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Starting Your Training Right with 3 Mental Skills



Everyone believes in the novelty effect of new year’s resolutions to form new habits that hopefully will transform them into the new version of themselves. However, studies show that new year’s resolutions rarely stick or make the expected impact on behavior they hope to see (Forbes, 2024). To make any change stick, it takes a tremendous amount of persistent work directed toward intrinsically motivating goals. For those looking to make a difference in their athletic performance goals, perhaps we can suggest a different start to making the changes you would like to see. Let’s commit to making smaller changes to your daily routine by training these mental skills.

 

Start with breathing

Breathing practices are crucial for high-performing athletes as they can enhance performance, improve focus, and aid recovery. Proper breathing techniques can help optimize oxygen intake, reduce stress, and promote overall well-being. Here are just a few breathing practices that high-performing athletes may find beneficial:

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing):

    • Inhale through your nose, allowing your diaphragm to expand.

    • Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth, contracting your abdominal muscles.

    • Focus on making your breaths slow, low in your abdomen, and controlled.

  • Mindful Breathing/Meditative Breathing:

    • Practice mindfulness and meditation to improve overall focus and reduce stress.

    • Pay attention to your breath, bringing your awareness back to it whenever your mind starts to wander.

  • Breath Holds (Apnea Training):

    • Perform controlled breath holds to improve tolerance to carbon dioxide and enhance breath control.

    • Gradually increase the duration of breath holds over time.

Clarity in your self-talk 

As you learn how to self-regulate through breath control, you will also find clarity in your self-talk. Self-talk is a powerful tool that athletes can use to enhance their performance by influencing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Positive and constructive self-talk can boost confidence, manage stress, and improve focus. Here are some self-talk strategies specifically tailored for enhancing athletic performance:

  • Process-Oriented Instructions:

    • Direct your self-talk towards the process and specific tasks rather than outcome-based thoughts.

    • Instead of saying, "I must win this game," focus on "Stay focused on my technique and give my best effort."

  • Calmness Under Pressure:

    • Develop self-talk that helps you stay calm in high-pressure situations.

    • Repeat calming phrases such as "Stay calm and focused," "Breathe and execute," or "I am in control of my performance."

  • Adaptability and Resilience:

    • Develop self-talk that reinforces adaptability and resilience in the face of unexpected challenges.

    • "Be flexible and adjust to any situation," or “Bounce back quickly from setbacks."

 

Visualization skills and the practice of imagery

As you master your breath and inner dialogue, you can also bolster performance through visualization skills and the practice of imagery. Imagery and visualization are powerful mental tools that athletes use to enhance their performance. These techniques involve creating and mentally rehearsing positive images or scenarios related to their sport. Here's how athletes can effectively use imagery and visualization:

  • Pre-Competition Preparation:

    • Mental Rehearsal: Athletes can mentally rehearse their entire performance, visualizing each step and movement. This helps reinforce muscle memory and creates a sense of familiarity with the competition environment.

    • Outcome Visualization: Imagine achieving the desired outcome, whether it's crossing the finish line first or connecting with solid contact on a pitch.

  • Skill Improvement:

    • Technique Visualization: Visualize yourself executing specific skills or techniques flawlessly. Focus on proper form, timing, and precision. This mental practice can enhance actual skill execution by reinforcing neural pathways.

    • Cueing and Timing: Use imagery to work on the timing of movements or to focus on specific cues. For example, a basketball player might visualize the feel of the perfect release of a shot or a pitcher might mentally rehearse the timing of a pre-pitch routine.

  • Injury Recovery:

    • Healing Imagery: Athletes can use visualization to mentally guide their bodies through the healing process after an injury. This can include imagining the injured area healing, regaining strength, and returning to peak performance.

    • Confidence Building: Visualizing successful and pain-free performances can help rebuild confidence and reduce anxiety associated with returning to competition after an injury.

  • Coping with Pressure and Stress:

    • Stress Reduction: Athletes can use imagery to mentally practice staying calm under pressure. Visualizing a composed and focused mindset in high-pressure situations can enhance performance.

    • Coping Strategies: Imagine successfully handling unexpected challenges or setbacks during competition. Visualization of effective problem-solving and resilience can build mental toughness.

 

It's important for athletes to integrate these practices into their training routine gradually and consistently. Athletes can practice all 3 of these skills combined during dedicated mental training sessions or as part of their overall training routine. Consistency is crucial, and the more vivid and detailed the mental images, the more effective the technique is likely to be. Working with a qualified mental performance coach or sport psychologist can provide personalized guidance and ensure the techniques are adapted to the individual athlete's needs and goals.

 


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