Peak Performance Game Plan

on September 23, 2021 • Grace

It doesn’t matter if you’re the best in the world: if your head isn’t in the game, you won’t perform. The role the mind plays in athletic performance is much harder to quantify than the straightforward, measurable, physical attributes of strength and speed, but in many ways, it holds the key to success.

Consider this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, when many of us casual observers learned of “the twisties,” the mental block that can suddenly overcome gymnasts, where they can no longer situate their bodies in space as they move through the air. This imperils not just their performance in that particular event on that particular day, but it also risks their physical health and even their lives. This dreaded obstacle exists purely in the gymnast’s mind but has dire physical implications should they ignore it and compete anyway. The greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, got the twisties while in Tokyo and recognised what they could mean for her health. She heeded the warning and pulled out of most of the competition, in what many had expected to be one of the biggest events of her career, showcasing her abilities to millions around the world.

Even for those of us not facing the pressure of Olympic competition, the mind is our most powerful muscle in determining whether we succeed. This applies both to major competitions and everyday training sessions. Researchers Gould, Flett and Bean describe mental preparation as “those cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies athletes and teams use to arrive at an ideal performance state or condition that is related to optimal psychological states and peak performance.” They note that mental preparation must be specific to the task at hand, so mental preparation will look different depending on the skills required. That said, their research shows a few general takeaways that can help guide you in your quest for optimal performance:

  • Find your zone. This is your psychological Goldilocks state: you’re not too hot, you’re not too cold, you’re just right. Avoiding the extremes of sluggishness and overstimulation ensure you are in the ideal mental place to understand the challenge at hand and respond appropriately. This can be achieved through proper training and preparation, through using stress management techniques, and through practicing present moment awareness
  • Keep a journal. Log your training routine and competition schedule and make notes about how you felt mentally and how you performed physically. This will help you discern patterns between the two and learn what works best for your personal optimal performance. Understanding these patterns about yourself will help boost your self-confidence, which is also key to building a strong mind. 
  • Engage in visualisation and goal-setting. Visualisation is one of my favourite techniques  to help ready my mind and body for a challenge, and it is most effective when what you’re visualising is specific and detailed. This is where it relates to goal-setting: the clearer your goal is, the better able you are to envision how it might look, sense how it might feel to your body, imagine what you might smell or hear as you undertake it. Allowing yourself this visceral, sensory experience helps prepare you mentally and physically for what’s ahead by making those goals real in your mind and, in doing so, helps assuage the fear of the unknown. 

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