Every great athletic performance comes down to elite mental skills. While we can marvel at great physical abilities, maybe some technical abilities…an athletes mental skills and abilities often go unseen.
As important as mental skills are made out to be, they are often the last key ability of an athlete to be addressed. Usually an athlete won’t seek out mental skills training until something isn’t going well and then it might be too late.
Mental Skill #1: Taking 100% Responsibility
Taking 100% responsibility for where you are right now as an athlete gives an athlete power. When you give away your responsibility, you lose all power.
Sure, you may have been cut by that coach. Or maybe the Ref made a bad call. Or maybe you’re not playing because you think the parent of the other kid is playing favourites. Whatever you feel the reason may be, you have to move on from that and ask yourself this question, “What did I do to get into THIS situation?” and then you ask, “What can I do to improve my situation?”
Asking those two questions is a mental skill that gives an athlete tremendous power in an environment where most people want to blame everyone else for the situation but themselves.
The truth is: you made it to all the practices, or you didn’t. You made the pass, or you didn’t. You put the effort in while you were in the weight room, or you didn’t. You decided to tryout for that team. You were late that day. You decided on that piece of equipment. You dogged it on that sprint. You had pizza, again. You listened to the coach, or you didn’t.
The reality is that you are where you are right now because of all of the actions, and inactions, you’ve taken up to this point.
When you take 100% responsibility for those actions and inactions you now have the ability to choose to make the situation better, or continue to make it worse. The choice is yours.
Many athletes feel that they have to go to practice. They have to eat a certain way. They have to do sprints. The have to go to the weight room.
But what if you changed the words “have to” to “choose to”. How does that make you feel?
When you choose to say, “I choose to go to the weight room and lift.” or counter that with, “I choose to stay home flip through Instagram.” How does that make you feel? One feels empowering, the other makes you feel like a lazy slug!
The key here is that you have taken responsibility for that decision. You are either choosing to go workout, or you are choosing to stay home on the couch and flip through Instagram. The choice is yours now and always has been yours. You have the power to make things better, or worse. Your choice.
Try this “Have To/Choose To” exercise:
Developing the mental skill of taking 100% responsibility gets easier when you try this mental exerciese.
Let’s say you finished poorly in your last competition and now you have to go to practice the next day. You say…
I have to go to practice.
If I don’t go to practice I don’t have the chance to work on my skills and get better.
If I don’t get better Coach won’t be very happy with me.
If Coach isn’t happy with me then he probably won’t start me next game.
If I don’t start the next game then that other kid will get to play.
If that other kid gets to play they will have the opportunity to shine.
If they start to shine and do well then I might not see the field again.
If I don’t see the field again I won’t get to play.
If I don’t get to play I’ll never reach my goals as an athlete.
I choose to go to practice today.
Make sense? By taking 100% responsibility for where you are right now you have the ability choose to improve. No matter how bad you may feel a situation may be, you have the power to make it better.
Mental Skill #2 Understanding Your Beliefs Are All Powerful
“I’m not going to score very well on this next one.” the young tennis player told me.
“Well if that’s what you believe…you’ll get it.” I told her.
She rolled her eyes and headed out onto the court. And then proceeded to lose her match 6-2, 6-1.
After the match I asked her Coach if he thought she could have won that match and he said, “No question. She has all the ability to win. She just believes sometimes that she can’t and lacks the mental skills to turn it around.”
Later that evening I bumped into the opposing athletes coach in a hallway. He had forgotten a bag and I was coming out of the bathroom. We literally bumped into each other.
I said, “Hey…weird bumping into you like this, but can I ask you a quick question? What did you guys expect to happen in that match?”
“As coaches,” he said, “we didn’t think our athlete had what it took to win today. But do you know what she told us before she hit the floor?”
I said, “I’m all ears.”
He said, “She told us, ‘I open to having a great day today.’ And she did!”
What you believe, at times, can be more important than the abilities you have.
For the girl who lost, what she believed in, she got. For the girl who won, what she believed in, she got.
These twelve mental skills are going to give you some amazing tools today, but what I want you to know to start out is that what you believe in can override everything else. Your abilities. Your resources. Your life skills. Your beliefs override them all.
Mental Skill #3: Having Self-Awareness
They say that awareness is the first step to recovery and because of that some people think it’s one of the most important mental skills to have.
Having worked with a ton of coaches over the years I can tell you that the majority of a coaches frustration comes from athletes who lack awareness.
An athlete can lack awareness on little things or on big things.
But an athlete who is self-aware has a clear understanding of:
Their own personality. They know who they are and who they are NOT.
Their strengths AND their weaknesses according to their abilities and their beliefs.
Their thoughts and their values.
An athlete who has awareness is able to make strategic decisions. Am I running too fast or too slow? Is this the best pass to make in this situation? Should I play for this team, or for that team?
Most importantly, an athlete who is self-aware is able to seek accurate feedback about who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. They have accurate thinking and are clear about what they need to improve and what resources can truly help them.
An athlete who embraces feedback (both positive AND negative) accelerates their ability to be self-aware. An athlete who avoids feedback, or who is surrounded by other athletes, coaches and parents who give insincere feedback, is hindered and will lack accurate self-awareness.
Mental Skill #4: Being Committed To Your Athletic Goals
When you are committed to your athletic goals it’s easier to withstand the inevitable ups and downs that come with competing in any sport. They can be bad losses, injury, or bad decisions by coaches, or any other situation that makes you feel like you’re moving away from your goal and not towards it.
But this mental skill only works if the athlete works too. Where athletes get into trouble and confusion is when they aren’t committed to their goals. They are one foot in and one foot out.
To reach an elite status you need to be “all in” on your goals.
There is a saying I love that goes something like this,
“It’s easier to be 100% in on your goals than it is to be 99% in on your goals.”
It’s that one percent where doubt creeps in. Indecision. Lack of confidence. Lack of belief. Go all in and there’s no room for that little negativity to creep in.
Mental Skill #5: Improving Your Inputs
You are what you are and where you are because of what has gone into your mind. You can change what you are and where you are by changing what goes into your mind. – Zig Ziglar
When I hear this quote it reminds me to look at each one of my athletes differently. Why? Because they are who they are and what they are and where they are because of what has gone into their mind.
Athletes today are flooded by information. It comes from all sides and at all times. From the moment an athlete wakes up in the morning to when they fall asleep at night, the inputs they receive are at a volume never before seen in history.
So what’s an “input”?
Well, an input is any bit of information that comes into your head that triggers any sort of emotional response. Where do they come from? Here are just a few places you get your inputs from:
“But Coach, I see all that stuff but I don’t get an emotional response from it.”
That’s not true. You get some sort of response and it makes a difference, even if it’s small. Here’s some proof:
The famed British chef Jamie Oliver launched his @biteback2030 program I suggest you watch the Triple Dipped Chicken video: https://www.instagram.com/tv/B3tkkE5jmvQ/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
While this video particularly relates to food, how about applying all of these input techniques to the rest of your sporting life?
Think of an input like a grain of sand. By itself it can seem pretty insignificant, but over time you’re buried in the
stuff and you can’t move!
Everything that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch gives us an emotional response. Our brain is actually wired to do that.
If you see a cute fuzzy kitten on your phone, your brain sends neuro-chemicals into your bloodstream telling your body how to feel. If you see a guy trying to jump a dirt bike off a staircase and he lands stradling a metal railing…guess what…your brain is sending neurochemicals to your body and you’re probably feeling what he’s feeling.
No matter where the input comes from, your brain is using the mental skills it currently has and is sending a signal to your body making it feel a certain way and that’s very important to understand.
If you’re watching the news, or violent movies, or anything else that is negative, your body is starting to get used to those feelings. So much so that it starts to crave those neurochemicals your brain is sending it’s way.
Just like those grains of sand, you’re now starting to bury yourself in those neurochemicals.
You need to be incredibly aware of the inputs in your life. While some will be painfully obvious like the negative friend, or the violent movie, or your drunk uncle Ralph, others will seem small and insignificant.
What is important to understand is that they ALL have an impact on who you are, what you are, and where you are in your life right now.
The good news is that you CAN improve your inputs and you can start right now.
Mental Skill #6: Self Talk – Your Biggest Input
Yes, you need to worry about the external inputs that affect how you think and who you are. You need to do your best and purge the negative inputs in your life.
But one of the most important and most powerful inputs of all…
Self talk is one of the most important inputs that you must consider while being an athlete. You need to be your biggest fan, but most of the athletes I work with tend to be their own worst critic.
I have a saying that goes like this…”If I talked to you, like you talked to you…we wouldn’t be friends for very long now would we?”
For many athletes their minds are filled with a personal voice that says things like, “You suck. You’re never going to be any good at this. You should just go back to bed. You think you can win? You really think you can make this happen? Think again, buddy. You don’t have what it takes.”
You wouldn’t let me talk to you that way, so why do you let you talk to you that way?
Self-talk is greatly affected by the inputs you have in your life up to this point. Those inputs have created what some people call your Inner Voice. Or your Inner Critic. Some describe it as though you have an angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil sitting on the other.
However you describe it, you’ll get a thought like, “What makes you think you can do this?” Or, “You’re drunk uncle Robbie tried to do that once and he nearly killed himself doing it.” Or, “You’re tired. You should really stay home today.”
These thoughts are perfectly natural and all they are doing is representing the Big Three:
You have to understand that the MOMENT you decide to go after something, your inner voice (that representation of all the negative inputs in your life) is going to pop up with questions.
Your job is to keep going and not stop because of these questions. You only have to focus on the solutions.
The balance between your Inner Voice and your Self Talk really comes into play here. Here’s how you can deal with the Big Three and still go after your athletic dreams.
You may have heard this acronym for “FEAR”. It’s False Evidence Appearing Real. When you start to really go for your goals you’re going to experience lots of fears.
Here are just a handful of fearful thoughts you might have:
What happens if I try that and I get hurt? (Fear of Failure)
What will my friends think? (Fear of losing friends)
What if I make it and then I can’t see my family I’m so busy? (Fear of success)
Why do I even want to do this? (Fear of being uncomfortable)
How to Overcome Fears: Don’t try to ignore them. Talk to them. Acknowledge them. Your self talk should say something like, “That’s a great point Inner Critic. Here’s how I think we should take care of that.” And then lay out your plan.
By acknowledging your fears you address them and take away their power. Kind of like standing up to a bully. You now have gone from fearful and frozen to an action taking super athlete who can overcome any fear.
Considerations are thought that lay out all the reasons why you shouldn’t go after your goals. They are the voices of all the people in your life who are ready to tell you that your goal is impossible to make happen.
Consideration thoughts are:
I’m already working really hard and now I might have to work harder?
I’m not going to have enough time to train.
Those other guys are already better than me.
I’m not going to see my friends.
How to Overcome Considerations: Get a piece of paper and a pen and write down ALL of the considerations. By taking the step of writing them all down you take them from bouncing around in your head and bring them right to the forefront. Right into your conscious mind so you can deal with them.
For most of my athletes, the considerations from their Inner Critic aren’t even theirs! They are considerations from friends and family members from ages ago. By getting these considerations out of your head and in front of you, you can now acknowledge them and move right past them. Kind of like a guy on the sidewalk trying to sell you something. You can be polite and say, “No thanks man. I’ve got a goal to reach.”
While fears and considerations are mental exercises, roadblocks are circumstances that show up on your way to achieving your goal. Things like:
You don’t make the team.
You get injured
Your main coach dies in a fiery car crash. (You get the point)
Roadblocks are things you can’t really predict. They are just obstacles you’re going to need to overcome when they show up. And it’s not a matter of if they show up, but when.
Your job is to be ready for anything. Don’t expect roadblocks to show up because then you’ll just attract them into your life. But do know that once they show up, you’re smart enough to be able to figure it out.
How to Overcome This: Act like a young kid. Have you ever seen a young kid ask for something over, and over and over again? It’s exhausting! Just ask your parents. Every parent has the story of telling a young child they couldn’t have something only to be met by the constant barrage of “why not’s?”
Kids are relentless and you need to adopt the mentality of a child so you can overcome any roadblock that comes you’re way.
Just Don’t Quit
Your Inner Critic is going to throw up fears and considerations. Roadblocks will show up in their own unpredictable fashion as you move along this journey. Your Self Talk is what is going to help you past these Big Three.
Your Self Talk doesn’t have to agree with your Inner Critic. When the Critic says, you can’t do this!” Your Self Talk should say, “I don’t agree with you. I’m smart enough and know that I can. It may take a bit to figure it out but I can do it.”
Mental Skill #7: Visualization
The mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined with feeling.
You may want to write that down.
Again: The mind doesn’t know the difference between what is real, and what is imagined…with feeling.
Let me prove this to you…have you ever had a dream that felt so real you woke up and you were breathing heavy, or you were sweating a little bit, or you feel scared?
Why? The dream wasn’t real, right?
But it felt real. And what happened during that dream is your brain started signalling your body just like it was real. You may have even kicked your legs like you were running in your bed because, in your mind, you were running from the big, bad Green MnM with the chainsaw. (or whatever your dream might have been. I don’t judge.)
When you fully grasp that your brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. you will realize how great an advantage this can really be.
I used it as a way to get in extra training without having to actually pay for extra training runs. While my competition was taking actual runs, I was working in my hotel room.
Working on what you ask? My runs. My competition. Anything and everything I wanted to work on I could work on, in my head, whenever I wanted. Not only did this save me thousands of dollars in training it also accelerated my learning as an athlete and improved my results.
All of your success in sport will come from your ability to see yourself executing skills successfully in your mind first, just like you would in a dream. The more real you can make it, the better.
Mental Skill #8: Understanding The Emotion of Anxiety
The word “anxiety” is thrown around today without much thought.
What used to be “butterflies” or “nerves” has now turned into full blown “anxiety”…and that’s not right.
As an athlete you are going to experience anxiety when the challenge you face is greater than the skills you feel you have to conquer that challenge.
It’s natural. It’s fully normal. And it’s actually a great sign as you continue on your path to becoming an elite athlete.
The greater your skills, the less challenging things will be for you and the less anxiety you feel. So if you feel anxious, that’s ok. It’s your brain going, “Hey, I’m not sure I’m ready for this?”
With directed self-talk you can help your brain understand by saying, “Yeah, I see that this is going to be a bit challenging, but we’ve done something like this before. We can do this!”
A common mistake is to label yourself with anxiety as this can be incredibly limiting.
If you say things like, “I have anxiety.” or, “I suffer from anxiety.” you are labelling yourself and we want to avoid any sort of negative labelling.
When you understand that what you are feeling is perfectly normal you can reframe the skill you are about to try and say,
“I presently struggle with…”
This may sound a bit corny, but it actually puts your mind at ease and gets it off the sensations you’re feeling and onto a solution to the challenge you face.
When you say, “I presently struggle with…” your brain instantly starts to think of the skills it needs to successfully navigate the challenge you face. And what tends to happen when you do that is you start to realize you already have some of the skills your brain thinks it’s lacking.
When you feel anxious, your brain is painting a negative picture of what is typically going to happen in the future, which is most likely incorrect. It starts to, what I call, “disasterize” the situation. It starts painting a bad portrait. But by focusing on the solution you can focus on the skills you need that will help you overcome the challenge your brain is focusing on.
That feeling of “Anxiety” can actually help you.
For many athletes, anxious feelings pop up at the weirdest times.
Let’s say you’re in math class and your brain starts thinking about a big event you have coming up. Remember, your mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined.
So you’re in math class, but you’re thinking about the game, or the race, or whatever. You’re in math, but you’re mind is thinking, “Oh! She’s racing! Let’s go!”
In response, your brain starts signalling your body to get ready to race. It’s telling your body, “Ok here’s those neurochemicals to jump higher, run farther, turn quicker. Oh…you’re thinking about that sprint to the finish? Here’s some adrenaline for your troubles!”
The problem is…you’re sitting in math class.
And you’re breathing heavy. Your pulse quickens. And you feel a little jittery. Oh, and your sweaty hand on your pencil, yeah…you’re ready to race!
All of that would be great if you were about to get on the starting line, right?
Exactly. Those feelings are there to help you. Your body is hard-wired to respond like this and it just means you are more than ready to go, it’s just not the right time.
So instead of thinking about these feelings as a negative, just realize that it’s your brain doing what comes naturally and you’re ready to go…it’s just not the right time. But when the right time comes, you’re going to want those feelings because you know your brain is just helping you to perform at a new level.
Mental Skill #9: Managing Your Emotions
As athletes we put ourselves into experiences where we are going to fail…every…single…day.
In the grand scheme of winning and losing, more losing (and learning) goes on than winning does.
So you’d think dealing with losing would be easy because we do it so often, right? Unfortunately, no one talks about how to lose enough…until now.
When we win, our brain floods our body with all sorts of feel good neurochemicals.
And when we lose…guess what happens?
Right, we get flooded with all of the not-so-feel-good neurochemicals.
In fact, when you lose a race, or a game, or a sprint at practice, your brain goes through the same stages of grief just like it would if your girlfriend broke up with you or your puppy died.
And depending on how intense those situations are, your brain and body are going to go through the stages of grief quicker or slower. The key is to understand that everyone goes through the stages of grief at their own pace.
The 5 Stages of Grief are:
- Denial and Isolation
Just understanding that you’re going to go through these emotions will help you deal with them when they arise. And depending on your commitment to your goals, you’ll go through these a bit slower or a bit faster than others.
I remember the time when I didn’t make my first Olympic team.
Because of a bad race result on our part, the decision came down to a coaches pick, and when a tough decision had to be made, we weren’t the ones who got picked.
I went through each and every one of these emotions and it was the BEST thing that could have happened to me.
I took a full on bath in the Tub of Denial and Isolation. I swam in the Sea of Anger. I bargained like it was the biggest department store on the planet.
And then depression set in. Like someone dimmed the lights…on everything. I cried so hard because I had worked so hard. I wanted it soooo badly not just for me but my teammate too.
And now it wasn’t going to happen. I was down…for a while.
But then the most important stage kicked in.
To be a great athlete you have to have acceptance. You have to accept and understand where you are and why you are there, and most importantly to recommit and go forward. That is when the real magic happens.
That’s right. Acceptance is the glue that keeps you going. It makes you double down and recommit to your goals. It’s what gives you the juice to keep going.
And the kicker is…you wouldn’t get here if you didn’t go through that grief.
Now you can go through grief in a big way, like getting left off an Olympic team, or you can go through it in little ways, every day.
You miss a play in practice. You get left off the travel team. You lose a match. You miss a pass.
No matter how big or how small, every day you’re going through little ups and downs in emotions and it’s important to not get too caught up in the negative. You’re just learning!.
The most important approach you can take is:
The high’s aren’t so high, and the lows aren’t so low.
It’s true. The win’s you have, they are great, but they’re not everything. We don’t always learn from our wins.
The losses, while painful, are what will teach you your greatest lessons. They will take you through the ringer of grief and sadness.
But through that emotional rollercoaster you will do what all great athletes do…you will recommit.
When my teammate and I were left off the Olympic team, we accepted it and we made the most important decision I have ever been a part of. We decided that the next time….
…we were going to be so damned good they HAD to pick us.
We accepted the fact that because of our bad result, because of what WE did, WE put the coaches in that position to be able to pick someone else. It was on us and we were NEVER going to let that happen again.
It was from that point…having gone through all the grief. Having navigated the emotions successfully that we made a decision to us competing on the next Olympic team and having the best finish ever for the United States at an Olympic games, ever.
You are going to have good days and bad days. You’re going to have ups, and downs. And it’s through the downs that you are going to be angry. You’re going to be upset. You’ll even go through some depression.
The key is not to mask it or suppress it. It’s to embrace it for what it is and take the lessons from it so you can accept it and move forward.
This is where greatness in sport (and life) begins.
Mental Skill #10: Focus and Concentration
People incorrectly talk about focus and concentration like you’re supposed to have the attention of a Buddhist Monk. Like you’re zoning in on your sport so hard that an earthquake could happen and you wouldn’t notice.
Great athletes move in and out of focus and concentration just like anyone. It just happens that when they are looking to make that last shot, or the game winning drive, they are able to do it under difficult situations.
The truth is, an athlete’s focus goes from self-awareness and then to environmental awareness. A basketball player may notice that young fan with their face painted green in the stands, and then come back and sink a game-winning free throw. A golfer may joke with their caddy on the walk down the fairway but then zone in on the shot they need to make so they can putt for par.
Those may be times when it’s ok to break focus and concentration in a controlled manner, but what about when someone takes a photo in your backswing, or blows a whistle or rings a bell when you’re trying to do something important.
Focus and concentration is a fluid state of mind. It comes and it goes. Your job is to NOT think that if you are dialed in that good things will happen, or you’re dialed out they won’t.
The skill comes from understanding that this is how your mind works and then working with it accordingly. I love the saying that “your thoughts are involuntary”. Sure, you can control a lot of them, but when all of a sudden that trailer from the last Fast and Furious movie pops in your head while you’re about to take your backswing, just know that you’re going to need to step back, get back into your routine and reset.
Think about it…you don’t try and stop your heart. Or your breathing. Why then do you think you can stop your thoughts? You can’t stop them, you can only refocus them when they pop up which is pretty cool when you think about it.
We live in a very distracted world today. With that smart phone in your pocket you can be Googling yourself or watching cat videos till you pass out. As an athlete, this can train our brain to want to click and move off of things in a moment’s notice. That’s not a great trait to have if you’ve got to concentrate for long periods of time.
I believe that the athlete of the future is going to develop increased focusing and re-focusing skills in this new world. You have to adopt a similar belief because it’s the new environment we live in and I don’t see it changing back to what it was any time soon. Do you?
Besides the inevitable distractions that you’re going to face, one thing that great athletes are able to do is to stay in the moment. When you’re performing a specific skill you need to be focusing on the execution of that skill at that moment. You can’t be thinking about winning, or holding the trophy when you’re flying down the hill or smacking a ball down the line. And you can’t be thinking of past mistakes either. You just need to be in the moment, focusing on the task at hand and seeing yourself executing that task successfully. The last play doesn’t matter and the next play doesn’t matter. What matters is what you’re doing…right now.
Mental Skill #11: Letting Go
And finally, one of the most important traits and athlete can have…the ability to just let it all go.
You’ve done the work. You’ve put in the time. You’ve scouted your opponent to the best of your ability, but now…it’s time…to let it all go and just do your thing.
When great performers describe what was going on in their mind when their great performance happened they will often use phrases like:
“I just trusted it…”
“I allowed it…”
“My body did what it knew it could do…”
I once heard an Olympic weightlifter, upon breaking the Olympic record say, “I just let the bar float overhead…”
Seriously dude? That bar was, like, four hundred pounds. Four hundred pounds doesn’t float!
But what’s telling is that even in the most explosive, strength filled, aggressive sport like Olympic weightlifting, the champ used words like “let” and “float”
When it comes down to it, great performances are less about more effort and more about less effort.
As athlete’s we are surrounded by people who are trying to figure it all out before the start. Sport Scientists, trainers, medical staff, technical coaches, you name it! But in the end we still play the game. Why? Because we are human and not machines. Ultimately it all comes down to your own mental performance and that, my friend, is worth working on.
Whether you are an athlete, a parent, or a coach, I hope you’ll take these eleven mental tips and apply them to your sport successfully. Our athletes need to understand these mental skills not just for sport, but for life. (And many of my coaches could be reminded of these too!) For elite athletes it’s not always about more work, it’s more of the right work. And I hope these mental skills will serve you well. I’d love to hear how they’ve helped you so please reach out and let me know how they’ve affected your game.
Olympian Jonathan Edwards is a High Performance Coach specializing in aspiring athlete with big dreams. His book, “An Athlete’s Guide To Winning In Sports and Life” debuted at #2 in Sport Psychology on Amazon at launch. If you know an athlete with big dreams and you’d like them to become mentally bulletproof so they win perform at their best and win more often, and you’d like to work with Coach Edwards, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a Breakthrough Call www.AthleteSpecific.com/call. He looks forward to hearing your story today.