How do world class athletes get themselves ready to perform their best when the pressure is really on?
What are some of the strategies, tools and techniques that they use to tune out distractions, stay focused and remain self-confident when faced with a serious challenge?
My team of researchers and I recently interviewed approximately one hundred and sixty elite athletes from a wide range of individual sports and team sports including: golf, tennis, mixed martial arts, wrestling, track and field, football, soccer, gymnastics, swimming, lacrosse , diving, hockey, baseball, figure skating, boxing, basketball and judo.
The people we spoke to compete at the professional level, the Olympic level, the college level and the high school level.
We asked them about choking during competition, managing pressure and the strategies and techniques that they used to perform to their full potential. Several themes and patterns seem to be mentioned very frequently.
First, for many athletes, the zone is synonymous with the idea of focus. Focus can be thought of as relaxed concentration where you are absorbed in the task and living in the present.
Second, a lot of the athletes reported listening to music prior to a game, match or performance. Many had very specific songs which seemed to "psych" them up to compete.
Third, a lot of the athletes visualization, guided imagery, meditation or guided imagery to get their mind into the right gear for winning. Many would imagine a perfect performance in great and vivid detail.
Fourth, relationships with teams and coaches were a key component to their athletic success. The great athletes seem to have outstanding relationships with the key people in their lives. Conflicted relationships can create much stress on and off the field for the serious athlete.
Fifth, many athletes reported using the same routines and rituals in their training for many years.
Sixth, passion for their sport keeps them motivated and excited.
Seventh, having fun is paramount. When an athlete is no longer having fun, he or she may be suffering from burn out. It is very hard for an athlete to perform his or her best when one's sport is not appealing or fun.
Eighth, a great performance can be thought of as a function of hard work and talent minus distractions.
Ninth, choking is the opposite of being in the zone. When an athlete chokes he or she is distracted and they lose focus. Knowing how to manage choking and setbacks are essential skills for peak performers. The athletes we spoke to learn how to activate their inner warriors when they need to get mentally tougher when faced with an athletic challenge.