What's On My Mind
by Alex Diaz


October 20, 2014


Are You Looking for a Performance Edge?


Imagine walking onto a squash court. Your opponent takes his position as you prepare to serve.  As you are tossing the ball, you also send a look at your opponent that says, "I am in charge here!”  “I got the edge!"  If you are like most athletes, you are probably saying to yourself, yes, I can see myself in this situation.  And, you are also probably thinking how great it would be to have an edge throughout the entire match, so I can reach my personal peak performance goal! 


If an athlete were given the choice to play with an older or newer racquet, which one would she choose? Clearly, the newer one will give her an edge over her opponent. All athletes would agree that having a physical or technical edge may be the difference between doing well or not, yet do they work to enhance a mental edge? How mentally well-prepared are they when stepping on the court? How much effort is devoted to instill or practice useful sports mental strategies? Just like having a newer racquet would make an athlete feel more confident, knowing how to apply mental skill strategies would definitely provide the athlete with a confidence edge that may ultimately become the difference in his/her performance.


Elite athletes tenaciously work to reach a combined psychological and mental state where the mind frees itself of processing thoughts and the body instantaneously responds to learned behavior. They are able to completely trust in their abilities. Their attention is in the present moment, also called “being in the zone.” Their body is completely engaged in the task at hand in an energized and positive demeanor. They are totally absorbed in the current process free of having expectations or attachments to past failures. They also know that reaching this state of mind provides the mental edge necessary to master common distractions.

 

When an athlete describes "being in the zone" they are referring to reaching their desired level of peak performance. The body instantly becomes relaxed and the mind becomes mentally energized.  By no means is “being in the zone” easy to attain. Partly, we can blame it on how our brain is designed. The left and right sides of our brain respond to different needs. The left side engages in strategic planning, learning and verbal language, whereas the right side responds to emotions, spatial abilities and to the non-verbal language of body sensations. When a young athlete learns a new sport, it is primarily the left side of the brain that is engaged in the learning process. However, when this same athlete wants to be “in the zone,” he/she lets go of mechanical thoughts and fully trusts that the right side will take over and allow the body to automatically respond to the task at hand. Clearly, this is much easier said than done!!


When the pressure is on and / or the game is not going as expected, athletes may experience a range of emotions, often negative. Suddenly, their practiced skills are not producing the expected results. The athlete may have initially trusted in her/his skills, but as results begin to be disappointing, a shift in mental approach takes place. The athlete starts to mistrust the right brain and starts to over-try or over-think. The more the mechanical side of the brain that can also be very judgmental is engaged, the more muscle tension is produced. Negative thoughts become pervasive. An athlete begins to doubt in his/her abilities and loss of concentration follows.


The challenge to achieve peak performance thus rests in letting go of mechanical thoughts and fully trusting in our intuitive right side of the brain.  


Are you thinking about how to engage the right side of your brain, which responds non-verbally?  Well, guess what?  You have probably had a non-verbal sensation at some point today.  Sweaty palms, dry mouth, and butterflies in your stomach are all non-verbal responses. However, when the brain translates uncomfortable sensations into negative thoughts, such as being intimidated by an opponent player, the discomfort feeling only becomes exacerbated.

 

Using the sweaty palms example, we grab a towel and dry our hands.  But, are we really “fixing” the problem?  Well, not really!  Non-verbal clues are great when you learn how to use them to your advantage, such as practicing relaxation. So, what do you need to do to engage the right side of your brain to help you manage your emotions? Start by practicing either or both of the following strategies:


1- Breathing from the diaphragm rather than form the upper chest will help you to slow down. Just do this simple, but powerful exercise: have a sit and make sure your feet are well planted on the ground. Place a hand on your belly area and, with each inhale, notice your hand moving out as if you had a balloon inside of you. Follow this inhale with a slow exhale through your nose. Repeat this diaphragm breathing a few times and notice you body slowing down.


2- Start counting backwards. Starting from the number 100 and begin to subtract seven consecutively until you reach to zero. As you continue counting backwards, just pay attention to how your breathing will begin to slow down. Even if it for just a few seconds, this simple exercise will help the rhythm of your breathing to find a newer relaxed state.


Hope these tips come in handy to you. And, remember, practice makes perfect!


For more information, please visit my website: www.sportsmentaledge.com


Alex Diaz, PhD






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