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Inside the Minds of the World's Best Athletes

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In my last post, I described some competitive lessons you must learn from the world's best athletes in order to play your best in "Prime Time," which I defined as being the biggest game of your life against the toughest field under the most difficult conditions. This week, I will delve into the minds of some of the world's best athletes and uncover the mental lessons you must also learn to play your best and achieve your goals. These mental lessons are especially important as you head into the most important games of the season, many of which occur during March Madness.

1. Believe in Your Ability.

One thing that separates the best athletes in the world from the rest of us is that they have a deep and resilient belief in their ability to play their best. Even when they're not playing well, instead of going to the "dark side" (i.e. going from being their best ally to their worst enemy) they never lose faith in themselves and continue to be on their own side.

For everyone else, developing confidence in your ability is one of the biggest challenges you face. Many athletes don't have that deeply ingrained belief in their capabilities. I see this often in games. For example, a basketball player misses a few shots early in a game. He then begins to doubt himself and then, instead of taking the open shot, passes the ball to a teammate.

It's a mistake for the player in the last example to give up just because he hasn't started the game well. The mental lesson you can learn from world's best athletes is that no matter how you start off or how many mistakes you make, you can still get back in the game (literally and metaphorically) and have a good game, but only if you stay positive stay motivated to play your best the remainder of the contest.

Building confidence in your game is no different than how the world's best athletes go about it. It takes thousands of hits, shots, spikes, runs, and rides, in addition to a positive attitude, meticulous preparation, support from others, and, of course, success. But, for every athlete, from the bottom to the top, it starts with a commitment to believing in yourself no matter how bad it gets.

This belief will serve you especially well in Prime Time. You may believe that you can play well under normal circumstances. You have probably put in a lot of time at practice that supports your belief. But the question is whether you can play that well in the most important game of your life against the toughest field of competitors you have ever faced? The lesson you can learn from the best athletes in the world is that you must have such a belief in your ability that you truly know that you can play your best when you absolutely need to. This belief in your play gives you the confidence to go for it in Prime Time.

2. Expect to Be Nervous in Prime Time.

Prime Time means the game you are playing in matters... a lot. The game may be the local Little League championships, the state championships, or the junior world championships. You may start to feel nervous because it's an important game. This anxiety makes you uncomfortable, which raises doubts in your mind, causes you to feel negative emotions, and, because of all of these things, you become more nervous. As a result, the quality of your play declines and you have a poor game.

This reaction is common among athletes at all levels of ability. It is also one of the most harmful reactions to have in Prime Time. Much of my work with athletes is directed toward helping them stay relaxed under pressure. The reality is however, getting nervous before important games is normal and natural. It happens to young athletes and, yes, it happens to the best athletes in the world. The difference is that the best get nervous and know how to overcome their anxiety.

One way to partially alleviate the negative effects of this nervousness is to expect to be nervous in Prime Time. If you anticipate experiencing some anxiety, when it arises, your reaction will be, "This is normal. I knew I would get a little nervous. No big deal," instead of "Oh no. I can't believe I'm getting nervous now. How can I play well feeling this way?"

Anxiety can also be interpreted in different ways producing very different reactions. If you view anxiety as negative and threatening, it will clearly hurt your play. If you see it instead as an indication that you're getting yourself prepared for the big game, that the feeling is not anxiety, but rather excitement, and then you will see it much more positively. With a more positive perspective on your nerves, they are less likely to overwhelm you and take you to the "dark side." As a result, that anxiety will have a less harmful effect on your play.

Another important realization is that whatever you're feeling, your competition is probably feeling the same doubts, anxiety, and emotions. Even if they look calm, cool, and collected on the outside, the chances are they're equally as nervous on the inside. This perspective offers even more support for the need to learn these lessons and win the mental game. Given fairly equal ability, the athletes who can keep their nerves in perspective and respond to them in a positive way are most likely going to play well and win.

3. Recover From Mistakes Quickly.

If you recall, Prime Sport is based on the goal of playing at a consistently high-level under challenging conditions. However, playing consistently does not mean playing perfectly -- it definitely doesn't mean that you will not make mistakes. One of the things that makes the world's best athletes so good is not that they never make mistakes. If you watch competitions in any sport, you'll see that even the winners make multiple mistakes in games. Instead, what makes them so good is how quickly they recover from those mistakes.

It's not uncommon for young athletes to dwell on their mistakes and take a long time to regain their composure, get their "mojo" back, and get their mind back in the game. Not infrequently, they never recover at all. This occurs because athletes lose confidence, focus, and intensity, and they become frustrated, angry, or depressed due to of their mistakes. Unfortunately, by the time they recover mentally and get their game back on track, winning may be out of reach.

Recovering from mistakes quickly begins with a forgiving attitude that you establish before you even get out on field (or course, court, or hill). You accept the fact that if the best athletes in the world make mistakes, then it's normal that you will make mistakes too. It also involves understanding that the loss of confidence, motivation, focus, and intensity will hurt your play far more than the mistakes themselves. This attitude makes it so that mistakes aren't crushing blows when they occur. Rather, mistakes are just a part of sports. When you accept that mistakes as part of the game, you give yourself permission to let go of the mistakes when they occur instead of feeling like they are the end of the world.

With the negative impact of mistakes reduced, you can then direct your attention to getting yourself back into the game mentally and emotionally. After a mistake, go into attack mode (rather than surrender mode) by immediately forget about the mistake and focusing instead on what you need to do to get your game back on track. In practice, create a keyword that you can think to yourself when you make a mistake that will help you do this, for example, attack, charge, or go. When you ingrain this keyword in practice, you're conditioning your mind to grab onto that keyword when you make a mistake in a game, triggering an aggressive mindset and a refocusing on the game ahead of you rather than the mistake behind you.

4. Accept the Challenge.

The biggest obstacle to playing your best in Prime Time is fear, or more specifically, fear of failure. Fear produces in athletes a cautious attitude and tentative play. On a practical level, this means that your main goal in the game is to not fail. Yet paradoxically, with this fear-driven attitude you're actually more likely to fail because there's no way you can play your best if you're afraid of failure. You don't fully commit yourself, you don't play aggressively, and you don't give it your all from start to finish.

Accepting the challenge means that you give it everything you have. You direct your fullest energy and effort into playing as well as you possibly can. Accepting the challenge also means accepting that you may fail, but you'd rather fail giving it everything you've got than wish at the end of the game wishing that you hadn't been so cautious. I'm sure you feel terrible when you play tentatively and kick yourself after the game for not having gone for it.

Why accept the challenge? Because there is one emotion you never want to experience in your life: regret. Regret means that you wish you had done something differently, in this case, play as hard as you can. And there is one question you never want to ask yourself: I wonder what could have been? After a game, win or lose, you want to look back and be able to say to yourself that you "left it all out on the field." If that effort didn't result in victory, you'll be disappointed, but you'll also feel pride in knowing that you couldn't have done anything more that day. And, of course, the only way to be truly successful in sports is to go all out and risk failure. If you keep putting yourself out there, the chances are that you will find success sooner or later.

These are four simple, yet powerful, lessons found inside the minds of the world's best athletes. The greatest athletes on earth learned these lessons and that's one reason they're the best. I can't guarantee that if you embrace these lessons you'll get there too. But I can promise you that if you do, you'll find out how good you can be. And, at the end of the day, whether you find yourself on the All-Star team or sitting on the bench most of the game, you'll feel good knowing that you left it all out on the field.

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