When it comes to peak performance, it’s your thoughts that count

In the following article I’ll discuss mental strength as it relates to athletics. However, this information can be applied to any event or performance that requires concentration, i.e. sales presentation, giving a speech, giving a recital, etc. Also, the foundation of mental strength and personal thought control applies to every aspect of your life!

When it comes to intense, endurance or extreme sports - or any life situation that involves concentration – your mind can be your biggest asset or your worst enemy. Physical conditioning is not the only training you need to achieve peak performances.

Your mental state and, particularly, your thoughts that infiltrate your mind absolutely affect the way you feel and perform during an event. It is normal for athletes to plan their physical strategy in minute detail, but how many systematically plan what they are going to think about during training or competition?

Having worked with and questioned athletes and peak performers on their thoughts over a number of years, I can tell you that the number of performers who actually plan their thoughts is surprisingly small (notice that there are also a small percent of elite performers…hum…any connection?) I say surprising because, as a mental strength coach, I am aware of the scientific research and what it has been showing for a number of years, and that is…

Thoughts Matter!

In fact the nature and quality of your thoughts make the difference between winning and losing, enjoying or hating your training, and may even impact on your decision to stay with your performance program.

Much of the scientific evidence comes from studies of elite athletes and peak performers. A great book on this subject is “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.” Neuroscientists have shown that we have thousands of thoughts running through our minds each and every day. Athletes for example spend a large percentage of their time thinking sport-related thoughts, but most of these are unplanned and random. The first step towards becoming more organized and purposeful in your thinking is to become more aware of them.

So during your next training session become more aware of your thoughts. Sure, this might distract you from your workout, but this will become second nature after a while. The when you are journaling workout, jot down your thoughts. After a while you’ll begin to see a correlation between your thoughts and the quality of your workout.

Association and Dissociation

So what should you be thinking about? Two very different mental strategies have emerged, both commonly used by élite athletes.

Association - Involves focusing on bodily sensations and monitoring any changes – usually internal – that occur. Breathing rate and muscular sensations provide physiological cues that allow you to pace yourself with a view to avoiding or minimizing pain.

Dissociation - Is about directing attention away from bodily sensations by a form of distraction designed to reduce the athlete’s awareness of fatigue or effort. This can be achieved by many means, including music. However, more ‘active’ strategies like counting tasks or the alphabet game might be more effective. Try to be creative and have fun with dissociation. It can help you relax and enjoy your performance even more.

I am often asked which of these strategies is best. There is no simple answer, but a recent review of scientific research in this area came to the following conclusions:

1. In general, association appears to be linked to faster running times;
2. Dissociation can reduce the sense of effort and awareness of physical sensations such as pain and fatigue – usually up to moderate-to-high intensity;
3. Athletes and performers of all levels appear to favor association in competition and dissociation in training;
4. Élite athletes tend to use both strategies during training and races, and are able to switch between the two, as required.

When trying to decide which strategy might be best for you, it is important to consider your personal situation, preferences and goals. A training goal for example might be to relieve boredom and monotony, in which case dissociation, with active mental processing, might be most beneficial.

Dissociation may also benefit athletes and performers who want to improve their endurance longer at moderate intensities. However, because dissociation works by distracting the mind, it might work against an athlete setting an ideal pace for optimum performance. The reason why association appears so important in competition is that, by monitoring bodily responses, an athlete can ride that thin line between pushing for maximum performance and overdoing it.

Association involves entering a more concentrated state when you can react to changes within your body. And focusing on internal states like rhythmical breathing can help you feel more relaxed during physical activity. The down side however is that there is some evidence between association and injury; some athletes, it appears, choose to associate with pain and fatigue-related symptoms and end up pushing themselves too hard.

Most successful élite athletes have been shown to combine associative and dissociative strategies when planning their thoughts. There are times, especially in an extreme event, i.e. long distance race, climbing a mountain, long distance swimming, when you need to be very aware of your own physical state and of events in the external environment.

There are also times when you can plan to ‘switch off’ and give yourself a break from the mental demands of competition or training. The best thing is to construct a plan with your coach. Try to decide what the best approach is for you, and plan what you will be thinking about during the competition and training sessions.

For example, during a 30-minute cardio session you might decide on cyclic phases of thinking – i.e. 10 minutes of body monitoring, 10 minutes of alphabet game, then more body monitoring to the end. It’s all perfectly logical once you get started: you wouldn’t leave your physical preparations to chance, so why allow your thoughts to crop up in random fashion.

Learn to Script Your Internal Dialogue

When exercising, competing or performing for long periods of time, the mind can wander freely, if you let it. When this happens, your natural internal dialogue – or self-talk – becomes important. If your concentration does stray or your body monitoring detects fatigue, it is vital that your self-talk remains positive. The best thing is to avoid over-emotional self-talk and focus on self-instructing, motivational content. To this end, you can plan and even rehearse what you are going to say to yourself beforehand, just like you might rehearse an important telephone call or speech. This is where a coach comes in handy as well.

The key is to stay positive even when the situation is less than ideal. This is not an easy feat to pull off and will take some time to master.

The first step in this process is to become more aware of your thoughts before, during and after training and a competition. If you want to gain more control over your thoughts, try to formulate a simple plan and try it out over a number of weeks during training. If you notice any undesirable patterns in your thinking, such as negative self-talk or loss of focus, you can combat these by planning more positive alternative thoughts. You can, for example, frame positive statements that you repeat to yourself regularly. Ideally, write these statements down and place them in prominent positions where you can’t avoid seeing them.

Work on recalling these statements when you become aware of negative thoughts or feelings. This might seem a little strange at first, but you are actually programming your brain to notice more ‘positives’ and, over time, this will become a habit.

Athletes often recall that their very best performances are accompanied by few thoughts, a feeling of complete control, effortless movements and a sense of being ‘on automatic pilot’…this is the ‘state of flow’.

The aspects of positive thinking and focus discussed here have been shown to increase the likelihood of achieving flow, although environmental factors can also be important. Don’t leave your mental strength preparation to chance. Remember that you control your thoughts; your thoughts DO NOT control you. The way you think is strongly linked to the way you perform.

So if you want to perform better, gain greater control and enjoy your performance, sport or exercising more, start planning your mental strength strategy today…because your thoughts really do count.

Author's Bio: 

Gregg Swanson is a mental strength coach and owner of Warrior Mind Coach and Training. To receive a complimentary copy of his e-book “How to Create Warrior Mind Strength” please visit: http://WarriorMindCoach.com