Engaging in a sport is not only physically taxing but mentally taxing. Many athletes, including those who compete at Olympic level, have mental experiences that can psych them out before a big game, race, swim, or match.
What causes mental blocks in athletes?
Mental blocks can often be caused by a previous poor performance and at least one Olympian, a diver, has been working with a sports psychologist since the 2012 Olympics following a problem he had with one particular dive.
If an athlete experiences a problem when doing something they know well, over-thinking can sometimes plague them during a big event. Instead of automatically performing the skill as they may have been doing for years, they take a more conscious approach, as if they were learning it for the first time, which can cause anxiety and otherwise hinder performance.
One way to avoid becoming “psyched out” is to develop mental toughness. Athletes that have developed mental toughness are able to perform without thinking too much. When throwing a ball, approaching a dive, or hitting with the tennis racquet, the athlete is acting on a less conscious level. They are not over-analysing each step, and they are not anxious about what might go wrong.
How to develop mental toughness in sports
There are many ways to avoid what some sports psychologists have called “paralysis by analysis,” which is thinking too much about the technical aspects of a skill.
A good first step is to determine what mindset the athlete wants. When an athlete looks at his or her best and worst past performances, they can identify a mindset that will lead to success. Secondly, the athlete should decide what will help to create that ideal mindset. And thirdly, integrate mental toughness into a competition preparedness routine. Preparing for a game, match, or other sports performance is not just about making sure the athlete is physically ready – it is also important to be mentally ready.
Some ways to develop mental toughness include:
- Positive self-talk
- Making sure the goals set are realistic yet challenging
- Talk to other athletes and individuals that have had similar experiences in the past
- Enlist the support from family and friends
- Consult with a coach to gain awareness of expectations
- Be aware of personal responses to one’s own and others’ expectations
It is not uncommon for athletes to experience a “performance-block” – quite like some writers who experience writers’ block. Athletes are under a lot of pressure, especially when a competition involves high stakes like winning a divisional championship or a gold medal for their country. Athletes must remember to be mentally prepared and to engage in exercises that not only develop physical toughness but mental toughness. Physical and mental resilience together are a true recipe for sports success.