You have certain muscles in your body that are absolutely essential for sports including your quads, glutes, abs, and hamstrings. The simple reality is that if you don't actively strengthen these muscles, you will not be capable of performing your best.
You should think about your mind as made up of 'mental muscles', the same way you think about your body and its physical muscles. And you have certain mental muscles that are also absolutely critical for you to perform your best. Taking this analogy the natural next step, you have to actively strengthen your mental muscles to ensure that they are strong enough to handle the demands of your sport.
There are five mental muscles (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions; noted in the image above) are part of my Prime Performance System that describes my view of all of the mental areas that most impact athletic performance.
Motivation is your determination and drive to achieve your sports goals. It is the foundation of everything you do in your sport. Motivation is not how committed you say you are, but whether you are actually doing what is necessary to accomplish those goals. Without it, nothing else matters because it is motivation that gets you up in the morning, to conditioning workouts and practice, and that keeps you going when things get difficult. Motivation is so important because it impacts everything that influences your sport: physical fitness, technical and tactical training, mental preparation, and general lifestyle including sleep, diet, school or work, and relationships.
There are some strategies you can employ to help your motivation in the short run, for example, setting and reminding yourself of your goals for the coming season, having a training partner, listening to motivating music, and making sure your training is fun. But, for the long-term motivation that is required for athletic success, you must find the motivation inside of you. You must have a good reason that keeps you going when you're tired, in pain, bored, or struggling. Your goal is to be motivated to do whatever is necessary to achieve your sports goals.
Confidence is the most important mental factor when it comes to game day. I define confidence as how strongly you believe in your ability to perform your best and achieve your competitive and long-term goals. Confidence is so important because you may have the physical, technical, and tactical ability to perform well, but if you don't believe you have that ability, then you won't perform up to that ability.
Confidence is developed from several sources including being maximally prepared, have a mental 'toolbox' so you can fix problems when they arise, training and responding positively to the inevitable adversity you will face in practice and competitions, staying positive when things aren't going well, and having success in training and competitions. Your goal is to develop a deep and resilient confidence that will enable you to stay positive when you're not performing well and encourage you to take the necessary risks to give your fullest effort.
When you are about to begin a practice or competitive performance, intensity becomes one of the most important contributor to athletic success. Intensity is the level of physiological activity you feel in your body including heart rate, respiration, blood flow, and adrenaline. Intensity lies on a continuum that ranges from sleep (very relaxed) to terror (very anxious). Somewhere in between those two extremes is the level of intensity at which you are capable of performing your best.
The challenge with intensity is that there is not one ideal intensity for all athletes. Depending on your physical and psychological make-up, you may perform your well very relaxed, moderately intense, or super fired up. Your goal is to identify and actively reach your ideal intensity before every practice and competitive performance.
When you begin a performance, focus becomes another essential influence on how well you perform. Focus involves paying attention to things that will help you perform your best (e.g., technique, tactics, effort) and avoiding distractions that interfere with your performing well (e.g., results, other athletes, an upcoming exam). Your ability to stay focused from start to finish will determine how well you perform and whether you will be able to stay consistent from the start to finish.
Another key component of focus involves understanding your focus style before practice and competitions. A focus style is a preference for paying attention to certain cues. Athletes tend to be more comfortable focusing on some cues and avoid or don't pay attention to other cues. Athletes with an internal focus style perform their best when they're totally and consistently focused on their preparations before practice or competition. They need to keep their focus narrow, thinking only about what they need to do to get ready to perform their best.
In contrast, athletes with an external focus style perform their best when they only focus on their performing when they're about to begin practice or a competition. At all other times, it is best for them to broaden their focus and take their mind off their performing. These athletes have a tendency to think too much, become negative and critical, and experience competitive anxiety, so the more they distract themselves, the less they will get stuck in their heads. Your goal is identify your focus style and maintain your ideal focus and avoid distractions until it's time to perform.
Let me begin this discussion of mindset by clarifying that my use of mindset is different than its use by the Stanford University researcher Dr. Carol Dweck and her writings on the topic. I define mindset as what is going through your mind in the 30 seconds before begin a practice or competitive performance. What happens in your mind during that oh-so-important period sets the stage for whether you perform your best consistently.
I have found three mindsets that the world's best athletes appear to use most. An aggressive mindset is often needed to go from good performances to great performances for athletes who aren't naturally aggressive nor perform tentatively or cautiously. It involves focusing on attacking and 'bringing it' and getting really fired up mentally.
A calm mindset is typically best for athletes who get nervous before they compete. Throughout your pre-competitive preparations and just before you begin, your primary goal is to settle down mind down, thus allowing it to let go of doubt and worry and your body let go of nerves and tension.
A clear mind involves having basically nothing going on in your mind before you perform. A clear mind is most suited for athletes who are intuitive (meaning they don't have to think about their performing their best), free spirited (meaning they go with the flow in their approach to performing), and experienced (meaning they have a lot of trust in their ability to perform their best).
Your goal is to identify which mindset works best for you and to use it consistently in your practice and competitive efforts. The result will be that, when you're about to begin most important competition of the season, that mindset just clicks on and it enables you to perform your best.
Like any muscle, these five mental muscles won't just develop on their own. Rather, you have to actively train them in a structured and consistent mental training program. Only by strengthening these mental muscles will be you have a chance to perform your best, get the results you want, and achieve your athletic goals.
Do you want to learn more about how my Prime Performance System can help you or your young athletes achieve their sports goals? Get your FREE Prime Sport: Psychology of Champion Athletes e-book.