Elite sports is a mental game
Have you heard that quote – “90% is mental game” or anything similar? Have you heard coaches and trainers and CEOs say that their work is 90% (or any huge number) mental game? Ironically, psychological skills that strengthen the mental game seem to be still for niche group of people. Ether those who have had the environment and experiences to learn it throughout life (thus not understanding why others do not have those skills – most people consider it “talent” just exactly for those reasons) or for the rare few who have the passion so wild and need to perform as the best (but do it without substance abuse) and thus learn about psychological skills, find professionals who help them create the environment and train themselves to maximize the potential through mental game.
In fact, you do need both, the technical skills, the ability, sometimes even the bone structure to compete at the top level. But psychological performance skills help everyone to play at THEIR BEST LEVEL. It is a game between you and YOU. Only occasionally you also play with others to see where the standards are. But the first rule is to play with your own boundaries. And for this, to be able to healthily keep a high performance, to be able to be in the game for years and years (think Federer) and still keep amazing score is all mental game. I recently shared three specific tips to be resilient in the times of change.
Learning to regulate your psychological performance is a life skill
As an athlete, you have probably felt the frustration of a loss after an amazing training, the pressure from close ones, the media or from yourself to be the best even at your worst. You might have felt the heightened emotions right before an important shot or this amazing feeling of everything going your way at training or the final competition. You might have wondered, after years of training – why all this? Is there anything else for you or just endless hours at the gym – for what? Or making a choice in the face of uncontrollable challenge like this years´COVID-19 that canceled all the competitions. How to keep training and performing in this situation. Being able to thrive when no-one even sees the possibilities to beat the world record or there is no proof that some speed, distance or weight can humanly be beaten. It requires mental toughness.
The challenges and possibilities to excel are endless. It is important to note that psychological skills are actually life skills. You can take any other field and also use these skills to enjoy your work and life more, set challenging goals and get through them in a healthier way.
Having said that, let’s go to the skills themselves.
4. Relaxation and arousal regulation
How do these psychological skills may play out in your game and life?
Psychological skill no 1.: Identity
Your identity: who you are comes out when you need to decide on ethical, moral issues or challenges of values. For example, if you think the only thing valuable in sport is GOLD, the Olympic gold, everything else loses value. You may be at the peak of your performance, get your personal best but when you do not get the gold, you will always feel like you have lost. This will affect your motivation and self-confidence thus your performance. It will bring your focus on the external result instead of focusing on development which is the only thing you can actually control to some extent.
Psychological skill no 2.: Goal-setting
I am sure you have quite a few goals. Have you worked out how they influence your performance, your understanding of steps you need to take and are they motivating? One misconception is that goal-setting is a fixed thing. That the plan you have made needs to be implemented 100%. Plans are made to be changed when things changed. A plan to reach a goal helps you take action, but is as good as the next information you get about your performance, the environment, etc.
Psychological skill no 3.: Motivation
It would be lovely if we would always have inner motivation, this drive to do things that are important to us. Brief lack of motivation does not necessarily mean that you have lost it altogether. You might be just tired, you might go through extra stress due to personal life, COVID-19 brought an array of unknowns to our lives and that influences our motivation. It is ok to be motivated by external things (prizes, attention) for some time. Inner motivation, though determines the grit to stay on the long-term goal, sacrificing few of the immediate benefits.
Psychological skill no 4.: Relaxation and arousal regulation
Knowing which emotion and what level of arousal is good for you is one of the coolest tool in mental training you can learn. This gives you an opportunity to regulate your emotions to optimum level and also allows you be more compassionate to yourself when things do not always go as planned. Important thing here is to know that stress and arousal is good when you understand they help you prepare your physique. The way you interpret your stress determines how you will react. Your reaction determines your actions (more focus on performance vs more focus on others for example). This will determine the outcome at that time. It takes time to learn to regulate your emotions, that is why you never start this right before the competition. This goes to all psychological skills: since they need training, the training should start at the beginning of the season.
Psychological skill no 5.: Self-talk
The voice in your head. What does it say? Does it judge your performance and compares you to others? Does it instruct you or does it use general motivating words? Does it bring you down or does it lift you up? Our self talk can direct our focus to the next step on a final attempt or might also start finding excuses what to say to the media IF the performance fails. What you say in your head is like a script that you can drill and use for your own benefit to even make those extra push-ups or cut out the noise from the crowd.
Psychological skill no 6.: Imagery
You use imagery to get up in the morning and plan your day. It is a skill you naturally use. Performers use imagery to play out different solutions of the game, to go through the track, to do routines, play different tactics, determine the pace to do the performance on a specific time and also learn new skills faster. One of the amazing uses of imagery is during times when you can’t physically practice (there is ice on the water and you can’t go rowing, your training plan does not allow you to use certain tools or you are injured and can’t physically do karate). During that time you can still train in your head. It has been shown in many researches that combining imagery and physical training gives the best result.
Mental edge from the mental game
These were the 6 topics of psychological performance skills any athlete should add to their training plan. When everyone is at their physical best, mental game is what gives the (mental) edge to perform the best you can at that very moment. It is important to remember that the point is to enjoy what you do and see yourself on a growth journey. Mental training helps you do that healthily.
Which of the psychological performance skills did you recognize as something you use daily? What supports you on your training already? Any challenges you noticed you have? Which skill could help you up your mental and physical game?
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