Enhancing Sports Performance in Elite Athletics with Psychology

If you can’t accept losing, you can’t win.

-Vince Lombardi, Football Coach

Elite athletes stand out from non-elite athletes through a few things: first, it’s their years of practice and training. Secondly, it’s their sports achievements and results. And not lately, it’s their psychology: how they think about their sports and how they use their thoughts and emotions to perform at the best level. If you’re a student-athlete who aspires to elite performance, your psychology is the place to start. It’s the factor that will help you gain both years of training and outstanding results. If you’re confused about how to use psychology to advance your sports career, you are in the right place. This article will offer you some valuable guidance on how to implement sports psychology knowledge to advance your practice to an elite level.

What is performance psychology?

The field that examines factors influencing human performance is called performance psychology. This discipline looks at how people perform in various fields, such as creative domains, business, and sports. Professionals use the knowledge from this field to help people achieve their goals, reach their potential, and overcome their mental barriers. In athletics, performance psychology is highly relevant. Most athletes deal with mental blocks at some point in their careers, which is where performance psychology intervenes. It helps athletes identify those barriers and overcome them, so they can thrive and flourish in their sports. Performance psychology also provides some answers to the question “what is sports performance” by identifying how top performers think and behave in competitive environments. Elite athletics stands out through the level of performance it requires: elite players know what performance in sports is, and they aim to reach it in almost every game. But the exciting thing is that half of this peak performance is purely mental. Once you have attained an elite athlete’s skills and physical stamina, you have one more thing to train – and that is your brain.

Most elite athletes have benefitted from performance psychology. They wouldn’t have reached such a high level of mastery without training their minds, working with their emotions, and overcoming their mental barriers. As a result, we will use the most important elements of elite athletic performance and show you how you can implement them in your athletic career as well.

Why does “the zone” enhance sports performance?

Elite athletes embody the sports performance profile. They are driven, focused, action-orientated, and unafraid of failure. But there are other components besides those. Perhaps the only thing that makes them stand out from non-elite athletes is how they think: their self-talk, their internal narrative, and how they approach the future. The psychological aspect is one of the major factors affecting sports performance, which is why this will be the focus of this article.

Motivation and the Drive to Perform

Those who seek the ultimate athletic performance should know that nothing can happen without drive and motivation. If you want to achieve something, the first thing that matters is whether you want it or not. That’s what it means to be driven. Elite athletes —and most athletes — start out with a big drive to become the best athlete in their sports. But unlike aspiring athletes, elite athletes nurture and maintain that drive throughout their careers. They stay motivated to improve regardless of temporary outcomes. If they succeed, they don’t rest on their laurels and reduce their efforts. If they fail, they don’t let the negative experience get to them. They use their athletic psychology to find their motivation again and again, regardless of outside circumstances.

Research shows that motivation levels impact the sensation of fatigue during exercise, which means that the more motivated you are, the less you are going to be affected by tiredness. Perhaps this is why elite athletes have more training hours than non-elite athletes: since they are highly motivated, they can stay for longer in their practice, therefore accumulating more expertise and mastery.


A major part of athletics sports and performance is training. As you can imagine, elite athletes train differently than regular athletes. Training speed, frequency, duration, and intensity all correlate with performance in elite athletes. For a student-athlete, this means that to get to an elite level, they have to upgrade their training program or make changes that enhance their performance. If you are training below your maximum physical capacity potential, it might be time to amp up your efforts. To attain that ultimate performance, personal training could also be something worth considering. If you’re not satisfied with your current coach or don’t think they are able to sustain your performance at the next level, consider looking for a new coach. In many cases, elite performance is strongly correlated with higher level coaching and training.

Student athlete having self doubt

If you are a student-athlete and wonder how you can sustain high motivation levels over the years, look at some solutions that might be available for you. If you have started out highly motivated in your sport but found that this has declined over time, see if there are some mental barriers that stand in your way. You can work with a sports performance psychologist to see what holds you back from feeling motivated. Perhaps it’s a fear of failure running behind the scenes. Or an injury that you haven’t fully overcome on a mental level. Regardless of what the issue is, lack of motivation is just a mental barrier that can be overcome by connecting to the right inspiration and personal motives. What type of dreams did you have for your sports career when you first started out? What made you wake up early in the morning for your training session? What sort of visions did you have?

Is there any way you could connect to that old version of yourself that had all those big dreams?

Pacing the race

Research indicates that another component of elite performance is pacing. This is defined as the distribution of your efforts and energy over a pre-determined exercise or task. In other words, it means conserving your energy so that you can sustain a high level of physical performance over a longer period of time.

New athletes will always be tempted to give their all in a single game and ignore the consequences. But that’s something elite players will never do. They know that they must conserve their mental and physical health to play at an optimal level in as many competitions as possible. Pacing is most important in sports like sprints, where the distribution of energy is paramount. But we can also understand pacing from the mental health viewpoint.

Pacing your mental energy reserves means looking after yourself to replenish invested efforts. For example, if you have used all your motivation to train and compete in a season, make sure you take the time to fill your cup with things you enjoy. Don’t constantly exert efforts, as this will make you feel cognitively depleted. Instead, allow periods of rest and relaxation so that your motivation levels go back to the baseline level.

Positive Self-talk in Sports

You can’t play at an elite level with a defeated attitude. That’s only going to create mental blocks and fear. Before any elite athlete has gotten to the top, they’ve mastered the answers to how to improve mental performance. They’ve adopted positive self-talk to sustain them through good and bad days. Strength, endurance, stamina, and training are just half of high sports performance — the mental game is the other half.

Elite athletes have their own biggest cheerleader in them — their own selves. They’ve shifted their personalities to become someone who’s confident, optimistic, and consistent. It’s no longer a secret that personality and sports performance are strongly linked: type A personalities, which are associated with high achievement and competitiveness are mostly popular among elite athletes. High performers in sports aren’t born confident, disciplined, focused, and mentally strong – they work hard to build those things. They know that mental performance in sports is just as important as physical training. As a result of this, they spend a lot of time honing those mental skills that allow them to bring their best in every game: mental toughness, confidence, and staying in the zone.

Final words

Those looking for a sports performance definition inevitably stumble upon psychological concepts. That’s because in order to take your practice to an elite level, you must understand core elements from psychology such as motivation, mental discipline, focus, confidence, and self-talk. In this article, we have covered several aspects of high-performance psychology, such as motivation and drive, training, effort pacing, and self-talk. You can reflect on them to see how you can incorporate them into your training. However, reflection is only half of getting to your next level. You need the right guidance and training. Make sure to look for elite sports training that matches your needs or for sports performance courses tailored to your existing level. Nowadays, findings those providers is relatively easy. You can look up keywords such “athletic performance training near me” and find those training options that are suitable for you.