As any athlete knows, a balanced diet, a good training regime and mental preparation are crucial for success in competitions.
Yet, the years of daily sports regimes, the hours spent honing your training programme and a considered nutritional intake, count for little if you’re not in the right frame of mind before a competition.
Many elite athletes talk about ‘getting in the zone’ before a big event, but what does this actually mean? A study of the techniques that elite athletes adopt may be distilled this down into the following ten tips:
A pre-competition routine can help you get in the right frame of mind. Less about rituals, more about preparation, find a way you can develop a pre-competition routine with set steps to practice. The familiarity and comfort in following a set routine may help calm the nerves too.
Routines can vary depending on your personal needs. For some this might be imagery, for others listening to music. Some athletes like Usain Bolt even include sleep as part of their routine – recognising the restorative benefits it can bring before an important race.
Words and phrases
The language we use can help position our thoughts accordingly. It’s important to use the words that trigger the right emotions and actions required for optimum performance.
In your daily sport routine, develop your inner dialogue, think about words and phrases that are important to you; especially what you believe will lead to a successful performance.
If you’ve watched Sky Sports and seen pep talks from coaches on the side-lines, you will notice how often they remind players to stay focused. They also remind players to ‘stick to what you learnt in training’. This is because in the critical moments before and during a game, it’s about putting into practice the techniques you’ve been learning over the past few weeks, months and years.
As such, it’s essential to stay focused on the here and now. This means learning how to be single-minded and not let outside distractions affect you.
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is one of the many athletes that uses music before a competition to keep focused and block outside distractions.
Small goals, big ambitions
As any sports coach will tell you, it’s all about baby steps. We can achieve great things with the right building blocks in place. It’s great to be a ‘big picture thinker’, but breaking targets down into achievable bite-size stages, is often considered the best way to reach your goals.
During mental preparation, work with your coach to set small goals leading to your overarching objective. Think about how each step is a milestone in itself, and the reward that comes with tackling each hurdle head-on.
In sports psychology, there’s a great emphasis on mental wellbeing as well as the physical. Deep breathing is a practice that all athletes employ in some form. It has the benefit of helping you clear your mind and to be in the present. This is useful before any pressurised performance and in daily life too.
Plus, there are also many benefits in this approach; it can improve blood flow, posture and aid digestion too.
Keeping your emotions in check is important as part of your mental preparation, and deep breathing is a great way to focus the body and mind.
Positive thinking is part of the mental preparation that athletes learn to hone over the years – and imagery is key to this.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not simply about imagining yourself lifting a trophy, or scoring a goal – it’s about imagining the essential steps you need to take in order to achieve success, in the greatest possible detail.
By going through the motions in your head, we are in many ways rehearsing and practicing our future actions. In doing so, you can set yourself up for success.
It’s only natural for negative thoughts to creep in – ‘can I do this’, ‘am I good enough’, ‘the competitors are better than me’ are all familiar thoughts that athletes may battle.
These are to be expected, and in sports psychology we teach athletes not to ‘block’ them out, but to acknowledge these emotions in a helpful way. One way of doing this might be using our past experiences as an indicator for future success – this can include reminding ourselves of our past achievements.
In athletic performance training, we’re so often told about the ‘power of positive’ thinking. Keeping upbeat, reminding yourself of your abilities and having belief in yourself are all crucial to performance. The link between performance and confidence is after all closely tied. It’s why many believe Muhamad Ali was one of the greatest sports people of all time – not just for his outstanding performance, but for his ‘can-do’ attitude which transcended the sport.
It has been found that body language can impact on our behaviour, as such it’s important for athletes to stay mentally positive and confident before a competition,
Some of the methods identified for staying positive before a big sports event include: “psyching up, anxiety control, confidence enhancing, and instructional” by experts in the industry.
In the moments before a big competition, you need to be at your strongest mentally. This is the time to relax your mind and gather your thoughts. It’s about reminding yourself to relax, breathe and stay focused. Even if it goes against the rush of adrenaline you’re facing, the ability to remain composed will pay dividends – it will also make the other competitors uneasy too!
Work to your own standard
As a final thought, everyone has their own way of preparing and training for big sporting events. Your mental preparation might be completely different to your competitors. This is OK too. What works for someone else might not be right for you. It all comes back to being maintaining focus on yourself and having belief in your own abilities.
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