The Mental Component of Athletic Performance

A week ago from today I will be running a Marathon in Nashville, Tennessee. This is my second marathon and although I am excited I must admit that I am growing increasing anxious about the event. I am 7 years older than when I ran my first marathon and although I’ve been training, I am nervous about my performance.

My goal is simple; to complete the race. I don’t care about my time, I simply want to cross the finish line in one piece.

The longest I ran in my training regime is 20 miles and at about mile 18 every step became painful and each muscle in my legs and back ached. It was hard to envision running an additional 6 miles after that. I have been experiencing thoughts of self-doubt “I don’t know if I can do this” as well as fear “maybe I shouldn’t do this”.

With the race a week away there is not much more I can do physically to get in shape. Therefore, I have decided to focus on the psychology side of my performance so that my mind isn’t the part of the body that prevents me from achieving my goal. So today we are going to look at the impact the mind has on our body’s ability to perform.

How Much of Our Performance is Impacted by Our Minds?

Most athletes will tell you that the mental component of performance is the most important. As an athlete myself I can attest to this belief. How many times have we seen a professional athlete drop an easy catch or miss a clutch free throw? These are people who get paid millions of dollars to perform at the most optimum physical level possible!

Arnold Palmer, a professional golfer, stated that golf is 90% psychological and he may be accurate considering the total amount of time a golfer spends actually swinging a golf club is under 8 minutes in a 27 hole round.1 With 27 holes of professional golf taking roughly 16 hours to complete, a golfer is left with nearly 16 hours of time to think.1

This led me to wonder how much time am I going to be spending thinking while I run a marathon? I expect that the marathon is going to take me a little over 4 hours to run. That is not including the pre-race wait time. That freaked me out because 4 seems like a very long time to just think. When you’re running especially, a negative or self-defeating thought can be the difference between keeping your pace and walking.

What Can the Mind do to Help Maximize Physical Performance?

Visualization

A fellow therapist and friend of mine told me that visualizing yourself triumphant in your athletic quest improves the likelihood that you will be triumphant. She used the example of visualizing raising my arms in a V for “victory” as I cross the finish line. While I was skeptical at first I have to say that the research I have uncovered supports this theory. The more an athlete imagines completing an athletic event the easier it is for him to accomplish that event in real life.2

There are several ways to practice visualization. The first involves visualizing yourself and each component of your physical body. Do this while keeping your eyes closed and tell yourself that each body part needed to complete the task is healthy, primed and able to complete the desired task.1

Another visualization technique involves visualizing the game or in my case, the race in each stage of progression1 I can visualize each step of the event from pre-race jitters and stretching, to mile 18, to crossing the finish line in victory!

Visualizing your opponents’ moves and ways you will be successful at outperforming each of your opponents move is the final visualization technique. This doesn’t really apply to me as the only opponent in my case is the course itself.

Goal Setting

According to sports psychologists, setting an athletic goal can help improve performance and keep your mind focused. The key is to set goals that are achievable, reasonable and realistic. When we set goals that are unrealistic to our abilities or the environment, we set ourselves up to feel defeated and to lose vital self-confidence.2 So for me, a realistic goal would be to complete the marathon without walking. Setting a goal of completing it within a certain time or placing is not realistic for me whatsoever!

Focusing on What is in Your Control

High anxiety relates to low self-confidence in the athletic world.1 A surefire way to increase anxiety is to focus on things outside of our control. Focusing on the environment, the crowd or the opponent are things outside of our control that can lead us to feeling more anxious. In my case, focusing on the weather, my sister-in-law’s faster pace, the terrain of the course and the runners who are passing me by is a way for me to increase my anxiety and feelings of self-doubt.

Prepare and Incorporate Usual Routines

If you listen to music before a performance make sure that you pack your earbuds and that your phone is charged. Listening to music is a common routine for many athletes.2 If you are superstitious and wear a pair of lucky socks, make sure they are washed and ready to go for game day. For me it’s my amino acid beverage and my lucky headband. If I didn’t have those two items my mind would not be in the right place to tackle such a big goal.

Get it Done

No matter what your athletic endeavor is don’t forget that you are a rock star for doing it! Whether it’s running a race, playing tennis with a friend or lacing up your old figure skates, putting yourself out there takes a lot of courage. Set realistic goals for yourself and try to avoid thinking about the things you can’t change. Use visualization and other psychological techniques to get your mind in tip top shape for performance day!

Thanks for reading today and feel free to share any techniques you have adopted that work for you. I would love to hear about them!

References:

1.International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health. (2015). 1(6). Psychological factors affecting sports performance.

2.Psychology Today. (2015). The effects of psychology on athletic performance.

 

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