Your brain is an extremely powerful thing. It is the center of everything that goes on in your body and every move you make.
On the field, on the court, on the course, or in the pool, your brain controls how you perform. You should be the one calling the shots and telling your brain what to do. That may be easier said than done.
Along your path to taking control, here are four mental traps to avoid falling into:
1. The Positive/Negative Dichotomy
Anger is negative, and excitement is positive, right? Not for all athletes.
When it comes to thoughts and emotions, what’s positive for one athlete might be negative for another. Some athletes play really well when they’re angry. It helps them focus and work hard. Focus and hard work aren’t negative. Some athletes play pretty poorly when they’re excited. They get too amped up and have a hard time focusing on the task, or start to play out of control. Lack of focus and control isn’t positive.
Rather than falling into the trap of labeling things as positive or negative, think about whether things are effective or ineffective for you.
For example, some athletes get motivated when they tell themselves, “That was terrible! That’s the best you can do?!” and others are motivated when they tell themselves, “Keep working. You’ll get it.” Those statements definitely have different tones, but depending on the athlete, they can have similarly effective results.
So, look for what works for you. Ask yourself if your emotions and thoughts are effective and help your performance, or are ineffective and hurt your performance.
2. Failing to Live in the Moment
It’s easy to keep replaying that mistake you made five minutes ago or to step up to bat and worry that you’ll strike out in front of everyone. But focusing on the past (replaying a mistake) or the future (worrying what might happen) means that your mind isn’t in the present moment. You’re not in the now.
Focusing on the present moment is your mental sweet spot. A present focus helps you be aware of what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, and what your plan is to execute the task at hand.
The present moment is a great place to be because mistakes are a thing of the past (literally) and the future can be what you make it.
3. Focusing on What You Cannot Control
The referee’s calls. The weather. The field conditions. The opponent. The fans. These are all things you cannot control in athletic competitions.
What you can control is your effort, your attitude, your thoughts, your emotions, and your preparation.
There are a great many examples you could fill into these controllable and uncontrollable categories. What’s important is that you identify the things you can control in your sport and make an effort to keep your focus on those things. Your mental energy is precious, so put it toward things you actually have the power to change.
4. Not Writing Things Down
A performance journal, a notebook, or even a sheet of paper – equip yourself with one of these and a pen (or simply the notes in your phone!) and you’re in business. Writing things down helps you accomplish them.
For example, if you have a goal to run every day to increase your fitness, write it down. Make a plan. It helps to have a visual of your goal, a way to track your progress, and ultimately, a way to hold yourself accountable.
As another example, when you’re in the car on the way home from a great game thinking about all those great plays you had, take just a few minutes to write down how you prepared for the game that day. What were you thinking and feeling during the game, and what did you focus on? Do this after a few good games and a few bad games, and now you have a lot of information to reflect on to start to piece together how you want to prepare, think, and feel in order to play your best.
Successfully avoiding these common mental traps will help you build a strong foundation for mental skills development and ultimately, for peak performance. Remember that your brain is powerful and responds to things you’re not even aware of thinking or feeling. So, be deliberate in finding what works for you, writing things down, living in the moment, and focusing on what you can control.