Written by Coach Sam Smith
I was fortunate enough to travel to quite a few competitions this past season. This led to a plethora of noticings and learnings both on the coach and athlete side.
A large part that often goes unnoticed in the athletic pursuit is competing, the experiences and learnings that follow, and how the athlete integrates them into their competitive self. Taking stock of these experiences and learnings will allow an athlete to continually mold themselves into a more formidable competitor.
The list I’ve compiled below comes from my own personal experience in high level sport, along with my experience coaching others. Starting to become mindful of these aspects will equip you with the tools you need in order to continually grow and develop not only as an athlete, but also as a human.
It’s worth noting, some of the wording I’ve used below is in question format. To get the most out of this, I would strongly recommend writing down the questions below and answering them after some reflection. It’s one thing to ask the question, but it’s another to give yourself time and space to respond appropriately to the question.
Go into the competition knowing what you are capable of, knowing where your strengths lie, knowing where your weaknesses lie, and having a comprehensive understanding of yourself both physically and psychologically.
Where will the challenge lie for me? When will it be easy for me to falter, and how can I push through that? When have I pushed through in the past? Draw on previous experiences for a point of reference and strength.
Stay in your lane
This one ties into knowing yourself, knowing your approach and running your race. Staying disciplined to prevent getting too caught up in the competitors next to you and allowing them to dictate your approach, especially when it’s an event they can beat you on. The hidden variable on the competition floor is the power dynamic between you and your competitors. Being able to navigate that web of difficulty can allow you to stay present whereby optimal execution of your game plan is attainable. Allow them to make the mistake. Everyone is fallible.
Managing stress and chaos can be achieved through routine and process that is deeply integrated in your system through consistent training and lifestyle behaviors outside of competition. Another hidden variable in competition is the environment and chaos that can only be replicated on the competition floor. Having a routine—a consistent process—allows the competitor to find rhythm and confidence amidst the chaos. Anxiety is curved through action. Action is initiated by routine.
The unknown is a place where anything can happen and where uncertainty lies. While we can’t predict the future, we can have it set in our favor through proper preparation for the task. The less uncertain the task, the greater the drop in anxiety, tension, fear, and thinking. We allow our body to express the task as optimally as we can due to proper preparation.
This includes all variables that go into preparing for a competition: training routine and consistency, warm up and cool down, strategy within pieces of training, journaling, recording, and reflecting on training results, nutrition and meal timing, food hygiene, sleep quality and quantity and consistency, managing stress optimally to fully immerse oneself in their training. Everything is accounted for.
Don’t allow yourself the opportunity to say, “what if I did ‘that’ better throughout the season?” Cover all bases so you know that when the competition comes you are prepared as possible; you’ve done all that you can to put yourself in the right position to succeed. Proper preparation is how we set the future in our favor.
Visualization (imaginal experiences / cognitive self-modeling)
Some sports require more work and application in this area than others. Yet, all sports can benefit from the implementation of visualization. Scientifically and empirically, we have strong certainty in the value, and validity, of going through the competition (or event) in our mind beforehand. Navy Seals might be the hallmark example of a unit that not only implements visualization, but copious amounts of repetition to ingrain the sequence of events to follow on the mission. This level of preparation is helping shrink the level of uncertainty in the future.
Built into the practice of visualization is the practice of cultivating presence. In order to optimally perform visualization training you need to maintain presence on the competition to fully walk through each part of it, event by event. By doing so you are teaching the mind how to stay on the task at hand, which will become a tipping point in the heat of competition when getting outside of your lane could be the nail in the coffin.
Believe in yourself
In the end, it’s all on you. Only you can cultivate the self-belief required to accomplish something worthy. Only you can face the challenge and keep moving forward despite the inevitable adversity. Some people are more inclined to believe in themselves regardless of the task, while others continually battle with their self-belief. This is something you must aim to overcome in sport in order to push towards your potential.
With anything that needs growth, it needs to be stressed. You build courage through repeated exposure to experiences that frighten you. Self-belief is no different. If you want to push your competitive potential to its limits, recognize you must be the one who believes you can do it. It’s your journey.