Vision Magazine – Feb 15, 1999- John F. Murray – Mental skills are needed for any performance situation including sports, academics, business, performing arts, public speaking, or job interviewing. In this article, I will introduce you to the mental equipment needed to meet any challenge.
Athletes and coaches often tell me that performance is anywhere from 60 to 95% due to mental factors. This never surprises me as the mental game is huge in tennis, my favorite sport. Thousands of decisions are needed in each match and a slight lapse in confidence or energy at a crucial moment can translate into a sad defeat. On the other hand, many satisfying upset victories are caused by using superior mental skills. It is no secret that the mental game is supreme in sports, and this is most apparent when players are roughly equal physically. Martina Hingis’ recent surprise exit from Wimbledon to a virtually unknown 16-year-old is far more firepower than I need to support my claim.
What really amazes me is that when I ask athletes how much of their practice time is devoted to mental training, answers range from “none” to only “5%”! Why would anyone ignore this absolutely crucial aspect of performance, the equivalent of competitive suicide? The truth is that detailed guidelines to help athletes incorporate mental skills into their training routine are rare. For too long the mental game was simply ignored, athletes were misinformed, or they were just encouraged by their coaches to “stay tough” or “fight hard.” While there are definite physical limitations to performance based on genetics and body structure, there are no limits mentally!
My new book, Smart Tennis outlines a complete system of mental skills enhancement. I use these tools when consulting with performers in many sports and other situations too. Lindsay Davenport, the world’s #2 ranked tennis player, endorsed my book stating that “Smart Tennis shows you how to win the inner match while having fun along the way.” My approach is designed to help you win this inner battle by reducing distractions and gaining optimal control over your thoughts, feelings, actions and physical sensations. You can use the following tips to succeed in any endeavor:
Get To Know Yourself First
The first step in raising the level of your mental game is to gain serious self-understanding. This is accomplished in many ways, but formally by completing the checklist I have included in chapter one of Smart Tennis. The quality of your performance is determined by the expression of thoughts, feelings, actions and physical sensations. This is combined with the essential mental skills of: attention control, imagery, confidence, energy control and goal setting. After reviewing these skills, take a moment to consider which of these need the most work. For example, you might find that your attention or focus often wanders during performance. By first getting to know yourself better, you can make the specific changes needed to raise your performance.
Attention Control: Staying Focused
Distractions are legendary in performance. Your key to mastering this mental skill is to remain optimally focused, not too intense and not too relaxed. You want to block out irrelevant thoughts and feelings (“I might lose this game”) and eliminate unnecessary sights and sounds (the crowd, a bird flying overhead). At the same time, it’s important to allow into your awareness those elements that are important (internal thoughts of strategy or factors on the edge of your visual awareness).
Imagery: Your Mind/Body
The ability to use imagery or visualization on a regular basis is critical. This mental tool allows you to transcend the bounds of time and space and even practice your performance when you are far away from the arena, even on a airplane! There are many kinds of simulation, and imagery is a form of simulation in which you recreate performance in the absence of physical stimuli. This is accomplished by vividly imagining all aspects of a successful performance.
Confidence: Expecting Only The Best
You need to expect the absolute best all the time. Even a recreational golfer can expect to sink a 40 foot putt even though a pro golfer only rarely makes this putt. In my work with performers, I often spend three sessions establishing this wonderful foundation. People get trapped into negative thinking, low expectations, or intimidation. I encourage them to throw their opponent off the pedestal and start expecting the best.
Energy Control: The Right
Balance Of Power
There are many great sources of energy for performance including mood states such as anger or anxiety, social factors, and fitness. The key is to be able to balance your energy levels optimally, for too much or too little intensity will throw you off dramatically. Each performance situation has unique energy demands, and each individual will vary on their energy levels. Viewed as a mental skill, energy control is the ability to raise or lower your intensity as needed to maintain consistent high performance.
Goal Setting: Masterminding Achievement
The final mental skill for your toolbox is to know what you want and how to get there. If you don’t set goals, you are without a plan and will be at a disadvantage against an opponent with a well organized plan. Goals give our energies direction and act as tracks which we ride toward success. Goals should be specific rather than general, realistic rather than impossible or easy, flexible, and with a target date for completion. Long-range, mid-range and short-range goals are also needed.
All five mental skills continually interact to influence performance. Great confidence will enhance attention control, just as properly set goals will improve energy management. Enjoy increasing your awareness about the mental game. After you have improved in one area, switch your focus to the next. Evaluate your performances based solely on how well you competed mentally rather than on pure outcome (win or lose). Before long, you’ll realize that there are no limits mentally, that this is a lifelong refinement, and excellence is a worthy pursuit.
John F. Murray, Ph.D. is author of Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game.