Mental Preparation for Athletes, Demystified – Part I

Knowing and Doing… there is a difference

I was recently reminded of a saying that I have used over the years that holds deep significance when working towards becoming an elite athlete and a sustainable champion.

It’s a phrase that can snap things back into perspective instantly and has guided me through my sporting career – both as an elite coach and now as a professional mind coach.

I was with a client discussing their progress. This review process is common practice (or should be) for physical and mental coaches.

However, this time, as we sat in their gym going through their training journal and homework, this athlete was clearly frustrated at the process.

I was quickly becoming the recipient of an emphatic sell as they explained to me they understood and comprehended all the technical concepts and practical skill-sets we had learnt over the last few months. This was true, they had diligently attended every training session, taken copious notes and passionately participated in the in-session exercises, contributing a number of questions and statements at key stages along the way and even getting the other athletes engaged in the training.

Their body language, however, was telling me something completely different.

As this athlete relayed their thoughts animatedly, I could see there was something amiss, something brewing deep down within, there was this look on their face, a perplexed and puzzled look, a troubled look, almost a look of constipation (you know that look) as they struggled to get the words out clearly, choosing rather to ramble and talk in loops whilst trying to justify their position with high emotion.

The ‘look’ became more and more uncomfortable, as the rambling and looping became more prolific… the teeth were becoming more clenched with every statement…

… and then …

‘I don’t get it! I don’t get why I am not getting the results I want!’. Frustration poured out of every pore of their body.

As the air expelled from their lungs they appeared to physically deflate. Slowly, that look of constipation changed to a look of realisation – ‘Oh I get it, I have to actually change what I was doing, don’t I?’
Mental Preparation for Athletes
This revelation arrived out of the blue, but not without reason…

It was time!

Time to explain to them the difference between knowing you need to do something and doing the something you know you need.

ACTION is the key! 

Often the concept of practical application is the hardest concept for an athlete to learn outside of their sporting skill, especially if they are already an elite or professional competitor. Merely knowing something has to change isn’t enough to effectively modify behaviour on a consistent, reliable and deep level.

The system of ‘doing’ is vital to initiating and sustaining behavioural and performance change. Sure the ‘why’ is important – but just as important is the carefully structured support network that feeds, nurtures and encourages effective change on a deep and sustainable level.

Just knowing what we want isn’t going to be enough to deliver what we want – no matter how hard we wish for it. 

The key is to build a unique and personalised support system for ourselves. This enables us to:

  • hold us accountable
  • assess and adjust
  • keep us true to our objective and
  • rewards us along the way

So now we know we need to consistently apply something to initiate sustainable change – what specifically do we need to apply?

Lets look at a common performance issue, one that affects most athletes at one time or another when working towards a competition.

One of the biggest, most debilitating distractions to an athlete is the build up of nerves, the nagging self doubts, performance anxiety. This often brings on a surprise guest appearance of unpredictable skills, skills you have successfully conducted countless times before. All these issues emanate from internally wayward and unchecked emotions.

We know from experience that if we don’t get a grip on these rogue emotions, those emotions will grip us and get in the way of effective performance.

A very common mistake to make at this point is to think the answer is to simply suck it up and get on with it. By ignoring it or trying to train through it won’t solve the issue. It is more likely going to compound the issue, especially if the emotions are generously fed by more and more frustrating training sessions.

So what is the answer?

We know success breeds success and the effects of success tames the emotional monster.

So if it is our emotions that are to blame and not our inability to perform the skill, it is the emotions that need to be engaged, not swept under the mental rug.

To overcome this the Smart Mind Institute has taken the approach of building an athlete’s confidence through structured successes.

This is achieved through the Preparation Funnel.

The Preparation Funnel

The funnel is a process specifically designed to systematically tick boxes, creating sustainable forward momentum and confidence to build replicability and familiarity to success. Here we have all the key ingredients to reigning in the negative emotions and putting them back into a more productive mode.

There are two main parts to an effective preparation funnel

  1. The 7to2 Process; and
  2. Competition Day Formats

The concept behind the 7to2 Process is to have a heavily structured recognition system in the countdown to competition from day 7 to day 2. The system is built with a clear objective and a clear plan of what needs to be completed before competition.

This may appear simplistic, however without a system, many athletes either cram way to much into the last few days and begin panicking and raising the urgency, thus the anxiety – or they have no plan at all so do not prepare adequately and realise way too late, never knowing how to replicate those good performances.

The 7to2 Process

Firstly analyse and list everything you feel needs to occur in the lead up to a competition. List everything, from your specific training sessions (mental and physical); your physical preparation (massage, physio, chiro, stretching, S&C etc); preparation of competition outfit; competition food; travel arrangements; pre-comp venue visit; visualisation sessions.

Then assign the tasks to specific days in the 7to2 funnel, with the vast majority of the tasks being logged in days 7 to 4. Then as the week goes by, less and less needs to be done with day 2 (day before the event) just having 1 or 2 tasks.

Each time you complete a task, tick it off your list. This builds a sense of achievement raising serotonin levels in the body and the feeling of success and everything being ready – that calming feeling that all that could be done, has been done. The raised sense of success helps balance the competition nerves, lower the anxiety levels and brings a level of control to your preparation.

A key benefit of this process is it also creates a narrowing of our focus, preparing for competition day when all you want to be thinking about is you and your performance and being ready to switch to a 100% focused athlete. The 7to2 Process is the ultimate tool to allow athletes to take control.

In the next article we will look at the second part to an effective preparation funnel, which is day 1, Competition Day Formats. This will detail how we can move through the non-athlete, athlete and pure athlete phases to get the most out of your mental game.


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