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The Mental Edge


Everyone who has ever competed knows that being "coached up" is a big part of building up a winning mentality. However, anyone who has ever gotten to the next level in competition knows that we can't always wait for exterior validation and encouragement to get in the right mindset. This is where self-guided, self-inspired motivation comes into play. There's nothing like it once you can master the mental elements of being a powerful, undeterrable competitor. Mental toughness is something that few of us are born with. You need to learn to "walk through fire" by developing a calm, unshakable determination within your own mind. Let's dive into the role of mental strength for success in any endeavor by focusing specifically on the elements of visualization, self-talk and confidence.

Visualization: How the Mind Builds Muscles

There is a mind-muscle connection that all competitors must know about. It all makes sense once you hear about the results of recent research confirming that mental training without physical or muscle exercise does improve voluntary muscle strength. In this case, researchers affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic found that members in a control group using just "mental contractions" were able to increase finger abduction strength by 35 percent! Visualization is a big part of developing mental and physical resiliency because it is something that athletes can "tap into" at any place and time. That makes it an important tool for staying in a competitive mindset outside of practice and training.

Visualization also plays a big role in having resiliency in a competitive "pressure cooker" landscape when the time comes. One common way that athletes stay mentally prepared and sharp is by visualizing success. The goal of success visualization is to put in mental "reps" for overcoming limitations. For instance, it can be beneficial for athletes to visualize themselves doing things that they've never done before even when they are not yet at the psychical level or skill level to be able to achieve them in "real life." Visualization exercises help to tap into the power of suggestion that makes the impossible both possible and easier to map out.

Another benefit of visualizing success is that an athlete gets to bask in the rush of that accomplishment in their mind. This is effective for fueling that drive to reach a goal because there's nothing sweeter than the feeling of success. Again, this constant mental rehearsal for success primes the brain and muscles outside the bounds of a practice session.

Self-Talk: Words Translate to Performance

Optimism is a component of mental strength. Of course, optimism is not the assumption that everything will work out regardless of how prepared we are. Athletes should look at optimism as a component of mental toughness that gives them the confidence to say that they know they can and will put in what it takes to succeed. It's a shift from relying on circumstances to relying on one's own will. Every athlete knows that there is a temptation to beat up one's self or fall into despair after failures. However, negative self-talk can create a circular cycle of failure because it incapacitates us both mentally and physically. Here's a comparison chart:

  • Negative Self-Talk: "Nobody ever showed me how to do this."
  • Positive Self-Talk: "I bet this will be a fun chance to learn something new."
  • Negative Self-Talk: "This is too big a change."
  • Positive Self-Talk: "It's time to take a chance."
  • Negative Self-Talk: "Nobody ever keeps me in the loop with updates."
  • Positive Self-Talk: "I'm going to find new, better ways to stay in communication with my team."
  • Negative Self-Talk: "I'll never get better at this."
  • Positive Self-Talk: "I'll keep going until I see even the smallest improvement."
  • Negative Self-Talk: "I don't have what it takes to do this."
  • Positive Self-Talk: "I have the creativity to figure out how to do this."

Why is it so important to make the shift for the sake of our performance? Negative self-talk puts stress on our minds and bodies that makes us less competitive. By contrast, positive self-talk is linked with better cardiovascular health, better psychological well-being and better physical well-being. That means that positive self-talk simply puts us in a better position to achieve our goals. Positive self-talk is critical after a failure because it can help us to rebound, move forward and improve where needed.

Confidence: A Skill Few Master

Confidence is another key component to having the mental toughness needed to succeed when others throw in the towel. Nothing boosts confidence more than knowing you've put in the hard work to be genuinely prepared. However, it is so important to remember that confidence is a separate skill that must be refined. Here's a look at some tips for honing confidence:

  • Identify "negative cycles" that decrease confidence.
  • Work to see challenges as "adventures to be sought" instead of "obstacles to be avoided."
  • Show up prepared every time.
  • Identify your role in overcoming failures and challenges instead of focusing on the "Goliath" factor.

You can rest assured that every top performer in every genre has mastered confidence. Emerging research supports the idea that confidence can be just as important as ability in high-stakes situations. One study from 2009 examining the role of confidence in world-class sports performance found that high sport-confidence facilitated sports performance through its positive effect on thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Unlocking Your Full Potential With Mental Strength

We can see that athletic performance is closely linked with mental strength. That means that all serious athletes must put in the mental "reps" for visualizing success, speaking positive words and learning the skill of confidence. What is especially exciting about unlocking the power of these mental experiences is that they can carry over to all facets of life once they are properly developed. That means "peak performance" simply becomes something that is carried over to all aspects of life!

Emily Mendez

Emily Mendez

Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S. is a mental health writer and wellness expert. You can read her practical advice on psychology, parenting, relationships, and trending mental health topics in leading sites like INSIDER, Family Circle, TherapyTribe, Bustle, Fatherly, Brit + Co, Romper, Elite Daily and more.

Before embarking on a career in writing, Emily was a private practice psychotherapist who specialized in treating depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and substance abuse. She is a graduate of Indiana University.

When she’s not writing, Emily’s either finding new places to explore on the map, perfecting her dance moves, or binge-watching Netflix.