Mental Toughness Training for Sports
Mental toughness is a psychological quality that allows peak performance in any endeavor. Since the brain acts as a central processing unit for the muscles and nerves, mental toughness is particularly relevant if you seek to maximize performance in sports. Sports psychology has developed into a profession and focuses on the development of mental toughness for athletic purposes.
Mental toughness is the psychological edge that allows you to perform at the peak of your ability in a challenging endeavor. It consists of six attributes: self-confidence, motivation, focus, poise under pressure, courage and resiliency. These attributes can be developed through the use of goal-setting, imagery and focus training.
In order to motivate yourself, you must set clear goals. These goals must be realistic, because self-confidence in your ability to attain unrealistic goals in unjustified and ultimately discouraging. Your goals must also be challenging, because it is difficult to get motivated over a goal that is too easy to achieve. Finally, goals must be specific and measurable, so you will know when you have attained them and can regularly chart your progress.
Visualization is simply using your imagination to train. This will help build neural pathways that can produce measurable increases in your coordination. In some ways, it is superior to physical training–although it should be used to supplement rather than replace physical training–because you can train anywhere, any time without exhaustion.
Nevertheless, it may take time for you to develop the visual imagination necessary to vividly imagine knocking out an opposing boxer time and again. At advanced levels, you will be able to “rewind” and “fast forward” your visualization, and even put it into slow motion, so you can carefully analyze each move you must make. In addition, vividly imagining success in advance can improve your self-confidence.
A period of intense focus is like a laser beam of attention to the execution of a skill. Mental focus training involves the use of a specialized form of visualization combined with real-life execution. You must start by choosing a simple skill–hitting a free throw, for example–and practicing it again and again in your mind. Try to shut out all self-consciousness and analysis during the execution of the skill.
Next, practice performing your skill in the gym or on the court, preferably with spectators present. As your game improves, focusing will become more difficult, due to the increasing complexity of the demands placed upon you. When shooting a free throw, for example, you must focus on the ball and the goal. If you miss, you must suddenly switch your focus to getting the rebound or defending an opponent running the other way.
The ability to switch focus quickly is a key component of the focus aspect of mental toughness, because it prevents you from being too easily distracted.
Entering the state of “flow” is the ultimate goal of mental toughness, because it is during flow that you are most likely to achieve optimal performance. Flow occurs after a sustained period of intense focus. You know you have entered flow when your activities become effortless, time seems to slow down, and you lose all self-consciousness.
Ironically, the desire to win can take you out of a flow state because this desire re-engages the ego. Likewise, the desire to please spectators, impress your teammates or humiliate your opponent can re-engage your ego and take you out of flow.