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THE MYSTERIES OF AN ATHLETE’S MIND: DO I NEED HELP?

March 17th, 2017

As a professional sports agent and a former Olympic/ pro athlete, I often get asked this question: “What separates the pros from the amateurs, and the great from the good?” As much as I can point to a number of factors, some talent-related, others physical or even genetic, the one constant is that all great athletes have a “strong mind”. The mind is the epicenter of any athlete, controlling every movement and emotion. It surprises me to hear how many hours’ athletes put into physical training and nutrition, but many take for granted that their mind is maybe not getting the training required to achieve their potential. Just reading the following quote from Mental Resiliency coach Matthew Caldorani would make you wonder why more athletes don’t take an active approach to training their minds: “Very few athletes understand the importance of doing the small things consistently. It’s a matter of doing them over and over again until you allow your confidence to skyrocket so your mind can let go. So many professionals speak about the importance of muscle memory, but few train it. This whole concept of the mind and body connecting is all about doing the little things right. Instincts are the only thing that allow your mind and body to be free during performance. Think, during a one timer you have no time to think about how you’re going to connect with the puck – instead you just do it. No thinking, no over analyzing, just pure instincts that lead to results. That’s the power of the mental game; performing like it means nothing when in reality the game means everything. You’ve trained physically for so long, and in reality you’re not going to change something drastic before the game; instead you have to have the confidence to let go and trust your instincts. It’s a matter of having the mind break free of all limitations so you can turn on your alter ego and perform without negativity or hesitation.”

“Our minds are really the most powerful force in our own universe. Mental rehearsal, visualization and self-talk are the keys to unlock more of your potential. Be sure they’re positive. Those factors act as directions for our conscious and unconscious mind and body to follow- just like dialing an address into your gps-what you program in is what comes out in your performance,” says Dr. Aimee Harris-Newon, a sports psychologist, master success coach and host of the radio show “Mind Over Matters.”

Most professional sports teams now have sports psychologists on staff, and a wide variety of mental coaches or confidence experts exist to help athletes at all levels. The question is: “Does it work, and is it for everyone?” There is no “cookie-cutter” approach to the mental and psychological part of sports. Some athletes have an ability to find their confidence from within, getting into the proverbial “zone”, as witnessed by Tom Brady’s performance in the Super Bowl last month, while others have confidence levels that ebb and flow from game to game, or even shift to shift. Everyone’s mind is different, molded by genetic factors, physiological differences and environmental influences, which makes us human, and prone to error. Therefore, there is no clear cut solution to becoming mentally strong for athletes. A lot of it begins early for many athletes, with parents and coaches playing a large role. Encourage your kids to find confidence and calm from within, not always looking for approval from others. Let them fail and learn, remembering how a failure or loss makes them feel, and how to turn that into motivation. In this “everyone gets a trophy” society of ours, I feel there is a lack of raw emotions that can help mold stronger athletes mentally. This may sound harsh, but human nature responds much more clearly to raw events, they shape us. Before you go out and hire a sports psychologist or mental coach for your 10-year-old, have the important and constructive conversations about his/ her game with your son/ daughter, about how certain events during a game make them feel, and where they can look for answers or change their responses.

I often recommend psychological help to my athletes, and it is met with a variety of responses. For some, there is definitely a stigma attached with “asking for help” on their mental game. There is a societal perception that you are weak if you need mental or psychological help that exists, which is completely incorrect. I would expect that all sports psychology professionals would agree that the answers to unlock an athlete’s full potential mentally lie within that athlete himself/ herself. The professional’s job is to help unlock these answers and facilitate the athlete finding his zone. Mr. Caldaroni, also a former pro soccer player, makes a lot of good points in his blog “Find Your Zone: How to Focus During the Toughest of Times” highlighting that, similar to an athlete’s training regimen, the mind also has to be trained to find that zone in times of need. He adds: “Mental toughness is that it is NOT just a psychology – it is a lifestyle. If you look at the best of the best in any sport, like Kobe in basketball or a guy like Sidney Crosby in the NHL, these guys tailor their lives around their craft. They understand it goes way beyond the ice and ultimately change everything they do – it’s why so many of them genuinely believe they have an alter ego when they step into performance, or what I like to call (and practice and preach) the performance mindset. It’s an alter ego approach that allows these athletes to let go and play to their truest potential; they don’t feel any negativity toward their performance because they know they can be their raw, true self on the ice. They let go, trust their instincts, step into their performance mindset and walk into the zone. It’s something that must be practiced over and over again, just like passing a puck or perfecting your shot.”

We have all witnessed an athlete in the zone, that look in their eye, the focus…The truly great ones are lucky enough to be able to get to that zone almost on demand, while others struggle with it. So remember, when someone asks you why an athlete is so great, before you jump to the obvious physical prowess as the answer, the grey matter between his or her ears is likely the important reason why he or she achieves greatness.

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