I have been thinking a great deal about what it takes for athletes to achieve what I consider to be an essential goal in all of their efforts, namely, when your game, match, round, race, or other type of competition concludes, you are able to make two statements:
- "I was as prepared as I could be to perform my best and achieve my goals."
- "I left it all out there."
Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking about a way to communicate a process that will help you take the necessary steps to ensure that you can make those statements. In doing so, I have come up with my Three Steps to Sports Success:
I have been focusing on this issue extensively in the last year or so as I have been working with a variety of athletes in a number of sports who have already achieved considerable success which tells me that they already have pretty darned good mental skills (though they would agree that there is always room for improvement). So I asked myself, "How can I help them step up to the next level when they already have so many of the skills necessary for sports success?"
What I realized is that all of the best fitness, technique, tactics, equipment, and mental skills will go for naught if you don't begin with the right perspective. If you have a healthy perspective towards competition, you set the stage that will allow all of your preparations to be expressed in performances that are intense, focused, free of any concerns that might hold you back, and fully committed to performing as well as you possibly can.
When I talk about perspective, I mean how you look at your sport and your involvement in it. This perspective influences what you think about, the emotions you experience, and how you perform in both training and competitions. Here are some of the most important components of perspective that you should develop:
- Your reasons for competing
- Your sense of ownership of your sport
- How you define success and especially failure
- Your willingness to seek out discomfort in pursuit of improvement
- Whether you perceive competitions as threats or challenges
- Your willingness to take risks
- Whether you're more focused on the process or the outcome
- Your ability to stay focused in the present rather than in the past or future
If you can develop a healthy perspective in these areas, you will set the stage for the next step in my progression.
The greatest perspective in the world won't help you achieve your athletic goals if you don't then do the hard work necessary to be totally prepared to perform your best in competition. As we all know, a lot of things go into great performances. Preparation is so important because it is the only thing you have total control over in your sport. You can't control the genes your parents gave you, the weather, competitive conditions, or your competitors. There are so many areas that impact your sports performances and any area that is not fully prepared will mean that you won't be capable of performing your very best. You must ensure that you develop every piece of this sports performance puzzle.
There are, of course, a high level of physical health and fitness, solid technique and tactics, and well-prepared equipment. And we can't forget the essential role that the mind plays in athletic success. There are also some lesser considered contributors including rest, school or work, and relationships, all of which can either push you toward or away from success.
There are three primary mental areas you need to develop in your preparations. First, all of your efforts at getting yourself totally prepared should lead to high confidence in all aspects of your sport. Confidence is so important because, even if you have everything you need to perform your best, you won't use those things unless you really believe in them.
Second, you must train your body to reach and maintain your ideal level of intensity before every drill in practice and every performance in competition. Without that correct intensity, your body won't be physiologically capable of performing its best. Third, you must develop a consistent and narrow focus that enables you to concentrate on those things that will help you perform well and avoid distractions that interfere with good performance. Mental imagery and training routines are two essential mental skills that will foster quality training and total preparation.
As you enter a new competitive season, ask yourself if you have everything covered; have you done everything you can to achieve your goals. If you haven't, I have no sympathy for you because you could have (sorry if that sounds harsh, but it's true). If you have, you are fully prepared to take the final step in my progression to sports success.
Everything you've accomplished so far, in terms of both perspective and preparation, is devoted to enabling you to perform your very best when it matters most. But being capable of performing your best doesn't always translate into great competitive performances. In fact, the #1 reason why athletes come to me is because they perform really well in training, but they just can't replicate that in the heat of competition. Why is this such a difficult thing to do? Because competition is different than training; it matters. Competitions are where you put your preparations to the test. They are where you will either live up to or crumble under the weight of expectations -- yours and others. Competitions are where you will feel excitement or trepidation. They are where you will either experience the "thrill of victory or the agony of defeat" (you have to be pretty old to remember where that quote came from).
Here is where perspective, which you will hopefully have established at the start of this progression, must return to accomplish this goal. Perspective will keep competitions in, well, perspective, reminding you that they are an important part of your life, but life itself. Your sports participation is a part of who you are, but it doesn't define you. If you fail to achieve your goals, you will certainly be disappointed, but, in the long run, you'll be okay. Perspective will liberate you to experience competitions as a challenge to pursue with gusto rather than a threat to avoid in fear. It will enable you to take the risks necessary to perform your very best.
Here is also where your great preparations are funneled into a state of physical and mental readiness on the day of the competition that enables you perform then the same way you do in training. Your training has given you a deep confidence in your ability to commit yourself fully and give your very best effort. It also ingrained your ideal intensity and focus so deeply that, just before the start of the competition, you reach those same levels that enable you to perform your best. As with training, continuing the use of mental imagery and extending your training routine to your competitive routine ensures that you are totally physically and mentally prepared to perform your best.
Your ultimate goal in this three-step progression is to throw yourself into competition with confidence, intensity, and focus, and without doubt, worry, or fear holding you back.
If you can harness these three steps to sports success, you set yourself up to perform your very best and achieve your athletic goals. Just as importantly, you give yourself the opportunity to experience what it feels like after a competition, win or lose, to say, "I left it all out there."