In this article, I’m going to talk about “mindset,” which I consider to be an essential contributor to athletic success and a mental area that has only come to light in my work with elite athletes during the past three years. This topic is also where professional and Olympic athletes offer wonderful examples in which they use different mindsets to perform at their highest level consistently.
Let me preface this discussion by clarifying that my use of the word mindset is different from the use of mindset popularized by the Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck (a perspective, I might add, that is consistent with my own and one that can also help athletes achieve their competitive goals).
When I talk about mindset, I mean what is going on in your head just before you begin a competition, whether on the field, course, court, track, what-have-you. What happens in your mind during that oh-so-important period sets the stage for whether you perform to the best of your ability.
I have found three mindsets that the best athletes appear to use most. There may be others (and please let me know if you think of any), but I find these three to be the most common.
In an interview after her first World Cup victory of this season, Mikaela Shiffrin, the 19-year-old alpine ski racing prodigy who has already won Olympic and World Championship gold medals, indicated how “I’m trying to take more of an aggressive mindset” that helped her overcome her pattern of relatively sluggish skiing in the first half of race runs.
When I talk about an aggressive mindset, I don’t mean that athletes should try to hurt their opponents. Rather, I think of aggressiveness as a mindset in which athletes are proactive, assertive, and forceful, for example, driving hard to the hoop in basketball, going for a risky shot in golf or tennis, or setting a fast pace in a marathon.
This aggressive mindset is often needed for athletes to shift from solid performance to exceptional performance because it allows them to take their performances to the next level, particularly for those who aren’t naturally aggressive in how they perform. For example, I worked with a top NFL draft pick at linebacker who was so gentle off the field that he wasn’t able to naturally “take it to” the offense while playing. For him to be successful in the NFL, he needed to adopt an aggressive mindset.
An aggressive mindset can be so valuable because many sports these days have become “combat sport,” meaning that opponents or competitive conditions are trying to literally or figuratively beat athletes. Athletes do battle not only with opposing teams and players, but also weather and field court, or course conditions. Only by assuming an aggressive mindset do some athletes have a chance to vanquish those enemies.
An aggressive mindset can be developed in several ways. First, you’re more likely to perform aggressively if your body is amped up a bit more than usual. You can raise your physical intensity with more movement during practice, in your pre-competitive routines, and just before you begin to compete. Simply moving more and being more dynamic in your movements will help you shift to a more aggressive mindset.
Second, you can use high-energy self-talk to instill that aggressive mindset. You can see this practice used regularly in football locker rooms and before weightlifting competitions. Examples include: “Let’s go! Attack! Charge! Bring it!” What you notice is not only what you say, but how you say it. So, your aggressive self-talk should sound, well, aggressive. No pussy cats here; only tigers, lions, and panthers allowed.
Third, you can incorporate an aggressive mindset into mental imagery in which you see and feel yourself competing aggressively which, in turn, helps create more attacking thinking, focus, and feeling.
A calm mindset is typically best for athletes who get nervous before they compete. Throughout your pre-competitive preparations and when about to begin a competition, your primary goal is to settle down and relax, thus allowing your mind to let go of doubt and worry and your body to be free of nerves and tension. Additionally, a calm mindset can be valuable for athletes who are naturally aggressive and don’t need to take active steps to get into attack mode.
A calm mindset can be created in several ways. First, it’s difficult to have a calm mind if your body is anxious, so focusing on relaxing your body is a good start. Deep breathing and muscle relaxation are two good tools you can use to calm your body.
Second, you can use mental imagery in which you see and feel yourself being calm before a competition. This imagery has a direct physiologically relaxing effect on both your body and mind.
Third, calming and reassuring self-talk can ease your tension, for example, “Easy does it. Cool, calm, and collected. Chillin’ before I’m thrillin’” (I just made that up!). Relaxing self-talk can take the edge off of your nerves giving you the comfort and confidence to perform your best.
A clear mind involves having basically nothing related to performing going on in your mind before a competition. The athletes who use a clear mindset are those you see before a competition talking to coaches, teammates, or even their competition. They are often smiling, dancing around, chatting it up, or singing to themselves. These athletes can use a clear mindset because they are incredibly talented natural athletes and have years of experience that allow them to trust their bodies completely to perform their best without any interference from their minds.
A clear mind is most suited for athletes who are intuitive (meaning they don’t have to think about their sport very much to perform their best), free-spirited (meaning they go with the flow rather than being really structured in their approach to their sport), and experienced (meaning they have a lot of confidence and trust in their capabilities from many years and successes).
You create a calm mindset by thinking about anything except your sport. Talking to others around you, thinking about someone or something that makes you feel good, and listening to music in your head are several ways you can keep your mind clear, thus preventing it from getting in the way of your body performing its best.
Mindset, like all mental states, requires several steps to instill and master. First, you have to experiment to figure out which mindset will work best for you. Second, you need to make a commitment to adopting an ideal mindset. Third, you must focus on your desired mindset in practice and competitions to create that mindset. And, finally, you need repetition in practice and competitions to ingrain your ideal mindset so deeply that, when you begin the most important competition of your life, that mindset just clicks on and it enables you to perform your very best.
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Dr. Jim Taylor is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of sports performance. He has worked with professional, world-class, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes for 30 years and has written eight books related to sport psychology. A former world-ranked alpine ski racer, he is a second-degree black belt in karate, marathon runner, and Ironman triathlete. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com.