4 Steps to Athletic Success

If we really want to maximize every opportunity as an athlete it’s important to keep things simple. We need to have a process that’s going to allow us to be present, repeat our mechanics, and learn from the results we produce. Regardless if we’re practicing on our own, in team practice, or competing in a game there are 4 simple steps that you can perform to get the most out of each practice session or maximize your performance in a game.

Set your Intention (or “Process Oriented Goal”)

The first thing I like to do is set an intention. An intention is just a fancy name for a goal. But unlike a goal it’s flexible in that it’s open to the possibility of something even better happening. So before we set our intention we must ask ourselves a few questions… What is the situation? What result am I trying to produce?

Once you have the answers to these questions you can ask yourself the most important question… How can I put myself in the best position to produce that result? Your intention  can’t be producing a particular result but rather must be focused on the step or steps you must take to produce that result. It can be something physical like a physical key that places you in the best position to succeed or it can be mental in terms of something you need to focus on that will help you produce the result you desire to produce.

Become Present

After we set our intention it’s important that we then focus on our breathing and bring our awareness back to the present moment. You see, by staying rigidly focused on that intention and trying to “make it happen” you cause yourself to become tense which decreases the likelihood that you produce the result you desire. By becoming present you are essentially releasing your attachment to the desired outcome allowing yourself be to more relaxed and as a result more precise in the execution of your mechanics. The best way to do this is by becoming aware of your breathing. Simply control and listen to yourself breathe, slowly in and out through your nose.

Focus on Execution

When the time comes it’s important to focus on executing proper mechanics. Focus on executing the steps necessary that will potentially allow you to be successful. Focusing on anything else leads to mental and muscular tension created by fear. Fear of NOT creating your desired outcome. That tension leads to mechanical breakdown decreasing the likelihood of you performing to your full capacity.

Evaluate and Adjust

Now it’s time to evaluate how you did and form you’re new intention for the next pitch. Ask yourself… How’d I do? What adjustments do I need to make? Remember to keep your answers process oriented. Were you able to execute? What adjustment needs to made mentally or physically so you can execute better the next time? Whatever the answers are use that information to then become your intention for the following pitch, play, possession, whatever.

So there you have it. 4 steps to athletic success. If you take this approach and consciously use these steps during each practice session or game I know you’ll see tremendous growth in yourself as an athlete. Remember… Play hard, Be Present, and Have Fun!!!

Acceptance

One of the most difficult things as an athlete is to accept when things aren’t going our way. One of the most powerful things we can train ourselves to do is to completely accept the situation we’re in with out resisting it in any way. What does that mean??? Let me give you an example from my sport of baseball… Let’s say you’re up to bat and the count is 1-1. The pitcher delivers the pitch and the umpire makes a terrible call. Now you’re down 1-2. Most hitters get upset, they feel robbed of an opportunity where they would be in a more advantageous count. Their mind begins spiraling out of control, they become frustrated, maybe even angry over the blown call by the umpire.

But Ryan, the guy made a terrible call. Don’t I have reason to be upset? Maybe. But that’s not the point. The point is that your job is not to be upset or frustrated but have the ability to mentally put yourself in the best position possible to succeed on the next pitch. Let me ask you a question… In your entire career has getting upset over a blown call, bad weather, mistake by a teammate, playing time, ever changed the situation? Have you ever gotten upset with an umpire or an official and then after voicing your displeasure had him look at you and say, “You raise a good point. Ok I’ll change my call.” I’m going to go out on a limb and that’s probably never happened. Yet time and time again we allow the situation to dictate our mental state.

So why is this so important? Let’s look at what happens when we’re in a state of resistance and how that impacts your ability to perform. First of all when I say “resistance” what I mean is the mental resistance you have toward the situation. It’s the negative self-talk and subsequent feelings that go along with your frustration over things not going the way you want them to. When we’re in this resistant state our mind taps into our body’s primal fight or flight response.

What? Yes, when you don’t fully accept the present situation you are in a state of fear. Fear of failure, fear of letting your team down, fear of not being as good as think you are, whatever. Anytime we experience those negative, performance inhibiting thoughts and emotions you activate the fight or flight response. This response can cloud our thinking, shallow our breathing, increase our heart rate, increase muscular tension, and decrease fine motor movements. It’s these fine motor movements that allow us to execute our mechanics correctly. It’s these fine motor movements that make the difference between success and failure.  So essentially your job as an athlete is to effectively manage your fight or flight response placing yourself in the best position to succeed.

So how do we do this?

Daily mindfulness/meditation practice

You can’t play in the moment or have your mind completely focused on the here and now without practicing being in the moment. Setting aside time each day to sit in quiet meditation is crucial to your mental development both as an athlete and in life. It develops within you the ability to stay focused on the present moment regardless of what your external situation might be.

Make acceptance a conscious decision

Before each practice or game it’s important to consciously remind yourself to completely accept whatever situation you may find yourself in. If the count is 1-2 then your job in that moment is to execute a quality swing on that 1-2 pitch if it’s in the hitting zone. Being frustrated or upset over the fact that the count is 1-2 is counter productive. Whatever the moment brings you then in that moment that is your job. You don’t have to like it but you do have to accept it.

Breathe

Nothing brings us back to the present like our breath. If you find your mind focusing on past or future simply slow your breathing and listen to yourself breathe. By listening to our breathing we break the habit of allowing the situation to dictate our reality. Over time your mind will develop the ability to stay present and accept whatever situation may arise. But until then use your breath as a tool to return you to the here and now.

I’m not going to lie. Acceptance is much easier said than done. In any competitive environment it’s easy to let our ego get involved. It’s easy to become fixated on who’s to blame for our failures instead of accepting what’s happening and staying focused on what we can control. However, developing this ability to not resist whatever the present moment brings will not only help you perform to your highest capacity on the athletic field but also in any other aspect of life you choose to apply it to.

Setting Emotional Goals for Peak Performance

Probably one of the most powerful tools I discovered didn’t occur to me until the very end of my playing career. Not really having mentors, so to speak, my career was very trial and error. It was me spending time alone trying to figure out how I was going to maximize my abilities as an athlete. As such many of the Aha moments that I had didn’t come until the very end of my career or in many cases came years after my career ended. What I didn’t realize was how the work I was putting in was going to have such a profound influence on my daily life.

My last season as a baseball player came in the Texas town of Laredo. I was there, playing in a brand new league, for a brand new team, at probably the lowest level of professional baseball. For me however, it didn’t matter. I was as excited as I would have been if I had been playing in Yankee Stadium.

What is “Mental Toughness”?

Every coach I’ve ever talked to wants athletes who are mentally tough. I hear it all the time, “My players just aren’t mentally tough!” “How do I develop mental toughness in my athletes?” The problem is that “mental toughness” is somewhat of an abstract idea. Most coaches and athletes have an idea of the qualities of mental toughness but they fall short on what mental toughness really is. Even more troubling is how to develop that toughness in their athletes.

Before we can go about developing any skill we must first have a definition of what it is we’re trying to achieve. Otherwise we have no clue what we’re striving for. I mean, if we don’t know the destination then how can we possibly know when we’ve arrived? As author Stephen Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.” So with that my definition of what people call “mental toughness” is fairly simply and I believe fully encapsulates all of the qualities that coaches, athletes, or employers have in mind when they’re looking for mentally tough individuals to add to their team.