Train Your Brain

Mental exercises might not target your muscles, but they can produce dramatic gains in your sports performance.

Think about the last time you faced a really tough hill on a long run or bike ride. Did your brain scream out that you would never make it? Just about anyone who’s competed in sports or followed a rigorous fitness routine can relate.

Empathy aside, though, it’s important to recognize that your mind saying “no” might be the only thing preventing you from nailing that killer backhand or clocking a new personal best. “If your thoughts are consistently negative, they’ll work against you,” says Kirsten Peterson, PhD, a sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee.

Sure, most of us know about the mind-body connection. But did you know that just telling yourself you like to run hills can actually help you get up and over them? Or that picturing yourself hitting a home run can make it easier to slam one out of the park?

All true. And that’s why many elite and professional athletes work as hard on their mental game as they do on their physical skills. But mental training is not just for top competitors. Experts say that all of us can improve our performance by using our minds to better our bodies.

Begin With the Breath

Developing mental toughness begins with shutting out negative thoughts. Most sports psychologists agree that the best way to block unfavorable thoughts is to focus on breathing deeply.

The brain can think of little else when focused on that one act. “You no longer focus on the distractions,” says Kenneth Baum, author of The Mental Edge (Perigree, 1999).

Baum suggests placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly to test your breathing. Most people feel movement primarily in their chest because they aren’t breathing deeply enough. The belly should expand more than the chest, an indication that the lungs are being entirely filled.

In competitive situations, people tend to take quick, shallow breaths, causing muscle constriction, says Steven Ungerleider, PhD, author of Mental Training for Peak Performance (Rodale, 2005). But deep breathing oxygenates the blood and energizes the muscles, brain and nerves — which in turn helps athletes perform better.

To promote proper breathing techniques, Ungerleider suggests meditation, which lowers blood pressure and slows down breathing, brain activity and heart rate. To get started, choose both a quiet place and a mantra to help block other thoughts from entering your mind. Ungerleider says some athletes choose words such as “zone” or “flow” as their mantra. Repeat the mantra over and over while breathing deeply. Beginners, says Ungerleider, should meditate for 30 minutes twice a day. Once you are comfortable with the practice, you can reduce it to 20 minutes daily.

Picture Something Positive

Mental training isn’t just about purging negative chatter from your mind. Research has shown that practicing your sport mentally (using techniques called visualization or guided imagery) can help you perfect your form. Using imagery triggers physiological responses, ranging from muscular activity to changes in breathing, that are identical to those that occur during exercise. In other words, rehearsing in your head — even when you’re lying perfectly still — may prepare your muscles and nervous system to respond in the ways you want them to.

Anyone who has watched professional sports has likely heard visualization described. Long before his days on the PGA circuit, Tiger Woods learned from his father to picture little white balls dropping into the cup. Alpine skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy used to ski the courses in his mind before heading out of the start gate.

In one test of visualization at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, 30 golfers were put on different training regimens. One group was taught to visualize sinking their putt. A second group was taught to picture narrowly missing the cup, and a third group practiced putting without being given instructions. After one week, the positive-visualization group sank 30 percent more putts, while the negative group’s putting accuracy declined by 21 percent. The group that putted without instruction improved by just 11 percent.

Visualization, when done well, fills the mind with positive images, which many experts believe boosts confidence and controls nerves. Success is in the details, says Robert Weinberg, PhD, a sports psychologist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The people who have the best outcomes are the ones who imagine with all their senses. Divers should smell chlorine while picturing themselves plunging into the pool. Cyclists should feel themselves gripping the bike handles. With practice, as the images become clearer, the results on the playing field improve.

Fight Doubt With Affirmations

Even top athletes have moments of creeping doubt when they aren’t playing well. In those situations, using positive affirmations can stave off a physical meltdown by keeping negativity at bay.

A study published in the newsletter The Behavior Therapist, for example, found that when a tennis player was trained for one week to transform his pessimistic self-talk into positive phrases such as “stay cool” and “concentrate on the next serve,” his winning percentage in deuce games improved from 29 percent to 60 percent.

The body believes the mind. “You’ll find a way to get up that hill when the mind sends a message that you can do it,” says Jerry Lynch, PhD, coauthor of Thinking Body, Dancing Mind: TaoSports for Extraordinary Performance in Athletics, Business and Life (Bantam Books, 1992).

How one uses affirmations varies from person to person and from sport to sport. “There is an individual nature to this process,” says Michael Sachs, PhD, a sports psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. “You have to find words or a phrase that inspires you to continue.”

Enjoyment Is Key

Baum, who has counseled top athletes, including New York Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson, says honing your mental skills will help shave strokes off your golf game or let you clock quicker running times almost immediately. But you shouldn’t expect miracles. Strong mental skills won’t turn an average cyclist into Lance Armstrong overnight. Physical training and ability still count for a lot.

As with physical training, though, the longer you practice mental visualization, the better your results will be. And, there’s another positive side effect to visualization that, while less scientifically studied, is just as important as running up steep hills without trepidation.

“You’ll notice that you’re enjoying your sport more,” says Baum. “And isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Hope Hamashige is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo.

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