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Mental Toughness Techniques for Peak Performance

Why is it that athletes and fitness enthusiasts with the same physical strength, technical skills, equipment and nutrition perform differently and achieve different results? When all else is equal, top performers have a specifically designed mindset that allows them to show up when they’d rather not, endure intense training, rest when needed, cope with enormous pressure, and commit 100% to giving every ounce of effort they have. Were they born with this unique mindset, or is it a skill that can be developed like any other?

Sport psychology is dubbed the “science of success” because it studies the four mental toughness skills—motivation, confidence, concentration, and emotional and physiological control—that athletes use consistently, in conjunction with training and nutrition, to give them the ultimate performance edge. Whether you are a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, coach or mind-body wellness professional, the information, tools and techniques discussed here will help your clients to enhance their performance and give them the best shot at realizing their true potential. Be sure to use them yourself—and enjoy the benefits—before you teach them!

We’ll begin with motivation and then move on to confidence, concentration and, finally, emotional and physiological control (using the power of music). For each mental toughness skill, you’ll learn a variety of techniques that have been shown to create an optimal mindset for performance. Although you may have heard of these techniques before, stick with me as I tweak them in a way you most likely have not used.

Motivation: Want Success More Than You Fear Failure

In the simplest terms, when it comes to motivation we aim either to seek pleasure or to avoid pain. In sport psychology, we use the terms need for achievement and fear of failure to describe these two motivational styles.

People who are motivated by a need for achievement and success place themselves in challenging situations that create opportunities for growth. These individuals don’t like failure, but they’re not afraid of it and are thus willing to risk it. On the flip side, people who are motivated by fear of failure still try very hard but choose less challenging tasks, as a way of protecting their self-esteem—even though this approach can be detrimental to their long-term motivation and overall results.

In sport and fitness, fear of failure refers to many things, including fear of embarrassment, fear of injury, fear of physical stress to the body, and fear of disappointing results. It encompasses fear of pull-ups, fear of sprinting, and fear of headstand; even fear of training with certain people or against certain people. While fear varies from person to person, all athletes and fitness enthusiasts experience it.

Even so, top performers learn not to let fear control them. Their reasons for wanting success, and their desire to turn out their best performance, take precedence over fear. They develop the mental discipline to effectively deal with their fears and focus all of their energy on achieving the success they want.

Strategies for Overcoming Fear

Below are two strategies for conquering fear. Use these to maintain high levels of motivation and get top results in your own training and with your clients:

  1. Change the way you think and feel about your fears. Let’s look at the popular fear of not measuring up. For people with a negative interpretation of the social comparison inherent in sport and fitness, it’s important to change perspective by concentrating on the benefits of training with others (Shields & Bredemeier 2009).

    When I’m teaching an indoor cycling class (you can adapt this for any class, training session or personal workout), I choose a moment and ask my participants to look around the room and find one person who portrays positive and high energy. Next, for one song or exercise set, I instruct riders to match or beat their person’s level of effort. During this song (and usually for the rest of the class), two things happen: (1) participants who don’t feel great feed off their person’s energy and step up their performance, and (2) people who do feel energetic and positive want to get picked, so they too step up their performance to stand out. Everyone benefits and successfully experiences a positive aspect of social comparison in sport and fitness.

  2. Make success and achievement your most dominant thought. Our reasons for wanting success determine how we act in the moment of truth. In my consulting practice, I ask athletes, fitness enthusiasts and businesspeople two questions: (1) “What do you want?” and (2) “Why do you want it so badly—how will it improve your life?”

Think of a personal training client who is faced with 5 more V-ups, 5 more miles or 5 more seconds of one-legged side plank. Only with a strong, meaningful and clear vision will he know why he is embracing temporary discomfort and fighting to complete the exercise. And only with a powerful purpose will a client be able to put her fears aside and muster up whatever energy and resources she needs to work as hard and as smart as she possibly can to make her dreams come true.

Once your clients have a strong vision of what they want, have them strategically post a picture or an affirmation that reminds them of their vision in fear-producing places. I have found this very helpful. At a conference where I was presenting, the photographer was writing mantras on people’s bodies, and I chose the affirmation “I am thriving.” Each time I see this photo, I get a jolt of empowerment and am reminded of how I always want to think and feel about myself. Before I go running, which is a fearful activity for me, I look at my picture. During my run, whenever I feel fear creeping in, I turn to my picture and it immediately reminds me of why I’m running—because I want to thrive more than I fear anything else!

Both of these strategies—changing the way we think about our fears and concentrating more on our vision—create mental space for high levels of motivation. In this mentally tough state, we can push ourselves a bit more each day, fight for daily success, and stay committed to achieving the results we want.

Confidence: Highlight Strengths and Improve Weaknesses

Confidence is the belief in our ability to meet the demands of a given situation. Mentally tough athletes and fitness enthusiasts have unshakable confidence that stands up to the pendular swings of success and failure. We all have good days and not-so-good days, so how can we maintain a high level of confidence no matter what happens?

Performance accomplishments are the greatest source of confidence. When a client has a great training session, it boosts his confidence to attempt a new and slightly more difficult challenge next time. But what makes a great training session? Although people tend to look only at results, I propose asking two questions that focus more on the process of performance. Here are those questions, which your clients and participants can ask themselves as they work toward their performance goals:

  1. “What is one thing I did well during my training?” When we take a moment to highlight our strengths with regard to the process of our performance, rather than the results, we give ourselves the opportunity to build confidence that is based on our effort and focus. Drawing out the specific details of even the smallest accomplishments can have a remarkable effect on self-esteem. A client’s achievement may be attempting a new yoga pose, staying focused on technique during a sprint, or improving squat technique. This way, even on off days, the client can sustain her confidence by picking out at least one thing she did right.
  2. “What can I do tomorrow to be even better?” Once a client has acknowledged a performance accomplishment, it’s time for him to use that confidence to set an intention for next time. On a good day, he’ll be excited about what’s to come. On a less than optimal day, he’ll be able to look ahead. It won’t matter that he had a bad session. By setting a specific intention for tomorrow, he sets himself up for having the best day yet!

When used together, these two questions generate high levels of confidence while setting up future opportunities for even higher levels. Just be sure clients use positive language and focus on what to do (e.g., do push right to the end of the 60-second sprint) instead of what not to do (e.g., don’t give up before the sprint is over). This will set them up to take advantage of another source of confidence: positive self-talk.

Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk is not about denying or ignoring concerns about whether we can meet certain demands. It’s about acknowledging the challenges we face and choosing specific behaviors, within our control, that can conquer them. We can’t always control what negative thoughts enter our minds, but we have 100% control over how long they linger. By practicing positive self-talk, we increase our ability to quickly replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

Often it’s helpful to have a handful of positive affirmations that have been rehearsed and are ready to replace negative thoughts (the sidebar “Boosting Confidence With Positive Thinking” provides examples). Other times, it’s more effective to reframe the negative thought. For example, “I’m worried I’ll get injured doing tuck jumps” can be reframed to “I’ll be okay as long as I focus on landing softly.” And “I just can’t seem to have a decent pull today” can be reframed to “Loosen your grip, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, and the pull will come.”

Together, acknowledging accomplishments and practicing positive self-talk boost confidence, making it easier for things to go well. Clients who consistently use these tools will stand taller. They’ll smile more. They’ll feel more in control of their sport and training pursuits.

Concentration: Use Both Association and Dissociation

In a famous quote, author Ernest Holmes wrote, “Where the mind goes, energy flows.” Concentration is often referred to as the executive mental toughness skill because of its ability to control all others. With a high level of concentration on a task, a person can block out negative distractions (i.e., fear), making room for optimal motivation, confidence, and a positive emotional and physiological state.

Associative and dissociative attentional styles, in particular, are two concentration techniques that produce excellent training results (Weinberg & Gould 2011). These techniques are used to preserve and apportion energy as needed. That means not only maintaining a certain level of physical intensity but also minimizing the unnecessary expenditure of energy when we struggle psychologically.

Maybe a class participant is mentally tired one day and can’t commit to her usual level of effort. Maybe a personal training client has had a stressful day, and all he wants to do is go as hard he can, even though today is meant for low- to moderate-intensity training. Maybe your own mind is racing and you need to get calm and centered. For every distraction that interferes with a goal, association or dissociation can be used to clear the mental clutter, making room for positive results.

Two Attentional Styles

Associative attentional style (aka association) is the process by which we monitor bodily functions and techniques, such as heart rate, muscle tension, breathing rate, power, tempo, handgrip, etc. It’s essentially tuning in to the work and getting fully immersed in its technical and/or tactical execution.

Association is best used at times of high intensity and perceived pain. Focusing on things such as stride, length, form or breath will help athletes of all abilities to prepare for and cope with the physical discomfort of training, ultimately making it possible to continue performing at the same level despite painful sensory input.

In a Super Soul Sunday interview with Diana Nyad, who in 2013 successfully swam the 110 miles between Havana and Key West, Oprah Winfrey asked, “Do you put your mind someplace else?” Nyad responded, “No, you’re in crisis.”

Think about your last high-intensity training session. When you felt the accumulation of lactic acid in your muscles, where did your attention go? Chances are your mind involuntarily switched its focus from external stimuli, such as music, to internal sensations of fatigue. Since mental fatigue can be more powerful than physical fatigue, you quickly had to apply your mental energy to focus on body functions, technique or tactics so that your body could keep pushing onward.

In moments of high physical exertion, it helps to focus on a specific goal that centers on the process of our performance. As workload increases, an associative attentional strategy focuses much-needed mental energy on the task at hand, causing overall performance to increase (Tenenbaum & Connolly 2008).

Dissociative attentional style (aka dissociation) is about distracting ourselves, or tuning out of the work. With dissociation, we focus on anything that provides a mental detachment from the activity and elicits positive emotions. Dissociation is great for low- to moderate-intensity training. Going back to Nyad, she said, “You put your mind somewhere else when you’re feeling well. Like this time, that first day, those first 10 hours off Cuba, I was happy. I was just gliding along the surface. I was looking down at a blue that a painter can’t even imitate in the Gulf Stream.” This is a perfect example of how an athlete can use dissociative attentional style—appreciating the beautiful scenery around her—to make the activity fun and enjoyable, improving the overall experience.

Although most high-performing athletes and fitness enthusiasts will say they use associative attentional style during competition and other high-intensity activities, dissociation can also be a productive concentration tool in these situations, for several reasons:

  • It can make high-intensity training more fun.
  • It generates an optimistic mood that positively shapes how we interpret symptoms of fatigue.
  • Because of the positive effect on mood, it’s easier to switch to association and perform optimally when training intensities reach their absolute peak.

If you encourage your clients to experiment over time with these two styles of concentration, they’ll soon learn which one works best for them during various types of training. Once clients determine how to optimize their concentration for peak performance, they’ll be amazed at how quickly they also gain high levels of motivation, confidence and emotional control for peak performance.

Emotional and Physiological Control: Draw on The Power of Music

Music is one of the most popular and efficient tools for generating a work-enhancing mood and making the environment more pleasurable. Melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, dynamics and lyrics work together to turn fatigue into energy, sadness into happiness, low confidence into high confidence, and demotivation (i.e., a motivational slump) into a strong pursuit of excellence. Listening to a particular song can feel like consuming a mental toughness cocktail that fuels high performance.

One specific way in which music helps us to gain control over emotions and influences positive physical performance is by narrowing attention. Getting immersed in a powerful song can divert attention away from negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., fatigue, discomfort or boredom). Our perceptions shift around the effort we’re exerting and it becomes easier to realize a state of confidence, enjoyment, optimism, internal drive and energy (Karageorghis & Terry 2011). In this sense, music is a dissociation technique. Research demonstrates that music reduces perceived exertion by around 10% up to exercise intensities of 75% of maximal aerobic capacity (Karageorghis & Terry 2011).

Accordingly, muscles and vital organs send a message to the brain saying the task seems more doable, allowing us to increase our efforts and enhance the emotional experience of training.

What about intensities above 75% of VO2max? Even though music has not been proven to make a high-intensity task seem easier in terms of the information our brain receives from muscles and vital organs, it can make training more fun and improve how we experience pain and fatigue. In other words, when we’re on the elliptical working at 85% of VO2max, music will not change what we feel, but it will change how we feel it (Karageorghis & Terry 2011).

Music as Motivator

Mind and body react to the rhythmic components of music. Fast, high-energy music increases heart rate. Certain songs influence thoughts that inspire us to get moving and make things happen.

Just think about a song you like to sing to at the top of your lungs in the shower or car—no one can hear you, but the song makes you feel invincible! It could be a harmony piece that makes everything seem fluid and natural. It could be the upbeat tempo that increases your energy. It could be the lyrics that mentally prepare you for exerting every ounce of energy you have to your training. It could be a song that reminds you of a fabulous past experience, or that inspires you to create a new one.

Ask your clients and class participants which songs are their “power songs.” See if you can incorporate them in sessions, or suggest clients use them when training on their own. No matter which songs clients choose, as long as the music resonates with them, it can be the most effective legal stimulant or sedative they could use before, during and after your training.

Summing Up

By helping your clients and participants to want success more than they fear failure; to highlight their strengths while improving their weaknesses; to incorporate associative and dissociative attentional styles into their training; and to make the best use of music, you will enable them to develop and sustain high levels of motivation, confidence, concentration, and emotional and physiological control. As a result, their overall productivity will increase.

The time is now, and the tools are ready to use. Feel free to experiment with one mental toughness technique at a time or introduce a few at once. As clients incorporate these skills into their daily physical training, you will see them reach new standards of performance and feel incredible about themselves!

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