The #1 Mental Hurdle All Athletes Face
It is so normal that many elite athletes struggle without it. In fact, some of them purposely create it to help drive their discipline and motivation. Coaches have been making negative comments about their teams in the media for years, displaying it about the ability or the courage or the motivation of their players just to get them angry and ready to compete. It’s an old trick, but it works so well that coaches go to the well and use it over and over again.
"Accept that the presence of doubt means that you’re normal, not mentally weak. Accept that there is a plan in place in the presence of doubt, and persevere through it."
What is it? Doubt.
It’s not realistic to think that doubts won’t occur and that belief will sustain. Every great athlete experiences doubts and struggles, often with a dangerous doubt-to-belief ratio in which the doubts simply overwhelm the belief.
When you find yourself in a scenario in which doubts outnumber beliefs, try the following:
Take an inventory of your doubts and see which ones you actually believe. Seriously, take a piece of paper and write “Doubts” at the top of one side and “Beliefs” at the top of the other. Take some time and list them. The insights you’ll glean will be amazing, not just from writing down the doubts but from listing the things that you actually believe about yourself.
Take a look at the doubts and the themes that are highlighted by this exercise. These are the underlying insecurities that challenge you on a daily basis. This isn’t meant to highlight your weaknesses, just to show that your doubts are often inaccurate, that they’re often nothing more than those childhood monsters in your closet. Remember them? They were so mean, so ugly, and so dangerous, but only because you couldn’t see them, it was the middle of the night, and no one could save you. Once you turned on the light, you discovered that the mean monster was actually Fluffy, your stuffed animal. Fluffy wasn’t quite as dangerous as you had tricked your mind to believe he was.
2. Accept vs. Fight
Every athlete who competes experiences doubt. EVERY. SINGLE. ATHLETE. No one is immune. The best of the best, however, accept that their doubts are normal and then use them to make themselves better.
Be careful not to look at others and assume that they’re confident or free from doubt. They don’t have thought bubbles over their heads, so stop trying to read the tea leaves to figure them out.
You can’t, so don’t try. In a high-doubt mental environment, the things you overvalue as strengths in others are usually the things in yourself in which you lack confidence.
Accept that the presence of doubt means that you’re normal, not mentally weak. Accept that there is a plan in place in the presence of doubt, and persevere through it. See the doubts as a sign that your competitive intensity is picking up, not that you’re flawed or not ready. Quite the opposite. You’re human. You’re an athlete.
3. Reset the Challenge
The ability of the mind to take information and reframe it for an upcoming action is powerful. It should be said without hesitation that reframing a situation is a skill, not an innate ability. It takes maturity, experience, and awareness to reframe negative and challenging experiences into constructive engagements.
When doubts rise beyond the level of belief, simply reframing the experience can do wonders. It’s similar to the discussion earlier about anxiety and adrenaline. Both are forms of arousal; where they differ is in how they relate to the current environment. Risky situations signal a threat and result in physical and mental feelings of anxiety, while excitement is often accompanied by an adrenaline rush. Feeling the arousal and reframing the situation, regardless of how difficult that might be, is a sign of a mentally strong person and athlete.
The only way to learn to reframe the challenge is to get comfortable in the challenge. I know that when I do exercises that have high heart-rate demands, I get really uncomfortable and start to restrict my effort. I just don’t like the feeling. However, if I look at the challenge differently and count the reps backwards, my effort always surges. The change is a mental one – my body didn’t do anything differently.
Reframe the doubts as reminders to get disciplined for the challenge and the plan that’s been created. It’s about believing that you’re capable in that moment.
Every challenge requires your full attention and effort. If it doesn’t demand that of you, it’s not difficult or important enough to make you give everything you have in your tank.
You don’t need an invitation to compete; all that’s needed is an opportunity.
When doubts start to build, the common mindset is to avoid, back off, and start rebuilding the necessary skillsets and fixing the problems that prompted the doubt. That’s the worst thing you can do, because it becomes a repetitive process. As doubts increase and challenges are avoided, more doubts build up. There is a never a “better” day to compete, because there are no guarantees that those days will actually be any better. The only way to push through your doubts is to run through them with the aggressiveness and competitiveness that you have deep within your mindset. Engage the moment and push through the challenge. Your behavior is fueled by your mindset, so a mindset of doubt will create protective and fearful behavior – in other words, exactly what you fear. If your mindset is about engagement and fighting through the doubts with the beliefs you have in yourself – even if it’s just one belief – that’s infinitely better than dwelling on the ten things you doubt about yourself.
Think about prizefighters. As they walk to the ring, the months of grueling training are behind them. This isn’t the time for them to worry about whether they’ve trained appropriately, particularly when it comes to readiness, fitness, and strategy. All that will do is distract them from the fight itself. As long as they know that they fully followed their training plan, those doubts will disappear as they step into the ring. Now is the time for them to focus fully on the strengths and advantages that they have in the fight, and to believe in them fully. That’s the only choice, and the only choice of champions.
Belief is why champions are champions.