Many athletes have experienced what is known as being “in the zone,” where his/her performance seems automatic and effortless. While this is the goal for many athletes, it is more typical for athletes to perform when they are not in this automatic, optimal-performance zone. Learning to perform when not “in the zone” requires athletes to be mentally skilled; focus effectively; and manage their thoughts, emotions, and actions during competition.

When athletes are training for their specific sport, there are three areas that they must master: technical, physical, and mental. While most athletes are already practicing their technical skills and physically working out in the gym, they tend to overlook one of the key areas to enhance their performance: the mental arena. The sooner an athlete learns to use psychological skills training, the sooner certain performance obstacles can be overcome to help that athlete enhance his/her performance.

The field of sport psychology studies how individuals think, act, and feel when participating in sports. Thus, a sport consultant is interested in how the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions of athletes influence and are influenced by their sport participation. Research has shown that sport psychology interventions, or mental training, can enhance athletes’ performance in a variety of sports.

There are several techniques, but the basic psychological skills an athlete must acquire include: goal setting, positive self-talk, relaxation, and visualization. However, learning the basic psychological skills is only the beginning. Athletes with the mental toughness and the basic psychological skills will be able to learn advanced psychological skills to help them enhance their performance. Advanced psychological skills include motivation, concentration, focus, arousal control, and building one’s own confidence.

Common attributes related to an athlete’s mental toughness include:

• Strongly desiring to succeed Most top performers have detailed goal-setting programs that give them a clear direction of their targeted achievement. Each training session should have a specific purpose and be viewed as a small step towards the long-term goal.

• Staying positive in the face of challenge and pressure An integral part of competitive sport is challenge and pressure. An athlete must learn to keep a positive attitude while under pressure.

• Controlling the controllables Athletes should focus on things that they can do something about. Athletes waste valuable mental energy worrying about, or getting angry about, uncontrollable factors such as poor weather, officials, inferior equipment, or the experience of an opponent.

• Making a strong commitment and having a balanced attitude Most top performers got there through a long process of hard work. However, an athlete’s sport should not consume his/her life to the point where everything else loses meaning.

• Highly believing in one’s self Mentally tough athletes are extremely confident and believe that they have the capacity to perform well under the most challenging situations. They never give up — even when it looks like it’s all over.

The mental toughness attributes listed above have included specific psychological skills such as goal-setting and positive self-talk. The importance of learning these psychological skills is to increase performance and give an athlete the edge over his/her opponent. If there are two athletes of the same talent and ability, it is the one that takes his/her time to mentally prepare that will win the competition. Which athlete would you like to be?

To learn more about gaining the winning edge, contact Jackie Van Patten at Personal Performance Enhancement LLC (