In a previous article, Essentials for handling a world of intensity and change, I spoke of how sports champions are ideal people to model during this time. Firstly, in their sport-as-usual lives, they are constantly travelling the globe on professional tours and adjusting to a myriad of different conditions. Secondly, they have mastered tools that enable adjust-ability and resilience, and therefore consistency of physical and mental performance. This happens in spite of the disruption that may occur in the differing contexts of performance they adapt to.
There are three essentials that create champions under intense pressure and change – regardless of career or walk of life. The first two were unpacked in a previous article:
1. Champions own their commitment to their progress
2. Champions access the support of a specialised team
3. Champions train for mental toughness as they do for physical toughness
If your intentions are to bring out your best self (whatever your field of endeavour), consistent training of the mind and the body is critical for peak performance. Multiple studies indicate that in order to master mental performance, for example as a chess grand master, the brain needs physical training. After all, is the brain not an organ? In the same vein, when mastering physical performance, for example as a gymnastics champion, mental training is essential to bring out the body’s best potential. After all, is the brain not the highest-order organ organising our bodies?
Champions train for mental toughness as they do for physical toughness
When competing locally or internationally, a top sportsperson knows that there will be a brief period of acclimation to the different conditions and environment. They also know that often mental and physical discomfort emerges from the change to the new conditions. When human beings are faced with change and discomfort, the struggle part of ourselves (which I call our “little me“) often emerges. Our “little mes” manifest in negative thoughts, feelings and old, ineffective habits. The difference between the greats in any profession and the rest is that they have learned how to navigate bringing out their best during these periods in life and in their professions. During times of pressure and change, most great athletes have a fortifying mental process which allows for the handling and harnessing of their struggle for their benefit. Many champions use the support of a psychologist or mental coach to master the intensity of change and pressure necessary on a path of success. However, mental training can easily be done by yourself in the confines of your own mind and home.
Unlike sports champions, many of us are unfamiliar with dealing with large amounts of uncertainty in conjunction with new environments, along with a lack of resources coupled with intense pressure and stress. This is exactly the context many of us are currently experiencing during lockdown and the immense consequences of COVID-19. Making a plan to commit to and invest in our mental toughness will fortify our mindsets now and in the future.
Some steps to training for your mental toughness
1. Keep your eye on the prize
The length of this lockdown period, until sport returns to proper training and competition, is uncertain. This can be an immense strain for athletes who have been accustomed to intense goal-orientated lifestyles. The prize for lockdown is to emerge out of this period strong – mentally and physically. Your mental prize is for you to stay motivated and inspired, in spite of your lack of usual training and competition. This global crisis will eventually normalise and your goals will need to be revised.
During this time of restraint, short-term general goals serve to keep you focused on the training needed to keep you progressing. By the time you read this, hopefully some sportspeople can return to training. If not, your challenge continues, just as the human spirit’s spark to find solutions continues to burn!
Giving up is not an option. However, changing your intentions is refreshing. Notice the generality of these intentions or goals for this period. For physical training, “I feel the freedom of doing what I love or a version of it!” For mental training, “I am perfecting my technique in my mind.”
2. Tune into yourself
We all need an intention, a goal or a purpose to work towards or even to make our days meaningful, productive and enjoyable. However, everybody is different. The key aspect about whole champions is that they know themselves and they know where they are going. The stress and redundancy of lockdown will have brought out more about yourself – both your “little me” (negative parts) and your “great me” (positive parts). During this time, some athletes prefer specific goals to keep them motivated and committed, and others need more general goals which bring out more creative training and inspiration.
3. Deliberate practice
Regardless of your goal-setting style, the process of deliberate physical and mental practice is what is important. This means that you need a strategic plan to improve aspects of your sport or profession, and read feedback from your daily training to check your progress. Experiment with your training plan for lockdown and beyond, and tune in to how it makes you feel mentally and physically. Increase or decrease the detail and intensity of your work depending on what you have deliberately planned to improve.
4. The purpose of routines and mental tools
Champion athletes, over time, have realised that having a daily set routine for themselves, along with the act of consistently using their physical and mental tools for intense pressure performances, evokes a quieter mind. It is these training, preparation, and performance routines that allow the athlete to move into flow/zone states which facilitate inspired, automatic, creative problem-solving. Lockdown training is an ideal time to experiment with what works for you.
Feeling stale is normal in sport and life. This is the time to make some adjustments and add some spice. I know of many a story when an athlete has decided to do something totally different (for example, having fun with friends or having a shower just before competition) and records are broken. Especially now, shake up your life and sport with some difference and fun!
Great athletes in a variety of sports utilise many different mental tools to serve their performance. At the Champion Academy, we train on bespoke mental tools depending on the athlete’s personality style and particular sporting code. Some peak performance tools include: Optimising Self-Talk; Little Me (negativity) Containment; Adrenaline Activation; Attention Control – Zooming; Bio-feedback; Preparation / Performance Routines; Meditation; Relaxation Training; and Visualisation Techniques. All these mental tools are designed to fortify your mental abilities and strength.
Champion sportspeople learn from their specialist support teams, as well as their own experience of what works over years of thriving under constant change and intense pressure. Take ownership of your progress, build your own internal or external support team, and invest in your mental toughness. Make a decision to grow as a whole champion by using lockdown as the impetus to start honing the three essentials of what creates champions under intense uncertainty, pressure and stressful conditions.
Clinical and Sports Psychologist| Champion Academy