We have all seen “mentally tough” athletes on television perform in huge situations in front of millions of viewers with complete freedom. If you look for it at any little league game, you will see some nine-year-olds carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Why are both scenarios so common? It is not reality that inhibits performance; it is perception. Do you have the courage and motivation required to develop your talent as much as possible, and then express that talent on the diamond in “clutch” situations?
Courage is the strength of will to do what is difficult. It takes courage to redefine success as the “peace of mind that comes from knowing you did your best” (John Wooden). When an athlete truly accepts that her best effort is always good enough, regardless of what happens, she can have freedom from worry. Most people keep a safety net to protect them from feeling like a failure. They do not give their best effort. Not only is this easier, but their fear of the unknown also causes them to save some effort so that if things do not work out, they will be able to take solace in the idea that they could have tried harder. With courage, the future is still unknown and the unknown is still scary, but this fear has no impact on behavior. Adversity becomes a good thing and mistakes can easily be seen as critical components for growth and happiness.
Where does courage come from? Part of it is surely innate, but more of it, in my opinion, is learned. While fear still exists in the courageous athlete, there is less of it, because things outside of her control do not define her. Her healthy, and rare, perspective on success enables her to know that her value as a person is not at risk on the diamond today. She knows who she is, including what values she stands for, and knows that this will not change today, regardless of what happens. Her self-esteem gives her confidence and a sense that she deserves happiness. This self-esteem is affected by her environment some, but mostly it comes from her habits. She has developed the practices of living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and personal integrity (from The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Brandon).
Mental toughness is the ability to do what needs to be done, now. In practice, it takes courage and drive to work beyond your comfort zone, ignore how you feel, and WIN (Do What’s Important Now). Many athletes go through much of practice on cruise control, figuring that as long as they are doing what they were told, they are in good shape. The reality is that champions find ways to practice with an intensity that reflects how competitive they are. Competitiveness is not revealed late in a close game; it is revealed in practice. Leaders practice at game speed often, try to make the drills harder than the games, and push through pain. They also have the balance to know when to slow down, whether that means to practice in parts, slow-motion, or rest. They do all this while constantly asking “How?” They have a need to know why they are good. They want to know how to make the subtle adjustments necessary for consistency. They know that the most important coach anyone will ever have is herself.
In games, mental toughness precludes worry. How can a competitive athlete not worry about outcomes? By knowing that her best effort is always good enough. Not only is this possible, it also makes sense. A best effort performance maximizes the chance of winning on the scoreboard and all of the other things that people with a normal definition of success worry about (e.g. What will other people think? What will happen to me?)
The pursuit of consistent best effort practices and performances leads to an understanding of what it takes, beyond trying hard, to bridge the gap between potential and performance. It takes commitment to an educated plan of attack and it takes focus. Those are topics for another article. It also takes an ideal internal state. This is, in my opinion, the most over-looked aspect of sports training and performance. Does she get her mind and body in position to excel? Attitude is a choice, but does she know how to choose? If so, does she have the discipline to control the direction of her mind in a harsh and unfair world, or even just in a game innate with “failure?” Does she also understand the impact of non-verbal communication (to self, primarily, but also to others). State can be changed in an instant by changing self-talk and body language.
Here is an example of an ideal state that did not happen purposefully, which is fine and lucky, though obviously not reliable. A hitter came up in a 0-0 game with the bases loaded and popped out. Unbeknownst to him (I witnessed this at a baseball game last week), a balk was called, causing the pitch not to count. Given new life, the batter hit a home run on an outside pitch, then doubled on an inside pitch in his next at-bat, also with the bases loaded. We can all sense the relief he felt when he found out his pop-up did not count. With the grateful attitude that comes from the self-talk, “awesome – I get to bat now,” he was able to relax and focus. Attitude affects physiology and vice versa. Both affect the ability to focus. If this batter is aware, he will purposefully use this line of thought (“awesome – I get to bat now”) in the future. More likely, he will be dependent on circumstance to get his attitude where it needs to be to give his best effort.
Understanding the impact of state and the strategies for controlling it is exciting, but it still takes an awareness of where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there as best as is possible at this point in time to fully tap into your potential. This knowledge comes from using experiences wisely by noticing what worked and what did not work in the past. How? By guessing. Design logical checklists of steps designed to get yourself into the right place at the right time. These checklists are called your routines. Next, pay attention to your outcomes and adjust or repeat your guesses accordingly. Through this simple, alert, and diligent process, you will become an “intelligent athlete.” Intelligence is simply being good at guessing and you get good at guessing just like you get good at anything else: quantity and quality of practice.