By Michael Mellinger, O2X Mental Performance Specialist
At O2X, we take tactical athletes’ mission sets to heart because we’ve been there. A tactical athlete’s mission set is unconventional and, therefore, demands unconventional training styles. Mental Performance is an unconventional training methodology that has become an essential component to the success of tactical athletes everywhere. Let’s look at some of the techniques tactical athletes everywhere are implementing to boost their performance.
3 Skills to Enhance Mental Performance
1. Visualization/Mental Rehearsal
Perhaps one of the most powerful tools in mental performance is mental rehearsal. Mental rehearsal is the process in which an individual leverages the body’s senses to create imagery (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). This training technique separates itself from a lot of physical training in that it can be trained anywhere at any time.
Research shows that using this technique can enhance the body’s ability to respond physiologically and psychologically to stimuli it is likely to be exposed to during stress (Sheard & Golding, 2011). Let’s look at an example:
I am an Olympic track and field athlete. I am walking up to my blocks for the 100m dash. I feel the track beneath my feet; I smell the icy hot in the air; I hear nothing but the constant dull drone of the crowd; the starter says “Take your marks”; My heart races; I take a deep breath and move into the start position….(breathe)…. “Set,” the starter says. I shift my weight in anticipation. *BANG*.
In this example, an Olympic track and field athlete put himself in a familiar position – the start of a race. He visualizes the whole process of getting into a start position. He enhances the visualization experience by incorporating as many senses as he can into the image: sight, sound, touch, and smell.
Interestingly, our body has difficulty distinguishing between a visualization and an actual event. Therefore, it is likely that during this visualization, the athlete will experience a physiological response (e.g., heart rate). By conditioning ourselves psychologically with visualization, we enhance our ability to understand and predict our body’s unconscious response to stress, intentionally replicate that stress in training, and adapt to it prior to the event.
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing
In the previous example, we got a look inside an Olympic track and field athlete’s pre-race visualization technique. This was a non-impact training technique, which aims to enhance one’s ability to anticipate physiological and psychological responses to stress. One of the key factors in the athlete’s visualization was diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is an essential training technique used by professional and tactical athletes alike to enhance their ability to maintain high levels of performance over time.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a fast and simple technique that can, like visualization, be trained anywhere. Let’s practice!
- Find a comfortable position. Sit up straight or lie down with your dominant hand on your upper chest and your non-dominant hand on your diaphragm.
- Next, close your eyes and feel how your chest and your diaphragm move.
- Now focus on your non-dominant hand on your diaphragm. Imagine your diaphragm is a balloon that expands and contracts as you breathe.
- Now focus on your dominant hand. If you are lying down, imagine a small marble on your chest. Don’t let that marble roll. If you are sitting up, focus on having that non-dominant hand move as little as possible.
- Inhale for 3-5 seconds. Fill that balloon.
- Pause for 1 second.
- Exhale for 5-7 seconds. Deflate that balloon.
That’s it! A simple, high-effective, way to enhance your performance and recovery. For maximum effect, practice this 2 times a day for 20 minutes.
3. Cue Words
Cue words are another highly effective way to enhance performance. Cue words and various positive self-talk techniques have shown to enhance not only mental fortitude, but strength training and physical counter movements, as well (Slimani & Cheour, 2016). These words can be anything you want, but it is recommended that they are related to a desired outcome.
Let’s go back to our track and field athlete. In his example, he leveraged the starter’s commands as cues for action. This is a great example of an “external” cue. With each command, an intentional movement was exerted: “Take your marks” = walk forward and assume the start position.
Cue words can be directed internally, as well. Remember when our Olympic athlete felt his heart racing? He could have used a cue word like “breathe” to remind himself to control his breath and slow down his heart rate. This is a great technique for tactical athletes who may experience sudden stressors like firefights and trauma care among many others.
Mental performance is an elite training method that can have an immediate and lasting impact on performance. It is designed to enhance your ability to anticipate your body’s response to stress and control your body’s response to that stress. Proper mental performance training will enable you to train intentionally and place yourself in an advantageous position to thrive.
Visualization, breathing, and cue words are just some of the simple techniques that can have a major impact on performance. Each one can be trained anywhere at any time. You can pair them with one another to maximize your training regimen, or separately to enhance areas you wish to improve.