Mind the Gap – The Science Behind the Sporting Mind

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And one of the most intimidating parts of competition can simply be… those competitors.

As an athlete you may be very confident in your own ability to perform and your skills, however the thought of going up against a competitor who has a proven track record can shatter an athlete’s self-confidence.

Katya Crema, an Aussie women’s skier, has first hand experience with the mental games involved in competing. After falling foul to the negatives, she devised a way of increasing her own self-confidence and thwarting those self-doubts.

She simply practises active believing in herself, as well as believing she is as good as her competitors. The act of simply outwardly acknowledging this fact we can decrease the emotional weight of self-doubt and increase confidence. Our doubts are nurtured by our own imagination, our ability to mentally create the worse case scenarios and our emotional buy-in to this state.

And so self-confidence is a must have for all competitive athletes.

Building self-confidence is imperative for success in any sport at any level, whether it’s the Olympic games, a local club sports carnival, or even a sports team in primary school. Oftentimes, an athlete begins to lose confidence when he or she starts to focus on things that they cannot do or control and a classic example of this is focusing on a competitor’s performance.

When we allow our attention to shift from what our specific performance role is and what we can do, to instead focusing on what our competitor is doing we immediately deviate from our preferred performance strategy onto a path of being reactionary to someone else’s strategy.

To build self-confidence, an athlete can begin by working on:

Competitors are also a distractor that can take an athletes’ concentration away from more important things, like performing to their best or sticking to their performance strategy and what they are supposed to be doing and when they are supposed to do it.

According to the Australian Institute of Sport, there are two types of distractors. Competitors are visual, external distractors. Focusing too much on a competitor can also lead to internal distractors, such as anxiety and negative self-talk (ie. “I’m not as good as that person.”).

Training to improve focused concentration on your performance is an important sustainability skill. If competitors easily distract an athlete, then he or she can actively work on techniques to set the distracting thoughts aside.

This could be done by using positive self-talk, mantras, similar to the method used by Katya Crema, or by imagery, which involves taking the distracting thoughts and visualising putting them in a non-distracting place until after the competition is complete.

I teach them a technique to learn from the moment and then discard the emotional box the lesson came in. This technique is both specific to the athlete and the sport and allows an athlete to look for the lesson without carrying the negative emotions it’s wrapped in.

I ask my clients to imagine all their competitors are boring grey blobs, with no name, non-descript objects and no personality. This way my clients do not have the issue of feeling intimidated by past competitors successes or skills. They are just objects we will move around.

I also tell my clients to metaphorically check their emotional baggage in at the front door, and not allow it through the doors.

There will always be competitors in a sport, and if they especially distract an athlete, working with a mind coach will be beneficial to learn specific strategies. Dealing with a competitor is a part of competing, an integral one, and an athlete must remember that there is nothing he or she can do but perform his or her best and do their part to be successful.

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Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has been studying mindset for over 20 years. She has marvelled at the fact that there are people with natural athletic abilities who feel they cannot improve on their God given talents (Fixed mindsets) and those who believe their potential can always be improved upon (Growth mindsets).

Athletic scouts tend to look for natural talent, not potential. Potential is different from natural talent, as talent tends to be more obvious. However, potential can make a champion, as long as they have the right athlete mindset.

When sporting scouts are out looking for recruits they tend to focus on talent. However when we look historically at the qualities one might look for in a prize fighter surprisingly Muhammad Ali lacks almost all of the traits one would expect in a natural: He is not built like a champion, nor does he have the fists or reach of a champion and yet he was arguably one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time.

Golfer Ben Hogan had a wild hook that could have cost him his career had he not persevered through practice and self improvement. Often in sports when people are not viewed as naturals they are in essence being told they lack potential. Yet many prime athletes have proven this theory wrong through tenacity, focus and practice, demonstrating a growth mindset.

A student of Dweck’s did an honours thesis that showed that those athletes who believed that success is reachable through determination and hard work proved to be more successful the following season. Athletes who felt their coaches supported this view also had greater success.

Further studies by Dweck tested the theory of mindset intervention by trying to teach students to have a growth mindset. Her studies found that students who were taught and understood that the mind was able to constantly grow and form new connections that would help them become more intelligent were able to grasp and embrace their growth. They were able to apply themselves and see improvements in their grades which motivated them to continue to strive to improve their grades and performance.

This demonstrated that there was the possibility to teach growth mindset. The effects this could have on athletes have proven to be quite remarkable.

Coaches who choose to work with the athlete mindset and performance intervention could teach athletes, even those who have suffered set backs, or are disenchanted with their sport, that practice will allow them to reach their full potential and learn to love the game again. Therefore potential is the seed required to groom athletes into champions.


At a recent Iron Man event held at Lake Placid in the U.S. a last minute announcement was made that wet suits would not be allowed for athletes competing for a Kona slot. Those with good mental fitness heard the announcement and were prepared to deal with whatever came their way. Those not as mentally tough had no other choice then to panic – thereby losing any tactical edge they might have had. Mental fitness plays a key role in the training of any athlete and is often the deciding factor if you win or lose.

Jesse Featonby – Triathlete

When triathletes are performing with the benefit of mental strength and toughness they are able to perform each task with a specificity and single-mindedness which is, in essence, basic and simple: Their eyes are on the prize and the system to achieve it. Nothing will distract them from their objective and that automatic desire to continue to swim their defined strokes, pedal their bikes at a predetermined speed or climb the next hill without distraction.

Just like the mentally fit athletes were able to hit the cold water, swim slower and succeed, the athlete with the right mindset does not allow themselves to get distracted because they are focused on task-relevant items, not tasks such as worrying as someone passes them – it’s all part of the bigger plan. Being focused on task-relevant items means they concentrate on their ability to complete the task. This enhances their physical performance as it becomes their one and only focus and reduces the impact of emotional fogginess.

Arousal of an athlete also plays an important role in their mental fitness. When an athlete is over aroused or stimulated they will focus on irrelevant tasks which are going to make them deviate off task and under-perform. However if an athlete is under aroused or under stimulated they will not be able to perform to the highest of their abilities. Therefore an important aspect of mental toughness is knowing where your happy medium is, consistency and continuity when it comes to arousal and stimulation. You will be ready at the start of the competition with the right emotional energy and mindset to succeed.

Another key strategy is compartmentalisation of the event. This allows you to tackle bite size chunks of the competition stages, as well as initiate more opportunities to reward yourself within the performance, creating momentum and further motivation.

Some of the tools that work for triathletes include relevant and specific mental imagery, learning to manage thoughts so you can become more focused on task relevant items and trigger words associated with positive moments in their performance. Boston Marathon champ Wesley Korir credits his 2012 win to singing, as we are mentally wired to seek out and follow patterns.

He told letsrun.com: “I started in the beginning and just kept doing it, especially when I was in pain. It’s a mental thing.”

From the mouths of champions: it’s a mental thing.

Image credit: Hammer Nutrition

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As soon as the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games drew to a close and the hangovers started to fade, we start to look towards the next gathering of these outstanding athletes.

Lets not beat about the bush – there were many shortfalls at the Sochi Games for a world class event. Along with the lightning fast, slightly overweight computer-screen critics pointing out the shortfalls over and above any of the successes, there were also the frantically shared and well documented gaffs with accommodation and venue equipment, course inconsistencies and the ever present political games the organisers and associations played that stole way too much of the spotlight from those who should have been basking in it.

However for me these games shone a more positive light on some of the exciting developments in competitive sport. With the introduction of a number of new Olympic events at these games, most of them straight out of ESPN’s X Games format – this winter world just got sexier and a lot cooler. And this can only be a good thing for the evolution of the sport and the games.

I was asked by a social commentator what I thought was the reason why we have seen a significant spike in interest in such traditionally viewed extreme sports and why they are the new ‘sexy side of sport.’

In reality many of these sports have been around for years in one form or another – and it’s not just the winter wonderland that has benefited from the rise of unconventional sport subcultures.

In the last 5 years the interest in extreme sports has skyrocketed to overtake some mainstream sports, and for me there are a couple of realistic, significant and psychologically relevant reasons for this positive trend towards them, and away from the sports that would be categorised as traditional sports.

The first reason is our ability to be part of the action – to be part of these sports from the comfort of our computers, TVs and devices. As an active observer we can get up close and enjoy the real-time action from the athlete’s viewpoint, enjoying the thrills and spills and adrenalin filled success, without the physical investment.

Technology is in every aspect of our life today and with over 90% of the population owning a smart phone with a camera, we can capture, edit and share an event instantly. This makes it reachable, even for the most unsporty, uncoordinated or unwilling of us.

These sporting subcultures have embraced technology, innovating new and exciting ways to integrate us into their world and share it in real-time. in stark contrast, traditional sports have been slower off the mark in adopting the technology we all take for granted. The fastest growing medium today is video and these extreme sports have tapped into that niche nicely.

T20 Cricket has seen this trend towards the interactivity of sport and has been experimenting with umpire-cam, player microphones and wicket cam, and it’s paying off with an increase in audience participation. And lets be real, that also transcribes to the audience can now be accessed instantly too by those who wish to tap into our imagination and thus our pockets bringing more money into the game.

As I touched on earlier, many of these “new” sports are in fact old sports that had their start in humble, uncontrolled beginnings – either in back streets or as play things for the not-so-serious, and for a long time attracted little media, little interest and no funding.

And it is this ‘back street’ catalyst that makes them activities for the everybody inside us, a psychology of street-crafting and honing before being set free in the world. This gives these sports a lineage all of us can feel as the underdog. Whenever we give something a handicap it is socially accepted and championed by the masses, a shot at the establishment by the commoners.

It’s been well documented the astronomical amounts of money some traditional sports demand just to survive, with their disproportionate coaching staff to athlete rations, ever growing media departments, medical entourage and sponsorship wagons. When we measure this against the extreme sport environment many of these athletes not only do not expect the support and trappings, it is not actually on their radar. And it is this purer aspect of competition and sport that we crave, less Hollywood and more grass roots feel, the opportunity for a “normal” person to win.

Anything that isn’t mainstream, that isn’t overly regulated and is a little edgy is by definition “cool” – and provides a stimulation that speaks to our primitive side and rawness to our competitiveness.

We are primarily pack animals. The majority of us need our society in order to feel part of something bigger. We also gauge our views and beliefs from that which is, in the main part, socially accepted.

When Red Bull took up the challenge to elevate extreme sports into our consciousness, our living rooms and into our newsfeeds, we started to see new and exciting, almost superhuman achievements – and all with the consistent Red Bull logo on it. As we began to be more aware of it, to recognise that it was OK to like this, and recognise it’s value – it caused a groundswell as people flocked to be part of that movement.

Red Bull has done more to change the landscape of sport in the last 10 years than any other single entity. It chose to align itself (smartly) with emerging markets, embed itself into the “cool” group and it’s investment has paid off – not only for market recognition of it’s sickly sugary stimulant drink but more importantly for the introduction of a whole new evolution of sport.

When you hear Red Bull do you think energy drink, or sport first?

This key aspect, I believe, has been critical in the rise and dominance of extreme sports. It’s willingness to adapt and evolve with its audience was due to being exceptionally aware of who it is targeting, the demographics and psychographics of who is attracted to these sports and it has met market needs and exceeded them.

If we look at the more established and traditional sports, they have moved much slower to accommodate the ever changing face of their participants, rather expecting the participant to fit into their system rather than create an ever evolving system. It’s willingness to not be bogged down by who it is more who it’s for has allowed it a degree of agility.

Traditional sports have been more entrenched in the ways in which they operate. Much of that sludgy response is due to the systems by which these sports have grown and continue to survive is through creating feeder systems, development programmes and training paths. This depth has given traditional sports longevity, however like a wise old man, it may know more but cannot activate that knowledge without first taking its arthritis medication and waiting for the pain to subside. By this time the environment has once again shifted and that wise old man becomes less and less relevant.

So the shallow roots of extreme sport have given it the agility and an open platform to morph and adjust, but will it be sustainable – only you can determine that!

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Copyright © 2014 All Right Reserved Dave Diggle & Diggle de Doo Productions Pty Ltd

Click here to get Mind the Gap – The Science Behind the Sporting Mind at discounted price while it’s still available…

All orders are protected by SSL encryption – the highest industry standard for online security from trusted vendors.

Mind the Gap – The Science Behind the Sporting Mind is backed with a 60 Day No Questions Asked Money Back Guarantee. If within the first 60 days of receipt you are not satisfied with Wake Up Lean™, you can request a refund by sending an email to the address given inside the product and we will immediately refund your entire purchase price, with no questions asked.


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