage is the name of the game; linebackers must be mobile, agile and hostile.  Different sports require different levels of arousal.

4) High Tolerance for Stress and Distraction- You, as an athlete, cannot focus on external factors; focus on the task at hand.  Think back to your best performances. Many times it was like you were in a different zone, almost semi conscious; if you have experienced this, you were falling in line with how elite athletes report to feel after extraordinary performances. Whether it is MMA, boxing, or any combat sport, fighters frequently express a lack of event consciousness when knocking out an opponent.   This is the same for the basketball player that has a chance to win the game by making both free throws with opposing fans screaming. Think, how many football games are dependent on whether a kicker comes through in the clutch?

The Australian Psychologist in June 2010 showed a peer reviewed piece entitled Emotions in sport: Perceived effects on attention, concentration, and performance. This showed athletes identifying negative environmental stimuli, generally narrow on the threat/stimuli and conversely, their ability to respond to peripheral stimuli is compromised.  In other words, if you are a running back and you run scared, you will not see the whole field.  Cognitive activity will increase with anxiety and, in turn, information processing becomes extensive and is greatly slowed down.

Concentration on a perceived threat drives ones’ thoughts toward feelings and personal concerns. This encompasses working memory and will redirect your attention toward your personal concerns, leaving less attention to devote to the sporting task. The uneasy feelings associated with anxiety can also lead to a conscious effort to actively control sporting movements to ensure success. Do you think Mike Tyson threw a knockout upper cut after giving an extensive biomechanical break down in his head on how to throw the punch correctly? Of course not!!!  This will kill performance in sport.

It is hard to succeed with both hands around your neck, if you cannot master this principle, you will choke!  “Clutch players” retreat to their own inner mind, where there is no pain, no discomfort, and where only positive forces loom.

5) Self-Control- These ideas are interrelated.  You are not born a winner or a loser, you are a chooser, and you have the ability to control your actions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Setting aside time to properly prepare your mind for athletic competition is a choice that requires discipline.

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