Mental Conditioning-A Lifetime Practice by Lizl Kotz
A mentally strong mind is a learned skill. Some innate determination is required but the rest is practice. How do we define mental toughness in sport? In it's simplest form, mental toughness is not having a vulnerable mind. On a deeper level, being mentally strong is using ones thoughts to optimize performance.
As with any physical skill, mental toughness is easiest developed in a young brain when the brain is flexible and inventive. In our times, athletic competition is introduced at a very early age. Unfortunately the objective is often to win which sets the athlete up for a host of problems as they grow. When not losing is the primary goal, athletes overtrain and often fall victim to performance anxiety. The sole purpose for introducing sports at a young age should be for character development. Sports offer a safe environment to learn good character traits which then lays down the initial building blocks for growing a mentally resilient mind. More importantly though, the character traits learned in sports will help our children navigate victories and heartbreaks for their entire lives.
How do we reach a state of flow where performance feels effortless? Even though being in the zone can't exactly be taught, we can teach our athletes how to immerse themselves in the present moment and dismiss negative thoughts. The most successful athletes don't deny having negative thinking. They have simply learned how not to give negative thoughts any airtime. I work with many talented athletes who spend hours honing their physical skill. They have the desire, the motivation and the family support to be the best that they can be yet often stop short of their potential. They "win" every practice but in competition when under pressure they struggle to match their practice performance. These young athletes acknowledge the importance of being mentally tough, still the art of being in control of their thoughts seem out of reach. If we know that success in sports can't be guaranteed by raw talent alone, why aren't we spending more time conditioning the minds of our athletes?
Deena Kastor, one of our countries most successful runners, recently published a very insightful article. She writes about her journey as an athlete and convinces how positive thinking took her from being a great, albeit frustrated runner to a satisfied runner performing at her best. "Habits are formed through repetition. So instead of focusing on my attitude periodically, I set out to make positive thinking a practice." Deena reminds us that mental toughness is a skill we can develop, improve and maintain but it takes intentional practice.
Having a mentally conditioned mind will give athletes an edge over competitors with similar abilities. It also makes life richer and can ultimately mean the difference between life and death. The power of attitude: Louis Zamperini, an olympic runner, survived 47 days on a raft in shark infested pacific waters while being fired at by Japanese planes. He was then captured and taken to a Japanese prison camp. He was tortured in a string of camps until being freed at the end of World War II. His mental toughness gave him the capacity to endure unimagineable hardship and Louis himself credits his mindset to being an athlete. He sums up the importance of mental conditioning with the following words:
"To live, a man needs food, water, and a sharp mind."-Louis Zamperini