When performing at a high level, it is not usually physical fitness or technique that separates athletes, but their mental toughness. How strong is their mind? To succeed, these athletes need to be able to perform under immense pressure, to have control over their nerves and maintain intense focus. This mental strength is what separates the good athletes from the best. Tennis might be one of the main examples where mental toughness can turn a match around quickly. For these players, the war zone is inside their head, not on the court. Maintaining their focus, determination and battling their inner demons is key to winning.
Given how important mental fitness or toughness is, it is surprising how often it is neglected in training programs. Many athletes concentrate only on their physical fitness and strength, and do not put in the same kind of training for their minds. Learning and practising the proper cognitive techniques is vital to helping improve confidence, focus, motivation and importantly, gaining some control over anxiety levels.
The mind and body are interrelated. Mental fitness affects physical fitness and vice versa. For example, a cricket player’s bowling technique will affect how confident he feels on the field. Similarly, his mental state will affect how he performs. If he feels anxious, this is likely to impact on his bowling. If he feels relaxed and confident, he is likely to bowl well. While this seems simple on the surface – strengthen the athlete’s mental state and he will perform better – it is not so simple. Everyone is different and it is important that the underlying cause of the problems with their mental state are determined before you know what to work on. The anxiety and lack of confidence may be caused by a genuine lack of skill or the wrong technique. If this is the case, you might work on bowling technique to strengthen both the physical and the mental states. The anxiety might be caused by lifestyle factors – home or work stress, relationship difficulties, diet, sleep disturbance, time pressures. If this is the case, work might need to be done around time-management, relaxation, couples therapy, nutritional changes or improving sleep. This work would reduce the anxiety levels and in turn is likely to improve the player’s performance on the field. Perhaps the lack of confidence stems from team dynamics, and if so, the goal would be to strengthen the team using group work and team motivation techniques. Just as your lifestyle, relationships and daily stresses affect your work, so does it affect your performance on the field. As you can see, there are may be many complex interrelationships at play here and is it vital that there is a thorough understanding of the problem, what influences it and where is stems from. Once there is this understanding, the athlete will have a better idea of how to work through the problem, what to focus on, what techniques to use and how to use them.