The Mindset of Athletes
What separates elite athletes from the rest? What makes them win, and keep winning? How do they think differently?
Many talented athletes don’t live up to their potential. Technical ability in training doesn’t help if it can’t be carried through to competition. And there are many examples where less physically gifted athletes became elite.
The biggest factor is mindset. All those who compete at a professional level are talented, but it’s the ones with the optimal mindset who win.
Next level mindset
Mindset can help or hinder your performance in competition. Natural talent can achieve results, but not on a consistent basis. And those who rely on natural talent often underperform against lesser ranked opponents.
Elite athletes have a “next level” mindset. They constantly look to challenge themselves on a daily basis to get to the next level. They stopped thinking about talent a long time ago, and instead only focus on improving their skills.
Elite athletes push themselves during each practice, they pay attention to exactly what they’re doing, and continually focus on positive habits. This creates consistency. Every detail matters for those that want to excel. How they approach competition, how they warm up, how they compete, how they respond afterwards, and how they deal with defeat.
In the words of Henry Ford, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”. The brain is a computer system, and your belief system is your software. So you may be gifted and in great shape, but if your mind doesn’t believe this then you won’t realise your potential.
A key starting point is to become conscious of your own thought process. Sports psychologists have found that if athletes don’t think they’re as good as their competitors, and think “I need to play really well, in order to do well”, they won’t perform to their best.
Wanting to win is a good thing, but psychologists say when the very best compete, they don’t think about winning. They simply believe they’ll do well, and focus on each move.
Any sporting success is achieved in the moment. Sports psychology shows that humans are at their best when they’re in the zone, and not thinking about themselves, or the crowd, or the result, or thinking at all.
This flow state can be created by a love for the sport. To naturally love practice, and competition, and be absorbed by it. This gives a huge competitive advantage. The other way is by following a process. Breaking down the mission, the game, the competition, into its component parts, and simply focusing on one step at a time.
Follow the process
Elite athletes and players are told to “follow the process”. Everyone has a role, and a step-by-step guide of what they need to do in their game or competition, and they need to ignore everything else, and follow that. In the words of the famous NFL coach Bill Belichick, “Just do your job!”
This thinking within coaching originated from a psychiatry professor named Lionel Rosen, who’s insight was: sport is complex, it’s impossible to be aware of everything going on, all the time, and cognitively manage all the variables at play. Therefore a team, and individuals, have to focus only on what they can manage, and focus on the next thing in front of them, with the singular aim of doing it well in that moment.
This works. Both during a game, and during an entire season. It’s the reason why footballers who are asked in interviews, if they think they have a chance of winning the title, say the only thing they have in mind is the next game. In this way, by not thinking about the prospect of winning, and being carried away by it, they give themselves the best chance to actually win.
Breaking performance down to its component parts, and focusing on each step at a time, and what you can do, is the mindset with the most merit. Ignore the competitors, the other team, the crowd, the score. Just stick to the job.
Part of the process is letting go of mistakes, misses, and losing. And moving on to the next chance. An eminent football manager said the difference between those who become the best, and those who don’t, is that “the best are those who don’t dwell on the missed opportunities”. We also see this in tennis and other sports when elite players who lose a point instantly focus on the next shot.
Most people’s definition of success is the avoidance of failure, but elite athletes say their definition of success is their response to failure. It’s part of the process, and there is no success without failure.
As well as the above, there are some core basics to the ways that elite athletes think:
Ambition. Maintaining a will to win, and a desire to be the best.
Persistence. To keep going. Regardless of setbacks. To not stop.
Positive realism. The belief that you can win, but the realism to set realistic targets, to be aware when something isn’t working, and the objectivity to listen to your body if you are injured or need to recover.
Humility. To be confident, but to not overestimate your ability, and to know your weaknesses, and be ok with them in order to improve them, and use it for growth. Vulnerability. Being able to admit defeat, share failure, seek help or inspiration from elsewhere, and recognise the need to change and evolve parts of your performance.
Lack of regrets. To not think of the past, but only focus on the next performance.
What you can do
Work on your process. Identify what elements you need to improve, and work on them, one step at a time. Don’t think about the future, or of the past, just work on your craft every day. Focus on each key detail, in the moment, and your performance will improve. And if you make a habit of improving your performance, every day, then one day you might become elite too.