Rick Scarpulla: Strengthen Your Mental Game

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by RICK SCARPULLA

Rick Scarpulla: Strengthen Your Mental Game
Many athletes suffer from mental anxiety. That is, when your event or lift is very heavy or extra hard, many athletes start to doubt themselves. Some may look at their opponent and feel that s/he looks much bigger or in much better shape compared to them. These types of mental weakness are common among less experienced athletes; on the other hand, they are also very curable if you utilize the proper methods.

The True King of Strengths

The two things that visiting coaches and athletes who come to my facility comment on the most are the mental approach and the mental strength of each athlete. I have always said and strongly believe that absolute strength is the king of all strengths. However, I also feel that mental strength stands along side absolute strength and maybe even a step ahead, so I will restate my stance:

The king of all measurable strengths is absolute strength, but overall the true king of strengths is mental strength.

I have the privilege to work with some top level athletes, from strength and CrossFit athletes to those playing many different sports, some of whom are at the very top of their respective sport. The main trait they all share, regardless of sport, is the ability to control their emotion and thought process better than athletes of lesser success.

In my facility, mental strength is constantly worked on for good reason. Why? Because mental strength — although not a tangible or measurable strength — is a strength all the same; thus it must be approached and trained the same as any other strength. There is a powerful relationship between your mental preparation and your physical performance in sports. The development of a wide range of mental strengths, such as positive self perception and the use of mental imagery/visualization, can strongly support your athletic performance. Sports psychologists worldwide support and recommend these types of mental training techniques.

Mental training techniques are recommended

“Constantly varied”: The ability to be mentally in control of a situation where you are taxed in a maximum strength fashion is very different than one where you are in a state of exhaustion from an aerobic-based task.
Sport psychologists also agree that the same is true on the other end of the spectrum: negative thoughts and self-doubt can detract from any athlete’s performance. Another problem for athletes (many CrossFitters are guilty of this one) is over-analyzing. Over analyzing a task will detract from the athlete’s ability to react instinctively as well. When I work with younger athletes, for example, they just go for it; they don’t over analyze anything. It is the adult athlete who has to analyze everything and at times over think the whole situation.

The “constantly varied” nature of CrossFit requires many types of mental strength preparation. The ability to be mentally in control of a situation where you are taxed in a maximum strength fashion is very different than one where you are in a state of exhaustion from an aerobic-based task. You must be in control of situations where you are trying to conquer new and unknown tasks, along with the previous mentioned requirements. But if you feel as if you can’t do “it” — the lift, the WOD, the sprint, etc. — at the start, then there is a good chance you will not be able to do it.

By the same token, if you know you have it, then you have a far better chance of being successful. The ability to consistently control your thought process and remain focused on the task while continuing to push harder in that realm is a learned skill that takes constant and targeted training — another trait shared by the top athletes. Elite athletes have a higher mental threshold than most, and a key to this is emotion control.

Building Up Your Mental Game

Put yourself in difficult situations
The training of the mental strengths is done through successful repetition and continued application. In fact, we even use a conjugate approach to that as well, by putting ourselves in positions or situations that require different kinds of application of mental strength.

Ignore the “switch”: The distraction of the burn or fatigue is not signaling the end; rather, it is merely the body’s way of telling you that you are nearing the end. The ability to…override your body’s “safety first” signals requires mental strength.
One of the ways our athletes approach that training here at Ultimate Advantage is by understanding the process of building the mental game. We understand that part of the mind will want to stop long before the body will be at its threshold. Like the old expression says, your mind can play tricks on you. For example, in the middle of a Fran, you may get that “I can’t go on” feeling. The distraction of the burn or fatigue is not signaling the end; rather, it is merely the body’s way of telling you that you are nearing the end. The ability to control those situations and override your body’s “safety first” signals requires mental strength.

These are the same kinds of skills learned and used by Special Forces and elite task forces, but on a much less stressful scale. Theirs may be a life and death situation, while we are only referring to sport. Yet as most of us know from experience, athletes can encounter many intense moments during the heat of competition.

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