Female Track Athlete Looks Across Mentally Preparing While Stretching Her Arm

Mastering the Mind: Mental Strategies From the World’s Best Athletes

BY Dr. Anne Shadle

The world's best athletes put just as much effort into their mental training as they do their physical training. Here's how they do it and how you can do it, too.

From the Olympics to the NFL, I’ve worked with elite athletes across various high-stakes domains. With more than a decade of experience researching and guiding high-level athletes, I’ve observed firsthand the pivotal role mental training plays in achieving and sustaining peak performance. I’ve also identified the mental strategies that many of these athletes share. 

The world’s most successful athletes don’t just rely on physical prowess; they also dedicate significant effort to mastering the mental aspects of their sport. Understanding one’s own psychology, putting effort into mental training, and developing mindfulness are essential components of their training regimes. Here’s how you can incorporate the mental techniques of the world’s best athletes into your own training for better workouts, peak performances, and an overall more enjoyable experience in sport and in life.

Understand Your Own Psychology

Elite athletes often stand out not just for their exceptional physical abilities but also for their psychological resilience. They possess a deep understanding of their own mental processes, which allows them to harness and optimize their thoughts and emotions to enhance performance. This self-awareness is not innate; it’s cultivated through years of deliberate practice and reflection.

Pro Tip: Keep a Journal

One of the most effective tools in an athlete’s mental toolkit is journaling. This practice allows athletes to track their progress, set goals, and reflect on both their physical and psychological states. By regularly recording thoughts, emotions, training data, and competition outcomes, athletes can identify patterns and triggers that affect their performance. This ongoing self-assessment fosters a heightened sense of self-awareness, enabling you to make precise adjustments to your training and competition strategies.

Unlock Your Athletic Potential

Get tips, resources and inspiration for your journey to Peak Performances sent directly to your inbox weekly.

Athlete Nl Blog Subscribe

Use Personal Mantras and Affirmations

Another powerful technique employed by elite athletes is the use of personal mantras or affirmations. These short, powerful statements are designed to reinforce a positive mental state and are often used under pressure to focus thoughts and foster a state of mental readiness. For instance, a marathon runner might repeat a phrase like “strong and steady” during the toughest parts of a race to maintain pace and ward off negative thoughts. Such mantras help anchor your focus, providing a psychological bulwark against the barrage of fatigue and doubt that accompanies long and strenuous competitions.

Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Meditation and mindfulness are also integral to the mental training regimen of top performers. These practices help athletes develop concentration and calmness, which are crucial during high-pressure moments. Regular meditation can enhance one’s ability to remain present, focused, and non-reactive, especially in the volatile contexts of competitive sports. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Mindfulness training typically includes techniques such as focused breathing, body scans, and mindful observation, which help athletes improve their concentration, reduce stress, and manage pain and fatigue during performance. For example, a swimmer might use focused breathing techniques before a race to settle nerves and enhance concentration, or a cyclist might engage in a body scan during a long ride to remain mentally engaged and physically relaxed.

Mindfulness Aids Physical Recovery and Builds Resilience

While sleep, nutrition, and rest are important, mental training also plays a pivotal role in recovery. Elite athletes use mindfulness to not only prepare for and perform during events but also to recover from the physical and mental strains of competition. Mindfulness practices aid in reducing stress hormone levels and enhancing overall well-being, which can accelerate physical recovery and readiness for subsequent training or competition.

Moreover, engaging in these mental practices helps athletes develop resilience. They learn to view setbacks as opportunities for growth, and challenges as chances to improve. This mindset is essential for long-term success in sports, as it encourages a continual pursuit of excellence and a steady approach to training and competition.

Focus on the Present

Ultimately, performance occurs in the moment, and the better athletes can focus their attention on the present, the better their performance. This is the essence of mental training—enhancing one’s ability to stay present, focused, and fully engaged with the task at hand, regardless of external pressures or internal disturbances. The mental clarity and calm induced through regular mental training allow athletes to perform with a sense of flow, which is often described as being in “the zone.”

In this state, actions and decisions feel almost effortless, and athletes often perform at their best. Achieving this consistently requires not only physical but extensive mental preparation. The athletes I have worked with spend considerable time developing these skills, which are as demanding as their physical counterparts.

Concluding Thoughts

In my extensive experience working with elite performers, I have consistently seen that those who engage deeply with their mental training achieve the most sustained success. It’s not solely the hours of physical practice that set them apart, but also the significant time dedicated to developing mental strength, resilience, focus, and mindfulness. 

As we continue to explore and understand the intricacies of sports psychology, the integration of mental training in athletic preparation only becomes more profound, underscoring the undeniable link between the mind and peak athletic performance.

Bundle Save Blog Cta

Achieve Your 2024 Goals With a Plan

TrainingPeaks App

Goals are best achieved with a plan, and TrainingPeaks’ Premium features ensure your plan is on track. Find a training plan that fits your personal fitness goals and get 24% off one year of Premium at checkout.

Dr. Anne Shadle
About Dr. Anne Shadle

Dr. Anne Shadle is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC) with a doctoral degree in Sport and Performance Psychology from the University of Missouri. She has served as a performance consultant for top-tier organizations including the Oklahoma City Thunder, Nike, USA Track and Field, USA Baseball, and leading multinational corporations, enhancing their strategies for performance and mental health. Recently, she completed three seasons as the Director of Mental Performance for the New York Jets. Before her tenure with the Jets, Dr. Shadle was a Senior Research Performance Psychologist at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, where she led innovative research linking the psychological profiles of elite Olympic athletes and special warfare operators.

Related Articles