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4 Things Athletes Think (Or Don't Think) While Performing at Their Best

How sports psychology builds a mental edge.

An elite athlete’s body is on display most during critical moments – a game-tying free throw, a match point, a full count. We see their muscles ripple, their hands curl, their face twitch. 

What’s not on display are their minds – perhaps the most crucial elements during performance-making moments, according to Dr. Jonathan Fader, a leading sports psychologist for pro athletes.

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When athletes need to perform at a high level in a high-pressure situation – when they do sink that free throw, ace a serve, or nab an RBI – this is what happens inside their minds.

They Don't Think

“As a recent athlete said to me, ‘thinking is horrible,’” Dr. Fader says. “In situations when people choke or when they are not performing at their best, it’s usually because they are overthinking.”

Dr. Fader says a big chunk of his job is to train athletes how not to think during moments when they are likely to do it the most. Instead, he wants them to enter “the zone.”

“The report from most athletes in the zone is everything just seems to work and it’s almost like they are doing it without thinking,” he says. "Sometimes athletes are surprised with their performance afterwards because they are so relaxed.”

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They Change Their Focus

Research performed by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor of Kinesiology Gabriel Wulf distinguishes between two types of focus. An internal focus means an athlete gears their mind to focus on their own body movements (a batter focusing on the way his arms swing, for example). An external focus means an athlete dials into his surroundings, and the way his body will affect them (a batter focusing on the speed and position of the ball, for example). 

Wulf’s body of research indicates an external focus significantly boosts performance because athletes are not thinking about their own movements. “When you adopt an external focus, you perform much more automatically and efficiently,” Wulf told Men’s Fitness in a previous article. “Somehow the body knows what it has to do to achieve the desired outcome, and that results in more fluid, efficient, and accurate movements.”

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They Slow Their Breathing

Dr. Fader says the worst mental state an athlete can be in is over-analyzing their performance.

“A dangerous place to be is if you are at a critical moment, you are thinking too much, and you don't have a method or a routine to shift the focus from thinking back to the actual task at hand,” he says. 

One effective method for returning back to the zone is slowing your breathing. Dr. Fader tells his athletes to breathe deeply from the belly, not from the chest, and to concentrate on exhaling longer than inhaling. 

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They Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Dr. Fader teaches elite athletes how to treat failure. The wrong way to approach failure is turning it into a “global issue” - for example, a baseball player thinks a strikeout signifies that he is a terrible baseball player.

Elite athletes adapt their thinking on failure, comparing the single event to all of the other successes they’ve had. 

“People who can change their thought process are usually more resilient to flunks and more prepared for moments when they might choke,” Dr. Fader says. In a critical moment, elite athletes are confident in their abilities. They don’t believe previous failures are a reflection on their playing ability as a whole. 

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