There’s a fine line between psyching yourself up and psyching yourself out. “Mental anxiety before a performance can create adrenaline, which can be productive for some people but extremely counterproductive for others,” says Steven Ungerleider, Ph.D., author of Mental Training for Peak Performance. World-class athletes know how to exploit their brains to ensure a competitive edge come game day. We’ve tapped into a few of their secrets.
SPONGE UP THE PAIN
During workouts, don’t block out pain. “Be hyperaware of what your legs feel like and what your lungs feel like. You’re collecting data about how your body operates,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., a certified sports-psychology advisor to the U.S. Olympic Committee. This data will keep you surprise-free and smooth come game day.
DREAM THE FEELING
“When you daydream, you’re training your neuromuscular connections—the impulses that affect muscle memory,” says Ungerleider. Run a mental movie of a competition from a first-person perspective. But instead of fantasizing about coming from behind to beat your rival, focus on the physical sensations you want to achieve during competition, whether it’s a smooth stride or a flushed 3-wood.
DO NOT “DO NOT”
Your brain is like a search engine, says Bobby McGee, a professional running coach and the author of Magical Running. “If you type in ‘Do not find last month’s taxes,’ chances are it will find last month’s taxes.” So when you say to yourself, Okay, don’t tense up, your brain accesses the program on how to tense up muscles. Instead, use affirmative self-talk and imagery focused on relaxation.
FEEL YOUR FORM
Overthinking is easy when you’re fatigued. The autonomic part of the brain that controls sports movements like running strides and tennis forehands runs independent of the cognitive brain, says McGee. “The minute you try to think about what you’re doing, your brain trips over itself.” Instead, rely on the neuromuscular connections you’ve built during training: Keep that forehand crisp by focusing on what hitting a crisp forehand feels like—not following a list of commands about how to do it.
HAVE A PLAN
“You want to arrive at an event already knowing how you’re going to spend each minute of your time,” says Jimmy Archer, ACSM, a pro triathlete and coach for NYC Triathlon Consulting Services. Just as you prep for the event itself through visualization, practice the rest of your routine beforehand. “Nervousness is wasted adrenaline,” says Archer. “If you can eliminate that element, you’ll have more in the tank when it’s time to compete.” If possible, scope out the site of the competition a few days beforehand. “Familiarity helps take the edge off the anxiety,” says Archer.
SQUEEZE OUT STRESS
Tense muscles harbor nervous energy and increase your risk of injury. Use progressive muscle relaxation to eliminate tension and strengthen focus. Starting at your toes, tighten one muscle group at a time and hold for 10 seconds. When you release the tension, focus on the sensation of letting go and increasing bloodflow.