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4 Basic Tips for Fostering the Right Performance Mindset
Author: Dr. Brian Marentette
Published: 7/14/2016
Most athletes know that the mental aspect of competitive sports is critical to the success of an athlete and even an entire team. Developing mental toughness, dealing with failure and ‘staying in the moment’ are a few of the hot topics in the media with collegiate and professional athletes.  We will go into more depth on these and other issues as we give four basic tips to athletes to foster the right performance mindset.

Before we dive in, we must provide a disclaimer: fostering the right performance mindset is not a quick fix that athletes can make overnight or the day before a big competition.  The process of developing an effective mindset is just that – a process.  The process takes some time to make a difference in an athlete’s thinking because the athlete needs to learn to control their thinking.  Athletes need to practice controlling their mind as much as they practice controlling their body.  Nonetheless, here are four tips to help athletes get started down the right path of more effective mental performance.

1. Have Dreams and Goals
Before an athlete should even worry about their mindset, they should ask their self what their dreams and goals are.  Without big dreams (e.g., swimming in the Olympics) or goals (e.g., swimming 2,700 yards with your best effort), what is the athlete working toward? Not performing poorly? Impressing their parents?  The new cell phone they will get if they perform well?  These are not generally the best things for most athletes to work toward.

Athletes need to dream big and set achievement-oriented goals in the short-term that will facilitate the achievement of those big dreams.  Goal setting helps the athlete maintain their focus on what they need to do to continually improve, and ultimately perform well.  Goals help keep athletes from becoming complacent – if an athlete is always striving toward a goal they will always be moving forward.  

Dreams are also important and are closely related to goals.  Dreams are the really big goals that an athlete looks to for inspiration.  Swimming 2,700 yards is not very inspiring, however swimming in the Olympics is.  Athletes use dreams to find that inspiration.  Dreams will become reality if the short-term goals are achieved.  Dreams and goals work in concert to keep the athlete striving for improvement.

2. Use Failure Effectively
No athlete has ever won every single competition.  Failure is inevitable.  Failure is healthy – it helps us identify where we can improve.  It also makes sports enjoyable…what fun would it be to have a guaranteed win going into every single competition and never have any threat of losing?  While some athletes would say they would love to win every competition (and rightly so), in reality, without the threat of losing, winning would have no value.  

Because the dream world of perfection does not exist, athletes need to learn to deal with failure in a way that will help them fail less often.  Athletes must look at failure as an important development tool source of information about their performance.  They must figure out what caused the failure and then create a plan to correct or eliminate that reason.  Did the athlete being out of position cause the failure?  Was it a lack of effort?  A lack of focus?  Or, did the athlete play their best and the opponent simply outperformed them?  All of these would be good questions to ask after a failure.  They help the athlete figure out what they could do better next time.  The wrong question to ask would be: why didn’t my coach prepare me better for the competition?  Or, will I lose to that opponent every time?  Athletes should always take primary responsibility for failure by examining what happened and how to improve.  Once that athlete has asked the right question and can answer it, then it is time to forget about the loss and focus on preparing for the next competition.

3. Be Positive
If an athlete has a positive view of their self and the events surrounding them, they will have a much easier time dealing with the challenges that will come up as an athlete.  Negative self-talk generally results from failure and poor performance.  That leads to frustration, self-doubt, and a spiral of negative thoughts.  The athlete begins to tell their self how bad they are, how unlucky they are, how the world is against them.  None of those thoughts will do anything positive for the athlete.

So what is the best way to deal with negative self-talk?  The first step is to recognize the self-talk.  The second step is to turn it into positive self-talk.  Athletes have to get out of the spiral of negativity.  Instead of complaining and putting their self down, they must view the negativity as a challenge to overcome.  Once the negativity is turned to positivity, they can look at it as a victory.  Athletes who have recognized they have negative self-talk can start by telling their self that they can do it, to ‘suck it up,’ do what they have practiced so hard, and focus on the execution.  A positive outlook on a situation and one’s self is a major part of the right mindset.

4. Stay in the Moment
Finally, one of the most important keys to fostering the right performance mindset is staying in the moment during competition (and practice for that matter).  Performing under pressure has many effects on our mind and body.  Physically, our heart rate is elevated, we perspire more, and we begin to ‘feel our nerves’ to name a few.  Mentally, we begin to think about many things other than executing our performance.  We think about what will happen if we fail, we notice the number of fans and wonder what they think of us, we think about how important the win is, and countless other things.  These thoughts are all distracting our focus and attention from performing by looking too far ahead or dwelling too much on the past.  When these types of thoughts consume an athlete, they take their mind completely away from a healthy performance mindset.  The athlete can only control the present, so focusing on past or future moments is ineffective and a waste of mental energy.  

Evaluating these four aspects of an athlete's mindset will shed a lot of light on their mental performance effectiveness.  If an athlete is able to master these four areas, they will be performing better than the majority of their competition.  To get the most out of an athlete’s mental performance enhancement efforts, the athlete should first have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.  Trying to work on areas where the athlete is already strong will help, but the best athletes assess and prioritize their biggest weaknesses.  Athletes at all levels can use the four basic tips above to start improving their mental performance.