Sports success, much like life success, relies heavily on a number of inter-related cognitive and behavioral factors. On the mental side, how an athlete thinks, where he points his focus, the confidence he develops in his abilities, and the resiliency he culls from when dealing with sports stress, frustration, and failure all contribute to the level of sports success he will attain. On the physical side (or behavioral side), how an athlete is able to control his nervous anxiety and channel that energy into positive energy will also contribute greatly to his overall level of sports success. In best-case scenarios successful athletes are able to keep their thinking positive and productive, and simultaneously are able to use specific behavioral techniques (like deep breathing) to keep their bodies working in concert with what their minds say to do (like make a key free throw at the end of a basketball game).
Using another example…
One way of looking at the synchrony needed between mind and body for sports success is to use another example — in this case, a music example. If you are a music fan you can probably identify a few songs where you really like the music, but didn’t care much for the lyrics — likewise, there are probably a few songs that you like more for the lyrical content than the music accompanying the song. But what about those rare gems where it all comes together? I’m talking about those really great songs where the lyrics speak to you and the accompanying music is a perfect fit.
Now take that same example and parlay it to athletics – some athletes we that admire fit that example perfectly as their physical abilities are extraordinary because their mental mindset is also at a high level. We also know other athletes that have half the battle won – they might be “mentally tough” but not the best athletes; or they might have great physical tools but very little mental toughness.
Why some athletes only train the physical side
Unfortunately, athletes who want to maximize their athletic abilities will only go so far if they exclusively train the “physical” part of their game. What this means is that short of learning anything about sport psychology mental toughness skills, the athlete will almost always excel and play his best in low/no-pressure situations (i.e. practice), while struggle to replicate these same performances in real game situations. Making this even more difficult, and likely the reason why so many athletes under-develop their mental toughness, is probably due to the lack of visible progress when it comes to mental toughness. In other words, a young athlete can clearly “see” the benefits of weight training after only a few short weeks (and be encouraged to continue because of the noticeable gains), but doesn’t “see” the progress being made with mental toughness as the growth is not nearly as visible or quantifiable.
Dealing with the ambiguities pertaining to mental issues is not unique to sports, as everyday people also struggle with the care and concern they should receive for mental distress. For example, a clinically depressed person is usually not met with the same degree of empathy as someone walking around on crutches or suffering from some other more clearly visible physical calamity.
Perhaps in the end it really has more to do with the passion, purpose, and conviction an athlete has and the lengths he or she will go to maximize athletic abilities. The successful ones don’t wait around for specific mental problems to arise, but instead realize that mental toughness certainly contributes to some part of athletic success and as a result they dedicate time and effort to improving in this area. Other, less committed athletes don’t see it this way, and consequently do not train their mental toughness and end up performing below what they are capable of performing. But when you think about how common athletes talk about “mental toughness” and how regularly they attribute in-game breakdowns to a lack of “mental toughness” it really does make you wonder why more athletes are not committed as much to this training as they are their physical development?
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