Common Mental Barriers
to Peak Performance in Student-Athletes
Pressure is a privilege. It only comes to those who earn it.
– Billy Jean King (BJK).
You’re probably training hard already. You’re setting big goals and feeding your motivation daily. But regardless of how ambitious you are and how hard you want to succeed, there’s something intangible holding you back. Perhaps you cannot even articulate what exactly stop you from taking that next step. Is it a lack of skills? Nerves? Fear of failing? All of them?
Many student-athletes like you have no shortage of determination and willpower, yet something gets in their way. They cannot identify with precision where their weakness is, but one thing is sure: there’s a barrier between them and the peak performance they want to achieve. That barrier is mostly mental. Nothing tangible from their environment stops them from pushing harder or dreaming big, but their minds don’t seem to want to collaborate. Whenever an athlete wants to go to the next level but fails to do so, they’re struggling internally with a fear or unconscious block. To simplify things, we’ll use the concept of mental barriers.
These barriers appear as self-imposed beliefs that restrict us from growing and negatively impact our perception of ourselves and our abilities. A mental barrier appears as a thought that holds you back from taking action, such as writing a book, taking a promotion, or pursuing a relationship. The barrier’s hidden message is that “you’re not capable of doing this or that” and, as a result, you stay in your comfort zone and never pursue that thing you want. Mental barriers to success can also be called emotional or psychological barriers, and they can manifest in our thoughts, opinions, feelings, or attitudes toward others. They’re often driven by fear, such as fear of being judged, fear of failing, of the unknown, etc.
Common barriers to peak performance
The performance-driven nature of sports makes student-athletes more vulnerable to mental barriers than other people. In sports, the stakes are high: if you aim to win a big competition, you can get so many rewards in return: popularity, status, and recognition. But if you fail, it is going to hurt. Because of this, many athletes battle conflicting thoughts that, on one hand, tell them to aim high but on the other, warn them of what could go wrong.
The thoughts around ‘what could go wrong’ are the foundation of most mental barriers in sports. They appear in the form of anxiety, nerves, perfectionism, and being afraid of taking action, which are some classical mental barriers examples. In the paragraphs below, we will outline the most common mental barriers to peak performance that athletes like you are often struggling with.
Everyone has nerves before a big competition. But what makes high-performers stand out is their ability to control those nerves. Otherwise, they can spiral into intense anxiety that leaves the athlete unable to be fully present in the game. Even the most skilled athlete can perform badly when they’re anxious. Perhaps the only thing that holds them back from attaining that peak performance they’re dreaming of is that performance anxiety that they cannot control.
Performance anxiety is a major mental barrier to success because it impedes the athlete’s ability to show their true potential. When the athlete is anxious, most of their mental energy will go towards regulating the physical state of stress and nervousness. As a result, they won’t be able to perform at the same level they would when in a state of confidence and calm.
Any athlete who aspires to high performance must learn to manage their anxiety during a game so that they don’t up controlled by their own emotions. This is more difficult in practice, since working with one’s emotional state is a really difficult task. But with the help of a mentor and mental health professional, an athlete struggling with performance anxiety can break through this mental barrier and access a confident state of mind.
If you want to know how to push through your mental barriers, believing in yourself is key. Athletes have high expectations of themselves. They hold themselves to very high performance standards, which is why they use negative self-talk as a way to motivate and discipline themselves. The downside of this strategy–most often used unconsciously–is that it can lead the athlete to build a lot of self-doubts. When their inner dialogue is mostly critical, exigent, or even demeaning, the athlete will begin to take internalize it as the truth about themselves. Ultimately, that voice telling them “You’re still falling short of that technique” will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and manifest as consistent self-doubt. Self-doubt is also a mental barrier to learning since it doesn’t allow the athlete to take risks.
The more ambitious you are as an athlete, the more prone you are to developing a critical self-narrative. That’s almost a fact in the sports world. But even if criticizing yourself can start out as a strategy to motivating yourself, in the end, it will not serve you well. The more you listen to those negative and critical thoughts, the more afraid you will be to aim high in your sports performance.
The underlying thought behind this is “there is no point in aiming high since I will fail anyway”. Self-doubt is a major barrier to high performance because it robs the athletes of the confidence, presence, and self-belief they need to show up at their peak. While there isn’t one magical solution to removing self-doubt, student-athletes can definitely diminish that voice that holds them back from succeeding. They can start with developing a positive self-image that can act as an antidote to negative self-talk and self-doubt. Building self-esteem and confidence through positive affirmations, setting achievable goals, and focusing on strengths can help student-athletes overcome this mental barrier and start believing in themselves more.
Wanting to do everything perfectly can be a mental barrier to peak performance. This might sound contradictory in theory. You might think that wanting to hone every skill and technique is the way to peak performance. But just like anything taken to an extreme can become detrimental, uncontrolled perfectionism can stop student-athletes from taking action and pushing themselves further. Perfectionism can manifest as a relentless drive to achieve flawless performance and an intense fear of failure, which can have negative impacts on mental health and athletic performance. Perfectionistic student-athletes set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves, are highly critical of their performance, and have a predominantly negative self-talk. Because they are afraid of failure, they often avoid taking risks, which impedes their growth and learning process.
In this sense, perfectionism is the enemy of growth and process. In order to grow, you must continuously take action, try, fail, and learn from your mistakes. But if you are afraid of taking action because you do not want to have less than a perfect performance, you will steal your chances of growing as an athlete. In this process, you will criticize yourself and diminish your self-confidence, which will create more mental barriers in return.
To overcome perfectionism, work on developing a growth mindset by taking action all the time. Aim to get things done rather than do them perfectly. In this process, allow yourself to feel compassion for the part of you that is taking action and trying, as this is more valuable than a flawless performance. Accept that setbacks and failures are a normal part of the learning process and use them as opportunities for growth and improvement. Instead of setting unrealistic goals — which are more likely to end up in failure, focus instead on the process rather than the outcome, and recognize your strengths and coping strategies you’re using to do that.
There is one state of mind that not many student-athletes don’t talk about often–it’s called feeling overwhelmed with one’s emotions. Talking about your emotional state can bring about intense vulnerability, which is why many will avoid it. But behind the scenes, many athletes will often feel that their emotions are too much to cope with, which affects their performance. For example, an athlete who struggles to cope with their sadness will struggle to motivate themselves on the field and in training sessions. Their sadness has control of their mind and they cannot go beyond that.
Intense emotions act as a mental barrier to peak performance in student-athletes especially when the athlete does not have the capacity and resources to decrease that intensity. Emotions have a reality of their own: they seem real and powerful, even if, in reality, they’re just temporary states of mind that come and go. When you’re trying to show up at your best but an intense emotion has a grip over you, chances are that you’re going to lean in the direction of that emotion. That’s how you let your performance be influenced by how you feel.
Overcoming this mental barrier to peak performance is possible when you become stronger than your emotions. Even if you feel anxious or depressed, you choose to show up and try. By doing this, you train your mind to become more powerful than your feelings. The first step is to stop being afraid of your temporary emotions, and instead learn to ride their waves. Therefore, while there is no simple solution to psychological barriers, you can try working with your performance anxiety, building trust in yourself, and letting go of perfectionism.