Playing Your Best – It’s All in the Mind  

You can practice your sport all day every day, you can get the finest coaching, you can use the latest equipment, you can even have a talent – an exceptional talent – for your sport but whatever you do, whatever you have, it won’t guarantee that on a particular day you will play well.

It’s the Holy Grail of sport – to be totally confident that when you begin to play you will be playing to your best. If only it were possible to know that you’ll be on top of your game. The flick of a switch and there you have it – another scintillating sporting performance. Instead, too many sports men and women at all levels regularly face the “Performance Puzzle”, that unknown aspect of the game – How well will they be playing today?

It can be incredibly variable. One day you can give a top class performance, another day, for no apparent reason, you can be struggling. Sporting performance can be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, peaks and troughs.

Yet there is a switch that will help you, a means by which you can maximise the quality of your performance, getting the best out of your game. It’s an aspect of sport and coaching that is mistakenly neglected by many but its significance cannot be over-emphasised.

It is only though proper mental preparation that you can guarantee playing consistently to your highest level. The aim of mental preparation being to get you into a peak state so that you can eliminate the poor performances from your game.

Mental preparation does not improve you as a player – that’s achieved through practice and coaching – but it gets the most out of you as a player. It gets you playing to your full ability. In a motor race a Renault Clio will never beat a Porsche, but if driven well and in the right conditions it may beat most cars with a similar specification to itself and even some that might be supposedly better. It’s the quality of the driver that determines how well the car performs; it’s the state of your mind that determines how well you play.

All sport is a mind game. The way you think affects the way you play which inevitably affects the results you get. So, by thinking better it will help you to play better and should lead to better results.

Mental preparation won’t guarantee you’ll win. There can be no promises there. It only seeks to get you to play to your best. In so doing, the results will improve because you will make fewer mistakes, you will be more focused, you will be more consistent, and you will have more confidence.

Sun Tze, a Chinese general said, “A great warrior wins the battle even before confronting the enemy.” Sport is a battle; each contest needs to be properly prepared for and the majority of that preparation needs to take place within you. Both body and mind need to be in the right place in order to give yourself the optimum chance of delivering a good performance and thereby, hopefully, winning the battle.

Sports men and women prepare for competition in various ways. Some do very little preparation, they arrive in a rush – even to the point of getting changed on the move; others like to relax, thinking of anything but the impending competition. Then there are those that attach great importance to physically warming up, stretching their muscles in a precise well-rehearsed routine. This may help them in the prevention of possible injury but, what many fail to realise is that the mind needs as much – if not more – warming up. Stretching the body will get you through your game; focusing the mind will get you on top of your game.

There are three elements to effective mental preparation:

Tactical Planning.

This should be considered at the earliest stage of your preparations. How are you going to play your game? Does your opponent have any weaknesses? How are you going to take advantage of those weaknesses? Under what conditions will the match be taking place? Will the weather have an effect? Will there be a crowd? Will the crowd be supporting you? What will the playing surface be like? Will that affect your game?

All of these factors will help you to determine the type of game you need to play and the specific tactics you will need to employ. Getting it right is dependent on your knowledge and understanding of your sport along with a recognition of your strengths and weaknesses. This is where a coach can prove invaluable, not only for their experience of the sport but also for their ability to impartially analyse your game.

Tactical planning is the least significant of the three elements of mental preparation but it is important in ensuring that you give yourself the best possible chance of playing well. There’s no point playing the wrong tactics brilliantly. It just won’t do you any good. However well you play, if you play the game tactically flawed you will always be struggling. You must have the right game plan. The tactics need to be right. They are the means to maximising the effectiveness of your play.

Once you have your tactical plan you should then shift the basis of your thinking firmly on to yourself and the way you are going to play. This leads on to the second element of mental preparation.

Positive Mental Attitude.

Before a competition you must feel good about yourself and your game. Success is much more attainable if you have self-belief. You must therefore think positively. This will then feed through into your behaviour. If you feel like you’re on top of the world then you’ll behave like you’re on top of the world. A positive attitude will get positive results. It will make things happen. Negative thoughts will only produce negative results.

Quite simply, if you continually focus on mistakes, failures, disappointments and defeat then that is what you will continue to deliver. Those outcomes loom large in your mind and somehow you are just drawn towards them, like a golfer hitting the ball into the water – a massive fairway to hit yet, for some reason, the ball always seem to be heading towards the pond.

Think good thoughts and good things will happen.

There are ten steps to help you achieve a Positive Mental Attitude:

1. Build motivation. If you’re playing a game just because it’s another game that has to be played then there’s no real motivation, no desire. There’s no reason for you to play to your best. The game’s of no significance. You’re going through the motions.

You will relax, switch off from that high tempo competitiveness that all sports people need. This can prove very dangerous. Instead, you should be striving to play to your best in every game that you play. Otherwise, you’re giving yourself an excuse for poor performance, “I was just having a bit of an off-day.”

Playing without desire or motivation is a recipe for a languid, half-baked, second-rate performance. If, on the other hand, there’s some reason why you want to play well then it will help to get the best out of you. The desire to achieve something can be a powerful driving force. By giving yourself a goal or target you’ll become much more motivated.

You should therefore set yourself goals that you want to achieve. You can then reward yourself when you accomplish one of these goals. It is by further magnifying the pleasure or reward you receive from something that it will make you try harder.

  • Imagine your son’s face when you take that enormous trophy home and tell him you won it.
  • Promise to treat yourself, but only if you win.
  • Set yourself a personal challenge, “I am going to win this game to four points.”

Desire gives motivation, motivation gives drive.

Similarly, for some people, in some circumstances, the pain of losing, if magnified can be equally effective at producing a positive performance.

2. Affirmation techniques. Talk to yourself, tell yourself how good you are, how well you’re playing, how good your preparation has been, how fit you’re feeling. It all helps to build a positive image of yourself. The better you feel, the better you’ll play.

Try to use key phrases that will inspire you:

“I’m a gazelle; I’m ready to excel.”

“I’m so tall I can always reach the ball.”

“I’m fast and I’m getting faster.”

“I can play every shot in the book.”

Make up your own slogans, slogans that suit you and your game. As you say them it will help if you can visualise yourself as an image doing exactly what the phrase suggests you are doing.

Ask yourself why are you going to win? Tell yourself that you’re fast, that you’re skilful, that you’re fit, that you have the experience. Tell yourself that you really want to win, tell yourself that winning is really important to you.

In so doing, whether it be talking yourself up or giving yourself that extra drive, you should not compare yourself with the competition. The competition is an irrelevance. This process is about you and building yourself up. It’s about getting the most out of you.

3. Replay past successes. Nothing builds confidence likes success. Re-live those satisfying victories, those games when you felt that you played beyond yourself. This will help to build a positive, achieving attitude.

“That’s what I can do. That’s what I am going to do again.”

It will make you feel good.

If you’ve won one competition, if you’ve beaten one close rival, then you know you can do it, you know you can do it again. There is no fear, just self-belief. It’s why good players, good teams win so many of their games. They know how good they are; they know they have the ability to win games that look lost.

Of course, never let such successes lead to complacency. Never assume victory. Never believe that you have the right to win.

4. Positive visualisation. See yourself achieving the goals that you have set yourself. Not as a dream, but as something that you are working towards, as something that’s going to happen. If you see yourself winning picture it – taking the congratulations, lifting the trophy, recording the score – it doesn’t feel so distant. By making it believable it becomes achievable.

5. Use positive language. This is one of those skills that can only be achieved through practice. It needs to become a matter of habit, a way of thinking. Instead of using words like; I can’t…. I’m not…. I won’t…. you should only use positive expressions, I can… I will… I am…

By using positive language you are telling yourself that you’re in control, that nothing is beyond you. You become an achiever, the sort of person who makes things happen, who gets results.

Positive language comes from positive thinking. There’s always a positive side to something – even if it is only as a “learning experience” – and that’s what you have to look for. Successful people tend to have an optimistic, bottle half-full mentality, always being able to find the good, positive side of something. It’s undoubtedly one of the reasons why they are successful.

Even if it is seemingly something negative you must endeavour to put a positive spin on it. Consider the following two phrases and the mental attitude of the person who says them.

“I haven’t played for a week so I might struggle a bit for fitness.”

“I’ve rested for a week so I’m raring to go.”

Which of the two do you think will have the better game?

6. Overcome the power of the sub-conscious. The sub-conscious can be a debilitating, mischievous voice in the background of your mind. It will try to tell you things that you don’t want to hear. You need to blank out any negative ideas. It is very important that you are in control and not your thoughts.

The classic example of the sub-conscious at work is when you start thinking of reasons why you are going to under-perform in a forthcoming game. In so doing, you are setting yourself up to fail. Don’t let your mind prepare excuses.

“I played last night.”

“I’m recovering from injury.”

“I’m trying out some new shoes.”

Such thoughts with their negative connotations become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to failure and disappointment. They should be revitalised into something positive, something energising, something beneficial.

“Playing two nights on the run is doing wonders for my fitness.”

“I’ve missed playing over the last couple of weeks. I’m so looking forward to a good game.”

“These new shoes should put an extra spring into my step.”

The sub-conscious is always looking for a seed of doubt, for some weakness, for some excuse to poor performance. You must not let it get a hold of anything. You must control it and not let it control you.

The suggestibility of the mind must be harnessed, to be used in a positive manner, as a force for good. The mind is a fertile province that needs to be carefully managed. If you don’t plant flowers you’ll end up with weeds!

7. Focus on your strengths and not your opponents weaknesses. Positive Mental Attitude is about building yourself up rather than doing your opponent down. For instant, towards the end of a long tough game don’t think in terms of your opponent tiring, but marvel at your own fitness and how well and how fast you’re moving.

Sometimes, in a close game, it can be so tempting to hope that the winning point comes from your opponent making a mistake. This is too negative. You are relinquishing control of the game. You have to have more self-belief, more faith in your ability to control the destiny of the game. You have to be more positive. Tell yourself, you will win because of your own strength, your own abilities, your own fitness.

8. Don’t focus on individual results or outcomes. You can’t control them. You should try and forget about what has happened in the past. Things will have changed; results will not necessarily be the same. By analysing results; A beat B, C beat A therefore C should beat B, you are making invalid assumptions. It doesn’t work like that. It gives a false understanding and confidence.

You must focus only on what you can control. It is the surest way to your own empowerment.

9. Think in terms of possibilities. Sport should be about what you can do; not what you can’t do. Do not think in terms of limitations.

“I’m not fit enough to play that often.”

“I don’t have the physical strength to play to that standard.”

“I don’t play enough to get beyond this level.”

These are self-imposed limitations. Remember: nothing is impossible; you just can’t do it yet. You must endeavour to aspire to bigger and better things. Think about it, given the chance, what can you do? You can do anything. You just have to go and make it happen. It is only through challenging the possibilities that new achievements can be made. Would we have ever landed on the moon if we had not believed in its achievement?

It’s a powerful equation:

Limitless Possibilities + Self-belief = Progress and Achievement

Of course, we have to be a bit realistic, you may need a couple of other additions to the equation such as perseverance, talent, single-mindedness and there’s usually some luck involved, but the fact that nothing is believed to be impossible gives the drive and direction.

Always remember, as the quote says; it is far better to have tried and failed then never to have tried.

10. Positive body language. The relationship between the mind and the body is a two-way process. They feed off each other. A confident state of mind can be apparent from a person’s body language but also a strong physiology can impact on the mind, making it believe in itself. So, even if you have to act it, make an effort to behave in a confident manner; stand tall, shake hands firmly, look like you’re ready to do the business and never let your head go down.


All serious sports men and women Pre-play. It’s a technique which uses the power of the mind to affect the body’s performance. Just as the mere thought of an ice cold drink on a sweltering hot day will make your mouth water, visualising yourself playing well before a game will help you to play well during the game.

The mind does not command the body to behave in a certain way. It is far more subtle than this. The mind creates an image of what it wants. The image is so clear and natural that it feels right and the body behaves accordingly.

There are two stages to Pre-play. The first is to empty your mind. There should be no distractions. You need to be entirely focused. This may be achieved in a variety of ways depending on what suits you as an individual. It may be done through meditation, breathing exercises or by using your own personal triggers – it might be an inspiring piece of music or a certain physical action such as clasping your hands together. Quite often you will see sports men and women wearing headphones and listening to something before they compete or rugby players going through their established routines before attempting a penalty kick.

Once the mind is cleared, like a blank page, it is ready for the visualisation process. This is when you see yourself playing your sport as you want to play it, getting the results you want to achieve.

You must firstly create an image in your head of yourself playing well. That picture needs to be as vivid as possible, engaging all your senses. See yourself in colour, wearing the clothes you will be wearing during the game, feel the ease and regularity of your breathing, hear the crispness of the timing as you strike the ball. The more senses you can engage, the sharper the picture, the more effective will be the visualisation.

You must also see it as if it is happening now, in the present tense; I am… the ball is…. I feel…. You should not be using commanding phrases like I will or I am going to. Pre-play is about making something happen now, even though you are not yet actually doing that something. So, when you do come to do it, you’re already there. It’s already happening. The body knows what it is going to deliver.

The visualisation should not feature your opponent. Pre-play is about you and your performance.

The other, second important element of the visualisation process is that you should not be specifically thinking about what you are doing but only thinking in terms of the outcomes you are achieving. It’s not about what you do but about the results you achieve.

Where does the ball end up? How accurate has my performance been?

The golfer, about to tee off, does not just think about how he is holding the club or how he is hitting the ball, but he visualises where the ball is going to go. He will see himself play the shot, he will see the club strike the ball sweetly, but he also sees the ball fly through the air and he sees the ball land where he wants it to land.

The football striker, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, will have prepared for this by pre-playing the scene, by visualising himself kicking the ball, by visualising the ball going into the back of an empty net.

The tennis player pre-plays by seeing himself hit the ball and by seeing the ball fly fast and low over the net landing on or just inside the baseline.

Somehow, by some psychological process, by telling yourself what the ball does your body seems to be able to set itself up to achieve just that. It’s like when you tell yourself that you’re going to wake up at a certain time and then, amazingly enough, you find that’s what time you do actually wake up at.

The mind has an energy and force that must be used to your advantage.

These three elements of mental preparation – Tactical Planning, a Positive Mental Attitude, and Pre-play – will help to ensure you achieve your maximum potential. Given your physical condition and your level of skill you will play to your best. And in many respects, that is all you really ask of yourself.

Such a strong mental focus has to be maintained. As well as using these techniques before a game they should also be used during a game. You should always be prepared to reassess your tactics and throughout the game, particularly during breaks in play, you should be thinking positively and pre-playing. Do not, under any circumstances, let those sub-conscious negatives creep into your mind or start thinking in terms of the detail of your game. Instead, always stay positive and always focus on outcomes.

Of course, these techniques need to be practised and they do need to be tailored to you as an individual. But in so doing, they will without doubt improve the quality of your overall game. It is through effective mental preparation that you will be able to avoid the inconsistencies of the “Performance Puzzle” and, in so doing, you can be confident that you will be playing to your best.

© Copyright Steve Oxley, 2018