What is the single most important variable when it comes to success in sports? Yes, having built-in genetic advantages can help with sport success, but having above-average speed or strength will only take an athlete so far until he or she competes against other similarly gifted athletes — and then what happens when previous advantages are mitigated? For example, lets say you have an above-average sized child who simply by sheer strength is able to run over the competition. As the child ages, what will happen when he is no longer able to out-strength other kids and for the first time has to rely on mental toughness and his resiliency and ability to overcome adversity? Interestingly, even for the most physically talented kids their advantages are quickly erased when they lose self-confidence and allow their frustration to steal from their natural gifts. Yes, strong and talented kids can experience failure if they have not developed mental toughness and a mindset to overcome individual and team challenges.
Forget the last play
In life, if you don’t think you can do something, you won’t. Conversely, if you believe you do have a chance for success, your focus, motivation, and resiliency combine to provide your best effort and chance for success. When examining the qualities of a mentally tough person, one common characteristic found that might surprise you is that they have very short memories. Why is this important? The short answer is that if you are still upset about the last bad play, your attention is divided moving forward, and your attitude is far short of what is needed in order to successfully give your best on the next play. These seemingly minor distinctions with attention and attitude are actually two of the most important mental toughness variables when it comes to chances of success, especially in sports.
Just think how tough it is to play your best when you can’t get the last play out of your head. Then, add to your frustration a bad attitude filled with defeatist thoughts and ask yourself how you are supposed to play your best? Obviously the answer is you likely won’t play well, and this is especially concerning because these are self-inflicted mental hurdles stopping you, not the competition. Athletes who quickly forget the last play often succeed, while other athletes bogged down by frustration and embarrassment usually continue to play below their potential.
Do the next thing best
So how do you let go of the last play? Since our minds cannot hold two different thoughts at the same time the answer is to direct your thinking away from what has already happened and toward what is about to happen. Is this easy to do, especially when factoring in emotions? Of course not! But if quickly letting go of adversity were easy everyone would be doing it, and herein lies the difference between success and failure. “Easy” does not factor in when you want to be the best, but if you really want to pass by the competition you should know that directing your thinking is a skill you can learn and master, even if it’s not “easy.” Below are a few quick tips to help you immediately let go of bad plays and refocus on the only thing that matters — the next play:
- Commit to excellence. If you really want to be the best you have to 100% commit to this mindset. What this means is that you are the first one to practice and the last to leave, and a role model of commitment to teammates and coaches. Anyone can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?
- Pre-game routines. Developing a pre-game routine that includes reviewing goals, using imagery to think through plays and control emotions, and engaging in rhythmic breathing to control arousal are examples of things athletes can do to reduce stress and prepare for competition. Pre-game routines can also include self-talk that reminds athletes of letting go of the last play and the importance of always keeping a forward-thinking mentality.
- Don’t look for “easy.” Again, if you are looking for easy tips and short cuts to success, you might want to find other things to do with your time. If, however, you are determined to experience success, only then can you forget looking for “easy” and instead direct all your energy to doing whatever it takes to be the best.
- Reinforce success. Make sure to use positive reinforcement as you become better at re-directing focus toward the future rather than beating yourself up over the last bad play. As you recognize your efforts, your confidence will grow, and before too long it will become natural and automatic to simply let go of things that have already occurred and cannot be changed.
Training your mind to redirect to the next play may be one of the biggest — and most important — tasks athletes face as they strive to be the best. Shifting focus isn’t always easy, but it is possible. Often in life the differnece between winners and losers comes down to simply who wants it more, and a big step toward wanting it more is developing the self-discipline needed to let go of stress, adversity, frustration, and failure.