The 3 Mental Tricks Elite Athletes Practice That You Should Too
Hello friends! I hope you are staying well and happy,
A few years ago, I made the excellent decision to study for a Masters in Sport Psychology. Being someone who is really interested in how people perform at their best, especially in the gruelling world of sport, I thought this would be an awesome degree to fuel my curiosity and my desire to perform the best I can, in all walks of life.
I was right. Not only did I have the opportunity to study and research topics that really inspired me, I also learnt a great deal about how the key indicators of top performance in athletes are so applicable to everyday life. Physical prowess and ability in sport is only half the battle; at the elite level, what sets athletes apart from their competitors and keeps them healthy and focused is all in their mind. It's the same for our careers, our exercise habits and our general mental health; if we want to succeed in any particular area of our life, what goes on up in the old brain is entirely worth focusing on and training.
I wanted to outline 3 things that elite athletes do to make sure they're performing at their highest level, that they're achieving their goals, and staying content and keeping their mental health in check. These 3 traits can really help you if you're interested in furthering your career or developing a new skill; but more importantly, if you'd like to learn more about staying emotionally healthy when striving towards your goals, this is the article for you.
1. Athletes are aware of their internal threat signal
We all have a little voice in our head that can get in the way at inconvenient times. A voice that might say 'I can't do this', 'I'm rubbish', or 'I'm going to fail'. No, we aren't crazy - it's completely normal!
Our mind is designed to protect us from danger. But our brains have evolved to sense danger in instances where there is a threat to our self-esteem or social standing - for example, when we are sitting an exam, or meeting new people. So when we tell ourselves 'I'm going to fail this exam', that's our brain very nicely, but very unhelpfully trying to warn us that danger is ahead.
The great news is, we are not, in fact, in immediate danger (despite our brains making us feel like we are). These means that to prevent this voice from derailing our progress, we need to be aware that this voice is not warning us of a real threat. Elite athletes are constantly pushing themselves further and harder, coming back from losses and putting themselves through physical pain; they have trained themselves to be aware of, and ignore or quieten, this negative monologue (see my blog post on how to combat negative self talk). As Michael Jordan said, "Limits, like fears, are often illusions". Being aware that you don't have to believe this voice in your head will massively help when facing a big challenge, whether that be in your career or your personal life. In short: don't believe everything you think!
Athletes imagine their success
Have you ever lay awake at night before a big exam, or a presentation, and imagined all the things that could go wrong? 'What if I forget my pencil case and have nothing to write with?' 'What if I oversleep and am late for work?' Not to mention being super annoying, this can also hinder our performance in said exam or presentation the next day. That's not just because of the inevitable lack of sleep - it's also because imagining our failure creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that our worst fears will actually be realised.
But the opposite can also be true - if we visualise the best case scenario, a situation where everything goes exactly how we want, this in fact increases our preparation for the task ahead. Karlene Sugarman, a Mental Training Consultant, says "The body cannot distinguish between something that is really happening, and something that [you] are visualising. Since the mind leads the body, this is an invaluable tool if it is done correctly and on a consistent basis."
Elite athletes practice visualising every part of their performance in order to mentally and physically prepare themselves for the best outcome. This process can get very detailed - for runners, it might include the roar of the crowd, the feeling of the wind on the back of their neck, and the smell of the tarmac. The more specific and detailed the imagery is, the more prepared one can be for the actual moment of performance. So why not practice some imagery before your next big challenge? If a big presentation, you might create a visualisation that includes you walking to the front of the room, turning on the projector, and seeing the slides in front of you.
Athletes focus on the process, not the outcome
When I was younger, I was often praised for doing well. This sounds innocuous enough, but there is a difference between being praised for doing well, and being praised for working hard. Many of us as children will have been in the same position; we were praised if we did well in an exam, or won a race, but there was less emphasis on how hard we studied or, how much we trained.
The problem this may create in the future, as adults, is that we are focussed on the end goal of any particular task or challenge, rather than the process and effort that goes in to eventually achieving that goal. What this means is that the preparation and effort needed beforehand is less enjoyable, can contribute to more self-judgement and increase stress. Have you ever been working towards a goal and hated every minute of it, telling yourself 'I'll be so glad when this is over'?
Ultimately, focussing more on the achievement of the process of completing a challenge will allow us to enjoy it more, and will mean we'll be more likely to continue doing it. It also means that the success we feel is something we can control; we can always control how hard we work, but we can't always control what the eventual outcome is. There are so many external factors affecting whether we eventually achieve our goals, it's better for our stickability and mental heath if the emphasis is on how hard we're working.
Dr. Jarrod Spencer, author of Mind of the Athlete: Clearer Mind, Better Performance, notes “So many athletes are [taught] to shoot for some great goal. When they can’t get the dopamine, the serotonin, and the endorphins from training and competing, then they could sink into a funk [and experience] mild depression and anxiety.”
And so it applies to all walks of life - if we aren't deriving pleasure and fulfilment from the process, this can have adverse effects on our mental health. And if you want to bring it back to performance, if you aren't happy working towards a goal, you're much more likely to give up or lose motivation. Ultimately though, goals are pointless if we aren't having fun and enjoying life; for me, this is the most important tip we can take away from elite performance. When working towards a challenge, make sure to make your training and preparation fun and enjoyable, and reward yourself for the hard work you're putting in. Even if you don't succeed this time in the end, you'll be proud of yourself for the hard graft.
I hope this gives you some tips on things you can do to perform at your best and stay healthy and happy in the process. What other things do you do to keep yourself on track?