Researchers and sports psychologists have been exploring mental strategies that are proven to boost performance, confidence and consistency for decades and some of the most tried-and-true approaches for developing mental strength are now widely used across countless sports by the world’s top athletes.
What is Mental Toughness?
Researchers define mental toughness as a set of attributes that are consistently displayed in an athlete’s attitude, mindset, training, competition and post-competition. The attributes are self-belief, desire and motivation and the ability to deal with pressure and anxiety, dial in focus and work through pain and hardships. These characteristics were consistently identified among elite athletes and formed the researchers basis for mental toughness in sports.
We spoke to athlete turned sports psychologist Jim Taylor, PhD, the author of 19 books including Train Your Mind for Athletic Success about the importance of developing mental toughness as an athlete.
“I call it prime performance. And I define prime performance as performing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions. This is what separates the great from the good, Taylor says. “The best athletes in the world are incredibly consistent. They don't just go out and have a good game, match or race every once in a while. They do it day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out. And they don't just do well under ideal conditions. They perform their best in the worst possible weather conditions or hostile crowds, or when they're tired or injured. That comes from training the mind the same way they train their bodies.”
The reason mental training is so important—especially for athletes—is because our brains are hardwired to think the worst. Though archaic and often unnecessary on a normal day, our neural pathways are designed for survival—both consciously and unconsciously—which means our knee-jerk reaction to many of life’s events trigger feelings of protection, fear and negativity.
The National Science Foundation estimates that the average human has between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day and an overwhelming 80% of them are negative. How that can play out in your game might look like an all-or-nothing attitude, low-self esteem, lack of motivation, negative self-talk and more.
In order to retrain your brain to be your friend and not your foe and reach your potential, you must develop mental toughness. Here are four science-backed strategies to try.
1. Practice Mental Imagery
Mental imagery, sometimes called visualization or mental rehearsal, is an improvement technique developed by psychologists that involves imagining positive performances and outcomes using a variety of multi-sensory tactics— and it’s been shown to enhance performance in athletes worldwide.
Imagery is one of the most studied areas of sports psychology and has been shown to improve objective performance, exercise frequency, mental focus, game-related tension, better confidence and faster recovery after injury.
There are a number of ways to start using imagery. It can be as simple as treating it like a guided meditation where you sit quietly and train your mind to focus on a game, race or match and how you’d like to see it play out.
Experts say to be as vivid and specific as possible and incorporate all your senses—see it, feel it, smell it, hear it and taste it. Picture the color of the jerseys, the smell of the arena or the grass and imagine all the surrounding sounds.
Imagery should also be well planned and practiced regularly. For example, if you’re working on a specific skill—let’s say it’s boxing out—perfecting it in your mind before physically getting there will help you get there faster and more confidently. Taylor says it’s important to be realistic with your current set of skills and really feel it in your body. Here, he explains in depth how to get started with imagery.
2. Refine Self Talk
Being aware of the way you speak to yourself and taking steps to improve self-talk is another tool for mental resilience.
According to research, the subconscious mind doesn’t recognize negatives such as the word “don’t”, so if you’re constantly telling yourself, “Don’t fumble the ball” your brain only hears and visualizes you dropping the ball. Learn to put a positive spin on self-talk, so instead say, “Catch the ball!”. This will help you work with your subconscious, not against it.
Another key aspect of self-talk is to not embody other people’s negative thoughts—don’t take comments personally and don’t make assumptions of how others perceive you or your skills. The majority of the time, they aren’t focusing on you at all and instead focusing on themselves —just like you are when you’re worrying how you’re being perceived.
Learn to talk yourself off the ledge and move on swiftly. If all else fails, a great affirmation to use is, “What other people think of me is none of my business”. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Finally, seek out positive affirmations for athletes and rotate through the ones that work for you depending on your current situation or dilemma. Affirmations are a scientifically proven strategy to help develop a more positive self view and become a better problem solver.
3. Try the Wu-Wei Way
This one might sound a little woo-woo but hear us out. Have you ever been in a game where you found yourself overly tense, trying too hard and overthinking whether you’d win or lose? Well, wu wei is the opposite of that.
A Chinese mindfulness practice, wu wei was conceptualized to help athletes stop being overly forceful and instead flow with effortlessness for better performance. “Wu-wei can be construed as “effortless action” which refers to the “dynamic, unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.” (Slingerland, 2015, p. 883).
Here’s how: “One key approach in actualizing effortlessness is not to be worried about the outcome while performing,” Science Direct writes. “In other words, one should not be harboring any thoughts of possible celebration of desired outcomes, rewards, or praise while performing the action. By the same token, any concerns about loss, blame or fear of failure should also be curtailed”.
It may sound counterintuitive to de-emphasize effort in a sport that literally requires effort, but the wu wei way is more about focusing on the moment so that it flows spontaneously and is less forced. Beyond wu wei, simply being present in the moment is a mindfulness technique that’s been very well-studied for its positive effect on sports performance.
4. Try Breathing Exercises
Nerves and anxiety are a force to reckon with, especially when the stakes are high and learning to control stress is another way to develop mental toughness.
Breath exercises or breathwork come with a surprising amount of benefits that can contribute to performance. It has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, boost energy and immunity, improve circulation, ease pain, strengthen lung capacity, boost confidence, support muscle growth, support quality sleep and enhance focus.
There are many ways to get started with calming breathwork—here are some easy ones to try:
- Box breathing or four-square breathing: In a seated position, sit tall and empty the air from your lungs. Imagine breathing in a square shape (each breath and hold representing one side of a square). Slowly inhale for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale slowly for another 4 seconds and then hold again for four seconds. Repeat the sequence as many times as you find helpful.
- 4-7-8 breathing: Exhale to empty lungs completely, inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds and exhale slowly for 8 seconds. Repeat 4 times or more if needed.
- Alternate nostril breathing: From a tall, seated position, using your right thumb, block your right nostril and inhale fully into the left. Once you can’t inhale anymore, release the right nostril and block the left nostril using your ring finger and exhale slowly through the right nostril. Swap sides this time and begin inhaling through the right, and so on and so forth.