Mental Training for Athletes

You’ve put in the physical practice: the miles, the swings, the shots. Now it’s time for the mental reps. When the competition is fierce, your mental game is the game changer. Mental training for athletes (also known as sport psychology) includes specific strategies to get an athlete out of their head and back in the game.

Successful athletes realize that mindset is key to taking their game to the next level so they implement mental training techniques. Top mental training skills include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Confidence to know you’ve got what it takes.
  • Concentration to control the controllables.
  • Composure to find the right intensity level for your game.
  • Motivation to keep going when things are tough.

Below you’ll find a guide of specific mental training skills and when you can implement them to be podium ready.

Leading up to Competition Mental Training: Time to See It & Believe It

Leading up to competition is the time to start seeing it and believing it.

Imagery: This is a great time to visualize success in your upcoming competition. Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and mentally take yourself through your performance. Be sure to include the positive and motivating thoughts you want to think throughout. Always end with a stellar performance.

Self-Talk: Become aware of your thinking. Our thoughts determine our feelings, actions, and results…and that’s amazing! Why? Because you get to choose your thoughts! Dump the doubt. Throw out the mind trash and give yourself a pre-game pep talk.

Recognize & Replace: Recognize if negativity comes your way. Our brains will do this to us. Acknowledge it, then replace with a focus on your breath and a thought that feels better. It’s important for the new thought to be believable to you, if not your brain will dismiss it. You may have to work up to the super positive, confident thought we’re ultimately going for. 

Pre-Game Mental Training: Your Mental Warm-Up

This time is all about getting game ready. Use these techniques to help you get in the zone.

Green/Gold Zone: The green zone is everything leading up to the game. It’s important to stay loose and relaxed in the green zone. The gold zone is game time. In the gold zone your sole focus is your role as an athlete. It’s important to know when to flip that switch. Decide where that transition is for you.

Routine: Develop a repeatable routine. Something you can do at every competition. Great routines have three components. Something visual (a focal point), something physical (an action that you’ll take), and something mental (a go-to phrase you’ll say to yourself). Pair it with a breath and go get ’em.

Zone of Optimal Functioning: Each athlete is different in how they approach their athletic events. You’ve probably noticed that athletes have their own hype levels. Super psyched, quiet & chill, or somewhere in between. Find what’s best for you and work it into your green/gold transition.

Game Time Mental Training: Keeping Your Head in the Game

Once you’re in the game, you’re going to want to use these strategies to stay all in.

Control the Controllables: Make sure your focus is where it matters. Name things that are in your control. Name things that are out of your control. You can’t control the weather, the crowd, or the officials, but you can control your game plan and self-talk. When you find yourself focusing on the uncontrollables, use a refocus routine.

Refocus Routine: Sometimes we lose focus. It happens. An error. A fan. A coach’s comment. The key is to have a quick refocus routine. Something you can do to remind yourself to get back on your game. It can be a short version of your pre-game routine or something new to quickly remind your brain where it needs to be.

Breathing: This may be the most underrated mental training technique. Being able to focus on your breathing allows your heart rate to slow down, your body to relax, and your thoughts to stop racing. Box breathing is a simple yet effective technique. Mentally draw a box or square as you breathe. Line across: inhale. Line down: hold. Line across: exhale. Line up: hold.

Post-Game Mental Training: The Self-Interview

Do your own post-game interview to recap this performance and have you ready for the next.

Reflect: Review your performance, physically and mentally. What worked? What didn’t? What would you change?

Record: Write down your observations from your reflection. Keep the positive to refer to when preparing for your next performance.

Relax: Take a pause from focusing on your competition to do something that helps you relax, have fun, and remember life outside of sport.

Ready to take these mental training tips to the next level and develop your personalized mental game routine? Learn more about the Sterling Sport Mindset Approach, then get started with a free mini session!