What is Sports Psychology?
- Without pulling a definition from the dictionary, sports psychology is the science (or art) of preparing the mind for the stressors of your event. Just as athletes train their muscles and cardiovascular systems, they also must train their mind for different circumstances that will arise during an event. Athletes at the highest level who are fighting for that 1% will tell you that a strong mind is what makes the difference between winning and finishing mid-pack. In life, a strong mentality could be the difference between getting that promotion or just meeting the status quo.
Does it actually work?
- There was a study done with olympic divers in which they refrained from practice due to an injury. The injury lasted 10 weeks but during this time the athletes would visualize their dives and dissect them spin by spin. After the injury was healed, the divers returned to the arena and actually had improved their form and scores. How this works is that visualizations can trigger your neurological receptors. If you can go through your sport with vivid detail and target the muscles you will use neurologically, you can actually trick your body into thinking you are performing the movement. It is a great tool to have for off-days or if you're going through an injury that prevents movement.
What are some methods I can use?
- As noted above, visualization is one of the most popular forms of mental training. The key to performing it correctly though is to include all five senses while going through your visualization. For example, if you are imagining running on a trail: See the trees passing by and sun shining through the woods, hear the sound of the birds chirping and your feet hitting the ground, taste the sweat running down your face, smell the pine in the air, and feel the foot strike as it propels you forward.
- Secondly, the most popular form of mental training is relaxation techniques. There are many different ways to utilize relaxation techniques but my favorite is breathing techniques. It involves inhaling deeply and then releasing stress as you exhale. This is a great tool to have in your bag during a triathlon swim start, 5k start, or prior to a cycling race. It can really calm the nerves and get you in your zone of optimal performance
- The last one I'll discuss here is mental toughness. This is key for many of my athletes. It involves using visualization during your training sessions when things get hard. You need to be in a painful situation during training and start to visualize race day and meeting your goals. You need to be able to curb the pain and instead focus on meeting your goals and the thrill that will give you. The more you can practice this in training, the more effective you will be able to push through the pain on race day. As the old saying goes, How you practice is how you play. Start adding in psychological threats during training so you can learn to cope with them and overcome these obstacles.
Should I do this everyday?
- No. The mind is the same as the body in terms of training. It needs rest days, it needs to be built up, there should be periodization to your mental training (off-season, general, specific, peak). Trying to always be mentally tough or visualizing success will lead to burnout. It is critical that during your off-season you don't focus on the mental aspect of training. You are simply just putzing around. However, as your program picks up and you start to focus on an event, that is when your mental preparation should also pick up. Learning how to utilize these tools and build them is only going to increase your overall performance.
- The mental side of athletics or life is just as important as your physical shape. The mind is what allows you to keep going when the going gets tough. If you don't have a strategy in place to train your mind then you are neglecting your goals and selling yourself short. In order to fully optimize your results, you need to be just as strong mentally as you are physically. When you reach that point and understand that you can control your thoughts, that is when the fun begins and anything becomes possible!