Famous athletes are often admired for their great skill, superhuman strength, or fantastic endurance. What many forget that there is something an athlete needs even more than these attributes: a trained mind.
Mental preparation has increasingly become important as sports have evolved. Sports psychology is a discipline completely devoted to the study, and adages like “mind over matter” are common in everyday speech. Although there is still much to learn about how the brain works in connection with fitness, athletes can learn many mental strategies to help improve their game.
Endurance athletes know how important keeping one’s mind in control is. In long races, the body will eventually send messages of pain to the brain and the athlete will want to stop. To finish, you must be able to not only keep going, but also keep up a good pace. Pain and injuries are inevitable; giving up is not.
Of course, pain should not be completely ignored, and sometimes the only thing to do is stop to prevent further serious injury.
The other extreme is getting anxious and panicky over little things before and during exercise. Before a race, being prepared for what may go wrong, but not unnecessarily worrying about it, is important. During a race, when anxiety happens, it’s important to remain calm. Try breathing deeply and thinking about how you are taking breaths. Relax your facial muscles and unclench your fists. Wasting energy on subconsciously tightening muscles will be a detriment in any workout or race.
Perhaps the most important thing in training one’s mind to achieve fitness goals is to stay positive. Going into a race with positive thoughts helps because starting with doubts may mean you’re defeated before you’ve started. Using imagery to get through a race may help, like thinking of family, friends, and previous achievements. Some athletes also use mantras, any short phrase like “Stay strong, swift and smiling” repeated over and over. This helps keep the focus on positive things, not the negative ones.
Lastly, focus on the goal and what brought you here. If you have properly trained, have the confidence to know that you have done this before and can do it again. And remember why you are doing this in the first place, hopefully because of a love of the sport and the sheer pleasure of being physically active. Possessing the mental edge to persevere means the difference between finishing and failing and brings you that much closer to your goal.