Mindset Training Strategies for Competitive Athletes
Written By OPEX HQ Coach Matt Connolly
When one thinks about athletic competition, they usually think about it’s physical elements rather than the mental and emotional component. While strength, speed, and power are important to success in competitive endeavours, one must not forget how vital mindset training is to the competitive process.
The mind, not the muscle, is your most potent athletic asset. Therefore, training your mind to function in competitive scenarios is critical to your success of living up to your full athletic potential. The first step in learning how to use your mind as an athlete is understanding the mindset concept known as flow.
What is Flow?
Flow can be defined as a state in which people become completely absorbed in an activity. During this experience, the individual in the state of flow feels strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. In fitness, flow is a state of mind achieved when athletes feel completely engaged in their performance, lose their perception of time, concentrate on the moment, and perform at extremely high levels.
Individuals who have experience the flow state often speak about losing track of time and feeling completely engaged in the activity at hand. Essentially, the state of flow is a state of hyperfocus.
In sports, flow has been attributed to high performance levels among athletes of various disciplines. In one of the first studies to address the experiential dimensions of sport found that the nature of the sport peak experience was: temporary and of relatively short duration; non-voluntary and not induced at will; and, unique and not necessarily associated with a successful performance outcome.Characteristics of the sport peak experience included focusing on the present moment, effortless merging of action and awareness, loss of personal ego, sense of control, clear feedback, and an intrinsic reward system. Athletes recalled these special moments during sport participation as, highly valued and extremely meaningful. In other words, these athletes had found that the state of flow lead to increased performance.
The good news is that any athlete can get into this state through physical and mental training.
How Can I Get Into ‘Flow’ For Competition?
Simple. You train it.
Just as the body and muscles respond to training stimuli, so does the mind. This represents the concept of neuroplasticity; the brain’s ability to change its processes and patterns. Focusing on training your mind will allow you to reap large gains over a short period of time. However, such mental training must be introduced in a progressive and consistent manner to enable positive development.
Here are seven critical elements that must be present in order to achieve a state of flow:
- #1 – Challenge/Skills Balance
Training should meet you where you are currently at. If you currently struggle to snatch 135 lbs as a male or 95 lbs as a female, then a workout with multiple 135/95 lb snatches under fatigue is NOT a good recipe for getting into flow, OR for experiencing good training. Without understanding your individual needs and capacities, your training won’t be structured in a way that maximizes your performance.
- #2 Being Present
Being present is essentially being ‘in’ the moment by focusing everything on the task you are performing. After all, a small lapse in concentration at a key moment often leads to lost time. A few seconds can be the difference between success and failure in competitive CrossFit. Practice being present in your training, focused, and unwavering in your attention to the optimal outcome.
- #3 Action/Awareness Merging
You should feel at one with every movement and forge mind-muscle connections. Essentially, you want any movement to feel like an extension of your body. This only comes with years of deep, mindful practice of the skills required for the sport. However, the process can be accelerated by having a professional coach help you understand how a given workout should feel. This professional should also know the intended physical response and whether things should feel easy and sustainable.
- #4 Impartial Feedback
This is crucial to successful performance. It’s often tough to be objective on our own performance. Feedback from peers and coaches regarding your results is incredibly valuable to the learning process. There is truth in numbers. Therefore, it is vital that you are maintaining an accurate training log, as well as having a professional coach who can quantify your progression over time.
- #5 Loss of Self-Consciousness
Being ‘unconscious’ of yourself can be perceived by some as a negative quality. However, it’s a common trait amongst high performers across a broad spectrum of sports and fitness. Becoming one with the barbell provides freedom from any negative thoughts and allows you to stay focused on the task at hand.
- #6 Focus on the Process
In training, there’s often a tendency to focus on the tangibles: the numbers, adding a couple pounds to the bar, or shaving a few seconds from a workout. This obsession on little details does not lead to achieving the state of flow. Flow happens when we focus instead on the process rather than the outcome. The pursuit of the process, not tangibles, is what allows you to enter a state of flow. Now that we understand what flow is and how to reach that state, it is time to discuss how your thoughts influence the actions you take in every situation.
- #7 You Are What You Think
The language we use internally shapes our experience of life, the way we interact with others, and our relationship with ourselves. This idea forms the framework of what’s known as the ‘Self Perception Theory’.“We often believe what we hear ourselves saying, and are far more likely to follow the path of action we decide on, independent of the advice, in the long term.”Self Perception Theory asserts that people develop their attitudes by observing their own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused it. The manner in which we use language reinforces these personal observations of our behavior which can negatively impact self perception. Start paying attention to the language and phrases you use either internally or when talking to others. You’ll likely find recurring phrases, or terms that can be changed over time to shift your mindset:
I want… vs I WILL….
I think… vs I KNOW….
Start by changing the language you use to describe yourself and your actions. You will find that by using powerful and more uplifting language, it becomes easier for us to align actions with our goals. Mantras, incantations, and personal slogans have been used for decades by peak-performers in and outside of sport.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values,Your values become your destiny.” – Gandhi
Three Simple Strategies For Improved Performance
- 1. Keep A Journal: Journaling is a relatively simple habit. With hundreds of different methods in which to journal, there are four key areas you need to focus on to optimize your athletic performance.
- Positivity: Confidence is a choice. Use your journal to keep a record of your accomplishments. Everything from the smallest, seemingly insignificant wins to your biggest achievements of which you’re most proud. If you wish to TRULY be a champion, you must learn to only celebrate and remember these positive experiences, while learning from and letting go of the negative ones. Brick by brick, these accomplishments will help to build a solid foundation of confidence. While there’s no perfect correlation between optimism and success, there is an almost perfect correlation between pessimism and failure.
- Gratitude: It’s no secret that gratitude is a game-changer when it comes to improving mood, but it’s also been tied to improved outcomes in sports as well. A good way to start is with the “three good things” exercise. Simply write down three good things that happen to you each day, however big or small, and what your part was in making them happen. Each week, review and compile the three best things that happened to you that week, then repeat this review each month and each year.
- Goals: Focus on your big picture goals. Write them down every day. Strategize on the small things you can do every day to move you closer to your goals, whether it’s improving your water intake, or PR’ing a lift. Cultivate habits that move you closer to these big picture goals each day and aim to eliminate those that don’t serve, or are in conflict with, the bigger picture of what you want to achieve.
- Self Reflection: What did you learn in the past 24-hours that can move you closer to where you want to be? Are there things you could have done differently with a better outcome? Now is the time to reflect on, learn from, and let go of these things.
- 2. Mindfulness/Meditation Practice: Everyone has a very different way of discovering and expressing mindfulness. Such examples include prayer, music, or even meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. It’s important that you take time to step out of daily life and look inward. Once this process is habit, it becomes a powerful tool which enhances your athletic performance and life experiences.
- 3. Visualization: Our mind cannot differentiate between that which we experience and that which we vividly focus on. Take a moment to DEEPLY imagine your favorite food, how it smells, looks, tastes. You’ll likely find yourself starting to salivate based on your imagination. By mentally rehearsing yourself performing at your absolute peak, we can reduce anxiety, build confidence, and enhance your performance. There are many models of visualization from self-guided to coach-led where examples are: mental rehearsal, smell, touch, feel, look, and sound. The more vivid the visualisation, the more visceral and real it is, the better.Where are you competing? What can you see? What can you feel? What can you hear? What can you smell and touch? What’s the outcome that you want from this situation? How will it feel?The more consistent you can be with visualization work the better. This consistency teaches the brain and allows adaptations to happen as these experiences become increasingly “real” to the mind.
Mental Toughness or Grit
Mental toughness, or ‘grit’, is a term used to describe perseverance and passion when focused on a long-term goal. It has been found to correlate with an average 4% higher level of success in everything from National Spelling Bee competitions to classes at the premier U.S Military Academy, West Point.
When it comes to developing and understanding grit, there’s a key underlying factor that’s important to address: your ‘why’. When you understand your why, you become better able to act upon it and keep your actions in alignment with your intrinsic motivations. This inevitably leads to more fulfilling outcomes and provides a path to living a larger life.
Extrinsic motivations can often be categorized as things we feel we should be pursuing based on societal normalities, environmental influences, and pressure from others. That’s not to say that these sources of motivation are any less valid, but it’s key to distinguish between the two, and be honest in where your motivations come from.
The source of your motivation doesn’t dictate success or achievement, but it does dictate your level of fulfilment.
When it comes to mindset training, the role of a professional coach is to provide feedback, give direction, and ask questions to change the athlete’s state of mind. In essence, the best coaches act as a mirror for their clients which allows them to better understand how their own mind works. The difference between an amateur athlete and a true competitor is the strength of their body AND their mind. If you neglect your mind, you won’t reach your peak of training or competitive results.
Matt discovered his passion for strength and conditioning during his seven years working as a police officer, finishing his career working under the Metropolitan Police Specialist Crime & Operations Wing. The physical and mental demands of the job peaked his interest into learning more about training and the science behind optimizing human performance. This led him on a journey of self-discovery as both a coach and athlete.
He has been lucky enough to be able to work with clients across a very broad spectrum, working with everyone from competitive fitness athletes, stuntmen, martial artists, and police and military operators, to recreational and professional athletes across the world, both remotely and in person.
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