March 2008 – by Cormac Campbell
The last time I saw John Kremer was in my final days as a psychology student at Queens University, Belfast. The English horseracing enthusiast had lectured me for six interesting months on the evolving field of sport psychology – a discipline, which has become virtually essential to all top-level athletes.
Due to a nasty nasal injury picked up in a teenage boxing bout, it was unlikely that I would ever be putting the principles taught in his overcrowded classroom into practice, but looking back three years later it is the contents of his lectures which are among the few things I remember from the course.
All too often we hear quacks preaching their latest one-size-fits-all solution to performance problems – but Kremer has always argued that such simplified solutions can cause more harm than good.
“Everytime a coach opens his mouth and puts across an idea to an athlete it has a psychological effect,” he said whilst sipping a fresh cup of tea in the bar of the Wellington Park Hotel. “Sometimes it is good and has a positive effect and sometimes it is bad and can do a lot of damage. “If I was to put a heading over this it would be caution. There are people around who don’t have the best interests of the boxer at heart and don’t indeed really know the scientific principles of what they are talking about. Their advice can obviously backfire and in boxing, someone can get hurt.”
The presence of individuals who don’t know what they are talking about is something Kremer believes is gradually being removed from the top ranks of sport. “The British and Irish psychological societies are trying to regulate whereby you can’t call yourself a sports psychologist without the real training. “You need to make sure the person an athlete chooses knows what they are talking about – so that you can sort the wheat from the chaff.
“You don’t want to find somebody who wants to be in the ring or at centre stage. You want to find somebody who effectively does a job which means they aren’t needed anymore and have talked their way out of that job.” The principles Kremer advocates are relatively consistent across most sports, but despite this, individually tailoured techniques should be applied.
“Some athletes have to be wired to the moon to perform at their best and others need to be totally relaxed – think Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed. “What you need to find is the point on this continuum where the boxer fights at his best.”
In the same way a boxer aims to peak physically before a contest, Kremer believes that mental preparation is something which can also be brought to the boil at just the right time. “The majority of people I work with focus on their sport too much, they don’t give themselves enough time out.
“Obviously there are times when you have to be totally concentrated at 100%, but there are others when you should be chilling out. Slowly but surely athletes should find what will work for them. “Whatever formula Ricky Hatton has hit upon seems to work – but physically how sustainable that is remains to be seen and I couldn’t comment on that. But psychologically, he has those time-outs which clearly work. And he hasn’t changed since he first burst on the scene. “There are others who look for role models, instead of trying to do what works best for them. Role models are fine in their place – but they shouldn’t come into the way of who you are.”
Kremer believes boxers trying to be someone they are not can prevent even the very best reaching their full potential. “I hate to see inconsistencies in performance. You hear things all the time like ‘you’re only as good as your last match’ but I disagree. You are as good as your best match because you have shown you can perform to that level.
“So variance in performance often isn’t to do with the technical or the physical but rather the psychological things that haven’t been addressed.”
In an age where an undefeated record has become increasingly important for boxers reaching the top, Kremer is adamant that losing can do more good than winning. “You learn more from your setbacks than successes. Those people who step into the ring and imagine it is always going to be perfect – they are psychologically much more fragile and it is more difficult to come back but then there are others who go away and regroup and come back stronger (again think Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed).
John Kremer’s new book Pure Sport – Practical Sport Psychology, which was written with Aidan Moran is now available through Routledge Press.