Have you ever gone into a competition as physically prepared as you possibly could be but something in your mind was causing doubts?
Surprisingly, a lot of athletes have negative thoughts before and during competitions. Despite their fantastic physical shape, these athletes underperform compared to what their training would predict. If you feel like this describes you, you are not alone. But you can change your thought processes so that your performance reflects your practice.
When I was in college, I made an observation (which has since been backed up with scientific study and countless books and articles) that there are three components to being a successful athlete at the highest level.
- Inherent athletic talent
- Good health
- A strong mind
I observed many of my teammates had two of the three, but if an athlete lacked one component, they were always held back from achieving superstardom.
For example, one teammate had more natural talent than me, and he was certainly a tough-minded guy. Unfortunately, problems with stress fractures held him back from his greatest potential. Because he had a tough mind, he achieved his highest potential since he got the most out of himself that he actually could, given the limitations of his health.
Countless coaches and athletes have been baffled by the following scenario -- the athlete who has the talent and health but not the head. I do believe that some athletes can overcome this, but it is not easy, and it takes a lot of work and a long time.
The messages we give ourselves will ultimately affect our mental state, but also our physical state.
And as a consequence, this will affect athletic performance, for good or worse. What we tell ourselves can alter our physical readiness for performance.
A case study
Most of us have belief systems that were established at a very young age. If those beliefs carry a negative undertone, they will ultimately hold us back, whether it be in athletics, academics or career.
How can that be overcome?
Positive self-talk. Journaling, meditation, counseling. New belief systems. And, with the help of an experienced guide, athletes can reverse negative beliefs and see dramatic improvements in their competitive performance.
Let's look at an example from my early days as a coach. "John" had the physical tools to be an outstanding runner, and his body held up well despite a high volume of training. But he tended to underperform in competitions, so after speaking with a sports performance coach and a sports psychologist, John revealed that he always thought that he wasn't good enough -- and this impeded his competitive performance.
As time went on, we learned that John grew up with a father who constantly worried that "there isn't enough." His dad expressed concern that his cars were subpar or he couldn't advance at work. This attitude permeated the family dynamic, even though there was always enough food, shelter, clothing and education. There seemed to be a dark cloud of "not good enough" or "less than" hanging over John's dad.
When asked to write on that topic, John easily filled a notebook on how these thoughts crept into his psyche. When the pressure was on, they would dominate his thoughts. Instead of believing in his abilities, John tended to default to thinking "less than" about himself, which ultimately made him hesitant when competing.
As John did his self-reflection, he realized his mom was often critical and judgmental. As a result, he was often on edge about whether he would be criticized for his actions or achievements. This made it hard for John to relax and enjoy his pursuits.
There was one exception, however. Building model airplanes gave John a tremendous satisfaction because no one judged him. He felt serene, happy and confident when working on model airplanes.
Finding serenity and confidence in competition
The sports performance counselor explored this scenario, encouraging John to think back to a time when he was working on a model. The counselor encouraged John to focus on what he was feeling, to relive those feelings and ultimately identify them. This helped John recall peace, satisfaction, confidence and pleasure when working on model airplanes. He shared with the counselor that if he could achieve that level of serenity and confidence during competition, he knew he could improve his performance.
John and his counselor devised strategies to attain the mindset he had when building models in the midst of competition. Improved results were not immediate, however.
Just like a computer has default settings, humans tend to revert to default thinking patterns when under stress. It's only after repeated practice that patterns change for the positive and become more natural.
It took John more than three years before it reflected in his performance. Just like practicing his sport, he had to practice affirmative thinking until it became automatic. As a result, John went from being an above-average runner to become a school record holder and an All-American athlete.
For more information
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I encourage you to seek a sports psychologist, a certified mental trainer or a sports performance coach. They will help you through the process of discovering the source of negative thought patterns, identifying situations that trigger those thoughts and devise strategies to replace them with affirming ones.
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Rick Wemple is a personal trainer in Chicago and works with clients on mental performance training all over the country. Read more about him here.
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