By Dr. Jim Taylor
The ability to stay focused is essential for you to perform your best consistently. Keywords in training and competitions can help keep you focused and avoid distractions. Come up with one or two key words that you need to focus on to perform well. For example, key words can remind you of proper technique (e.g., reach, straight body), staying relaxed (calm, breathe), good tactics (e.g., attack, patience), or staying motivated (e.g., be tough, hang in there). Key words are particularly useful when a competition gets difficult because they give you something you can grab onto and say to yourself, enabling you to remain focused when it really counts. Mental imagery—closing your eyes and seeing and feeling yourself performing the way you want—is another powerful focusing tool. You can use mental imagery before training sessions or competitions to block out distractions, focus on key aspects of your performance, and imagine yourself being successful.
The emotions that you experience before competitions often determine how you perform. If you’re excited and happy, you will likely do well. If you’re fearful, frustrated, or feeling despair, you will probably not achieve your goals. There are no specific mental training techniques to improve emotions, but you can develop emotional mastery by learning to recognize what emotions you are feeling, what is causing the emotions, and then look for solutions to resolve the cause of the emotions. You should use opportunities in which you’re feeling bad to figure out how to change your emotions so they can feel good and perform better.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle you will face in achieving your athletic goals is the pain you experience in training and competition, particularly if you compete in endurance sports. Pain is your body’s message telling your mind that it is threatened and wants to stop. Pain has such a powerful influence because, not only does it hold your body back, but it also affects how you think and the emotions you experience. Unless the pain indicates an injury, if your mind listens to your body, you will ease up and you will not perform your best.
Research has shown that when you connect performance pain with negative thoughts (e.g., “I hate hurting this much!”) or negative emotions (e.g., frustration, anger, despair), you actually feel more pain. There are several mental techniques you can use to limit the pain you feel.
First, accept that pain is a normal part of sports training and competition—“no pain, no gain,” as the saying goes. The reality is that if sports weren’t difficult, they wouldn’t be very satisfying and you probably wouldn’t do them. Second, stay emotionally detached from the pain and use it as information to help you perform your best, for example, adjust your technique, pace, or body position. Third, realize that everyone else is probably hurting too, so if you’re the one who handles the pain best, you’re more likely to be successful.
Fourth, when you feel pain, your body braces to protect itself. Unfortunately, this actually causes more pain. You can counteract this tension by actively relaxing muscle groups and using deep breathing. Fifth, by connecting positive self-talk (e.g., “The pain means I’m working hard to reach my goals”) and emotions (e.g., pride, inspiration, excitement) with your pain, you’ll increase your motivation and confidence and trigger pain-killing endorphins so you’ll feel less pain. Finally, perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned as both a sport psychologist and an athlete is this: The physical pain you feel in training and competition in no way compares to the emotional pain you will feel if you don’t achieve your goals because you let the pain beat you.
Dr. Jim Taylor holds a Ph.D. in Psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, and blogs on politics, education, technology, popular culture, and sports for huffingtonpost.com, psychologytoday.com, seattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.