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Use sports psychology to win at life
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I was born with profound hearing loss and did not learn ASL until I went to college. Three years ago, I got a cochlear implant that has been an amazing experience. I am learning everything all over again, which has been a challenge and joy. I am very patient with others, but I am not with myself. When I am told that I have mispronounced a word or misunderstood a saying that I have never heard of … I feel stupid. I have repeatedly told myself that I am learning and this is a new path that I am taking, but I find myself feeling stupid or foolish all the time. How can I stop being so hard on myself?
We all experience negative self-talk and criticism when we make mistakes or when life gets challenging. This is worse for you because you are learning something most people learned long ago (how to speak) so it might feel like you are behind the class or failing, but that isn’t true. You are right on track in your perfect custom journey. At least you could see it that way if you wanted to.
I experienced the same self-criticism Saturday as I rode the Goldilocks Bike Ride. I started road biking at 45 in spite of some chronic health problems that make it difficult. But I still think I should be as strong as people who are younger, have done it for years, and are in perfect health. As they race past me and I struggle to make it up the hills, negative self-talk can kick in.
But the fact is, there is not another person on the planet who got signed up for the exact same classes we got. So it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other people. Our journey is about our growth and ours alone.
What we need most as we are struggling through our specific life class is what athletes and coaches call “mental toughness.” We need to work on our “mind game.” All athletes know that the negative thoughts in their own head are going to be their worst opposition.
Everyone involved in training top athletes knows that working on the “mind game” is a critical component of success. Those who believe they can make it, those who know how to beat negative self-talk and are mentally prepared to handle setbacks, will always win over the athletes who aren’t as mentally tough.
I have found this to be true in my road biking. Climbing hills creates all kinds of fear, self-doubt and negative thoughts, and my state of mind is a huge factor in how I do. If I’m scared that I can’t make it against the wind and I let any negative thoughts take hold in my head, there is no way I can make it. But if I stay positive, constantly telling myself I’m strong and I can do this, and if I can stay committed to keep pedaling no matter what, and refuse to compare myself with anyone else, I always can make it.
Mental toughness makes all the difference.
David Yukelson, Ph.D., the coordinator of sport psychology services at Penn State University, defined mental toughness as the psychological edge that enables you to remain determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure.
Mental toughness can be acquired and practiced the same way you practice any sport. But you may need a life coach or counselor to help you learn the techniques and fine-tune your skills.
Here are a few aspects of mental toughness you can start working on:
1) Think positive
Bradley Busch, a sports psychologist who works with professional soccer teams, says that positive self-talk actually affects your body chemistry. “Negativity is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the ability of the frontal lobe to function effectively. Positive, energized language releases dopamine, which is linked to confidence. We advise players not to fire the wrong chemicals and hormones through their brains. In training, we ask them to practice capturing negative thoughts and converting them into positive ones. We call this ‘squashing ANTs’ (Automatic Negative Thoughts).”
We all need to practice squashing ANTs, our subconscious fear-based negative thinking. We must learn how to consciously choose positive thoughts and override the negative — and do this all the time.
2) Keep looking up
Busch also believes that athletes' physiology is linked to their mental states. “If you have your head down and shoulders slumped, your brain chemistry changes for the worse. Holding your head up keeps your brain alert.” Researchers at Harvard Business School have scientifically proven this is true — posture affects your cortisol and confidence levels. You will maintain more mental toughness and confidence, even after a mistake, if you hold your head up and shoulders back.
3) Handle mistakes and setbacks
Sports psychologists recommend having a preplanned procedure to go through after a mistake or setback, which helps you to quickly let it go. Some athletes grab some blades of grass then drop them as they symbolically let the mistake and its negative energy go. My mental procedure goes like this:
1. Can I learn anything from this to help me in the future?
2. Does it do any good to think about this past, learning this lesson? Answer is no.
3. What do I need to focus on now?
This simple procedure prevents me from letting my subconscious negative thinking take over.
4) Keep goals simple and realistic
I do this by not focusing on the 50 miles I have left to go, but on the next 10 pedals or getting to the top of this hill. Focusing on simple goals also keeps you focused in the now, where your attention needs to be to perform at your best. You will also perform better when your mind is calm and quiet. So don’t overcomplicate what you are doing. Keep it simple.
5) Have rock-solid belief about who you are
In my book, "Choosing Clarity," I explain the importance of having a predetermined policy about your value and where it comes from. This belief serves you best if it is not tied to your performance but is instead based on your intrinsic worth as a one-of-a-kind human soul. Self-esteem based on absolute value means no matter what you do or say, or what other people do, think or say, nothing can change it. This makes you bulletproof and really mentally tough. If you struggle with self-esteem and keeping your value out of the equation, the book would really help you.
As you work on your "mind game," focus more on how far you’ve come than how far you have to go, refuse to compare yourself with anyone else (because they aren’t in the same class) and remember that your value isn’t on the line and never changes. Stay determined to keep growing and learning (and peddling) no matter how strong the wind or how difficult the challenge.
Muhammad Ali said, “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them — a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of She is also the author of the new book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness." She offers free coaching calls every Tuesday night.