The key mental tactics for athletic success
Dr. Josephine Perry, founder of Performance in Mind, is a sports psychologist working with elite and amateur athletes to reach their potential. The Hybrid Letter spoke with Dr. Perry about the mythology around mental strength, how to create an effective mantra, and strategies for building confidence before a race.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Hybrid Letter: Do you approach working with elite athletes on their mental approach differently than recreational athletes?
Dr. Josephine Perry: Actually, the big difference isn’t elite versus recreational. It is a perfectionist versus a realist athlete. Our brain is very good at giving us reasons why we should stay safe and not get uncomfortable. It is designed to keep the body alive for survival. A perfectionist hears these threats and is frozen. They will work too hard for too long and beat themselves up. That overwhelming anxiety won’t allow them to push to their true potential. Realists hear those threats and say: “This won’t feel good, so I’m just not going to do it.” They will take it easy and back off. When working with a perfectionist, they need more soothing support. They need the reminder that input is actually more important than output. You can get that right output if you put in the right input. On the other hand, a realist athlete needs a kick in the bottom. They need a push to work hard and more motivation from that coaching figure.
THL: You work with some very successful competitors. What do you see as the key elements of mental strength among elite hybrid athletes?
JP: Flexibility is actually the biggest one. Everyone talks about mental strength and being mentally strong, which makes me uncomfortable. I say that because someone who focuses too much on being mentally strong tends to break. They are the athletes who push too hard for too long without rest or recovery. They are the athletes that are constantly beating themselves up. When ultra [marathons] had a boom about 6-7 years ago, you saw amazing ultra athletes emerge and go from hobby to professional within a year. After that year, though, many faced burnout and injury, and you heard nothing from them after that. Flexibility is what allows more than just short-term success mentally.
[You can learn more about the concept of cognitive flexibility in this video.]
THL: Is it possible to practice your mental approach to racing, or is it just a matter of learning about strategies?
JP: When we feel under threat, like during a race or competition, it is difficult to access the right part of the brain, so we panic. It is a good idea to practice for these difficult situations, but it does not have to be an identical situation. My favorite exercise to do with athletes is a confidence jar. I have them take slips of paper and write six achievements in their lifetime, five difficult things they have done, four strengths they have developed, three setbacks they encountered, two compliments they were given, and one thing they love about themselves. Right, there are 21 pieces of evidence that prove they have done difficult things. It may not be the difficult thing [they are training to do], but these examples help transfer confidence.
Imagery is another strategy. I have athletes watch YouTube videos of the event. They get an idea of what it will look like, what it will sound like, and how busy it will be come race day. It allows you to write a script on what you want to see on that perfect race day.
What both of these strategies do is force the brain to create and recreate the feeling and even visuals of that event. Those small connections in the brain get stronger and stronger. By using all our senses to imagine it, you can get a similar connection so your brain believes we have already done it without actually doing it just yet.
THL: Do you think mantras are an effective tool to improve performance? I think a lot of people are interested in the concept but don’t really know how to develop a mantra that will work for them.
JP: Yes, big yes. 15 years ago, they did a really amazing study on a group of ultra runners. They taught half the group of runners a self-talk mantra. Ones that used the mantra finished the race over 25 minutes faster in the 60-mile race than the other group. That is almost 2 minutes faster per 10k — that kind of time improvement would normally take a lot of training.
Mantras are helpful but aren’t guaranteed to work unless they are specific to the individual. There must be emotion behind it. Find your why. Ideally, it is a statement that speaks something in you. I have athletes start by taping it on their wrist so they can look down and see their mantra when they need that reminder. Soon, it becomes just a piece of tape on their wrist they look down and see, triggering that mantra without it being written. Eventually, it is just looking at their bare wrist to be reminded of the mantra they have put in their mind.
THL: What is a book you recommend for any athlete wanting to work on their mental approach to training and competition?
JP: I have to give three:
Essentialism: The Difficult Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. His book goes into the idea that when we say yes to something, we are saying no to things that genuinely matter to us. It encourages the idea of knowing what we want and being diligent about saying no and saving headspace for what matters to you.
Start with Why by Simon Sinek. This goes back to the idea that if you don’t know why, you will have pain, sweat, and tears with no real reward. You need to know why you are doing the thing.
Do Hard Things: Why we get resilience wrong and the surprising science of real toughness by Steve Magness. This is the approach I use, going against that idea of mental toughness and instead doing hard things because we choose to, because we know our values and what we stand for. That makes it easier to do those hard things.
You can connect with Dr. Perry online at Performance in Mind or on Instagram. She is also the author of several books including Performing Under Pressure: Psychological Strategies for Sporting Success, I Can: The Teenage Athlete’s Guide to Mental Fitness, and The Ten Pillars of Success.
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