The Power of the Mind.
The mind is more powerful than you think.
The human brain is the most powerful organ in the body. It is capable of an unfathomable amount of processing power, and its ability to either help or hinder our athletic performance is well established. It has approximately 200 billion nerve cells, called neurons, each one connecting to as many as 10,000 other neurons via trillions of synaptic connections. Every second, the brain communicates more signals from neuron to neuron than there are stars in our galaxy.
Learning to properly care for and leverage the power of our minds can also help us achieve peak performance in sports and in life.
Supporting your brain can be as simple as getting good sleep, eating well, lowering stress levels and treating any conditions that may arise such as anxiety, depression or emotional volatility. The brain is the hardware that runs the mind, and sometimes the hardware needs support. Such ‘organic’ issues can include memory impairment, impulse control problems, executive functioning delays and learning disabilities.
Taking care of the hardware of our brains is one dimension of peak performance; another is tuning the software that is our minds. Our brain can be healthy, yet our mind may still insert psychological programs than interfere with optimal activity. You may not believe you are good enough to compete at a certain level, for example, and that lack of confidence may extend to your physical actions. You may have an overactive need to be the best, which can limit your ability to receive feedback from others and grow. You might feel shame for having made a mistake, and that feeling inhibits your ability to bounce back quickly and to focus on the present moment.
The mind also has tremendous power to elevate our performance beyond what we think is possible.
Sport psychology is a discipline that addresses the optimal performance and well-being of athletes, the development of human potential and fitness culture at large. Our minds impact our physical performance, and our athletic endeavors also affect our minds. Regardless of whether the influence on our performance originates in the brain or in the mind, it is important to attend to the mental dimension of optimal functioning. Getting your mind ‘in the game’ is a key part of success in fitness, work and your personal life.
This month we look at some tips from sports psychology designed to increase performance that also apply to the broader game of life.
Sports psychologists help their clients visualize going through the motions of their athletic activities in a way that produces success. Visualization is a powerful tool that is often under-utilized in life at large. If you’re struggling in your relationship, for example, it can help to visualize what it might look like for you and your partner to reconnect, get along and have a pleasant interaction. Once you can ‘see’ a path forward that results in connection, it is much easier to actualize it.
2. Commitment to Mental Health
Sports psychologists help athletes to be focused and motivated, but also with issues such as drug or alcohol overuse, conflicted relationships with food and eating, impulse or emotional problems, anxiety and depression. Yet, you don’t have to be an athlete to struggle with such things. Admitting you have a mental issue that gets in the way of peak performance is key to resolving it. Once you can pinpoint a problem area, a well-trained counselor can help you decide what to do about it and help see it through to resolution. Elite athletes that overlook their mental health get tripped up in a variety of ways, both on and off the field. The rest of us do too. Don’t hold yourself above help — get an evaluation and find support sooner rather than later. If you don’t have a significant issue, a counselor can still help tune your ‘mental program’ so that it’s working in the same direction as your life, health and wellness goals.
3. Bouncing Back
Many athletes are taught to focus on their present action and to not allow the distraction of previous or future events to draw energy away from the moment. When we make mistakes, the shame of a failure moment can cripple our mind, lower our sense of confidence and affect the ‘next few plays’ we need to execute to reach our goal. By being kind and supportive to yourself in failure — a part of self-care called ‘self-compassion’ — the feeling of shame is digested more quickly and your mind is freed up to focus fully on the next step. Set several small goals so you can focus on the one next step in front of you, and love yourself in moments of failure to help you keep your focus on the present moment.
Sports psychology is a fascinating look at how our minds impact our performance, but its principles are applicable to all. By learning some of the same lessons taught to elite athletes, we can achieve peak physical and mental performance in our own lives and reduce the stigma we sometimes attach to acknowledging our mental health issues and seeking help.
*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They help their clients lower anxiety, heal depression, improve relationships and more.