Mental Preparation for Competition

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While race day or game day itself is often exciting, unpredictable and public, the training that prepares us for the big day can be anything but. The grueling, tedious and monotonous nature of preparation, typically done away from public view, can make sticking with a training program difficult. In this article, we consider the mental challenges of adherence and tips to get through training as well as the big race or game.

What hinders lots of athletes, whether recreational or highly competitive as they prepare for competition is the repetitiveness of training. Running the same routes and performing the same drills every day, after a while, can strip us of our motivation to continue. While repetition is key to mastery of a skill, new trails, new routes, or new routines can be the ticket when the excitement of training begins to dwindle. An older man approaching the 50th wedding anniversary with his wife recently shared to me his secret to marital success: “Keep her guessing. Keep her on her toes.

One day, return home from work with a rose, or a nice shirt, or a piece of jewelry or a loving embrace. Never fall into a long-term routine. The possibility of surprise fortifies the relationship and keeps it lasting.” The human body and mind both respond favorably to variation; life requires some change to keep someone alert, fresh and interested. Surprising your muscles and your mind with change prevents you from simply going through the motions and brings more mindfulness to the movements of the training. Examples include:

– running stairs instead of hills
– playing pick-up basketball instead of your regular agility training
– working on less familiar or less practiced parts of your game
– testing out kettlebells rather than the usual dumbbells at the gym

Mixing it up can be in response to a lull in motivation (“I’m getting bored, it’s time for a change”) or as a way to eliminate the possibility of the lull setting in. Find what works for you.

We tend to forget that there is a way to enhance training for competition without having to physically move our bodies. When a scene is imagined vividly and accurately, our brains essentially get tricked into believing we’re doing it for real, since physical and mental rehearsal alike activate very similar parts of the brain. Not only is it helpful to create pictures of success in our mind (i.e., watching ourselves kicking the game-winning field goal, or crossing the finish line in record time), but it’s just as important to picture overcoming the obstacles that may get in the way of success. Examples include:

– imagining how you will adjust your race strategy to torrential rain on the big day
– seeing yourself letting go of a poor golf hole and sticking with your normal routines on the next hole, rather than rushing and making impulsive decisions as you may usually do
– picturing playing intense and focused defense after missing a clutch free throw on offense

Remember, you never want to arrive anywhere on the course or field where you haven’t already been for at least a few moments in your mind.