Why Mindset is Important to Athletes
The combination of high level mental skills and high level physical skills is what makes an elite athlete. Yet, most athletes only focus on the physical side of their game.
But both are equally important if you want to reach your full potential.
So, what I'm going to do in this article is break down why mindset is important to athletes, what it means to have a good mindset, and then a strategy you can use to build a strong mindset as an athlete.
The Mind-Body Connection
As a mental performance coach, I work with a lot of athletes who are playing well in practice but not playing well in games. They have high level skills — the proof is in the way they play during practice.
So what's going on? Why can't they translate their practice skills into games? Why do they continue to underperform when the scoreboard gets turned on?
It all has to do with the mind-body connection in sports.
Your mind and body need to be working together. They shouldn't be two forces working against one another. When that happens, that's where we see a disconnect with the way you play.
You want your mind and your body to be working well together, but what exactly does that mean?
Well, it means you can't have your mind filled with fear and expect your body to perform with confidence.
You can't have your mind full of anxious thoughts, and then expect your body to perform calm and steadily.
Your mental state is going to greatly influence your physical play. And so, we want to make sure your mind-body connection is helping you, not hurting you.
And that's the thing...there's always a connection. There's no avoiding it. It’s just whether or not your connection is a helpful one or a hurtful one.
When I begin working with an athlete who is underperforming in games, their mind-body connection is typically a hurtful one.
Whether it's due to fear of failure, poor focus, self-doubt, performance anxiety, or anything else, their mind is holding them back from performing their best.
Understanding the importance of having a helpful and positive mind-body connection as an athlete, let's take a closer look at what happens when you have a negative mindset, and then what happens when you have a positive mindset.
How a Negative Mindset Hurts You
Mindset is important for athletes to pay attention to, because of just how terrible it is on your play to have a negative mindset.
Now, when I say a negative mindset, this can mean a lot of things. It may mean you have a bad attitude, but for the most part it means you are playing with fear, anxiety, self-doubt, perfectionism, poor focus, or any other mental game challenge.
Now, these are called mental game challenges for a reason. They present a serious challenge for you to actually perform well when experiencing them.
Let's say you're going into a game full of anxiety. This is not a good mindset for you to be in. With sports anxiety, your mind is focused on what may or may not happen. And for the most part, you're worried about making mistakes or playing poorly.
But funny enough, it is this worry that leads to you underperforming.
Your body will respond to the anxiety by experiencing physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate, shaky hands, and blurred vision.
But you will also play differently. You will hold yourself back and perform timidly since you are more worried about not wanting to mess up than you are wanting to perform well.
I was working with a squash player who would black out during matches because of how anxious she was. That shows how hurtful a bad mindset can be.
Now I do want to say, when I use the term bad mindset, I'm not meaning that you're choosing to feel anxious or anything like that. Most of these mental challenges happen automatically and were formed subconsciously.
But the good news is, once you learn how to manage the challenges and take control of your mindset, having a good mindset becomes something you get to choose.
How a Good Mindset Helps You
When you do choose to have a good and strong mindset going into games, no longer will you find that you hold yourself back. That is the main benefit of building a better mindset.
In the past, if you've experienced mental game challenges, you've been getting in your own way. That's why things change when you get to games. There's more fear and worry since the pressure is on, and so you underperform.
Instead of getting in your own way, having a good mindset allows you to elevate your physical skills. Giving yourself the opportunity to have your talents shine through during competition.
And this is truly an incredible thing to experience.
A young basketball player I've been working with recently pieced everything together and had a great tournament. He's always been very skilled, yet he just continued to hold himself back.
But finally, he performed more aggressively, drove to the basket more, and broke his own scoring record. What stood out to me, though, was how happy he was when talking about it.
Not so much because of the points he had (even though those were exciting), but more so because of the way he played. It was fun for him to play with less fear and to perform more naturally.
The type of fun you can experience when you begin working on building a better mindset as an athlete.
What Does it Mean to Have a Good Mindset
Knowing why mindset is important to athletes, the next step is to clearly define what it means for you to have a good mindset. But here's the thing...it's not exactly that straightforward.
Yes, there are certain fundamental mental skills that make up a strong mindset for athletes. But it's also going to be very personalized to you as to the exact way of thinking that helps you perform your best.
For example, no matter the athlete, confidence is going to be a key element of a good mindset. If you are doubting yourself during games, we know that's not a good mindset for you to have.
This will lead to second guessing your mechanics and decisions, along with leading to you playing too cautiously.
Another example is having a calm mind, or put another way, having a clear mind.
This is an interesting topic, because at first you may not think you need a calm mind. In fact, you might think it's counterproductive.
Having a calm mind, you may think, means you have a dull mind.
But when I say a calm mind, I mean a clear mind. A mind that is still — absent of uncontrollable racing thoughts.
When you're an athlete with performance anxiety, racing thoughts are going to be a key thing you deal with. This makes it difficult to focus.
By having a calm and clear mind, you then get to choose what you want to focus on and what kinds of thoughts are going through your mind during the competition.
Now, the way you think (so, the types of thoughts you have), leading to how you feel, is what will vary depending on the player.
For some, a good mindset means they are fully focused on themselves and focused on having fun.
For other athletes I've worked with, their good mindset means they are pissed off at the other team and focused on dominating them.
Both are good mindsets...because they are good for the individual athlete.
And that's the main goal: a good mindset for you is the mindset that gives you the best chance of performing well.
That means what you need to do first is figure out what that mindset looks like.
How to Build a Strong Mindset as an Athlete
Knowing why mindset is crucial for you to focus on as an athlete, it's time to build a strong mindset for yourself.
What you want to do first is define what that mindset means — so, the specific way of thinking and state you're in when you play your best.
Then, you want to use some mental training tools and techniques to ensure you are building the general characteristics that make up a good mindset.
Identifying Your Peak Mindset
One of my favorite exercises to do with the athletes I work with is to examine their good performances. Because your good performances can teach you a lot about yourself, especially in terms of your mindset.
What I want you to do is grab a pen and a piece of paper and follow along as I go through this exercise. By the end, you'll have a clear idea of what your peak mindset is.
First, list out your best 3-5 performances. They can be recently or in the past. As you write them out, think about what your mindset was like for the performance.
- What was I thinking about?
- How did I feel?
- What was I focused on?
- What was motivating me to compete?
After you have all of them written out, look back over them and see if you notice any similarities between the mindsets. Is there anything that stands out to you?
For instance, did you write down that for each game you were focused on enjoying yourself? Or did you write down that you were feeling confident, or really competitive for that game?
As you look back over the performances, see if you can come up with a single sentence that describes your good mindset in the clearest way.
And keep in mind, this mindset needs to make sense to you...not anyone else.
Some examples might include...
- Feeling relaxed and confident.
- Angry and mad at the competition.
- Focused on having fun.
- Enjoying myself and staying present.
The goal of this exercise is for you to gain a clear idea of the best mindset for you to be in to compete. Because it's no coincidence that there are similarities between the performances in terms of your mindset...it's the mindset that helps you play your best.
So shouldn't your goal be to get into that mindset on a consistent basis?
Mental Training for General Skills
Now that you have a better idea of what your best mindset is, you want to also make sure you are building general mental skills that will strengthen your mindset long-term.
Now there are a few foundational mental skills that you need. What I'm going to do is briefly outline each one, and then go over a way you can begin training them.
Main Mental Skills for a Strong Mindset
- Self-Confidence: building belief and trust in yourself is crucial to your success as an athlete. If you doubt yourself during games, you will continually underperform. Here's an article that goes into more detail on how you can build confidence as an athlete.
- Focus: the more focused you are, the better you will perform. You will keep your attention centered on what you're doing, and won't be so susceptible to distractions during games. Here's an article that discusses focus training for sports.
- Managing Mistakes: being able to bounce back from mistakes and not allow mistakes to frustrate you so much or distract you during games is going to be key to your success as an athlete. Here's an article that talks about a strategy you can use to manage mistakes during a game.
- Calming Your Nerves: it's natural to get nervous before a game. What you want to make sure of, though, is that you can calm your nerves so they do not turn into sports performance anxiety. Here's an article that shows you 6 tips you can use to calm your nerves before a game.
- Motivation: when you're motivated, and you have a clear idea why you're playing your sports and why you're working so hard, it makes bouncing back from failures easier, and pushes you through tough times. Here's an article that will help you identify your true motivation as an athlete.
Working on all of these mental skills, along with applying the peak mindset you identified earlier, will ensure you have a good mindset going into games.
And the better your mindset, the greater your chances are of performing well.
Mindset Training for Athletes
By using everything I've covered so far in this article, you can begin taking steps towards building a stronger mindset as an athlete.
However, if you're interested in a more personalized and in-depth approach to improving your mindset, then there are a few resources we have available.
Mental Training Advantage is perfect for athletes ages 14 and up, and The Mentally Tough Kid is for athletes ages 9-13.
Both go into detail about how you can build stronger mental skills and develop a good mindset as an athlete.
The other resource is one-on-one mental coaching. This is a 12-week program where I will work directly with you via coaching sessions each week to help you build a strong mindset as an athlete.
To learn more about mental coaching, please fill out the form below or schedule a free introductory coaching call.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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