When it comes to sport and training, the most important muscle is your brain. Your brain, or rather the thoughts and feelings it churns out - the constant chatter that feeds or fumbles our sense of self - has a powerful effect on our athletic performance. I can still painfully recall a tennis match during which, at the moment I was winning, I began to think how it was only a matter of time before I messed up. As any pop psychologist will tell you, thoughts become actions. Needless to say, I threw the match.
Since then I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been running or working out and persuaded myself that I can’t do it, it’s all pointless, I might as well stop. Normally these moments coincide with a general funk, a bad week at work, a fight with a loved one, or lack of sleep. During times of emotional duress, feelings of anxiety can creep into our sports routine, sabotaging our confidence. I would hazard a guess that women are even more prone to this negative self-talk than men. No matter how perfect your form, how expert your lunges, stress levels scupper our abilities and can even lead to injuries. Brooding over an argument at work causes muscle tension, restricts movement, hampers coordination and suddenly you’re dropping dumbbells on your toes or hurtling over your bicycle handlebars.
It seems ridiculously obvious to say that our emotional state can powerfully affect our performance, or that positive mental attitude is important to exercise. It’s not just a theory, either. According to its author, Dr Michael Duncan, a study by Coventry University showed that “heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people." Which is one of the reasons Olympians and full-time athletes use psychological training as an essential part of pre-competition training. Considering which, it’s amazing how little we adapt the teachings to improve our own training regimes. Sports psychologists have fantastically useful tips to get your brain into the right frame of mind. Here are three ways to change your thinking:
See yourself – in as much detail as possible, down to the colour of your socks and the sound of your feet on the ground – achieving your goal. It’s a way to tell yourself that you are more than capable of the task in hand (you’ve already done it in your head!), and is a proven means to boosting your performance.
2) Positive self-talk
Rather than thinking, ‘Oh God, look at that hill,’ say to yourself, ‘Here I come!’ The change in attitude is heard in both brain and body, and you’ll find speed and willingness miraculously communicated to your muscles. ‘I know I can do this!’ might be cheesy but it works.
Rory McIlroy credited his Masters win to ‘staying in the process on every shot’. Complete concentration on what you’re doing, moment to moment – whether that’s the next 30 seconds of your interval training, or the next five sit ups - means your thinking isn’t distracted by external stresses, or overawed by the scale of what you’re trying to achieve. The mental focus and clarity then enhances your overall abilities. (Your brain can’t bitch when you’re concentrating.)