Easier said than done at times, but with everything worth gaining, you have to practice at it. Your mental game is just as important to practice as your physical. Panic, worry, and fear can creep up on you in a crucial race or game time situation if you’re not prepared. You know the feeling. The sweaty palms, heart racing, muscles tensing up, or even pacing back and forth. You’re freaking out that this time has to be it, has to be perfect, has to be clutch. This race, next play, or performance is where you shine, drop time, or dominant your opponent. It has to be Wheaties box great because your last go round wasn’t. You have to make up for the last shot you had. You’re stressed, even though you won’t admit it: that this performance has to look like your “usual self”. The performance people “know” you for. Right? With that amount of pressure there is no wonder you can’t live up to the expectations you’ve set.
You have to learn how to leave poor performances behind and focus on the event at hand. If you bring bad shots, missed free throws, missed putts, or false starts to your next event, you’re setting yourself up to overcome that performance again & again. Take one race at a time. Most people tell themselves, “don’t do …..(insert your favorite here) again”. Or, “I have to make this….(pick one)”. Sound familiar? You are what you say to yourself. This has been proven over and over. You can’t approach your next event still thinking about your last “mess up”. We’re all entitled to messing up. No one is ever getting it right all the time, but it is about training your mind to sort out each trial. You make a mistake – you need to revisit it, correct it, and figure out what happened. However, you don’t need to continue to bring it with you every time you step on the green, the court, or the track.
How do I do that though? “I know I shouldn’t focus on the negative and I need to move on to be in the now, but I can’t get it out of my head?” Don’t over think it, first of all, stay in the moment, and play like it’s still fun for you. You need to learn to thought stop for it to become routine. You need the thought stopping to be second nature and race in the moment for it to work. You can’t just try to use it when the pressure is on because you’re not used to it and your body and mind are distracted. I encourage the power of practicing the mental aspect of approaching EACH race. Say what you want to achieve. Be productive in your thoughts.
Make a plan to replace a race or a situation, depending on your sport. What this means is taking a great performance and remembering those circumstances, environment, and feelings when you’re faced with a new challenge. For example, a swimmer might replace a “final” race time of an event with his next race of a different event that may seem intimidating. Using different races in your mind and reliving them helps with imagery as well. Perhaps the 200 free has been his nemesis recently. He can’t drop time in a major meet, faces pressure to do well here to get back on a relay, or panics when someone passes him. So his last great 200 fly race becomes his 200 free in his mind when he is preparing for the 200 free event. He takes the time to visualize what the 200 fly felt like, review his successes, and look at his competition like there is no prayer for you all because I’m getting ready to blow you out of the water. He no longer thinks of the last time he swam the 200 free, how he wasn’t pleased with his performance and how he seems to be stuck in a rut and can’t break out. He no longer forces that pressure of having to have this 200 free be the “one”, the “perfect” race. It’s now a race in the moment. He is focusing on the 200 fly because he did well and replacing that image with how he will swim the next event he’s in.
It’s about leaving that poor performance behind, by correcting components, not reinforcing them. This isn’t easy, so when you can’t let go of a particular event, use a replacement strategy. Seem cheesy? It’s a proven technique for several elite athletes, and it’s worth a shot if this simple tip of “replacing your race” can give you the competitive edge. You have to implement the strategies to make it work.
You can use polysensory (all your senses in painting the picture) visualization, destroy the negative parts of previous races or events and perform just like your best performance. The key here is picking an exact performance. You can’t just think of one time you did well, or just imagine when you were at the top of your game because that will just bring pressure to be great again. You have to focus on a specific race or situation when you were proud of your achievements. You need to take in each element of that performance and re-live it. The more vivid the picture, with each sense imagined, the more powerful the replacement of what we want to correct. Your brain doesn’t know if this event was imagined or really occurred; it just thinks, “the last time I pictured this or did this, it went well.” Well that’s the short version anyway. This strategy has helped other athletes in the sense of allowing them to let go of “poor” performances and lets them get more into a race they may have built up fear or anxiety about. Come in to learn more about implementing this resource and applying to your races.