Every athlete, no matter what level of competition, has experienced jitters before a big competition. For many of us, these bouts of mental anxiety sabotage our hard training efforts, causing us to lose to a less-than-worthy competitor. So perhaps you’re wondering how the Olympians, who’ll soon be participating in one of the most nerve-wrecking, anticipated, and important events of their lives, maintain their calm and focus, despite it all.
The answer is that, in addition to rigorous physical training, successful athletes also focus on an often neglected but no less important aspect of successful competition—mental training.
In fact, the United States Olympic Committee Sports Psychology Services feels that mental training skills are as important as the physical ones, especially for athletes at the upper echelon of competition.
But having a strong mental constitution doesn’t benefit just the elite—even the recreational athlete or health-focused exerciser can reap the rewards. However, while training for a marathon or a tennis match might be straightforward from a physical perspective, how do we mentally train for them?
I spoke with Kay Porter, PhD, author of The Mental Athlete, and a member of the United States Olympic Committee Sports Psychology Registry, to find out some of the techniques used by the professionals that we amateurs could adopt to improve our mental sports performance.
According to the Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP), imagery can help you compete more effectively by regulating anxiety; it can increase motivation by helping athletes to envision their ultimate goal in the sport and it can maintain abilities during an injury. Sounds great, but how do we do it?
The basic technique behind visualization involves thinking about an event, movement, or competition in your head, using all the senses to construct as realistic a scenario as possible. This means including details—the roar of the crowd, the color of a jersey, the smell of the turf—as you recreate an athletic scenario that occurs the way you want it to.
For instance, Dr. Porter recounted how she used visualization before a competitive 10K. For her, the hardest part of the race was around mile four, when fatigue and pain set in. She also knew that one of her rivals was participating in the race, and it was at this mileage that she would have to pull ahead or fall behind. To prepare herself mentally, she looked at the course beforehand, paying particular attention to the most challenging part. She then visualized how she wanted to feel while at this point in the race—strong, relaxed, and breathing smoothly. On race day, she and her pacer came upon her rival at around four miles, and although tired and unsure of how to get ahead, she maintained her pace until she was able to match her opponent. With a burst of confidence, she was able to sprint 100 yards ahead, dropping back to her original pace once her competitor was left behind.
While visualization can be useful before a competition, it can also be used to perfect a particular technique you are struggling with. Spending five to ten minutes visualizing how to hit the perfect forehand or how to shoot a successful free throw shot in basketball, done consistently, can actually improve these skills. If distraction is what messes up your concentration before a competition, visualizing yourself as calm, relaxed, and focused can help you become so on race day.
Focused breathing, used widely as a relaxation technique in mediation and yoga, can also be used specifically for sports-related performance anxieties and nervousness. The focus on deep breathing can help an athlete become grounded in the body, rather than in the head.
Imagining the breath going into the solar plexus, a nerve-dense area in the abdomen, or the “chi” (energy) area, which is about two inches below the navel, can help focus your energies, says Dr. Porter.
This technique was used with a pole-vaulter who she coached, who, like many athletes, did well in practice but didn’t perform nearly as well during competition. He began to use visualization techniques combined with focused breathing—practicing these so they would become as second nature as physical skills—and eventually was relaxed and focused enough to perform as well as he practiced, jumping eighteen feet and winning a PAC-10 championship his senior year.
Though it’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re not competing at your best, negative self-talk can often hinder your performance and result in defeat. Instead, when the going gets tough, you have to learn how to be your own personal cheerleader.
Though I’m not a competitive athlete, I have completed marathons and a half Ironman, and in each case, especially towards the end, it’s been painful and I’ve wanted to quit. During these times, the race becomes much less a physical challenge and much more a mental one. This is when the positive self-talk is crucial.
Using positive affirmations, such as “I’m strong, I’m ready, I can handle this,” or “you can do this, you’re almost there,” can help you stay focused and confident.
Another effective use of self-talk is being able to refocus after a mistake or letdown, one of the hallmarks of a successful athlete. Saying things like “let it go, let it go, refocus,” rather than “that was a terrible shot, idiot!” can go a long way toward succeeding on the next point. Dr. Porter recommends doing these affirmations and refocusing techniques in practice so they become second nature during competition.
Realistic goal setting is another psychological tool used to increase motivation, confidence, and strengthen training. However, goal setting, when ineffective, can have the exact opposite outcome. The AASP recommends setting specific, observable, and measurable goals as opposed to vague ones. For instance, instead of a goal of “running faster,” the goal should be “shaving two minutes off my 5K in the next month,” or something equally tangible. It doesn’t necessarily need to be time or competition-related, though; it could be something technique-related, such as “keep eye on ball when hitting forehand ground strokes.” Other tips for effective goal setting are to write them down, use small goals as a step ladder to achieve a larger goal, and to set practice as well as competition goals.
For the recreational athlete, competition and love of the game might be enough to get them out the door every day, but for those just looking to lose weight or keep in shape, motivation is often harder to come by. How can we increase and maintain our desire to train or exercise?
A few simple steps can override our mental exercising blocks. Dr. Porter recommends getting a workout buddy, who will hold you accountable for a meeting time and place, and will be harder to flake on than yourself. She also suggests keeping an exercise log, even if you’re not training for something. Writing down hours spent walking or hiking with friends will help you identify progress and highlight times when you may need to ramp up the hours to make up for a sedentary previous week.
For some, joining athletic groups, such as running clubs or triathlons clubs, can be a huge motivator. For me, whenever the workouts start becoming boring or redundant, I sign up for a race and this helps kick-start my training and motivation level. One of the best things to do is have a goal to work toward, a defined date set, and a training program. Tell your friends and family you signed up for a race. There’s nothing more motivating than knowing that you have to get out there in front of people you know and cross the finish line!
Train the Brain
Just like athletic training, mental training takes practice, patience, and quality time. But in the end, the training can help prevent game day choking and help you feel—if not compete—like an Olympian.