When you’re big, strong and fast, and your opponent is big, strong and fast, the difference between who wins and who loses often comes down to mindset.
Athletes who enter a game believing they not only should win, but that they will win, often leave with the victory. That’s why an increasing number of high-profile pro athletes have at one point or another sought the help of a sports psychologist, according to Dr. Jack Lesyk, Director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology and former President of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology.
College and high school athletes are getting in on the game too. “Today, more than 50 percent of the people who come to see me are in fact in high school,” Lesyk says.
Lesyk lists nine mental skills athletes need to succeed. Although mastering all of them can take a long time, you can use parts of his method to overcome mindset issues that might be keeping you from succeeding. Here are some of the most common problems, along with Lesyk’s recommendation for beating them.
Problem: The Game Hasn’t Even Begun, But You Think You’re Going to Lose
It’s easy to say, “think positively!” but we all know it can be difficult to actually do that—especially when it seems like the other player or team is just plain better than you.
An athlete who lacks self-confidence can mentally lose the game before it even begins, especially if the opponent is intimidating or has a better record. Instead of accepting defeat, Dr. Lesyk suggests remembering that one of the main things we love about sports is their unpredictability.
“We’re playing the game because, on any particular day, we do not know what the outcome is going to be,” Lesyk says. “That’s one of the things that makes sports exciting.”
So instead of doubting yourself, when you’re faced with a strong opponent, block out every prediction and focus only on your performance. It is, after all, the only thing you can control.
Problem: When Something Goes Wrong, You Blow Up
Tempers flare during the heat of battle. That’s OK, but if you flip out every time a teammate makes an error (or you make one yourself), that’s counterproductive—and can even be destructive to your team’s chemistry (and your own enjoyment of the game).
Dr. Lesyk suggests temperamental athletes should be easier on themselves and others by evaluating their own expectations heading into a match.
“If you think that your teammates will always perform flawlessly, then you’re going to experience a lot of emotional reactions [when things go wrong],” Lesyk says. If you don’t expect perfection, you’ll be less likely to feel upset when something goes wrong. “If you accept that your teammates, much like yourself, are human beings capable of making mistakes, then changing that philosophy and that set of expectations will often reduce some of that volatile behavior,” Lesyk says.
Problem: You Feel Burned Out
Have you ever been in a relationship that started out being fun and spontaneous, but eventually felt stale? Perhaps you or your significant other suggested to take some time off to rediscover the excitement you felt at the beginning. As more athletes commit to a single sport at an earlier age, and as more sports seemingly require a 365-day season, it’s common for athletes to burn out and even begin to resent a sport they used to love. For this, Lesyk suggests a “sport holiday,” where you take enough time off to rest your body and clear your mind. “Very often, that’s enough to bounce back,” he says.
Of course there are times when the relationship has just run its course for good. Sometimes, your best option is to find a new role in the sport, or try a different sport entirely.
Problem: You Don’t Feel Like You’re Getting Anywhere
Some people have the right attitude and work ethic, but they just can’t seem to get the results they want. If that sounds like you, you need to ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to gain by hitting the weight room or staying late after practice?”
By setting specific goals—for both the short term and the long term—you can help yourself stay focused, even when your objective feels difficult to reach.
“A good goal is one that has a 50 percent chance of being obtained,” Lesyk says. “If it’s too easy, there’s no satisfaction [in attaining it], and if it’s too hard and unattainable then you obviously won’t be satisfied. You have to find one that is challenging, reach that, and then extend that goal to another, new goal.”
Problem: You Choke Under Pressure
Performing under pressure is common for athletes in all sports. Lesyk suggests athletes take two steps to help themselves in scenarios when the game is on the line.
First, he says athletes need to learn how to self-monitor their stress levels in sports—and life in general. To give athletes an idea of how to gauge their stress levels, Lesyk suggests they “imagine anxiety or nervousness on a 10-point scale with 0 being comatose and 10 being pushed out of an airplane without a parachute.”
This scale gives athletes a baseline, which can help their ability to recognize stress. Lesyk’s second step offers the perspective. He helps athletes learn how to control themselves in low-pressure situations before they even deal with high-pressure scenarios. Having an understanding of what “relaxed” feels like in everyday life can give an athlete a baseline to work off once he or she realizes stress levels are spiking in a game or in the classroom.