There’s a cliché in the sports world that success is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. And if you’ve ever competed at any level—and especially if you’ve ever had a coach that fancied himself an inspirational leader—you’ve likely heard that old chestnut enough times to make your eyes role. But here’s the thing: According to the latest research, it isn’t too far off the mark.
Elite coaches and athletic teams have for decades recognized the role of psychological preparedness in physical performance, investing precious time and staff to keep the muscles between their athletes’ ears as fit as those in the rest of their bodies. Now a growing body of evidence confirms that a superior physique and intense training are merely the price of admission to the big leagues. What really sets a champion rugger, tennis pro, cyclist, or other athlete apart is the strength of his or her brain.
While tipping their chins in acknowledgement, many amateurs – even serious ones – tend to give short shrift to this aspect of their training. Smart folk who’d never dream of skipping a workout go a lifetime without ever even thinking of strengthening the organ that governs the rest of the body. And that, to put it mildly, is a missed opportunity, says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a San Francisco-based ports psychology consultant and former nationally ranked alpine ski racer. The reason: Deliberate practice only explains about 18 percent of why some people perform better than others in a given sport, according to a recent study at Case Western University, in Ohio.
The researchers found that a full 82 percent of athletic performance is due to other factors, not the least of which are psychological traits such as confidence and the ability to overcome performance anxiety. In short, mental grit counts for a heck of a lot, and the higher the echelon, the more steely grey matter comes into play. Indeed, that same study found that deliberate practice accounts for just one percent of the variance among top athletes, meaning that the vaunted “10,000 hours rule” (i.e., the idea that world class expertise in any skill requires roughly 10,000 hours of practice) is largely bunk.
The caveat, of course, is that deliberate practice is vital at the early stages of learning a sport, which is why a seasoned pick-up player will take it to the hoop on a novice every time, no matter how good the latter’s genes or how tough his or her grit. But while necessary for athletes to reach a high level of competition, “after a certain point, the amount of practice essentially stops differentiating who makes it to the very top,” says Brooke Macnamara, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western University.
But even before athletes get to that point, the psychological seeds of success are planted. “We’ve found that there are universal psychological characteristics amongst those who are aspiring to get to the top,” says Dave Collins, Ph.D., chair and director of the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the University of Central Lancashire, in England.
In a recent study, Collins and colleagues looked at three tiers of athletes they termed super-champions, champions, and almosts. After accounting for variables like sport, age, and education, they found the people who won most were those who, when faced with hurdles, took responsibility for them and treated them as opportunities. “They weren’t facing the challenges as setbacks—they were saying, ‘OK, I better get on with it,’” Collins explains. “They used the challenge to stimulate more effort.”
Similarly, Collins found that champions had an intrinsic drive to win and used self-reflection and imagery (i.e., visualization) to improve. “Those are qualities and skills that can be taught and nurtured,” says Collins, who through his company Grey Matters Performance Management, has worked with pro athletes and Olympians all the way down to second-grade school children. “The truth is that by the time you’re an adult, you’ve probably got a lot of these skills in nascent form—the competitive advantage comes from recognizing and fostering them in yourself with intentionality and regularity.” Here’s how.
Use Your Imagination
“Create a mental warm-up routine that uses tools such as deep breathing, power statements [e.g., I’m fast, I’m unstoppable], and imagery [e.g., seeing yourself racing strongly and crossing the finish line] prior to competition,” says Dr. Taryn Morgan, Ph.D., CC-AASP, assistant director of the IMG Academy, in Florida. “Having a mental warm-up can boost confidence, decrease pressure and anxiety, and allow you to perform at your best.”
Keep Your Mind in the Present
It sounds simple, but it takes practice. “Studies have shown that we’re not focused on what we’re doing nearly 50 percent of the time, and in the times when our minds are wandering, we report greater stress and less happiness,” says Dr. Ian Connole, Ph.D., director of sport psychology at the Kansas State University Athletic Department. “When we’re engaged in the present moment with clarity and purpose, our performance skyrockets.”
With constant distractions we lose the deep concentration required to generate states like “flow” – the optimal performance state – where we get a surge of neurochemicals like norepinephrine and dopamine that create heightened awareness and increase productivity. The solution, Connole says, is to continually bring your focus back to the task at hand to help your mind to be where your feet are: Grounded in the here and now.
“Practice using positive statements in every aspect of your training,” suggests Dr. Michele Kerulis, Ph.D., CC-AASP, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, in Illinois. “You want to make positivity your go-to mindset, so if you become tired during a practice or competition, instead of saying to yourself, ‘Oh man, this is really hard,’ you’ll say, ‘This is challenging, but I’ve got this.’” Having positive statements pop into your mind when you feel challenged can give you the extra boost of motivation you need to complete the task at hand.
Control Your Emotions
Becoming excessively angry when you mess up, or overly elated when you dominate, creates a rollercoaster that can get in the way of steady progress. “We all want to win, play well, and perform up to certain standards, but people who are able to truly master the mental game draw key information from every performance,” says Connole. “Simply taking a few moments to allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, but then focus on what you can learn about that moment can make all the difference in the long run.”