Mental Tips for Performing Your Best in Your Championships
Your mind often dictates whether you win or lose when it counts most.
Posted Mar 14, 2019
Regardless of what sport you participate in, you have a championship season within your competitive season in which the stakes rise and how you perform counts the most. Yet, this is also the time of year when many athletes and teams aren’t performing at all well because of fatigue after a long regular season and the pressure they feel as the championship season is upon them. In fact, in the last few weeks, I’ve been getting emails and calls from parents and coaches who are desperate for help in getting their athletes and teams back on track. Here’s the consistent message I’m getting: “My kid/team is performing great in practice, but, in recent competitions, they are a totally different athlete/team. They are anxious and performing tentatively.”
So, what happens to athletes and teams as the end-of-season championships approach that causes them to go from good to bad in such a short time? And what can you do about it so you can set yourself up for success in the REALLY important competitions that conclude your sports season?
Why the Change?
Results matter. Let’s be realistic: results matter! You don’t get ahead in your sport because you’re a nice kid or because you try hard (though effort helps). Rather, you move up the competitive ladder because you get the results in the form of victories, placings, and moving through the championship tournament bracket.
The problem is that when you focus on results, you are actually less likely to get those results for two reasons. First, if you are focusing on results, you’re not focusing on the process, namely, what you need to do between the start and finish of competition to perform your best and get those results. Plus, this result focus can cause you to get really nervous before competitions which makes it nearly impossible for you to perform your best.
“Too” zone. With this emphasis on results, you enter the “too” zone in which you care too much about results and your results become too important to you. In other words, failure to get the results you want is perceived as a direct threat to your self-esteem, perception of yourself as an athlete, and goals.
Expectations and pressure. You create expectations, which lead to pressure, that cause a threat reaction in which you are nervous and tight before competitions when you most need to be excited and relaxed. If you are saying any of the following about your upcoming competitions, you know you have gone to the “dark side:” I must…, I have to…, I need to…, I should…, I better…, I gotta…. Each of these is always followed by an implicit threat: “…or else something bad will happen.”
Overthink. In response to this downward spiral, you start to overthink, try too hard, and attempt to control every aspect of your performances. These reactions only cause you to dig yourself into a deeper mental and emotional hole.
This quadruple whammy pretty much ensures that you will perform scared, tight, and cautiously. The paradox here is that this shift almost guarantees that you don’t get the results you want.
How to Reverse the Downward Spiral?
Think less, feel more. The first step in getting back on track involves realizing that thinking more about your sport or putting more effort in won’t work. To the contrary, you actually need to do just the opposite, namely, less thinking, less trying, more feeling, and more letting go. Consider adopting the "Costanza Effect."
It starts by recognizing that performing your best is about feeling, not thinking. Two types of feelings are involved. First, the physical feelings you like to have before competitions. You want to feel strong, comfortable, and at your ideal intensity. Second, the emotional feelings you like to have before competitions. Some athletes like to feel happy and relaxed. Others like to feel inspired and excited.
Play like a kid. One very consistent feeling athletes often lose this time of year is why they participate in their sport in the first place. Remember that feeling of freedom and joy you used to feel when you played your sport before it started to REALLY matter. For example, one athlete I work with who competed at a recently completed World Junior Championships told me that he performs his best when he feels the way he felt when he was a kid. He just loved (and still loves) being out there doing his sport. My advice to him? Get back to that feeling and do a lot of what he did as a kid (have fun!) in the time leading up to the championships!
Express yourself. You need to get out of “protective mode” in reaction to seeing the upcoming competitions as threats to avoid and get into “expressive mode” in response to seeing the upcoming competitions as challenges and opportunities to pursue your love of our sport. Competing in your sport is like creating a painting on a canvas. You don’t think through every stroke of paint you put on the canvas. Rather, you get in front of the canvas, see and feel the image you want to create, and then you simply turn off your mind and trust your creativity to express that internal image on the canvas. The same holds true for sports. You enter the competitive arena, see and feel how you want to perform, and then trust that your body will express itself in the competition the way you’ve trained it to.
Nothing to lose. You have to perform as if you have nothing to lose (because, in the big picture, you have nothing to lose). You will surely perform your worst if you feel as if every competition is life or death. Now that is pressure! You perform your best when you let go of expectations, pressure, and fear of failure. You perform your best when you are totally focused on the process and the present. You perform your best when you turn off your mind and just let your body do what it knows how to do. You perform your best when you take risks and just go for it. And you perform your best when you are having fun and perform because of your deepest feelings for our sport.
“F&%# it!” (apologies for the bad language). For you to perform your best, you have to get ready to compete and just say “F&%# it!” This attitude doesn’t mean not caring about how you perform, but rather not care about the consequences of how you perform. It means being able to accept whatever happens as long as you take your shot and perform your best. When you adopt the “F&%# it!” attitude, you liberate yourself to perform, without doubt, worry, or fear, and with confidence, commitment, and courage. So, as I noted in a previous post, you should “Risk it for the Biscuit!”
Three Goals on Game Day
When you are able to clear out the mental and emotional clutter from your mind that’s holding you back, you can then free your mind to focus on three simple goals on competition day.
Getting Prepared. Before a competition, you want to be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to perform my best.” Ultimately, that’s all you can do. Being well prepared doesn’t guarantee success (because you can’t control everything in sports), but not being prepared certainly ensures failure.
Bring it! In the competition, your singular goal is to “bring it,” meaning being fully committed to, giving your best effort, and being completely focused on performing your best from start to finish. Bringing it doesn’t guarantee success (because S&%# happens in sports), but not bringing it certainly ensures failure.
No regrets. After the competition, whether you won or lost, you want to look back and have no regrets because you left it all out on the field of play. Of course, if things don’t work out the way you had hoped, you’ll be disappointed. But knowing you accomplished these three goals will minimize the regrets and inspire you to pursue these three goals in the next competition. And I truly believe that if you continue down this road, at some point, good things will happen.