Take a moment to visualize this... You’re in a crowded arena with thousands of people around you. The noise is crushing and you can't make out a single, coherent word. Your senses are heightened to the point where you feel sharp and at the same time, everything is a total blur. A voice comes on the PA. It’s serious and structured:
“Thirty seconds, athletes."
Your breathing is steady and your body feels like it’s floating. You pull yourself back into the present moment and reset your feet on the start mat. Gazing first to the right and then to the left, you see your competitors; their eyes fixed ahead. The race has yet to begin, and but everyone seems to be already going for it. "Standby", the moment you envision your body going through the motions, and taking control of the intensity happening around you. You can see your hand placement, your foot placement, you feel yourself already going. Your heartbeat steadies, as the world around you seems to come to a stand still. Then you hear the beep... Maybe you’ve had many moments like the one I’m describing… It’s a scene played out in competitions of all sorts, where your mind and body are put to the test. It’s where all the training, the blood, the sweat and the heartache come together. But the second you lose focus, it's over.
The only thing standing between you and your best performance is your mind.
As an athlete, there’s a constant mental battle between your body and your mind. There's a phrase, "The mind will give up a thousand times before the body will." But it doesnt have to. Mental control is everything to an athlete and it begins with a technique called, mental visualization. Back when I was a firefighter, I'd use mental visualization to calm my nerves, clear my mind and prepare for potential obstacles. During a fire, not only can stuff go sideways in a fraction of a second but also if you don’t have the right tools, escape plan, or manpower...you won’t make it. Mental visualization for the athlete is running through an event in your mind. How will you use the tools you have (your body)? What will the competitive environment look and feel like? What potential setbacks could arise? Visualizing these components helps minimize uncertainty, which is the essence of fear. Fear and overthinking is what trips us up during performance.
Then, there's the “Dark Place”...
Perhaps you’ve experienced or heard other athletes talk about going to the dark place during training. This mental state is close to unconsciousness, when your physical body is literally running on autopilot as a way for you to mentally continue the deluge of physical exertion. In this mental state, positivity will help charge you and motivate you. Through the darkness, you can develop an inner dialogue that will pull you back up. A simple phrase that I have used for some time is "If you can take it, you can make it". Simple and rhythmic but highly effective, it can put me in a state of heightened consciousness where I feel devoid of pain and I am just in flow! You must adapt and learn to love being inside your mind. Being an athlete is funny like that. You have to be devoted to your goals and to who you are as a person. You have to be a warrior.