Upgrade Your Mental Game to Ditch Self-Doubt

Coaching

Even the world's greatest athletes face internal obstacles. Steal their powerful habits to unlock infinite progress.

Last updated: 2 August 2022
6 min read
  • Greatness is largely mental—and anyone can move closer to it by using the tools that have turned athletes into legends.
  • Visualisation and self-talk can help you ditch doubt and channel the mindset of a champion.
  • Grit is a key ingredient in this secret sauce. Building more of it will make you more likely to achieve your goals.


Read on to learn more …

Six Habits of the Athlete Mindset

Serena. LeBron. Neymar. What's the X factor that makes great athletes great? According to trainer Ryan Flaherty, the founding host of Trained, a Nike podcast, it's not speed, strength, endurance or genetics. It's the mind.

Flaherty has rigorously studied the mental habits and behaviours of hundreds of gold medallists, world champions and record holders up close and personal for 15 years, applying what he's learnt to help athletes take control of their progress and level up their performance. Recently he teamed up with Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, to connect the dots with neuroscience.

These mental habits and behaviours aren't just for future hall-of-famers, say Flaherty and Dr Cacioppo. Anyone can use them to overcome self-doubt and run a faster mile, play a better game or just live a better life.

1. Talk to yourself.

Don't just listen to the voices in your head, talk to them. But in a strategic way experts dub "self-talk". It's something athletes use almost universally during challenging moments and it can help give you the focus and confidence to perform at your best, especially when you talk to yourself as if you were your own best friend. This might mean being supportive ("You've got this!") or instructional ("Take a deep breath"), but it's definitely non-judgemental, so no calling yourself names for missing that shot or getting passed up for a promotion.

It's also essential to phrase your self-talk in the third or second person, addressing "they" or "you" instead of using "I". This will help you get a little emotional distance and extend the same kindness to yourself as you would to someone you care about.

2. See it, be it.

Many elite athletes mentally experience every single step of a competition the night before, from getting out of bed all the way up to accepting a gold medal at the awards ceremony. Visualisation, or vividly imagining a positive action or outcome in great detail, primes your mind for the actual experience, improving reflexes, confidence and endurance once you're actually going through the motions.

Don't just picture everything going perfectly; imagine all the scenarios you're apprehensive about, so that if an obstacle arises, you have a plan for how to overcome it. You can apply the practice to life-changing moments (nailing an interview to land your dream job or doing your first triathlon even though you're not a strong swimmer) or everyday tasks like working out.

Six Habits of the Athlete Mindset

3. Find your purpose.

You may not know this, but you have a seemingly bottomless pit of motivation that you can tap into at any time—as long as you've identified your "why", a core purpose that lights a fire under you every time you take on a challenge. For elite athletes, the "why" is personal and often emotional. LeBron and Serena, for instance, both say their purpose is to inspire kids who look like them and come from where they come from to achieve greatness. You can start to pinpoint your purpose any time by identifying what fulfils you or what would make you proud.

If you're still uncertain, take your inspiration from the NBA and tennis greats who do it for the next generation and centre your purpose on someone you care about. Focusing on the needs of others can keep you motivated and accountable, and it can even inspire you to work a little harder than you would otherwise, giving you an extra push towards progress.

4. Be gritty.

Grit is the combination of passion and persistence that helps someone reach their long-term goals. This fortitude is what every coach searches for in an athlete. The easiest way to assess your grit is to look at your follow-through. Do you finish the tasks you start? Do you remember what the task was in the first place? If you're not sure how to answer those questions, set a small goal that takes you only a couple of days to accomplish (eat a meat-free meal three days a week instead of going full vegan, for example).

If you accomplish that, try it again and again, maybe adding another day to the week, then another, until the weeks turn into months and maybe even years. Regularly achieving small goals can improve your grit, which can make achieving your bigger goals more of a reality.

5. Get obsessed with the process.

Elite athletes often rely on near-obsessive daily routines to keep their tasks lined up and their goals in sight. In everyday life, creating an effective "process" might be as simple as keeping a rigorous planner. Look at your routine and ask yourself: Does it have consistent tasks occurring at a regular cadence, so you can find reward from them? Does it include repetitive tasks that are exactly the same, so you can learn automatically from them? Does it include an action plan consisting of short-term tasks that ladder up to long-term goals? Does it emphasise focus, your "why" always being top of mind? And finally, are you implementing it with tolerance, never punishing yourself for failures?

That last one can help you get a grip on self-doubt and ensure you can stick with your process for the long haul.

6. Own it.

In the simplest sense, "ownership" means taking full responsibility for your own progress, without excuses or blame. It's one of the big lessons that transforms great talents into great athletes, because they've recognised that their performance is in their control. As with process, there's an easy breakdown to help make sure you've got this one covered: Are you cultivating responsibility by taking charge of a situation when called for? Are you doing this with accountability, aka a willingness to accept all the consequences, good and bad? Are you bringing some reliability with ownership that's day in, day out? And are you practising commitment by doing more than what's merely expected of you?

Truly taking ownership means that you are a genuine leader. You're dependable and deliver beyond what anyone expects of you, which is why mastering ownership won't benefit just you, it also benefits your teammates, family and friends, who know they can count on you in critical moments and always.


If you ever doubt the process, just remember that even Serena and LeBron didn't achieve greatness overnight. Keep grinding and the progress will keep coming.

Words: Daniel Menasché
Illustration: Ryan Johnson

CHECK IT OUT

Nike Trainer Joe Holder embodies the athlete mindset in his training philosophy and in life. Read his personal progress story, then help your body keep up with your mind with rewarding workouts in the Nike Training Club App.

CHECK IT OUT

Nike Trainer Joe Holder embodies the athlete mindset in his training philosophy and in life. Read his personal progress story, then sweat with him in the Nike Training Club App.

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