061 sportspsych

How to harness the power of your mind

Before Roger Bannister ran the four-minute mile, no-one believed it was achievable, even though many had tried. Experts said it was impossible, that the human body just wouldn’t be able to cope with the challenge. Within two months of him breaking the record, two other runners had also done it – because Roger had shown them it was possible. Now, a four-minute mile is the standard of all male professional middle-distance runners.

Earlier this year Leicester City FC became the unlikely winners of the Premier League under the management of Claudio Ranieri. Their odds at the beginning of the competition were 5,000/1. So how did they do it? Much has been made of the camaraderie and good spirits of the team players. Club psychologist Ken Way revealed that the players were remarkably stress-free, despite the pressure of the situation they found themselves in. “I’m not a busy man at the minute,” he commented. “I was even able to take a short holiday last week and not worry about it. It’s only stressful if you allow it to be.”

Professional baseball player Yogi Berra said: “90% of the game is half mental”, and the very best sports stars have trained their brains to tune out distractions, reduce their stress levels and build focus and stamina. The good news is that everyone can learn these mental techniques to help them improve anything from focus at work to achieving a personal goal.

90% of the game is half mental.

Yogi Berra
1: Visualise yourself winning

It sounds too good to be true, but visualising yourself exercising can be almost as effective as physically training. A 1996 study reported in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that participants who imagined themselves weightlifting created actual changes in their muscle activity. When you imagine yourself performing an action, your body transmits electrical impulses to the muscles that would be required. In turn, these impulses strengthen the neural pathways.

2: Control the voices in your head

Everyone has an inner voice or two; some people have quite a crowd. Not all of those voices can be helpful and the key to constructive self-talk is learning to control them.

Self-talk is most effective when it’s rehearsed and many athletes incorporate it into their training, preparing what they are going to say to themselves. Brazilian runner Joaquim Cruz, speaking after a victory in the 800m, said: “A day before the race, I picture myself winning 100 times. I never give myself the chance to picture myself losing.”

No-one won a gold medal or championship trophy by getting up one morning and just giving it a shot. Great achievements take years of hard work and training and all of that starts with a vision. If you have a goal, write it down and put it somewhere you can see it every day. Then make a plan for how you’re going to achieve it.

A day before the race, I picture myself winning 100 times. I never give myself the chance to picture myself losing.

Joaquim Cruz, 800m runner
3:  Get in the zone

‘Flow’ is a mental state where someone achieves total concentration, calm and confidence. Once you’re in this state, you can keep pressures and distractions from entering your mind so that you are deeply focused on the task in hand. Being able to achieve this state is critical for top performance. High achievers use their imagination to rehearse important events in a positive way.

The power of visualisation can be used for a wide range of events in daily life. Whether it’s a job interview, presentation or performance, remember:

If you think you can, or think you can't, you're right.