Athletes often ask me how they can improve their mental game. Honestly, any athlete who isn’t working to improve this element of their performance is missing out on huge potential upside.
Science has shown that our brains are much more elastic than we once thought. In other words, we can train and manipulate our neural circuitry to feel and act in certain ways. That’s a powerful thing, particularly for athletes. Though visualization is now a common practice, many athletes fail to incorporate it under the right conditions. Let's consider a few of the moments when we need mental strength the most:
While in physical pain or discomfort (i.e. the “pain cave”)
This is a place endurance athletes know well, or should, if they want to reach their peak speed. Our brain is wired to send off alarm signals when we're in pain, telling us to stop what we're doing. I like to tell my athletes: "you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable". That takes practice.
When we're on the defensive
You’re already hurting and your opponent makes a move on you. If not mentally prepared for this moment, your brain will play tricks on you, leading you to believe that you're the only one suffering in that particular moment. You have to train your mind to see success, even when you're down.
When we become fatigued
This is a big one. Fatigue is not just about burning muscles and searing lungs; fatigue also effects the central nervous system (CNS), which—in simple terms—is the communication system between your brain, spinal cord, and working muscles. When you become fatigued, CNS communication slows and begins to break down. When that happens, will power, focus and your ability to concentrate don’t come so easily anymore.
These moments are an inevitable part of competition. Accept that fact and prepare for the challenge. Here's the thing though: to best prepare, your brain needs to be trained under similar conditions of stress. Practice being in pain. Rather than distracting yourself from the discomfort during hard efforts, try exploring that discomfort. And I mean really dive in. Can you pinpoint the pain? Can you describe it in words? The more familiar that discomfort becomes, the less shocking it will be to your brain. The result: you will be better prepared to handle that stress in competition.
Here's an example:
A 5k runner is aiming to break 20 minutes, but frequently breaks down mentally between minutes 10 and 15. This runner needs to become more comfortable with the discomfort and CNS fatigue she is experiencing during minutes 10-15 (legs burning, chest tightening, difficulty concentrating etc.). By incorporating brain training and visualization into her 5k prep workouts, she can increase pain tolerance, improve her ability to concentrate, elevate confidence, and much more.
Remember, your brain is elastic. You can manipulate the way you think, how you feel about yourself and your abilities, and how you perform under certain conditions. That’s super cool stuff! Don’t let your mental game be your limiting factor—put the time in to ensure your brain is able to match the rest of your body’s capabilities.