Mind Games: Your unique abilities allow you to be better than your opponents

Two years ago, the sportswriters of the nationwide newspaper USA TODAY ran a feature that identified the 10 toughest athletes in sport. Professional golfer Tiger Woods was among those athletes chosen, but not for his physical toughness. What makes Tiger so tough, you ask? Simply put – his mental strength.

According to sport psychology researchers, mentally tough athletes are born with and can learn to develop a psychological edge that allows them to be better and more consistent than their opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure. I think you would agree that few athletes have more determination, focus, or confidence than Tiger.

So how do athletes like Tiger Woods become more mentally tough? The reality is that becoming more mentally tough will take time and commitment on your part – similar to what it takes to build muscle, increase your endurance, and improve your sport skills.

One of the keys to becoming more mentally tough is to realize that you have unique strengths and skills as an athlete. And one of your goals should be to understand how your uniqueness can help you to succeed.

Try this simple exercise. Get a piece of paper and something to write with. Close your eyes and think about what you do very well in your sport. What do you do better than everyone else or most other athletes? What are some of the sport-specific skills that you excel at? Are you more creative, persistent, or optimistic than your competitors? Are you a better leader? A better teammate or team player? More coachable?

Next, when you are finished brainstorming, on your piece of paper list as many of your unique strengths and skills as an athlete that you can think of. You also might find it helpful to ask your coach and parents to give you their input, as sometimes they can notice strengths and skills that you may have overlooked. Then, put a star next to what you consider to be your five most important strengths or skills that make you unique.

The final step, and perhaps the most challenging, is for you to apply your unique strengths and skills on a daily basis in practice or competition. For example, if playing defense is one of the things you do best, focus your efforts each day in practice on becoming an even better defender. If you listed the ability to never give up as a unique strength, decide to keep giving it your all even if your team falls behind early in the game.

At times it can be very difficult to stay focused on your unique strengths and skills, especially when people around you, even well-intentioned coaches and parents, keep reminding you of your weaknesses. However, today’s psychologists believe more and more that identifying our unique strengths and using them on a daily basis will allow us to feel more positive emotions and help us to be better at what we do. This is what being mentally tough is all about.

Mentally tough athletes know what they do best, possess an unshakable belief that their unique abilities make them better than their opponents, and choose to focus on their strengths on a daily basis. Are you mentally tough?

The Argosy University/Phoenix Center for Excellence in Sport (ACES) offers programs that teach athletes how to excel at using mental skills, instruct coaches how to develop mental toughness in their athletes, and inform parents how to cultivate performance and personal excellence in their children. For more information about ACES, contact Dr. Harmison at rharmison@argosyu.edu or 602-216-2600.