Mental Edge in Sports

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“The biggest game you will ever play is the game in your mind.” –Kevin Abdulrahman, Author of “Whatever You’re Into”

The keys to successful outcomes in sports include appropriate mental approach before, during, and after competition. The reason so many athletes feel pressure, and athletes do respond differently to pressure, is because performance/winning is their primary focus. Whenever an adjustment to the level of pressure is desired, try focusing on effort and process, rather than performance and outcome.

In “Psychology of Champions,” the author cites examples of great athletes and their mental approach to competition. Gordie Howe said: “I would always think about what I was doing.” Jerry West adds: “I never thought about myself during a game. I stayed focused on what we needed to do to win.” Gary Player the golf great admitted: “I reached the 18th hole and I did not know what the score was. The only thinking going on at that time was thinking about what was at hand.”

I know a very successful college coach who has implemented a way to pivot away from negative mindset during competition. Whenever an athlete needs to regain focus after a mistake, the signal phrase is “next play.” Players practice this and use this to overcome a loss of concentration which leads to more mistakes. Lindsey Wilson, a former WNBA player, is a mental training coach. She works with Positive Performance (positiveperformance.com) and teaches helpful ways to “reset.” She requires three steps in her strategy for regaining the right mindset for optimal performance in sports. This can be individualized as well. A word or phrase, a gesture, and a deep breath are the components. With repeated training, her athletes are able to get back in control of their mental focus. She advocates the use of this exercise at timeouts, and other breaks in the action.

“Next play” can also be applied to “next game.” I have observed athletes who cannot release a mistake or a loss easily, and it is apparent in their body language and subsequent play. Athletes may be thinking “what do others think of me, my parents, coaches, teammates, the fans?” Now the focus is on himself, not on the game plan, and the effort and cooperation required to be at his best. At times I have wondered if the athlete has been shamed habitually, and must wear his shame so that all can see his remorse. This is wasted effort and is self-defeating.

One of my favorite things about sports is there is almost always an opportunity for redemption. If an athlete learns from mistakes, focuses on renewed effort, stays in the moment, then that opportunity is likely to present itself; and he will be ready to seize it. When my daughter competed in gymnastics as a very young girl, one behavior we noticed consistently was this. If she should fall off the beam during her routine, fail to stick her landing on the vault, miss an acrobatic move during the floor exercise, or slip off the uneven parallel bars, whatever the next event in the rotation was, she often overachieved with her performance. Redemption is one of those rewards that sports offer, and we all need it desperately as we live our lives, as we make missteps of our own.

An athlete can learn to control her thinking, what thoughts occupy her mind. It is worth the effort to train mentally as well as physically in order to enjoy success in sports. Wise coaches will take the time to implement techniques that focus on this skill.

Key Tips

  • Maintaining mental concentration is a key being at your best competitively.
  • Coaches should work on mental skills as well as the physical techniques of sports for best outcomes.

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