“Sports are 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical,” once said Yogi Berra, an 18-time MLB All-Star and the US’s greatest master of malapropisms. As usual, in his own strange way, he was right: when all is said and done, if you want to play like the best athletes, it is not enough just to be as physically dedicated as them. You need to think like them as well.
However, building the right frame of mind to become an elite athlete is not easy. As Jim Afremow, Ph.D. – one of the world’s leading sports psychology consultants – explicitly states, this requires “a program of psychological preparation and interconnected mental skills, mental strategies, and golden wisdom.” His bestselling 2015 book, The Champion’s Mind, offers such a program – albeit a bit messily through countless short, succinct sections written specifically “for today’s busy athletes, coaches, and parents.”
For today’s summary, we selected some of the more attention-grabbing of these sections and summarized them just for you. So, get ready to reach the pinnacle of athletic excellence and become a champion in your sport today!
Be your own champion
The thing that separates the top few from the many in any sport is mentality. “Among the top 100 players, physically there is not much difference,” states tennis great Novak Djokovic. “It’s a mental ability to handle the pressure, to play well at the right moments.” Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it even more tersely: “Your mind is what makes everything else work.”
And the mind – just like every part of your body – is trainable, and can be perfected to suit your needs as a future champion. Here are some tips and tricks Jim Afremow shares with his readers to build mental strength:
- Compile a personal scouting report. Take a hard, unblinking look at all aspects of your performance, concentrating on these four: mentality, athleticism, technique, and strategy. Rate yourself objectively: the point is not to get good grades but to see how you can better yourself. So, stay upbeat whatever the results!
- Ask yourself the champion question. “What will your life look like when you have become your own champion?” This is the key champion question. It’s not about outdoing others – but about outdoing yourself, until you can’t get the better of yourself anymore.
- Act like you’re a champion. Fake it till you make it. An average athlete thinks in terms of the future: “One day I will.” A gold medalist, on the other hand, does it and says, “Today I did.” Sergey Bubka, perhaps the greatest pole vaulter in history, always advocated this: “Do it. Then say it.”
- Bring it every day. “It’s not every four years,” says the motto of the US Olympic committee. “It’s every day.” More precisely: it is today. Excellence, after all, can’t be achieved yesterday or tomorrow. Ask yourself how are you getting better today? What will you achieve today?
- Ask yourself the daily gut check questions. At sunrise, ask yourself “How will I be a champion today?” At sunset, ask yourself “How was I a champion today?” The morning is for the intentions, and the night is for accountability.
Master the mental skills
A mind-over-matter approach doesn’t develop overnight. To build mastery, you need to try to focus on one or two of your mental skills multiple times each day. There’s no other way to build a strong and fortified foundation for mental mastery. The mental skills are:
- Goal setting. Think it, then ink it. Consciously develop SMART goals: goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Write them down. Then follow them to the point.
- Mental imagery. Visualize to actualize. “What is now proved was once only imagined,” wrote English romantic poet William Blake a few centuries ago. It’s true: you need to visualize yourself winning to get on the winning course. The three key ingredients of successful visualization are: vividly seeing yourself perform successfully, deeply feeling yourself performing masterfully, and thoroughly enjoying the process (SFE visualization).
- Self-talk. Feed the good wolf. According to an old Cherokee legend, there are two wolves fighting within us: one of them is positive and beneficial, while the other is negative and destructive. At the end of the day, the one you feed will win.
- Confidence. Flex your confidence muscle. In order to be successful, you must believe that you can be successful. Confidence in tough situations – according to tennis great John McEnroe – is what separates great from average players.
- Focus. A champion is a Now-ist. Champions are not distracted by crowd noise and photo flashes or hunger and fatigue. They are not distracted by the past or the future either. Keep reminding yourself to “Be all here!” or shout, “Now!” whenever you feel that your mind has wandered off.
- Breath control. Breathe life into your performance. Proper breathing works in tandem with being a Now-ist: it helps one eliminate distractions and focus better. That’s why many sports figures and coaches practice it – including Phil Jackson, basketball’s greatest champion. Join them.
- Mental toughness. Build your inner-strength bank account. “Mental toughness is the ability to remain positive and proactive in the most adverse of circumstances,” writes Afremow. Develop it for when it matters the most by doing the thing that is hard over and over again – especially when you don’t feel like doing it.
- Anxiety management. Go from panicky to pumped. A famous sports psychology adage states “get your butterflies to fly in formation.” To do so, stay in the here and now and on a positive thought channel. Remember: for champions, FEAR means “Face everything and respond.”
- Enjoyment. Humor is the best sports medicine. A good laugh can reduce stress, boost performance, and improve mood. So, laugh: share jokes with your teammates, watch and read humor, and even use props.
- Body language. Make a golden impression. Frowning, dragging your feet, shaking your head, hunching your shoulders, looking downward – these are all features of the body language of a loser. Adopt a positive stance: smile, chin up, stand tall, and walk strong with your chest out. May they fear your confidence.
- Intensity. Own your zone. Every athlete has an optimal intensity level for peak performance. Discover your zone by increasing (throttling up) or decreasing (throttling down) your intensity levels until you feel most at comfort with yourself and your performance.
- Personal affirmation works. Use these power phrases to train yourself mentally to become a champion: “I think, feel, and perform like a champion;” “The next play will be my best play;” I play with purpose and passion;” “I bring it every day.” Add your own.
The wisdom of a champion
In addition to mastering your mental skills, to become a champion, you need to attain proper depths of wisdom. Here are some strategies to do that:
- Be your own toughest rival. “A central concept for becoming a champion,” writes Afremow, “is to battle against your best or gold self.” Becoming a champion, in other words, is always about competing against yourself. During the 2012-13 season, LeBron James shared with reporters that he was waging a “vendetta” against himself in an effort to improve. And this came after a season during which he won an NBA championship, an Olympic gold medal, and was named both league and finals MVP! That’s how champions are made.
- Smash idols. They say that you need to have a role model, but there’s a difference between a role model and an idol. You need to admire, rather than idolize, your favorite players. If you idolize them, you can only become as good as them. If you admire them – the admiration should propel you to new heights.
- Have the attitude of a season-ticket holder. A casual fan is only loosely involved with his or her team, whereas a season-ticket holder is a “die-hard” fan. Be as committed as them in your own game and life: cheer even when you’re losing, but never make up excuses not to turn up.
- Learn how to hold a pile of sand. If you hold a small pile of sand in your hand too tightly, the sand will be squeezed out between your fingers. If you hold it too loosely, the sand will slip beyond your grip. The key is to find balance. Likewise, in sports, the key is to care enough, but not too much about the outcome, so that you can let your talent be natural and unrestrained.
- Polish the rock, sharpen the sword. Writing is an endless process of rewriting. Analogously, becoming a champion is an endless process of fine-tuning your athletic skills. Set yourself a high standard to readjust in the proper direction. “I’m chasing perfection,” said once NBA legend Kobe Bryant, “and if I don’t get it, I’m going to get this close.” That’s a great goal: strive to get 1 percent closer to perfection in your own game each day. Adhere to the seven Ps: Proper Practice and Preparation Promotes Personal Peak Performance!
- Good, better, best is your right route. To evaluate your progress and build on your success in a more objective manner, ask yourself the following three questions: 1) What did I do that was good? 2) What needs to get better? 3) What changes should I make to become my best? Record your responses appropriately, ideally within a day or two of your performance. This is your Champion Journal.
Long-term survival of the most mentally fit
As difficult as it is to attain success, it’s child’s play compared to sustaining it. The greatest champions in history kept on winning long after climbing the podium the first time – and they didn’t stop doing that until retiring. To emulate their success, you need to combine daily devotion with long-range vision and planning. Here are some of Jim Afremow’s tips that should guide you on your path to greatness:
- Be a pig – not a chicken. You probably know the joke, but here’s a quick reminder. A chicken proposes to a pig that they should open up a breakfast eatery. “We’ll call it Ham-N-Eggs,” the chicken says. “No, thanks,” replies the pig after pondering a bit. “I’d be committed to the breakfast, but you’d only be involved.” Just like in the story, in life as well, chickens only want to be half-involved in the process; they want to play the system and take the shortcuts. Don’t be like them: give yourself completely to a process. Go all-in – body, blood, and all. “There are only two options regarding commitment,” once said Pat Riley, one of the greatest NBA coaches in history. “You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in between.”
- Sustained obsession. Brad Alan Lewis, an American rower and Olympic gold medalist, wrote in one of his books that the secret to making the Olympics lies in two words: sustained obsession. Just like in love, the second part isn’t so hard. But keeping the obsession sustained is what makes the difference. Be dedicated.
- Do what others won’t do. “Today I will do what others won’t,” once said Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, “so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.” Make that your personal motto. Don’t ever forget that high commitment asks for sacrifices. Be prepared to make them, even if that means staying isolated and not accepting one party invitation. Multitasking is for losers: stay focused and never give up. That’s the only way to succeed.
The Champion’s Mind may be a difficult book to summarize, but it is certainly an easy one to read. In fact, with one or two exceptions, you can probably read any of its innumerable stand-alone sections (that make up ten loosely organized chapters) between two subway stops.
However, bear in mind that basically all of the sections include “no-nonsense, to-the-point techniques” and offer “important steps for winning the mental game,” so as easy as it might be to read The Champion’s Mind, it is just as difficult to put it into practice.
And that, obviously, is this book’s main objective.
Be in it to win it. Playing so as not to lose is rooted in fear and puts you in survival mode. Playing to win is based on confidence and is all about thriving.