We often hear professional athletes, from world champion boxers to marathon runners, talking about the ‘mental side’ of sport and competition. But what is it, and how can normal, everyday athletes like us use mental health it to improve their own performance? Here are my thoughts.
This is a technique that actually works in almost any situation. We might be waiting to go into a difficult interview for a job. Or we might be about to run 1500m. But by thinking clearly and consciously about successfully doing the activity before we do it we are actually preparing our minds and our bodies for that success.
Here’s how it works in practice. Whatever the activity, when we visualise a positive outcome in our minds we actually create new neural pathways in our minds. This is just as we would do for a real life action. And it means that when we actually do the thing in real life, our brains are ready to succeed.
One of the other key mental health strategies that can benefit athletes is mindfulness training. There are lots of different meditation techniques out there, as well as apps like Headspace and Calm which help to improve our mindful attention.
The key here is that this isn’t just about increased focus (which is also a benefit of mindfulness techniques). It is also about enjoyment of the experience of an activity. When we are fully engaged and in the moment with our bodies, our minds and our environment, we are also enjoying all the benefits of that activity too.
Improving resilience and confidence for mental health
The ability to bounce back and get back to winning ways after a defeat is a key skill for athletes. It’s what sets the best apart and helps them to be consistently successful.
And it is one of the most important areas of focus when it comes to the mental side of sports. So how do we improve resilience and self confidence?
Well, techniques like positive visualisation and mindfulness can help us to be more successful on one level. But resilience and confidence also don’t just come from winning.
They are also a product of how we react to defeat. These qualities grow when we see setbacks as learning opportunities and as a way of contributing to, rather than diminishing, our sense of our own abilities.
So, go easy on yourself. Push yourself physically, but when you come up short sometimes, learn to cope with that mentally too. Learn from your mistakes and bring these lessons into your next session.