8 Ways to Step Up Your Mental Game

Feb 24, 2018

Dr. Raymond Rocco Monto is a contributing writer for Storelli.com focused on soccer training techniques and mental and physical exercises to help better your game.

The next frontier for sports performance is not found in the body, but in the mind. Even the most elite soccer player can be undermined and sabotaged by fear, stress, anxiety, fatigue, and loss of focus. In order to unlock the potential greatness in every athlete, researchers are using new techniques like real-time brain MRI imaging and exotic blood tests to discover the elusive connections between mind and body. That’s right, we’re hacking the brain, baby!

Soccer players and other athletes prefer to be in the zone as quickly as possible and to stay there as long as they can. Human performance researcher Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi called this flow, a state of mind in which time slows down, decision-making becomes fluid, and mental clarity occurs. This is the peak state of athletic performance. In his best-selling book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler describes the eight most important psychological, social, and environmental triggers that extreme athletes use to initiate flow and which you can harness to improve your mental approach to the game:

1. Concentration - To get in the flow you need to first focus intently on an immediate task. Meditation is in, multi-tasking is out. Visualization and body awareness improve performance. The brain has a difficult time distinguishing between what it sees and what it is doing. Research has proven that even thinking about exercise improves muscle strength. The mirror neuron system in the body helps us model behavior and strengthens our bonds to each other. It’s like the social media linkage of your brain. While it might not get you out of training, regular mental rehearsal fires up the mirror neuron system and helps reduce performance anxiety and boost results. Meditation can provide clarity and increase self-awareness; both key features of concentration. REMEMBER; ALL YOU GOTTA DO IS BREATHE.

Photos by Sam Maller

2. Clear Goals - In extreme sports the goal is unambiguous: survival. While the stakes may not be quite as high in soccer, your targets can rapidly change depending on position, timing and context. To maximize performance you must first accurately identify your duels; beat the ruthless defender, save the heavy shot or tackle that dangerous forward. The better you frame the task, the easier it is to transition to a flow state and win your duel. Triaging and prioritizing these goals in a fast-paced game is critical to tactical awareness. THE HIGHER THE RISK, THE HIGHER THE FLOW STATE.

3. Feedback - Concentration and focus improve when players receive immediate feedback from their efforts. That’s why it’s easier for a goalkeeper than a midfielder to get into flow- mistakes lead directly to goals. For this same reason, goalkeepers also find it harder to recover their confidence when they’re out of synch. But feedback, doesn’t need to always be negative. When coaches and teammates are in constant communication, constructive feedback can salvage even the most dangerous situation. USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE, PEOPLE.

4. Uncertainty - Peak performance requires the right amount of tension. Too little tension leads to boredom and loss of focus; too much uncertainty can lead to fear and anxiety. Go for the Goldilocks-point and tension can help trigger flow. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF UNCERTAINTY

Photos by Sam Maller

5. Familiarity - Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds winners. This is where practice and repetition support the player and helps manage uncertainty, and physical rehearsal ultimately eases flow transition. In soccer, players are known to perform much better when they are well matched with their teammates skill levels. Nobody wants to be the best player on a lousy team because it undermines effort and degrades performance.

6. Creativity - There can be no creativity without failure. The athlete’s ability to identify risky situations and recognize patterns in the chaos helps them to find innovative solutions that deliver peak performance. To be creative, players have to learn to take calculated risks and understand that epic fails can lead to even more epic victories. Players need encouragement to push the envelope in practice and support when they try to create in real-time.

7. Control - This flow trigger results from balancing challenge to skill level. The closer they are, the more confident the player. If the ratio of challenge to skill is too low, the athlete will lose attention. If it is too high, risk skyrockets, fear enters the equation and performance fades. Great athletes always strive to perform just beyond their challenge/skill comfort zone to reach their personal best.

8. Recovery - Fatigue is the enemy of flow and performance. Mental recovery is just as critical as physical recovery to combat fatigue and succeed. New research has found that intense competition and flow states result in high blood levels of dopamine, serotonin, and THC-like proteins (runner’s high). That’s right, the flow state is mentally and physically addictive. Managing the recovery from a performance high is important since it can lead to depression, irresponsible behavior, and increased injury rates. Athletes need to have sufficient sleep and physical rest to be able to function well. Unfortunately, today’s elite athletes must deal with “calender-congestion” resulting from demanding training/match schedules and unrealistic performance expectations. Players must also learn how to manage success even better than failure to maintain their edge and drive.

The more we learn about the complex mind-body connections, the less we really understand. The one certainty is that the human brain has the capacity to unlock the potential for greatness in every athlete. The belief that we only use 10% of our brains is a dusty relic of our past- a myth we can discard as the Next-Gen player pushes the envelope of performance forward.

Raymond Rocco Monto, MD, is an an award-winning orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. Recognized for his pioneering clinical research, Dr. Monto has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CBS News, Discovery Channel, Fox News, Stack, New Yorker, Yahoo Sports, Outside Magazine, and many other media.

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1. Beckes L, Coan JA, Hasselmo K:  Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat. Soc Cog Affec Neurosci, 2012; 8 (6): 670-677.

2. Csikszentmihalyi, M: Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York, 1990.

3. Iacoboni M: Mirroring People: The science of empathy and how we connect with others, Picador, New York, 2009.

4. Kottler, S: The Rise of Superman. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014.

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6. Rizzolatti G, Craighero, L: The mirror neuron system. Ann Rev Neurosci. 2004; 27 (1): 169–192.

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