~3 min read
Athletes are often told that their attitude and mindset influence their play, but they aren’t always taught the mental tools that will help them use the connection between their mind and body to their advantage. Learning how to harness both sides of the mind-body equation is incredibly powerful. Athletes can work on the mental side of their game on their own or with the support of a mental performance coach. Working on mental strength can help improve physical performance, sport enjoyment, as well as commitment and motivation. All athletes regardless of their level and performance ability – from those who perform well in practice but choke during games to those who want to unlock their full potential – can benefit from working on their mental game.
The Mind-Body Connection
Before diving into the specifics of mental strength training, it can be helpful to understand the underlying phenomenon that makes this a useful practice for athletes: the mind-body connection. This connection refers to the ways that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs influence our body, and vice versa.
Research shows that our thoughts produce chemicals and hormones that influence our body, and on the flip side, our bodily experiences influence how we think and feel. Consider an athlete who’s scared of failing during a game or competition: the nervous system’s response to fear includes increased adrenaline and serotonin levels, which sets off a domino effect of physical reactions, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, the athlete’s attention is split between performing and dealing with nerves. In this scenario, the athlete is more likely to make a mistake and reinforce their fear of competing, perpetuating the cycle. The good news is that we can train our brain to make new connections and utilize mental skills that lead to higher confidence, heightened focus, and peak performance (aka the “zone,” “runner’s high,” or “flow”).
Areas of Mental Strength Training
Due to the variety of challenges athletes face, there are numerous strategies for working on different aspects of an athlete’s mental game. Three of the most popular tools performance coaches introduce to athletes to help them face these challenges are attentional focus, imagery, and motivation.
1. Attentional focus
In other words, getting in the “zone.” Attentional focus involves tuning out distractions and focusing on the task at hand. The more mental energy athletes direct toward their game, the better able they are to perform at their best.
This practice includes activating imagination to mentally rehearse skills, strategies, calm nerves/anxieties, and build confidence. By visualizing plays/skills, athletes can imagine how they’d like to perform and subsequently strengthen their mind-body connection. When it comes time to practice and compete, they’re better able to tap into and mirror how they felt and performed while visualizing.
Motivation includes the external and internal factors that determine how much an athlete really wants it (involvement and success in their sport). Understanding what motivates an athlete can help them feel a sense of purpose in their sport even during tough times, and it can keep them grounded and focused when things are going well.
Additional aspects of mental strength include (but are not limited to!):
Anxiety or Energy Management: For athletes struggling with nerves, muscle tension, and/or overthinking, anxiety or energy management can help them turn their fear into something more constructive, like focus or drive. Learning how to manage their fight-or-flight response (the nervous system’s reaction to a stressful event), can help them feel more calm and in control of their athletic performance, especially during games and competitions when nerves are high.
Goal Setting: Learning effective goal setting techniques encourages athletes to focus on what’s important to them and practice recognizing what it takes to achieve success. For athletes feeling stuck or unmotivated, goal setting can be a helpful way to feel more invested in their own athletic careers. For those who are particularly future-oriented, goal setting can help athletes find motivation and comfort in knowing they have realistic and achievable steps to take to reach their dreams.
Self-Talk: Negative self-talk distracts from performance and can keep athletes from reaching their full potential. Learning how to quiet, dismiss, or even replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk can help them gain confidence, stay focused, and improve performance.
Time Management/Organization: Being an athlete can be a full-time job, and keeping commitments, deadlines, and goals in check is often overwhelming, especially if athlete’s are balancing school, jobs, or other commitments.
Learning how to work through mental obstacles is a huge part of the athlete experience. Not only is mental strength training valuable for youth, high school, and college athletes who are passionate about improving, but the growing field is also utilized by elite athletes (Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Russell Wilson, just to name a few) who recognize the significance of the mental side of sports. Needless to say, investing in both your physical and mental game can have a huge impact on your athletic career.
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