As with anything in life, in order to work out where an athlete wants to go, it’s important to first understand where the athlete currently is. In high performance sport environments, coaches do this through benchmarking athletes using a number of testing protocols.
However, if as an athlete, you aren’t currently on a performance pathway, you can benchmark yourself by increasing your self-awareness over five key areas – technical skill, tactical awareness, athletic capability, mental toughness, and lifestyle habits.
Technical Skill: Conduct an honest self-evaluation of where you feel your level of technical skills are, and then seek evaluation from others, such as teammates, coaches, and other specialists that you have access to.
Tactical Awareness: Determine how much time and effort you devote to the tactical side of your sport, and assess whether you need to do anymore to improve your game.
Athletic Capability: Think about which specific physical aspects are essential for performing well in your sport, such as power, speed, strength, agility, mobility, etc. Once you’ve identified these areas, try and get some objective feedback from your support network on your levels of athleticism.
Mental Toughness: Assess how strong your mental and emotional skills are. Areas to explore include your resilience, coachability, focus, emotional control, persistence, attitude, pressure management and so on.
Lifestyle Habits: No matter how strong you are in the other four areas, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to maximise your potential if you have a poor set of lifestyle habits. Therefore, evaluate daily routines such as your nutrition intake, sleeping patterns, rest and recovery levels, etc.
Increasing your self-awareness over these five areas will help you to identify what your strengths are, and also what you need to improve.
Understand your motivation
Although there is some value in extrinsic motivation (i.e. behaviour that is driven by external rewards such as praise, money, fame, and so on), this won’t be enough to drive you through all the tough times that you’ll face in competition. To get through the challenging times, you’ll need to understand your intrinsic motivators.
To help understand this, figure out why you play your sport. Is it because you relish the thrill of competition? Perhaps you want to prove some people wrong? Maybe you love the culture and environment of your sport. Whatever the reason, or reasons, it’s important that you’re able to identify a source of inspiration which you can tap into during difficult times.
Set inspirational goals
All too often, people don’t allow themselves to dream about the things they really want, but dreaming big is an essential element of significant growth.
Therefore, remember the phrase BHAG, which stands for…
Big Hairy Audacious Goals
Set yourself goals that inspire you to continually seek improvement on a regular, if not daily, basis. Goals, particularly those of an inspirational nature, are essential for maintaining motivation, which tends to fluctuate over the course of a season. They also keep you accountable, propelling you in the right direction.
Make your goals specific, challenging, and realistic, whilst also taking the time to evaluate them regularly, so here’s one last acronym to remember….
Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant Time bound
And to keep them at the forefront of your mind, place written reminders of your goals in numerous places where you’ll see them often, such as on your locker door, in your bag, on the bathroom mirror etc.
Devise a plan
To turn your goals from dreams into accomplishments, it’s essential that you devise an effective plan, which should be based around the five areas which you have already evaluated, such as your technical skills, tactical awareness etc.
It’s also key to regularly assess and amend your plan from time to time. As the boxer, Mike Tyson, once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face!” Situations change, and so should your plan.
Be patient & stay dedicated
Success in any endeavour takes time and effort, and this is particularly true in sport.
Improvement is not a linear process, and you may go months without seeing a reward for your efforts, but then experience a flurry of positive results – either way, stick with your good daily habits and improvement will come.
By aiming to get a little better every day, over time there will be a dramatic improvement. Remember, the most successful athletes have worked at their craft for decades, taking small, daily steps towards reaching their long-term goals.
Train at the mind gym
Most athletes, and coaches, neglect mind training, often because they’re unsure of how to do it.
Yet it is such a crucial aspect of sport because every physical action is preceded by a conscious, or sub-conscious thought, which in turn produces a corresponding emotion. If you don’t have reasonable control of your emotions, then it doesn’t matter how physically strong, tactically aware, or technically skilled you are, because your mind (and subsequently your body) will be highjacked when pressure is experienced.
Training the mind gives you the ability to understand these thought processes, giving you a high degree of emotional control. Think of your mind as a muscle, and just like every other muscle in the body, the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
Keeping a performance journal is a simple, yet highly effective way of training your mind, as it generates self-awareness. Taking the time and effort to write down your practice and match reflections is a quick and easy way to work on your mental training.
If there’s mental commitment, learning will occur – you can train your mind simply by giving some attention to what you want to improve.
Turn strong skills into super skills
Turning your strong skills into super skills will give you an important competitive advantage.
Of course, it’s still imperative that you develop your weaker areas sufficiently enough so that your opponent can’t easily expose you, but most of your attention and focus should be on improving your strengths.
Therefore, don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to develop your weaknesses into strengths, as this will sap considerably more effort when compared to building up your existing strong points.
Seek performance gains
The best athletes in the world seek every opportunity to get better, some going to extraordinary lengths to get the smallest of benefits. Think of the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’, the term coined by Sir Dave Brailsford, when he appointed a team of scientists to find a myriad of 1% performance improvements within the GB cycling team training and competition environments.
Successful athletes are the ones who are always seeking to learn, grow, and improve by any possible (and legal) method.
Just be mindful, however, that benefit from seeking small performance gains only occurs if your foundations are sound. In other words, make sure that you are strong in the fundamental requirements of your sport first.
Develop your athleticism
If you want to be a great competitor, turn yourself into a great athlete.
Through benchmarking, you will have identified the physical components which are essential for succeeding in your sport – it’s now important to raise these to the required standard.
But it’s not enough to start the season in great shape, as the athletic capabilities of many sportspeople actually lower throughout the season.
Therefore, work hard on at least maintaining your fitness levels in-season, so that you’re not starting all over when pre-season comes around again.
Your aim should be to become more athletic year on year, as opposed to entering into a repetitive cycle of increasing your fitness levels during pre-season, followed by them decreasing over the course of a season.
One of the most significant factors for maximising your potential is being able to perform when it counts.
Many athletes execute their skills to a very high standard in practice, yet fail to replicate this level of excellence during matches or in high pressure situations.
Remember, if you practice under pressure, you’ll increase your chances of performing under pressure, but most training sessions don’t test players sufficiently.
So in practice, test yourself against the best players you can, putting yourself into a position where your performance matters, and that has real consequences.
The more opportunities you can find to practice under pressure, even in non-athletic arenas, the better you’ll perform in competitive sporting situations.
Would you like to support my writing? Click here to find out more