To reach the next level in your chosen sport, there is, of course, the old manner of simply “training harder.” Clearly this approach works to an extent. But think of the times when you had your best performances. Were you trying hard? Probably not. The media often refers to these peak performances as functioning in “the zone”; physiologists and psychologists call it “flow.”
Though training harder does produce high achievement, we often perform at our best when we stop trying and simply allow our training to rise to the surface in a manner that is less self-conscious and more instinctive. This requires developing certain mental skills that don’t necessarily involve training harder but rather training more efficiently and intentionally. These skills don’t guarantee that flow will follow, but they may better the odds of slipping into flow states. Specific skills that can help include goal-setting, energy management, mindful attention, steering self-talk, and imagery.
In trying to reach the next level, do you compare yourself with others? Are you fully in control of your goals? That is, does your goal achievement mistakenly rely on factors that depend exclusively on you? Athletes commonly set these demoralizing “outcome goals,” which are results that depend totally on them. Wanting to finish in the top three in a race may be a good motivator, for example, but there are many factors out of your control. “Process goals,” on the other hand, are small elements of your outcome goal that are totally in your control. They will help put focus and effort where it will be most effective and powerful.
Make sure your process goals are SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, relevant to you, and time-phased. For instance, rather than setting the outcome goal of, “I want to skin to the ridge before my partner,” try this process goal on for size: I will (action-oriented) maintain my (relevant to you) medium-high stride for 70% (measurable) of the flats (specific) within two weeks (time-phased). To get even more objective in this process, try using a heart-rate monitor to quantify “medium high.”
SMART goals also incorporate energy management. To understand what that is, a gas-tank metaphor helps. When it comes to the big picture, filling your tank with high-octane fuel means getting enough rest, eating nutritiously, and maintaining overall balance to recover from stress. However, you often have to work with the energy you’ve got regardless of whether you’ve had enough sleep. Thus, maximizing your energy in the moment is like putting in a quarter tank of gas when you’re on the go and really need it. We do this through “high-potency recovery,” which involves some combination of these three things:
1.Relaxing the body (by inhaling for approximately 4.5 seconds and exhaling for 5.5 seconds)
2.Quieting the mind (single words or phrases can eradicate unhelpful chatter)
3.Leveling the emotions (embracing images of appreciation or success can allow you to ride those feelings into the next moment)
Controlling your energy gives you “situational awareness,” whereby you become more mindful of what is going on around you and more attentive to the most important variables right now. When people are too amped up, they tend to focus on less relevant things. When you become more adept at chilling out, your attention can shift more fluidly to where it best serves you. For example, a hard ascent without a moment to breathe, quiet the mind, or level the emotions could lead to a narrow internal focus on extraneous thoughts such as, “Am I as good as my partner?” A few moments of high-potency recovery, however, could allow your focus to shift to broader, more external things such as danger level, incline of the slope, and aspect of the slope ”variables that truly affect performance. High-potency recovery can allow you to feel more aware, look at variables more objectively, and make smarter decisions on the fly.
It’s easy to get carried away with negative chatter in your head. This is normal, but it may not be useful. Steer your thoughts in a more helpful direction, by tuning into what you are saying to yourself and by noticing its impact on your mood, your body, and your performance, you can make self-talk work for you rather than against you. After a bad decision, for example, you might think, “I suck.” Consequently, you’d likely feel incompetent, your heart rate may soar, breathing may get short and shallow, and you might make another mistake. Or you can learn to quickly shift gears to something like, “Oops. Learned from that mistake,” which will help you feel more relieved and confident, keep your heart rate smooth and rhythmic, bring cadence to your breathing, and subsequently help you perform at your best.
You can use all of these skills to develop a good mental imagery habit, which utilizes all the senses, not just vision. For instance, if you can close your eyes and picture what it would be like to successfully ski a really tough run, including the sounds, tastes, smells, sensations, and emotions, you are much more likely to accomplish it.
Article published in Outside Bozeman (Summer 2009)