Imagine this: you’re a downhill skier sliding across hard pack snow at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. Even visualizing yourself in that scenario is enough to elevate your heart rate. Now, what if you were actually at the starting gate staring down a steep alpine course? There is a saying that downhill skiers have a pre-race heart rate that would kill most ordinary people. Next, imagine you’re a professional golfer standing over a 5-foot putt to win a major championship. A heart rate rivaling a downhill skier doesn’t benefit an athlete who must try to stay calm under pressure. Keeping their heart rate as close as possible to their normal resting heart rate is key.
Are you getting the point of these visualization exercises yet . . .? No? Have you ever wondered why baseball players periodically go through streaks and slumps throughout the season? How does a team rally from several runs down, or overcome a 3-0 lead in a best of 7 series? How does a pitcher, on the verge of completing a perfect game, keep it together to get those last three outs? The same instrument you use to visualize yourself in these scenarios is the instrument these athletes use: the brain. Mental toughness is a cognitive process, a voluntary decision to control the various physical responses to stress. The iconic athletes that seem unphased by stress, immune to distraction, and routinely “get in the zone” to come up big in pressure situations, have learned how to master the physical responses that often overwhelm others. Mental toughness is a learned behavior that separates great athletes from marginal ones. It is the difference between the workout superstar that crumbles in competitions, and the athlete that routinely exceeds their otherwise “average” gym performances to win them. Odds are you know someone who fits one of these examples perfectly. In reality, most everyone falls somewhere along a continuum between the two. So why do some athletes thrive under pressure, while other, perhaps more physically gifted athletes, seem to fall apart? Some chalk it up to an intangible “it factor”; you either have it or you don’t. But can anyone really explain why it occurs? And what do we do with that information to make us better athletes? It’s actually pretty intuitive stuff. Let’s take a look.
We go through three stages of motor development when learning new movement sequences: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. Performing quality repetitions over time brings us closer to the autonomous phase, where we no longer have to think about each rep. We also acquire experience through competition, where we learn how to deal with a barrage of emotions and stimuli. Learning how to cope with a competitive environment is a skill unto itself, and one that requires repetition like any other. Athletes who learn to acquire this skill when they’re younger tend to be the most successful. If you didn’t grow up playing sports where you were exposed to a competitive environment, you need to compete on a regular basis if you want to get better. Record as much as possible about your experience after each competition.
Competition experience is just as important. Learning how to deal with the array of emotions one feels during a competition is a skill in and of itself. Generally, people that learn how to do this when they are young will be the most successful. If you want to compete better and you didn’t grow up playing sports, then it should be your mission to get yourself in uncomfortable competition settings as much as possible. As soon as the competition is over, record as much as possible. What emotions did you experience pre-competition, during events, and post-competition? What were you saying to yourself during those times? If at all possible, try to make note of the bodily sensations you have before, during, and after events. Once you understand how your body operates under pressure, you can begin to separate the helpful emotions and behaviors from those that aren’t helpful.
In general, the best athletes in the world are incredibly confident. There is a 1-10 scale in psychology called Identity-Role scale. Everyone has roles. Parent, athlete, friend, employee, etc. Your Identity is how effective you feel you are at each Role. The theory is that wherever you “think” you fall on the scale on the Identity side in regards to each Role, you will perform in a range of 1 above or below that number. For example, if I think I’m a 3 out of 10 at football, then I will actually perform somewhere in between a 2 and 4. In other words, until you start to believe you are or are capable of being a 10 at your sport, then you never will be. You can take steps forward, but if you always believe you are a 4, your actions will eventually lead you right back down to that level.
The IT factor is not genetic. There may be genetic components, but experience, self-esteem, internal dialogue, etc. are just as important. The list of contributing factors is way too long to discuss in one short article. Instead, let’s start to look at effective, proven methods to improve your mental toughness.
The following 6 week program will include tactical breathing, mindfulness practice, progressive muscle relaxation, and mental imagery.
Here is a very brief description of each and why they are effective. For more information on each use the Google machine.
Tactical Breathing (Box Breathing)- Focusing on the breath for 4 minutes, inhale for a 4 count, pause for a 4 count, exhale for 4, pause for 4, repeat. There is nothing special about the number 4. It is a good starting number because it is easy enough for most people to handle. If you increase, just make sure it is symmetrical in that each part is the same length of time. This allows us a. to practice awareness and let go of stress and b. to overcome panicked breathing which can occur after the exhale and happens often in sport.
Mindfulness- Yes meditation. It is very simple. Focus on the breath, on body sensations, on sounds, on a candle lit in the room, or whatever else. This is not a time to “think.” If a thought arises, observe it and let it dissipate and bring your awareness back to whatever it is your were focusing on. The body of research on the efficacy of mindfulness is enormous. It reduces stress, increases positive emotions, and in the case of sport, it allows us to identify in the moment when we our thinking is destructive and to redirect it.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation- Lie down on the floor or your bed. Start off with some deep breaths. Take a deep breath in and hold the breath. Flex your feet as tightly as possible for a count of 3, release and exhale. Repeat once more. Move up the entire body in the same exact way. Calves, legs, butt, abs, chest, back, arms, hands, neck, face, and then your entire body simultaneously. This will teach you to have greater awareness of where you are keeping tension in your body. It is also incredibly relaxing.
Mental Imagery- Imagery is the practice of “you must see yourself do it first.” Starting off, you will close your eyes and picture yourself doing a movement perfectly. This can be a baseball pitch, a clean and jerk, a receiving route, a muscle up, etc. You can do three steps or an entire sequence of movements. See yourself doing it absolutely perfectly. Over time this will give you more confidence in these movements and physiologically prepare yourself to perform the movements with better technique, more speed, or whatever else is the focal point.
Now how strong would you get if you took 4 different strength training programs and took a workout from each every week? If you are a beginner you might see some benefit, but only for a little while. If you are any further along in your training career then that won’t cut it. Sound training programs are setup in a way that is progressive in nature. Things build on one another and compliment each other. Done out of sequence creates a different, often inferior, stimulus to your body and in this case your mind.
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