We all want to find ways to increase our mental game to compete our best on game day. And while we can’t always control outcomes, we can control how we prepare and what tools we use to get in the right mind space before and during competition. 

Finding that sweet spot requires a performance mindset. 

What is a Performance Mindset?

A performance mindset is a way of seeing performance as a collection of small, controllable steps and skills, and prioritizing those which are necessary to succeed.

Think of a performance mindset like putting gas in your car the night before a long drive.  The task of filling up the tank is essential to having a successful road trip.  Forget to fill it up?  Chances are, your drive won’t be too fun. 

“Great athletes with a strong performance mindset are very intentional and deliberate about what they want to get out of each practice and performance.”  Premier Sport Psychology’s Dr. Justin Anderson says,  “To get an optimal performance mindset, they often use a number of sport psychology tools that athletes to be more proactive and intentional about their practice and performance approaches.”

Those tools are like the gas going into your car.  While a car can’t perform properly without gas, athletes can’t practice and compete at their best without using certain skills, tools, and practices to prepare for competition. 

Those skills require great intention.  Athletes with a strong performance mindset are deliberate, going into practice and competition with realistic process-based goals.  They find meaningful ways to stay in the present moment, rather than falling into the pattern of just going through the motions. 

“Someone with a minimal performance mindset isn’t really thinking about what they want to get out of their practice or game.” Anderson says. “They’re often just showing up and going through the motions.  When this happens, they are leaving their training to chance.  They aren’t being intentional and likely don’t reach their potential or gain the most out of that experience.”

Preparing with Purpose, Collected while Competing

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase ‘games aren’t won the day of.’ And while a strong performance mindset isn’t a direct indicator of outcome, the same concept applies: your best performance comes from taking steps prior to competition. 

Athletes with a strong performance mindset know that it’s important to take care of themselves the day before a big game or match; setting aside time for mental preparation, engaging in honest self-reflection before and after competitions, and setting measurable short-term goals that focus on the process (not the outcome).

Sound obvious? Maybe. Yet through our team’s research, data shows that taking tangible steps like these truly bolsters an athlete’s mindset going into competition. The same can be said for gameday; athletes with a strong performance mindset may take time to themselves to collect their thoughts, use breathing techniques, or meditate before competing.

Tangible practices and routines like the ones mentioned above are critical, yet focus is a grounding staple of a strong performance mindset. 

Not just focus, but having the awareness to focus on what is important in each and every moment.  Premier’s sport psychologists and certified mental performance consultants often teach the acronym W.I.N. for ‘What’s Important Now?’ to help athletes with this before and during competition.

“Let’s say you have an athlete who has a big competition the next day, what’s important now is getting good rest by getting sufficient time in bed, hydrating, maybe doing a little bit of movement prep or visualization.  What’s not important is worrying about the outcome, being fearful about whether or not I can sleep tonight, or simply trying to distract myself all night by staying on social media or video games. Letting the mind wander and just relaxing through breath work or a good book/podcast can be more effective,” Anderson says.

The same can be said for athletes during competition, regardless of whether they’re a key player or a contributor off the bench. 

“If you’re in the middle of a basketball game, what’s important now is often just doing the behaviors that will lead to more success.  For example, it’s getting your back on defense, running your lane on a fast break, or simply keeping your focus on the present moment versus thinking about your stats or what just happened.   Overall, it’s all about what’s important in that present moment,” Anderson says. “If you’re on the bench and not happy about limited playing time, what’s important now might be not reacting to that frustration, but being the best possible teammate on the bench, supporting your friends, and closely observing the game.  Often, this gets players in a much better mindset than being frustrated by an uncontrollable variable like playing time”.

Growing your Performance Mindset 

Preparing for practice and competition by visualizing how to respond to anticipated challenges, creating meaningful goals, and taking time to collect your thoughts are just a few ways to grow your performance mindset. Based on data from Premier’s research and analytics team, here are some more ways that you can elevate your performance mindset.

  • DO set process-based goals instead of outcome-based ones. We cannot always control wins and losses, even if we play extremely well.  We can control how we prepare, how hard we work, how well we focus, and how we respond to adversity. 
  • DON’T visualize perfection. Visualization is a common tool associated with performance mindset that can help athletes find a sense of calmness and focus…and most importantly, to increase their readiness for those moments when adversity occurs.  However, many athletes imagine themselves scoring the winning goal or hitting a grand slam. When those don’t happen athletes can feel discouraged and helpless. It’s okay to come to terms with all possible realistic outcomes…even the bad ones. 
  • DO set short-term goals…and write them down! Individuals with a strong growth mindset set attainable goals that allow them to measure growth and success. Long-term, outcome-based goals can often result in feelings of failure and stagnation. Short-term, process-based goals instill confidence in athletes and open their eyes to things they may not have originally noticed. Writing these goals down creates accountability that can increase goal attainment.
  • DON’T be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone…that’s how growth takes place!  You’ll learn more about yourself as an athlete and person and doing so is oftentimes an achievable goal in itself. 
  • DO use refocusing techniques to help center yourself in moments of distress during competition. Many athletes will do this with breathing exercises or verbal/visual cues to help them rest and be present in the moment. 
  • DO reflect and be honest with yourself. Premier Sport Psychologists recommend using WWW (What went well) and WWI (What’s worth improving) reflection tool for processing past competitions. When doing so, never use outcomes as one of the two; instead, focus on controllable skills and tools that will help you grow moving forward. Here’s an example:
    • WWW: “I did a really good job refocusing and resetting my mind after missing that penalty kick today.”
    • WWI: “I ate a gas station burrito for breakfast instead of something nutritious. I’m going to try and be intentional about what I eat before my next big competition.”

This article is part three of a five-part series from Premier’s Research and Analytics division on unlocking personal performance potential.  Stay tuned for part four.  Read part 1 here.  Read part 2 here.