Even with top athletes like Michael Jordan confirming that mental toughness is critical for success, we’ve found that less than 1% of young athletes train mentally.
Why is that?
Most say they don’t know what to do.
If that’s you, you’re in luck – that’s exactly what we’re about to get into in this section.
The 5 States of Mind to Achieve Mental Toughness
Earlier in this article, we defined mental toughness in two parts. As a quick refresher, the first part of our definition is:
“The ability to get in the zone and, as a result, achieve peak performance when it matters most.”
In order to improve mental toughness, we have to learn how to get in the zone. On purpose.
Before we get into that, let’s first take a moment to clarify exactly what we mean by “getting in the zone.”
We’ve broken it down into 5 simple states of mind known as the “Zone-5™ states”:
In order to get in the zone, you have to achieve ALL 5 of these states of mind at once. We call this getting “high Zone-5™”. The acronym we use to remember these states is CCCFM.
At first, this may sound complicated. It can be tricky initially (like anything), but with practice it’s possible for ANYONE to control these states. Top performers understand how to change their thoughts to get high Zone-5™ almost immediately and in pressure situations.
In the following sections, we’ll go into the mental skills necessary to master each of the Zone-5™ states.
Ready to take control of your own mind?
Good. Let’s do this.
The first Zone-5 state we’ll discuss is Motivated.
In order to be properly motivated, it’s important to lay out a solid foundation. Just like building a house, the foundation has to be strong or everything will collapse down the line.
First and foremost, it’s critical to take some time and think about your ‘reasons why’. Why do you do what you do? What’s driving you? Why do you want to achieve your big, aspirational dream?
Take some time to think deeply about this. Then, write them down. When times get tough (they inevitably will), your ‘reasons why’ will keep you going. If your reasons why aren’t genuine and deep, you’re more likely to give up when times get hard.
Once you have some clear ‘reasons why’ laid out, it’s time to set some goals. Setting goals means writing them down in a list. Start big – what are your biggest aspirations and dreams in your sport, business or life? Once you have an end goal set, break it down into smaller goals that you’ll achieve on the way to the larger goal.
Again, write these down. If you don’t have a clear destination, you’ll be driving aimlessly down the road of life.
After you’ve carefully laid out and written down your goals and reasons why, the next step is to create a roadmap. This roadmap will guide you to your ideal performance zone (by the way, we wrote the book on roadmaps to the zone).
Using the goals (big and small) you set in the step above, add dates you aim to accomplish these goals by. What age do you want to achieve your biggest goal? From there, what sort of timeframe is necessary to achieve your smaller goals? Be realistic while remaining ambitious. Below is an example from one of our gymnasts (who achieved ALL of her goals by the way!)
Once you have the foundation laid out, you’re ready to focus on the the next Zone-5 state: Calm.
In order to remain calm in times of pressure, we’ve packaged together 3 of the most fundamental skills and call them 3-CoreⓇ.
The 3-CoreⓇ is a combination of 3 skills that makes up the core of mental toughness training. Here’s a breakdown:
In order to practice 3-CoreⓇ, you’ll need a comfortable chair in a quiet, distraction-free place.
Let’s break down each component into some more detail.
Progressive relaxation is an effective way to completely relax your body in just a few minutes. Here’s how to do it:
- Set a timer for 2 minutes.
- Sitting in a comfortable chair, close your eyes.
- Focus on the feeling of the air going in and out of your nose. Relax your stomach muscles to draw the air into your lungs (called “belly breathing”).
- Choose a muscle group.
- Inhale slowly and deeply as you tense this muscle as hard as you can for 4 seconds.
- Now, exhale slowly as you relax the muscle for 4 seconds.
- Progress muscle group by muscle group, from your head down to your toes.
- Focus your mind on each muscle group as you do the exercise
- This quiets your mind and allows you to “get in the present” (we’ll explain that next in the Mindfulness section).
The GAP exercise is what we use to practice mindfulness. It’s a key mental skill – possibly THE key mental skill. The GAP exercise is a simple form of thought awareness that allows you to recognize current thoughts and release them. This is EXTREMELY important in becoming mentally tough because in order to control your thoughts, you have to first become aware of them (become mindful).
Here’s how to do it:
- Set a timer for 2 more minutes.
- After completing 2 minutes of progressive relaxation, stay seated in the same chair with your eyes still closed.
- Focus your attention on the feeling of air going in and out of your nose.
- Without even trying, thoughts will probably be passing through your mind (or lingering) – this is completely normal.
- As a thought enters your mind, recognize it.
- Say “got it” as you become aware of what this thought is, and allow the thought to leave.
- Keeping your eyes closed, wait patiently in the “gap” between thoughts for the next thought to come in.
- Don’t worry about what the thoughts are, and don’t try to force them in or out. Just recognize each thought as it enters your mind, and say “got it” to release the thought.
- Do this until the timer sounds.
This exercise is challenging at first because society has taught us that having nothing on our minds is a sign of weakness. In reality, though, having nothing on your mind is an enormous sign of mental strength. In fact, a quiet mind is necessary for the zone to happen. That’s why the GAP exercise is the key to getting in the zone intentionally.
An important part of recognizing thoughts is getting present. Getting present means focusing your attention on the present moment – not the future or the past. This is important because in order to be in control of your thoughts and therefore your actions, your mind has to be focused on the present moment. If you’re focused on the past or the future, you won’t be able to concentrate or get in the zone (more on this later).
The third mental skill in the 3-CoreⓇ is imagery or visualization. Imagery is the most researched of all the mental skills and has been scientifically proven to improve performance in real life when done correctly. The first thing to do is create a short list of actions you’d like to improve or master for a performance or competition. Once you have that list, follow these steps to perform proper visualization:
- After you’ve completed progressive relaxation AND the GAP exercise, set a timer for at least 3 minutes.
- While remaining seated, relaxed and with your eyes closed, imagine one of the actions on your list that you’re aiming to master.
- Imagine yourself executing this action perfectly.
- Imagine it in the first person (out of your own eyes)
- Imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like, and what it would sound like
- Imagine a crowd cheering as you complete it perfectly
- Each time you imagine it, your brain prepares to do it physically
- Repeat until you have the action dialed in your mind.
- You can do this with as many actions as time allows.
- When the timer rings, open your eyes – you’ve just completed 3-CoreⓇ.
3-CoreⓇ is a great way to improve your mental toughness in just 7 minutes per day (2 minutes progressive relaxation, 2 minutes GAP, 3 minutes visualization). As you progress, you may find imagery sessions lasting longer, which is completely ok. Most of our pro and Olympic clients perform imagery sessions that last longer than 3 minutes. In fact, top level athletes do 3-CoreⓇ several times per day.
Besides 3-CoreⓇ, another great mental skill to help stay calm is to focus on controllables.
In sport, business, performance and life in general, there are many factors we can control, as well as many factors we can’t control. In order to be in your best state of mind, it’s important to deliberately focus on things we have control over.
Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James once said:
“Perception distinguishes reality.”
In other words, what you perceive (or focus on), creates your reality.
The problem though, is most people don’t have control of their own focus. For example, athletes often find themselves worrying about all kinds of uncontrollable things during competition:
- The condition of the field/course/court/track
- How much playing time they might get
- How important it is to win
- The weather
- The coach
- What people might think
If we aren’t in control of our focus, we tend to focus on all the wrong things – things we have no control over. This leads to anxiety, decreased confidence and poor performance.
When we are in control of our focus, we can intentionally think about things we do have control over, such as:
- Positive thoughts
- Ideal emotions
- Problem solving
- Ideal energy
One of the key elements to becoming mentally tough is being able to distinguish controllables from uncontrollables and then focus on what helps performance.
The next state of mind is confidence. In order to perform your best, it’s important to have confidence. In fact, it’s shown to be the single most important determinant of success. Stanford professor and famous social psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura believes there’s no such thing as too much confidence!
Being overconfident means your FOCUS has gone away from the task. So as long as you’re focused, work to build as much confidence as possible.
Since the more confidence you have the better, you want as many ways to build it as possible. Here are 12:
- Physical repetition
- This is the #1 way to improve confidence!
- Practice strengthens neural pathways
- When you can physically do something without having to think about it in competition, you will have plenty of confidence
- Get a good warmup
- Getting loose and rehearsing what you will do in competition can give you the confidence to stay relaxed and trust your body
- Remember past successes
- Recent good memories can be a powerful tool in improving confidence
- Success journal
- Keeping a written journal of personal accomplishments, complements from experts, and good performances helps create the identity that you are great and can achieve success.
- Research proves that imagining successful behaviors helps increase confidence
- Use first person, use all your senses, repeat often
- Physical posture
- Research shows posture can actually change emotions (it’s not just a reflection of emotions
- Stand up straight, hold your head up high, and behave like a happy and confident person – it actually helps you become one!
- Facial expressions
- Facial expressions have been found to change emotions (they’re not just a reflection of emotions)
- In other words, smile 🙂
- Positive Self-Talk Skills
- The way you talk to yourself affects the way you perform, so be positive!
- Focus on controllables
- Focus your energy on things you have control over:
- Preparation, tactic, effort, thoughts, intensity, technique
- Identify things you can’t control and choose to let those things go
- Weather, opponents, score, field conditions
- Personal highlight video
- Capture video clips from positive past performances
- Assemble them into one video file with your favorite music dubbed over it
- Anxiety reduction
- Reducing nervousness helps you feel more confident
- Focus on the present (rather than the past or future)
- Meditation/ 3-CoreⓇ
- Deep breathing
- Develop positive habits
- Practicing your routine until it feels automatic provides more brain bandwidth to focus adapting to a changing environment
- Great athletes use rituals before and during competition
The next state of mind is focus. One of the main mental skills to help achieve focus is self-talk.
Self talk is quite simply the way we talk to ourselves. It can be positive or negative, and it can be conscious or subconscious. Either way it’s incredibly powerful, so it’s important to be in control and make your self-talk positive!
We’ve broken self-talk down into 5 skills you can practice:
Minimizing is the practice of making each competition or event of equal significance in your mind. It’s common for athletes to choke during important events, so by putting every event on an equal playing field, you’re reducing the likelihood of cracking under pressure.
Whether you’re in the Olympics or a small local event, tell yourself this is just another event. It’s an opportunity to gain more experience, learn from my mistakes, and improve for the next one. Don’t worry about outcome, just think about performing your best like in practice.
Being matter-of-fact is an important way to take the emotion out of a high pressure situation. Rather than getting emotional when something happens, describe ONLY the facts – not your interpretation or feeling about what happened. In other words, look at situations at face value and nothing more. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you drop the ball in an important competition. Here are two ways to handle the situation:
“Arghh! I always drop the ball – why am I so bad?!”
“I dropped the ball – it’s on the ground – forget about it and move on.”
The emotional response catastrophizes an insignificant mistake, and will likely lead to a greater string of errors down the line. The matter-of-fact response allows you to stay calm, forget about it, and recover much more quickly and easily.
It’s important to be optimistic in order to perform well. Optimism is highly correlated to health, success and happiness.
Optimists believe good things happen often and in many situations. By believing good things happen this way in our life, we’ll constantly be looking for good things, and more likely find them!
From a mental toughness standpoint, the best way to be optimistic is to make compliments permanent and criticisms temporary. Here’s an example of a permanent statement vs. a temporary statement:
“I scored that point because I’m a good player.”
“I dropped the ball because I’m a bad player.”
“I happened to score a point, but it was lucky.”
“Usually I catch the ball, but I happened to drop it that one time.”
In order to optimize your self-talk (and improve your performance) it’s important to make compliments permanent and criticisms temporary. Take responsibility for the good things you do, and let the mistakes go. In fact, forget the mistakes ever happened! The more you remember good performance, talk about it, and start to identify with being a high performer, the more you’ll manifest high performance in the future.
4) Phrasing positively
This is the most published of all the self-talk approaches, so you might think it’s obvious, but most get it wrong. Every time you talk about an action, it’s important to frame that action positively rather than negatively. Here is an example of the same action framed in both a positive and negative way:
Positive: “Catch the ball”
Negative: “Don’t drop the ball”
The brain focuses on the action even if you’re telling yourself not to do that action. In the example above, if you’re self-talk is “don’t drop the ball,” the brain won’t process the “don’t” part. All it will process is “drop the ball.” Now the mind is focused on dropping the ball, and consequently that’s more likely to happen!
If you instead focus on “catch the ball,” the brain processes exactly that – “catch the ball.” Now, your mind is focused on the desired outcome, and that’s more likely to happen.
In short, focus on getting what you want rather than not getting what you don’t want.
Cue words are an extension of positively phrased self talk. Cue words are short phrases that can can help you quickly focus on controllables and trigger Zone-5™ states when used properly. This mental skill is usually most effective when personalized because cue words are usually individual and sport specific.
Here are some general examples to give you an idea:
- I believe in myself and my talent
- I am strong, confident and prepared
- I belong here
- Show them I’m here to stay – I deserve this
- I can’t wait to show everyone what I’ve been working on
- Perform like I own the place
- This is easy
- Let’s crush ‘em
- Send it
- Keep working
- Keep fighting
You can (and should) create your own cue words (or phrases) that resonate better with you. Again, it should be individual and sport specific. Pick something positive that gets you focused on controllables, motivated, in the present, more confident, etc.
5) “As long as I” Statement
The “As long as I” statement is a great way to quickly help get in the zone. Use the following template to draft a statement that’s tailored to your sport or activity:
“As long as I (X, Y, and Z) , I know I’m doing everything I can in the moment, and the outcome will be what it is.”
Replace X, Y and Z with 3 controllables of your choice. Give it some thought and put in 3 things that will empower you when you say this statement in a pressure situation. Usually athletes choose to control EFFORT, STRATEGY and EMOTIONS.
The purpose of this statement is to quickly shift your focus onto items you can control. This quick statement allows you to reduce anxiety and pressure that comes from accidentally focusing on uncontrollables.
To become carefree means we temporarily don’t care about the outcome. In sport, this could mean the score. Technically the score is an uncontrollable variable, so focusing on it will often lead to anxiety. What you can control is your technique, your effort, etc. The score is a RESULT of these things, not something you can directly control.
Of course, every athlete cares about the score. But since it’s technically an uncontrollable, it’s important to shift your focus off it (at least temporarily) and onto controllables in order to get the best results.
So how does someone take their focus off the score (an uncontrollable) and instead shift it to something controllable? It can be tough when in high pressure situations when there’s something on the line and emotions are involved.
That’s the next (and final) mental skill we’re going to discuss here. We created a tool called the Emotion WheelⓇ to help you do exactly this.
The Emotion WheelⓇ was designed to get a person carefree, focused on controllables, and in the zone quickly. Here’s an overview:
Don’t be overwhelmed – it’s actually simpler than it looks. Think of the Emotion WheelⓇ as basically two rings – an outside ring and an inside ring – with the zone in the middle:
Much simpler, right?
We’ll get into more detail shortly, but for now just know the goal is to get into the INSIDE ring, because that’s where you’ll find the zone.
Let’s first break down the outside ring.
The Outside Ring
The outside ring is where everybody starts, and many get stuck:
Start at point A.
There’s an important situation, such as a competition, and you’re being judged. What tends to happen is, we think about the score or the fact that we’re being judged, and begin to worry about what people might think of our performance. As a result, our thoughts move towards the future – point B.
Once our thoughts are in the future, this starts to cause nervousness because the future is an uncontrollable factor. The present moment is what’s controllable. The present certainly affects the future, but the future is technically uncontrollable. Focusing on the future gets us to point C where fear, anxiety, and stress kick in.
Once a person is feeling stressed, this increases the likelihood of poor decisions and errors, even on tasks that are ordinarily simple. After starting to make a few mistakes due to nervousness, we tend to focus on them. Now, we’re at point D – past thoughts (a mistake from a few seconds ago).
After making a few silly mistakes, athletes often start to get frustrated because they’re “choking” on something that’s so simple in practice. This often leads to point E – anger.
Needless to say, getting angry during an important situation isn’t a recipe for success. So how do we prevent all this and get into the inside ring of the Emotion WheelⓇ where the zone lies?
This is where we apply some of the mental skills we learned earlier in this guide. Remember the GAP exercise? We said it’s THE KEY to getting in the zone. This is where you’ll use it.
Using the GAP exercise to become present
The GAP exercise allows you to break out of the outside ring and “unlock” the inside ring. Without it, you can’t get into the inside ring. The concept is actually fairly simple (although it will probably take some practice to master). Here’s what to do:
As a quick refresher, the GAP exercise is a simple form of meditation that allows us to recognize current thoughts, or become mindful. By doing the GAP exercise as a part of the 3-CoreⓇ routine daily, it’ll become easier to become aware of your thoughts.
The reason people get stuck on the outside ring of the Emotion WheelⓇ is because they’re not consciously aware of their thoughts. And if you’re not aware, how can you fix the problem?
Once you’ve practiced the GAP exercise and are able to recognize thoughts, try it in practice. Next time you start to feel any of the feelings on the outside ring (future thoughts, past thoughts, anxiety or anger), try to recognize the thought.
Just like in the GAP exercise, say “got it” when you realize you’re having this thought. Admit to yourself that, for example, you’re getting frustrated about something that’s now in the past.
Now, you’ve unlocked the middle ring. You’re aware of your thoughts (which were about to negatively impact you), and you’re in control. We call this being “present.” You’re focused on the present moment (not the past or future), and you can control the present. You can control your thoughts right now and therefore your actions right now. These things will lead to a better outcome (future).
Now, it’s time to break down the inside ring.
The Inside Ring
Once you’re present, you’ve just entered the inside ring – this is where the zone lies:
HOWEVER, you’re not in the zone…yet. You’ve “unlocked” the door that was previously blocking you from getting there, but there are still some steps you have to take to get into the zone.
Let’s break those steps down:
You’ll see 4 circles. Start at the top circle: Breathe and relax.
Once you’re present – let’s say you’ve recognized some frustration – breathe and relax. It’s similar to the progressive relaxation exercise we went over earlier (part of the 3-CoreⓇ). This helps you calm down.
Now that you’ve become present and taken a second to relax, use imagery to imagine a perfect execution of the action you need to take next.
This is essentially the visualization exercise from 3-CoreⓇ. Imagine it in the first person – the feeling, the sound, even the crowd cheering, etc. This helps you focus on controllables, become more motivated, improve confidence, and stay focused.
Next is self talk skills.
The “as long as I” statement is a perfect example:
As long as I A, B and C, I know I’m doing everything I can in the moment, and the outcome will be what it is.
Using this statement keeps you in the present and focused on things you can control. It also helps you become carefree, or not worried about the outcome or the score (which you can’t control anyways).
Now that you’ve gone through the inside ring, you should be experiencing the following 5 states of mind:
- Calm (from breathing and relaxing)
- Confident (from imagery and self-talk)
- Carefree (from self-talk)
- Focused (from imagery and self-talk)
- Motivated (from imagery and self-talk)
Do these states of mind look familiar? That’s right – they’re the Zone-5™ states.
By going through the Emotion WheelⓇ, you’re going through the process of unlocking the inside ring, and getting high Zone-5™, or in the zone.
Here’s the entire emotion wheel again so you can retrace the path to getting in the zone:
Now that you’re in the zone, you’re ready to destroy anything that crosses your path (like Godzilla here):
The “Lightswitch” Effect
Earlier in this article we mentioned a lightswitch effect.
We discussed several different mental skills and pieced it all together using the Emotion WheelⓇ to show you how to get in the zone intentionally. While extraordinarily useful, that process can take several minutes to accomplish (or even longer if you’re brand new to it).
With practice, it’s possible to reduce the amount of time it takes to get in the zone to the point where it’s almost immediate (like flipping a switch). In order to accomplish this, you’ll need to do a few things.
First of all, it’s important to get into a REGULAR ROUTINE of mental skills training. Similar to physical training or working out, you won’t become a master on the first day. It takes regular practice to deepen your mental skills understanding and abilities.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of things, there are a couple key mental skills that are so powerful they can help you move into a high Zone-5™ state very quickly (when correctly customized to your needs). They are:
- The As Long As I statement
- Cue Words
Once you’re in a mental training routine and have a good understanding of the fundamentals, using one of these two skills is a quick way to “flip the lightswitch” and quickly get high Zone-5™ in a pressure situation.