Athletes who use sports psychology techniques to improve their performance often focus on mental preparation, motivation and visualization. All of these strategies can definitely work, but there are some sports psychology mistakes many athletes make without realizing it. Here are three of the most common sports psychology mistakes athletes make, and tips to help you avoid them.
According to sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter, many athletes visualize only one, perfect scenario, perfect race and perfect outcome to their event. While it's necessary to visualize a positive outcome, Dr. Dahlkoetter reminds athletes that they must also visualize a positive outcome for a variety of possible scenarios. For example, they should visualize a race in which they come from behind, or come back strong despite an equipment breakdown, bad weather, a change of race course or start time, and other 'less than perfect' conditions. By having mentally rehearsed success in many possible situations, an athlete is much more likely to stay calm, focused and confident no matter what happens on race day.
Many athletes unwittingly mentally rehearse mistakes by repeating them over and over in their minds in an attempt to learn what went wrong. While it's good to understand what mistake was made, by replaying it over and over in your mind you actually make it more likely to keep recurring. Dr. Dahlkoetter explains that the body will follow your mental instructions, unless you rewrite the mistake and visualize yourself doing it correctly. So it's important to visualize yourself 'getting it right' over and over until it feels natural.
The third big mistake many athletes make on event day is being either over or under aroused. Too much energy, nerves or race-day jitters can result in performance anxiety and interfere with mental focus. In the worst case scenario, too much nervous energy can result in "choking," a decrease in athletic performance due to feeling too much perceived stress.
On the other hand, too little arousal can lead to a mental withdrawal and an "I just don't care" attitude which is very mentally defeating. The right amount of mental arousal is necessary to perform well. Athletes need time, practice and experience to learn what is the appropriate amount of arousal required for them to do their best, but keeping track of arousal levels is helpful.