Psychological Performance Skills
By Dr. Keith Henschen
Most athletes in track and field think that hours and hours of conditioning, strength training and practice are necessary for optimal performance. Only when the body is honed to a peak physiological condition do they feel ready for competition.
Physical preparation is only part of the story. Performance is 95% physical and 5% mental; but the 5% rules the 95%.
Consider this fact: All performers follow almost identical training regimens, yet during a track meet, there is but one winner in each event. What separates one athlete from another?
In many cases, perhaps even most cases, mental preparation is the deciding factor.
To be a good athlete, psychological training is essential, and compared with physical conditioning, psychological preparation is generally easier and more enjoyable.
Athletes need psychological conditioning (mental skills) to attain their optimal performance. Mind and body need to work together. Excess tension, distractions and misdirected focus are negative factors that mental skills can help control and, thus, allow athletes to perform at their best. However, if these factors are not controlled and work against the athletes, these psychological factors are so powerful they can easily negate thousands of hours of physical training.
The psychological skills necessary to perform well are fairly straightforward: relaxation, concentration, imagery, self-talk and a pre-competition mental routine.
Learning to compete with the right amount of relaxation sounds easy, but it is really fairly difficult to achieve. Being too relaxed or not relaxed enough leads to a less-than-effective performance. Most track athletes, especially runners, need to reach a comfortable rhythm as soon into their events as possible. This rhythm is characterized by smooth and efficient effort and an overall relaxed, easy feeling, which allow athletes to exert more intensity during various times in the performance without tensing up.
Learning to relax properly is not only feeling “non-tense” it is also having the control to respond to directions from the mind. How many times have you said to yourself “Relax,” only to find yourself more tense than ever? The body hears the message, but unless trained with relaxation skills, it really does not know how to respond. In effect, learning to relax allows one to communicate more effectively with one’s body. Relaxation techniques available to track and field athletes include progressive relaxation, breathing exercises, autogenic training and meditation.
The single most frequent cause of mistakes during a performance is to be in the wrong attentional state, thus resulting in inappropriate concentration. When athletes learn how to control their attentional styles, they make fewer errors and become more confident in their ability to perform. Schools do not teach students how to concentrate appropriately, so students must find a way to accomplish this task themselves. A good sport psychology consultant can also teach athletes concentration skills. The skills of concentration are probably the most important of all the psychological skills to affect actual performance. Concentration, arousal, anxiety and self-confidence are intricately related with each of these variables, greatly influencing the others. No one can give a person appropriate concentration skills; each person must learn those skills for him/herself.
Imagery is a great practice technique, because it can help prepare the athletes for situations that might occur during their events. Athletes can use imagery to rehearse their events from start to finish. When done correctly, imagery is perfect practice (in the mind). To use imagery correctly, one first needs to determine what type of imager one really is—visual or kinesthetic (feeler). Strangely enough, most athletes are feelers; their best method of imagery is feeling how to perform instead of seeing it in their minds.
Everyone talks to himself or herself, and track athletes are no exception. The way we talk to ourselves either enhances or hurts our performance. Positive self-talk provides more energy to an athlete than negative self-talk. Most of us are conditioned by our culture to be negative with ourselves. We have been taught that this is the proper way to motivate ourselves, which, of course, is nonsense.
If a person learns to change his/her inner dialog to be positive, a better chance to perform well results. Negative thoughts tell the body that something is wrong. In response, the body goes into a defensive mode and performance suffers.
Establish a Pre-Competition Routine
After learning all these psychological skills, the real challenge is to use them. A pre-competition mental routine, developed between the coach and the athletes, helps the athletes get their mind in the proper place to perform well. The following is a sample guideline for a pre-competition mental routine:
- Limit the routine to 3–5 minutes.
- Do the routine after the physical warm-up and immediately prior to the beginning of the event.
- Go through the relaxation commands.
- Imagine or feel through the more difficult parts of the event.
- Go through mental strategies for the event.
- Repeat positive affirmations (self-talk) a number of times.
- Concentrate on achieving the ideal arousal level that allows feeling good about the upcoming performance.
All athletes, in order to perform well, must supplement their physical training with mental conditioning. I am talking about psychological skills, and they are skills—relaxation, concentration, imagery and positive self-talk. These skills should be incorporated into a pre-competition routine which will help athletes mentally prepare and compete in their events. Remember, psychological skills can—and must—be practiced the same as any physical skill.