Training Your Brain to Win: The Psychology Behind Peak Performance

Peak performance isn’t just about getting your body in the right place; it’s about training your mind as well. And getting your brain in shape to help you perform your best can be just as hard as those long hours on the bike.

Many elite athletes pay just as much attention to the psychology behind peak performance as they do to their training schedules and nutrition. These methods used by professional athletes to kick their brains into gear provide valuable insight into achieving individual goals.

Visualise yourself achieving your goals

If you don’t believe you can achieve the goals you have set for yourself, you’re really just setting yourself up for adversity. Many high level athletes have employed visualisation techniques to help perform at their peak and studies have revealed that these techniques actually can cause changes in muscle activity, further preparing for peak performance.

Visualisation is more than just thinking about an upcoming event. It’s about imagining it taking place and letting it occur in your mind’s eye, figuring your way around potential pitfalls to ultimately achieve the level of success that you strive. While this may seem a little wishy-washy, several studies have shown its success. One group of Russian scientists compared the training schedules of four groups of Olympic athletes, and found that the group who used 25% physical training and 75% mental training performed the best during the Olympics.

Break a mental sweat

If you stress your brain at the same time as training your body, you can improve your level of endurance. A recently declassified report funded by the UK’s Ministry of Defence revealed that breaking a mental sweat while you train allows you to achieve huge performance gains by changing your perception of effort.

In the study, 35 soldiers trained three times a week on stationary bikes. Half of them were also given a mentally demanding task to complete while they pedaled – watching combinations of letters appear on a computer screen and clicking only when certain combinations appeared. At the end of the 12-week study, both groups showed comparable increases in VO2max. But when they completed a ‘time to exhaustion’ test, in which they rode at a constant effort (80 percent of their V02max) for as long as possible, the group who combined a mental workout with their physical workout improved their time to exhaustion by a huge 126 percent – three times as much as the other group. The researchers found that those who were undertaking a mentally challenging activity had trained themselves “to tolerate a harder perceived effort, so when the cognitive task was removed, the effort felt easier.”

Take time to clear your mind

Nerves can be the difference between success and failure, and if you can eliminate these by clearing your mind, you’re really taking a step in a positive direction. And this isn’t just a case of taking the time to make sure you take a deep breath before you compete.

Many high level athletes have turned to meditation to take their performance to the next level. World famous athletes like Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and LeBron James, amongst other Olympic medalists, have reported using meditation to help improve their mental game. Meditation has been found to increase focus and attention span, improve emotional well being and significantly reduce stress.

Avoid negative thoughts

It’s no secret that sometimes we’re our own worst enemies, and high performance athletes often find themselves dealing with similar voices in their heads which can create feelings of fear, self-doubt and inadequacy. These feelings have no place in a peak performance. The best athletes have a high degree of control when it comes to that annoying little voice of doubt in their heads, and successful people in business also display similar control.

While it may feel a little odd, using motivational expressions like “You’re good enough to do this,” can help athletes improve technique, skills, strength, and endurance and ultimately put in a better performance.

Set achievable goals

It’s okay to reach for the stars every now and then, but setting goals that aren’t actually achievable can ultimately hold you back in the long run. Often, the more specific goals are the easier ones to achieve and you can set a list of smaller goals that lead to a bigger prize at the end of the journey. It’s also easier to make sure these sorts of goals are at front of mind.

Having achievable goals along the path to a loftier resolution is a good way to start getting momentum as you’re beginning to move down your chosen path.