Human peak performance is achieved in sports by utilizing mental strategies to increase confidence, improve focus, and minimize anxiety. When mental energy is positive and facilitative, only then can the mind and body work in synchrony, allowing athletes to play in the zone. The good news is learning how to harness mental energy might not be as tough as you think, so long as you are interested and committed to developing your mental strength.
What happens with no mental preparation
As athletes grow and begin to player better competition, stress levels often increase thinking about whether one has the abilities to play at a high level. When athletes feel over-matched, anxiety spikes while confidence wavers — a bad combination if an athlete wants to play his or her best. Without a specific pre-game routine designed to help confidence and focus, athletes leaves themselves open to thinking about countless irrelevant and/or distracting thoughts, resulting in poor focus and increased anxiety. The best way to combat this negative thinking from occurring is to have a plan of attack — remember, your mind can’t think of different things at the same exact time, illustrating the importance of having established programed, positive thoughts to stomp out any opportunity for insecurities to manifest.
A practical example
Lets say you are an athlete playing against a tough competitor today, and you get to the locker room only to find yourself wandering around worrying. Without a pre-game routine that helps you get ready, chances are you will begin to allow fear and self-doubt to dominate your thinking — often resulting in questions like “Will I play well today?” or “What if I mess up?” You might also worry about who is in the stands watching, the weather, or even what you will do this weekend. Unfortunately, not only will none of these things help you play your best, you’re likely to play below what you are capable of — in essence, you are beating yourself before the first play of the game.
Developing a strategy that works
All athletes can improve their mental toughness and learn how to play in the zone. The key is to first understand that you control your thoughts and actions, and what you do moments before games will determine if you play freely with confidence, or poorly because of anxiety. Only when you take control of your thoughts and actions will you take to the field each game with the perfect mind-body synchrony needed for effortless muscle memory, a key component to peak performance.
To help you get started, try and break down pre-game routines into thoughts and behaviors:
- Imagery. Spend a few minutes thinking through what you want to accomplish today, and use all your senses (i.e. visual,smell, touch, etc). You might even combine this with music if that helps, but the important thing is to direct your attention to good thoughts.
- Cue words. A cue word is a word, phrase, or acronym that means something to you and can be seen throughout a game. Some athletes write their cue word on their hand, their equipment, or their shoes — the key is to focus on the word during times of distress when you need to re-focus.
- Self-talk. What you say to yourself really matters, so make sure your self-talk is always positive and productive.
- Deep breathing. Taking deep breathes into your stomach and holding it in for 4-5 seconds, repeating as necessary, will automatically begin to calm your nerves.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Tense and relax one muscle group at time for 4-5 seconds, then release, and complete your entire body. After about 2-3 minutes the tightness in your body will be released, allowing you to play free and with confidence.
Sports are tough enough, so make it a point to not beat yourself when you compete! Hold yourself accountable for developing mental toughness, and develop a solid pre-game routine that will allow you to collect your thoughts, develop a game plan, and adjust your attitude in a positive direction. Also keep in mind that mental toughness can help even out differences you might have playing against other, more naturally talented athletes — just one more reason to invest in mental toughness training.