by Lisa Lane Brown
Mental toughness in sports SEEMS like something you should have automatically because you are an athlete. In fact, pretty much every athlete thinks he or she has mental toughness…until he chokes in a really big event.
The truth is that most athletes have NO IDEA how to create breakthrough confidence before an event (and keep it no matter what happens).
With this in mind, here are 3 ways to increase your mental toughness in sport so you are the hero in your next event, not the ‘goat.’
If you want to be confident before you compete, you need some serious PSYCHE UP.
Without a specific psyche up routine, you have no chance of overcoming your nerves and being confident, because you will simply be too nervous to execute.
Here’s an example of how to do it…
Sylvie Bernier, who won Olympic gold in diving, was one of the top ten divers in the world, but would frequently choke and end up 7, 8, or 9th.
Sylvie was especially stressed out about the scoreboard. Whenever she would finish a dive, she would look at the scoreboard and her heart would go crazy.
Sylvie figured out that the easiest way to control her reaction the scoreboard was a very set psyche routine with a specific song.
At the Olympics, she had her trusted music with her at all times:
“Between dives my coach says ‘Good’ or what was wrong with my dive. I go back, I listen to music. I always listened to the same thing…’Take your passion, make it happen’ from the movie Flashdance.
I don’t know why this song. Maybe because my best friend gave it to me just before I left. She said, ‘Listen to this song and make it happen for real.’
I carried my music before my last dive right up to the ladder and left it on the table.”1
Then Sylvie nailed her last dive to win the Olympic gold medal.
Understanding exactly how to psyche up is critical for winning when it counts. So, get a routine that makes you feel like you can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and stick with it.
If you’re like most athletes, mistakes eat away at your guts. You may even punish yourself so severely that your performance goes into the toilet.
Because deep down, you don’t really think it’s okay to make mistakes. Sure, you may give lip service that mistakes are normal, but deep down, you’re furious at yourself.
If this describes you, what you don’t understand is that perfectionists – people who are horrified by mistakes – are not LEARNING.
Mistakes will make you a much better athlete if you adopt the proper mindset towards them.
The proper mindset is to realize that you’re not a failure when you make a mistake. You’re a ‘work in progress’ who draws the lesson out of every competition.
Notre Dame thought football quarterback Johnny Unitas was too small. The Pittsburgh Steelers thought he wasn’t smart enough. But the Baltimore Colts gave him a chance to play pro.
Yet, Unitas made a nervous debut. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then he botched a hand-off on his next play.
But by the championship game that year, Unitas was so confident that he even dismissed his coach’s instructions to keep the ball on the ground. “We don’t want an interception here,” the coach warned him during a timeout.
Two plays later, Unitas threw a pass to Jim Mutscheller on the 1 yard line. Asked why he risked throwing an interception, Unitas said, “If I saw a danger of that, I would have thrown the ball out of bounds. When you know what you’re doing, you’re not intercepted.”
How did Unitas overcome the fear of making mistakes?
He made a point to learn from every play. “Anything I do,” he said, “I always have a reason for.”
Of course, if there’s a problem with your technique, strategy or fitness you need to clean up, then do it immediately (check out The Last Day You Ever Choke article for help).
Otherwise, let go. Letting go of mistakes is so important you could argue that it’s what mental toughness is all about.
Most athletes use the exact same shots, moves, and strategy every time they compete.
This habit will destroy your mental toughness. Not only will you be very predictable, when your ‘bread and butter’ moves don’t work, you’ll pack it in mentally.
Early in his career, Arnold Schwarzenegger figured out that you can only become great if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone every day.
Schwarzenegger realized that in bodybuilding, the main obstacle to successful training is that the body adjusts so quickly: “Do the same sequence of lifts every day, and even if you keep adding weight, you’ll see your muscle growth slow and stop; the muscles become very efficient at performing the sequence they expect.”
Basically, muscles want to stay in their comfort zone. The more you accommodate them, the more you plateau.
To combat this, Arnold developed the idea of shocking his muscles.
“The way to wake up the muscle and make it grow again is to jolt it with the message, ‘You never know what’s coming. It will always be different from what you expect. Today it’s this; tomorrow it’s something else.’ One day it’s ultra-heavy weights; the next day high reps.”
Using this method, which he nicknamed ‘stripping’, Arnold got outside his comfort zone every day. This led to extraordinary results: “I’d shown them who was boss. Their only option now was to heal and grow.”2
A basic rule of thumb is this: always keep your opponents guessing. Change it up at least once in every competition, and watch your mental toughness skyrocket.
Need a refresher on how to perform your best and win under pressure?
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1. Orlick, Terry and Partington, John. (1986) Psyched: Inner Views of Winning. The Coaching Association of Canada.
2. Schwarzenegger, Arnold. (2013) My Unbelievably True Life Story. Simon & Schuster.
Lisa Brown is the founder of the Courage to Win and is considered the world's leading expert on deep mental toughness for success in career, love, and sport. She has personally coached over 7,200 achievers to new heights and conducted over 1,300 live seminars on mental toughness across North America. She has been featured by major media including the New York Times and Entrepreneur Magazine, who called the Courage to Win “a straight-forward guide to success, highly recommended.”