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UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain explains how thinking like a top athlete can help youMadison, Wisconsin – Watching the world's top athletes compete, like they did during the current Olympic games, can be inspiring. And a little daunting. After all, these are athletes that may have started learning their respective sports shortly after they learned to walk.


But, even if you don't think of yourself as an athlete, there are things these athletes can teach us whether in our own sports, our careers, or quite simply, our lives.


Growth is the Goal


Being an athlete is just as much mental ability as it is physical. If you've ever watched an Ironman competition, you may have seen amputees or cancer survivors competing – individuals who years before may never have believed it was possible. But there they are, challenging and pushing themselves.


"The top athletes – whether it's an NFL football player, Olympian, or Ironman competitor – believe in their potential," explains Shilagh Mirgain, Ph.D., sport psychologist with UW Health's Sports Medicine program. "They recognize that through hard work, training and conditioning, they can grow and actually excel."


In her role, Mirgain has worked with a wide range of athletes from the amateur to the pro. And she notes, whether it's an athlete or a business professional, the key is understanding that while some talent is innate, it's not fixed. Recognizing the potential can be very motivating.


"If you feel your true potential is unknown, you are more willing to challenge yourself, to take risks and stretch yourself," explains Mirgain. "And you're more likely to tolerate the discomfort that goes along with working toward developing your potential."


Being in the Zone


Athletes can describe that moment when everything is working – breath, stride, movement – and they are in the zone. They are totally focused on what they are doing and not worrying about what happened earlier that day, or where they're supposed to be tomorrow. Their sole focus is on each moment as they experience it.


Finding that zone takes practice, but it can be done. And it can occur when you're parenting your children, working on a creative project, or taking a hike. It's about being fully present in the moment and when that happens, it can bring a lot of joy to our lives.


"It can take some practice to be in the moment," says Mirgain. "We can work at it by having a routine to get us in the present. Try doing a series of deep breaths, inhaling for four counts and exhaling for six counts – this helps reduce the hormone cortisol under stress, quieting our mind and bringing our thoughts to the moment we're experiencing."


Mirgain suggests focusing your mind completely on a task at hand and trying to use all of your senses. When you feel stress or anxiety start to build, try to remember you have some control over it. Positive stress, like excitement, can lead you to push yourself harder. Use those stress signals as a cue to help you focus even more on the task at hand, knowing those stress signals are just cues that this is something really important to you.


Visualize the Outcome You Want


Many athletes use visualization, or "mental imagery," as part of their training program, and for good reason. Research has found that mentally rehearsing actually trains the brain for performance. One study found that imagining weightlifting caused actual changes in muscle activity and brain patterns that were similar to when the person was actually lifting weights.


But visualizing is more than just thinking about an upcoming event. When athletes use visualization, they truly feel the event taking place in their mind's eye. A skater might imagine the start of her program and the first few jumps. A musician might imagine the opening bars of the works he'll be performing. And a business professional might imagine the presentation that she'll be giving.


Mirgain explains that visualization gives you a mental space to rehearse your performance no matter the activity and create a mental image or intention of what you want to have happen and how you want to feel. Research has found that this mental training improves both physical and psychological reactions.


During visualization, it's important to incorporate all of your senses into the experience. It is most effective to practice at bedtime before going to sleep or when you first wake up in the morning, and it is recommended to practice daily at first. It can also be helpful to use before going into the activity to increase your confidence as you reaffirm what you want to have happen.


To practice visualizing, Mirgain offers the following suggestions:


  1. Visualize a past achievement, a highlight reel that you play back in your mind. Focus on times you felt good and performed really well, and remember that feeling.
  2. Reflect on all the qualities that fostered your best performance and all the steps you took to achieve your goal. Notice the ways in which you may have successfully handled obstacles and set-backs . Use that knowledge and experience to address what is confronting you now.
  3. Imagine yourself in the future having this same level of performance or an even better one. Frame by frame mentally rehearse the outcome you want and how you want to feel. Slow the movie down observing the sequence of each and every step that you take to get there and how you successfully handle any obstacles, using all your senses.


The Importance of Self-Talk


Athletes are able to bounce back from mistakes quickly because they recognize them for what they are – mistakes. They know mistakes are not a reflection of their potential, or ability, or who they are. And they can learn from their mistakes and move on quickly. One of the ways they're able to do this is through their self-talk.


"Athletes monitor what they are thinking and saying to themselves and learn to replace the doubts by focusing on the task at hand," says Mirgain. "It's not that elite athletes never make a mistake, it's that they know how to recover quickly after a setback."


Mirgain explains that there are two types of thinking that help athletes, and anyone, get back on track after a mistake. There are instructional thoughts (what to do next), and motivational self-talk. By focusing on what needs to happen next, and having a few motivational phrases to lift your mood, it helps you stay more in the present moment.


Mirgain also suggests having a plan for helping to regain your focus when you become stressed or things go wrong. Pay attention to your self-talk in general – are you often negative and self-defeating? Mirgain suggests that when a mistake comes flooding into your mind, create a mental "switch" to quickly regroup yourself and take the next step. To create the "switch," think about developing a verbal cue, a word you can say to yourself to get back on track to help your mind not linger on the mistake. This word, like "focus," or "courage," should help you focus back on the activity and reconnect you to a positive emotional state. As you keep interrupting the negative thoughts, over time you'll find your thoughts are working with you not against you.


"Recognizing that we are a work in progress helps remind us that we are continuously learning," says Mirgain. "And, we can stay motivated and keep the momentum going no matter the challenge when we remember that."

Date Published: 03/09/2014

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