Athlete Mental Training Articles

Is Your Poor Performance Mental Or Physical

Eli Straw
Is Your Poor Performance Mental Or Physical

When your performances aren’t going well, you may start to wonder why? What is it that’s causing you to perform poorly?

Now, the reason you begin to think this way is because for you to improve, you first need to understand what’s holding you back.

Depending on the sport you play or what type of performance you do, the specific skills are going to vary. However, taking a broad overview, there are only two different areas we can point to that are resulting in a bad performance.

The two areas are mental and physical.

Is the reason you aren’t able to perform well due to something within your mind or a physical/mechanical part of your game?

Likely, it will be a combination of the two, as each plays into the other. Though, for most athletes and performers the natural tendency is to initially analyze physical aspects of their game. Mechanics are finely tuned and movements are broken down to their most basic processes.

While there is no discounting the need for improving mechanics and the physical side of your performance, I find it to be the second place you must look. It happens after you’ve discounted the mental challenges that may be getting in your way of performing.

In order to determine whether your poor performance is mental or physical, there are four questions you first want to ask yourself.

"Is the reason you aren’t able to perform well due to something within your mind or a physical/mechanical part of your game?"

Question #1: Am I performing well in practice?

The very first question is almost enough to provide you with the answer you’re looking for. Be honest with yourself and think about whether or not you’re performing well in practice.

A disparity between practice play and game time execution is one of the most telling signs that your poor performances are more mental than physical. There is something blocking you from transfering the skills you show in practice into a performance.

Now, you do need to be careful here, which is why I said you have to be honest with yourself. It’s not about if you think you are performing well in practice, but if you are actually performing well in practice. You need to make that distinction for yourself.

This can be done by breaking your game down into small pieces. For example, if you perform drills, are you doing them well? Are the basic fundamentals of your game in place? Next, think about game-like situations within practice. How do you perform then?

Through this kind of stripping back of your game and truly looking at yourself objectively, a clear picture of what kind of player you are in practice begins to form.

Look at that image and ask yourself, “If I performed that way in a game, would my performances improve?”

If the answer is yes, then there is a mental block keeping you from translating practice skills into game time execution.

Question #2: Have there been any good performances recently?

Think back to your most recent performances. Have there been any that you thought were good or where you had success? I was working with a basketball player who I had to ask this very question to.

His last practice didn’t go too well. He found he was overthinking and didn’t feel too confident. But here’s the interesting part…he just had one of his best games of the year the weekend before. So what changed? Absolutely nothing, except for his mindset.

His last game was the previous Saturday. It was Thursday when he was going to practice. What he told me was that he felt rusty and that he lacked confidence going into practice. But I asked him, have you lost your skills since last Saturday?

Of course his answer was no. What this highlights is just how powerful the mind can be. Even when your last game went incredibly well, you can still convince yourself your skills aren’t good enough.

Now, I talked this through with the player and he realized that he was the one convincing himself he was rusty and couldn’t feel as confident. However, if we hadn’t addressed the problem, likely his next game would have turned out badly just like practice.

If you aren’t performing well, and you immediately think the problem is physical, stop and ask yourself if you’ve had any good performances recently. If you have, then what’s changed? Have you lost your skills? No, of course not.

What’s happened is there is a mental challenge that is now keeping you from repeating your good performance and allowing the skills you already possess to shine.

"If you aren’t performing well, and you immediately think the problem is physical, stop and ask yourself if you’ve had any good performances recently."

Question #3: What am I thinking about during games?

The foundation for any mental game challenge you may experience is thought. Likewise, at the core of a great performance is going to be thought. Depending on what you’re thinking about, thoughts will either help or hurt your performance.

Which is exactly why, when aiming to identify the cause of your poor performance, you need to examine what you’re thinking about during games. In order to do so, begin writing in a journal. List out all the typical thoughts you have during a performance. If you can’t think of any, spend the next week or so keeping track of the thoughts you have.

Now, what can you do with this information? Well, you will use it to determine if the thoughts you’re having could be helping or hurting you.

For example, let’s say you identify that you’re speaking very positively and productively to yourself before, during, and after games. Yet, you are still not performing well. This could mean that the cause of your bad performance is more physical.

However, if you identify many negative thoughts, including ones of self-doubt, fear, and anxiety, and you’re performing poorly, this means there is a mental challenge you need to work on. Then, once that self-talk is altered, you can see if your performance improves.

If it does, then you know it was more mental. If it doesn't then you now can at least discount your thoughts and begin working on improving your physical skills.

When you’re wanting to determine the cause of a bad performance, a key place to look are the thoughts within your mind.

Question #4: What image do I hold of myself?

There’s a key factor to success, and it involves an image you hold within your mind. In terms of all aspects of our lives, we hold certain images or ideas about how we are in relation to that situation. This is known as your self-image.

In other words, how do you see yourself?

Think of this as your inner guidance. You act in a way that aligns with the image you hold. No matter how hard you try, eventually you’ll fall back in line with your self-image. That is, until you work to alter the image itself.

So you need to ask yourself, what is the image I hold about myself in relation to my performances?

Perhaps you see yourself as a streaky player. This will lead to you having some really great performances followed by some not so great ones.

Or maybe you see yourself as someone who chokes under pressure. That is the image you hold, so whenever you find yourself in a crunch time moment, doubt clouds your mind. On the other hand, you may have a strong self-image, where you see yourself as successful.

It’s important to dive deep into the core image you hold about yourself, as it provides key insight into the true cause of your bad performance.

If you see yourself as a loser, then no matter how much you train physically, your performances will never match what you wish they could be.

However, if you see yourself as a winner, and truly believe in your skills, yet your performances are still going badly, then there must be physical skills that need to be improved.

No matter what your self-image may be, it’s an important piece to understanding whether the cause for your bad performance is mental or physical.

"If you see yourself as a loser, then no matter how much you train physically, your performances will never match what you wish they could be."

Final Thoughts

A bad performance is frustrating, especially when it starts to become all too common. Your initial reaction will be to overanalyze and identify physical aspects of your game you need to improve.

Though, it may not actually be anything physical that’s to blame.

There are many mental game challenges that can lead to practice skills not translating into game time execution. To identify the true cause of your bad performance, go through the four questions listed above.

Now, what do you do if you realize your bad performances are more mental than physical? Well, you get to work on improving your mental game!

A great resource to guide you towards a stronger mind is Mental Training Advantage. It’s a fourteen day program that shows you all the sport psychology and mental training tools you need to master the mental game. Click here to learn more about Mental Training Advantage.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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