By Jayden Pollard
As a former athlete writing to current and aspiring athletes, I would like to share the biggest and most important lesson I have learned over my time competing. For context, I was a high school basketball player, a wrestler, and I ran cross country.
I am currently a recreational weight lifter with bodybuilding, and powerlifting aspirations, while at the same time taking an interest in MMA, Muay Thai, and boxing, with the hope of potentially competing in amateur bouts.
Across all of these different endeavors, one thing remains the same, the importance of the mind. Mindset is so important in life, especially in athletics, as your mind will either propel you far past your expected potential or it will burden you and cause you to fall short of expectations.
I’ve experienced both sides. My mind has either allowed me to perform far past my current abilities, or it has done the opposite and crippled me to the point where I and others questioned my ability to perform.
I always wanted to figure out what caused this inconsistency within myself.
Now that I’ve graduated high school and have had some time to mature and reflect on my old athletic endeavors, I’m beginning to realize some of the causes and reasons for my inconsistent performances.
I want to share with you today some tips and tricks to help improve your mental game. All of these tips will be based on personal experiences and observations. This will be a raw, honest article that I have really wanted to write.
With that, let’s get into the main discussion.
What Is This Mindset Shift That Will Allow Me To Become A Successful Athlete?
Compared to the body, the mind is very fragile. It’s sporadic, impulsive, and easily manipulated. It’s your biggest strength while also being your biggest weakness.
Your mind is the only thing stopping you from reaching your full potential while also being the only reason you have potential in the first place. It’s ironic once you really start to think about it.
I know from experience that my lack of a great mental game really hindered my athletic potential.
I had every tool in the book to be a great basketball player. I was long, tall, strong, fast, and explosive. I had a good handle, excellent finishing skills, I was a lockdown defender, and when I got hot, I was a lights-out shooter.
I had everything but the mindset. I played scared and never lived up to my athletic potential. And why was that?
I was a chronic over-thinker. I was always in my head worrying about things that had already happened or were yet to pass. The few times I did play up to my potential when my mind just shut off and let me play to the best of my abilities, I was a monster.
But those flashes of greatness were few and far between.
Keep in mind, I worked my ass off. I didn’t live up to my potential because I lacked a work ethic, I would spend hours on the court, and in the weight room. I was easily one of, if not the hardest worker on every team I played for.
I literally had every positive trait a coach could ask for on top of a good work ethic. Everything but the right mentality.
I tried to overcompensate for my lack of confidence with arrogance and pure aggression, which sometimes worked, while other times, I would just end up having a colossal adrenaline dump at the beginning of the game, which resulted in me being absolutely drained by half time.
Go Mode vs Flow Mode
It’s a common misconception that as an athlete, you must always be in go mode. You must be pounding your chest, pumped up, and ready to go, when in reality, all you are doing is bleeding energy and tiring yourself out for no reason.
This go-mode mentality is good in short bursts, like at the end of a 5K where for the last 0.5 km, you’re trying your damndest to be #1. You should be pumped up, running full tilt for the finish line in those final moments.
However, for the other 4.5 km, you should be in a relaxed, calm state of mind. You must be in flow mode. If you were to be in go mode from the start of the race, by the first km, you would be toast and just trying to survive.
Tri sports are an excellent example to use when comparing these two different mentalities, as those who aren’t calm and confident in their abilities to win will try their damnedest in the beginning to take the lead.
I know this because, at my first meet, I wanted to be first; I wanted to take the lead because I thought it was the only way I could win. This resulted in a huge adrenaline dump at the start of the race that had me gasping for air by the end of the first km.
As an athlete, you must have the ability to switch from flow to go at the drop of a hat. Once you master that ability, you will always have the element of surprise on your side, which is crucial in competition.
It gives you this unpredictable nature that makes it hard to read. One moment you’re right beside your opponent, keeping an easy, calm pace, and then BAM! you’re gone. You have a 250m lead on them, putting them into a state of panic.
If you’re constantly in go mode, everyone knows you’ll start strong, but all they have to do is wait out the clock, and you’ll just eliminate yourself. If you’re always in flow mode, you’ll be deemed harmless and weak.
No one will fear your abilities. You’re the guy that just shows up and does nothing the whole race, but coast. You have to have balance, and keeping your cool is the key to this balance.
Keeping your cool will let you decide when you will go into go mode, and when you will flow.
Keeping Your Cool
Keeping your cool and staying calm is the best possible state to be in while competing. You must be relaxed, but you cannot be lazy. You have to try hard while not trying at all. Everything must be a flat line.
You must be in complete control at all times, you cannot let fear, anger, arrogance, or joy dictate your actions, or performance.
You must keep your composure even under immense pressure. You can’t let your emotions be a factor when competing. If you can stay calm and cool, you will have no trouble picking your spots, figuring out, and taking advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses, and you will have stable, consistent energy levels.
This will apply to all sports. This calm, calculated approach will allow you to always perform to your best abilities as it will preserve energy, keep you sharp, and give you the ability to out whit most opponents.
Playing smart will always beat playing hard, but when you can do both, that’s when you become unstoppable.
How To Become A Calmer Athlete
Now, this advice may sound pretty simple on paper, but in reality, keeping your cool under immense pressure, and super uncomfortable conditions is easier said than done. I want to give you a few actionable tips you can implement to become a calmer, more relaxed athlete.
Tip #1 Make Training Super Uncomfortable
You want to know the best way to get used to being uncomfortable, be uncomfortable more often. If you make training hard, tough, mentally draining, and painful, competing will be a joke.
A lot of athletes try to train harder than they play, for example, Micheal Jordan would commonly try to make sure practice was always harder than the actual game.
For you, this could mean doing things like:
- Training in the cold
- Training in the heat
- Using a weighted vest
- Training while starved
- Training while dehydrated
- Training with people much better than you
- Training in the rain/snow
- Training in the sand
- Setting goals, and punishments for not reaching said goals
Those are a few ideas you could implement. The last one will really help with performing under pressure, as it will be extremely mentally draining if the goal is hard, and if the punishment is even harder.
Tip #2 Make Sure Your Personal Life Is Stable
If your personal life outside of athletics is a mess, there’s a good chance that your performance will reflect that. If you’re stressed out due to work, or school, not getting enough sleep, or out all night drinking, and partying chances are you won’t be playing or training at your best.
Some people thrive under this rock star lifestyle as it actually helps them handle pressure, and boosts their confidence, some examples would be Allen Iverson, Dennis Rodman, and John Jones, but those people are few and far between.
For the average person getting adequate recovery, and having a good diet can go a long way in improving both physical, and mental performance. If you have a stable, regimented, and structured life you’ll probably also have a calm, calculated, steady mind come competition time.
Tip #3 Don’t Get Emotionally Invested
You cannot get emotional, you must have a steady head, and keep a cold, calculated approach. It’s just business at the end of the day. Remember emotions will not win you a competition, but actions will.
Focus on actions, rather than emotions. It will take you a lot farther in athletics, and in life. Plus if you’re not emotionally invested in the outcome there will be much less pressure on you, and therefore you will much more relaxed and calm.
I hope you found this article useful, and helpful. The mental part of any sport is extremely important, as it is what allows you to go from good, to great. It’s the difference between you being just another contender, and a champion.
Hi, my name is Jayden Pollard and I am a health, and fitness blogger. I’m the founder of the health, and fitness blog SHREDDIT, and have also done freelance work in the past.