Contrary to popular belief, genius is not genetic but the result of time and practice. Form a habit and stick with it for 66 days, and it will become part of your nature. Elite athletes are usually the best example of this concept in action. After years of practicing, they have perfected their physical skills. They understand that it is their mental focus and attention that will either lead to victory or loss in the competition.
For those who want to improve their mental focus but aren’t competing for the world championship, the first step is to fuel your brain. The frontal lobe, where discipline and willpower reside, is specifically what you need to target. The frontal lobe is stimulated by sleep, exercise, and meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help people become more disciplined and reduce stress, so here are some athletes who have benefitted from it.
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Anne Abernathy: 6-time Olympian in Luge and Currently Training for the 2016 Olympics in Archery
“In sport it’s important to not only stay relaxed, but also keep your energy at a high level. It can be done by repeating self-affirming messages such as: “I’ve trained hard, I deserve to be here.” At the same time, shrug your shoulders and take a deep breath in through your nose, letting it fill up your belly. Then exhale slowly out of your mouth while focusing on relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles. The rest of your body will follow the lead of your breathing and relax. Do this routine before a physical or mental activity that requires focus, or when you’re preparing to achieve something great.
[Related: Should You Put Sports Experience on Your Resume?]
This last step is the most important part, yet everyone always seems to forget it. “You have to let go. I try and follow the same three steps: 1. Do a self-affirming message, 2. Shrug, take a deep breath, relax shoulders, and 3. Let go.”
Elena Hight: Two-time Olympian and 4-time Winter X Games Medalist in Snowboarding
“Training and competition can be super high stress environments, which is exactly the time when it’s most important to be able to be calm and composed. I’ve found that starting my day off with a meditation and a morning yoga routine always puts me in the best mindset to tackle the day. During events or training sessions that elevate stress, I always take five minutes and sit in nature. If I’m at the top of a halfpipe and the tension is thick or I get nervous, this means stepping into the trees where no one can see me and away from the high energy of the event. There is nothing better than stillness to calm you down.”
Elana Meyers Taylor: Two-time Olympic Medalist in Bobsledding
“Before a competition I need to be calm and relaxed to drive my sled well. What works best for me is praying—nothing is more calming then realizing that the world is bigger than just this race and praying helps me put everything into perspective. Also, constantly reminding myself that I have done everything possible to prepare for that moment gives me the assurance that I can relax and let my hard work shine through to my performance.”
Dawn Riley: America’s Cup and Around the World Sailboat Racer
“Sailing is both physical as well as mental. Stress makes you stupid and you can’t afford that so I have a few things I do and coach. Be prepared—I always have my chap stick, electrical tape, and knife. And if I’m nervous I just touch them in sequence and that’s a signal to myself: ‘I’ve got this. Let’s go.’
I also use a breathing technique a coach taught me when I threw discus in high school. Deep breath, chest out, shoulders back, hold it; exhale keeping chest and shoulders puffed out; relax all. Do that a few times before a regatta or a speech and it helps a lot.”
Thank you, Yolanda Jackson and Marketing Female Athletes, for your help in gathering athlete stories.
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