Have you ever gone into a competition as physically prepared as you possibly could be, but something in your mind was causing doubts? Have you excelled at workouts in practice, but find that your competition results don’t match up? Have you ever noticed a difference in the thoughts that go through your head during practice versus what goes through your head during competition? Are they the same? Are they different? If so, how are they different?
Surprisingly, there are a lot of athletes who have negative thoughts before and during competition. And despite being in fantastic physical shape, these athletes tend to underperform compared to what their training and practices would predict. If you feel like this describes you, you are not alone. And you can change your thought processes so that your competition performances reflect your training and practicing performances.
When I was in college, I made an observation about success that to this day has been backed up with scientific study and countless books and articles. (Two references are at the end of this article.) That observation is the fact that there are three components to being a successful athlete at the highest level. First, there has to be inherent athletic talent. Second, there has to be health. And third, the individual must have a strong mind. My observations in college were that many of my teammates had two of the three, but if an athlete lacked one component, they were always held back from achieving superstardom.
For example, one of my teammates had what I believe was more natural talent than I had and he was certainly a tough-minded guy. But unfortunately, he had problems with stress fractures. I believe that held him back from achieving his greatest potential. It could be argued, though, that because he had a tough mind, he actually did achieve his highest potential since he got the most out of himself that he actually could, given the limitations his health put on him.
Another teammate of mine had talent, was always healthy, but did not have a strong mind at all. He was a workout champion. But when it came to competition, he always wilted.
And finally, we all have seen the athlete who is always healthy, who believes in him/herself like no other, but doesn’t have much talent. That athlete can only go so far, but again, we can argue that they certainly get the most out of themselves that they possibly can. It’s just that inherent talent holds them back from being a superstar.
The scenario that baffles me (and athletes and coaches everywhere) is the athlete who has the talent and health but not the head. I do believe, though, that some athletes can overcome this. It is not easy. It takes a lot of work and it takes a long time.
After years of study, self-reflection, and coaching experience, I have found that most of us carry around thought patterns and belief systems that were established in us at a very young age. If those belief systems carry a negative undertone, they will ultimately hold one back whether it be athletics, academics, relationships, career, etc. How can that be overcome?
Positive self-talk. Journaling. Meditation. Counseling. Changed belief systems. With the help of an experienced guide, many athletes can reverse negative beliefs and think more highly of themselves. And as a result, competitive performance will improve dramatically.
So let’s take a look at a real-life example from my early days as a coach. The name has been changed to protect identity. John had the physical tools to be an outstanding runner and his body held up really well despite the high volumes of training he did. But he tended to underperform in competition. After speaking with a sports performance coach and a sports psychologist, it was revealed that John had always had this “I’m not good enough” thought underlying his thinking. Another way he described his state was “I feel less than.” When he entered competition he would think “what if I fail?” or “Coach won’t like me if I don’t run well.” Where did those two thoughts come from?
Further analysis revealed that John grew up in a family where his father constantly had an underlying worry that “there isn’t enough”. His dad also expressed concern that his cars were subpar or that he couldn’t advance at work due to other people holding him back. This attitude permeated the family dynamic despite the fact that there was always enough food, shelter and clothing as well as education. There always seemed to be a dark cloud of “not good enough” or “less than” hanging over John’s dad.
When asked to write on that topic, John easily filled page after page of notebook paper on how these thoughts crept their way into his own psyche and how they seemed to lie just beneath the surface. Whenever the pressure was on, they would dominate his thoughts. Instead of believing in his abilities, John tended to default to thinking “less than” about himself, which ultimately made him hesitant when competing, or in trying something new.
But something else was revealed as John did self-reflection work. He realized that his mom was very critical and judgmental. As a result, John was always on edge about whether he would be criticized for his actions or achievements. John found this existence filled with lots of tension and thus he never felt relaxed to enjoy the things he was pursuing. Except for when he pursued something that was more private.
Building model airplanes gave John a tremendous amount of satisfaction because no one judged him on it. No one was watching him as he worked on them. John felt serene, happy and confident when working on model airplanes. He was in his element.
The sports performance counselor explored that scenario with John and encouraged him to think back to a time when he was working on a model airplane. The counselor encouraged John to focus on what he was feeling, to relive those feelings and ultimately to identify them. The result was that John found a sense of peace, satisfaction, confidence and pleasure when working on model airplanes. He shared with the counselor that if he could achieve that level of serenity and confidence during competition, he knew he could improve his performance significantly.
So John and his counselor devised strategies to attain the mindset he had during model airplane building while in the midst of competition. It required mindfulness, journaling, speaking with a trusted teammate, forced positive self-talk. The improvement in results was not immediate, however. Just like a computer has default settings, humans tend to revert to default thinking patterns when under stress. It is only after repeated positive thought practice that thought patterns begin to change for the positive and become more natural. It took John 3 ½ years of conscious positive thought before it became more natural and was reflected in his performance. Just like practicing the skills of his sport, John had to practice the skills of positive thinking until they became automatic. And as a result, John went from being an above-average runner to become a school record holder and an All-American.
Due to limitations in the size of this article, you are only getting a brief overview of all the work John had to do to re-train his thoughts and beliefs and to attain the serene and joyous state he desired during competition. There isn’t space to describe all the work that John did, all the setbacks that occurred and all the insights John gained about himself. The bottom line is that John was willing to work with a counselor to help him discover faulty beliefs and program more positive thoughts about himself. The end result was a happier person (not just athlete) and consequently, a more successful performer when competing.
If you find yourself in a situation similar to John’s, I encourage you to seek out a sports psychologist, a certified mental trainer or a sports performance coach. An internet search for “mental training for athletes” will yield numerous professionals who can help guide you. They will help you through the process of discovering the source of negative thought patterns, identifying situations that trigger those thoughts, and strategies to overcome the negative thoughts and replace them with affirming and positive ones.
Chamberlin, R. (2003) Ready To Play. Provo, UT: Ready to Play
Fannin, J. (2005) S.C.O.R.E. for Life. New York: HarperCollins
Coach Rick W. is currently providing running coaching sessions in Chicago, Illinois. Book sessions with him today.