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The Mental Athlete

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Nicknamed the “Flying Finn”, Paavo Nurmi dominated distance running in the early 20th century, much like the Kenyans do today. Hailing from Finland, he set 22 world records in distances from the 1500m to 20km. In total, Paavo won nine gold and three silver medals at the Olympic Games. When speaking about his astounding achievements, he said, “Mind is everything: muscle – pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.”

So what does this mean for the athletes of today and their mindset?

The way I see it, sport offers us the opportunity to use our bodies in ways that provide physical exhilaration and mental enjoyment. It is for these reasons not purely for the perceived glory of winning that I offer athletes this advice. 

Below are three performance-enhancing principles related to athlete mindset. If you love sport and want to excel, or even if you’re looking for a new challenge, you can use them to transform your current capability on the sporting field. 

Three strategies for mentally fit athletes

1. Power Talk

The most important conversations you will have on the sporting field are the ones you have with yourself. Why? Because as you go through those words, phrases and thoughts, you are creating robust data and loading the pistol that fires off your individual self-concept. 

A disempowering self-concept filled with negativity, insecurity or hesitation will undoubtedly produce results far below your potential. But a driven, confident and self-assured self-concept will have you perform at an optimum level. 

Use better language and you will create better realities. As Abraham Herschel said, “Words create worlds”. 

Language shapes your world. Whether you are competing in a pool, on a track or on a field, are you going to enter with a sense of possibility or catastrophe? 

The world is made of words and if you know the words the world is made of, you can make it whatever you wish.” – Terrence McKenna

 

If you call a problem a problem, it becomes a problem! 

But if you call a problem an opportunity, it pivots your psychology and enhances your emotional competence. For instance, an injury can be seen as an annoyance and a setback… or a chance to develop the weak areas of your game. How you talk about the problem determines how you respond to it. 

Don’t misunderstand me on this. A positive mindset will not create talent, but it will release it. Positive self-talk decreases anxiety, improves concentration and will help you perform to your full potential. 

When you step out to compete, the first and most important choice you have to make is the answer to this question:  Am I going to have a positive outlook or a negative one? 

When you begin to fully comprehend the power of words you speak and how they can orientate the trajectory of your life, everything changes. 

Intentional thinking is the basis of ‘well-ordered’ self-talk, it is a tactical advantage. We can all learn to replace negative, self-defeating thoughts with positive ones that build confidence and expectations of success. If you think positively, you are likely to compete in a positive manner. 

Be careful of the words you use every day. They are either creating the mindset of a victim or the mindset and internal make-up of a world-class athlete. Make sure you nail your words by being mindful of how you speak to yourself before, during and after you compete. 

Using his athlete’s mindset, Champion boxer Muhammed Ali understood and tapped into this power within to master his results and destiny by ‘waxing lyrical’ about his abilities. To put himself into an emotionally charged state before a fight he would say things like this: “I am young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty and can’t possibly be beat.”

Australian netballer, Sharni Layton says, “I look myself in the mirror in the eye before a game and say, ‘You got this’ and whoever you are playing today ‘has not got this’.”

2. Think Straight 

“Tennis is mostly mental. You win or lose the match before you even go out there. “ – Venus Williams 

Zig Ziglar, regarded by many as the father of motivation, describes the following tale in his book See You At The Top

In the 1920s, when the circus came to town, a small alley housed a tent that contained the world-famous ‘flea circus’. Hundreds of people would come from all over town to see the mystery housed within this tent. 

Inside, there was a big round table. On top of the table was a large glass cylinder. Inside the cylinder were fleas. The fleas would run up and down ramps and swing on merry-go-rounds. The flea trainer stood behind the flea circus keeping watch over his fleas. Little kids would race up to get a closer look. Their nose print and breath would mark the glass as they took in this spectacle in awe and wonderment. 

The mystery behind this flea circus was that the fleas didn’t try to escape the cylinder. Impossibly, the flea trainer had tamed and domesticated them to the point where they would not jump out of their confines. They passively remained contained, within the display. 

One day a little boy sheepishly approached the flea trainer to ask, “Hey Mister, how come the fleas don’t jump out? How do you keep ’em in the jar?” 

The flea trainer leaned down and shared his magic with the boy: 

“Well son, when I catch these fleas I stick them in a jar. I screw the lid on top and bang some holes in it so the little fellas can breathe. Then, the fleas begin to jump. They jump so high that they bang their heads up against the lid. After one too many jumps, when they have banged their little flea brains out, they continue jumping but now they adjust the height of their jumps to just below the lid. Now their jumping doesn’t hurt them anymore. Leave it a little longer and I can actually take the lid off and the fleas, even though they continue to jump won’t jump high enough to escape from the cylinder. They are held there by an invisible ceiling. A mindset.” 

They have the potential, but now they lack the confidence to achieve it. 

This is exactly what happens to many of us. When we first start to dream, our dreams have no limits, we simply believe. During the normal course of life, we bang our heads, stub our toes and graze our knees. We miss out on making a rep side, we don’t swim the time we need, or we drop the ball. 

We then decide to adjust our expectations. We opt for a smaller goal with less risk and ensure when we jump again, it is not as high. Just like the fleas, we never discover we have the potential because now we lack the confidence and the winning athlete’s mindset. 

Champions are people driven from within and able to get their thinking straight. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches us that if you are playing any sport that requires you to focus on a ball coming toward you and you zoom in and are totally focused on the ball flying towards you, this is your observing self at work. 

You are not thinking about the ball; you are observing the ball. But let us suppose thoughts start entering your mind like, “That ball is moving fast”, “I hope I don’t drop it” or “I need to score on this point”. 

That is your thinking self-coming into the picture. As we know, thinking can be distracting and doing so diverts energy from our body. If your observing self pays too much attention to those thoughts and is no longer zeroing in on the ball, your performance will be compromised. To operate with your observing self, you must engage in the present moment, so your actions are moved by instinct rather than intellect.

In his book Open, Andre Agassi describes this by saying, “Freed from the thoughts of winning I instantly play better. I stop thinking, start feeling. My shots become a half-second quicker, my decisions become the product of instinct rather than logic.”

Your instinct is harnessed and developed within the sphere of your imagination. By creating mental images, you are developing not only muscle memory but emotional hooks to help you perform optimally.

Michael Phelps, the G.O.A.T of swimming and a 28-time Olympic medal winner says, “Visualising is like programming a race in my head. I visualise how I want the race to go. I can see the start, the strokes, the walls, the turns, the finish, the strategy, all of it. It’s so vivid that I can see the incredible detail, down to the wake behind me.”

3. Finding Flow 

Flow is the scientific word for the feeling of ‘being in the zone’. Others have described it as ’weightlessness’, ‘being in the groove’, a place where ‘everything clicks’ or ‘going fast and doing it easily’. 

‘Flow’ is a place of peak consciousness, a sacred space where we feel our best and perform at our best. Runners describe it as ‘runners high’, where you feel like you can go on forever. It is also a place where time rushes by really quickly or slows to enable us to take in the moment. It’s like experiencing your current move/play in slow motion. 

Have you ever been so engrossed in a game where you felt like 5 minutes had passed but half-time was suddenly called? Flow is also experienced when we are extremely focused. 

The term ‘flow’, originally discovered by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has undergone rigorous investigation and is a common state for us all to encounter. This state is a place of total bliss and high performance where creativity and happiness flow freely. 

To access flow, we need to have our whole focus on the activity we are currently engaging with. Not the spectators, not the opposition, not our inordinate thoughts but our current and next play.

Legendary hurdler Edwin Moses says, “Your mind has to be absolutely clear. The fact that you have to cope with your opponent, jet lag, different food, sleeping in hotels and personal problems has to be erased from consciousness – as if they didn’t exist.”

It is important to note flow experiences are also rewarding for their own sake, regardless of the outcome they may produce. Some athletes become so focused on the scoreboard they can miss the experience. If you become totally consumed about winning the event, you may miss the mental state that is likely to help bring the result you desire. 

Staying fixed on the process rather than the outcome keeps us in flow. Avert your eyes from the scoreboard, move into the moment and become totally absorbed in the deep now. 

By purposefully aiming to keep the monkey/distracted mind from revving and endeavour to  become one with the movements you are making. By doing so you will start to acknowledge you have the skills and the athlete’s mindset to meet the challenge.  

Athletes who are in flow have the sense that their actions are effortless and spontaneous, even though they are actually oozing superhuman effort. 

Cathy Freeman said, “Running is where I found true peace and that is where I felt so completely free and so completely happy. It is a beautiful feeling. It is almost like falling into a slipstream that leads you straight to heaven. For me, it was always a spiritual experience”.

Leading college basketball coach John Wooden said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” 

Next time you approach a big match or race, reset yourself constantly by thinking positive thoughts, catching yourself from sticking to fixed beliefs and setting yourself the challenge to stay completely in the moment. These are the mindsets of winning athletes. 

And remember my first point… the joy of sport should come from feeling exhilarated as you play, not simply scoring all the points. 

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