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Sports Psychology: Training Your Brain to Achieve

By Jim Afremow, PhD

You’re watching Rafael Nadal dominate at the French Open. He’s tired, he’s stressed, he might even be injured, and you think to yourself, “How can I be that mentally tough when it matters most?”

You follow Lebrone James all season long and marvel at how he manages to ratchet up his play, game after game, and you think, “I would love to be that driven and dedicated.”

We might not all have the physical gifts of Nadal or James but we can learn to think as they do to maximize the physical abilities we do possess and to conquer our goals.

Sports psychology is the scientific study of mind, emotion, and behavior as it relates to athletic performance and physical activity. The mental demands of rigorous competition can be enormous, making sports psychology a crucial part of any athlete’s training regimen. To quote coaching legend Phil Jackson, “Wisdom is always an overmatch for strength.” Hall of Famers and Olympic champions, backed by decades of empirical research, all agree that the proper use of sports psychology strategies can significantly improve any athlete’s performance.

Athletes who diligently train their minds play their best more consistently, experience greater enjoyment, and increase their odds of victory. As one progresses to the higher echelons of any sport, physical skills tend to balance out among competitors. How, then, does the athlete distinguish him- or herself from the pack? It is here where we discover that having a superior mindset is the key to gaining the upper-hand.

Important mental skills for athletic excellence include:

  • Supreme, unwavering confidence in your abilities

  • The ability to keep a laser-like focus when surrounded by distractions

  • The capacity to sustain a high level of motivation throughout a long season

  • The strength of will to conquer all anxiety, frustration, and discouragement

  • The power to bring your intensity to the next level when needed

Effective mental training tools include:

  • Clear and challenging short- and long-term goals

  • Visualization of making great plays and succeeding on the field

  • Positive, energetic language used to motivate yourself into a winning frame of mind

  • A consistent breath during all moments of action

  • Confident, upbeat body language to get the feeling of success in your body and mind

An athlete looking to improve his or her game can benefit can benefit from sports psychology at any time. Junior athletes can get a significant head start on their peers by developing their mental strength early on, rather than waiting until college or beyond. Seasoned pros can ensure they stay on top of their game, never letting themselves get complacent, by training their minds appropriately.

Sports psychology services can be applied in all scenarios. Specific examples include:

  • When the athlete wants to reach his or her full potential. By fine-tuning their game mentally and emotionally, he or she can eventually exceed even his or her greatest expectations.

  • When the athlete experiences any kind of setback, such as a mental block, performance plateau, prolonged slump, demotion, or injury.

  • When off-field issues or concerns begin to interfere with the athlete’s performance.

Your mentality will either hold you down or bring you up. Strive to master your mind rather than being mastered by it. If you don’t, you risk losing every game before it even starts.

Think about how you can improve your performance in the following areas:

  • How you prepare mentally in practice and during training

  • How you maintain a winning mindset on the day of competition

  • How you manage your thoughts in the moment of action

  • How you deal with distractions

  • How you use the results of competition to build your character from event to event

  • How you communicate with others as a leader and a teammate

  • How you decompress after training and competition to stay fresh and avoid burnout

To excel in each of these areas, you’ll need a game plan. For example, when dealing with results, take the time to learn from every poor performance rather than brooding or trying to forget it. After a peak performance, write down specifically what you were thinking, feeling, and doing immediately before, during, and after the event. The next time you need a boost in confidence or motivation, refer back to the list.

However, while much can be accomplished on your own, working with a trained professional can be invaluable in mastering your mindset quickly and effectively. The sports psychologist works collaboratively with athletes to identify the challenges they face, the best ways to approach these challenges, and to put athletes in the optimal mental position to take charge of and accomplish their goals. The psychologist’s role parallels that of the coach and is just as pivotal in helping athletes achieve their full potential. Sports psychology is the key that can transform a weak performance into a brilliant one, and a good athlete into one of the best to have ever played the game.

Here are top 10 mindset tips to help you build new motivation, confidence and major breakthroughs in your fitness, your training and in your life.

10. Positive Images: When your are exercising, use your positive mental images throughout your workout to create feelings of speed and power. (e.g., If you’re walking or running and you come to an unexpected hill visualize a magnet pulling you effortlessly to the top). Use visualization before, during and after your training to build confidence and new motivation.

9. Power Words: Make positive self-statements continually. Negative thinking is common; everyone has an inner critic. Become aware of these thoughts early on. Don’t fight with them; simply acknowledge their presence, and then substitute positive power words. (e.g., When you’re thinking: “This hurts too much, I want to lay down and die”; say to yourself: “This feeling is connected with getting healthier and doing my absolute best.”)

8. Present Focus: Practice being in the present moment. Remind yourself to stay in the here and now. Instead of replaying past mistakes, or worrying about the future, let past and future events fade into the background. Be right on, right here, right now.

7. Advantage: Use everything in your workout to your advantage. For example, if another person passes you, tuck in behind and go with his or her energy for as long as possible. You may catch a “second wind” and be carried on to a personal record.

6. Chunking Goals: Focus on your immediate target. Break your training goals down into small, manageable pieces and begin to focus only on the first portion, not the entire workout (e.g., Say to yourself: “I’m just relaxing and getting my rhythm during the first part, or the first workout session”).

5. Body Scan: Pay close attention to your tension level and training form. Do a body scan while working out and relax your tight muscles frequently. Ask yourself: “Are my shoulders and neck relaxed; how does this pace feel; how much energy is left in my legs?”

4. Pain as Effort: If you have “good pain,” the pain of effort, that is not seriously damaging your body, just shift attention to your breathing or cadence of movement, and let the discomfort fade into the background. You can also use the pain as feedback. Register it not as pain but as effort level. Say: “Now I know exactly how hard I’m working. I know how this pace feels. My body is doing what it should be doing.”

3. Detach From Outcome: Look only at what you need to do right now (e.g., your pace, your breathing, your concentration); your final time, place, or score will take care of itself.

2. Focused Attention: Be aware of distractions. Breathe out unwanted thoughts with your next exhale and re-focus your attention instantly on what is important right now, at this moment. 1. Celebration: Enjoy and appreciate your fitness and strength. When you exercise, relax and let your body do what you’ve trained it to do. Remember that your goals are realistic. All you need to do is perform up to your capabilities.


Photos courtesy of DirtyheartMTB

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