It is uncanny how closely connected feelings are to performance. Look at 1968 three-time Olympic medallist, Al Oerter. When Al found himself in a bit of a sports slump after having won three gold medals for discus he began to recreate in his mind the environment surrounding his most recent gold medal win. This included the sights, the sounds, the colours and all the surrounding elements and the feeling that all these elements co-created.
Al was due to throw his next-to-last throw and he was out of contention for a medal. He was throwing poorly and performing far below his personal best. When you face defeat after having known the taste of success it can be a bitter pill to swallow. In the remaining few minutes prior to his last throw Al Oerter wandered off by himself and this is when he discovered just how powerful we are when it comes to reaching our goals and reaching that peak of performance. He mentally reviewed the way his muscles (kinetic feelings) felt and the emotions that spurred him on before the win and those that followed after the win.
After having revisited those feelings and mentally recreated the winning scenario, he went forth and won the gold after having been deemed out of the running for any medal.
This can be applied to any sort of training, whether you have fitness goals you want to reach (but are still battling to begin) or if you are already a competitive athlete wanting to win the next race or even just better your time.
The key seems to be lying in past greatness. Sounds strange? Consider this: Reach back in your mind to time of success that engendered great feelings within yourself. It could be business, personal, sport or career related. It is the feeling that counts.
Now, remember the details. Random elements like colours, shape, and weather even the odd word that you eavesdropped can all be significant in recreating the situation. Now, focus on the feeling. How do you feel? Enlivened? Determined? Does your heart feel light and lifted? Does your concentration and focus feel sharp and clear?
Well, these are just some adjectives that can be used to describe the feelings and emotions that surround peak performance. What we are going to look at is how to ground this principle and thanks to Alan S. Goldberg, EdD, we can apply the following simple 10 steps in reaching our peak performance. A detailed and in-depth view is offered in his book, Sports Slump Busting: 10 Steps to Mental Toughness and Peak Performance. Published by Human Kinetics, 1998.
Principle #1: “Passion and Fun”
Whatever you are trying to achieve, be passionate about it. And if you are not, then become passionate about it. Make it a focus and think of how wonderful it will be. Feel the excitement course through your veins. Know that it won’t be easy but realize that it will be worth it. Understand that the challenges you will be presented with are part of it and that you wouldn’t want it any other way. The challenges and the overcoming thereof are the fun bits!
Create passion within you that you can use as fuel to become your own champion. And not a champion compared to others, but your own champion. Don’t wait until you receive the approval of others or the gold medal to enjoy yourself, enjoy the process from now; the beginning. Create the passion then do it and your peak performance will follow.
Principle #2: “High Self Confidence”
Your performance level is always directly proportional to your confidence level (read confidence, not arrogance). An average skilled team or athlete that has confidence beyond that of his peers will almost always perform above his abilities. It gives you that extra edge. If you have ever watched fast car movies then imagine you are driving the car, you are neck and neck with your opponent. You press that nitrous injection button that pushes the speedometer up and you leave the opposing car breathing in your dust. Think of confidence the same as the nitrous button. It gives that extra ‘oomph.’
You spend hours training and developing your skills. Confidence is what creates successful execution when you are under pressure. Confidence is what gets you up off the couch for that first run. Confidence within yourself is what sets the tone for success in the face of adversity or setbacks. If you are in a sports slump then self-confidence is the ingredient needed to prevent the slump from taking hold and setting in. By believing in yourself and having the confidence to reach your goals you are setting the stage for your own success.
Principle #3: “Concentration on the Process of the Performance”
If you have fitness, health or nutritional goals then concentration and focus is one of the keys. Guide your mind and be aware of where your mind is at before and during training or a race. Your mental state is critical to your physical performance. The two go hand-in-hand. Teach yourself to focus on the process of the performance and/or the training and not on the outcome. Whenever you feel your mind gliding away then gently guide it back to the present moment of the process.
Running? One way to keep focused on the process is to feel the way your muscles are responding to the impact of foot on ground without judgement. As Allen S. Goldberg so eloquently phrases it; “Focusing on the process means that you focus your attention on the action as it unfolds in the moment.”
Principle #4: “Resilience”
Create the inner climate that allows you to bounce back from setbacks or mistakes. Allow yourself to have the ability to bounce off of anything that could otherwise set you back. Use misjudgements or slip-ups as a stepping stone to keep on going, continuing as if nothing negative has happened. This comes when your focus is crystal clear, it unlocks an inherent and subtle force within you that cannot be shaken easily.
The Buddhist principle of ‘letting go’ comes into focus here as well: by letting your ‘mistakes’ fade out of your mind, you do not harp on about your failures. The less you hold on to your mistakes, the less they hold on to you and the lighter you are to move forward. Let go of what is weighing you down in your mental picture and keep focused on what is important. Give the “inner statistician” the boot. This is the guy responsible for keeping record of all the things you’ve ever done that were not up to scratch. Learn from your mistakes and then let them (and the record keeper inside your head) go. Again, some wise words straight from Alan S. Goldberg, “Resilience is a mental skill of champions, and it can lift your performance to the next level.”
Principle #5: “A Sense of Challenge”
Once you have developed a crystal clear focus and are ‘in the zone’ you can begin to identify your inner compass. This is an inner sense of purpose of what you need to do in order to reach what it is you are aiming for. It’s like you are on a mission and because you are responding in the moment, in the process (Principle #3), you are not afraid of failure. You rise to any challenges presented and are able to easily assimilate whatever comes your way, even if it is a minor setback (principle #4). Whether it is a one-on-one race or competition, a challenge to get up in the morning for your morning run or the challenge to stick to a nutritional plan, you can feel yourself being positively motivated to stretch the limits of your ability.
But how? Well, begin by understanding that the limits are perceived and set in place by you. You are the authority on whether or not you can shift them or not. When challenges begin to excite you, it becomes fun to push your limits in a healthy and positive manner. Switch of the inner naysayer; thinking about the ‘dire’ consequences of failure is not a healthy or sustainable means of reaching your goals. Rise to your own challenge without the harness of negative naysaying. Athletes who are in a slump are prone to negative motivation of fears, threats and ultimatums within their inner dialogue. This is not sustainable and removes the fun element.
Principle #6: “A Non-thinking, Automatic Quality”
You’ve done the mental preparation, now switch off your mind and do. It’s a sort of ‘mindlessness’ that is akin to mindfulness. You aren’t weighing up the pros and cons or considering the dire penalties of failure. You are responding in the moment to the moment. You have set your programme and now focus all your energy on ‘doing.’ It feels as if the appropriate action flows from you at the exact moment it is required. Trail runners know this feeling well. You respond to an uneven surface without thinking and make the adjustment that is required, jumping on rocks or dodging low hanging branches. You are switched ‘on’ and no thinking about whether or not you should or shouldn’t is required. This is born out of confidence (principle #2) and a trust within yourself. Referring once more to Allan S. Goldberg; “you play out of your mind in this way because you trust your training and are into a let-it-happen mind-set. When Yogi Berra said, ‘a full mind is an empty bat,’ he was referring to the overthinking problems of the slumping athlete.”
Principle #7: “A Sense of Relaxation During the Performance”
The six principles explained above fund this 7th principle, to be at ease during performance or training. If you are both mentally and physically relaxed than you are setting yourself up for your peak performance. Being at ease, you have released any resistance to reaching your peak level of performance. Your reflexes and responses are allowed to be lightening quick and you can time your movements perfectly because you are focused on the moment and therefore able to be at ease while you fluidly execute your skills, whether it be running alongside an oceanfront with no one to compete with but the seagulls or running in the ironman/lady contest. Allan S. Goldberg sums up the significance principle pretty well, “Without this sense of looseness, your movements are restricted and you can’t perform to your potential.” Okay, so to end off on a positive note we can understand it like this: With a sense of looseness you movements are uninhibited and you can perform to your potential.
Goldberg’s book “Sports Slump Busting” can be found on Amazon, Google books as well as many other sites.