It’s easy to tell someone to be confident, move on to the next play, lock in, don’t over-think it, don’t fear failure, or any of the many other mindsets we casually demand that our athletes perform. However, it is quite another to actually teach them how to go out and implement those skills when they need them the most.
I am fortunate to work each day with Division I student-athletes, US National Team members, and professional athletes. I’d like to share two clear truths from that work. First, while these individuals are highly skilled at their sport they are simply human and have the same moments of mental hurdles and challenges that everyone else has. The second is that conquering these challenges is skill based and can be learned in a similar process to how we learn our physical talents.
The 3 core principles of mental strength:
1. Stay present in the moment
When we re-play the last mistake, or pre-play the potential “what-if” scenario of what could happen we are not paying attention to the present moment. Performance-based stress and anxiety live in the past or future. We have no control to change the past, and only limited control over influencing the future, so stress and anxiety are the natural consequence when we place our attention on either.
2. Keep your focus on what you control
Too often I see athletes that are placing their attention on getting their coach or teammates to believe in them, or to impress a scout. Other times they’ll lose their temper because they’re focused on the referee’s last bad call. While it’s very typical and understandable that the athletes’ attention can drift to these places it is simply useless and ineffective, as they don’t control these things.
Instead I work on teaching my athletes to be clear on what they control (and what matters) within each moment, and then relentlessly pursuing keeping their focus there. No matter how many times it leaves this focus, we practice bringing it back again and again. The more you focus on what you do control rather than what not you’ll gain a sense of calm and composure.
3. Avoid judgment
We can find ourselves in judgment in three ways. First, we either judge ourselves or we feel judged by others. Second, we judge others. And third, we judge the event or the exercise that we’re currently in. Judgment is useless.
Now that I’ve highlighted the 3 core principles of mental strength, look at HOW to build them. This is the part that truly matters. Whether it’s on the court or field, or in a big meeting with a potential new client, in order to calm the nerves and quell the doubt we must first have awareness.
What am I feeling and why? If you’re experiencing big-time nerves the easiest thing we can do is take a breath and check in with the 3 principles. Am I present? Am I focused on what I control? Am I free of judgment? Identify which is missing and begin to refocus your attention to what you control within that very moment.
These skills are something that we can learn, practice, and work towards mastering. The more often you gain awareness – literally any time throughout your day – and repeat the process, the more you’re ingraining the new mental habits. I teach my athletes to sit for about 10-12 minutes per day and do what I call mindset workouts that drill the use of tactical breathing and mindfulness practices. If you want to have these skills when you need them most you must practice them just like any other strength you wish to improve on.