It’s the only way to compete!
  | By Rob Polishook
Credit: Ryan McVay

We have all heard people say, “She played out of her mind!” referring to someone who played exceptionally well and beyond expectations. As an athlete, have you ever performed out of your mind? Either pitching to perfection, running like the wind or serving lights out? Maybe there is more to this “out of your mind” concept than meets the eye. The idea is ultimately a metaphor for playing within yourself, where everything is effortless, where little thought occurs and optimal performance just happens. In this article, I will discuss how literally getting “out of your mind” is the best way to reach optimal personal peak performance in competitive sports.

When an athlete plays “in their mind,” they are not playing from instinct. They are usually overanalyzing, their thoughts are cluttered and disorganized, and they are unable to get out of their own way. Further, their thoughts are in the past and future, tied to expectations, ego, excitement and fears. Essentially, their thoughts are weighing them down—athletes describe it as playing with an imaginary weight around their waist and trying to run, jump, hit and concentrate while their mind is over-thinking every move. Specifically, they hold onto past points or games, think about uncontrollable past and future situations, focus on expectations, or deride themselves for not living up to the pre-conceived standard they expected.

We all know what happens when this kind of mentality creeps in—the dreaded spiral where a player loses control! Physically and mentally, it looks like this: An initial loss of focus, fear about what might be or what is occurring, tightened muscles, heavy breathing and loss of feeling. Then, the poor play follows, usually ending in disappointment and defeat. The only way to optimize performance is to play in the moment (present), to respond to situations with calm awareness—as opposed to reacting out of ego, fear and anxiety. I call this the “Eye of the Hurricane,” calm on the inside, yet aware and active on the outside.

The key to staying in the moment is within all of us … the secret lies in our own bodies. Our body is always in the present moment. When an athlete becomes aware of his or her body, such as the rhythm in their hips when they swing a bat, racket or a club, they simplify things and enter a place of curiosity where they are simply noticing their present actions. This heightened awareness shift moves them away from the distracting ego, fear, and anxiety-driven thoughts. In fact, all of the “what ifs,” “shoulda” or “coulda” thoughts are no longer in the way because the focus is on observations, rather than judgment. Essentially, by getting “out of your mind,” you get “out of your way” and simply allow the technique you have practiced and your performance to happen or flow in the present. If an adjustment is necessary, it can then be made without judgment.

How can a player shift their focus “outta their mind” (thoughts, past, future and judgments) and into their body (present)? It starts with a keen awareness; when they become aware of being submerged in over-thinking, fear or that recognizable negative spiral, the idea is to simplify things and shift their attention to something in the present. For example, the athlete may focus on their breathing or a place in the body they feel calm and centered. This refocus of “out of your mind” and “into your body” serves as a reconnection to the present—a place of calm and observation. From this place, the athlete can play by observing and noticing, instead of judging their technique or performance.

Ultimately, by the start of the match, game or performance, the athlete has the skills necessary to compete at their personal highest level. The competition is not the time to analyze technique—it is the opportunity to simply play, by getting “out of your mind” and allowing the body to do what it has been trained to do. It is easy to let your mind creep toward the result, get caught up in expectations, question whether others are judging your performance, or think about the missed opportunity of a previous exchange. Yet, the aforementioned tools can help the player to keep their attention out of the mind and in the present, able to respond to the moment.

Athletes love those times when they feel immersed in competition, competing with great effort for sustained periods of time, and ultimately, playing inside the zone. Shawn Green, in his book The Way of Baseball, talks about how he used the batting tee and focus on his breathing to get out of his mind and re-connect with his natural swing. Billie Jean King, in her book Pressure is a Privilege, also talks about how she uses her breath to limit distraction and stay inside the zone.

So, at your next competition, shift your focus “outta your mind” away from fears or judgments and “inside the zone” to your breath and body, and begin on the path to unlocking your potential.

Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology  and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail rob@insidethezone.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.