Hardly a day passes when we don’t hear about the benefits of the right mindset from the world’s elite sports stars. Be it Rory McIlroy when losing the Masters or winning the US Open, Rob Kearney talking about mindfulness and the potential 1% difference or Wayne Rooney talking about the power of his imagination. Every elite sportsperson knows the benefits of having a mindset that aids performance and most practice in some way to improve it.
A question I ask when initially working with amateur sports clubs or groups is “How many of you regularly work on your mindset as part of your training?” On average I get around 10% who say they do. This rises to around 90% when I ask, “Do you feel having a supportive mindset is important?” So people are aware it’s important but generally don’t practice it.
Why is this so? Well perhaps it could be that playing with your imagination (as that’s all we are talking about here) isn’t as tangible as some other things we may prioritise. Buying the right equipment, physically training, diet etc. are all things we can see, feel, touch & smell. There’s also a real sense of doing something. Perhaps that isn’t the case when we take time to rest, visualise, be mindful or meditate. I have had some clients who have told me they originally felt a bit of guilt because they “weren’t doing something”.
I’ve a theory that a lot of amateur sports people don’t regularly practice working with and understanding the mind, there’s just so many approaches out there. As well as a myriad of approaches I personally don’t think there’s enough information given in terms of when we should be using what.
When I first started coaching my main focus was on the content of the thought e.g. was the conscious thought positive or negative. Over the years I then studied NLP, which looked at how you thought the thought e.g. how does it look, feel or sound. Now I teach Mind Calm which helps people take a step back and see a thought for what it is without judgment, just a thought.
To me there’s a place for all three but again it’s using them at the right time that’s important. We want to be able to consciously programme our mind then let go and let the unconscious mind do its thing.
For the purpose of this piece I’d like to focus on things we can do before training or before we compete (at what ever level). Consciously thinking to train the brain and body.
One thing to be aware of is that every thought we have is having an effect on the neuroplasticity of our brain & our overall body chemistry. Just think of that, with each thought we have, our mind is taking it as gospel and producing the chemicals required to deal with the information we are feeding it.
An experiment carried out by Harvard that had one group of volunteers playing 5 notes on the piano for 2 hours a day for 5 days. Another group did the same but only imagined playing the notes for 2hrs for 5 days. The brain scans taken were almost identical. Compared to the control group this showed that the brain didn’t distinguish between real and imaginary!
If we constantly think stressful thoughts the brain will produce stress chemicals to deal with that. Adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine are all produced which are great, if we want to fight or take flight. Not so good however over a longer term as they can create health problems such as metabolism slow down, heart problems, anxiety, as well as the body’s ability to regulate inflammation which is important when it comes to staying healthy and recovering from injury. I’m sure you will agree none of these are helpful in terms of participating in our favorite sport or in terms of rest and recovery afterwards.
So with every thought we are reprogramming the brain. The more we do it the more dendrites on neurons reach out and make connections creating a greater density of brain waves that are active. Latest research shows neural connections are fading and strengthening all the time no matter your age, it’s not just something that’s set when we are younger.
When we say affirmations what we are doing is consciously programming the brain. Affirmations are statements of fact or what you would like to be a statement of fact. There’s no hard and fast rule about when to say them but 10-15 times in the morning then the same at night would give a bit of structure. During the day when ever you remember. As well as saying them often, say them meaningfully, give them some oomph. This will make them more powerful.
As well as affirmations, visualisations can be used to help get what you’re going for as well as prepare yourself to perform. When I say visualisations I would include as many senses as possible, imagine how you would be feeling, breathing, where you would feel extra strong. Get a real sense of it going great and repeat, repeat, repeat!
When we visualise or watch sports on TV or even look at pictures of sports stars we are firing messages from the brain to the relevant parts of the body. Say we are watching Rory McCilroy swing a club we will stimulate the neurons that activate the parts of our bodies that would be involved in a swing. So yes as well as visualizing yourself, why not visualise being them or watch the best in your field repeatedly to train your own brain and body?
Sounds weird but it can have amazing effects.
In 1995 tests were done with one group being asked to flex their pinkies for 15 minutes per day for 12 weeks. Another group was asked to only think about flexing their pinkies for the same amount of time of the same period. What I found amazing with this experiment was those who physically flexed the pinkie had a 53% gain in strength. Pretty good, but those who imagined it managed a 35% gain! Just from thinking about doing it.
Now I’m not saying rather than train properly, just sit on the sofa and imagine it. However doing this along with great training and diet will help you enjoy your chosen sport more and improve performance.