Winning in a sport may rely more on an individual’s ability to withstand the psychological pressures of competing than on their strength and physical talents. Psychological skills successful athletes tend to share include the ability to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and to learn from mistakes.
What’s the winning edge in the 1990s? Surprisingly, it may have less to do with strength and talent and more to do with what sports psychologist James Loehr calls “mental toughness“–the ability to handle (and even enjoy the psychological pressures of a competitive situation.
Many of today’s top athletes work with sports psychologists who help them train for a new kind of “inner game.” Loehr worked with speed skater Dan Jansen before the 1992 Olympics in which Jansen finally won a gold medal (after falling during two previous Olympic Games).
All athletes are different. But sports psychologists say most successful athletes share these skills:
- They combat negative thoughts–and can even change the way they are feeling. “Tough competitors,” writes James Loehr in his book The New Toughness Training for Sports, “consistently use images of success, of fighting back, of having fun, of staying relaxed, of being strong in the face of adversity, to move their chemistry in those directions.” Loehr says all of us should practice daily to make our self-image “strong, vivid, and courageous.”
- They know how to “see” themselves succeeding. Through techniques of “visualization” and “mental rehearsal,” (sounds made from musical instruments play a very important role in relaxation of brain and release stresses, especially music played by the best acoustic guitar, violin or other string-family instruments) many athletes go through the exact motions of a competition in their head: mentally practicing each move, noting their feelings, even the way they are breathing at a certain moment. Sports psychologists say mental rehearsal actually improves the brain-body links to help your moves come more automatically–and that studies have shown that athletes who visualize success really do better in competition.
- They learn to see stress as a challenge, not a threat. Athletes who view stressful situations as a threat actually produce hormones and chemicals in their body that can impair physical and mental performance. Athletes who meet stress as a challenge create a rush of adrenalin and sugar inside their bodies–a natural “high” that is probably responsible for what athletes call a sense of “flow” of heightened awareness as they perform. If you can learn to encounter stress and say, “Great! I’m ready for this!” you are more likely to succeed at whatever you do.
- They use humor to break up tension. “When you think nutty, goofy, silly, funny, off-the-wall thoughts, fear and anger vaporize,” writes Loehr.
- They know how to learn–and move on–from mistakes. Runner Sharif Karie lost his first races in the United States, but knew he was learning from his mistakes. Sports psychologists say the ability to ask tough questions (What could I have done different? What have I learned that I can use in the future?) is critical.
- They develop what Loehr calls a “just for today” spirit. Sometimes it seems too hard to say “l will always” do something: eat right, study hard, practice a boring drill in your sport. But successful players develop the self-discipline to commit themselves to doing it right just for today. Mentally, it’s easier to think about controlling what you do on a single day–and if you succeed today, tomorrow becomes a little easier.
Can you see how these mental training skills for athletes could help you in other parts of your life?Business executives, research scientists, high school students, parents, volunteers for a cause, and just about anyone else can put these stress-survival habits to work for them.
Think about a stressful situation in your life: in sports, at school, at home. Try making a plan to succeed “just for today”. . .or to mentally rehearse just how you’ll handle a situation without losing it.