The Mental Side of Sport

Performance & Sport

“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

New York Yankee Yogi Berra said that “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Two-time Olympic gold medal soccer star Mia Hamm said that “The most important attribute a player must have is mental toughness” and ski cross pioneer, Olympian, and two-time X-Games champion Reggie Crist said “It's amazing how much of this is mental. Everybody's in good shape. Everybody knows how to ski. Everybody has good equipment. When it really boils down to it, it's who wants it the most, and who's the most confident on his skis.”

Athletes the world over recognize that mentality matters when it comes to being a champion. It’s also important to note that regardless of where you’re at in your fitness journey, sport, or physical activity; whether you’re a high school or college athlete, a weekend warrior or an Olympic hopeful, you can achieve excellence through your mindset.

I believe that greatness is not achieved by simply going after the big thing and demanding perfection, but rather in consistently doing the little things right, because as Aristotle said excellence is a habit and we are what we repeatedly do.

That is why I am sharing some small things you can implement into your daily routine based on my experience as both an elite level athlete and having three university degrees specializing in psychology, counselling, and mental performance.

For those who don’t know me yet, hi! My name is Samantha Stewart and I’m a Bodylogix athlete, Canadian National Team Wrestler, and soon-to-be Licensed Counselling Therapist. I’ve spent the past decade competing on the world stage in service of my ultimate goal, to represent Canada at the Olympic Games and be world champion. I’m passionate about helping others discover their purpose, achieve their aspirations, and reach their potential, which is why I chose to go into the field of psychotherapy and mental performance enhancement.

The tips I’m going to be giving you come from three skills that have made a major impact on me as an athlete during my journey to qualify for the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games. The skill areas are goal setting, self-talk, and attentional control.

As this is a brief introduction, I suggest you can read more about these skills and my story on my personal blog or you can reach out to a performance specialist through the Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA) or the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) at https://www.cspa-acps.com/ and https://appliedsportpsych.org/ respectively.

Goal Setting

Firstly, goal setting, which is the practice of developing desirable objectives for one's actions. This is the most commonly used performance enhancement strategy and can help direct our attention, mobilize our effort, and foster persistence. When most people think of setting goals, they picture their outcome goals, the end result they are striving for. However, outcome goals are often out of our control, so it may be more effective to set process and performance goals instead.

My mental performance consultant advised me years ago to focus on the P’s rather than the O’s and being able to shift my focus to the process and performance I want to achieve has been instrumental in bringing me closer to achieving my outcome goals. Furthermore, this focus on what I can control in the process and performance has allowed me to be proud regardless of whether I achieve the desired outcome. It has allowed me to be proud of how I wrestled and performed even if I haven’t won the match.

Process goals are the series of actions and steps you want to take. Break down the activity you are engaged in into specific, measurable, and actionable steps. In wrestling I have a series of moves I want to execute in a match that I know, if executed correctly, will help ensure the desired outcome of the match. A win is not guaranteed but following a game plan gives me a process to follow that can lead to success.

Performance goals are the aspects of how you perform that are within your control. Identify the key performance characteristics of an elite performer in your field (the physical, technical, tactical, mental, etc.) and identify the ideal rating in each of these areas. These are the areas you can focus on achieving. Rate yourself in each of these areas, identify some gaps you may have in your own performance, and this is where you can improve.

Goals should also be present-focused and positively framed. Purposefully bring your attention to what's happening right now, in the present, and emphasize the things you want to make happen rather than putting your energy into things you want to avoid.

Self-Talk

Self-talk is the verbalizations or statements we make to ourselves. This naturally builds on what I’ve shared about goal setting whereby we want to continue focusing on what we can control in a positively framed and present focused way.

Athletes use motivational self-talk to build self-confidence, stay focused, increase effort, cope in difficult circumstances, and reach their potential

Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself, especially when things get hard. One of the biggest self-talk tips I can impart is recognizing “have to thinking” and changing it to “want to statements” instead. It’s no surprise that “have to” phrases invoke feelings of obligation and are demotivating. If you want to feel more empowered in what you are doing and improve your motivation change those statements to “want to” instead.

When I wake up early in the morning, before the sun is even up, the bed feels so comfortable I don’t want to leave it, and sometimes I think, “but I have to go to the gym.” However, this doesn’t feel empowering or motivating to me, or even real, because I don’t really have to – no one is forcing me. The reality is I want to go to the gym. I want to become stronger and be the best athlete I can be in service of my dream and goal to compete at the Olympic Games. Going to the gym and achieving my process and performance goals that morning is something I want to do in service of my long-term outcome goal. That morning, lying in bed, I can’t control that outcome goal that is a year away, but I can control that moment of deciding to get out of bed and give my all at that morning workout.

Attentional Control

Finally, attentional control or focus, which is considered a limited resource of concentration used to selectively process information. One of the attentional control strategies I can recommend incorporating into your life is performance routines. Performance routines are a set sequence of thoughts and actions done before your performance. This builds on what I’ve talked about with process and performance goals incorporating positively framed and present focused motivational self-talk.

Athletes prepare routines for before and during their competitions. I have a pre-competition routine that I execute at tournaments before my matches so that I am primed physically and mentally to perform at my best. These are unique to the individual so you have to find what works for you and then practice that routine; some basketball players bounce the ball three times before a free throw, golfers may have a certain waggle before teeing off, and I pace back and forth in the warm up area before every match telling myself, “I am strong, I am fast, I am a great wrestler, and I am ready.” Find the performance routine that works best for your optimal performance and practice it.

It is my hope that you will be able to make these small changes to the way you set goals, talk to yourself, and prepare for events. Whether they are in sport, business, or another area of your life I believe these skills can help enhance your performance and improve your winning mentality. If you want to know more, you can feel free to reach out to me personally or contact a mental performance consultant in your area for an individualized plan.

So, here’s to doing the little things right and making excellence a habit.