Get Psyched up and take your performance to the next level
Whether you’re bench pressing with your buddies looking on or shooting on the court in front of a bleacher-packed crowd, sometimes it can feel like your every move is being dissected and analyzed, as if you were Phil Mickelson making a long putt on the 18th hole.
If you’re feeling that competitive pressure, you’re not alone. As society has become more performance-oriented, this has had an effect on athletes of all ages, says Jeffrey Brown, PsyD, ABPP, a psychologist in private practice in Arlington, Mass., and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Many people today face anxiety about their performance,” says Brown, who also counsels young competitors. “I see more kids today who are becoming perfectionists.”
An important way to deal with the pressure is to be mentally prepared when you practice and compete. Why? Because your mind and body are physically linked. The cerebral cortex, where thoughts are generated, is hard-wired to your muscles. Here’s how to keep your mental game sharp.
Set goals that range from short- to long-term, says Deborah Feltz, PhD, professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who has conducted more than 200 workshops for youth sports. Goals help you focus and discover your strengths and weaknesses. “If they’re going to be effective, they have to be measurable,” says Feltz. Long-term goals can have a one-to-four-year horizon. Intermediate goals, such as trying to gain a starting position on a team, can range from a few months to a year. Short-term goals can be weekly or even daily.
Keep the goals moderately difficult, advises Brown. “If goals are too easy to reach, then there’s not much reward, and if they’re too hard, then there’s oftentimes real disappointment,” he says.
It’s Not Always About Winning
While goals that emphasize an outcome are necessary, it may be even more important to also have “process” goals, says Brown. These are shorter-term goals that don’t emphasize the end result like winning a race or lifting a certain weight, but rather actions that you have more control over. If you expend the effort, you are likely to reach the process goal, thereby increasing your overall confidence and ultimately bringing your outcome goal closer. For example, while you may have an outcome goal in golf to break 80, a process goal could be to do putting drills for one hour a day, three days a week.
To help get to your goals, use the power of imagery, employing all your senses to mentally experience your future athletic feats. “Imagine the finished product—crossing the finish line, the ball going in the hoop, pressing a certain weight in bench press,” says Feltz. Realize that this can take some work. “Beginners often have trouble controlling their images,” she adds. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t make my mind do what I want it to do.’ Well, you have to keep practicing it.”
Relax the Right Way
If you’re anxiety-prone, relaxation techniques can help, whether it’s before a workout or competition, or even after a stressful school day. Try taking deep, rhythmic breaths that originate in your belly rather than in your chest. Another method is muscle relaxation; you first tense and then relax a muscle (for example, your biceps). Try to feel a warmth and heaviness in the muscle when you release the tension, and progressively target muscles throughout your body.
Talk to Yourself
Positive self-talk can help control anxiety and your own perception of your abilities, says Brown, but negative self-talk can be destructive. “If you’re on the bench…and the last thing that goes through your mind before you lift is, There is no way I’ll ever be able to lift this, it may create a self-fulfilling prophesy,” he says. Simply monitoring your self-talk and consciously replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can help.
Take a Cue
Say a cue word silently to yourself. This can signal you to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand, especially when lifting weights, says Brown. A cue word can be a color, a phrase, even a feeling. Some examples: calm, cool, warm, now. To hone your ability to focus your attention and concentration, adds Feltz, practice simulating actual competition situations. A sprinter could, for example, repeatedly spring with the sound of a starting pistol.
Learning mind strategies takes time and patience. By the time you’re a teenager, you’re fine-tuning your physical skills, but your mental techniques may require gaining new abilities, and this applies to all ages. As you prepare for the physical side of your sport, realize that your mental approach needs to be trained as well. “Just like any physical skill,” notes Feltz, “you get better with practice.”
Finding a Sports Psychologist
›› Even the pros lose their focus. That’s why athletes of all types are increasingly turning to sports psychologists to hone the mental part of their game. Rare is the professional sports team that doesn’t have a sports psychologist handy to help players break through psychological obstacles. When it comes to mastering free throws or dropping putts, it’s crucial that you get your head right before you get in the game. Just ask Dwight Howard and Greg Norman.
›› Sports psychology is a growing field, and numerous resources are available for athletes of all levels. For certified consultants, check out the Association for Applied Sport Psychology online at aaasponline.org.
The All-Time-Worst Sports Meltdowns
Choke: It’s such an ugly word, but it’s an accurate description for the muscle-tightening, heart-pounding panic that can affect athletes at crucial moments. These mental breakdowns have happened to some of the greatest performers in sports history. After all, to choke on the world stage means you’ve had a lot of success on the way to your moment of infamy.
Let’s count down the five most notable chokes in recent sports history. Approach this list of epic fails with humility and empathy—and learn from them. Happily, all of these athletes overcame the embarrassment and continued successful careers (well, most of them).
5 Chris Webber: The University of Michigan basketball player will never live down the moment he called time out near the end of a tight 1993 NCAA finals against the Tar Heels. Of course, UM didn’t have a time out left, and Webber, the team’s star, was assessed a technical foul. The Tar Heels won the game, but Webber survived, going on to a decent pro career. He is now a respected TV commentator.
4 Dan O’Brien: The U.S. decathlete went from hyped to hopeless when he failed to make the 1992 Olympic team after months of being heavily promoted in television and print ads with fellow athlete Dave Johnson. O’Brien recovered and went on to win Gold in 1996.
3 Scott Norwood: Besides golf and the basketball free-throw line, is there a situation in sports that requires so much time to freak yourself out before the big moment than a field-goal attempt? Norwood was poised to earn the Buffalo Bills their first Super Bowl victory before sending a 47-yard kick wide right. The Bills would go on to lose the next three Super Bowls.
2 Greg Norman: The Australian golfer known as the White Shark has had an enviable career, but at the 1996 Masters he experienced the mother of all golf meltdowns when he started the final round six shots ahead and ended it a disastrous five strokes behind eventual winner Nick Faldo.
1 Bill Buckner: He can laugh at it now (as he did on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), but the Red Sox first baseman’s error in the 1986 World Series will forever be on a constant nightmare loop for Boston fans. If not for the Red Sox shaking off the curse of Ruth by winning MLB titles in 2004 and ’07, Buckner would likely still be “history’s greatest monster,” New England edition.