The Pro Athlete’s Checklist for Optimal Performance: Part Two

This is the second part of a two part series exploring a checklist that professional athletes can go through to ensure that they are performing at their best.

Part One covered the mental aspects that are important to consider while training for an upcoming competition and preparing yourself right before an event. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend checking out that article first.

Part Two will now cover the aspects you need to consider to perform at your best during a competition, and how to reflect and learn the most after the event has finished.

woman jumping with ball

When Competing in an Event

  1. Do you know how to get into a state of flow? [_]

The flow genome project has a 10 question survey that helps you to understand how you best find flow or get “into the zone”. My flow profile result said that I was a hard charger:

A hard-charger: You’re a focused go-getter. You thrive in intense situations, both personally and professionally. You seek out challenges. You lead a high-impact lifestyle. When you set out to learn a new skill, you look for training from the best and brightest in that field. If such training is not available, you hunker down and focus until you’ve figured it out yourself. Either way, “slow and steady” progress is not what you’re after.

The same intensity that fuels your drive and focus also feeds a relentless inner critic. One that ceaselessly pushes you to raise the bar. For you, the Flow State offers a rare escape from the relentless tallying and scoring of yourself against your own ideal goals and past performance. When you find activities that allow this blissful calm and relief, you make them a priority in your life.

Flow Hacks: Hard chargers gravitate towards adventure sports. Skiing delivers the intensity you seek. You favour non-traditional, off-the-beaten-path travel. You’re less interested in itineraries than you are in cultural immersion.

Pro-Tip: As a Hard Charger seeking flow, you may lose sight of the trade-off between risk and reward. Make sure you always stay on the recoverable end of that equation. Rather than pursuing bigger and faster, try going more in-depth. Slow down. Take time to develop discipline and to understand all your pursuits have to offer. It’s typically a lot more than thrills. Develop skills instead of seeking challenges. If you’re already hucking off 20-foot cliffs on Alpine skis, try a different approach, like telemark skiing. If you’re surfing big waves, try stand up paddleboarding. You might also benefit from mindfulness training.

Check out the website, take the quiz, and see what can help you to best get into a flow-state on a more regular basis.

  1. Do you have a clear objective? [_]

A clear objective is something that you can focus on that is within your control that if you do well will help you to win. In the excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by Timothy Gallwey, he said that tennis only has two requirements for success. The first requirement is to hit each ball over the net and the second is to hit each ball into the court. What are the requirements for success in your sport, or the essential things for you to keep your focus on during a game or performance?

  1. Are you able to observe what is going on so that you change things if they are not going right? [_]

How do you know if things are not working for you while competing? Is it that you are not focused on your objectives or you are easily distracted or irritated by less important things? Is it that you are in your head too much and not in your body or the zone enough? Is it that things don’t feel quite right? Is it that you feel too physically tense or your worries are getting the better of you? Is it that you are making mistakes or losing?

To me, being able to observe well is to first become clear of what my point of focus or objective is going to be during the game, then notice as soon as possible when my focus is no longer on this objective, and then gently bring my attention back to this without getting frustrated with myself for becoming distracted.

  1. Are you able to let go of judgment so that you are in your body and connected with your senses rather than caught up in your head or lost in your thoughts? [_]

Being non-judgmental of your performance and having trust in yourself and your body and your capabilities are some of the keys to staying in the zone or getting back into it during competition.

The more that you are caught up in judgmental thoughts, the more you will worry, the tenser you will become, and the more your performance will suffer. If you notice yourself being judgmental or self-critical, treat these thoughts just like you would any other unhelpful thought – challenge them, or try to let them go.

  1. Can you keep your focus on what’s most important and know how to minimise or block out distractions or worries? [_]

Whenever you find that you are distracted or worrying too much about things during a game, first take one slow, deep breath. Then accept that you have been distracted or worried without judging yourself. Remind yourself that these things are traps and are not helpful, then put all of your focus back onto your clarified objectives from #2 above. Try to be patient and trust that things will be better the more you try to immerse yourself in your movements and the game rather than worrying about what others are doing or saying, including your own mind.

  1. Do you know how to cope with adversity if you are not playing as you hoped or you are losing by more than you expected to be? [_]

When things aren’t going how you have planned, call a time out if possible and re-centre yourself. Select a focal point in the distance below eye level. Form a clear intention of what you aim to do, whether that is stick to the plan or make needed adjustments if the plan isn’t working. Breathe slowly and deeply, and release your muscle tension if you feel tight anywhere. Then find your centre of gravity and ground yourself with where you are and what you are doing. Have a process cue that you can say to yourself in these moments to re-focus on your objectives, and then try to channel all your remaining energy into these objectives and inspired performance.

  1. Do you know how to peak under pressure and still perform at your best when the game is on the line? [_]

Try not to overthink things too much. Although this is easier said than done, remember how much hard work you have put in during practice, and trust that your muscle memory will know what to do in the crucial moments. If you worry that you tense up or worry too much under pressure, remind yourself of times that you performed at your best in the past and visualise how your body was during these times. Try to channel this and see if you can have fun, enjoy the moment, and give 100% to the performance. You won’t regret it if you know that you have applied yourself as much as you could towards the important things that were within your control.

grayscale photo of man at the finish line of a marathon race

After the Competition or Event

  1. Have you spent some time reflecting on how you felt your performance was? [_]

How do you normally feel after an event? Relieved? Disappointed? Happy? Sad? Whatever it is, spend some time just sitting with your feelings about your performance, all the hard work that you put into the lead up to the event, and how you prepared for the event. Do you feel grateful and appreciative of all the hard work you put in, or dissatisfied, knowing that you could have done more or better or pushed yourself harder?

  1. If you performed at your best, do you know what was it that you did that helped you to perform so well? [_]

If you managed to get into a flow state or were in the zone while competing, even if it was only for part of the time, do you know how you did it?  If you smashed your opponent and felt super confident and unbeatable, how did you do it? Do you know how you could replicate these things again next time?

  1. If you did not perform at your best, are you aware of what triggered the poor performance, or what traps you fell into? [_]

Let’s say you under-performed and did much worse than expected. What happened? Was it an issue with your training or your preparation, or was it purely what went wrong during the competition? Do you know how to make sure a similar outcome doesn’t happen again next time?

  1. Are you reflecting on your performance too much? [_]

Reflection doesn’t need to take any longer than 30 minutes, so if you find yourself continuing to stew over what has happened, especially in a self-critical way, you might be ruminating rather than reflecting.

  1. Regardless of how well you performed, have you written down three things that went well, either for you or the team? [_]

Writing this down will help you to remember that it wasn’t all bad and reinforce the positive. Even if you are bitterly disappointed, what did you or other people in your team do that went according to plan or better than expected? If it is what you did, give yourself some acknowledgment or a pat on the back.  Even though it didn’t quite work out how you wanted it to, you still put in so much hard work and effort and deserve some acknowledgment for that. If it’s what your teammates or coaches did, make sure you let them know when it is appropriate.

  1. If you made any mistakes, have you written down up to three things that you could do differently next time to overcome these mistakes and improve your performance next time? [_]

Even if you performed amazingly or won the event, was there anything that you could have done better? What will help you to shave an extra-millisecond off your time, or turn the ball over less, or take higher-percentage shots? Whatever it is, write it down so that you don’t forget what you can do keep improving and growing and getting better over time.

  1. Have you written down anything else that you would like to focus on that is in your control that you think will increase your likelihood of success next time? [_]

Things that you may want to write down include:

  • a different plan for training?
  • a different plan for pre-competition?
  • a different plan for during the next performance?

If you are not sure of what else to write after the 30 minutes of personal reflection, make sure that you also talk to your teammates and coaches about your performance. Others may be able to pick up on different things than you could. Maybe they saw things that you did not. They might also be more objective than you were about your performance too, especially if your emotions were high in the heat of the moment. If someone filmed your performance, watch it back with your teammates or coaches if possible. Ask for feedback, and then write down the essential points that you know you could improve. Only give your teammates honest feedback if they ask for this too. Then come up with a plan with everyone for how you can all address these issues together before the next event.

How many checklist items do you usually do? If it’s not many, are you willing to try and implement a few more of these steps by your next competition? If you do, I’d love to hear about how much it helps. Keep up the great work, and all the best in your athletic endeavours!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

 

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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