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  • Writer's pictureVikram Saggu

5 Mental Skills Successful Athletes Apply to Everyday Life


Although there is still a stigma of therapy in our society, our favourite sports athletes have already been ahead of the game. The mental aspect of sports is the difference between playing a sport, and being a professional athlete. Some notable names who owe much of their success to therapy are: Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwane Johnson, Tom Brady, Kevin Love, Michael Phelps, and so many more. Here are some techniques athletes use in sport and in life.

1. SMART Goals

Let’s say you’ve had a bad game and are afraid that the coach will bench you for the next one. One can’t just go to the gym and hope that they feel better next game. Rather, one would want to use goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relative,, and Time Bound; also known as SMART Goals. While the pressure is on you in a hockey season, a Specific goal can be to get more shots on net. This keeps things simple rather than just saying to have a good game which is quite broad. Measurable is the next goal. What does more shots even mean for a player? Is it 5? 10? Or 30 (which is unrealistic and we’ll get to that). Is the goal Achievable? What would you think of a hockey player who wanted to get back into the rhythm of taking more shots saying they will take 30 shots? Any casual hockey fan would know that most hockey games end with around 25-30 shots per team. That being said, 30 shots by one player is extremely unrealistic and likely not achievable. Having achievable goals, no matter how small, gives on a feeling of accomplishment and a serotonin boost. Is the goal Realize to your goal? Time is the last of the SMART goals. If we go back the shots example you may ask yourself how long you are expected to complete your goal. Does the hockey player want to take 3 shorts in a 60 minute game? Or 3 shots in the 20 minute period?

2. Positive Self Talk

Positive self talk is one of the most helpful techniques in therapy and has proven to be helpful. With positive thoughts, the player is able to change their automatic negative thoughts to more positive ones. Not only does one game positive thoughts, but they also are able to attract positive energy, letting you focus on the key parts of one excel in their performance. One example is Michael Jordan vs The Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons were a stacked team. Though they were by no means a superteam, they had a bevy of quality big men who could all score and defend the interior, such as Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards, Rick Mahorn and John Salley. The Pistons also had one of the best backcourts with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. In addition, they had two more offensive options in Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson. The 1987 Pistons’ rough style of play named them the “Bad Boy’s of Basketball” and were difficult to face for anyone. Michael Jordan has already lost to The Pistons before which questioned his self belief. He spent a whole season bettering his cognitive effort and energy and instead focusing on the key elements of his performance.

3. Reflection

Honesty with the self is one of the most important aspects of a successful athlete. Let’s say that you are an NHL goalie and had your worst game. You might have let in 6 goals last game. One can simply take no blame. Maybe a goalie blames the defence, lucky shots, and deflections. However that’s a difference between a back-up goalie and an all start goalie in the hall of fame. Honesty is crucial to reflection. The sportsperson needs to identify and capture strengths and weaknesses in their game to get to the next level of their game. So in that vane, a goalie needs to understand that they may be letting in many goals on their top right corner, or maybe their glove hasn’t been fast enough. This is not a situation to be upset with oneself but rather be mindful of what is happening. Marathon runners use past vs current scales with many aspects of their game. An athlete who is real with themselves may scale their nutrition a 4/10, endurance 8, and coping with pressure a 2. In this example, we can see that nutrition is lacking and coping with pressure needs some work through relaxation techniques.

4. Relaxation Techniques

Every athlete gets nervous in their career, that’s a given. However the most important thing is what we do about the nerves. Nervousness and anxiety and sometimes be misinterpreted as excitement; especially if you are playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. Nerves can easily damage an athletes performance. So the best thing to do is to learn to maintain calm, relaxed, and enjoy the challenge. One way to relax is consider if one wants to take a problem focused or Emotional focused approach. Problem focus is used when preparing to face pressure. The athlete makes plan to form a plan of action to reduce their impact of anxiety. The emotionally focused athlete changes how they interpret or react to a high pressure situation. For instance, Sidney Crosby on a breakaway can the situation a situation where the world is on his shoulder and if he loses he will let everyone down. Alternatively Crosby could also see the breakaway as a chance to use a move that he’s been practicing and learn from the situation if he doesn’t score.

5. Mindfullness

When people hear mindfulness, they often associate is with meditation and yoga, however this is not the case. Broadly speaking, being mindful means having your mind on what you are doing. It's the opposite of rushing or doing too many things at once. To be mindful, you slow down to take your time. You do one thing at a time. You focus on what you're doing in a calm way. This is likely why so many athletes use mindfulness in their sport. Lets look at a football quarterback. In football there are 4 downs and the hope is to either get a 1st down or touchdown. A player has to focus on that one play and their goal in that moment. He has long term goals of winning the game, however the goal in that moment is to throw and catch to the receiver without causing an interception or fumble. When the player focuses on that down, and that play, he is more likely to succeed rather than if he’s thinking about three plays down the road or even next quarter. Mindfulness helps us focus on the short term goals that lead us to our long term goals.

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1 Comment

Feb 25, 2023

Positive self-talk really goes a long way. Super interesting that using athletes as an example really highlights these skills and makes them more understandable. Keep up the blogging!

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