Improve focus and motivation

Our guest expert this week is Dr. Jason Selk; considered to be one of the premier performance coaches in the United States. He helps numerous well-known professional and Olympic athletes, as well as Fortune 500 executives and organizations develop the mental toughness necessary for high-level success.

Dr. Selk’s book 10-Minute Toughness explains how to be mentally prepared for competition. Targeting tools for mental toughness, it is designed to help athletes identify what it takes to be successful and to improve focus, concentration, confidence, and motivation requiring just 10 minutes of practice per day.

Dr. Jason Selk
Thinking Through Performance

From a mental standpoint, the most tried-and-true way to increase performance is to improve confidence. Self-talk is one of the most influential agents for honing self- confidence. Extensive research in the sport psychology world confirms that an athlete’s internal dialogue significantly influences performance. Athletes who have negative self-talk will generally experience poor performance; conversely, when athletes keep their minds focused on positive performance cues, they are more likely to experience success.

In 1985, tennis great Ivan Lendl had a record of nine wins and twelve losses against John McEnroe. To improve his chances for success against McEnroe, Lendl decided to improve his self-talk. He began repeating to himself daily, “I look forward to playing John McEnroe,” and over the next six years, Lendl beat McEnroe ten times while only losing three times.

Pete Sampras, another tennis superstar, said that positive self-talk was a definite help to him in working through adversity and tough points. Sampras would tell himself to “stay focused on the present” and “prepare for the next point” rather than letting his thoughts swirl and become negative.


The benefits aren’t limited to the gym and tennis court. In preparation for the lronman World Championships, one athlete had this to say after achieving her best time and finishing fourth in the world: “Training the positive self-talk for a few months allowed me to focus only on myself and what was going on in my body and mind in sync. . . . The tangible rewards were a huge perk for me, but the real treasures of that race were my newfound ability to use my self-talk tools and remain in the moment.”

A performance statement is a type of self-talk designed to help athletes zoom in on one specific thought to enhance performance consistency. It is a simple, yet concrete, thought that specifically identifies the process of success, or what it takes to perform at your best. As you read through the next pages, think about the one core thought that puts you in the best position to play at your peak when you focus on it. For some sports it will make sense to have more than one performance statement.

For the baseball player, there may be a performance statement to emphasize hitting (track the ball, smooth and easy) and defense (set, stay down, watch it into the glove). A basketball player may choose to combine both offense and defense into one performance statement (hustle every possession; attack every rebound; drive, drive, drive), while the gymnast may have a performance statement for every event she competes on (floor: quick hands, tight legs, squeeze; vault: top speed, feet in front; bars: hollow handstands and elbows locked).

The key is to identify the single most fundamental idea of what it takes for you to be successful to allow you to simplify the game. Keeping it simple will allow you to free your mind and body from complications and distractions and play loose with great confidence and passion.

“Don’t” thinking: An ineffective series of thoughts in which the athlete focuses on what he or she does not want to do rather than on what should be done.

It is highly beneficial for athletes to know what to think as they are preparing for competition. Many times during training and competition, an athlete will experience what I call “don’t” thinking. In “don’t” thinking, people tell themselves what not to do. For example, a hockey player with whom I work used to tell himself, “Don’t screw this up, don’t swing too hard, and don’t hit the ice before the puck.”

This type of thinking is not helpful, because by directing the mind to what is not supposed to be done, it increases the likelihood that the athlete will feel stress and anxiety. This state, in turn, makes it harder to pay attention to the task at hand, and thus people are more prone to do exactly what they were hoping to prevent.

Mental clutter is another impediment to clear thoughts among athletes. Mental clutter is all the stuff that goes through the mind that interferes with important thoughts about the performance. For the majority of athletes, mental clutter usually occurs because individuals do not know what they should be thinking. Even athletes who have been instructed on what to think have trouble at times because they haven’t trained their minds to maintain a specific focus under pressure. Performance statements help athletes stay focused and perform at their best when it counts the most.

Now as the aforementioned hockey player prepares for training and competition, he says to himself, “Relaxed and smooth; my shot is compact and powerful.” When he stays relaxed, it helps him to play his game and stay within himself. He knows that if he keeps his mind on “relaxed and smooth,” he is better able to avoid all “don’t” thinking and mental clutter. In his first year of using I0-Minute Toughness, his scoring percentage increased from 8 per­ cent to almost 30 percent.

Leading with Your Mind

Mental toughness is abnormal, just as physical strength is abnormal. We are born without much muscle development. As we grow, if we don’t emphasize physical fitness, we will not develop appreciable strength. In that sense, it is somewhat abnormal to be physically strong. The same is true for mental toughness: most people don’t commit to replacing their negative thoughts with positive thinking.

In my opinion, the essence of mental toughness is the ability to replace negative thinking with thoughts that are centered on performance cues or that contribute to improved self-confidence. The more often negative thoughts are replaced with positive self-talk, the more successful and mentally tough a person will be. An athlete’s body listens to what the mind tells it. If the mind has up to sixty thousand thoughts a day, and normal thinking is filled with self-doubt and/or negativity, imagine the impact on performance.

It is important for athletes to identify the thoughts that produce consistently strong performance. Once players figure out what those thoughts are, they can train their minds to focus only on those thoughts during competition. George Brett, the Hall of Fame baseball player, used to tell himself, “Try easier,” as a reminder to use a smooth and easy swing at the plate. Although this process sounds simple enough, it can be difficult to pull off, especially while under competitive pressure. The mental workout is a structured and concrete method of identifying and controlling the positive self-talk necessary for peak performance.

While it is not a revelation to most people that they should avoid negative thinking, how many of us truly know what we are supposed to think about? The most helpful method to stop self-doubt and negative thinking is thought replacement. Effective thought replacement occurs when you decide what you want to have happen and then think more often about what it will take to make it happen. Whenever unproductive thoughts (“don’t” thinking or mental clutter) infringe, replace them with productive ones.

Replace all thoughts of self-doubt or negativity with thoughts of what it is that you want, and you will be much more likely to have those things occur. If you do this as often as possible, your life will be more enjoyable, and you will markedly improve your odds of reaching or exceeding your potential. It is helpful to construct some specific positive self-talk statements prior to facing adversity so that your mind is more practiced and able to use positive thinking when it is most needed.

'Don’t thinking':
An ineffective series of thoughts in which the athlete focuses on what he or she does not want to do rather than on what should be done.

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