The Psychology of Sports Performance: Training Your Brain Like an Elite Athlete

Every Battle is Won Before it is Fought.

Sun Tzu

There are two things that distinguish an athlete from an elite athlete: their logged training hours and their mindset. High performance in sports isn’t achieved overnight – it’s built through consistent effort and sustained by a strong support network and mental game. While getting to a medium level of performance in sports is attainable with natural talent and some practice, cutting this threshold is way more complicated.

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. In this article, we are going to show you how you can develop your mindset to think like an elite player. We will walk you through a few techniques on how to enhance mental performance in competitions and teach you unique aspects of elite athletics sports and performance. Equipped with this information, you can go out on the field and take your sports performance to the next level.

Mindset in Elite Athletics

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. Below are some principles from the psychology of sports performance that any elite can study and integrate into their mental training.

Process over outcome

Athletes are tempted to pursue the outcome as the most critical indicator of their performance in sports. But that’s not how elite players approach their success. Instead, they focus on the process. And because they give so much attention to the process, their results are better. Being anchored in the process — regardless if you’re playing in a national competition or simply training in your local gym — allows you to invest all your mental effort and give it everything you have.

But there’s another reason why putting the process before the outcome leads to better results: it creates less stress for the mind. Playing with the outcome in mind makes an athlete nervous, worried, and absent. As a result, they become more stressed and are therefore less prepared to handle unexpected turns in the game. Stress does affect mental performance as well: it decreases focus and reduces attention spans.

Elite players spend 95% of their attention focused on the process and the immediate task they are engaged in. They only think about future outcomes when they need extra resources to stay motivated and excited. They know that spending too much time thinking about the future creates worry and anxiety, so they only spend 5% of their time thinking about the outcome. This way, they’ve got a lot of mental energy left to give their best throughout the process. Therefore, getting anchored in the present moment can be a form of mental preparation for performance. This is particularly useful if you want to learn how to deal with sports performance anxiety.

The conclusion is simple: don’t worry about the outcome. You cannot control that. Instead, focus on what you have to do in the process. Give everything you have to that moment and let the rest follow naturally

Double down on recovery practices

Stress and sports performance are not a good combination. But elite athletes know this, which is why they take their rest very seriously. Any peak performance in sports should be followed by a period of deep rest (or any time of rest recommended by the athlete’s coach). Rest is also part of one’s mental preparation for performance: a rested brain is more likely to experience a high intensity of positive emotional functions (confidence, motivation, energy) and a low intense of negative emotions (worn out, slugging, annoyed, discouraged). If you have ever played after a bad night’s sleep, there is no doubt you have already seen how mental fatigue affects performance. If you’re ever planning on making it to elite athletics, take your recovery seriously. Both the physical and mental. Listen to your body when you feel tired and take a rest day after an intense training session. If your tiredness is only mental, take a sensory break by spending time in nature or less busy environments.

Let go quickly

Here’s another thing most elite athletes don’t do: they don’t fret about failure. An athlete who hasn’t worked on their mindset will be inclined to ruminate on a mistake for days. The result? Their focus will be on the past, not on the present. As we discussed in the previous paragraph, being absent leads to worse performance. Besides, overthinking a past failure will diminish your self-confidence and feed your negative self-talk. If you want to know how to enhance mental performance, you have to know where to put your focus — and your past mistakes are definitely not the right place to do that.

In contrast, high-performing athletes do the opposite with their successes: they savor them and relish their memories. When they do that, they boost their confidence and build even more recourses to cope with past mistakes and future stress. This way, even when they fall short of their expectations, they have the memory of their achievements to boost their self-esteem. Learning to let go of your mistakes and savor your accomplishments is part of any mental training for sports performance. The idea is that in athletics you really have to look for the silver lining in anything and use any event or small positive incident to fuel your motivation moving forward. Don’t forget that elite athletics is a long-term game: you have to pace your resources, mental health, and physical effort to last you for a while. That’s what mental performance is in a nutshell: managing your psychology for lasting success.

Build a toolkit of mental resilience practices

Athletics sports and performance do come with a cost for the athlete’s mental health. The highly competitive environment, travels, and pressure from peers and coaches can leave an athlete highly vulnerable. All it takes is one injury, an unexpected loss, or an attack on social media, and the mental health of an elite athlete can plummet.

For this reason, having a toolkit of resources to fall back when in times of crisis is not optional — but mandatory — for any athlete. Even if you haven’t made it to elite athletics yet, you need self-care and mental recovery practices just as much. The sooner you build your own toolkit, the better. Look towards self-care practices that help you take your mind off your sports after a long day. What relaxes and recharges you? Some techniques that athletes use include self-talk, imagery, relaxation, and goal-setting. In addition, distractibility (e.g., from a loss) and emotional control can both help. Building your emotional toolkit is also how you deal with sports performance anxiety, which is common in many athletes. Mental toughness does affect performance – so make sure that you strengthen your mind by choosing the right thoughts, addressing your limiting beliefs, and increasing your self-confidence.

Final Words

Are you aspiring to become a high-performing athlete and want to know the psychology behind it? We hope this article has offered you some clues about where to start. The mental aspect is half of any performance in elite athletics. So in case you are still wondering how can mental preparation improve performance, look at a big athlete you admire: they’ve definitely done a lot of hard work on their mindset! The best athletes you know include, if not all, at least some of these practices:

● they focus on the process rather than the outcome

● they let go of their mistakes quickly and instead focus on their wins

● they double down on their recovery practices (both mental and physical)

● they have some techniques and strategies to build their mental resilience back up after a difficult day

A combination of these techniques plus their own mindset work is how they enhance their mental performance and bring their best selves to every competition. The great thing about these psychological tools is that they’re available to athletes at all levels. In fact, using them early will increase your chances of success and make you better equipped to handle the intense journey of athletics.