The higher the level you reach in sports, the less obvious differences in talent become. It is often the fiercest competitor who comes out on top and is able to capitalize on opportunities when others fail.
Using sports psychology, you can tap into your abilities to push through to the finish, appear confident and collected, respond appropriately to game situations, develop an understanding of the importance of different outcomes and be ready for anything on the field.
Take steps to develop these 5 traits and become a fierce competitor feared by your opponents.
1. Through the Finish Line, Not to It
We’ve all fallen out of our seats watching potential touchdowns fail as our favorite player drops the ball at the 1-yard line before entering the end zone. We’ve seen races won or lost by a single stride, as one athlete sees the finish line and breaks form early, and the other crosses the line with nothing left in the tank.
It’s incredibly important to give all that you have until the game, race or sporting event is truly over. To ensure you won’t be an athlete who makes the “Not Top 10” list, you must train this mindset of pushing through the finish line (not just to it) and apply it to everything you do.
To get there:
- If you’re on a piece of cardio equipment or training for a certain time interval, work 1 extra second past your goal.
- Find creative ways to make your last 10 seconds of training more challenging by adding a weight vest, raising the incline on a treadmill or simply upping the intensity.
2. Don’t Show Me You’re Tired
Every once in awhile, you finish a workout and feel like you’ve been blindsided by a Mack truck. You crumble to the floor as you catch your breath, hands on knees, panting and dripping sweat. We’ve all been there. The problem is, this can translate to the field and become an instinctive reaction when things get tough. Nonverbal cues communicate to everyone around you that you are fatigued and struggling.
Use your training sessions as opportunities to practice an upright recovery that disguises any signs of weakness and radiates determination. After completing a workout or challenging set, recover with:
- Chin held high
- Eyes level and determined
- Controlled and intentional breathing, in through the nose for 2-3 seconds, out through the mouth for 3-4 seconds
- Hands on hips or head (to open the lungs), torso upright
- Your body stays in motion (look alive!)
3. Respond, Don’t React
We all remember the notorious matchup last year between the Carolina Panthers’ shut-down corner Josh Norman and Giants’ star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. After constant taunting, aggressive hits and sparring coverage, both men lost their cool and nearly injured each other with dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits, which resulted in suspension and could have caused serious injury.
Although even the highest level athletes can react poorly to outside stresses and jeering, you can’t help your team win if you’re not on the field. Reacting serves a purpose in terms of open-eyed movement, where you must quickly make the appropriate step, catch or jump at the right time; but it holds no place in negative situations. Although it’s difficult, anticipate these situations and follow a designed process before deciding your response.
When confronted by a heated moment or poor performance:
- Pause 5 seconds
- Think about the consequences of a negative response versus letting it go. (Does this response get you closer to a win or further from success?)
- Focus on what is relevant to the game (What’s in your control? Progress in the game to get closer to victory)
- Filter out what is irrelevant to the game (What’s out of your control?) Recognize that retaliation does not result in progress in the game.
- Make your statement through positive action on the field
4. Respect Failure, Thrive on Adversity, Appreciate Success
Failure is a part of sports, and elite athletes need a healthy understanding of and respect for failure to succeed. Think about how many shots are missed in basketball or batting averages in baseball. A .300 batting average is considered “good,” implying that failure 70 percent of the time is an appropriate measure of success at the highest level.
This isn’t to say that athletes should be content with failure, but they should anticipate and recognize that it will inevitably happen in some shape or form and plan their response to it. Use each small failure as a means to learn and improve so you can capitalize next time. You don’t have to be perfect all the time, just successful enough of the time to capitalize on that one home run, final buzzer-beating shot or that saving tackle that wins the game.
Adversity keeps us uncomfortable, hungry and driven. If we aren’t challenged, we sink into a comfort zone, which doesn’t allow us to discover our true potential. Many parents want their kids to be the stars of the team. While this is important for recruitment purposes, the kids can develop more as athletes if their success is balanced by situations in which they play against tougher opponents or on teams with older/more skilled players from whom they can learn. This develops a competitive edge and the will to win.
Think of it like climbing a mountain. On ground level, oxygen is plentiful and weather conditions are fair. You make progress, but your body and willpower aren’t challenged, and you aren’t anywhere near your highest peak.
Closer to the summit, you are hungry for what you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. You can see your peak and are more eager than ever to reach out and grab it. Air is thin, weather conditions are treacherous and your willpower to push through the finish line is put to the greatest test. Here is where you find out what you are made of and take the most important steps in your journey to success.
At the top, you aren’t pushed to go farther and there is really no room to grow. All that’s left to do is to find a new mountain with an even greater challenge to conquer.
You also need a taste of success to be at your best. Even though it’s important to surround yourself with talent and compete against tough competition, pushing too far beyond your limits can be detrimental. Nothing can destroy an athlete’s will to win like constant failure or seemingly unattainable success.
In sport psychology, athletes are taught to use mental imagery of previous success to fuel their next performance. It pushes them not to settle with mediocrity and drive toward what they now perceive as attainable.
5. Always Be Ready
The difference between those who succeed and those who miss the boat comes down to what they do with opportunity. You never know when opportunity will present itself and in what form, so you must be ready to capitalize on it whenever you are given the chance. This is why football teams practice tipped ball drills, basketball players practice buzzer beaters, and hockey players practice shootouts.
The greater the weight of the opportunity, the more pressure and internal stress is present. In order to respond appropriately, you must perform drills that expand your comfort zone or heighten the difficulty during practice. If you practice basketball 3-pointers with a shot clock starting at 3, you will eventually bring this into your comfort zone, and you will be less likely to tense up and lose precision during games.
A Major League Baseball pitcher once described his childhood, where he would pitch toward a painted strike zone on a tree. Before every pitch, he would picture himself with a full count in the final game of the World Series, one out away from victory. He took the relatively calm atmosphere of his backyard and heightened the internal pressure of the situation until it became comfortable to him. One day he found himself in the exact same situation with a full stadium and tens of thousands of eyes awaiting his next move.
He filtered out the lights, cameras and MLB athletes around him; pictured the painted strike zone on his tree at home; and threw a perfectly executed strike. He took an uncomfortable situation and brought it within his comfort level so that he could capitalize on an opportunity he had prepared for his entire life.
Expect the unexpected and bring uncomfortable situations into your typical training sessions by adding a random ball toss during your warm-ups with a simple incentive to make the catch (e.g., perform Push-Ups for each dropped ball).