By Karen Lenehan
What’s the most important piece of equipment in your sport? The six inches between your ears.
Regardless of your sport, the mind is the most important piece of equipment you will ever take with you. After spending months of time trying to improve your skills by focusing on physical, technical and tactical skills, that improvement can plateau. Improving your mental preparation can go a long way with helping progress psychologically in areas that don’t come naturally.
After setting a long-term goal, break it down into smaller short-term, performance goals related to a specific technical or tactical element and focus on one of those goals each time when heading out to train. This prevents becoming overwhelmed by your training schedule and lets you acknowledge each small success along the way.
Every athlete has the power to change and control their thoughts and make them as positive as possible to boost their confidence. Our mind doesn’t recognize words like “don’t.” If I were to say “Don’t think about a pink elephant,” what picture just popped into your head? For the best performance possible we want to think about what we want to do, instead of what we don’t.
For an exercise, try putting an elastic around your wrist and giving it a small ping to acknowledge when you are negative to yourself. Positive affirmations are words or phrases that can make you more positive and confident when you need it the most. “I” statements like “I am strong” or “I am fast” work best to help stay positive. Check out this FreeAffirmations.org to find ones that apply to the activity you are doing then write then on a sticky note, piece of tape or on your mirror with lipstick to remind yourself how great you can be.
Imagery is like visualization except it is more powerful due to the incorporation of more senses, making it a polysensory experience. Use as many senses as possible including imagining what you are going to see, hear, feel, smell and taste when exercising a skill in a sport. Try imagining you are watching yourself on television or you are inside your own body looking out, whichever perspective comes naturally to you. The perspective that is most natural will work the best for you.
Control anxiety and emotions
Avoid thinking that everyone needs to be pumped up to perform well, the majority of people perform at their best when in a relaxed state which keeps their muscles loose and their focus at the ideal width. Focus on the present and avoid getting stuck on the past, or thinking about things that are yet to come. One strategy is to focus on your breath or heartbeat to help decrease anxiety and avoid reacting to emotions.
You can learn to control your heart rate by doing breath or heart-focused breathing with apps like the Azumio stress check (which turns the camera on your phone into a heart rate monitor) or games like those by HeartMath which require you to make your heart rate more consistent (they call it coherence) in order to get more points. The Flow in Games website also helps you achieve the naturally relaxing state of flow – frequently referred to as being “in the zone” – to help anchor your thoughts on the image and learn to quiet your busy mind.
Attention span can be kept at the appropriate width by thinking of it like a beam of light. If your field of attention is too wide, you will have to process too much information. If it’s too narrow, you might be focusing on the wrong cues like looking where you don’t want to look instead of where you do. Brain training apps like Lumosity, Elevate, and even Rosetta Stone can help you focus your attention to the most productive width.
This is most important thing, but if your reading this you’re already on your way. Just like any other type of working out, the buddy system works for psychological skills, too.
Karen Lenehan is a doctoral candidate in Sport Psychology who works daily with athletes to help them develop positive psychological skills to improve their adventure experience. She is a University lecturer, Yoga teacher, alpine ski coach, tennis instructor, mountain biker and climber.
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