Training the mind along with the body
Having a strong mindset is thrown around constantly these days when it comes to athletes performing well in high pressure situations.
Preparing and strengthening the mind before a race or tough practice can often be the deciding factor on how well you perform, but it is a step often missing in an athlete’s training routine.
Have you ever had these thoughts run through your head after a tough practice, game, or race? “I was out of it” “I just felt like I wasn’t there” “My mind was all over the place”
While it’s completely normal to have off days where your body is just not able to do what you’re asking it to, a common culprit for this feeling is not preparing the mind properly to perform at the level you are fully capable of. As athletes we have all experienced this at one point or another. We can also see it in professional sports sometimes where the athlete just looks like they don’t want to be there.
Mental toughness and strength is not a genetic characteristic. Just like developing a specific skill set through training, mental strength is trainable, and you should incorporate it into your daily training, just like warming-up and stretching. Using the mental training model below, with just 5 to 10 minutes before every training session, game, or race, you can give yourself a boost of confidence to ensure you’re going to perform at your best.
The mental exercise routine:
Step 1: The centering breath. Inhale through the nose for 7 seconds, hold for 2, then exhale for 6. 7-2-6. This is a common practice used by many athletes to bring the pre-competition jitters down and is known as a diaphragmatic breath, meaning breathing from the abdomen. If you’re interested in learning more about the what’s and why’s of this breathing technique you can read more here.
Step 2: Performance statement. If you were watching yourself compete or train, what cues would you or your coach give you.
- Squatting heavy: Strong knees, press the floor down
- Bike Interval Session: Constant spinning, sit planted
- Swim practice: Smooth arms fast legs
Keep your performance statement a single short sentence. These should be things you can say to yourself constantly between rounds, innings, quarters, time outs, etc. You can also create multiple performance statements depending on the type of sport, practice, or competition you’re doing. You can have one performance statement for the weight room, one for getting to those 5am practices, and another for competing.
Step 3: 1 Minute Personal highlight reel: Visualize yourself. This is your personal highlight reel you would find on Youtube, except you get to feel and hear everything from your perspective. Think back on your past greatest performances and in real-time, go through all your actions envisioning how you were feeling, what muscles you were triggering, sounds, intensity, etc. Make yourself feel like you’re back in your body during that specific time. It may be a bit difficult to really immerse yourself at first, but after a couple weeks of visualizing, it will be second-nature. Next, before your upcoming practice or race, use the same actions, sights, sounds, (but hopefully not smells) to visualize yourself doing exactly what gave you your previous greatest performances. Carry the actions that made you great before into this next effort. And if there is something specific you’re trying to work on, make sure to include that in your visualization as well, even if you have not achieved it yet outside of your head.
Step 4: Identity statement: Who are you? Who do you want to be? We each have an identity we live by or are working to become. Come up with one and say it to yourself.
- I never give up, I will become a Category 1 racer.
- I am a leader, we will win the championships.
A simple formula to create yours:
[A personal strength you have or want to have] + [Your goal for competing / life]
Like the performance statement, keep your identity statement a single short sentence. It should be something you can constantly repeat to yourself. You can also create multiple identity statements for your different goals and dreams in life. One for your sport and one for your life, school, or career.
Step 5: End with another centering breath. 7-6-2. If you really dive your mind into the last three steps, you should be in a more elevated state, a.k.a hyped. To avoid having this extra excitement carry over and negatively impact your performance, calm yourself down with another breath to compose yourself.
Putting it in practice
And that’s it. Roughly this takes about 5-10 minutes, depending on the level of detail and depth you go into in your visualization. So try it out and start training your mind with this mental exercise before every practice, game, or race. Just like through applied consistency in training your body, the same principle applies to your mind so day-in and day-out try to get this mental routine in. I also recommend writing steps 2-4 down somewhere so you can always revisit, review, and update it.
And if you need a place to guide you through and record this mental training routine somewhere, check out The Athlete’s Journal, a daily journal and mindset routine app for athletes, available on iOS and Android.
A note on using this exercise in different sports, you might have to tweak when and how you perform them. In sports like basketball and football you’ll get multiple chances to go through this exercise and prepare your mind to perform at your best, whereas in cycling or cross-country running, it’s a bit difficult to close your eyes mid-race without some serious consequences, so performing this exercise before the race or practice would work best.
“Everybody is looking for mental toughness, every athlete, everybody in the world is looking for mental toughness. The only way you gain mental toughness is to do things you’re not happy doing. If you continue doing things that you’re satisfied with, and that makes you happy, you’re not getting stronger. Either you’re getting better or worse, you’re not staying the same.” - David Goggins, Navy Seal / endurance athlete