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Optimum Athletic Performance

Recent research has focused on what makes an athlete most successful and ready for performance. It has been determined that mental attitude plays a large part in optimal performance; many would say it is the difference between an Olympian and a National Qualifier. There are many terms for the mental state that is optimum for athletic functioning: "The Zone" is the term most frequently used. The feelings experienced while in the Zone are closely linked to positive emotions felt before competition such as excitement, anxiety, and arousal. Negative emotions that have also been related to successful sports performance include anger, impatience, nervousness, and irritation. Emotions not associated with the Zone that poorly affect performance include depression, exhaustion, and sorrow.

Physical sensations can also be associated with being in the Zone. Examples of these are hunger, tightness, raciness, irritability, and anxiety. Again, these can vary for different athletes. It has been shown that by trying to remember the emotions felt before a successful athletic performance and repeating these emotions, the Zone is more likely to recur. The Zone is also known as the "flow" in which all brain and body functions are fully concentrated on the task at hand. Knowing you are willingly facing the particular challenge and greeting it with excitement, will make you happy and allow your mind to work with your body fully to most successfully reach your goal.

Visualization and Imagery
Both visualization and imagery are terms used to describe a mental picture of success. When you visualize, you picture the event in your mind. You picture the last mile of the course, the cheering fans, the finish line. You picture yourself gaining speed and feeling that last "kick." You can also visualize tougher parts of a race and picture yourself running through the pain of exertion, feeling your body work despite its fatigue. Successful athletes often use visualization as part of their training.

In her book, Peak Fitness for Women, Paula Newby-Fraser, known as the greatest women's Ironman champion in history, describes "mental training" as an essential component of the last 14 days of training before an Ironman distance triathlon. She also emphasizes the need to focus on doing your best, both in visualization and in thoughts related to the race, rather than comparing yourself to others. This is the basis for a positive experience based on your own performance, not that of others. No matter what the other race participants are doing, you are focused on your strength, your success, and meeting your challenge. Visualization and imagery are part of all successful athletes' preparation. It is important when you visualize to think these positive thoughts, focusing on yourself and not what others are doing. This is what establishes a feeling of success, self-satisfaction, and happiness.

Pre-Event Calm
Calm is a word to describe a peaceful, composed, serene feeling that allows focus, relaxation, and confidence. Although you might feel eager, energetic, and even anxious to compete in the sport, you are calm enough to make sure your equipment is as it should be, your position and technique is correct, and your mind focused. This is not only a very pleasant way to approach competition, it is also the most effective. If you are calm, your mind and body are in sync and each body movement is on track to help you meet your goal of best performance. This is especially important for success in skill sports such as golf, archery, or tennis.

Some athletes use distraction to keep them calm, focusing on the weather, the scenery, or a song in their head. Others talk, hold a good luck charm, or use deep breathing. If you are a competitive athlete and you put pressure on yourself to perform, you should develop techniques to become calm. Making last-minute race preparation details routine by practicing them can provide a calming ritual. You should also have a strategy for relaxation the night before your athletic event so you can sleep and rest well. A massage, warm bath, pedicure, or other pampering service can also help you feel nurtured and calm before a stressful competition.

Stay Positive
Athletic and fitness events were designed for one reason: fun! If you are not having fun, you might want to think about why. There are many other things in life that are not fun that you have to do; athletics are for enjoyment and improving self-worth and overall health. You must feel positively about the event you have trained so hard for and the workouts you do, or your performance will be disappointing. Having a positive attitude allows you to think more clearly, feel stronger, have less pain, and stay focused and calm. Repeating positive phrases to yourself about your strengths and athletic achievements is an essential part of this satisfaction.

Having a healthy, clear, calm, focused mind promotes your happiness, best performance, and overall health. It improves your confidence, self-esteem, and mental and physical strength. It allows you to rise to challenges that are not just physical as you learn the best coping mechanisms for stress. As a competitive athlete, this is essential to performance. As a regular exerciser, it is essential for life.

More on: Sports

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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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