When senior Maia Mozingo thinks about competitors, she doesn’t imagine a midfielder that will be blocking her or a pitcher on the opposing team who can throw a wicked curveball. To Mozingo, her biggest competition is ultimately the person she sees when she looks in the mirror.
All athletics require mental toughness, but Mozingo views running as a sport with many mental barriers because once an individual begins a race, the only person who controls the outcome is herself.
“I know I am my biggest competitor because in the end, no one else can make me run faster or pass someone,” Mozingo said. “Yeah, they can cheer me on and give me a strategy, but it’s up to me to make it happen.”
Multiple factors cause mental barriers, said Dr. Troy Moles, a certified mental performance consultant at the University of Minnesota Athletics Department. One of these causes is negative self-talk, in which an athlete believes they are not capable of achieving a goal. These negative thoughts can automatically pop into a someone’s mind and derail him or her from multiple psychological standpoints, such as emotional, physiological, behavioral and attentional focus.
Specifically in sports, when athletes find themselves physically exhausted, having a positive mindset is immensely helpful, especially if they don’t have others to rely on, Dr. Moles explained.
“Athletes can learn to use and apply what we call mental skills to overcome these mental barriers,” Dr. Moles said. “These strategies, such as imagery, goal setting, attentional focus re-cuing [and] being mindful serve to enhance an athlete’s ability to stay present moment-focused and successfully navigate mental barriers or other distractions.”
Since mental barriers can occur in any activity, freshman swimmer Turner DeArmond has learned to adapt to his sport by acquiring multiple methods to calm himself, just in case one fails.
“I let the fear, stress and pressure flood my system, but only for five seconds. Then I push it out and shut it down and go,” DeArmond said. “That’s usually for right before a race. Another is for when my mind keeps going back to places like ‘What if I don’t get the time?’ Then I try and distract myself. I listen to music to get me in the zone, I talk to friends, I scroll through Instagram, basically anything to keep my mood light and my mind off the times and what could go wrong. One more I have is to not even think, which is for during the race. This one is the hardest to achieve, but it gets you the best results. You just let your mind go and trust the training and be carried to the results. That being said, the training has to be there for this to work.”
DeArmond uses his techniques during moments when he knows he needs to perform well. Despite his thought out methods, letting fear flood his system to stay calm is no easy task. For Mozingo, overcoming mental barriers in races has become harder for her because of the self-emplaced pressure she puts on herself.
“Hearing people tell me to relax and how to work the course gives me something else to focus on and distracts me from the race, but also spotting a teammate and working to get to them helps those mental barriers become smaller,” Mozingo said. “Having bodies around me reminds me that I’m not the only one going through this and they are playing the same mind game, so how can I play it better? Planning my next move and being in check with my body and breathing takes just enough thinking where I don’t mentally deteriorate but just enough to keep me focused.”
When athletes begin to reach levels of complete fatigue in latter halves of games, matches, races and meets, negative thoughts come much quicker. It also becomes easier to resort to breaking down rather than pushing through.
“It is a constant battle with yourself,” DeArmond said. “You have to try not to psych yourself out or keep pushing even when you feel like you have nothing left to push with, which can sometimes be very difficult. You are mostly trying to beat your own times and push yourself.”
Any athlete tries to stay clear from the thought of lactic acid building or muscles clenching so hard they turn stiff. But it is often the most painful workouts that produce the mentally strongest athletes that are in it to ultimately battle themselves.
“Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into it, and the results aren’t what you wanted, even though you truly are pushing and trying as hard as you can,” DeArmond said. “It’s an awful feeling. When you rest your hopes on the results, and the stakes are so high, and you fail to deliver, and there’s no one else to blame, it’s brutal. When your entire body is tired, and you are told to keep going, it’s difficult to stay determined. It’s not all for nothing, though. When you do get the results you wanted and accomplish your goals, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
How have you dealt with mental blocks? Let us know in the comments below.