Author: Kaity Weimerskirch

Where an athlete places their attention is the number one determinant of whether they will find success or not. Because focus is critical to peak performance, it’s important to identify helpful and unhelpful focal points. Being aware of what you are focusing on and how it affects you before, during, and after competitions is essential for maximizing performance. Having productive focal points, or where we place our focus, is a game-changer both in and out of competition. The first step is identifying productive vs. unproductive focal points. 

Some examples of productive focal points could be encouraging language, your strengths, the game plan, and what is happening in the present moment. These could also be things more specific or personal to you, like a certain skill/technique or mental cues.

Unproductive focal points are typically things outside of your control, not happening in the present or negative thoughts that will lead to a decrease in performance. These could be things such as past mistakes, the outcome of a past, current, or future competition, the ref/fans, or negative thoughts about your ability.

What you focus on during competition is especially important. These things can be both mental and physical. Physical focal points are usually a specific spot you aim for like a basketball hoop, area of a soccer goal or finish line. Mental focal points are things such as giving maximum effort, positive self-talk and strategy.  

A great example of how a physical focal point can affect performance is the yardstick activity, which can be seen below. Start by trying to balance a yardstick on one finger, only focusing on where the yardstick touches your finger. Most people find it extremely hard to execute this. The second time, switch your focus from the bottom of the yardstick, to the very top. Most people find much more success because their focus was on a more beneficial spot than the previous try. The exercise demonstrates the impact that both physical and mental focal points can have in competition. 

Identifying and executing on productive focal points looks different for everyone and it’s critical to find what works for you. Recall past performances and key in on what has worked well for you and what hasn’t. Once you have identified what those focal points are, hone in on them in future competitions.

All performers have the goal of reaching their potential and performing to the best of their abilities. A lot of time and effort is spent learning the physical techniques and skills that are required for sport. While the physical part of sport is highly important, peak performance can’t take place without a strong mental base. 

Just as physical and mental performance go hand-in-hand, so do mental performance and mental health. One in four people struggle with their mental health; four out of four people have mental health. Having strong mental wellness is required to reach peak performance on the playing field. Our team at Premier Sport Psychology often explains this relationship to athletes by using the wellness continuum.

The Wellness Continuum- What is it?
There are two ends of the spectrum on the Wellness Continuum; on the left is performance restoration, which refers to mental health struggles or concerns. On the right is performance optimization, which is your athletic performance. To achieve performance optimization you must capitalize on your performance restoration. Mental health is the base that is needed to move further right on the continuum. In other words, developing a strong foundation in mental restoration opens the door for strong mental performance. 

Let’s break it down…

Performance Restoration
The far left side of the wellness continuum deals with mental health concerns. Regardless of whether you have a mental health diagnosis, all athletes and humans experience times where their mental health is not as strong as they’d like it to be. Things that cause your mental health to suffer such as burnout, anxiety, depression, or injury recovery all fall on this side of the continuum.

“If our mindset is in the restoration phase, there is likely something we need to address first before moving into mental performance skills,” Premier’s Dr. Adam Gallenberg says. “These could be things like chronic stress and underlying anxiety.”

Gallenberg likens the scenario to how an athlete would treat recovery from an injury. 

“It is comparable to an injury. Before we can work on mental performance skills like focus or imagery, the injury needs to be addressed first. Like an injury, we locate and address what the cause is.” 

“Even if you are physically healthy, stressors that don’t get addressed and keep piling on can cause a person to be mentally exhausted,” Gallenberg says. “This does not allow our body to perform the way it can.”

All humans have days and periods of time where their mental health isn’t as strong as they’d like it to be. On both good days and bad, proactive mental health care is essential to maximizing performance restoration.” One of the most important proactive mental health care practices is identifying your support system.. If you notice that your mental health is beginning to decline, reaching out for help can get you back to a good spot. Typical treatment for this stage can include counseling or mental health interventions to not only address symptoms, but identify where they are stemming from.

Normal/Average Life Functioning
The middle of the continuum deals with day-to-day issues or tasks that are present. This section includes things such as relationships, friend or family issues/drama, and life transitions.

“Awareness is a key skill across the continuum,” Gallenberg says. “It is especially important when it comes to average life functioning because we can track our internal and external experiences day to day.”

Being aware of what you are experiencing internally and comparing it to what is happening externally is a good way to ground yourself. If you are feeling anxious or frustrated, think about what is happening externally that may be causing you to feel that way. This allows us to reflect on our emotions and reframe our mindset.

Through the ups and downs of average life functioning, it is essential to prioritize proactive healthcare. There are many different ways to maintain your mental wellness. Getting restful sleep, drinking enough water, moving your body, meditating, journaling and practicing gratitude are all great ways to maintain wellness. Doing these things, as well as other activities or things that you enjoy are essential even when your mental health is in a good place. 

Your mental health journey is something that should always be a priority because it is a lifelong journey. Once this stage of the continuum is in a good spot, then you have a good base to help reach performance optimization.

Performance Optimization
The far right side of the continuum  consists of mental performance strategies and techniques, which inspire peak performance….something all athletes strive for.

“There is a way I can better my best.”
“Top athletes know there is always room to refine or optimize where their peak is,” Gallenberg says. “Athletes who have the desire and the awareness that there is always something that can be done are the ones who continue to grow their mindset.”

Athletes who excel at this space in the continuum have developed a strong base in mental wellness, and can begin to hone in on mental performance tools like focus, imagery, and breathing techniques. These tools combined with strong mental wellness lead to peak performance.

Bottom line, athlete or not, we’re all performers. We are all striving to be our best at something. Whether that is your sport, relationships, jobs, self-improvement, etc. we can all grow.

“Every second of every day you will fall somewhere along the wellness continuum because we all have mental health,” Gallenberg says. “The goal of the continuum is to help individuals gauge where they are at currently.”

Everyone’s mental health journey looks different. It is important to understand that everyone has mental health regardless of what point of their journey they are at. That journey of mental health fluctuates throughout the course of your life. The stressors of everyday life can seem unbearable at times, especially with the mental health crisis at an all time high post-COVID. Taking action to maintain your well-being is essential and the best way to do it is through proactive mental health care. 

Here are a few tips to help be proactive with your mental health:

Identify & Acknowledge Your Feelings
The first step to be proactive with your mental health is having self-awareness. Being able to identify how you are feeling and validating your experience allows you to take steps to improve. 

Regardless of whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not, all humans experience times when they notice that their mental wellbeing is being pushed. Think of this as your ‘warning track.’

Warning tracks don’t just exist on the baseball or softball diamond; they’re a part of every athletes’ mental experience and having the awareness to know when you’ve hit the warning track and how to respond is key to strong mental wellness.

“Knowing your warning track is important for us to become self aware of the behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes we have when our mental health is struggling,” Premier’s McKenzie Bromback says. “By knowing these symptoms and being able to recognize when they are beginning to show up, we are better able to actively manage them.” 

Think about what behaviors, thoughts, and feelings you experience when you’re hitting your warning track.

Move Your Body
Research shows that physical activity and exercise help reduce anxiety and improve your mood. This doesn’t mean you have to do long strenuous physical activity to experience the mental benefits. There are so many ways to stay active. You could get some friends together and play your favorite sport, go for a swim, or a short hike.You can also do small things like taking your dog for a walk, or stretching first thing when you wake up in the morning to boost your mood and make your body feel good! 

Regardless of how you do it, be intentional about your physical activity. Set a schedule at the beginning of the week that allocates time toward doing something physical that you enjoy.

Reflection is a key component of strong mental wellness and one that instills growth; journaling is one of the best ways to get the ball rolling.

Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start when journaling. It is important to find what works for you and be consistent with it. Whether that is a “dear diary” entry, bullet journal, single word, free written, prompted, or even a doodle, it is beneficial to have an outlet for your emotions. Find what allows you to express yourself and run with it.

If you are struggling to start, use the prompts “What Went Well (WWW) and What’s Worth Improving.(WWI)” Write three things that happened throughout that day or week that went well for you and made you happy. Then, write what you think you could have done better that would increase your well-being. These could be things like going to sleep at the same time every night or talking to yourself in a more positive way, etc.

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to journal. Simply being intentional about the act of it is a step in the right direction and will open the door to a positive lifelong habit.

Practicing Gratitude
Something like…In a fast-paced and stressful world, getting wound up in negativity can be a harsh yet realistic reality for many. Insert gratitude.

“Practicing gratitude helps improve mood, relationships, and increases optimism.,” Premier’s Nate Penz says. 

There are so many benefits to identifying things that you are grateful for. Gratitude is a great way to start your day. Think of a few things that you are grateful for and write them down in a personal journal. This could be anything from good health, the weather, your family/friends or the ability to play the sport you love. 

Cultivating a lens of gratitude can also be a great tool when approaching your next game or competition. “Using your gratitude lens can be done by building in time before an event (game, test, presentation, family gathering, whatever it may be) on a regular basis to determine what you are looking forward to about this challenge,” Premier’s Dr. Matt Mikesell says. “It’s difficult to have fear, anxiety, worry, and stress. be in the driver’s seat if gratitude, and excitement are intentionally placed in the driver’s seat.” 

Get Plenty of Restful Sleep
It is well known that sleep is an essential part of overall well-being. Getting 8 hours of sleep a night is important, but it is also important to have a consistent sleep schedule. This means trying to go to bed at the same time even on the weekends. 

Use these guidelines when thinking about sleep. 

Your journey to strong mental health and wellness isn’t linear. There will be some days that are better than others and days where practicing proactive mental health care will be difficult. Remember to identify and lean on your support system and that all humans are going through something.