Facing a fierce competitor can be very anxiety producing. Often times, sports based movie plots put the protagonist in a position wherein he or she is challenged, trains and ultimately has to confront the most formidable opponent – the Champ. For Rocky it was first Apollo. The object lesson of the story in Rocky was persistence and even to tie the champion is itself a victory. But what is salient through Rocky and the identity of his true foe in his journey was his psychological challenges. Through many distractions, culturally embedded habits, and other self-undermining challenges, Mickey his manager pushes Rocky to decide just how badly he wants it. Just how badly does Rocky want to be a champion and is he willing to place it at the top of his life’s priorities. Even the result of the final bout at the end, which is a draw, inspires us all to see how one only loses if and when he or she surrenders. Was Rocky saved by the bell or simply ran out of time to come back and beat Apollo?
Your fiercest competitor is you. Your insecurities, distractions, fear of failure, lack of planning, and overall viewpoint locked in the false dichotomy of all or nothing, winners and losers, and successes and failures. A true athlete is an ongoing failing-success. If one does not push hard enough to fail, he or she does not ever know his or her limitations. Knowing your limitations helps you to stretch your capacities and abilities further and further incrementally. You also need to always know your opponent. So if you don’t become well-acquainted with how you think, your habits, and what you do to serve yourself, you cannot overcome your fiercest competitor.
Sport and performance psychology is not a set of mental tricks that one plays on himself or herself. It is not a “treatment strategy” that a sport psychologist performs to fix what is wrong. Rather, it is a way of exploring who and how you are as an athlete or performing artist. While so many athletes and performers share similarities in personality, values, practices and processes, there are individual differences that work for some and not for others. It does not matter what level of athlete or performer one is, the ultimate competition is to beat oneself and one’s best past performance. It is great to win first in a competition, but winning a competition while having not played your best game is still a failing-success from which to learn. On the other hand, not placing when having done one’s best is a great successful-failure from which to get a better handle on where one is headed in the competitive world. Losing to a more skilled team or person is not a dishonor, but a point of departure toward a new level of competition. It provides a new horizon to reach and toward which to orient one’s practice and training regimen. It also enables one to provide proper self-care in the recovery periods between trainings and competitions. Recovery is every bit as important to development as one’s engagement in tough training sessions.
Athletes and performers have the faculty of choice, but it must be actualized through choices. These choices are implemented in their practice and training strategies. One has to be willing to work on weaknesses in skill, speed and endurance. Typically, weaknesses are those areas of our work that we simply don’t enjoy. We don’t feel “the flow” when operating in our weaker areas. This is true for sport psychology. When one has trouble with focus, it is often focusing exercises and practice that the athlete becomes bored or distracted from most easily. Persistence and endurance can likewise be the weakness because the athlete quits early in practice or surrenders to pain too soon. Overtraining on the other hand, can be the opposite weakness. Pushing past one’s capacity too frequently can lead to physical injury or psychological burnout and apathy. Extremes are the all or nothing thinking that when one cannot win, he or she becomes the loser. Nobody wants to be a loser, so it is easier to self-distract or allow others to pull us away from working on the stuff we really struggle with as weaknesses. The latter makes it easier to blame others for the training we didn’t get done. We are biased toward blaming our failures on circumstances and using other “important chores and tasks” as excuses to procrastinate our training.
Sport and performance psychology is a practice and it must be practiced along with your training. What makes one mentally stronger and understand himself or herself better is to implement mental skills during training and exercise. Like any physical skill or ability, it won’t be available to you in your competition, if you don’t practice it in training. Ultimately, your fiercest competitor shows up to confront you at every practice and training – you.