How To Prepare Mentally Before Competition

Your mindset during a game can make or break your success. Learn how to prepare mentally before competition to give yourself the best chance to succeed!

The majority of time athletes spend preparing for competition involves physical training. This is great, as you must become highly skilled in your sport in order to reach high levels of performance.

However, if you limit yourself only to the physical side, there is a whole world of preparation you’re missing. In addition to physical training, you need to prepare mentally before competition.

This is going to involve utilizing mental training tools and techniques that will enhance your performance, and get your mind in the optimal state to allow your physical talents to be at their best.

Importance Of A Pregame Routine

When it comes time for competition, there is little more you can do physically to get yourself ready to perform. Trust me, I’ve spent many batting practices before a game trying to “fix” my swing.

The past few games or practices had felt off, so I was searching for one last effort, hoping to tweak it in some way that would help me hit better.

However, this seldom worked. What happens when we focus too heavily on mechanics and physical skills prior to competition is our minds become way too overactive.

We are thinking and trying to force a change to occur. While you may be able to make a small adjustment, it would be much more beneficial overall to forget about the physical side and turn to mental preparation.

Game time is for performing. You’ve done all you can up to this point to get your body ready. Now turn to your mind, as that will be the ultimate difference maker in you performing your best or leaving the game disappointed.

Preparing mentally before competition is going to rely heavily on repetition. On game day, there are many emotions filling your mind, along with distractions that can cause you to tighten up and feel anxious and fearful.

So, you want to get yourself into a comfortable mindset which you’ve deemed best for optimal performance. That is why it’s important to come up with your own pregame routine.

This is going to go beyond any pregame rituals you may have or songs you listen to. What we are talking about is deciding on certain mental training tools that are going to prepare you mentally heading into the game.

Goals Of A Pregame Routine

The goal of any performance is to be the best you can be. You may think it’s to reach a certain outcome or outplay your opponent, but those are mere byproducts. They occur as a result of you performing your skills to the best of your abilities.

Though, it’s rare for most athletes and performers to go out there every competition and show peak levels of performance. Why is this? The talents are the same each game. You’ve not lost or gained much talent in the span of a few weeks.

Yet, as I’ve seen within myself and others, there can be huge disparities between levels of performance from one game to the next.

The main contributing factor to this is the mind.

Practice is a safe space, where not as much pressure, anxiety, and fear typically reside. Which is why it’s so common to see an athlete perform well in practice, only to fail in having those talents translate into a game.

But we can counteract this through the use of mental training tools. The overall goal of a pregame routine is to elevate performance by getting your mind in the optimal state to compete. This is done through the achievement of these smaller details:

  • Improved confidence: self-doubt leads to indecision and tightness during a game. This keeps you from performing your best, as your mind is absent of the self-belief necessary to succeed. Which is why one of the main goals of a pregame routine is to increase your confidence going into a game.
  • Reduced anxiety: when you worry about the outcome of your performance, anxiety forms in your mind. Anxiety lowers performance by making you play timid. It also takes you out of the moment where the competition is taking place. With a pregame routine, your goal is to reduce this anxiety by promoting a mindful and relaxed state.
  • Eliminate fear: Accompany anxiety is fear, typically the fear of failure. There are many reasons for the fear of failure, all centering around a perceived negative outcome if you were to make a mistake. However, fear and peak performance do not mesh. Which is why your goal with a pregame routine is to eliminate this fear from your mind.
  • Calm the mind: A calm mind is a focused mind. The more relaxed you can get before a game, the more focused you will be on the process. Through a pregame routine, you can calm your mind and reduce the mental noise that works against you performing your best.
  • Become process oriented: Fear of failure, anxiety, self-doubt, all of these have one thing in common: they revolve around the outcome. When you worry too much about the outcome of your performance, your level of play drops. So, one of the ultimate goals of a pregame routine is to center your attention onto the process.

Tools To Use When Preparing Mentally Before Competition

Every one of the goals outlined above is attainable, but only through effort. That effort comes in the form of the mental training tools you will use within a pregame routine.

There are a few different tools and techniques you can use, which I will outline in the remainder of this article. A key point I would like to make first is, understand your weaknesses.

Understand the mental game challenges that typically hinder your performances. Do you grow overly anxious before a game? Are you too concerned with the thoughts and opinions of others? Or do you struggle with self-doubt?

You want to think about where your weaknesses lie, in order to tailor your pregame routine in an attempt to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

There are four tools you want to choose from when deciding on how you’re going to prepare mentally before competition: visualization, breath work, self-talk, and process goals.

Using Visualization To Train Your Brain

When it comes to preparing mentally, visualization is a tool that will always be discussed. The reason being its powerful impact on your mind and the multitude of ways it can be used to enhance performance.

Visualization is a broad term used to describe creating mental images or scenes in your mind. Due to the neural responses in your brain, visualization has the power to simulate real life events.

This means you can get a real life emotional response from your body through visualization, as well as creating memory in the mind.

You want to use visualization in a few different ways when preparing for competition. It’s all going to depend on what your goals are with the practice.

To best utilize visualization before competition, you want to use it in two phases within your pregame routine. Go through the visualization practice the night before and also on game day.

No matter which visualization practice you choose, the beginning is going to be the same. It’s all about preparing the mind for proper imagery work. Follow these steps when preparing to visualize to get the most out of your training:

  1. Get into a comfortable position (either lying or sitting down).
  2. Close your eyes and breathe rhythmically for about one minute.
  3. It’s now time to bring the scene you want to visualize into your mind.

Mental Rehearsal For Confidence

Confidence is a crucial element of a successful performance. You need to have a deep belief in yourself and your talents. Though, confidence is also very fragile. If your last game didn’t go as planned, or your practices have been off lately , then it’s easy to see your confidence drop.

That’s where mental rehearsal comes into the equation. This is a form of visualization which involves rehearsing a skill over and over within your mind.

Give yourself time to perform mental rehearsal, as it may take a few minutes. Five to ten should be good, as that provides you enough time to really envision multiple skills.

Go into great detail, visualizing yourself performing your skills, feeling confident while doing so, and then successful at the end.

A key aspect of mental rehearsal is seeing and feeling yourself succeed. Repetitively seeing, within your mind, yourself successfully perform your skills, confidence and trust will grow. This will then be carried into the game.

Mental Imagery For Relaxation

Another form of visualization you can perform is mental imagery. This is very similar to the mental rehearsal we just discussed, except instead of seeing yourself perform a task, you’re going to be creating a very specific scene.

This scene is going to encompass your optimal relaxing environment.

When are you the most relaxed? What environment are you in? Who’s there? What’s around you?

These are the kinds of questions you must ask yourself. For me, it’s going to be the beach. Walking by the ocean is the most calming environment I can think of. Throw my dog into the mix and I’ve created a scene that places me in a relaxed and joyful mindset.

If you find yourself overly anxious and trying to relax before competition, use this mental imagery technique to do so. Bring the scene into your mind and really feel all the emotions that it triggers.

Visualize Yourself Under Pressure

The third technique I want to discuss is beneficial if you have difficulty focusing and performing well under pressure.

When crunch time moments come along, do you rise up to the challenge or become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety?

Even if you are a clutch player, this technique can help you become even more consistent in moments of pressure.

When you’re ready to visualize, create in your mind a typical scenario where you feel a lot of pressure. What I want you to do first is feel pressure. Allow all the normal emotions (fear, anxiety, self-doubt) to take place.

Now, replace those emotions with how you’d like to feel. Once you’ve switched to a more positive emotional state, perform your skills and see yourself succeed.

What this does is allow you to reframe these situations in your mind, and train yourself to feel confident when faced with them because you’ve seen yourself succeed.

Unleashing The Power Of Your Breath

Another tool that will help you prepare mentally before competition is breathwork.

There are many different forms of breathing exercises, but they all are centered around the concept of mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves bringing your awareness into the present moment. As that is where your performance is taking place, getting yourself in such a state is powerful heading into a game.

There are two types of breathwork: one which is an ongoing practice and one that is an in the moment aid.

An ongoing practice would involve mindfulness meditation. This is where you set aside ten minutes or so a day to train the skill of mindfulness. I highly recommend you start your own mindfulness practice, as it’s a terrific way to proactively prepare your mind for competition.

In the moment, let’s say a few minutes before a game begins, you can also harness the power of your breath to help you relax and focus. You can use these breathing exercises during a game as well, to recenter your focus or help calm your mind under pressure.

Here are a few different breathing techniques you can try:

  • 5-10 count breathing (breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of ten).
  • Box breathing (breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and breathe out for a count of four).
  • 4-7-8 count breathing (breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, breathe out for a count of eight).

Taking Control Of Your Thoughts With Self-Talk

During competition, it’s easy to have your mind become unhinged. Running all over the place, filling your head with all sorts of troublesome thoughts. In the moment, you may feel powerless against your uncontrollable mind.

While this may feel like the case, it doesn’t have to hold true. You can reclaim your power through the application of a self-talk routine.

Thoughts directly influence your emotional state. Before competition, how do you typically feel? Are you relaxed, calm, and confident? Or are you anxious, fearful, and doubting your skills?

Whichever emotional set (or mixture) you exhibit, there are thoughts we can point to which are either to thank or blame.

Coming up with what to say to yourself can be difficult, especially in the moment. That’s why you need to craft a self-talk routine that you can repeat to yourself before a game. By doing so, this is going to prepare you mentally leading into competition.

To craft your own self-talk routine to use before a game, here’s a simple technique you can follow:

  1. Identify your current emotional state before a game.
  2. Make a list of all the thoughts you typically repeat before competition.
  3. Define your desired mindset and emotional state to start a game.
  4. Come up with a list of positive alternatives to the ones from step two that work to place you in the state you defined in step four.

Once you have this routine outlined, you want to repeat it to yourself on a daily basis. This will engrain the affirmations into your mind, prepare you mentally for competition, and help you memorize the statements.

That way, right before a game, you can continuously repeat the phrases to yourself. Instead of having your typical, negative thoughts in your head, you’ll have replaced them with the ones you desire.

Learning To Focus On The Process

The last tool I want to show you that will help you prepare mentally before competition is the application of process goals.

Many performances are undermined by outcome oriented thinking. When your mind is preoccupied with an end result, many negatives take place. For one, you are not as focused as you need to be on the task at hand.

Therefore, you will not be giving it as much energy and effort as you could, if your attention was fully placed on it.

Also, most mental game challenges stem from a mind wandering into the future. As you worry about attaining a certain outcome, fear is likely to set in. Such fear then leads to performance anxiety. Since you are afraid of what may or may not happen.

To counteract outcome oriented thinking, you must learn how to focus on the process. The breathing techniques from earlier will help bring you into the present moment. However, your mind still craves something concrete where it can place its attention.

That’s where process goals are needed, on both the physical and mental side of your game.

Physical Process Goals

As you prepare mentally for competition, you need to take into account the physical skills that are going to help you succeed. Breaking down your performance, what are the processes or characteristics that make it up?

What do you need to focus on in order to place yourself in the best position to succeed? Also, what is truly and completely within your control? That’s a key factor in setting good process goals. They must be in your control.

Think about mechanical aspects of your play. Here are some examples of physical process goals that will help you in coming up with your own.

  • Follow through on every shot (basketball).
  • Stay balanced at the plate (baseball).
  • Glove on the ground while fielding (softball).
  • Make hard cuts when running routes (football).
  • Watch the ball hit the racket (tennis).
  • Drive knees on every step (sprinter).

You see how each of these is within the athletes control and part of the process that makes up their performance? For yourself, come up with three physical process goals when preparing for competition.

Mental Process Goals

Just as with your physical process goals, mental process goals need to be within your control. That way, you’re focusing your mind on that which it has the power to manage.

Think attitude and focus when deciding on your own mental process goals. What kind of attitude do you want after a mistake? In a key moment during the game, what types of thoughts do you want filling your mind.

Where is your focus during competition? Are you giving your attention to the opponents, the officials, or the fans? Or do you want to focus on yourself and your own responsibilities?

Here are some examples of mental process goals:

  • Feel confident even after a mistake.
  • Focus on myself and my goals.
  • Repeat my self-talk routine whenever I feel nervous.
  • Remember past successes during the game.
  • Focus on the present moment.
  • Feel grateful for each success during the game.

When you’re coming up with your own mental process goals, think about the focus, attitude, and emotional states that will help you perform your best.

Final Thoughts

To perform your best, you need to ensure your mind is fully prepared going into competition.

Come game time, your physical talents are going to be as good as they can get. What will make the largest difference in whether or not you perform well is going to be your mindset.

If your mind is full of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt, it will work to undermine the physical talents you’ve worked to develop. However, if your mind is calm, relaxed, and confident, you’re likely to exhibit your full potential.

When wanting to prepare mentally before competition, be sure to utilize visualization, a self-talk routine, breath work, and process goals. All of these tools will help get your mind in the optimal state to perform.

If you have any question, please feel free to reach out to me, my email is [email protected].

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.

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