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Inside an Athlete’s Mind: Three Keys to Performance Success

By Chad Leonard | In Articles | on June 29, 2016

Article By: MedBridge

From winning your weekly bowling league to succeeding in professional athletics, these three mental strategies can boost performance when the stakes are high.

From Freaking to Peaking – How C’s Are Much More Than Average!
It was the 10th frame of my bowling league. All I had to do for us to win the game and make it into the playoffs was to make contact with the pins and either strike or finish the spare. As I approached the lane, I felt confident and focused, as I had been all game.

To my terror, as the ball released off of my finger tips and onto the floor I knew this was about to be an embarrassing moment. Past my aim and into the gutter my ball went, taking with it our chances of making the playoffs.

Now, a Thursday night bowling league devoted to beers, buddies, and battered food is devoid of the high stakes of elite athletics. Yet, there are some lessons to be learned here on how to prevent anxiety and get the most of your performance. Ironically, if you want to be above average, you better get some C’s!

1. Confidence

The bread and butter! The foundation! If you don’t believe you can, guess what, you probably can’t! Though I felt confident going into the 10th frame, the reality is that I don’t really consider myself a good bowler. My range can go from 85 (like in that game) to 175. Thus, I, much like the athletes we work with, could have benefited from greater preparation. Practice makes perfect, as they say!

Another quick intervention is the power of mental imagery. What the mind believes the body achieves! Even as a sport psychologist I got sloppy with my pre-performance routine. I could have benefited from taking a deep breath and visualizing where I wanted the ball to go to knock down the pins. Obviously, I skipped this.

Want confidence? To have it we need to prepare our hearts out and picture ourselves succeeding. Whether it is working a new exercise into rehab, returning to the court to play, or rolling a playoff-entering ball in the 10th, preparation and visualization are key.

2. Composure

The sweet spot! There is a relationship between the intensity we feel and our performance. Too anxious, and your performance is crap. Unmotivated and you don’t really care? Yep, performance is crap. As such we want to find ourselves somewhere in the middle to increase our likelihood of a successful performance.

In my bowling fiasco, even though I was saying positive things to myself and wasn’t consciously focused on throwing a gutter ball, the magnitude of the moment likely caused enough physiological anxiety to impact my body’s natural ability to throw a smooth ball. Tightened shoulders and a rushed release equal a gutter ball, thanks anxiety!

To combat this, we must proactively seek composure. Regular deep breathing and muscle relaxation teaches our bodies and minds to relax under pressure. Identifying strategies for pumping ourselves up helps allocate our mental and physical resources to the task at hand. Know your athletes, what do they need to get in their sweet spot…pump up or chill out?

3. Concentration

The final step is concentration. We give power to what we focus on! Prior to my gutter ball fiasco, a member of the opposing team said, “Hey man, don’t throw a gutter ball!” Unfortunately, the human brain does not catch the difference between do and don’t. Even though he said “Don’t throw a gutter ball,” my brain heard “gutter ball” causing my mind to, literally, go in the gutter.

In retrospect, I should have taken a moment to deliberately re-focus my mind on the spot I wanted to hit. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time.

Ideally, we focus on the area that will give us the most success. With our athletes, perhaps it’s an exercise technique or a specific movement. To do this, identify the key target focus that leads to success in their task and then create a cue word that directs their focus consistently to that area. A cue word such as “head pin” would have served me well.

Final Report Card: All C’s

In conclusion, C’s are no longer for dunces. In fact, if you want to combat performance anxiety and thrive in any endeavor it is time to not only get some C’s, but also devote more time to achieving them!

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