How Athletes Can Perform Their Best When it REALLY Counts (Part 2 of 2)

By Dr. Jim Taylor

If you missed the first installment of this article you can read it here.

How to Reverse the Spiral?
Think less, feel more. The first step in getting back on track involves realizing that thinking more about your performing or putting more effort in won’t work. To the contrary, you actually need to do just the opposite, namely, less thinking, less trying, more feeling, and more letting go.

It starts by recognizing that performing well is about feeling, not thinking. Two types of feelings are involved. First, the physical feelings you like to have before competitions. You want feel strong, comfortable, and at your ideal intensity. Second, the emotional feelings you like to have before competitions. Some athletes like to feel happy and relaxed. Others like to feel inspired and excited.
Perform like a kid. One very consistent feeling athletes often lose this time of year is why they perform in their sport in the first place. Remember that feeling of freedom and joy you used to feel before competitions started to REALLY matter. For example, one athlete I work with who is competing at the World Junior Ski Championships in Are, Sweden next week said that he skis his best when he feels the way he felt when he was a kid. He just loved (and still loves) bombing around a mountain, “hucking” big air, and being a little crazy. In recent years, as his goals have risen and competing in his sport has REALLY started to matters, he has lost touch with the incredible love and joy he feels in his sport. My advice to him? Get back to that feeling and do a lot of bombing, hucking, and craziness in the coming week leading up the big event!

Express yourself. You need to get out of “protective mode” in reaction to seeing the upcoming competitions as threats to avoid and get into “expressive mode” in response to seeing the upcoming competitions as challenges and opportunities to pursue your love of your sport. Competing in sports is like creating a painting on a canvas. You don’t think through every stroke of paint you put on the canvas. Rather, you get in front of the canvas, see and feel the image you want to create, and then you simply turn off your mind and trust your creativity to express that internal image on the canvas. The same holds true for sports. Just before you enter the competitive arena, see and feel how you want to perform, and then trust that your body will express itself during the competition the way you’ve trained it to.

Nothing to lose. You have to perform as if you have nothing to lose (because, in the big picture, you have nothing to lose). You will surely perform your worst if you feel as if every competition is life or death. Now that is pressure! You perform your best when you let go of expectations, pressure, and fear of failure. You perform your best when you are totally focused on the process and the present. You perform your best when you turn off your mind and just let your body do what it knows how to do. You perform your best when you take risks and just go for it. And you perform your best when you are having fun and competing because of your deepest feelings for your sport.

“Forget it!”. For you to perform your best, you have to get in the starting gate and just say “Forget it!”. This attitude doesn’t mean not caring about your sport, but rather not caring about the consequences of your sport. It means being able to accept whatever happens as long as you take your shot and perform your best. When you adopt the “Forget it!” attitude, you liberate yourself to perform without doubt, worry, or fear, and with confidence, commitment, and courage.

Three Goals on Game Day
When you are able to clear out the mental and emotional clutter from your mind that’s holding you back, you can then free your mind to focus on three simple goals on game day.
Getting Prepared. Before the competition, you want to be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to perform my very best.” Ultimately, that’s all you can do. Being well prepared doesn’t guarantee success (because you can’t control everything in sport), but not being prepared certainly ensures failure.

Bring it! During a competition, your singular goal is to “bring it,” meaning being fully commit to and completely focused on performing the best you can from start to finish. Bringing it doesn’t guarantee success (because S&%# happens in sport), but not bringing it certainly ensures failure.

No regrets. After the competition, whether you won or lost, you want to look back and have no regrets because you left it all out there. Of course, if things don’t work out the way you had hoped, you’ll be disappointed. But knowing you accomplished these three goals will minimize the regrets and inspire you to pursue these three goals in the next competition. And I truly believe that if you continue down this road, at some point, good things will happen.

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.compsychologytoday.comseattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.

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How Athletes Can Perform Their Best When it REALLY Counts

By Dr. Jim Taylor

For many sports, it’s that time of the competitive season when results REALLY start to matter. For many athletes and teams, from high school to pros, the REALLY important competitions of the year—States, Regionals Nationals, Worlds—are coming up and it’s REALLY important that they perform their best.

Yet, this is also the time of year when many athletes aren’t performing well at all. In fact, in the last few weeks, I’ve been getting emails and calls from parents and coaches who are desperate for help in getting their athletes back on track. Here’s the consistent message I’m getting: “My kid is performing REALLY fast in practice, but, in competitions, he/she is a totally different athlete. He/she seems scared during competitions. While performing, he/she is REALLY cautious.  And, after the competition, he/she kicks him/herself for performing REALLY tentatively.”

So, what happens to athletes as the big competitions approach that causes them to go from “all out” to “play it safe” in such a short time? And what can you do about it so you can set yourself up for success in the REALLY important competitions that are fast approaching?

Why the Change?

Results matter. Let’s be realistic: results matter! You don’t get ahead in your sport because you’re a nice kid or because you try hard (though effort helps). Rather, you move up the competitive ladder because you get the results in the form of wins, placings, , and qualifying for the bigger tournaments or series.

The problem is that when you focus on results, you are actually less likely to get those results for two reasons. First, if you are focusing on results, you’re not focusing on the process, namely, what you need to do to perform your best to get those results. Plus, this result focus can cause you to get really nervous before competitions which makes it nearly impossible for you to perform your best.

“Too” zone. With this emphasis on results, you enter the “too” zone in which you care too much about results and your results become too important to you. In other words, failure to get the results you want is perceived as a direct threat to your self-esteem and goals.

Expectations and pressure. You create expectations which lead to pressure that cause a threat reaction in which you are nervous and tight before competitions. If you are saying any of the following about your upcoming competitions, you know you have gone to the “dark side:” I must…, I have to…, I need to…, I should…, I better…, I gotta…. Each of these is always followed by an implicit threat: “…or else something bad will happen.”

Overthink. In response to this downward spiral, you start to overthink, try too hard, and attempt to control every aspect of your performances. These reactions only cause you to dig yourself into a deeper mental and emotional hole.

This quadruple whammy pretty much ensures that you will perform scared, tight, and cautiously. The paradox here is that this shift almost guarantees that you don’t get the results you want.

Next: How to Reverse the Spiral

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.compsychologytoday.comseattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.

Get Psyched! How Mentally Tough Are You? (Part Three)

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Focus
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.

Emotions
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.

Pain
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.

Get Psyched! (Part 2)

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Confidence

Confidence may be the single most important mental factor because you may have all of the ability to be successful, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t use it to perform your best. Confidence is about believing you can be successful when it gets tough, perform your best when it counts, and achieve your competitive goals.

Preparation breeds confidence. Preparation is the foundation of confidence. If you believe that you have done everything you can to perform your best, you will have confidence in your ability to achieve your goals. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, and mental parts of your sport.

Adversity ingrains confidence. Your biggest challenge is to maintain your belief in yourself when you’re faced with adversity. To more deeply ingrain confidence, you should expose yourself to all experiences that take you out of your comfort zone, for example, bad weather and poor training conditions.

Success validates confidence. When most athletes think of success, they think about having great results and reaching their competitive goals. But every day you train, you’re scoring little victories. With each of these small “wins,” your confidence steadily increases until you have the confidence to achieve a big “win.” After every training session, be sure to acknowledge the small victory—give yourself a pat on the back for your effort and remind yourself of the goal you are working toward—and allow them to accumulate.

All of the previous steps in building confidence would go for naught if you did not then experience competitive success. Success validates the confidence you have developed in your ability. It demonstrates that your belief in your ability is well-founded. Success further strengthens your confidence, making it more resilient in the face of adversity and poor performances. Success also rewards your efforts to build confidence, encouraging you to continue to work hard and continue in your sport.

Positive self-talk. Perhaps the most powerful mental tool for building confidence is positive self-talk. The first step is to become aware of how positive or negative your self-talk is. Often, athletes say things like, “I stink” or “There’s no way I can do this” without even realizing it. The problem is that your negativity will become ingrained and will come out in competition. Positive self-talk is a skill that develops with practice. Identify the negative things you often say to yourself and figure out something positive you can say in its place. Then, be aware of when you’re negative and immediately replace it with something positive.

Intensity

When you’re in a big competition, it’s natural for your intensity to go up and for you to feel nervous. You have to take active steps to get your intensity back to a level that allows your body to perform its best. There are several simple techniques you can use to help you get your intensity under control.

Deep breathing. The most basic way to lower their intensity is to take control of their breathing by focusing on slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing ensures that you get enough oxygen so your body can function well; you will relax, feel better, and have a greater sense of control. This increased comfort will increase your confidence, calm you, and improve your focus. Deep breathing should be a big part of your pre-competitive preparations. If you take a few deep breaths, you ensure that your body is relaxed and comfortable, and you’re focused on something that will help your perform your best.

Slow pace of pre-competitive preparation. A common side effect of over-intensity is that you tend to do everything faster. You can rush before the start of the competition as if you want to get the race over with as soon as possible. So, to lower your intensity, give yourself more time before your start and slow your pace as you get ready.

Music.

Music is one of the most common tools athletes use to control their intensity before competitions. We all know that music has a profound physical and emotional impact on us. Music has the ability to make us happy, sad, inspired, and motivated. Music can also excite or relax us. Many world-class racers can be seen listening to music before they compete. Calming music relaxes you and makes you feel good physically and mentally.

Smile.

The last technique is one of the strangest and most effective I’ve ever come across: Smile! As we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. In other words, we learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. Second, brain research has found is that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiologically relaxing effect. When you begin to feel nervous, simply smile and I promise you will feel more relaxed immediately.

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.

Get Psyched! How Mentally Strong are You? (Part 1)

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Whenever I ask athletes how important mental preparation is, compared to physical and technical preparation, to achieving their competitive goals, everyone says either as or more important. But when I ask them how much time they devote to their mental preparation, they say, “little or no time.” Athletes in all sports spend many hours each week getting into their best physical condition and perfecting their competitive skills. Yet, despite its importance, the mental side of sports is often neglected, despite the fact that mental training doesn’t take much time and, in fact, much of it can be incorporated directly into your regular training regimen.

One of the biggest obstacles for you is simply not knowing how the mind affects sports performance and what techniques you can use to strengthen your “mental muscles.” To help you better understand, I offer the Prime Performance Pyramid. Prime performance is defined as performing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions. The Prime Performance Pyramid is comprised of six essential mental factors that influence athletic performance: motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, emotions, and pain.

Motivation
Motivation is at the bottom of the pyramid because without the desire to train and compete, all of the other factors would be unnecessary. The challenge is to find the determination to keep working hard in the face of frustration, pain, boredom, and the desire to do other things.

Set goals. There are few things more rewarding and motivating than setting a goal, putting effort toward the goal, and achieving the goal. The sense of accomplishment and validation of the effort motivates you to strive higher. You should set clear goals of what you want to accomplish in your sport and how you will achieve those goals.

Focus on your long-term goals. To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your sport. But training often goes well beyond the point that it is enjoyable. During those times, focus on your long-term goals. Remind yourself why you’re working so hard. Imagine exactly what you want to accomplish and tell yourself that the only way you’ll be able to reach your goals is to go through the Grind.

Have a training partner. It’s difficult to be highly motivated all of the time on your own. There are going to be some days when you don’t feel like getting out there. A training partner is someone who can push you through those motivational lows. The chances are that, on any given day, one of you will be motivated. Even if you’re not very psyched to train on a particular day, you’ll still put in the time and effort because your partner is counting on you.

Daily questions. Every day, you should ask yourself two questions. When you get up in the morning, ask, “What can I do today to become the best athlete I can be?” and before you go to sleep, ask, “Did I do everything possible today to become the best athlete I can be?”

The heart of motivation. Motivation is not something that can be given to you. Motivation must ultimately come from within. You must simply want to train and compete. There are two things that should motivate you to compete. You should compete because you have a great passion for it. You should compete because you just love to get out there and do it. (Next: Improving confidence and intensity)

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.