The only way to stay ahead in the unpredictable, competitive world of sports is to focus on the now. When the game rests on their shoulders, mentally tough athletes attend to the task at hand, not their past failures. It doesn’t matter if they were the reason their team lost the last game. What matters is they can win the game now. (See “Play Present.”)
Of course, focusing on the now is easier said than done. But it is a skill, and it can become natural through consistent practice. Acquire and refine this critical skill by incorporating the following mental training.
Actions like free throws and field goals are skills that athletes have successfully executed countless times. Years of practice make the movements second nature to them. But when victory depends on flawless skill execution, it can suddenly become more difficult. Pressure causes athletes to get the “yips,” and they push, pull or short-arm the crucial shot. This is avoidable simply by approaching the moment like you do in practice. (See also 4 Rules for Playing Your Best in Clutch Situations.)
Focusing on more than one thing in the moment is the ultimate limitation. You cannot multi-task during crunch time. If you think about the magnitude of the moment and the skill you need to perform, you increase pressure on yourself, which in turn amps up physiological responses like muscle tension, shortness of breath and rapid heart rate—creating the conditions for restricted physical movement. (See Stay Motivated and Focus.)
“Ice Water in Your Veins”
The secret to being mentally tough under pressure is visualization. This technique allows you to see the action before it happens. Literally. You create a visual of the ball going through the hoop. Nothing but net. Your mental movie allows you to block out all the uncontrollable things—fan noise, your last performance, what will happen if you miss. You enter into an insulated world where you are immune to all outside thoughts, judgments and distractions. This creates the strongest mindframe for your best chance at performance success. (See also Improve Visualization for Better Game Performances.)
Use visualization every time you practice. Before shooting the ball, “see it” going to the exact spot you want it to be when you complete the action. This will prevent you from trying to “guide” the ball and will relax your body so you can fluidly and naturally complete the movement like you have done thousands of times in practice. You’ll find that you cannot visualize the ball going to that spot and simultaneously think about the outcome, so it automatically gives you the ability to block out distractions.
Ask teammates to yell and scream while you’re doing it in practice. Visualization is not an easy skill to learn, but with patience and perseverance, you can do it. You will be surprised how well it works!