Everything we do, sports included, is 90% mental. In fact, saying that sports is 90% mental might be one of the most overused clichés. The truth is, anything we do is both 100% mental and 100% physical.
Think about it. Our thoughts influence our actions, and our actions influence our thoughts. What is more important? Thinking about this further will lead us to the “chicken or the egg” debate. But what is really important is that most athletes spend training only the physical aspect – the moves, the routines, their endurance. Rarely do we hear about anyone working on their mental preparation.
Many brilliant people have tried to express the essence of how mind and body work together. Seneca noted that “It is part of the cure to wish to be cured”, while Robert Urich concurred that “A healthy outside starts from the inside”.
Possibly the best way we can explain how important and interconnected our mental and physical self are, is contained within the saying “Healthy mind, healthy body”.
I know that you’re curious to know what you can do to enhance the connection between your mind and body, between thought and action, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. We will discuss how practicing positive self talk, positive affirmations, visualization, meditation, hypnosis and NLP can help you get yourself to peak performance when you need it most.
We will take a quick look into how some of the best athletes in the world used some of the tools mentioned above, to get themselves to the top. Examples will include Andre Aggasi, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Kobi Bryant and many others.
Positive Self Talk
Hopefully we can all agree that negative self talk will lead to poorer performance ***1. But, with practice, you can learn how to overcome moments of doubt and turn your negative thoughts into positive ones.
This happens gradually thought, with practice. You can’t expect to be able to lift heavy weights as soon as you start training, if you’ve never seen the inside of the gym.
For example, Serena Williams wrote in her book ***2 that her positive attitude, her absolute devotion to tennis and her mental toughness are what made her become (arguably) the best female tennis player in history. She went on and said that her mental strength is something she practiced and something that came later.
A former MMA champion, Forest Griffin, got it all figured out quite nicely – since he was not going to quit his passionate pursuit of being the best MMA fighter in the world, that he might as well win the fights he was in. And he does what he thinks and preaches – he always goes forward, and never cracks under pressure, no matter how dire the situation may be. He shared this, and a few other lessons with us in this Youtube video: http://youtu.be/HBXK5NCfM_U
Both of these athletes have mastered the way they talk to themselves, and they’ve used this to go beyond what physical training can do. And here is how you can do it too.
How to Practice Positive Self Talk
I won’t go into too much detail about how to practice positive self talk, as the article is already too long and I doubt I could do much better than the pamphlet that is handed out to new students and athletes of University of Arizona (it’s downloadable from here: http://athletics.arizona.edu/cats/psych/newslettersSelf-Talk.pdf).
Even though practicing positive self talk and eliminating negative thoughts will get you far, there are many more avenues you can take to improve your mental toughness.
Father of Serena Williams wrote “empowering messages on big pieces of paper” that he would hang all around the court where Serena and her sisters used for training. In her book, Serena notes that those messages would still be imprinted in the sister’s minds way later. She attributes years of exposure to those empowering messages as playing a big part in her success.
These empowering messages that Serena’s father used to write and expose his girls to, are an excellent example of positive affirmations.
Basically, positive affirmations are sentences with a positive undertone that one would write on a piece of paper and later recite back to oneself in their mind, or preferably – out loud. When you repeat those sentences to yourself enough times, they become your default thoughts. Think of these sentences as a mantra that can help you start and end your day in the best possible way.
Examples of Positive Affirmations
Those sentences are not at all complicated. Really, the simpler they are, the better. Here are some examples so you can get a better sense of what positive affirmations look like:
“I know I will succeed in… (insert whatever you like here).”
“I easily stay focused on my goal.”
“I have a natural desire to win.”
“I always give my best.”
“I always have motivation to give my best during practice.”
As you can see form the examples above, positive affirmations are quite simple. Just think about what you want to gain by using positive affirmations, and then write 10 or 20 of them down on a piece of paper. Set aside the time of the day when you will repeat these like a mantra.
To help you out, here are some of the best practices straight form the pros.
- The first tip would be to focus your affirmations on one small area of improvement. Yes, we all want to have more motivation to train, we want to be able to run faster, hit stronger, shoot more precisely and have more concentration, etc. But focusing all affirmations on just one of these areas (or any other area you would like to improve yourself in) would be a good start.
- The best times to repeat positive affirmations to yourself would be either when you just woke up, or minutes before you go to sleep.
- Don’t use the negatives in your affirmations. Instead of saying “I never run slow”, instead say “I always run fast. The reason behind this is that our minds cannot process negatives. The classic example would be for me to ask you NOT to think of a pink elephant. Knowing how this works, I now know exactly what you are think of – certainly NOT of a pink elephant. 😉
- While repeating positive affirmations, stand up straight, hold your head up high, relax, and repeat the affirmations out loud. It would be best if you could completely believe what you are saying while you repeat your affirmations.
This can be done if you try to repeat affirmations with a strong emotion oozing from your voice and body. If you find yourself unable to repeat the affirmations with strong emotion behind your words, then you have likely not chosen an area of improvement you are passionate about.
But reciting the affirmations with emotion may be crucial. Our emotions create chemical reactions in our bodies, and those reactions change the neuro-chemicals that affect our behaviors and our decision making processes. ***3 Not to mention that the affirmations themselves would linger in the back of your mind for the rest of the day.
These may be some key points to unleash the full potential while using positive affirmations, but are not all. However, these should get you get off on the right foot. ***4
You can go even further, and combine positive affirmations and positive self talk with even stronger tools. Tools like…
Visualization is very powerful. Wayne Rooney, a great soccer player, has reportedly used visualization techniques to help himself mentally prepare for the game ***5. He said that when he takes the time to imagine himself in goal scoring situations, and when he imagines patterns in the game that he can exploit, his performance improves significantly. He went as far as to ask the kit man about the colors he would be wearing in the next match – all from the colors of his socks to the color of his shirt. This way, he could have an easier time visualizing himself having the match of his life.
Didier Drogba, another soccer player, said that he visualizes the exact way in which he will score a goal ***6. He just closes his eyes and tries to imagine and play a mental movie inside his head. Often, he would score a goal just the way he imagined it!
Visualization Is Powerful
Examples above prove just how powerful visualization can be. The good news is, it’s very simple to learn. Visualization is really just thinking of things you want to happen, and making a movie about that exact event inside your head.
The more vividly you imagine movie in your head, the more details you imagine, the more passion you put into your move, you make it more likely that what you visualize will actually happen.
When you think a thought, neural pathways that you need to use a certain skill, or to remember the way you feel or to extract a piece of information become stronger ***7. The more you do it, the easier it is. This is also exactly what happens when we are learning. But with visualization, we are essentially learning to manipulate a situation in the future, in a way that will help us achieve our desired outcome!
Positive thinking, positive affirmations, visualization; these are all great tools. But sometimes you just need to switch off and relax. And there is a perfect solution for that. Or a few, really. But lets start with…
Household names like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James had more in common than their ability to excel at basketball. All three of them have used meditation to calm their minds during important matches.
Here is a short video of LeBron meditating during a time out:
Meditation is likely the best way to calm yourself down and relieve yourself of all the stress that accumulates during your day ***8. One excellent way you can start meditating is to simply focus on your breathing, and nothing else. Inhale, exhale. And then do it again. When you catch yourself thinking about something else, force your mind onto your breathing again.
This is exactly what LeBron did in the video above, and it works. By focusing completely on your breathing, you detach yourself from everything else around you, and in a way “reset” your mind and thus calm your nerves.
Another great way to get yourself to relax is…
Tiger Woods is one of the athletes that understood just how important it is to mentally prepare yourself for success in life early on. He worked with a hypnotherapist and enhanced his ability to train as hard as he can, which later led to one of the most impressive golf careers in the history of the sport.
Apart from Woods, Andre Agassi was also using hypnosis at one point in his life ***9.
Many people believe that a hypnotist can make them do whatever he wants while they are under a hypnotic trance. To make it worse, they believe that they can be hypnotized against their will, and that they do not have control while they are hypnotized. Some people are even afraid that they might be unable to “wake up” from a hypnotic trance.
None of that is true. There is no mad magician wearing a cloak waiting to make you behave like a chicken.
Actually, we all experience hypnosis on a daily basis. Whenever you are completely immersed or focused on an activity, you are in a mild hypnotic trance. This might happen when you are, for example, watching a particularly engaging movie. Or while you are reading a book that you just can’t put down.
During a hypnotic trance, you are not unconscious. Exactly the opposite happens! Usually, you would be totally relaxed and completely focused, as well as feel slightly dissociated from your body and your surroundings. That is why we often have no sense how much time has passed when a great movie finally ends, or when we manage to put a particularly good book down.
A hypnotic trance may also be refereed to as an altered state of consciousness or a trance state. By entering a trance state, one is able to focus on their problem much more easily, and to work on solving the problem with the help of their hypnotherapist. During hypnotic trance, your conscious mind is occupied, thus it is much easier to communicate directly with the subconscious. Communicating directly with the subconscious helps us solve our problems much faster.
Apart from visiting a hypnotherapist, you can also try self hypnosis ***10. If you don’t know where to start, you should know that there are numerous hypnosis downloads available for you online, that can help you achieve whatever you like – there are hypnosis mp3s and CDs that help you gain more confidence, or run faster, or the ones that help you relax… there is really no reason to be afraid – go for it and give it a try for yourself. Judge later.
Practice any of the tools we’ve covered today on a daily basis for a couple of months, and I guarantee you that you will feel tangible results.
Did you try working on talking positively to yourself, or positive affirmations? Did you practice visualization regularly? Or used Meditation to calm you down and ground you? Or have you perhaps tried hypnosis? Please, share your experiences in the comments!