Mental Toughness – What Professional Athletes do Differently

By Dr. Haley Perlus on June 23, 2014 , categorized in Endurance, Strength + Conditioning

By Haley Perlus, Ph.D. Sport & Exercise Psychology, Certified Fitness Professional

Why is it that athletes with the same physical prowess, technical skill, equipment, and nutrition achieve different levels of performance? When all else is equal, professional and Olympic athletes have a unique mindset that allows them to endure intense training, cope with enormous pressure, commit 100 percent to performing at their peak, and become the best in the world in their sport? Were they born with this innate ability, or is it a skill that can be honed just like anything else?

Sport Psychology is called the science of success because it studies the mental toughness tools top athletes use consistently in conjunction with fitness and nutrition to give them the ultimate competitive edge. Whether you’re training for your first marathon, experienced in your sport, or are a fitness enthusiast, you can enhance your performance by developing the following three markers of mental toughness utilized by the best athletes of our time.

Mental Toughness Marker #1: Want success more than you fear anything else.

Similar to any athlete, professional and Olympic athletes experience fear. Fear of failure, fear of injury, fear of the unknown, and even fear of success are natural in sport at every level. What top athletes learn to do is prioritize their fear. The love they have for their sport, and their deep desire to want to perform their best, makes any fear unimportant.

In my consulting practice, when working with athletes who are fearful, I ask them one vital question: Is it worth the risk? Is getting what you want important enough to risk the possibility of your fears coming true?

Success in sport is unpredictable. When you can accept the possibility of disappointing days, then choose to focus on why you want to participate so badly, you will have the best shot at achieving your goals.

Mental Toughness Marker #2: Focus on the little things.

At the highest level of sport competition, athletes understand that the only way to achieve top results is to exert all their mental and physical effort to improve the little things in their personal performance. Whether it’s running, jumping, shooting, throwing, swinging, or lifting, professional and Olympic athletes have developed the mental discipline to focus on the process of improvement, ultimately making them the greatest in their sport.

Athletes can have outcome goals such as winning the game, crossing the finish line, or moving up to the next level of development. However, professional and Olympic athletes know that, during training and competition, the desire to win can be more distracting than beneficial. Rather, it’s the process goals—the baby steps—that make winning possible.

Use your outcome goals to motivate you. Use them to get you out of bed in the morning and stick to your plan. Then, when it’s time to train or compete, always have daily short-term process goals to guide you. A technical improvement or tactical component will help you to gain the confidence, commitment and concentration you need to achieve peak performance.

Mental Toughness Marker #3: Commit to excellence, not perfection.

Few professional and Olympic athletes will say that they have had a perfect performance. Perfection is extremely rare in sport, if possible at all.

The most dedicated athletes can miss and fall short of their goals. What separates the top athletes from everyone else is that they strive for perfection, yet never demand if of themselves.

Demanding perfection heightens levels of anxiety and lowers levels of self-esteem, resulting in a debilitating fear of failure, poor performance, and no enjoyment for sport. Striving for perfection, on the other hand, is about committing to personal excellence. It’s about exerting every ounce of energy you have, in that moment, to the task at hand. It’s about learning from your mistakes and celebrating your successes. It’s about doing everything you need, physically, nutritionally, and psychologically, to achieve your personal best performance in your chosen sport.

Wanting success more than you fear anything else, focusing on short-term process goals, and committing to excellence instead of demanding perfection are three markers of mental toughness exhibited by professional and Olympic athletes. During your next training session or competition, experiment with one of these three markers and experience the same enjoyment and improvement in your sport as top performing athletes experience in theirs.

Share how you are demonstrating mental toughness on social media using #FuelYourBetter

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Dr. Haley Perlus

Dr. Haley Perlus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Vega’s Expert Panel. With a Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise Psychology, M.S. in Sport Pedagogy, and numerous fitness and coaching certifications, Dr. Perlus is an expert at empowering athletes of all types and health enthusiasts achieve peak results. An adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, international speaker, former Alpine ski racer, appointed Industry Leader for IHRSA.org, and author including soon-to-be-released The One Minute Dietand Guidebook to Gold, Dr. Perlus helps people reach their highest standard of performance. For a free chapter of one of her books visit www.DrHaleyPerlus.com

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