How to prepare your mind for competition and success
When it comes to getting ready for competition, your mental preparation means more than you might realize. I often call this the “game within the game.” If you have been a competitive athlete at all in your life, you can probably recall a time when your mental state caused you to perform better or worse. What you might not realize, however, is that you can achieve peak performance more consistently through mental preparation.
As a sport psychology consultant and mental trainer, I often ask athletes to consider the best and the worst games they ever played. After they’ve done this, I ask them what they think the differences were between the two. Was the other team flat-out better, more fit, or coached by a genius? Almost always, the answer is none of those things. So to win the mental game, training makes a difference.
Instead, people often look internally. Talking about their worst performances, they point to anxiety, fear, or a lack of focus. The words differ, but the meaning is essentially the same: It was a “mental thing.” My next question is this: How much time do you spend practicing the mental game? Whether we’re talking about sports or business or personal affairs, if your answer to this question is “no time at all,” then it’s time to rethink your approach.
The game within the game is the mental contest we play as we prepare for competition, whatever form it may take. It’s about what we tell ourselves before, during and after competition. It involves managing stress, setting goals, and visualizing success. How we play this mental game determines how we perform when it counts.
These are the five tenets:
3. Carefree approach
Although each of these carries its own importance, they are also interrelated. Improving one area can lead to improvement in the other areas. Here’s a closer look at each.
Calmness: If you aren’t relaxed while playing or performing or working, you’ll more easily lose the feel for what you’re doing. Although learning to relax may seem simple, it’s actually a skill that must be practiced. Before you go to work tomorrow, try sitting on your couch for three minutes. Breathe slowly and just relax. The next time your stress level picks up on the job or during competition, take a deep breath and talk yourself down from the ledge. Refuse to get stressed out. It does no good.
Confidence: If you don’t feel confident that you can handle a competitive situation, you’re setting yourself up to fail. When you don’t believe in yourself, how is anyone else supposed to believe in you? Whatever it is you’re trying to do, tell yourself you can and believe it when you say it. Picture the success you are about to achieve.
Carefree approach: This is all about staying loose and knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll come out better for it. When the pressure mounts, refuse to let yourself get tight. It’s also important to make sure you don’t let worries from other parts of your life affect the task at hand. Stay mentally relaxed regardless of what you face. This goes hand in hand with staying calm.
Motivation: If you don’t have motivation, you don’t have much. Think about the things success will bring you. If you win the game, what will that mean? If you nail that presentation, what effect might it have on your career? Find your motivation and think about it often.
Focus: People often remind athletes of the importance of concentration. But what does that mean? Quite simply, it means focusing on the task at hand, avoiding distractions, and remaining fixated on what must be done. When players are off their game, it’s often because they’re thinking about something else. You can’t just go through the motions. By staying in the moment and avoiding mental interference, you can keep your mind where it needs to be.
STRENGTH FROM WITHIN
We all deal with stress. Life isn’t easy for competitive athletes, surgeons, lawyers, investment bankers, writers, or anyone else who’s trying to achieve great things. But it sure is fun. Remember that when you’re faced with long odds and the prospect of
failure. Enjoy the ride and know that you are doing exactly what it is you’re supposed to be doing.
Live for exhilaration and learn to deal with pressure. It makes you special and it sets you above the competition. You didn’t get where you are in life without putting in the work. And you won’t continue moving up by quitting or giving in when things get tough.
Instead, look within for strength, envision your success, and practice your mental preparation. Professional athletes typically spend 20 years perfecting their game on the way to reaching the highest level of their sport. By committing yourself to your own mental game and practicing often, you too can achieve greatness.
Tru Athlete Event
I am helping with a group here in the area called The Tru Athlete. A very cool idea. Competitors compete as a team in three sports. Soccer, Flag Football and Volleyball. It is Co-Ed. Ten players per team. Two female players on the field / court at all times. Champion is crowned by team that accumulates most points in all events. All in one day.
I am doing pre-competition talk to get everyone ready. Not really a motivational talk, because as you know I don’t do that. I help others find their motivation. But none the less I will try to inspire a few teams and be there during the day to help with their frustrations, anxiety and focus.
I am setting up in a booth. It will look something like this. I hope you know who doesn’t mind. I’d hate to have her pull the football away from me for taking her job.
Yes I am charging a nickel that’s 5 Cents. Depending on the long lines (right) consultations will be five minutes or longer. Might give them some exercises to do or play some games. I could do a concentration / focus exercise for a time and give away a prize. That could be fun. Fastest time wins a book or 1 hr consultation. Say a $1 per entry. Who says Mental training can’t be fun?
All money from consultations will be given to charity (not sure which one yet). I will also sell books and give some of the profits to the same charity. It should be a fun event. Not the usual event I work at. There isn’t always beer when I’m working. But it will be fun. Come join us at Starfire Sports July 27th, 2013. It will be a blast. It’s The Tru Athlete. They will be doing more of these events around the country. Might have to send my booth with them if Lucy doesn’t mind, that is.
Mental Training to get past shame in sports
A while back I wrote a post on shame. It is one of the areas that we rarely address in sports. It got a lot of hits back when I originally posted it. It was uploaded to a site in the UK this month for a new audience and again it’s garnered a good deal of attention. I thought perhaps I would talk about a few exercises people can use to get over issues were they feel shame. For some it is a feeling of failure associated with letting team or family down by not performing to their own or others expectations. In many ways it is associated with fear of failure. In other ways it goes perhaps deeper. Shame affects confidence, motivation and so much more. From an emotional intelligence point of view, along with guilt, it is certainly one of our more useless emotions. Please keep in mind, as usual; I am not talking about people who have really deep seated issues, as I only work with healthy people. There are times when we all have trouble dealing with something however, and these exercises can help.
Using CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy type exercises can help athletes reduce this feeling and perform at higher levels. Some are very simple. Some will take a bit of work. Some come from what are known as Shame Attacking exercises.
My new favorite one however comes from Clown School. Don’t discount this technique because of its unusual origins. I picked this one up from a friend, Leif Hansen, who runs a group called Spark Interactions [ SPARK ]. A lot of what Leif helps people do is re-learn how to play through interactive activities. A good deal of which is Improv. I’ve attended 4 of his clinics, always interested in new growth activities for myself and those I work with. It was Leif who talked about Clown School. I love this one as in part it helps people deal with failure in a way completely removing shame.
Clown Redemption (my name not his).
In clown school when a clown makes a mistake in a routine instead of apologizing or telling everyone they are sorry for their mistake clowns are taught to do something very different. After making an error, instead of saying sorry, the clown takes an exaggerated bow and says in a loud voice, Thank You Very Much with a smile. Taking credit for their mistake and rejoicing in the opportunity to learn something from their mistake. Athletes drive me crazy with the two-word apology I hear so often, “MY BAD”. What the athlete is stating is I made a mistake; I do take responsibility for it. But it is also an acknowledgement that there was something bad in their behavior. This can reinforce feelings of shame, rather than the idea that failure leads to learning and ultimate growth / success. I think if more people would bow and say thank you very much, they would overcome so many inhibitions.
Shame attacking Type Exercises:
The idea here is to do some things which make you very uncomfortable in public some can be done in private too. By choosing small steps in behavior change people come to understand that the consequences they were so afraid of, only exist in their own minds. Understanding this on a real level allows a person to be more comfortable in their own skin. Trying new things that allows them to realize that their shame or embarrassment is not real. So here are a few non sport exercises to help you understand their impact. You can try them yourself as of course there are no consequences.
The basics are to do something that makes you feel foolish and uncomfortable.
– Start dancing as you walk through a store
– Start laughing while waiting in a line
– Sing while you are waiting in a line
– Tell a random stranger that is in line by you that you didn’t take a shower today.
– Ask a random girl/guy passing by if they would want to do something later
– When you are in a store start running frantically while looking behind you as if something were chasing you.
– Make funny faces to people who are stopped beside you in traffic
In sports it could be something as simple as these.
– Something as ridiculous as trying to kick a soccer ball and falling down on purpose
– During practice make odd faces
– Ask a really stupid question of a team-mate or coach
– Make a funny noise while catching a ball
– Smile during practice – assuming you are one who believes you must wear a game face
Now these are just a few simple things and I’d love some comments back on Shame Attacking ideas in sports. I’ve got some others I’m holding back because I want some creative ideas not variations. You might notice that all of the things I’ve listed are common behaviors at most every practice. But not for everyone. If you were to say to yourself I would never do that, maybe you should.
So if we enter my world of sport and we observe athletes held up by their anxiety and as we lift the veil and help them cope with their sports anxieties and still something is missing, we may need to understand their greatest fear. I often ask the question, “What is your greatest fear?” Maybe it is the wrong question. What is it that makes you feel shame? Can you talk about it? We tell people not to put their self-worth in a sport outcome or result. What if they do that because somewhere along the way, instead of finding joy in sports, they found shame?
If this post fails to help you understand how to help yourself or someone else then I failed to explain it well. All I can say to that then is:
Thank You Very Much (with a bow of course)
Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!
When I wrote my last post on mental training being The Final Frontier my intention was to close with this statement. “Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!” Somehow it got lost in my enthusiasm. Or maybe it was in looking for a suitable picture from Star Trek. Either way I left it out.
I was honored this past week by being selected to be Expert in Residence at the Overlake School in Redmond WA. The mission of The Overlake School is to Inspire excellence, Develop intellectual curiosity, Teach responsibility, Embrace diversity and Foster a compassionate community. We live our mission every day and it informs every decision we make. It was a great experience for me to make presentations to the entire school and do training sessions for 22 classes. I got to meet the majority of the students. Overlake has over 80% participation in sports and is nationally known for it’s excellence in education.
My message was pretty clear to all of the students. “Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!”. These students have tremendous advantages. They have supportive teachers, coaches and families. I took a poll in most of the classes I met with. What do you do to train mentally? How much time do you spend. The best answer I got was from a fencer. We work on strategy. He at least saw or felt like he was doing something positive. A few students took yoga and a few others said they practiced breathing to relax (incorrectly of course). But out of the 500 plus students I met with this week no one did any real mental training. No one said they had even read a book or an article on mental training. I did training sessions on mental toughness, motivation, resiliency, relaxation, imagery & visualization, concentration, stress & anxiety management, confidence and how their thoughts affect their emotions.
We either have to decide that sport is not 70-80% mental or that mental training is important to all athletes. The more I work with athletes and see how much greater their success is when they incorporate mental training into their regular regimen, the more I am convinced that “Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!”.
I just updated The Mental Game website with a dozen stories about athletes I’ve worked with and what they focused on. You can see them here. I’ve been reticent about posting stories but was convinced by one of my former clients. These are a few examples I’ve picked that were instructive from the past 3 decades. One of the things that struck me as I was preparing this list were two of my current clients. Both very good athletes. Both were just recruited to the colleges they wanted to play for. Both stopped working on their mental game soon after receiving their acceptance letters. Both recently started up again because of slips in their performance.
When they called me to give them to get them a jump started again, as it were, they both acknowledged that they remembered that I had told them they needed to continue mental training as part of their routine. They didn’t stop conditioning, they each get private coaching in their sport in addition to team training, but that it regimented for them. I had set them up with a program, but it was one that they had to maintain. Lifting weights are visible reminders of what you need to do. A spread sheet reminding you to do some mental training I guess is not as sexy. In my next post I’ll talk about what I’m doing with a company to provide a phone app as a reminder to do mental training.
The thing I want you to see is that even with the success that these two athletes achieved (acceptance into an Ivy League School and a full ride to a university in the ACC), the need to think of mental training as a necessity instead of a luxury is critical. Mental training is not something you just read a book about and move on (unless it is The Athlete within You) Joking of course. It is something you put into practice for the rest of your athletic career.
If you understand this, believe it, then do something about it. You can read about sport psychology. There are lots of books out there besides mine, maybe not as good, but tons of great information. Find a book you like and figure out a program for yourself. Find a certified mental trainer/ sport psychology consultant and talk with them. I SKYPE with athletes all over the country and a few out of country My SKYPE name is Mike.Margolies. I do a 20 minute consultation for free to see if our working together works for both you and me. Then implement a program just as you implemented a strength and conditioning program. Follow your program and you will understand how it will help you find the real athlete within you.
A year in review 2012
I’ve not ever felt a need to do this before, to have a year in review. It is a new experience for me. I want to look back at 2012 with clarity and be able to move forward in new ways. So taking my own advice, I am going back over the successes and of course challenges of the past year. You can cut to the chase by going to the last paragraph if you like.
Starting with the Athletes and their sports
Sounders FC U23 Player DeAndre Yedlin with Mike Margolies
I worked with an amazing group of athletes this year including those in the following sports: Golf, football, gymnastics, hockey, equestrians, soccer, tennis, swimming, softball, baseball, track, diving, roller derby, basketball, triathlon, cycling, fencing, water skiing, fitness, power lifting and lacrosse.
Competitor’s ages ranged from 12 to 70+. Competitive levels were club, high school, college and professional. Seven high school athletes earned scholarships or were accepted to their first choice college as an athlete (Ivy League = no athletic scholarships). One college walk-on earned her full scholarship. Most the athletes, but not all, were starters on their respective teams. In the end all were starting most of their games. I worked with a few teams as well at the club and minor league levels. All in all it was a very good year for the clients I worked with. If I were to put it in baseball terms, I would say that we batted around .900 Read the rest of the post by choosing more…. (more…)
The Water Tower Motivation Analogy
If we look at a metaphorical generalized model of what motivation might look like it might be a large water tank. I am not in any way removing my supposition that we need to think about motivation as a triangle. This is just another way of generalizing about motivation to help athletes understand more about the simplicity of motivation overall and some of the complexities.
So if we use a picture of a large water tank I think it will help with the explanation. There is no top to the tank and so for many of us motivation, drive, enthusiasm, or the Fury just over flow the tank. The tank is filled mostly and best by a hose that is inside the tank. Sometimes it is filled by other people. Oddly they make us offerings of speeches, carrots and sometimes they use fear which can be a motivator as well. All of these hoses are smaller and are far less effective at filling the tank.
Sometimes our tank develops hoses in it. Normally when we are fully focused out internal hose keeps up with the out flow. Sometimes it is difficult to keep our internal hose on all the time and the leaks sap us of some of our essence. Holes develop for lots of reasons like a lack of confidence, stress, poor team cohesion, outside distractions, etc.
If the hoses cannot keep up with the leak, we see less of the motivation we usually have and performance generally diminishes. We can patch holes of course. Generally what happens when things are leaking is that we lose ourselves and take our hand off our internal hose regulator. If we can’t keep up for the inside it is very difficult for all of the outside hoses to keep up. It becomes a situation as in Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Eventually you can’t keep up with the leaks and having stopped filling from the inside you end up being no longer motivated, even though it is something you wanted very much to do.
Eventually many people at that point just stop trying to keep the valve open and have to shift. Shifting is one way of closing those holes. The problem is after the shift things are never really the same until the person finds something that re-ignites their passion.
I hope that this makes some sense to you. To simplify it I can have you think of it this way:
- Internal Motivation = Big Hose (but you do have to keep a hand on the valve)
- External Motivation = Smaller hoses controlled by other people. It takes a lot of these hoses to top of the tank.
- Leaks = Stress, anxiety, loss of confidence, fear and many others. You can keep the leaks small or patched by using mental skills like relaxation, imagery and other cognitive behavioral techniques.
I think a huge secret in all of this is understanding your Big Why. If you understand your own triangle you will have a far easier time keeping your hand on the valve or perhaps even think of it as pedal to the metal which ever works best for you. Finding and knowing your why will always help you keep the water near the top. It will allow you to rely far less on all those small hoses. It gives you ultimate control because the big hose you control so when you need to back off, even when your coach is overly enthusiastic, it is in your hands. Same goes for when you develop leaks. Adding a little extra water in will allow you to use your mental game skill sets to seal up the holes, ultimately with a patch that neither requires attention or the little Dutch boy’s finger.