What Seperates The Best From The Rest
Athletes who excel in sports generally love the process that they must go through in order to achieve excellence in their chosen sport. This process includes growing mentally, physically, and spiritually. Although they prefer winning over losing, they value performing up to their potential and competing against the very best even more. Given this, these elite athletes tend to be more process-oriented and performance-oriented rather than outcome-oriented.
When they feel anxious before a competition, they choose to interpret their anxiety as excitement instead. They believe that the excitement that they’re feeling is their bodies’ way of awakening their senses so that they feel alert and prepared for the battle ahead. They also recognize that feeling excited before a competition is normal.
When they feel fear before a competition, they recognize that this feeling is perfectly normal too. They recognize that being fearless doesn’t mean being without fear. It means showing up and doing your best even when you are feeling afraid. In addition to understanding this fundamental truth, elite athletes recognize that their fear is merely their unconscious’ way of trying to keep their ego and self-identity intact. With this in mind, they choose to acknowledge their fear and thank it for trying to love and protect them. Feeling acknowledged and appreciated, their fear subsides and goes away.
When elite athletes lose, they take their losses or setbacks as opportunities for self-reflection, growth, and improvement. They believe that there is no such thing as failure, there is only feedback. This belief enables them to take positive lessons away from their losses, which in turn helps them to release any residual negative feelings they’re holding onto inside.
These athletes also engage in pre-performance rituals before competition that help them to feel calm, centered and focused. For example, they’ll pack water bottles in their equipment bags, an extra set of clothes, protein bars, etc. They do this to avoid feeling discombobulated when they show up to compete. They want to feel instead that everything is in order, and this perception in turn enables them to feel calm and focused only on their performance.
The top athletes also engage in rituals, habits, and strategies while they are competing that enable them to achieve great results over and over again across time. For example, some professional tennis players will do the following ritual in the same sequence each and every time they go the line to serve: First they’ll take a deep breath in from their diaphragm to release the tension they feel in their bodies. Next they’ll picture where they want their serve to go, and they’ll imagine it landing in that exact spot. After that, they’ll bounce the ball three times. At this point, their ritual has been completed, and they toss the ball up in the air and serve.
Finally, the best athletes engage in rituals after competition. Some may stretch, while others may take a cold bath to reduce the inflammation in their joints and muscles. There are others that prefer to spend their time after competing journaling on what they did really well, and they’ll also make note of what they’d like to work on more in practice. These kinds of rituals and routines following competition give these athletes a sense of closure after a long day of competing. They also offer their bodies a chance to recover, and they give their minds a chance to reflect as well as learn and grow from their experiences.
In addition to incorporating rituals into their athletic performances, the best athletes also masterfully access their ideal, peak performance states whenever they want to. Some athletes, for example, choose to get into calm, relaxed states before and during competition, while others choose to feel confident, aggressive, and unstoppable.
They access their desired states by calling on specific auditory, visual, kinesthetic, gustatory, and/or olfactory stimuli that trigger neurologically linked internal feeling states . Some MMA fighters, for example, will deliberately play their favorite rock songs in their heads before or during a fight in order to feel pumped up, powerful, and unstoppable. Some other fighters might choose to picture their children waiting for them at home, and this image unleashes in them the animalistic desire to fight for their physical safety and financial security.
One state that top athletes choose to access a lot when they’re competing is the state of being totally present in the here and now. They forget about the mistakes that they’ve made before, and they choose instead to focus their attention only on the present moment.
They’re able to let go of past mistakes so quickly because they understand that experiencing ups and downs and going through troubled waters are intrinsic parts of the process of achieving excellence. Having made peace with this reality, they learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable, and they learn how to adjust, adapt, and compensate on off days.
Speaking of off days, when they happen top athletes stop the accompanying negative thoughts in their heads dead in their tracks. They’ll use mental imagery or some other technique to acknowledge them and then let them go, and they’ll immediately replace them with positive thoughts, uplifting affirmations, and empowering incantations. In turn, these athletes remain clear-headed, focused, and determined even when the chips seem down. For them, the chips are down only for the moment, and they believe that they’re going to grab the momentum right back.
In addition to monitoring their minds, the best athletes also pay close attention to their bodies. They see to it that their body language remains positive at all times because they understand that just as their body language is influenced by the talk that is going on in their heads, the talk in their heads is influenced by how they carry themselves in their bodies. In other words, they understand that their psychology and their physiology are inter-related and feed off of each other. If they’re shoulders are slumped, for example, they’re likely to start having negative thoughts. If they smile and stand tall, however, they’re likely to think positively about the challenges they’re facing.
In addition to managing their minds and bodies, great athletes also manage their ego’s desire to control everything when they’re competing. They focus instead on controlling what they can, and they let go of their wish to control what they cannot. For example, they realize that sometimes they cannot control the outcome of a game, match, fight, etc. If a basketball team is shooting lights out from half court all night long, for example, there’s little that the opposing team can do about it. If a boxing referee is biased and intends on giving his decision to one fighter over another regardless of what goes on inside of the ring, there’s little that the unfairly treated fighter can do about it unless he scores a knockout. Finally, if a tennis player hears garbage trucks making loud, thumping noises adjacent to the court he’s playing on, there’s not much that he can do about that either.
The best athletes realize that all that they can really do is focus on the things that are within their control, such as their mental and physical preparation, their attitude, their effort level, their focus, their game plan, and their execution of that game plan. By keeping things simple and focusing on only what’s within their control, these athletes feel more at ease than peers who futile try to control the uncontrollable. Consequently, they perform better and play up to their potential far more often.
Elite athletes are also known to consistently train very hard, and they keep their focus and effort level during practice the same as they do on the day of competition. As a result, they develop great mental and physical habits that enable them to perform well on game day. Because they’re in tip-top mental and physical shape, the day of competition feels comparatively easy and effortless to them. They’ve prepared for the worst, and now they have an opportunity to perform at their best.
Moreover, because the perceived demands of competition are balanced by their perceived capabilities, they’re more likely to feel very relaxed and confident going into competition. These athletes may even experience a state of optimal arousal, often referred to as the “zone” or the “flow”. In this state, everything appears to go smoothly and effortlessly for them. They’re totally absorbed in the moment, and they play with relaxed concentration, controlled intensity, and clarity of thought.
Almost all athletes have strengths in their games as well as weaknesses. Average athletes, though, tend to fall in love with their strengths, and they tend to turn a blind eye to their weaknesses. They figure if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Since they’ve been winning more often than losing, they figure that they should just stay the course.
Elite athletes, on the other hand, are not content having glaring holes in their games. They are always striving to improve and become more well rounded, and in this vein they regularly dedicate some of their practice time to improving on their weaknesses. Take Tiger Woods, for example. Even though he’s already won 14 major golf tournaments, he still works tirelessly on improving his golf swing. Another athlete who works tirelessly on his weaknesses is Rafael Nadal, the world’s number one tennis player and winner of 9 Majors. Even though Nadal has already accomplished so much in his young tennis career, he has recently improved his volleys, added power to his backhand, and added 15 miles per hour to his serve!!
Even though the top athletes generally rely more on their weapons and strengths on game day, they’re also more willing than others to put them aside for awhile when they’re not working. They focus their attention instead on what is working for them. For example, when great baseline tennis players are hitting errant ground-strokes but are serving and volleying well, they’ll stick with serving and volleying for awhile. This gives them confidence, and this confidence gives every facet of their game a pick-me-up. Soon, the baseline shots that they were missing start landing inside of the lines.