Every two years I overhear people repeatedly asking “How did they do that?” The “they” in question are Olympic athletes. We are constantly amazed and in awe of their performances. Particularly under the pressure of the Games. Because most people only get a chance to see these athletes every four years while in the Olympics the “how” piece is a mystery. And, as any good student of human behavior will tell you, we are likely to assign this mystery to talent instead of the development and hard work that goes unseen by the public. In our practice, however, we get to work with these athletes during this developmental process. Performing under pressure in the Olympics is not related to Olympic caliber talent but to deliberate practice to develop a Positive Performance Mindset™. Consistent performances happen when athletes (and other performers) take the time to learn how to master the psychology of high-performance. Based our model of the psychology of high-performance here are some of the elements that go into a pre-competition mental checklist.
- Intensity begins with intent. The neuroscience of how our brain functions suggests we perform at our best when we have a clear vision and direction for our performance. A clear goal for our performance streamlines our perceptual system, decision making, and responses. We’re better able to trust ourselves and go perform. Sometimes this objective is as simple as winning. Most times it’s more about how you want to perform, such as being able to try something new you’ve been working on in your performance. When the pressure cranks up, our brains want to resort to what we know. Without a clear objective in place it’s hard to stretch ourselves and hard to incorporate anything new into our performance.
- A clear objective helps set the stage for how you should define success and failure for this performance. If you’re objective is to be able to take the risk to try something new skill or strategy, then you should not use whether you win or lose to evaluate how you performed afterwards. It’s so easy for athletes especially to evaluate themselves on outcome even though they had a different goal. That’s a sure recipe for making things more difficult than they need to be. Limiting ourselves only to win/lose makes it really difficult to take risks and try new things.
- Now it’s time to put ideas into action. If you have a clear objective and sense of what this means in defining success and failure, the next step is to make sure you define the actions that are needed in the performance to make the objective happen. What are some key situations where you’ll have to make specific choices or actions? If your objective is to play quicker in soccer, then one key action might be limiting your touches on the ball to two (as much as possible). Perhaps it’s truly trying to use your new second serve instead of relying on the safe serve you’ve used in the past. Don’t overthink this. Just identify the most important 2-3 situations.
- Of all the millions of things that could be running through your mind, only a small few actually help you perform. For each of the key actions try to identify the key feeling(s) that are a part of performing that action correctly. What 1-2 phrases connect you to the correct feelings and actions? These phrases aren’t going to capture all of the mechanics in the situation, but they will help direct your body to do what you’ve trained it to do, without overthinking and interfering. Keep it simple. Both in what the phrases are and in trusting them while performing without trying to think about more than these cues.
- Even the best athletes in the world get distracted from their performances. They are great at planning ahead of time for how they are going to handle those distractions when they inevitably happen. What is most likely to distract you? Officiating? Weather? Your opponents? Your own mind? If so, what things would you be thinking about?
- Most performers try to deal with distractions as they happen with positive self-talk. Yet, we know that most of this is also BS as we’re saying it. It never works as well as we would like. So, know ahead of time what you’re going to say to yourself to minimize the distraction and refocus. Take the time to come up with a plan for what you’re going to say and do that you truly believe. Don’t think BS’ing yourself will work.