Ever wonder how those pro athletes can perform under such pressure and crowd distractions? At the elite athletic level, mental conditioning becomes one of the most important differences between consistent top performers and those who are routinely average. The reason why? Performance is self-fulfilling; that is, you get what you expect as an athlete. Visualizations and affirmations can dramatically improve your overall performance, but real champions aren't just athletes who win all the time - champions use their failures as stepping stones to success. To start thinking like a champion and maximizing your sports performance, mental conditioning must be a part of your overall conditioning program because focus and concentration are learned and practiced skills. Let's take a look at what makes up a mental conditioning program, and how to incorporate mental conditioning into your training routine.
Primary Components of a Mental Conditioning Program
- Autogenic relaxation – Autogenic (also known as self-generated training) has the power to actually alter your neural pathways as you change your behavior. Autogenic relaxation is a kind of self-hypnosis that enables you to root positive phrases and mental images in your unconscious. It brings your mind and feelings into harmony with your body as you take on and adjust to new behaviors.
- Visualization – Visualization is your ability to imagine certain situations. It not only includes visually seeing the events happening but also allows you to feel like you are almost in the situation. All five senses are present in the visualization including sound, smell, touch, etc. Visualization is a powerful tool when used in a positive manner. However, in many cases athletes replay negative events causing a negative effect on performance. The more vivid the visualization the more it attaches to your memory. Visualization must be practiced on an on-going basis to become effective.
- Affirmations – Affirmations are positive statements that you can use to replace your negative mind-chatter. Using affirmations can be a powerful way to transform many of your old attitudes and expectations into positive and vibrant ones. There are some very important points to remember when you are writing/creating an affirmation: Always use the present tense when writing affirmations. State your affirmation as if it already exists. Always phrase affirmations in a positive way. It is very important that you affirm what you do want instead of what you don’t want. Try to keep your affirmations short and simple. Choose/create affirmations that feel right for you. What works for one person may not work best for you.
- Neuromuscular coordination – Muscle/brain imprinting through controlled plyometrics, body and motor control training helps “train the brain” to react naturally and unconsciously when brought into a real playing situation. Slow motions that imprint movements that are consistent with the sport will improve overall efficiency.
How to Integrate Mental Conditioning into Your Training Routine
- Focus and build on fundamentals - Especially at an early age (under 14) the major emphasis of sports training should be on practicing techniques and fundamentals to allow an imprinting to occur. Rapidly instituting complex or specific training techniques before the basics have been mastered deters overall performance. A good example is how each level in Judo or karate learns progressively difficult techniques. Once one reaches a black belt master stage, techniques are not required since they now have been ingrained into the subconscious.
- Develop a personal list of affirmations and visualizations - Develop a positive list of affirmation statements that will inspire and motivate you. Create visualizations that are positive and motivational and ones that are calming. These can be used in appropriate situations to increase motivation and energy or relief during a stressful situation.
- Practice relaxation exercises - Be regular about taking time to practice autogenic relaxation. Just doing it once won't cut it. Put your affirmations in writing and review them daily. Spend time visualizing positive situations every day.
- Build rituals into practice and pre-game – Establish a set of rituals that helps you focus, moving all outside distractions away and narrowing your concentration. Every great athlete in every sport goes through the same routine before every performance.
- Practice concentration – You can’t expect to achieve peak physical performance without training, so why assume you'll be at your top mental performance with no practice? Some exercises you can practice include:
- Ball stare – Practice focusing on a ball (one for your sport) and maintain concentration and focus as long as you can. Study it carefully, examine stitching, color, etc. Quickly bring your focus back to the ball every time you find yourself drifting.
- Blocking distractions – Sit up close to your TV screen with the set on and no volume. Hold your thumb against the screen and focus only on the center of your thumbnail for about 10 seconds. When you can do this without being distracted by the pictures, increase your time to 20 seconds. When you can go a whole minute without being distracted, turn the volume up and try to focus for 10 seconds. Continue to increase your time until you can go 12 minutes without losing focus.
- Practice techniques and rituals to develop confidence – Post positive affirmations on the walls of your room or bathroom mirror for constant reinforcement. Control negative self-talk by saying “STOP!” to yourself the instant you become aware of a negative message.
The Bottom Line
You choose the attitude, the attitude creates the results - winners are never negative. You must practice and train mentally just like you practice skills and spend time on physical conditioning. Mental conditioning is one of the most powerful things you can use as an athlete to overcome setbacks, effectively handle pressure and lift the level of your physical game. Because when everyone is at the top of their game, it's mental conditioning that separates the winner from the losers.