How to Train Your Brain to Perform Better Under Pressure Before a Competition

People running in V formation on track

If you’re a serious athlete who competes regularly, you know how important your state of mind is to your performance. So important, in fact, that without a proper mindset, your physical state almost doesn’t matter. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not totally farfetched.) And even if you aren’t a competitive athlete, achieving a competitive and positive state of mind can be beneficial. Here are some of the best tips from the United States Olympic Committee’s mental health team for getting yourself into a healthy, winning state of mind.

Guide your focus

The average thought only lasts about eight seconds. Learning to concentrate is not necessarily about concentrating without faltering, but re-guiding your attention back to the object or topic of focus when it begins to stray. Dr. John McCauley, Ph.D., a clinical and sports psychologist who has worked with Olympic athletes, suggests trying this with a piece of fruit. When your thoughts stray from the piece of fruit, he says, re-focus on another aspect of it, such as its texture or color. Then, move on to focusing on your athletic goals.

Visualize

Visualization is the process of guiding yourself to see something by picturing it intensely in your mind. Begin with a simple shape, like a square. It helps if you have an actual shape for reference that you can go back to. Then, try visualizing yourself crossing the finish line or benching your target weight; feel yourself actually doing it. This will simulate the feeling of success, and you will feel as if you have experienced the sensation before when the big day actually comes, building confidence.

Trust yourself

You’ve trained and fought hard to be where you are today. Making it to the competition is a success in itself. So trust yourself, trust your training process, and know that when you sign up to run a marathon, it will never be longer than 26.2 miles. No one is trying to trick you.

Hack your routine

Think back to your best times, weights, or whatever your greatest athletic achievement was. What did you eat for breakfast? What music did you listen to? Recreate your most successful self, and then make a habit of it. Having a routine will help to get you in the winning mindset and diminish any uncertainties you may have about the day ahead, and knowing how you succeed will boost your confidence.

Just relax

“Most of us have no idea what the feeling of relaxation is even though we are told to relax all the time,” Dr. McCauley said. A calm body needs to be achieved before you can even think about calming your mind, so try starting with some self-statements like “my shoulders are relaxed” to release any tension you may be holding.