Sports: Competitive Lessons from the World’s Best Athletes

I define Prime Time as the most important game of your life in which you’ll be up against your toughest opponents and competing under the most difficult conditions. Prime Time is what sports are all about. It’s the reason why you work so hard on all aspects of your sport. And Prime Time is probably the reason why you’re reading my article.

Prime Time is that moment that defines you as an athlete. It shows you and others how skilled you are, how well conditioned you are, and, most importantly, how strong you are mentally. All of my work in the psychology of sport is directed toward your achieving Prime Sport, playing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions, in Prime Time.

This notion of Prime Time emerged from my work with one young athlete who was making a difficult, though successful, transition from high-level junior competition to professional sports. What became clear to both of us was that the world’s best athletes hold little resemblance to lower-level athletes. Sure, they compete in the same sport and go through the same motions. But what enables them to be at that rarified level goes beyond just exceptional physical ability. The best athletes in the world don’t just do things better, they do things differently, particularly those things that occur between their ears. These lessons that we learned together helped this athlete overcome the challenges of professional sports and enabled him to progress up the world rankings. They also taught me lessons that athletes at all levels could use to raise their level of play and achieve their highest level of sports success. These lessons are divided into categories: competitive and mental (I’ll discuss the mental lessons next week).

1.  Play to the best of your ability. In any given game, you may not be at your best. You may not be playing that well due to fatigue, illness, injury, or any number of reasons. But whatever ability you bring to the game, you must play to the best of that ability if you have any chance of success.

An important lesson I learned from working with professional and Olympic athletes is that you can’t always be at 100%. Imagine the life of the world’s best athletes. They travel and compete constantly, sometimes going from one side of the world to the other and having to compete the next day. There is simply no way they can be totally on top of their game every day.

Often before a game, many athletes just don’t feel very good and know they’re not going to play well. Because they’re not going to be at 100%, they, in essence, throw in the towel before the game even begins. They think, “If I’m not feeling good, there’s no way I can play well and get a good result.”

However, you don’t have to play your best to win (or get a good result). You only need to play better than your competition. So, to increase the likelihood of that happening, you must learn to play your best with what you have on that given day. For example, if you’re only at 80%, play at the full 80%. That may still be enough for you to achieve your goals. If not, well, at least you gave it your best shot; no regrets for you.

2.   KISS. Sports are really pretty simple. Whoever plays best wins. Yet, athletes can make sports complicated by trying to do too many things. A rule to follow is the KISS principle. Most athletes know the KISS principle as “keep it simple stupid,” but I don’t believe that one. I believe athletes should “keep it simple SMART!”

My KISS principle means that you should choose a few basic things you want to do in a game and stick to them. When things aren’t going well, there can be a tendency to overthink and try to find some complex solution to the problem. This approach usually just clouds the situation and makes it worse.

Your goal should be to focus on a few things and do them to the best of your ability. In fact, on game day, the simplest of the KISS principle you should focus on is this: Execute the fundamentals the best you can.

3.   Expect it to be hard. This is one of the toughest lessons for young athletes who are making the transition from the juniors to the professional ranks. As juniors, there are always easy games where the competition is soft and the conditions are easy. Because they are at such a high level, they will often be competing against athletes who have much less ability. With all of that early success, it’s not difficult to be lulled into the belief that it will always be easy. Not in the pros! Every game is hard. Every game is one they could lose because their competition is just as talented, just as good, just as competitive, and just as hungry to win. No matter what level of sport you’re competing in, if you expect it to be hard, you’ll stay positive and motivated when it does get difficult.

Sports should be difficult. That is what makes them so much fun and rewarding. If you play against a field that you are considerably better than and you win, how do you feel?  Not much sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, is there? Sports are supposed to be hard. They should be physically demanding. Sports should test your technical and tactical capabilities. They should show you what you are made of mentally and emotionally. That is why you compete.

If you expect it to be hard, then there will be no surprises. If you fall behind early in a game, well, think about how exciting it will be to come from behind and win. If you choke, well, that happens. If you fight as hard as you can and still don’t get the result you want, you can still feel good for having given your best effort. If you expect it to be hard, you will prepare yourself physically and mentally for the demands of your sport. When the game proves that you were right, it is tough, then you’ll step up and play your best.

4.   Win the mental game. When you begin a game, you actually compete in two games. First, you compete against your opponents in the actual game. Second, you compete against yourself in the mental game. Here’s a simple reality: if you don’t win the mental game, you have no chance of winning the actual game. Realize also that your competition has a similar situation. Given equal ability and the same competitive conditions, whoever wins the mental game will win the real game.

There are several keys to winning the mental game. Most importantly, you have to be your best ally rather than your worst enemy. If your competition is against you and you are against you, you don’t have a chance. You must be on your own side. Another key is to never give up. Remember what happens when you give up; you automatically lose. As long as you stay motivated and keep fighting no matter how you’re playing, you will always have a chance. Finally, you must reach and maintain your ideal level of focus and intensity throughout the game. This means you need to keep your mind and body in the game from start to finish; no letdowns and no let-ups.

If you learn these lessons from the world’s best athletes, you may not make it all the way to the top. But you can be assured that you’ll “leave it all out on the field” (or court, course, hill, etc.) and feel great satisfaction in your effort. And, in the end, that’s all you can do.



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