In a past life, I was a professional figure skater. One of the most important members of my "team," which included coaches, choreographers, off-ice trainers, Pilates and ballet instructors, and a physical therapist, was my sports psychologist.
I first began working with a sports psychologist when I was 13. I moved up the competitive ranks and landed triple jumps, but struggled with nerves and performance anxiety.
While I could do perfect routines in practice, I doubted myself and faltered under the intense pressure of competition. With my sports psychologist, I developed the mental skills that, over time, I could apply consistently both in practice and competition.
As a competitor, I never had the hardest technical content or the most impressive tricks, but I differentiated myself from other skaters with my mental strength.
Six years ago, I ended my skating career and headed off to college (I've since entered the real world). Often, without even realizing it, I have continued to use my sports psychology tricks every day, completely outside the domain of sports and competition.
While I'm not convinced that sports are a perfect metaphor for real life, I do know that the simple mental techniques my sports psychologist taught me made me a stronger competitor, and that anyone can apply these techniques to realize better outcomes in school, work, relationships, and daily life.
1. Only worry about the things that you can control.
In skating, this meant focusing solely on myself. I didn't let myself worry about what my competitors were doing. They trained their way, and I trained mine. They had their own signature style, and I had mine.
I never watched anyone else compete. It didn't matter if the skater before me performed perfectly, or fell three times. My job remained the same — do my routine the way I practiced it every day.
Don't get involved in how others do things. Figure out the routine that works best for you and stick to it. Everything else is just a distraction from you doing your job.
2. Set performance goals, not outcome goals.
Not only did I lack control over the other competitors, but I also had no control over how the judges scored me. Therefore, I set personal performance goals, such as "I want to land this new jump" or "I want to do this spin better than last time." I never set a goal such as "I want to place in the top 4," because scoring wasn't my job, skating was.
The takeaway? Devote yourself to your preparation. If the result is not what you want, go back and adjust in order to improve the next time.
In my day-to-day training I used visualization techniques and key words all the time. When I was having a hard time with an element, I would pause before attempting another and visualize myself doing it with perfect technique, focusing specifically on the part that was giving me trouble. Each night before bed, I visualized myself doing flawless routines, to reinforce my intentions for the day's training. After visualizing something so many times, literally seeing myself in my head, actually doing it was more familiar and less scary.
When you are faced with a particularly challenging or daunting task, practice visualizing doing it perfectly.
4. Use key words and breathing techniques.
Together with my coaches and sports psychologist, I devised a series of key words to mentally repeat to myself at specific times throughout my program. These mantras ranged from very technical (Hold your left arm in front) to general (Breathe or Push harder).
By focusing on these specific words, I not only reminded myself of proper technique, but I also kept my mind from wandering. Most importantly, these helped me deal with nerves and blur the distinction between competition and practice.
All of the distractions faded away — the judges, my competitors, the crowds, and the TV cameras — and I simply skated as if I were in practice. Yoga practitioners have known this for thousands of years, using mantras and pranayama to promote relaxation and focus.
5. Break it down.
It was easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of completing seven jumps and four spins in a four-minute routine. So, mentally, I broke down my program into smaller sections. Framing my routine this way was especially helpful if I made a mistake and needed to save the rest of the program.
When faced with a daunting task, break it down. Make a to-do list and be systematic, checking items off one-by-one. Before you know it, you'll be done.
6. Believe in yourself and you will succeed (or at least greatly improve your odds).
There are countless motivational maxims to this end, from Henry Ford ("Whether you think you can, or you think you can't — you're right") to The Little Engine That Could ("I think I can, I think I can").
There are so many because it's true. If you doubt yourself, you're more likely to fail. Self-confidence doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly increases the odds.