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The athlete mind: Optimize your brain for peak performance


From learning to access flow state to healthy habits to overcoming performance anxiety and distractions—an athlete’s mindset and mental discipline matter.

As any professional athlete knows, it’s not enough to train your body and physical skill. To achieve peak performance, you have to train your mind as well. Your mindset, mental discipline, and lifestyle can have a huge impact on your performance. Poor coordination, slowed decision-making, decreased speed, stress affecting performance, difficulty working with teammates—all can be impacted by how we mentally set ourselves up for success.

And while many athletes, from Lebron James to Kerri Walsh to Derek Jeter, have been vocal supporters of mental training, many athletes still are omitting mental training from their daily regimens.

The truth is, mental training is essential to strengthening the mind-body connection, and being able to achieve higher levels of performance. It helps create a synchronicity between the mind and body, where you don’t have to worry about stress or mental factors interfering with performance. Instead, when game time comes, you can let it all go and trust your training.

The relationship between physical and mental performance

Throughout our history of scientific inquiry, we’ve favored exploring physical potential. But recent decades have begun balancing this research with studies on the mind and how it impacts physical performance.

How mental training can impact physical performance

Say what you will—there’s a huge difference between performing during training sessions and once the pressure’s on. A whole slew of factors can impact how well we perform, from anxiety and stress that overwhelms us at the moment, to lifestyle habits that set us up for success. This is where mental training comes into play.

What is mental training?

Mental training refers to developing mental discipline in the areas of:

  • Strengthening focus
  • Learning to deal with distractions
  • Down regulating stress and anxiety
  • Improving confidence and self-belief
  • Training mind-body cohesion and synergy
  • Cultivating habits that support performance (like a good night’s sleep and eating well)

When asked to perform, even if our body is in a peak physical state, an untrained mind can sabotage performance. In games where a split-second decision can make the difference between winning and losing, athletes have to be able to rely on a seamless synergy between mind and body. Doubt, stress, anxiety, distractions—if your mind isn’t able to tune those out, it can make it incredibly hard to perform at the top of your abilities.

How physical training impacts mental performance

Interestingly enough, this relationship doesn’t go just one way. After reviewing hundreds of studies, research published in Public Health Nutrition found that physical activity can significantly impact clinical depression, both state and trait anxiety, and self-esteem. Another review found that moderate to vigorous physical activity led to improved performance on academic tests and memory, processing speed, and executive function tests.

Take for example, 3 time Gold Medalist Kerri Walsh

Elite athletes understand the impact mental training has on performance. Just ask three-time Olympic gold medal volleyball player Kerri Walsh.

Walsh is an ardent advocate for mindset and setting yourself up for success.

“I am a product of my habits—and so are you,” Walsh has said. Meditation, getting eight hours of sleep every night, eating healthy foods, and working with a sports psychologist, Walsh credits all for keeping her mind and body in a harmonious state that allows her to operate at peak performance.

5 ways to start training for peak mental performance

The first step to elevating your mental performance is understanding your goals. Are you looking to improve your focus? Do you want to get a handle on anxiety when game time rolls around? Are you trying to strengthen your mind-body connection? Knowing your goals can help you select techniques that will be best for you.

1. Learning to access flow states

Flow states have garnered lots of attention over the past years, and for good reason. They refer to a mental state associated with heightened focus and increased performance. Flow states are often described as “feeling like you’re in the zone.” The trick to cultivating and learning to access flow states is doing activities that you intrinsically enjoy, but that also stretch your capacities and challenge you.

Learn more about the art of cultivating flow states >>

2. Breathing techniques

Breathing techniques are used by many elite athletes to get focused and present in the moment. Breathing techniques can help cultivate inner calm and to feel more connected with your body. They can also make it easier to ignore distractions and focus solely on your performance.

A popular breathing technique is the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

First, begin by breathing in for a count of seven seconds. Then breathe out for a count of eight seconds, and hold at the bottom of your breath for four seconds. Repeat the cycle until you feel centered.

3. Body scan meditations

Body scan meditations are a great way to connect with your body on a deep level, calm stress and anxiety, and get focused. Getting started with a body scan is as simple as finding a quiet place where you can sit, close your eyes and tune into your body. You can start from your head and work your way down, or you can simply allow yourself to be drawn to different sensations through your body.

4. Affirmations

Affirmations are a great way to build up your confidence and motivation to get the job done. Kerri Walsh has spoken about the power of “owning your thoughts” and Michael Jordan is known for his use of positive self-talk. Tiffany Bias of the WNBA has also spoken about how important affirmations are to her mindset.

In Bias’s words, “I am a big believer if you don’t believe in yourself then who will?”

5. Meditation

With more and more research coming out in support of meditation’s ability to sharpen mental focus, it makes sense that many elite athletes are adopting it into their daily routines. Research has found the benefits of meditation range from stress relief to improved well-being to enhanced concentration to cultivating states of calm, making it a fantastic practice to support peak performance.

If you’re new to meditation, it’s best to start out with guided meditations that are between five and ten minutes, so you can build your confidence and endurance over time.

Ready to get started with your own meditation practice?

Explore over 500+ guided meditations led by mindfulness experts from around the world. With collections designed to target stress, confidence, performance, relaxation, and more, we’re sure to have a meditation to help you begin your practice.

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