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Brain Warrior: Mindset and Sports Psychology

Copyright 47 Ronin

Before you can begin to ‘crush’ your workouts of more subtly change your lifestyle…there needs to be a change in your mindset. The narrative that you walk into the gym, track, court or pitch listening to will determine the success of your performance. What I want to do is explore how you can control the controllable (YOU), by becoming a brain warrior. How do you harness your mind, and control your thoughts?

The goal of sports psychology is to help athletes and teams perform their best by improving the necessary mental skills to excel in a sporting endeavour.

I make sure my students understand that I am not trained in traditional “psychopathology” nor have a license to practice psychology. My professional background is in speed, strength and conditioning, physical education, sports, and sports psychology. My experience also comes from the sports world as a former athlete, coach.

How do you know when you need or could benefit from sports psychology? Let’s start by asking some important questions. Are you performing up to the ability you have shown? Do you perform as well in competition as you do in practice or qualifying? I am sure you know some fellow athletes who have been labelled with “great talent” or physical skills but have not performed up to their full potential. This is a primary sign that one’s mindset may be getting in the way of performance. Here are some other questions to consider:

● Are you so self-conscious that you worry about what others think about your performance?

● Do you have any doubts about your sport before or during competition?

● Do you get so anxious that you don’t have a calm mind or think straight in competition?

● Are you motivated by a fear of failure and does this affects your performance in competition?

● Do you get distracted easily by things that go on around you in your environment? (Like wondering who’s watching you in the gym???!)

● Do you become easily frustrated when things do not go according to plan?

When is Mental Training Needed?

There are several indicators that sports psychology or mental coaching can help you rise above mental challenges and get more out of your talent. Below is a partial list of the common signals that a mental barrier is holding you back from peak performance.

You perform much better in practice than during competition. Your practice game is flawless, but in competition, your performance is below par. You feel confident and loose in practice and then are plagued with doubt or indecision in the competitive arena. Something changes between practice and competition, but you just cannot put your finger on what it is. Usually fear of failure or tension holds you back.

You have too many perfectionistic qualities. Many athletes think that when they are successful, perfectionism is the reason why. Yes, there are some advantages to perfectionism such as high motivation and being goal-oriented. However, many perfectionistic characteristics hold athletes back from success, such as holding onto high, unrealistic expectations, being overly critical of self, trying too hard, and getting easily frustrated.

You don’t perform well when others are watching you. When others who you care about, (such as parents, fans, coaches) watch you perform, you become too self-conscious of their presence and lose your focus on the task (I used to struggle with this one!). Often you may even worry about letting others down or failing in front of others, like stage fright or fear of embarrassment. afraid to embarrass yourself in front of others who are watching you perform because you fear how your performance might reflect on you as an athlete or a person.

You maintain doubt about your sport before or during games. You perform with a lot of confidence in practice and gain confidence from practice, but when you play your sport for real, you start to entertain doubts about your ability to get the job done. I call this “competitive self-confidence” as opposed to “practice self-confidence.” You start to think, “Can I really beat this person across the net?” “Do I have what it takes to strike out this batter?” Doubts can be disguised subtly in the form of a simple question. When you question your ability to perform, it is really doubt in disguise. In the absence of confidence, you have doubt. When you have doubts, confidence suffers.

You feel anxious or scared when you perform in competition. You perform freely and loose in practice and do not have many worries, but in games, you are paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Most often, athletes with a fear of failure get tight and anxious in games because they want to win so badly or have are afraid of embarrassment. Fear of failure causes you to try too hard and worry too much about outcomes.

You limit your performance with strict expectations. With large amounts of practice and success in competition, comes both confidence and higher expectations. Confidence is what you want to let ride, but maintaining strict expectations equates to pressure, judgments, and demands you place on yourself. I spend a lot of time with my students helping them identify limiting expectations and parking them in the locker room or parking lot prior to performance. I’ll talk more about this later in this booklet.

You attach your self-worth to your ability to perform. Some athletes are driven to compete because of the rewards that come from being successful: fame, accolades, and respect. You have a desire to get your name in the paper, get praise from others, or rewards from your parents. These motivators, although help you feel better about yourself as a person, are not the best type of motivators. When you are doing well in sports, it’s easy for you to feel good about yourself, but when not performing well, it’s harder to feel good about yourself, as you attach your level of success to self-worth.

You lose focus during crunch-time. When up to bat with the bases loaded, two outs and the game tied, you have trouble thinking clearly because of the pressure to produce for your coach, teammates, or fans. You forget the count or don’t pay attention to the sign from the coach. You commit simple mental errors that you wouldn’t normally do in other less threatening situations because you are unable to clear your mind and focus on the task.

After an injury, you are physically 100% recovered, but you can’t perform the way you did pre-injury. Many athletes who have sustained a major sports injury have trouble regaining their confidence post-injury. Even after the doctor gives you a clean bill of health, your mental scars have not healed. You may be afraid of re-injury and this causes you to play tentatively.

How Can Athletes Benefit From Mental Skills Training?

Sports Psychology is about improving your attitude and mental game skills to help you perform your best by identifying limiting beliefs and embracing a healthier philosophy about your sport. Below is a list of the top ten ways that you can benefit from sports psychology:

1. Improve focus and deal with distractions. Many athletes can concentrate, but often their focus is displaced on the wrong areas such as when a batter thinks “I need to get a hit” while in the batter’s box, which is a result-oriented focus. Much of my instruction on focus deals with helping athlete to stay focused in the present moment and let go of results. An awesome film reference for this is “The way of the Peaceful Warrior”. Be present in the moment.

2. Grow confidence in athletes who have doubts. Doubt is the opposite of confidence. If you maintain many doubts prior to or during your performance, this indicates low self-confidence or at least you are sabotaging what confidence you had at the start of the competition. Confidence is what I call a core mental game skill because of its importance and relationship to other mental skills.

3. Develop coping skills to deal with setbacks and errors. Emotional control is a prerequisite to getting into the zone. This is also referred to as controlling your arousal state. Athletes with very high and strict expectations have trouble dealing with minor errors that are a natural part of sports. It’s important to address these expectations and help athletes stay composed under pressure and when they commit errors or become frustrated. This is explored in the chapter “Keep a blue head” in the book “Legacy – Leadership lessons from the All Blacks” by James Kerr

4. Find the right zone of intensity for your sport. I use intensity in a broad sense to identify the level of intensity or activation that is necessary for each person to perform his or her best. This will vary from person to person and from sport to sport. Feeling “up” and positively charged is critical, but not getting overly excited is also important. You must find the balance between being excited to complete, yet not getting over-excited or anxious.

5. Help teams develop communication skills and cohesion. A major part of sports psychology and mental training is helping teams improve cohesion and communication. The more a team works as a unit, the better the results for all involved. Again I'll refer to some of the strategies used by the All Blacks where they have developed rituals and language which are unique to them. This serves to pull them together as a team, reinforcing their cohesion. If you hadn't guessed they are my favourite team...

6. To instil a healthy belief system and identify irrational thoughts. One of the areas I pride myself on is helping athlete identify ineffective beliefs and attitudes such as comfort zones and negative self-labels (i.e. “I’m a loser”) that hold them back from performing well. These unhealthy beliefs must be identified and replaced with a new way of thinking. Unhealthy or irrational beliefs will keep you stuck no matter how much you practice or hard you try. How you interpret the feelings and emotions you experience influence what kind of performance state your mind and body are in.

7. Improve or balance motivation for optimal performance. It’s important to look at your level of motivation and just why you are motivated to play your sport. Some motivators are better in the long-term than others. Athletes who are extrinsically or externally motivated often play for the wrong reasons, such as the athlete who only participates in sports because of a parent’s desire. I work with athletes to help them adopt a healthy level of motivation and be motivated for the right reasons.

8. Develop confidence post-injury. Some athletes find themselves fully prepared physically to get back into competition and practice, but mentally some scars remain. Injury can hurt confidence, generate doubt during a competition, and cause a lack of focus. I help athletes mentally heal from injuries and deal with the fear of re-injury.

9. To develop game-specific strategies and game plans. All great coaches employ game plans, race strategies, and course management skills to help athletes mentally prepare for competition. This is an area beyond developing basic mental skills in which a mental coach helps athletes and teams. This is very important in sports such as golf, racing, and many team sports.

10. To identify and enter the “zone” more often. This incorporates everything I do in the mental side of sports. The overall aim is to help athletes enter the zone by developing foundational mental skills that can help athletes enter the zone more frequently. It’s impossible to play in the zone every day, but you can set the conditions for it to happen more often.

Alternatively, you may have lost your confidence and wonder if you can return to previous performance levels pre-injury.

You have a burning desire to get better. You may not have an identifiable mental challenge or mental block in your sport, but you want to improve your mental game and win more. You think mental game coaching or mental training can help you improve and get to the next level. You want to do everything you can to get the edge over your competition, including the mental edge. At CS Performance we help you get the mental edge.

As stated previously, some people still think that sports psychology, because of the association of psychology that we work with abnormal athletes. For this reason, most athletes resist working with a sports psychologist or mental coach or think that they don't need that kind of training, because of the fear others will label them as a “head case.” Even today, professional athletes I work with do not want the public to know they are working with a mental skills coach. I certainly respect their concern for confidentiality, but it tells me that some athletes still think working with someone in sports psychology should not be made public mostly because they do not understand what sports psychology is really about or are afraid of how the public views it.

Most athletes seek out my services because of a particular performance barrier, slump, plateau, or decrease in performance sometimes it's physical, and sometimes it's mental. As a coach, I often become the last resort after athletes have tried several other means to get beyond performance slumps. I wish this were not the case. Most athletes wait until they get into a slump or something needs to be “fixed” and they have exhausted all other resources before they commit to working on their mental game.

Only a limited number of athletes seek my services because they want to improve mental toughness (with no apparent mental block) and improve performance. I find that coaches are more likely to bring in a mental coach to give the team every chance of being successful from the start of the season or pre-season. The real goal is to help a team identify barriers to teamwork and enhance performance by improving mental skills for success.

The real value of sports psychology is helping athletes reach their physical potential and perform more often in the zone. My work is not always about helping an athlete get over mental blocks in performance. My goal when working with clients is to develop a mindset for success so they can get the most out of their physical ability every time they step onto the field, court, track, or course, and life...

So where do we go from here?

Glad you asked that question. As with anything setting a baseline is usually a good place to start and to find this, I like to use an AMAP (Athlete Mental Aptitude Profile) or mental skills testing. Give it a try and send me your results, and we can chat through them.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll dive deeper into topics such as motivation, visualisation and imagery, mental toughness (and how this ties into goal achievement).

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