Can I Use a Mental Game Technique to Be Mentally Tough?

Mental game techniques encompass aspects of goal setting, focus and refocusing cues, visualization/imagery, performance triggers and cues, reframing, relaxation, process goals, confidence builders, affirmations, emotion control, dealing with fears, personal motivators – and much more. Each of these have many techniques and skills to master. And all of these encompass the concept of mental toughness.

So, can you use a mental game technique to become mentally tough? The short answer is yes and no.

Yes, an emphatic yes, mental game techniques have a long history of effectiveness on athletic performances. The application of techniques are only limited by the imagination of the athlete or mental game coach.

  • Yes, using imagery has proven to be effective in performance rehearsal (race tactics).
  • Yes, relaxation (from deep breathing to progressive relaxation and hypnosis) has a long history of effectiveness in decreasing stress and emotional reactions such as race anxiety.
  • Yes, focusing and refocusing cues are highly effective at getting athletes to focus on the things that improve performance instead of distractions.
  • Yes, reframing is a sound psychological way of creating views and perspectives that serve you instead of beat you up, deflate and demotivate you.
  • Yes, goal setting has been well established as a tool to motivate and drive athletes to keep moving forward.
  • Yes, affirmations are effective in retraining your brain to build you up instead of beat you up.
  • Yes, strong and specifically applied performance triggers can be a catalyst for specific athletic response (i.e. kicking at the end of a race).

And now for the rest of the story.

When asked if an athlete were to use a technique to become mentally tough; it’s like saying will a long run make you a good marathoner. A technique – like a long run – is only part of a comprehensive performance plan.

In preparing for a marathon you need to integrate hill training, goal paced miles, recovery or cross training days, speed & other quality workouts, shorter races along the way as well as easy long runs and long goal paced efforts. And it all has to be progressive – building over the 16 (or whatever number) weeks. You cannot do in your 14th week exactly what you did in the 2nd week of training.

Likewise, becoming mentally tough requires more than knowing a technique or two. I have not yet found an athlete in which one stated issue was in fact in isolation.

  • Someone with lack of confidence may harbor doubts and fears. Though related each of these are separate issues to explore.
  • Someone who suffers from race anxiety needs to learn to relax however they often suffer from fears, issues related to self-esteem, social comparison and/or perfectionism. Though related each of these are separate issues to explore.
  • Additionally negative self-talk (I’m not fast) and limiting self-labels (I’m only a distance runner) are often present in the above situations.
  • Someone suffering from lack of motivation commonly are not in touch with goals that motivate. They also don’t have process goals to achieve them or understand the use of task relevant cues to get things done on a day-by-day basis. They may be too outcome focused or have fear of failure.
  • Someone who gets distracted often are looking at outcomes instead of being in the moment; don’t understand the use of task relevant cues, as well they often have a preoccupation with social comparisons, perfectionism, and lack of trust in training.

Here’s the point: Yes techniques are effective. But a technique here or there will not resolve your issues long-term. Only through a comprehensive approach will you optimize your chances at becoming “mentally tough”. Just like a successful marathon is run with a comprehensive running plan and not just a random long run thrown in from time to time.

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