By Ronda Gates, MS
Gates, MS, is a pharmacy grad who traded her white coat for a pair of
athletic shoes and never looked back. Her health promotion business,
LIFESTYLES, provides motivational speaking, program development, and
fitness assessment services to support people making a lifestyle change.
She has developed health promotion programs for many organizations nationwide.
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early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
Danny was at the top of his game. At age 38, after years of focused attention on his goals, supported by long workdays, his peers acknowledged his advertising company as “the best on the west coast.” Danny reveled in his success until he took a good look in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge that success wasn’t the only thing he’d gained. Instead of his former athletic build, he sported a beer belly, double chin, and at least 50 extra pounds that were the source of breathlessness and knee pain on the rare occasions when he made time for basketball with his buddies.
Danny vowed to return to his pre-business-days active lifestyle. He hired a coach and trained for a regional marathon. He was surprised to discover his workouts didn’t compromise his business success. Best of all, his speed improved in direct proportion to his weight loss. Six months later, as workouts became “easy,” he was ready for his first competitive event.
That race didn’t go as Danny expected. Despite his training, complete with his coach’s motivational talks and specific racing strategies, everything went awry. Soon after the race began, Danny’s mind wandered as he compared his performance to more experienced runners, watched the crowds lining the race route, and focused on a blister developing in his foot. His race experience was disappointing. When his pattern of good training sessions followed by lackluster performance in a competitive situation became the norm in subsequent events, Danny’s confidence was shaken. He wanted to achieve his goals at play just as he had at work. His coach suggested he meet with a sports psychologist.
Sports psychology is the science of behavior and understanding how it affects athletic performance. It goes beyond physical training and addresses the mental and emotional sides of competition. Typically a sports psychologist works with individuals who want to enhance their performance under pressure and need additional skills to attain their goals.
After several sessions, the sports psychologist realized that Danny’s focus on his times, age-rank, and what others thought of his abilities meant he was extrinsically, rather than intrinsically, motivated.
He told Danny that when the heat of competition is turned up high, the performer who falls apart most often does so because of the mental factors Danny described: poor concentration, negativity, lack of confidence, and an inability to let go of mistakes. A turnaround in his competitive racing would require the same mental toughness and resiliency that led to his business success. Danny would also need to delve into the deep recesses of his psyche to discover his hot buttons and use these triggers, rather than what others thought, as his motivation to succeed.
The sports psychologist outlined a series of strategies that are useful in achieving any goal:
• Set performance goals that are sufficiently difficult so you can maintain motivation, experience a sense of being stretched, and focus on your improving skills even when competition is weak.
• Improve focus with affirmations, visualization, meditation, or positive self-talk as a mental rehearsal for future achievements. An affirmation (“I run competently and enjoy the accomplishment of meeting my pre-race goals”), accompanied by mental pictures of what a successful race looks like, subconsciously reprograms the body and mind to act on this perceived reality. If you have never meditated, start by focusing on and becoming completely involved in the shape, color, and size of a series of objects or sounds. If distracted, instead of following the thought, return to the sensate-oriented task. In time it becomes easier to stay in the moment.
As you become more experienced in meditation, attempt to experience the feeling of “flow” or being entirely in the moment. Anchor your ability to stay present with a trigger word or physical action, like touching your thumb to your forefinger. Then repeat the word or movement when you realize you need to refocus.
• When something appears to be “going wrong,” don’t dwell on the negative. Take a deep breath and think of something positive to help regroup.
• Become aware of mental traps that draw you away from your game plan. Then develop proactive solution-oriented strategies to prevent distractions in future races.
• Consider journaling to track what goes well and how you feel about your progress.
The dogged persistence that made Danny successful in business was mustered to apply these additional skills to improve his race performance. With practice, he relaxed into a routine that set the stage for a new kind of success and, best of all, enjoyment of his new mental and emotional health.
The mental toughness strategies Danny learned are applicable in any situation where enthusiasm may be lagging or you think you’re not performing up to par. Success is, indeed, about physical, mental, and emotional balance.