Athletes and experts weigh in with their best strategies for overcoming performance-mindset issues by boosting your mental game.
By Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake
Jen K. was worried.
With three powerlifting meets under her belt and her fourth one month away, she found herself facing an unexpected challenge not in her body, but her mind. She was approaching training weights she had never lifted and while her training cycle had gone off thus far without a hitch, fear and doubt began to creep in anyway.
“I’ve hit a mental wall, so to speak, with my performance,” she shared after a particularly frustrating training session. “My brain simply cannot grasp that I will ever lift past a certain weight in my squat, bench, and deadlift.”
Whether you’re a veteran competitor, a fresh face, or anywhere in-between, the benchmarks to success are generally the same: show up, do the work, and repeat. Our bodies, however, do not function independently of our brains and no matter how consistent you've been in prep, sometimes our minds can attempt to get the best of us.
And if the big day comes and you believe you can’t — or don’t believe you can — you very likely won’t achieve your goals.
Mind Over Matter, A Negotiation
American record-holding Olympic weightlifter Quiana Welch is familiar with the influence her mind has on her performance. As life-long athlete in gymnastics, volleyball, football, and CrossFit, she can easily relate to feelings of self-doubt the closer she comes to competition day.
“I definitely think to myself, ‘Oh snap, Q. Are you ready for this? The meet is so close! You gotta get it together.’”
And she’s not alone. “The most common performance barrier I encounter with my athletes all boil down to the same thing: confidence and self-doubt,” says Dr. Peter Olusoga, athlete, coach, and sport Psychology Lecturer and consultant at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. “Any athlete who tells you they never experience a negative thought, or a little anxiety and self-doubt, is bluffing.”
Exactly how these negative thoughts show up for competitors vary. “Some athletes think they are going to fail because they are fearful or lack confidence,” states Heather Pearson, strength and conditioning coach, sports psychologist, and founder of 1Body4Life. “Some athletes think they lack the ability to keep calm under pressure, and some hit a mental block whereby their mind believes they cannot run any further, return from injury with their original capability, or lift any more weight on a lift.”
Training for competition isn't easy and in theory, an optimal level of arousal will lead to improvements in your performance; As your arousal increases so does your performance — but only up to a point. Negative perceptions left unchecked early in training can result in a drop in arousal and increase in anxiety and fear. This can lead to performance plateaus, failed attempts, or worse, quitting.
The good news? A mental sticking point during the lead-up to a competition (or a daunting task at work or a new job interview), can be overcome with the right tools. With practice, you can flip the script and change your mindset to help influence a positive outcome.
“Mindset is all about perception,” says Heather, and our perceptions can change with helpful mindset boosting practices. “You can train your brain for anything,” she says.
Robust in Body, and Mind
“When I first started powerlifting, my performance anxiety was hugely defeating. In my very first meets, I would lift less than what I could lift in the gym because I was so nervous, I would feel tremendously drained.” – American record-holding powerlifter, Jennifer Thompson
No one competes without the expectation and desire to do well. It’s easy to get hooked into perceptions that influence how we perform, and when negative thoughts creep in, tempting to ignore them in favor of pushing through and appearing as if all is fine. The issue arises when we give too much credence to thoughts we perceive as negative and start — and keep — listening to them as if they’re true.
And very likely, “They're not,” Dr. Olusoga asserts. “They're just thoughts, and helping athletes unhook themselves from negative thoughts is often a starting point for addressing performance issues.”
Feeling stuck in a negative mental feedback loop? Decrease performance anxiety and build a more resilient mindset with these specific strategies from sports psychlogist Heather Pearson:
“I take nice deep breaths to keep me calm. Freaking out never helps.” Quiana Welch
Twice a day, close your mouth, inhale through your nose for four seconds, and hold your breath for seven seconds. Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds making a whooshing sound. Repeat 4 times for a total of 90 seconds.
This breathing technique allows more oxygen to enter your body, promoting a state of calmness and balance. Implement this breathing practice pre-training session or pre-competition, particularly the night before a big competition to help you sleep.
Word association is simply associating a word with things that make you feel happy, calm, serene and peaceful.
To practice, sit in a quiet room, close your eyes, and think of a word you want to use. Then, think about everything that makes you happy, peaceful, joyful and loving while thinking of this word.
Word association requires diligent practice— and a timer — during training to reap positive effects at competition. “You need to practice this daily for five minutes so when you think of this word you instantly feel calm and at peace,” says Heather.
Positive Self-Talk and Thought Stoppage
“When negative thoughts creep into my head I picture a filing cabinet in my head. I put those thoughts into a drawer and close it shut.” – Jennifer Thompson
Positive self-talk is straightforward: speak to yourself in affirmations, the same way you would to a colleague or teammate who needs more confidence. In your head or out loud repeat, “I am strong, I can do one more rep,” “I just need to focus and I can do this, come on, power through.”
Thought stoppage is slightly different to positive self-talk. When you have a negative thought, instantly change it for a positive one. For example you might think, “I’m am so weak today” but you stop, recognize the negative thought, and change it to “I am going to lift this weight today.”
“Both of these techniques promote a positive physiological response in the mind and the body,” Heather says.
Imagery and Visualization
From speeding the rehab process post-injury, blasting through training plateaus, gaining confidence against competitors, and attaining more effort in lifting heavier weight, imagery and visualization is a powerful and authoritative tool.
“I always visualize how I want my performance to go. I walk myself through every step and imagine how it is going to feel. I walk my mind through my opener all the way to the third attempt in each lift. I imagine how the weight will feel, and that I will be fast and strong.” – Jen Thompson
Your brain works on a sensory basis and the more senses you use, the stronger an imprint you can create of exactly what you desire to achieve.
To practice using imagery, find a quiet room, close your eyes and use all your senses to create an experience. Take a back squat for example, feel, hear, and see your body go through all the motions from start to finish. Smell the gym. Feel the knurling on the bar as you wrap your hands around it. Hear the clangs of the plates as you position the weight on your back and step away from the rack. Listen to the deep inhale of your breath and feel the bracing in your core as you descend. Feel your quads and back tense as you push your way upward.
Finish the visualization by feeling the emotions, like happiness and elation, as you complete your task (or in this case, lift).
Imagery works best in real time to mimic the exact situation correctly, so during training, practice before you begin lifting and in between sets. For powerlifters on competition day, practice as soon as you arrive at the venue and scoped out the lifting area, before you begin to warm-up, and between your attempts. Your brain relies on repetition, and visualizing a specific situation in real time establishes these thoughts as a predictor of the outcome, leading to huge gains in confidence, strength, motivation, and recovery.
The Final Word
Many of the most successful athletes in the world use mental training as part of their daily regimen, and for good reason: they work. But you don't have to be an elite athlete to reap the benefits of these simple — and free! —techniques to maximize your performance. Mental toughness may often be held up as the ideal but, "Sometimes when athletes experience what is perfectly natural, like thoughts they consider negative about their performance, they might not want to admit having these thoughts, and might see them as a sign of being mentally weak, which might actually exacerbate the problem," says Dr. Olugosa.
"Being flexible [in our approach] is perhaps more important than being strong, when we talk about the mental aspects of sport."
Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake is a USAPL-certified Club Coach, RKC2 kettlebell trainer, and mat Pilates fan, and is driven to invite as many as interested to discover how fun strong can be through a variety of entry points. Her clients range from her home base at The Movement Minneapolis gym to all over the globe via her online crew through Unapologetically Strong Coaching. When she’s not training herself or clients, you can find her with her nose in a book, or snacking and asking, “Are you going to finish that?” Photo cred: Martin Rittenberry