Mind-Body Connection: The Link Between Mind & Body in Sports
On the outside, sports appear purely physical. The best performers in the world exhibit peak athletic physiques, with explosive movements and powerful bodies. To the unfamiliar onlooker, there appears to be nothing but physical skill propelling athletes towards success.
But to the keen observer, a deeper level of athletic performance becomes apparent. A world where skills can not be measured by stats or judged based on visible perception. Though, this aspect of an athlete’s performance plays a large role in their success.
What’s this world I’m referring to you ask? It’s the psychological side of sports, the mental skills exhibited by an athlete. These skills are not as apparent as physical ones, but they may turn out to be even more important to the success of an athlete.
The Question of Mind vs Body
An interesting question is whether the body or mind plays a larger role in the success of a performer. Is it their physical traits that carry them forward, or their mental capacity that truly propels them towards great heights?
It’s a question I’ve posed to myself a lot. As a mental performance coach, my responsibilities lie in helping athletes build their mindsets. I focus on overcoming mental game challenges that are keeping them from achieving their potential.
Let’s say there’s an athlete performing poorly. He believes his performances are way below his potential, so he seeks help to get himself to the point where he is pleased with his level of play.
How do we know if the challenges faced by the athlete are due to the mind or the body?
Well, it’s not quite as black and white as we like to make it seem. So many times we seek an either-or answer. Simply asking the question of whether a poor performance can be attributed to the mind or body highlights the true issue.
So often we tend to see the body, or physical side of sports, separate from the mind. Yet, this is not the case.
Viewing the mind and body as if they were two distinct entities, separate from one another, completely ignores the connection between the two. A connection that is the true cause for any success or failure experienced within your life.
"Viewing the mind and body as if they were two distinct entities, separate from one another, completely ignores the connection between the two. A connection that is the true cause for any success or failure experienced within your life."
The Mind-Body Connection
What does it mean to have a mind-body connection? Are they not already connected?
Johnshopkinssoulutions.com states the mind-body connection involves the belief that:
“The causes, development and outcomes of a physical illness are determined from the interaction of psychological, social factors and biological factors.”
We can alter this definition, and instead of saying the outcomes of a physical illness, we can use poor performance.
"The causes, development and outcomes of a poor performance is determined by the interaction of psychological, social, and biological factors."
Using this definition, there is no longer a question of whether a poor performance is to be blamed on a lack of physical skills or the presence of a mental game challenge. We can now take a more holistic approach to understand why an athlete is performing poorly.
The mind-body connection involves understanding the interaction between your mind and your body. For you to reach peak performance, it is no longer enough to simply focus on physical skills.
While the fundamentals on the physical side are important, you must not neglect to cultivate the fundamentals of a strong and healthy mind.
Going Beyond the Physical
The whole premise of mental game coaching is based on the idea that physical training is no longer enough to help you reach your goals. There needs to be the addition of mental training in order to help you reach your full potential.
Why? Simply put, due to the mind-body connection we just introduced. There is a direct link between your physical and mental well-being. We all know that one of the first ingredients recommended to improve psychological health is exercise.
Exercise is physical, yet it is attributed to an improvement in the mind. When examining how to improve athletic performance, we can take an inverse approach. Instead of seeing how the physical can improve the mental, we focus on the psychological elevating the physical.
Now, let me preface by describing my resounding support for physical training. There is no shortcut to success, so by no means am I downplaying the significance of training the physical side of your sport.
If anything, I am proposing additional work to be taken on, aimed at the cultivation of a mind that can support the level of physical skills you’ve obtained. A weak mind will only hinder the level of success you achieve, no matter how good you may be physically.
In focusing on the connection between the mind and body, there are a few key areas that can be highlighted, which have a major impact on your performance.
"The whole premise of mental game coaching is based on the idea that physical training is no longer enough to help you reach your goals. There needs to be the addition of mental training in order to help you reach your full potential."
Performance anxiety is defined as extreme worry leading up to, during, and after a competition. When your mind is consumed by anxious thinking, this will have a direct impact on your physical performance.
Think back to a time when you were experiencing anxiety, how did you feel physically? I know that my whole body would become tense, likely trembling at the thought of making a mistake.
Now, do you think a stiff, rigid, and tense body is going to perform optimally? Maybe if your job is to be a stand-in for a rock, but all other sports require quickness, speed, and flexibility. All of which are inhibited when you’re faced with anxiety.
This shows a major connection between mind and body. You can train relentlessly on your physical skills, reaching a point where you can execute them perfectly in practice, yet still, fail once it becomes game day.
Why? Well, due to the fact your mind is keeping you from performing freely. You are not allowing the talent you’ve worked so hard to cultivate shine through and as a result, your performance level drops.
"Now, do you think a stiff, rigid, and tense body is going to perform optimally? Maybe if your job is to be a stand-in for a rock, but all other sports require quickness, speed, and flexibility. All of which are inhibited when you’re faced with anxiety."
Now, you wouldn’t consider your self-image to play too much of a role in athletic performance. However, when talking about the mind-body connection, how you see yourself is tremendously powerful, either contributing positively or negatively to your level of play.
When I say self-image, yes I am referring to your outward appearance, but it also involves so much more than that. Self-image is the way you see yourself in relation to any aspect of your life.
In terms of your athletic performance, self-image relates to the vision you hold of how successful you can be, how you manage anxiety, how you perform under pressure, how much confidence you have, and so much more.
There’s a phrase that says, “You cannot outperform your self-image.” Let’s say you hold onto the belief that you do not perform well under pressure, in other words, the image you hold of yourself is that of someone who chokes in crunch time moments.
When you find yourself in such a situation, you can guarantee your performance will align with the vision you hold in your mind. Maybe every once in a while you’ll get lucky, but in general, there is no outperforming your self-image.
The mind and body seek harmony, meaning, the image you hold in your mind and real-life must align. So when you see yourself as someone who does not perform well under pressure, that creates a mind-body connection that upholds this image in pressure-filled moments.
Ability To Manage Emotions
The mind is a powerful tool, with which you can master your life and elevate the level of your performances. However, such a powerful tool, if left unchecked, can serve an opposite purpose.
Our emotions are a direct response to the thoughts filling our minds and are a direct influence on the behaviors we exhibit. If you are in the middle of a performance, would you rather have your emotions under your control or be under the control of your emotions?
I would expect you to choose the first option. We all should strive to master our emotions, turning them from liabilities to assets.
Yet, so many of us are run by our emotions as a result of an inability to manage the way we feel. This all begins with thoughts running rampant through our minds. Without the ability to manage thoughts, emotions are a hopeless cause to try and control.
But how does this play into the mind-body connection? Since emotions drive behavior, the actions you do on the field will be fueled by the emotional state you are in. If you are operating off intensely negative emotions, your performance will suffer as a result.
However, if you learn to manage your emotions in a positive way, you will gain the ability to use them to your advantage. So once again, what’s playing out within your mind is having a direct impact on your body.
That is why it’s so important to cultivate a strong and healthy mind-body connection. One that will work to elevate your performances instead of seeking to undermine the work you’ve done.
Building a Stronger Mind-Body Connection
It’s not that we need to build a mind-body connection, as it’s already present. The examples given above highlight how the mind is already influencing the body, even if it may be negatively.
What we want to do is focus on strengthening the connection that is there, making the mind and body work better together. Now that you’re aware of just how important the mind-body connection is to athletes, it’s time to learn how to use this connection to your advantage.
How do we go about strengthening the mind-body connection? It all begins with gaining more control of the processes responsible for many negative influences the mind has…your thoughts.
Gaining Control of Your Mind
When anyone is talking about gaining control of your mind, or mastery over your mind, do you know what they are referring to? The processes which we are aiming to regulate are our thoughts.
The reason being, thought is the basis for emotion and action. It is the foundation from which these other two areas grow. Meaning, if we wish to control the way we feel or the actions we display, first and foremost we must turn to our thoughts.
Now, how do we go about controlling the way that we think? It can seem like an extremely daunting task, especially when thoughts are currently swimming through your mind, free from any rule or regulation.
Controlling our thoughts boils down to awareness: we must be aware that we have the power to control our thoughts, and aware of what thoughts we are experiencing and why.
The former is the easy part, as I am telling you right now, you have complete control over the thoughts in your mind. While it may not seem like it now, they are within your power to control, all you need to do is put forth the effort.
The latter, however, is more difficult and is where such effort must be displayed. To gain greater awareness over your thoughts, in order to build a stronger mind-body connection, there are two techniques that prove beneficial: mindfulness and self-reflection through writing.
"When anyone is talking about gaining control of your mind, or mastery over your mind, do you know what they are referring to? The processes which we are aiming to regulate are our thoughts."
Mindfulness is attention training. There are numerous benefits gained from adopting a mindfulness practice, but one of the major ones is greater self-awareness. When you are seeking to build a stronger mind-body connection, that is the benefit you desire.
Mindfulness is defined as remaining fully present of the moment we are in, aware of where we are and what we are doing. In terms of your thoughts, this means you are fully aware of what thoughts are rushing through your mind.
Mindfulness is a state but is not an easy state to achieve, which is why a mindfulness practice is a must if you wish to improve your self-awareness. The more you practice mindfulness, the greater your ability will grow to recognize, and in return control, your thoughts.
To practice mindfulness, you can go for a mindful walk, perform body scans, do mindful tasks, or my personal favorite, mindfulness meditation.
Any of these work wonders in training yourself to center your attention in the present moment, providing you with the ability to recognize the thoughts influencing your emotions and driving your behavior.
Self-Reflection Through Writing
Coupled with a mindfulness practice, self-reflection through writing is an incredibly valuable tool for gaining more self-awareness. The reason writing helps so much is due to the approach you take to your writing.
This isn’t your ninth-grade English class where you have to design an outline and reach a certain word count. You don’t even have to cite any sources in this form of writing. It’s completely free form, a sort of anything goes type of writing.
In fact, it must be anything goes, because the whole point is to free your mind of all the thoughts jammed up inside. Think of this like word vomiting, the writing doesn’t need to make sense or be in any way well written.
You want to be sure you hold nothing back. When in a counseling session, it’s easy to be a bit reserved, seeking to avoid judgment from the other person we barely know. But with writing, no one is judging you, because no one except you is reading what you jot down.
Through the process of self-reflection, you gain clarity of mind. Thoughts are understood and worked through. If you add a mindfulness practice on top of this, you are destined to drastically improve your self-awareness.
And with awareness comes the power to control.
The reason we seek self-awareness is for the step that immediately follows, self-regulation. It can be a difficult task to gain an understanding of our minds, and such difficulty surely must be followed by something powerful.
Self-regulation is the powerful result of developing a certain level of self-awareness. What self-regulation provides is the ability to manage, or regulate, your emotions and behavior.
As I said in the previous section, thoughts precede emotion and the actions you exhibit, which is why we must first turn to our thoughts. Once self-awareness is established, once you understand what thoughts you have and why it is now time to determine what thoughts you want to have.
This is known as cognitive restructuring and is the process by which you replace harmful thoughts with positive ones. In seeking a greater mind-body connection, regulating the thoughts in your head will contribute to higher levels of performance.
When your head is full of positive thoughts, aimed at increasing your mood, the behaviors you display will be of a higher quality. You will perform more freely, naturally, and full of confidence.
So how do you go about regulating your emotional responses through thought? You must take up a restructuring practice to train this ability within yourself. If you are ready for such control, such self-mastery, read this article on how you can perform cognitive restructuring on yourself.
"When your head is full of positive thoughts, aimed at increasing your mood, the behaviors you display will be of a higher quality. You will perform more freely, naturally, and full of confidence."
The mind-body connection is crucial to the performance of an athlete. It proves to be the all too common missing link, keeping talented athletes from reaching their full potential.
It’s not that a mind-body connection doesn’t exist, as we all have one, with our mind directly influencing our physical actions. What happens is, the connection is weak, not being in our control, and as a result hinders our ability instead of improving our skills.
What you must do is seek to strengthen your mind-body connection. Start by gaining self-awareness through mindfulness and writing.
Once you gain clarity of the thought processes within your mind, it’s time to take control of them. Through cognitive restructuring, you can gain power and control, dictating what thoughts fill your head.
By focusing on these two areas, you will improve your mind-body connection and see an improvement in your performance as a result.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please feel free to share it with your friends.
If you are interested in getting a more tailored approach to building your mind-body connection, learn how mental performance coaching can help.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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