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  • Mental Skills for Elite Performance

    by Guest Blogger | Sep 13, 2016

    By Aaron Moffett, Ph.D.

    From September 8 through September 18, the ACSM Sports Performance Blog is featuring a special content series in celebration of the achievements of elite athletes participating in this month’s international competition. Be sure to follow the blog as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (acsm1954) and share using #ScienceofSport.

    We just witnessed some of the greatest athletes ever in Rio de Janeiro.  There are several psychological skills that help an athlete reach their peak performance at the elite level. Gould, Dieffenback and Moffett (2002) studied 10 Olympians and found that these athletes had high ability to cope with and control anxiety, confidence, mental toughness, ability to focus, ability to set and achieve goals. Similarly, coaches and para-athletes view confidence, motivation and focus as vitally important for peak performance at their competitions (Moffett, Dieffenbach, & Statler, 2009). Now, how do they develop these skills so that they  can peak at their important event?

    Here are just a few strategies to help improve confidence, motivation and focus and, thus, performance when preparing for an event.

    • Set goals and celebrate successes: When we reach an important goal, it increases our confidence. Set both short-term and long-term goals for both practice and competition and celebrate reaching each goal. Athletes want to get better and setting short-term practice goals lets them know if they are improving.
    • Structure the environment to provide for early success: Establish tasks or small goals for the beginning of the competition or event that are challenging, but the likelihood of succeeding is high. Athletes will recognize that they had to work hard and overcome some challenges and this will be most rewarding to them and help build their confidence.
    • Recognize and become comfortable with your preferred level of arousal: People perform better under different conditions; some people prefer low feelings of arousal and others think they need pressure or high arousal to perform at their best. Practice with various levels of arousal so that you can learn how you perform under each level. Then, when it’s game time, develop techniques that help increase or decrease your arousal levels to your peak level. If you need to reduce your arousal level, try slow, deep breathing, focus on the basics or use a positive statement about how you’ve succeeded in a similar environment or task. If you need to increase your arousal level, than psych yourself up with music, by doing something active or focusing on positive thoughts.  
    • Develop and repeat a mantra: During practice, recognize the successes you have had and the basic skills that you need for peak performance. Then, develop a positive statement of what you KNOW you can do, and an action statement of what you need to do for peak performance. Use this mantra or positive statement when you are the most nervous or need focus. This will help you reflect on your positive skills and successes and build confidence while also improving focus on the task at hand.

    Elite para-athletes use many psychological skills to help with peak performance. These same skills can help you improve performance when you need it most. Confidence, motivation and focus are vitally important for peak performance and you can improve each of these skills by practicing the above techniques in your daily routines and practices.

    Dr. Moffett is the Adaptive Sports Program Coordinator with the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. 

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