About Crystal: Crystal is Travis’ right hand person! She is a USA Weightlifting National Coach and holds her NSCA – Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification. She is an RN with a Masters degree in Nurse Education. She also holds multiple other certifications to include CFL2, USATF, Precision Nutrition, and Flex Diet. She is also an international elite ranked powerlifter.
As some of you might be aware, I started back to school this semester at Lenoir Rhyne University for a second Master’s degree in Exercise Science.
It was a great first semester, and I learned a lot from both of my professors that I have already started implementing with some of my athletes.
While Advanced Exercise Physiology was fun and I learned a lot with Dr. Alex Koch, my Sports Psychology class with Stephanie Stadden was what got me the most excited about being back in school. I learned so much! Our final project was to interview an athlete on the mental aspect of their performance and I chose to interview my good friend, and soon to be Olympian, Sarah Davies.
She has something when she competes that makes you want to get up and go lift, so I wanted to get inside her brain.
Tools at Your Disposal
Athletes can have all the physical talent in the world – but without the mental fortitude and psychological skill sets to perform, they will not reach their full potential. Too often, this part of an athlete’s tool box remains left untouched. It could be because there is a taboo around ‘seeing a therapist’ and no one wants to admit they need help.
For elite level athletes, they don’t get to that level by chance. They work hard and use all tools at their disposal to succeed. A huge part of that tool box is a good mental game.
Some people are born with it – or have the ability to read and implement what they learn. Others need a little outside help.
The profession of sports psychology has become much more widely known, and more and more athletes are starting to understand the benefits. This can come in the form of physically seeing a sports psychologist, attending mental game workshops, or reading books by experts in the field.
Athletes who truly reach their full potential in their given sport do all of the mundane things that are required of them. This includes eating properly, getting enough sleep, having routine body work done, doing their accessory work, and practicing their mental skills. The curious part is, even though athletes at that level are well versed with their mental skills, their strategies may differ.
Getting inside the head of an elite athlete
I had the opportunity to interview an athlete on their approach to their mental game. Getting into the head of an elite athlete to find out what helps them and what occupies their headspace when it comes to training and competing is beneficial in so many ways. It can help athletes who struggle mentally with strategies they can try, but it also gives them the bigger picture that it might not have always been that way for the elite athletes. They started somewhere too and worked hard to strengthen their mental game.
How an athlete responds to good days and bad days in training as well as how they approach competition day are huge components of success.
I asked Sarah what her favorite mantra was, and her response was “If you can dream it, you can do it” (Walt Disney). When you think about it, this is a perfect mantra for anyone striving to be the best. If you can’t even dream of doing something, how in the world will you be able to accomplish it? Believing you are capable is half of the battle.
How one handles good and bad days comes somewhat from experience and maturity in the sport. According to Sarah, who has now been in weightlifting for about ten years, there was a time when she would get caught up and mentally beat herself up over it.
As she gained experience, she realized that a single bad session (or even a week of bad sessions) is not the end of the world and does not mean that one bad day will affect the competition performance. She makes a choice to move on with her program to the next exercise to get a boost in confidence. There are times when there is no salvaging the session, and it is best to stop for the day and return the next day fresh.
Having this type of attitude allows the athlete to brush off the bad days and not let it roll into the next day of training. “The best concentration, and greatest prospect of succeeding, occurs from total immersion in the here and now, in the present.” (Williams & Krane, 305)
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Having goals and learning how to effectively set those goals using SMART is an important aspect of an athlete’s success. There should be one to two long term goals and four to five short term goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
If the goal is too difficult, it can be frustrating when it is unattainable. If it is too easy, it won’t be enough of a challenge.
Sarah was very simple in her explanation of goal setting where she looks at that one big goal, which is the long term goal, and then sets smaller goals that are more achievable that set her up to reach that one big goal.
For Sarah, the Olympics coming up is her one big goal. That is a minimum of a four year commitment that requires a large amount of sacrifice regardless of the Olympic sport. Setting up short term goals along the way to reach that one big goal that only comes around every four years is an important part of the process to keep the athlete on track.
Sarah is in an individual based sport that allows her to choose her personal coach. That is an important decision. Thinking about how the goal of the Olympics is a long term plan, the athlete and coach have to be able to trust each other and have a respectful relationship moving in the same direction.
The kind of coach Sarah looks for is an individual willing to work with the athlete. This requires getting to know the athlete as a person, learning what motivates them, and what doesn’t work for them. The coach they look for treats the athletes as an individual and understands that not all athletes are the same. They aren’t afraid to fix them and give constructive criticism when technique isn’t up to standard.
Most importantly, the coach should want to see the athlete succeed just as much if not more than they do. They invest in the athlete and walk with them along their journey. According to Sarah, if they don’t, they aren’t the coach for them.
Training and competing are two separate beasts and the hope is they will mesh well together and the athlete can take what they do in training and bring it to the competition. When that doesn’t happen, the next step should be exploring what the athlete did when they performed well versus what was different when they didn’t perform well.
Pre-competition routines are important for athletes to have. They are familiar and can bring the athlete a sense of calm and get them in a proper frame of mind.
Sarah has a pre-competition ritual of doing her hair and make-up on the day of competition. Of course, that may seem silly to some, but for her, it gives her something to do and gets her mind off the competition and keeps her from obsessing. The other upside of doing hair and make-up is, if she is cutting weight, it takes her mind off of being hungry until she weighs in. All athletes should find something like she did that gives them what they need.
The body responds to stress, which competition falls under, with what the text calls competitive anxiety. It is defined as “a situation-specific negative emotional response to one’s view of competitive stressors, and the general involvement in competition as threats.” (Williams & Krane, 209)
The two responses are somatic, which is a physical symptom response, and cognitive, which is a mental symptom response. If someone has butterflies, they can focus those butterflies in a positive way that can help their performance. “The expression of getting one’s butterflies to ‘fly in formation’ illustrates having positive interpretation skills.” (Williams & Krane, 210)
Sarah calms her butterflies by blocking out the outside world by putting something over her head, sitting in a quiet place, and focusing on her breathing. Removing that outside stimulation, using visualization, and meditation helps to get her in the present and focus.
The moment she steps into the training hall for the first time at the competition is when she’s ready to go. That begins the excitement for the big stage!
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Visualization and Confidence
Imagery is a learned skill that athletes need to work at on a regular basis. When talking to several elite athletes, this is a valued skill they are continually trying to hone.
Imagery, when done correctly, has so many benefits. “Research indicates that when individuals engage in vivid imagery, their brains interpret these images as identical to the actual stimulus situation.” (Williams & Krane, 241)
Imagery and visualization is huge for Sarah. No matter if it is training or competition, she uses imagery and visualization. For training, she will use imagery for each set and visualize it going well. For a competition, about a week before, every night before she goes to sleep, she will visualize having a perfect six for six day. If a missed lift sneaks into her visualization, she will start the visualization over from the beginning. She focuses on the lifts and attempts. She doesn’t visualize specific weights due to the nature of circumstances changing at actual meet.
What we think affects how we feel and can ultimately affect our performance. One thing that successful, elite athletes have in common is confidence.
Confident athletes don’t get where they are by accident. They spend years practicing positive self-talk and mastering how they think. “Confident athletes think they can, and they do.” (Williams & Krane, 275)
When I asked Sarah if attitude was a factor in winning, she was very passionate about it. Her attitude is that you have to step into a competition with the belief you have already won. If doesn’t matter what the numbers are and if they are even achievable, it is the way you carry yourself and the confidence you have that is important.
Her thought process is if you go into the competition already feeling defeated, your performance will suffer. To perform at your best, you have to believe in your capabilities. In her words, “your body delivers what your mind believes.”
When an athlete who feels prepared and is also confident doesn’t perform well, they are able to shake it off. For Sarah, she has a few moments where she asks herself could she have done better or asks ‘what if she’d done this’, but she learns from the experience and moves on to train for the next one. On the opposite side, when a performance is amazing, the high from the adrenaline and emotion is unlike anything else.
Peaking and Injury
When it comes to peak performance, 40 to 90% of the athlete’s success is mental. Peaking only occurs a few times a year. That doesn’t mean you aren’t performing well, it just means you cannot stay in a peak state all the time. That doesn’t mean training or even a competition won’t go well. “One may be in flow and not necessarily be having a peak performance; however, when an athlete experiences peak performance, she or he appears to be in a flow state.” (Williams & Krane, 161)
For Sarah, flow is when you are completely in the moment – and regardless of what is happening, there are no distractions from the task at hand. Her example of going for a big lift and then someone coming into her line of sight, if she is in flow, she won’t even notice it and be able to perform the movement perfectly.
The last major subject we talked about was injury. She has only had two serious injuries in her career, a hip flexor injury early on, and then a spinal fracture in 2016 during Olympic Qualification. She said she felt she handled it pretty well. Other than boredom while she recovered, she used it as an opportunity to work on weaknesses. The spinal injury fell where she had four years until the next Olympics, so she had time. How an athlete handles setbacks is crucial to their success.
In closing, a strong mental game is common among elite athletes. An athlete won’t reach their true potential unless they spend the time honing their mental skills.
Having great genes, physical capability, and skills is extremely important – but will only get the athlete so far. The top 1% of athletes have dialed in the mental aspect.
It was a pleasure learning from an elite athlete how their mind works. This athlete is what other athletes should aspire to achieve mentally. I can’t wait to see what she does at the Olympics in a few short months!
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Williams, Jean M. and Vikki Krane. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. McGraw Hill, 2015.