Mental toughness can be compared to finding fuel on an empty tank. Often, athletes compete with the best intentions and with a plan for exactly what they want to accomplish. As we all know, sometimes (okay, often) things don't go as planned in sports. This can cause a loss of focus, confidence, and performance. Based on my experience as a collegiate swimmer, I have found that three things I can do mentally ahead of competition help me when the unexpected happens.
1. Understand that not everything will go as planned. An athlete must anticipate that a competition could go many ways. Instead of planning for everything to go perfectly, plan for every situation. You want to have a coping response for each of those things.
2. Realize this takes patience and resilience plus trial and error. Success is about being able to overcome failure and see each moment as an opportunity to learn and grow. It takes vulnerability and being honest with your feelings and fears to grow.
3. Recall times when you overcame seemingly impossible odds. You did once (or twice or three times) so you can do it again!
As much as I had success in my career swimming at N.C. State, I had just as much, if not more, failure. My freshman year competing in college is a good example. Out of high school, I was a sprinter. I focused mainly on the 50-yard and 100-yard races. As soon as I started training in my freshman year of college, my coach wanted to put me in the 200-yard race. It may not seem like a huge difference, but mentally, I was struggling.
I raced the 200 at every dual meet and failed each time. After each meet, I would then review race videos with my coach to develop a new strategy. I did this all season but had no real success in this event. When championship season came, it was time to finally put all fears aside and race the 200 for real. Before the meet, I reminded myself of all the times that I swam the race and all the hard training that I had endured for this specific event.
I knew I was physically capable of going fast, so why was I letting my thoughts get in the way? I swam the race and surprised myself. I swam a personal best time and was able to score points for my team. My time was not spectacular, but the results built my confidence for the rest of the meet and for the rest of my collegiate career.
I believe the reason that I was failing throughout the dual-meet season was simply that I was afraid of failure. I was overanalyzing every aspect of my race and was not trusting my capabilities. The number one takeaway from my freshman year, and swimming career in general, is to trust the process and myself. I would not have reached my goals in swimming without failing and learning from that failure.
I have learned that the road to success is never marked by perfection but by the ability to overcome adversity. Your talent and physical strength are important, but what matters even more is your related mental toughness. Do you have a story on mental toughness you would like to share with the readers of Sport Fuels Life? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can highlight what you’ve experienced and learned.