Mental Toughness

How world class athletes stay powerful in the moment

If you’ve ever got nervous before a big exam, it might be comforting to know that the world’s greatest athletes share the same feelings before taking to their stage. Being mentally strong doesn’t mean not having feelings of fear or self-doubt, it’s more about how you deal with it so that you can perform your best, especially when you are under pressure.

“In the Olympic Games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medallists from the silver medallists is simply the mental game” says Shannon Miller, Olympic gymnast and gold medallist. Serena Williams claims, “My greatest strength is my mental game" and according to legendary Yogi Berra “Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical”.

The world of competitive sports is incredibly conducive to a stressful atmosphere and athletes must handle both the short-term stress during competition and the long-term stress of results and expectations. Famous athletes have the added stress of being under a microscope - the press, fans, sponsors, team and coaches can put players in stressful situations, both on and off the playing field.

Whilst stress causes shifts in people’s thoughts and feelings such as anger, anxiety, insecurity, irritability, lack of focus or frustration, the most successful athletes always appear calm and collected. So how do they do it?

Despite the negative connotation of stress, top athletes use it as fuel to get closer to their goals. Billie Jean King, tennis legend and founder of the WTA, once said: "Pressure is a privilege."

Stress is a natural survival instinct that is designed to increase the survival rate and act as a catalyst for preparing the body for oncoming challenges. It is needed to make the muscles perform at their optimum level, so it’s better to find a way to put stressors into perspective instead of trying to avoid them. Nowadays mental training draws from new brain research, sports psychology, ancient spiritual traditions and mindfulness practice.

Some practices that mentally strong athletes suggest are:

Goal Setting -Athletes will engage in various goal-setting strategies to deliver successful performances. Within their larger goals (such as winning the match), they will set themselves smaller goals - performance goals and process goals. This ‘tunnel vision’ where their focus is solely on the execution of the next step helps them stay focused on the game and blank out all distractions.

Visualisation: Through visualisation, athletes envision performing their discipline from start to finish as if they were doing it in real-time. It involves imagining the actual action an athlete would like to execute and engages all of their senses – they feel the events that they imagine in their bodies. What is most incredible is that when it is well practised, the muscles involved in the activity in real life will fire in the same sequence and rate, as if the activity was actually being performed.

Meditation: In the words of Kobe Bryant, “I think it’s important because it sets me up for the rest of the day. It’s like having an anchor. If I don’t do it, it feels like I’m constantly chasing the day, as opposed to being controlled and dictate the day.”

Breathing helps you be mindful and be in the present moment, rather than worrying about the future or dwelling in the past. The legendary Rickson Gracie swears to it, even admitting it’s his main secret to winning: “I have done many fights which I quickly submit the guy because he just gets confused and I don’t give him a break. So, it is not only the techniques of fighting but also the breathing, the emotional side”.

Rituals: Ritualistic behaviour in both humans and animals evolved as a method to induce calm and relieve stress - it’s a method to focus your full concentration and control your actions. These rituals can range from common, such as listening to the same song before every competition, to borderline bizarre - Michael Jordan wearing his college basketball shorts under his NBA uniform for every game. One extreme example is tennis player Rafael Nadal: he towels down after every point, points the labels of his drinking bottles toward the end of the court he’s about to play from and never stands up from his chair before his opponent.

Well, the point is that you cannot control everything that happens during a championship or generally in life. Stressors will be triggered, but what you can control is how you react to it. The best thing is to practice techniques (ahead of championships!) to accept circumstances as fast as you can and stay present in the moment. Yes, easier said than done, but with some helpful techniques and practice, everyone can achieve mental strength.

Olympia VI