4 Key Sports Psychology Building Blocks

The dreary days of the offseason are no match for a tough mind

There are a number of challenges that present to the mental side of sport during the colder, darker season when your fitness isn’t quite as strong and your motivation is just starting to ramp up. Finding inspiration and commitment to endure these variables—even if this means enduring them just for a car ride to the gym—is a big hurdle.

Connecting to meaningful goals, some of which may not be pursued until many months later in the season, can prove elusive or tricky. Negative self-talk can overpower an otherwise positive outlook, and attitudes can dip as sharply as the mercury on a thermometer.

Whatever you call this time of year—the offseason, winter training, the beginning of your season or a base-building phase—it’s an excellent time of year to work on crafting sports psychology skills to provide the foundation for a high-performance mindset that will carry through the entire year. Sports psychology skills are like other key elements in sport; they require training and deliberate practice in order for development.

If you want to race at your peak, laying a solid foundation of training during the base-building part of the year is critical for both mind and body. Here are some of the core principles of sports psychology to work on now.

Self-Talk

If you’re anything like me, you have a near constant barrage of language that circulates through your head all day long. Some of this is just banter. Some is meaningless. Some grabs your attention and puts you on notice. The truth of the matter is that your mind is always working, thinking and chattering away. It’s an active, ongoing process whether you’re working on it or not. So it only makes sense to start a sports psychology practice by addressing the banter that’s happening in the space between your ears.

Self-talk in the form of “I am” thoughts significantly shapes our experiences. One of the key pillars of success in endurance sports is learning how to tolerate or manage discomfort. This process begins in cognitive self-appraisal of your experiences while training and racing. If your mind is quick to judge discomfort in an overly negative manner, for example, “I am in serious pain right now. I am not going to be able to sustain this much longer,” you will soon be looking for an exit strategy or slow your pace, either of which may comprise your goals. If you learn how to influence your own thinking and self-appraisals through neutral or positive “I am” thoughts, however, you have a much better chance of being able to stay the course and remain calm when you encounter discomfort or hit a difficult patch.

Try This: During your next workout, talk to yourself negatively. Really get down on yourself. Tell yourself how sloppy your form is, how slow you are, how uncomfortable you feel, how you’ll never actually achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself. Notice how this impacts your mood, energy and attitude, not just during training, but how this self-talk ripples ripples through the remainder of your day. This proposition may even sound downright dreadful just reading it. You can almost picture how this will negatively impact you before you even begin. Now, take a few days where you keep your self-talk positive during your workouts. You don’t need to be grandiose or insincere, that won’t work. But keep your thoughts positive by making specific statements in your mind about your performance, how your training connects to meaningful gains, how good you movements feel, or how your latest run grows your connection to sport, self or community. Notice any difference?

Self-Determination

Almost every endurance athlete I encounter wants to discuss grit and mental toughness as though they are the primary two elements in a sports psychology framework. True, both are important. But they are only two skills out of many  required for success in sport. The combination of grit and mental toughness equates to self-determination, a construct I think has more relevance and is more trainable. Self-determination starts with an internal belief that connects you to doing whatever it takes in particular moment to be successful. Self-determination can be getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. on a cold, dark, snowy Tuesday morning for your workout. Or it could be adjusting your attitude and thoughts to tackle the next mile repeat at the end of a hard session. We all have the capacity to find a source of deep, internal resiliency to focus on the next step, whatever that step may be. Cutting down the bigger task to the next most manageable step, and finding whatever internal resources you need to achieve that specific, smaller goal is the heart of self-determination. This skill is like a muscle, the more you work it in your daily life and in your daily sessions, the stronger it grows, and the more accessible it will be during challenging situations.

Try This: In your next hard workout, notice when you start to tire, lose focus or desire to be done. Shift your focus to the next manageable, attainable goal, no matter how small. If you’re outside, this may be putting all of your emphasis on getting to the next tree, or to the end of the street. If you’re on a treadmill, it may mean putting all your energy into finishing the next minute, or last ¼ mile. Once you’ve reached that goal, reevaluate your situation and determine the next target.

READ MORE: How Runners Can Develop Grit and Mental Toughness

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness has been shown to have a number of positive effects in a wide range of disciplines. Each of the first two skills outlined above requires an ability to shift focus and pay attention. This is the heart of what mindfulness can teach us. Mindfulness also helps develop a sense of deep focus and the ability to maintain our focus in a singular way for longer stretches at a time. This ability is critical for success in endurance sports.

Try This: There are a number of ways to develop a mindfulness based meditation program. One of my favorite sayings related to mindfulness is, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is remembering to be mindful.” Any successful mindfulness based program begins with dedication to practice. You don’t need any special equipment or space, you simply need to devote a few minutes each day to put down other tasks, close your eyes, and focus on the physical sensations of breathing. It’s ideal to set this practice at a time you can be consistent on a daily basis. There are a number of apps to help you with your practice. Insight Timer is an open source platform that offers over 7,000 (and growing) free guided meditations from teachers, instructors and providers from all over the world (including yours truly! You can find my profile there and listen along to several guided practices, including a race day stress reduction practice). Calm and Headspace are two others that offer a free trial period followed by subscription based service that will help you on a path towards mindfulness practice.

READ MORE: Boosting Mood and Performance with Mindfulness

Setting The Mind vs Mindset

Everything we do begins in the mind. Everything. Every meaningful goal starts with a thought, and that thought takes shape into meaningful plans and ultimately consistent action. In addition to grit and mental toughness, the notion of mindset has become a hot topic in the world of performance psychology. There are a lot of ideas behind types of optimal mindsets to develop: having a growth versus a fixed mindset, having a positive versus a negative mindset, developing a champion’s mindset and so on. Mindset, like these other skills, is an important concept. However, learning how to set the mind is a specific skill you can focus on every day and for every workout.

Try This: When setting the mind, there are two broad categories: What and How. The “what” category is about what it is that you are doing or about to do within the workout itself, such as “I am about to do a 5-mile tempo run.” The “how” category refers to the attitude and psychological framework you will take into the task. For more difficult runs, the “how” starting point may be infused with fear, intimidation or a mixed attitude. That’s OK. It’s important to notice the immediate reaction of the “how” that arrives. Setting the mind helps you take a deliberate, conscious effort to how you will approach the task, “I will work hard during this run. I will not back down. I will remain focused when I reach a place of discomfort. I will keep my self-talk calm and positive.”

Athletes looking to perform at their best will need to develop both their body and their mind. Working on these sports psychology skills now, early in the year, and continuing with a disciplined practice throughout the coming year will ensure that you will be mentally prepared to perform at your peak.

READ MORE: How to Turn Running Setbacks into Strengths

Justin Ross, Psy.D.
Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO, where he specializes in sports performance psychology and health/wellness psychology. He co-owns MindBodyHealth, a mindfulness based practice. He is also a recreational athlete, with a 3:03 Marathon PR. You can connect with Dr. Ross on Twitter at @PsychDenver.