Athlete Mental Training Articles

Playing With A Calm Mind & Controlled Body

Eli Straw
Playing With A Calm Mind & Controlled Body

I had a coach tell me one time that if I was going to make a mistake to be sure that it was made at one-hundred and ten percent.

What he was trying to instill in me was the idea of playing with full commitment and not playing timidly; afraid of making a mistake.

This really stuck out to me, and while I by no means committed on every play and I performed afraid to make a mistake on many more occasions than I’d care to admit, I took what he said to heart.

However, this idea can also be taken another way which actually hinders performance.

When the idea of playing full out is viewed not just in terms of commitment and intent, but in relation to moving your body as fast as you can, you tend to play out of control.

While full commitment is needed during every game and on all plays, it must be done with a calm mind and a controlled body.

What Causes You To Play Out Of Control

Being calm does not always appear to be the first mindset athletes think of when it comes to competing.

You see high level athletes appearing motivated and screaming after a great play. That doesn’t exactly shout calmness.

But what we’re referring to when it comes to competing with a calm mind has more to do with controlling your thoughts and emotions. We’ll get more into this later.

First, let’s think about what it means to play out of control and how this occurs.

Playing out of control refers to playing recklessly but also those times where it didn’t seem like you were the one in control of your body. Almost as if you were moving at hyper speed and didn’t know where the brake was.

An example I can think of is a basketball player I was working with who played very out of control. His movements were quick, but not in a good way. They were reckless and almost seemed as though he was losing his balance because his mind and body were not in sync.

Turnovers were common and when he drove to the basket he had no touch on the ball because he could not control his release.

This can be translated into all sports.

A baseball pitcher who throws out of control, a golfer who swings out of their shoes, a football defender who runs with such ferocity he is too slow to adjust to the running back’s moves.

All of this happens because the mind and body are not in unison. Typically as a result of a mind that is too clouded with thoughts.

Whether it’s improper focus, dealing with anxiety, or having thoughts of self-doubt, too much thinking is mainly what’s to blame for playing out of control.

So what we’re really after is developing a calm mind. Once the mind is calm and in control, playing with a controlled body will follow.

"Playing out of control refers to playing recklessly but also those times where it didn’t seem like you were the one in control of your body. Almost as if you were moving at hyper speed and didn’t know where the brake was."

The Power Of Playing With A Calm Mind

When you think about playing with a calm mind I want you to think of one word: control.

As an athlete, there are sadly many more things out of your control than in your control. Outside of preparation, during competition the only real aspect you have full control over is yourself.

Now how would you like for there to be something impeding your ability to control the number one controllable you have during a game?

I would imagine this isn’t something you want to have happen.

However, when you play with a clouded mind, you have lost control of yourself. But when you learn how to calm your mind, your body and mind both become under your control and your performances turn all the better for it.

Let’s take a look at the two major benefits that come with developing a calm mind:

A Calm Mind Provides Control Over Your Thoughts

Have you ever experienced your mind racing uncontrollably during a game? To the point where you knew hundreds of thoughts were flying through, yet you couldn’t slow them down long enough to pinpoint any one of them?

When this happens, playing with a controlled body is quite difficult.

In addition, when your mind races it likely is full of unsettling, anxious, and doubt filled thoughts. Leading to you becoming overly nervous and lacking confidence as you move throughout the game.

When you develop a calm mind these thoughts begin to slow.

Now it’s not that your mind will become absent of all negative thoughts. That’s close to impossible. But you are no longer at their mercy. You have the power to not be attached to these thoughts and to choose something more positive and productive to think.

A Calm Mind Provides Control Over Your Emotions

What precedes a feeling is a thought.

So what do you think will happen as your mind races uncontrollably during competition? Your emotions will follow a similar uncontrolled pattern.

During a game your goal should be to control the way you feel. One of the best ways this can happen is by first learning what your optimal championship mindset is.

This will be different for everyone, and similar for some.

What works for you may not work for me. However, the same principle holds true: there is an emotional state where you play your best. Your aim should be to get yourself into that state on a consistent basis.

As you develop a calm mind, controlling your emotions becomes easier and you provide yourself with the opportunity to consistently choose how you feel.

The less out of control your thoughts are, the clearer your mind becomes. As it calms, you can see through the cloud and pinpoint the types of thoughts you must have that lead to the feeling you want where you know you’ll perform your best.

"As you develop a calm mind, controlling your emotions becomes easier and you provide yourself with the opportunity to consistently choose how you feel."

How To Develop A Calm Mind & Controlled Body

As you begin to strive for competing with a calm mind and controlled body, your focus should first be placed on the mind.

Performing with a controlled body happens as a byproduct of getting your mind under control. If you first aim to control the body, yet you continue to have your mind full of racing thoughts, the control will not last.

It all starts with your mind.

For that reason, I am going to outline a three step process you can take to better understand, and ultimately calm, your mind. Giving yourself the control you need to perform your best on a consistent basis.

It will be a process that is best followed from step one until step three. As it guides you through beginning with awareness and ending with control.

Step #1: Coming Face To Face With Your Thoughts

As you set out to gain a calm mind before competition, the first place you must turn are the thoughts which are currently to blame for you not having as calm a mind as you’d like.

With your thoughts unregulated, they will continue to work against your ability to perform calmly and under control.

Therefore, it’s time to come face to face with the many thoughts you have.

This first step takes time. What I recommend is to spend a few days to a week writing down all the unhelpful and racing thoughts you experience. Pay attention during practice and if you have a game.

Write out your list, no matter how unpleasant or even odd this exercise may be. It’s a powerful way to begin understanding the types of thoughts you experience.

Understanding is the first step towards control.

Now, once you have your list outlined there’s a second part to this activity. That’s to create an alternative list.

This provides you the opportunity to perform something known as cognitive restructuring. A practice where you alter the natural thought patterns within your mind.

To do so, create your list of positive and productive alternatives and then begin repeating them to yourself a couple times a day.

We’ve talked already about how calm and controlled go hand in hand. Well, as you gain more control over your thoughts through the practice of cognitive restructuring, the easier it will be to calm your mind going into a game.

Step #2: Identifying What Your Peak Mindset Is

After you’ve come face to face with your thoughts, generating alternatives and beginning to alter your natural patterns of thinking, you want to dive deep into what your peak mindset looks like.

Think of this as your peak performance mindset, also known as your championship mindset.

The reason you want to identify this is because what you’re after is a mind which is calm, with a singular focus. But what exactly is that focus? Well, that’s what you’re going to find out in this step.

For some athletes, feeling relaxed and having fun will work best. For others, it’s feeling confident. While another group may perform at high levels by feeling motivated and as though they have something to prove.

It doesn’t matter what your peak mindset is, the point remains the same: identifying a clear mindset you can work towards that will allow you to gain control over your mind and body going into a game.

The exercise for this involves thinking back to your previous three best performances. Make a list of each one, and to the best of your memory, outline what your mindset was like.

How were you feeling? Do you remember what kind of thoughts you were having or what you were focusing on?

Once again, this knowledge provides you with the power of control.

Look over the three performances you outlined, what sticks out to you that’s similar? Choose a simple sentence containing just a few words that truly encompasses your peak performance mindset.

Now your aim is to get yourself into that mindset going into competition. This will help calm your mind because it is clearly focused on a specific state and help get your body under your control.

"It doesn’t matter what your peak mindset is, the point remains the same: identifying a clear mindset you can work towards that will allow you to gain control over your mind and body going into a game."

Step #3: Breathe

One of the most powerful tools at your disposal has been lying hidden beneath your nose. By learning how to make use of your breath in a meaningful and deliberate way, you can work wonders on your ability to compete with a calm mind and to control your body.

There are two ways I want to teach you in which your breath can be used to your advantage. One will generate immediate help to calm yourself before/during a game, while the other works to provide you with more control over the long term.

The first way is through a technique known as count breathing. You can use this before a game, but it’s also valuable to use during a game in moments when you feel your mind start to race.

With count breathing, your goal is to control the pace at which you breathe. This helps to calm yourself by ensuring you’re taking deep, slow breaths. But it also helps by centering your attention, removing them from racing thoughts and placing them onto your breath.

Here are a few different paces at which you can breathe:

  • Breathe in for a count of 5 and out for a count of 10.
  • Breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 4.
  • Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, and out for a count of 4.

The numbers don’t matter as much as the principle: take slow, controlled, deep breaths.

Now, for the second way you can use breathing to generate a calm mind and controlled body. This will be through the daily use of a mindfulness meditation practice.

Mindfulness works to slowly increase the awareness you have over your thoughts and the control you have over your attention.

When you are struggling to compete with a calm mind, what’s to blame are your uncontrollable thoughts. By gaining strength over your focus, you can slow these thoughts down by taking your attention off them.

For a mindfulness practice, set yourself a timer for five minutes. Now close your eyes, beginning to bring your attention to your breath. Slow your breathing down and allow it to deepen.

Now, as you notice a thought arise or your attention wander, simply acknowledge it and return your focus onto your breath.

Final Thoughts

Playing with intensity is important. But it needs to come from a place of control. When your aim to compete at one-hundred and ten percent is accompanied by a racing mind, your movements will be rushed and your body out of control.

Your aim as an athlete should be to perform with the intent to go all out. But in doing so, this must originate from a calm mind. One that is focused, and allows you to control your body, rather than having your mind and body out of sync.

To do so, you first must turn to your mind.

Put the three step process into practice and you will gain the ability to compete with a calm mind and as a result, a controlled body.

Your game will be all the better for it!

Thank you for reading and I wish you 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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