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Mental Toughness Training for Athletes: Advice From an Olympian

By January 14, 2021No Comments

There are many incredible athletes out there with so much talent who never achieve their potential. At the same time, there are also athletes who on paper might not look as talented, and yet they have accomplished incredible things. Why?

The answer typically comes down to mental toughness. Whether athletes have it or not is a huge factor in long-term success as it allows athletes to learn from their mistakes and bring awareness to their practice.

Why is Mental Toughness Training for Athletes so Important?

Olympic athlete Joanna Zeiger likes to look at mental toughness as an umbrella term that has many different domains underneath it. An athlete’s mental toughness is heavily influenced by their self-esteem, perseverance, and confidence.

For her, it’s about inspiring a Champion Mindset in others that allows them to see past their insecurities and become the best athletes they can possibly be. In the world of athletics, it’s all too easy to fall into the traps of self-doubt and perfectionism, and many great athletes have been taken down by these persuasive foes. But mental toughness is not about that fall – it’s about how you get up from it.

Rebounding from a setback starts by addressing these three umbrella qualities.

How to Improve Your Self-Esteem

While performing particularly well can give you a nice kick of self-esteem, it’ll never last. If you’re always searching for fame and glory as an athlete, sooner or later you’re going to fall into the pit of perfectionism. Mistakes are inevitable, and in trying to avoid them, you risk avoiding the parts of sports that make them worth practicing to begin with.

This is why athletes need to seek validation from aspects of their life outside of sports. It may sound counterintuitive, but a great way to train yourself to have more mental toughness as an athlete is by looking for self-esteem in other facets of your life.

Are you a good friend?

Are you a good family member?

Are you particularly good at certain hobbies?

Asking yourself these questions gives you a chance to find the parts of yourself that are also worthy of praise, so you always have things in your life you can feel good about. It is all about giving yourself the validation you need without trapping yourself behind the bars of always having to win the race.

How to Increase Your Perseverance

Perseverance is a difficult thing to teach yourself, as it involves continuing on even when you feel like everything is hopeless. There are two main factors you need to work on in order to improve your perseverance and mental toughness.

Smarter Goal Setting

First thing’s first, always stick with process-based goals over outcome-based goals. Instead of setting a goal to win a sporting event, challenge yourself to get to a certain point in your training. The logic for this is simple: You can’t control how a game turns out, but you can control how well you play it.

Every step toward progress is part of the bigger picture of success, so focusing on the things you can change is essential to succeeding as an athlete. Set goals that are reasonable and based around what you want to work on, rather than what you want to win. For example:

If you want to be a faster runner, challenge yourself to get to a certain speed per mile.

If you want to be a stronger biker, challenge yourself to do a certain number of leg exercises a day.

If you want to be a better triathlon athlete, challenge yourself to learn a speed-increasing move you’ve never learned before.

Write down any and all progress you make on these fronts, and by the end of your goal, congratulate yourself on all the work you’ve done in order to achieve this next step. Not only will this improve your self-esteem, it will allow you to track your overall momentum each month.

See how far you’ve come in this journey with your mind and body.

Positive and Negative Visualization

When it comes to positive visualization, the future isn’t such a bad place to look. If you’re running a long race or performing some athletic feat that requires loads of your willpower, the thought of simply giving up and lying down can become very tempting.

In times like that, it can be helpful to imagine the future. What sort of energy level do you have to maintain to be able to get through this safely and completely? What are you looking forward to once you’re done? What will it feel like to cross that finish line?

Many think that positive visualization is only meant for pre-race time, but the truth is, you can do it any time to help you get through. Be present in the moment but look toward the future so that the present moment doesn’t overwhelm you.

On the other hand, there is negative visualization. This subject is often looked upon with scorn, but surprisingly, the natural instinct to imagine disaster scenarios can be invaluable in helping you prepare for worst-cases in your head before they even happen.

It’s not pessimism. It’s not an omen. It is preparation which is a key component of mental toughness training for athletes.

Even if you won’t be able to make use of most of these rehearsed moments, inevitably a real-life disaster scenario will come along, and you’ll most likely be ready for it. Just make sure not to overdo it and let the worries of the future overwhelm you. This is not about terrifying yourself with possibilities of the future; it is about making sure you can persevere, no matter what happens.

How to Gain More Confidence in Yourself

It can be incredibly disheartening if you’re hitting all your goals and going the speed you want to be and someone passes you on the track. It can feel like everything you’ve worked for is coming apart around you. That’s where confidence comes into play.

Athletes often become too obsessed with outcomes and scores, but when that happens, they start to lose track of the small things that brought them to this place in their lives to begin with. It’s at that point they need to go back and remember they are more than their sport; they are more than their mistakes; they are more than the pain of the present and the fears of the future.

They are here for a reason, because they love doing this. So, it’s okay to do it to the best of their ability, even if that isn’t always enough to win.

In order to combat your insecurities, create scripts in your head that you can use whenever you find yourself going down a rabbit hole. Scripts that will help you turn things around. Build sustainable goals and plan for the future, but be willing to adapt to the moment.

In the end, confidence is less about knowing you can win something and more about possessing the knowledge that whatever happens, you can get through it, and you can become stronger for it. That’s how you build mental toughness and become a champion.

Dealing with Injury

The last component of mental toughness training for athletes is having a plan for dealing with injuries. They can make or break you, but how you handle them says more about you than getting them in the first place.

The first step in handling an injury properly is to get a diagnosis from a trusted medical professional and make sure it gets treated right away. Don’t brush it off or try to forget about it – act on it so you can make sure you will heal fully.

After you have a diagnosis, come up with a game plan for recovery. Form this with the advice of your medical professional and your own good sense. Most of all, give yourself the time and space you need to heal. Mental toughness isn’t just a can-do attitude – it’s also having the confidence to know when you can’t do something.

You can even use the tips and tricks you’ve learned through your training to be a mentally tough athlete to help you. Give yourself kudos for every little thing you can do. If you make progress in physical therapy, allow yourself to be proud of that. Get the self-esteem you’re missing from other places in your life, whether it’s the more active parts of your recovery or from your family, friends, and hobbies.

Additionally, try positively visualizing what your future will look like when you’re better. Visualize yourself being happy. Do not shut yourself out from people around you. Accept your reality and then look forward with confidence and excitement to what it can become in time.

Appreciate Every Phase of the Journey

Overall, mental toughness isn’t about being perfect all the time. Just the opposite. It’s about having the self-esteem to be proud of every bit of your progress in every part of your life; the perseverance to keep yourself on that path of progress even when it hurts; and the confidence to know that no matter what you will succeed.

Maybe it won’t be all fame and glory, but success comes in many forms, and happiness is one of its best.

If you’re curious about how mentally tough you are, try the Sisu Quiz from Joanna Zeiger.

If you want to build up your own mental toughness, check out this course from Sonya Looney.

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