Mental Preparation for Peak Performance

By: John Ellsworth 1

"Depending on whom you talk with, whether they be a coach, player, sports agent, or parent, you will hear that the mental component of sport performance ranges from having as little as 10% significance to as great as 90% of the performance curve.

Measuring success is a difficult task because achieving exactness in performance is quite challenging. However, if even the smallest percentage of one's performance can be attributed to mental preparation one would think an athlete might consider implementing a mental game strategy to achieve that extra performance edge.

There are a number of techniques an athlete has at their disposal to strengthen the mental aspects of their performance. This article will introduce two of the more popular methodologies for improving one's mental game. The best technique is the one that helps the athlete achieve the performance levels they aspire to. Should you require any further information or wish to learn more about how to implement any one of these strategies, please email me at [email protected]
=== Imagery ===
Imagery in sport is essentially the re-creation of an experience that resembles the actual physical experience without actually performing the physical execution of the skill. The re-creation and sensory feeling of skill execution can be accomplished through verbal rehearsal (repeating out loud the individual task elements associated with execution of a skill), or by creating vivid sensory specific images of each element or step associated with execution of the skill.

For example, in the overt execution of a skill the muscles receive sensations associated with the actions related to task execution. However through imagery, all sensations experienced by the physical act of performing are actually recreated in a “frame of reference” by using the senses to re-live the experience. Everything is executed in a passive way by imagining or visualizing the actual performance as if it were actually happening.

By recreating the experience in the mind’s eye the athlete can actually experience the same feeling as if the overt execution were truly happening. Research suggests that mental rehearsal actually helps athletes prepare for competition almost as equally well as executing the physical skill.

=== Arousal Management ===

An athlete’s arousal (excitement) level has a direct impact on their performance. Research has shown that performance does increase as arousal increases up to a certain point, then performance begins to decrease somewhat dramatically. If arousal levels are too low consequently motivation and desire may not be optimal to support a quality performance effort. On the other hand, if arousal levels are too high it is likely the athlete will make mistakes and errors and once again not achieve the optimal levels of performance.

Each athlete will require a specific level of arousal level to maximize their performance. For example, a baseball batter will require lower levels of arousal to perform the skills necessary to execute on hitting the pitch. They should have very low anxiety levels when they step into the batter’s box. The hitter should have high levels of confidence and trust in their skills, with a narrow range of focus for successful execution to occur. Higher levels of arousal will cause the hitter to make decisions about pitches they would not otherwise make. On the other hand a basketball point guard on offense will need a higher level of arousal, as the situation requires them to be more active, yet they still must be able to run the desired offense effectively. Arousal levels will increase even more when the basketball players is asked to play defense.

Higher than optimal arousal levels for a particular skill may cause the athlete to become too anxious and begin to worry too much about the results rather than focus on the required task. As anxiety increase so does muscle tenseness and therefore physical and mental flexibility becomes hindered. Precision movements require flexibility as well as unconscious and automatic thoughts about play action. A point guard forcing a pass to the post under the basket might happen if arousal levels are too high. A baseball hitter might swing at a pitch out of the strike zone if anxiety to perform gets in the way of execution. If each of these athletes exhibit below normal arousal levels, they may lack the energy to perform a task. Specific techniques that can help an athlete be in control of arousal levels are:

• The use of a pre-execution routine to center and focus energy on the task.
• The use of breathing techniques to reduce stress and anxiety.
• The use of positive self talk in support of previous success.

=== Conclusion ===
Success comes from repetitive task achievement. Task achievement comes from having a focused and committed practice plan. The best practice plan incorporates mental preparation techniques supporting arousal control strategies as discussed above. A well rounded practice plan coupled with appropriate coaching and immediate constructive feedback will indeed build confidence and improved performance.

Just like technical skill mastery, mental skill mastery is achieved one small skill at a time. Create, implement, and practice one skill per day or per week until confidence or mastery has been achieved.

Your job as a coach is to guide your players through refinements in the exercises for mastering both the mechanical/technical, as well as the mental aspects of performance.

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John Ellsworth brings a multifaceted approach to the mental aspects of sports and health. Combined with his expertise in clinical and applied ">sports psychology, John has extensive experience coaching, teaching, and consulting with serious athletes of all ages. For more information visit: ">

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