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5 Mental Obstacles Athletes Must Overcome

by Frank Furbacher March 18, 2016

Athletes have a responsibility to keep themselves as mentally sharp as they do physically. In fact, the way an athlete thinks has a greater impact on their performance than any other factor.

Here are five mental obstacles for athletes to be aware of when they practice and play their sport, and how they can overcome each obstacle:

1. Fear of failure

Obstacle: It’s very easy for an athlete to question themselves and to fear the negative outcomes that may occur. I call this a “what if” line of thinking. They may think, “what if I wind up losing the game for the whole team?” or “what if I don’t get drafted or signed by a professional team?” This line of thinking can creep up while they’re performing, which can have a significantly negative influence on their results.

Impact: This fear of failure can cause performance anxiety and create discomfort being in the spotlight. Rather than playing to the best of their ability, they wind up with a form of mental paralysis, leaving them unable to take effective action.

Tools to overcome: To combat this line of thinking, athletes can swap their negative thoughts for slightly more positive ones. This is a powerful skill to acquire. Rather than thinking, “what if I’m the reason for losing this game?” they can try trading up to, “as a team, we are all responsible for wins and losses.” After a series of trade-ups, they will end up with thoughts that sound more like, “we are going to win as a team!” Thinking differently is a game changer and is really the key to success.

2. Caring too much about what others think

Obstacle: Athletes often look for approval from their teammates, coaches, families and friends. However, if they want to succeed in order to receive approval from others, then they’re in for some huge frustration and disappointment. Their relationships will be great when they experience success, but what about when they fail?

Impact: These athlete lose confidence as they’re often preoccupied with what others think of them. In the long-term, their happiness and sense of personal efficacy becomes dependent on the approval of others, and as such, is very volatile. They may not realize that they’re basing their happiness and performance on something they have absolutely no control over.

Tools to overcome: Rather than dwelling on other people’s opinions, focus on what we can control: our thoughts and our feelings. When we take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, we have greater ownership over them, leading to a self-sustaining ability to focus on our successes rather than our failures.

3. Bringing our personal problems onto the field

Obstacle: Athletes often allow outside distractions to influence their on-the-field play. Emotions are a natural part of our lives, but by bringing baggage onto the field, athletes become distracted during the game, miss out on important opportunities or trip up at crucial moments.

Impact: When we’re not completely focused on the task at hand, our performance suffers. This can cause uncharacteristic mistakes and a tendency to become aggravated toward other players and to beat ourselves up after the game is over.

Tools to overcome: Journaling is an excellent technique to get things off our minds and on paper prior to getting on the field. By journaling, athletes may gain a different perspective of what is going on in their personal lives, enabling them to cope more effectively. Journaling also enables players to visualize and think through how they will handle challenges, and prepares them for the game powerfully.

4. Getting caught up in past experiences

Obstacle: Many athletes fail to see that past experiences are not necessarily an indicator of future performance. For example, a team may believe that they can’t defeat specific opponents because they’ve lost to them before, even if they are equally talented. The same can be said for individual performance. But just because one may have failed in the past does not mean they will fail in the future.

Impact: When we get caught up in our negative past experiences, we fuel self-doubt. Self-doubt leads to poor performance. Holding on to negative past experiences can stop us from moving forward and excelling.

Tools to overcome: Wondering what would have been is a waste of time. Looking back at past failures can help us move forward, but only if we focus on the lessons we learned from them, and leverage them. When we encounter a challenge, or even a failure, a valuable question we can ask ourselves is, “what can I take away from this experience that will serve me in the future?”

5. Lack of confidence

Obstacle: Confidence is a mindset. It is also a tool that allows an athlete to exceed expectations. Unfortunately, some athletes allow negative self-talk to abolish their confidence. They compare themselves to the other players with thoughts like, “they’re better than me,” “they’re more experienced,” “they’re faster,” or “there is no way I’m going to win.”

Impact: Lacking confidence can not only damage an athlete’s performance, but it can take its toll on their personal well being. Some athletes waste days, weeks, or even months worrying about their deficiencies, and bring themselves to a state of unproductive anxiety.

Tools to overcome: Improving confidence begins with our thinking. Confidence is the belief and trust that we have it in ourselves to succeed. If we find ourselves losing confidence, we can challenge those beliefs by asking ourselves, “are those beliefs really true?” We can also ask those who know and support us for some perspective. What do they believe our strengths are?

These five obstacles are super common among athletes, but they can be overcome. It all starts with their thoughts and what it is they are focusing on. Remember, what you focus on grows.

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