For the past few decades, sports psychologists have studied the psychological factors that affect athletes – from beginners taking part in their first team sports to elite athletes at the top of their field. Today, neuroscientists are getting into the mix and attempting to understand the brain’s role in that mental game
“When you are an elite athlete, one of the best in the world, the physical differences between you and your peers are very, very small.” says Scott Grafton, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Dana Foundation grantee, who studies action representation, or how the brain organizes movement into a goal-oriented action.
Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra is credited with saying that “90 percent of the game is half mental.” Over the years, the line has been appropriated beyond the world of baseball to MMA, Tennis and other one-on-one sports to explain the importance of factors like mental rehearsal focus and motivation to all high-level athletic performance.
Shannon Miller, an Olympic Gold Medalist in gymnastics, agrees that mental preparation is key to success—and she says she couldn’t have gotten to the Olympics on physical ability alone.
“The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best,” she says. “In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”
Spectators naturally only see the glamorous life of the sportsman, footballers scoring goals, rugby players a try or cricketers accumulating runs. They rarely think about what goes on after the contest.
Michael Owen Says, “There was Michael Owen the professional footballer, dealing with the highs, lows, stresses and strains of performing at the highest level, and then there was the real me, with the same friends I had before fame came along and a close-knit family that did not necessarily recognise the public persona.”
“At the peak of my career, I felt I lived two lives to deal with the psychological demands of being a top-level sportsman. As far as I am concerned, mental as much as physical fitness is important to succeed consistently at the top and I benefited from being fully prepared before I found fame.”
Many Coaches and Athletes talk about developing Potential – the message to them is simple: Potential is useless until turned into Performance. And Elite Performance doesn’t come from just physical training, skills training, or time in the gym.
Athletes have physical conditioning Coaches, team Coaches, and private Coaches to help with physical skills. Now it’s time to get a Mental Fitness Coach involved in development as well – IF you’re really serious about seeing improvement.
Many times you’ll hear Athletes and Coaches repeat the old refrain: “Practice makes perfect.” Not true – just because an Athlete repeats physical movements or skills over and over doesn’t mean they’re not repeating and embedding negative patterns even more deeply into the brain and body.
Muscle Memory is when a body does something without thought – such as brushing your teeth or choking at a crucial point in a game. Mental Muscle Memory can be good or bad but it doesn’t magically improve your mental focus. Isn’t it time to learn how to install new software into the brain that will establish positive Muscle Memory? The kind that truly brings outstanding Performance!
As Pride of the Warrior suggest in their article, “8 Mental Rehearsal Lessons from Legendary Athletes that will make you a Better MMA Fighter”, many athletes are taught that it’s all about visualisation. But, as Mohammed Ali’s catch cry, “I am the Greatest”, reminds us, it’s also about vocalisation.. and a whole lot more.