Mental Tools For Athletic Success

Maintaining your psyche is as much a mental game as it is a physical undertaking.
What saves the seasoned veteran from "choking" during the heat of competition? Why is it that you never seem to keep your concentration? No matter how hard you try you can't seem to stay focused. Can you get too pumped up? Why is it the young man in football, with less talent, works harder to earn a starting spot? While another player, with far more talent, sits the bench? These are just some of the questions plaguing us today in this highly competitive world of athletics.

Maintaining your psyche is as much a mental game as it is a physical undertaking. So, what is the secret to building a mental edge? Mental tools. That's what you need. Let's probe into what are some of the ways that can help you build that sustained mental edge. Let's not confuse mental edge with having an over-powered ego either. Ego is nothing like the confidence of an individual who respects the ones around them. Still having trouble telling the two apart? Here is a story that might help you understand the difference between ego and confidence. It is a story of a young, undersized and overlooked football player.

It's a Saturday evening, the stadium lights make the field seem like it's daytime. The grass is green and 22 men get ready to lineup against each other for one more battle. The huddle breaks. The offensive linemen walk up to the line; the right offensive guard sets himself ready, as his hand touches the grass he looks at his adversary. Standing in front of him is another colored jersey. In it is a player six inches taller and outweighing him by some 60 pounds. The big man looks down at his mirror with a twinkle in his eye and then erupts in laughter at the little man who is confronting him. The signal is called, the ball is hiked, and the laughs are quickly silenced as the large different colored jersey is abruptly driven backward. That little guy was me.
I was the smallest offensive lineman in our Junior College conference. And when I say small, I was small, only 5-foot-10 weighing a beefy 200 pounds! How did I overpower this large adversary? Confidence. I had desire, and the mental tools to help me excel. And I was a lot quicker off the ball than he was, that helped just a little.

My college offensive line coach used to tell me that knowing what your capabilities are, and setting goals for yourself always makes the best player. These Mental tools can be prepared with imagery and other tactics. So, much of our focus will be: (a) to distinguish what performance really is; (b) explain how to transform momentum barriers into momentum boosters; (c) using imagery to build self-confidence; and (d) establishing effective goal setting tactics for your sport-specific training program.


Transforming Momentum Barriers into Momentum Boosters

You know what they are? We all have them. Mental barriers, blocks and fears! Call them what you may, but they are correctly titled momentum barriers. Why? Well, because these momentum barriers only sidebar your drive and continual progress in any athletic training endeavor. Any barrier, if approached the right way can be broken down. Even if the barrier is solid steel, there is still a way to make that barrier crumble. It is important for you to keep your attention focused on going to class, studying, going to the gym, executing each exercise, each rep and getting everything you are supposed to do each and every day. There were times when I was getting ready for a Bench Press or power lifting competition, that I would not nail my sets and reps on my bench routine. But, this never deviated me from continuing on with the rest of my exercise routine that day. If I let the disappointment of not getting the correct number of reps and sets outlined for that exercise then I would have got upset, gone home and pouted, like I am sure most of us have done when things don't go our way. And there where many times, during my college football career, that I was tired and the thought of working out just made me more tired. That is when my mind would click in and remind me that another crop of freshman are coming in and someone might take my position if I didn't work.

Hey, there are going to be days when you will walk in the gym and then walk right back out. But not because your friends wanted to go hang out somewhere or party. No, but because physically your body needs a rest. Does this mean you're going to fail, or does this mean you're not going to reach your goals and you're not mentally strong? No, not even. Everyone's body needs a rest. But, off-season rest doesn't mean to go off and forget everything until the last minute either. That's what separates the best from the rest. Getting prepared for the season is a lot different than beginning of a season practicing football, baseball, volleyball, basketball, wrestling or any other competitive sport.

As an athlete, you should know when you're down and dirty into the last weeks of preparation for the season and it is hard to get up and practice. This is when you need to dig deep into your mind. Place a word in your head that will always motivate you. Think of the other team, what are they doing? What is your opponent doing right know? What about those goals we set out to accomplish at the beginning of this season? That's it! That's all it takes, a few different ways to shake up your head. Below are just a few of the sports psychologist's tools used to accomplishing your mental edge.

Imagery and Self-Confidence

In sport psychology, confidence is defined as "the belief that you can successfully perform a desired behavior" (Weinberg & Gould, 1996). Sports psychologists have long used the technique of visualization to aid athletes for increasing their self-confidence, motivation and reduce performance anxiety. By applying mental imagery, you discover a multitude of resources that aid you in increasing your training and game-time performance. I am a stout believer in imagery to aid one's self-confidence, technique and playing performance. What is imagery? Well, first let's discuss what self-confidence is all about. Again too much self-confidence can be construed with a big ego. I know, here we go again with that damn ego thing. The first thing in building self-confidence is to measure your level of confidence. There are a variety of ways that you can measure your confidence level in order to gain an accurate assessment. Below is a list of suggestions for how to measure your confidence levels.

  • Get to Know Yourself - Make frequent observations of your actions and write them down when in different situations. Whether those situations are good or frustrating, write them all down.
  • Identify Your Own Behavioral Patterns - Recognize how you are behaving in the above situations (e.g. the way you interact with other people in the gym, how you act outside the gym).
  • Prepare Your Own List of Questions - Ask yourself certain questions that can help evaluate your confidence.
  • Evaluate All Sources Of Information - review your observation notes, question responses and workout information.
Before You Walk Into The Gym
  • How confident are you on a daily basis?
    What are you thinking about?
After The Workout
  • How well did you perform?
  • What were you thinking about when you had a bad set?
  • What were thinking before and after you had a good set?
  • How did you recover from a bad workout or set?
  • Under what situations did you lack confidence?
Once your self-confidence levels have been measured, the next step in your performance momentum steps is to build that confidence up. The best and most effective way to build your self-confidence is to use imagery, positive feedback and surround yourself with positive people.
  • Imagery - By being able to see yourself perform successfully in your mind, you begin to gain confidence in your ability to be successful in reality. Create a realistic picture in your mind, got it? Picture exactly what you want to accomplish on the field or in training. Incorporate all your senses so you can feel, hear and touch the image you're creating in your mind. I used to picture me walking up to the line of scrimmage, getting into my 3-point stance and hitting my opponent with everything I had; every step, my arms punching into his chest ... Everything in motion, until my opponent was on his back underneath me. Repeat the scene over and over in your mind. Make it real!
  • Positive feedback - When communicating to your support crew and friends, focus on the things you're doing well, the things you need to accomplish and focus on success instead of everything you are doing wrong.
  • Positive people - This is probably the other best confidence builder next to imagery. The people around you can make or break you. If you have individuals who are always down, bellyaching over the little things in life, being upset over this and that and partying instead of working, then you need to cut yourself loose from such individuals. Keep upbeat people who are interested in the same things you are, individuals who know what you are trying to accomplish and you will be filled with self-confidence and success!
Your training program should be written out on a daily basis. Most importantly, prior to beginning your training program you should establish short and long-term goals for yourself. Here are some other factors you should take into account:
  • (a) Set specific goals;
  • (b) Set performance goals;
  • (c) Always set realistic and challenging goals; but most importantly,
  • (d) Ink it don't think it!
Write down in a journal your long-term and short-term goals. Long-term goals are usually for six months, a year or sometimes as far ahead as two years. And short-term goals are daily, weekly and monthly attainable factors. Always write things down so you can see everyday what you are trying to accomplish. This aids in the visualization tool also. A specific goal can be something like: at the end of the off-season you are going to drop your 40 time down 2 tenths of a second. A performance goal can be set as how hard your workout is everyday in the gym.

Remember, to be realistic in your goal setting. Do not think you are going to bench 400 pounds at the end of six months when you are only doing 275! Maybe it would be more realistic to accomplish a goal of becoming a backup and probable starter your next year. That is more realistic. And if you set those types of goals and accomplish more, then that makes it all the better.

Take advantage of your performance momentum and begin to use it in your training program. Build your mental edge by incorporating the above techniques into your daily lives. As noted sport psychologist, Terry Orlick, writes, "To hope for that automatic quick psychological fix today, is much like hoping that God will come down during a time-out to tell you how to turn a game around. It could happen, but planning on it is a little risky ... Besides God might be at another game" (Orlick, 1986).

But, in most athletic events a strength and conditioning program can aid you in your mental edge. This can be a constant mental and physical battle engaging the everyday effort of lifting, running and applying other sport specific drills. Every day you go off to the stadium and gym in search of that perfect workout, that perfect day in competition when everything comes together ... The pump, the exact weight on each exercise, the feel of supremacy, the right move, the correct response and all the little things are all a necessity. We are all searching for that perfect day and there are some athletes who do have those days. A day when the mental momentum just carries on to each and everything you do on the field. When you are preparing for competition during the off-season this does not always happen. Why? Well, most of us think if we had a great day, then tomorrow we will have a better one. Thus, we expect the next day to just happen. And this is the first step in creating bad mental tools. You must focus on executing your everyday goals, e.g. the exact number of hours for sleep; preparing and eating each meal; take all your supplements and vitamins; and drink lots of water. I can go on, and on but you should get the point. Do not become consumed with performance or showing-off because for everyday peak athletic performance you should take a look at how you did things prior to getting to that point.

References

Orlick, T. (1986). Coaches' Training Manual for Psyching for Sport. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics.

Weinberg, R. & Gould, D. (1996). Foundation of Sport and Exercise Psychology, pp 299-315, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.