10 Ways To Improve Your Mental Game

As an athlete

Mastering the mental game is going to provide you with an additional layer of skills, working to elevate your performances. Every athlete and performer knows the importance of becoming highly skilled physically.

But if you really want to give yourself that edge over your competition, mental skills must be included as well.

A lot of times mental training is seen as a reactive approach for athletes and performers. Once anxiety, fear of failure, or any other mental game challenge presents itself, lowering your performance, then work on the mind is put forth.

While mental training does a fantastic job of improving mental health, it also increases mental skills. These newly gained skills provide more mastery over your mind and work in harmony with your body, leading to greater levels of performance.

The amazing part about working to improve your mental game is you can expect greater mental health and improved mental skills. But this will only occur if you begin taking steps towards improvement.

That’s why a proactive approach is so important.

Once you apply the same mindset you have with training your physical skills to mental training, your mental health and performances will be greatly improved.

So how do you take a proactive approach?

Just as you choose from different training routines for your physical skills, your mental game is built through a similar process.

The list of ways you can improve your mental game I am about to outline includes many different tools, techniques, and thought exercises that I currently teach athletes within my mental performance coaching program.

Put these tools into practice and watch as they translate into greater sports performance.

1.) Improve Your Self-Awareness

Without knowledge, improvement is difficult. If you fail to understand the inner workings of your mind, improving your mental games will be a tough road.

The first area you want to pay attention to when seeking to improve your mental game is building the skill of self-awareness.

Self-awareness refers to understanding yourself, as you may imagine. But more specifically, it asks the questions of how, what, and why?

Being highly skilled in self-awareness provides you the power to recognize how you are feeling, what thoughts are driving those feelings, and why you are thinking and feeling that way.

The same holds true for your actions. You begin to understand how you act in certain situations, what thoughts and feelings are causing you to behave in that way, and why you are experiencing those thoughts and feelings.

It’s all about the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Once you understand this, mastery follows. Without having this prior knowledge, you will never be able to regulate your thoughts, control your emotions, and manage your behavior in an efficient manner.

A great way to begin building the skill of self-awareness is writing in a journal. Simply begin keeping a journal, where you recount your actions, how you were feeling, and any thoughts that come to mind.

This is a fantastic exercise to begin using when reflecting on your performances. After a game, write about certain scenarios where you felt anxious, experienced high confidence, doubted yourself, or anything else.

Then dig deeper, looking for any information that will help you understand why you were feeling, thinking, or acting that way. Performing this exercise will help train your mind to begin looking at underlying factors, working to build the ability for you to understand yourself.

“Self-awareness refers to understanding yourself, as you may imagine. But more specifically, it asks the questions of how, what, and why?”

2.) Understand Your Motivation Type

Motivation is necessary for success. No matter what you do, there is going to be some form of motivation driving your actions. Without it, you would not be putting forth the effort that you are.

However, motivation is not always easy to come by. Some days we feel more motivated than others. The times when motivation is elusive, you need to understand how you can get yourself motivated.

Whether it’s a day of training or time for competition, you need motivation to give yourself a reason to put your best foot forward.

Now, I’m not talking about the motivation you gain from watching a video or listening to music. I’m referring to the deep reasoning behind your actions. This form of motivation can be more likened to purpose.

This branches off the last section discussing self-awareness. You can already see why understanding yourself is so crucial. In order to get yourself motivated and find your purpose, you must understand what it is that motivates you in the first place.

There are two different motivation types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. While you can exhibit both, it’s important to understand which is the one that works best for you.

Intrinsic motivation means you are driven by an action itself. For example, you train because you love what you do. The feeling of being on the field, stage, or court is what draws you.

Extrinsic motivation refers to an external reward that you are striving for. While you may not enjoy training, for example, you do the work for the possibility of winning a championship.

Identifying which type you are is important to improving your mental game.

3.) Learn To Control Your Thoughts

Thoughts drive emotions. So, if you are experiencing anxiety, fear of failure, self-doubt, or any other mental game challenge keeping you from performing your best, regulating your thoughts will help.

Also, by learning to manage the thoughts in your head, you can build confidence and work to calm yourself under pressure.

The step-up from self-awareness is learning to control your thoughts. When you start to understand the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and actions, you realize how fundamental and important thought is to your entire well-being.

It is the root cause of both emotions and actions. When wanting to improve your mental game, you must get to the core. That core is thought. Controlling your thoughts will provide you with more mastery over your emotions.

Controlling your thoughts is not easy, however. Especially if you go about trying to stop yourself from thinking altogether. Let’s say you notice you often repeat the phrase, “I’m never going to succeed.”

A natural reaction may be to stop yourself from thinking that thought. When you do so, your mind is still focused on that thought and you continue to repeat it. Instead of seeking to eliminate certain phrases, your goal needs to be substitution.

The practice of cognitive restructuring works off the principle of substitution. Here are the steps you can take to perform cognitive restructuring on yourself:

  1. Identify your current negative self-talk (it’s best to make a list).
  2. Come up with positive alternatives for each statement (once again, make another list).
  3. Repeat the alternatives to yourself each day.

It’s a simple practice that thrives off repetition. Each time you repeat the positive phrases to yourself, you are working to reprogram your mind. Substituting the old, negative thoughts, for new, positive ones.

By doing so, you are providing yourself with mastery and control over your thought patterns.

“The step up from self-awareness is learning to control your thoughts. When you start to understand the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and actions, you realize how fundamental and important thought is to your entire well being.”

4.) Build Proactive Confidence

Trust in yourself and your skills cannot be overlooked.

A foundational aspect of a strong mental game is self-confidence. You must have a belief that you are capable of success. Without such trust in yourself, you open your mind to fear and anxiety.

Self-doubt is a gateway to worries. When you find yourself second guessing and questioning whether or not you’ll be good enough, the possibility of failure and all the fears it brings about enter your mind.

That’s why, cultivating proactive confidence is vital if you want to improve your mental game.

Proactive confidence simply means, viewing the skill as something which can be built within your mind.

It’s so easy to view confidence from a lens of: you either have it or you don’t. That leads to feelings of hopelessness and frustration if you find yourself less confident than others.

I can remember growing up, always being so irritated by the fact everyone seemed to have confidence but me. Playing baseball, there were always guys on the team with enough confidence to spare.

Meanwhile, I was struggling trying to find any ounce of self-belief I could.

The good news is, confidence is not a stagnant trait. By viewing self-confidence as a skill you can proactively build, you will improve your mental game by instilling a sense of belief within your mind.

5.) Gain The Skill Of Mindfulness

The skill of mindfulness gives you control over your attention.

So many times we allow our minds to travel into the past and drift into the future. Usually to the detriment of our performances, as this results in regret, fear, and anxiety.

Without knowing it, we are seldom centered in the present moment. It is so natural to have thoughts travel between the past and future, never settling in the here and now.

However, the present moment is where life occurs. By learning how to focus your attention in the present moment, your performance will be automatically improved.

Mindfulness works to eliminate distractions, relax your mind and body, along with giving you more energy to be directed on what you’re doing. That’s why building the skill of mindfulness is a phenomenal way to improve your mental game.

Since controlling our minds is difficult, and remaining in a mindful state is challenging even for a few moments, how can this skill be cultivated to a point it actually makes an impact on your mental game?

It’s through the training of mindfulness that the skill is developed. Each day you need to be working on your ability to center your attention in the present moment, and hold it there.

You can do this by adopting a daily practice of mindfulness meditation. While meditating may seem odd or even scary, I encourage you to give it a try and trust it’s a powerful way to cultivate the skill of mindfulness within yourself.

Follow these steps to start your own mindfulness practice:

  1. Decide on a time frame. How long will you meditate each day?
  2. Find a quiet location where you can commit to performing your practice.
  3. Get into a comfortable position, keeping your back straight. This can be sitting on the floor or in a chair.
  4. Set your timer for the amount of time you decided upon. Please pick a soothing alarm, as you don’t want heavy metal pulling you out of meditation.
  5. Close your eyes and begin breathing slowly, in a rhythmic manner.
  6. Focus on your breathing.
  7. As your attention drifts (which it will and that’s okay), simply place it back onto your breath.
  8. Keep breathing like this until your time is up.

As you can see, there isn’t much to a mindfulness practice. Just stick with it each day, as it’s a tremendous tool to help you improve your mental game.

6.) Utilize Visualization

If you’re seeking to improve your mental game, the skill of visualization cannot be forgotten.

Visualization offers an opportunity to practice your skills, see yourself succeed, and rehearse emotional states and reactions within the safety of your mind.

Think of visualization as developing muscle memory, but in your head. Athletes train over and over to make a certain movement second nature. We can apply this same concept to your mind.

You already visualize every day when you think about a memory, read a book, or think of someone you care about. When you do any of these, a picture is created in your mind, is it not?

That’s visualizing. Only, when wanting to improve your mental game, we use it in a much more deliberate manner.

Before getting started with visualization, you need to get your mind and body in a calm and relaxed state. That makes the imagery work much easier. No matter what you visualize, the beginning steps will look like this:

  1. Find yourself a quiet location.
  2. Sit or lay down so that you are comfortable.
  3. Take ten deep breaths to calm yourself.
  4. Now bring the scene into your mind.

There are many different ways you can utilize visualization. It’s a tool that can help build confidence, through the practice of seeing and feeling yourself succeed.

You can also use imagery to reframe your emotional states during certain situations. For example, if you find yourself anxious before a game, visualize yourself beginning a game feeling calm and relaxed.

Visualization is a powerful mental training tool and one that will drastically improve your mental game if utilized consistently.

7.) Let Go Of The Outcome

One way to improve your mental game is learning how to reduce one of the main destructive forces which eats at your mind. Outcome oriented thinking.

Focusing too much on the outcome does nothing but harm you. It leads to what ifs, hope nots, and even hope sos, that generate unneeded fears and worries.

Even if you are thinking of a positive outcome, this is still a distraction and impediment to peak performance. If you truly want a certain outcome, you must let it go and focus on the process that will get you there.

Instead of focusing on a result, shift your attention into the present moment. This goes along with the mindfulness we discussed.

Outcomes are made up of many small steps along the way. If you fail to give each step as much attention and effort as possible, you are lowering your chances of reaching that outcome.

Each time you focus on the end result instead of the process, you are doing more harm than good. That’s why becoming process focused benefits you by not only improving your mental game, but improving the ultimate outcome of your actions as well.

Get into the habit of setting process goals for yourself. Think each day, “What is it I want to accomplish?”

From there, think, “What are the steps I need to take in order to achieve that outcome?” Once you’ve come up with the steps, focus completely on each one.

The practice of doing this on a small scale will help instill in your mind the idea of being process focused. That will then translate into your performances and the larger goals you’ve set.

8.) Understand The Power Of Gratitude

Gratitude is not often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about improving anything. In fact, I find myself immediately looking to all my weaknesses and areas that require work. These aren’t exactly aspects of myself I feel much gratitude for.

However, gratitude is the cornerstone of building a stronger mind and improving your mental game. One of the main reasons being, you cannot grow from a place of discontent.

That’s reason number one. Gratitude places you in a mindset capable of growth, rather than one stuck in all that is wrong.

Gratitude also serves as a powerful tool in the moment. When you’re facing anxiety or fear, grounding yourself in gratitude tremendously reduces the negative emotions you’re experiencing.

A state of gratitude is peaceful. It is a calm, positive feeling that radiates throughout your whole body.

In contrast, anxiety and fear place you in a rigid and timid state. Gratitude serves as the sunshine breaking through the cloud coverage of your mind.

In these moments, however, it’s often difficult to find anything to be grateful for. That’s why you must begin training yourself to use gratitude every day.

I like to start each morning by writing in a journal. I list out all I have to be grateful for. If you are looking to improve your mental game, I suggest you make feeling grateful a daily practice.

“Gratitude places you in a mindset capable of growth, rather than one stuck in all that is wrong.”

9.) Use a Pregame Routine

If you want to improve your mental game, you need to have a way to ensure you’re placing yourself in the optimal mindset to perform.

That’s where a pregame routine comes into play.

Going into every game, no matter if it’s the first game of the season or the championship game, you should strive for a constant mindset. This is going to be the frame of mind you’ve identified as best.

A pregame routine is a carefully crafted set of tools that get your mind ready to perform. It should be centered around cultivating positive traits that you want to begin the game with.

For example, working on being more confident and relaxed is a common goal of a pregame routine. So, you could incorporate some visualization training and breathwork into your routine.

When you’re coming up with your own pregame routine, start by identifying the mindset you want to have and traits you need to develop, then identify the tools and techniques that will accomplish that.

During a pregame routine, you also want to outline your goals for the game. These need to be process focused. Come up with some process goals that you need to focus on in order to perform your best.

This helps to keep your mind in the present moment during the game and eliminate outcome oriented thinking.

10.) Build Success Habits

Consistency is key in whatever you do. When aiming to improve your mental game, it’s no different.

To build a stronger mind, and increase the mental skills that will help you succeed, there need to be habits that help you do so. Without habits, consistency is very difficult. The reason being, each day you’re asking yourself to remember all that you need to do.

Now that’s a hard task for anyone, which is why habits become so important. When you develop habits, you remove the guesswork and required remembering that typically takes place. Instead, there are habitual actions you perform each day without even thinking about it.

The kinds of habits I’m referring to are going to center around the tools and techniques which make up many of the other sections in this article.

For example, the cognitive restructuring we discussed thrives on repetition. That means, you need to be repeating those phrases to yourself each day. Turn this into a habit and you can trust you are putting in consistent effort.

Habits are all about making something routine that you see is important in your life. If you are serious about improving your mental game, working on your mind needs to become habitual.

My favorite way to instill mental training as a habit is crafting it into a morning routine. Every day when you wake up offers a unique opportunity to strengthen your mind. This is a perfect time to perform the tools and techniques I’ve discussed.

By doing so each day, these actions will mold into a habit. It will then become natural for you to get up each day and work on improving your mental game.

Final Thoughts

Improving your mental game will add to the physical talents you already have and elevate your performance.

When working to improve your mental game, you need to have concrete skills to build and tools to use. The ten topics covered in this article are all going to be of great service in strengthening your mind and elevating your game.

It can seem overwhelming with all the different tools and areas I outlined. However, I encourage you to start small. Pick a few to focus on first.

If you would like additional help and a more custom tailored plan to improve your mental game, mental performance coaching may be right for you.

Through the twelve week program, a custom made mental training plan will be created to improve your mental game. If that’s something you are interested in, you can click here to learn more. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

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.

Mental Training Courses

Learn more about our two main mental training courses for athletes: Mental Training Advantage and The Mentally Tough Kid.

The Mentally Tough Kid course will teach your young athlete tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage mistakes, increase motivation, and build mental toughness.

In Mental Training Advantage, you will learn tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage expectations & pressure, increase motivation, and build mental toughness. It’s time to take control of your mindset and unlock your full athletic potential!

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Master Your Mental Game With One-On-One Coaching

Get one-on-one mental performance coaching to help break through mental barriers and become the athlete you’re meant to be!

Master Your Mental Game With One-On-One Coaching

Get one-on-one mental performance coaching to help break through mental barriers and become the athlete you’re meant to be!