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MDX sports psychologists explore Ronnie O’Sullivan’s incredible 30-year career

How pressure and motivation could be key factors for esteemed snooker star

Ronnie O'Sullivan

Ronnie O'Sullivan was widely regarded as the greatest snooker player of all time, even before he became the oldest-ever UK champion earlier this month as he claimed a record-extending eighth UK title.

His latest triumph, achieved after a 10-7 victory over Ding Junhui, came two days before O'Sullivan turned 48.

It’s been three decades since he became the youngest player to win the UK Championship in 1993, aged 17.

Here MDX sport psychologists share their views on O’Sullivan’s achievement.

“When you’ve been playing snooker as long as Ronnie has, since the age of 12 or 13, it becomes a way of life, it’s just something that he does,” says Linda Duffy, an Associate Professor in Sports Psychology who was the number one ranked women's dart player in the world for five years running.

“It’s what he is used to. When you look into the psychology of retirement, it’s very similar to that of bereavement, you’re losing something that’s been such a massive part of your life, and that becomes a driver to keep doing it.”

Associate Professor Duffy says that retirement will not be on the horizon for O’Sullivan for a while.

“Once he starts to get beaten more often, he may start to sit down and consider when he wants to stop, but I think you need a reason to finish in sport,” she added.

“His motivation is probably not wanting to give it up and the expectation externally around sports performers; that comes from family, friends and management companies.

“It’s about being competitive. Ronnie actually hates the attention, I think if he could play snooker in anonymity, he’d be very happy. However, he will not want to go out and get beaten so the driver is to make sure he practises so he is at the top of his game.”

Dr Hannah Newman, an academic in Sport and Exercise Psychology, says that performing at elite level in sport comes with an added layer of demands, both personally and professionally.

She said that for O’ Sullivan, who has achieved unprecedented career longevity, dealing with pressure will have been a key factor.

“Pressure is pervasive in elite sport, and can have a hugely detrimental effect on both performance and well-being if not dealt with effectively,” said Dr Newman.

“Those who are able to reach and sustain elite levels are often able to apply an incredible level of focus only on what matters, when it matters, eliminating any distractions or factors outside of their control.”

With pressure coming from a variety of sources including the player themselves, managing it is essential if athletes want to excel.

Dr Newman said: “By being able to maintain focus only on what they can control, in the moments they can control them, athletes are able to handle this pressure in a way that is conducive to successful performance.

“This state of focus can sometimes be referred to as ‘getting in the zone’ - a flow-like state where an athlete may describe feeling in complete control, or that their actions are effortless. Those who are able to get into their ‘zone’ repeatedly, and when it matters, despite external distractions and demands, are more likely to be able to maintain or repeat high performance over time.”

To find out more about studying sport psychology at MDX, click here:

Picture credit: DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0

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