The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive

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Even among the most elite performers, certain athletes stand out as a cut above the rest, able to outperform in clutch, game-deciding moments. These athletes prove that raw athletic ability doesn't necessarily translate to a superior on-field experience—its the mental game that matters most.

Sports participation—from the recreational to the collegiate Division I level—is at an all-time high. While the caliber of their games may differ, athletes at every level have one thing in common: the desire to excel. In The Champion's Mind, sports psychologist Jim Afremow, PhD, offers the same advice he uses with Olympians, Heisman Trophy winners, and professional athletes, including:

· How to get in a "zone," thrive on a team, and stay humble
· How to progress within a sport and sustain long-term excellence
· Customizable pre-performance routines to hit full power when the gun goes off or the puck is dropped

With hundreds of useful tips, breakthrough science, and cutting-edge workouts from the world's top trainers, The Champion's Mind will help you shape your body to ensure a longer, healthier, happier lifetime.

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About the Author:

Jim Afremow, PhD, is a sports psychologist and licensed counselor at Arizona State University. He has worked closely with athletes at all levels, including pros from the MLB, NBA, WNBA, NFL, NHL, PGA Tour, and LPGA Tour, as well as business professionals, performing artists, and others in demanding careers. He lives in Phoenix.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

BE YOUR OWN CHAMPION

The attitude with which we approach the situation can determine our success or failure.

--PEYTON MANNING

What separates the top few from the many in a sport? Mentality. The importance of the mental side of athletics was once brilliantly summed up by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "Your mind is what makes everything else work." Tennis great Novak Djokovic further explains: "[Among the] top 100 players, physically there is not much difference. . . . It's a mental ability to handle the pressure, to play well at the right moments."

So your mental game matters the most. Physical ability alone rarely translates into a superior on-field performance. Even naturally gifted athletes who want to perform to their total potential need outstanding physical and mental strengths, because their secret to great performances is not their innate athleticism or technical skills--it's their minds.

Top athletes are often distinguished, especially in the media, by their unique natural gifts. For example, Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympic swimmer, has the wingspan of an albatross, tennis star Roger Federer has the timing of an exquisite Swiss watch, and Olympic sprinter and world- record holder Usain Bolt is built out of lightning-rod-like twitch fibers.

Behind the scenes, their mind-set and work ethic have enhanced their natural abilities. If you aspire to be a champion, don't be awed by the glitter of their excellence; instead, know that they also put in many thousands of hours in the pool, on the court, and at the track to build up their bodies and shape their minds.

Distance runner Paavo Nurmi, dubbed the "Flying Finn" and the winner of nine Olympic gold medals (including five at the 1924 Paris Olympics), declared, "Mind is everything. Muscle--just pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind." You, too, can develop the mental focus and discipline needed to perform in your sport with a champion's mind. The mental abilities of confidence, concentration, and composure are crucial for being a champion in everything you undertake, be it work or sports or both.

In contrast to your physical abilities, your mental abilities may flutter moment to moment, because your mind is susceptible to performance pressures and situational demands. This being true, you cannot trust your athletic performance to chance. Just as you can build physical strength through training, you can also build mental strength through training. Mental dexterity must be practiced and developed in a planned and purposeful manner so that you can elevate yourself to a champion performance level in all endeavors.

Champion yourself. We all experience similar struggles and deal with demanding challenges in our pursuit of excellence, regardless of the sport or fitness activity. To be a champion, your true best self becomes key to personal and athletic greatness. You know, as we all do, that only those performers who think gold and never settle for silver will continue to strive for and reach their highest, or gold, level. A champion makes greatness happen, despite what may seem like impossible odds.

Of course most of us are not Olympians or professional athletes. But all of us can acquire a champion's mind-set. Any athlete can learn to think like a champion. Every one of us can be peak performers in the game of life by achieving our own personal best. We can strive to be the best version of ourselves. It is possible for us to stay "professional" whenever adversity strikes. It is possible to ingrain mental fortitude that drives us forward. And it is possible to take a championship approach.

Part of this process requires us to maintain our eagerness to learn and grow, and to take well-trained, disciplined action to make solid change in our lives.

Sadly, only a small number of people qualify for the Olympics or become professional athletes; so few people ever champion themselves and win with the best version of themselves. This truth is hard to acknowledge, but if you do and if you want your personal championship in life badly enough, then the ball is in your hands. Now the question becomes, will you run with the ball or will you drop it?

Understand that the difference between a pedestrian performance and a peak performance begins and ends with your state of mind. Importantly, all of us can learn to think like a champion, but will we? Adopting a winning mind- set will help you perform at the top of your game and enable you to succeed when you want to succeed the most. You have hidden inner potential to tap into in order to unleash your inner champion.

A winning mind-set unlocks your athletic aptitude in competition. Champions develop and maintain a complete body and mind approach to their performance- -the perfect blend of mentality, athleticism, and technique. They enthusiastically make the best of every situation, consistently put in the hard work, and take the extra time needed to realize their aspirations.

Compile a personal scouting report. As an athlete, compile your own scouting report about yourself by taking a hard, unblinking look at all aspects of your performance. To begin, think about the mentality, athleticism, technique, and strategy that go into your performance. How would you rate yourself in these four areas? How would others rate you? Be sure to stay upbeat, because a negative attitude, poor effort, or an unwillingness to improve your conditioning, technique, and strategy will leave you in the bleachers instead of on the medal podium.

Table 1 shows that champions strive endlessly to reach their best level by improving their mind-set, fitness, mechanics, and game strategy. Even if you are a great natural athlete, you still have to tap into that talent. Even if you are on a winning team, you will have to continue to push onward and believe that you can improve. "No coach or team thinks in terms of happy or comfort--those are not words that exist. You keep competing, executing, and trying to improve. It doesn't matter if you have the best record or the worst record," says Gregg Popovich, head coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.

Which level are you committed to reaching--bronze, silver, or gold? No matter your current performance level, never rule out your capacity to become a champion in your game and in your life. You can do better. You can achieve your true potential. It is possible to make a major impact on your own life by shifting your beliefs and expectations about what you can achieve. Attitude is a decision, and it is also a learned behavior, requiring discipline and energy to sustain.

TABLE 1: Excellence always requires an olympian effort.

PSYCHOLOGICAL (MIND-SET) PHYSICAL (FITNESS/STRENGTH) TECHNICAL (PROPER MECHANICS) TACTICAL (GAME STRATEGY) BRONZE Good Good Good Good SILVER Better Better Better Better GOLD Best Best Best Best

To perform at a champion's level, think of gold as your official color of excellence. Look at your personal and athletic efforts through gold-tinted lenses. Think about personal gold as both a reward and a color of action or prompt to bring out your best qualities and performance. Olympic wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs says, "All I see is gold." It is his mantra. Like Burroughs, look on the more positive side of events and always shoot for the most favorable outcome.

Whether you are a student-athlete, a weekend warrior, a professional athlete, or a serious contender for the Olympics, going gold today will allow you to work to achieve superior performance and gain a genuine competitive advantage. Striving for the highest level will give you the best shot for personal greatness. We all deserve to shine and be successful, but we can achieve this only through intelligently applied hard work.

Recognize that there will never be a better time and place than right now and right here to become a champion in your own game and life. To paraphrase Bob Dylan: You are either busy being born or busy dying. Let's get busy achieving your athletic goals. Put on your own gold medal performance, whether you are going to the gym, running trails, or stepping on the gridiron in a championship game. Why settle for anything less? Consider:

Don't have the time? You are worth the time!

Don't have the energy? You will gain energy!

Doubt yourself? Start doubting your doubt!

THE CHAMPION QUESTION

Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them--a desire, a dream, a vision.

--MUHAMMAD ALI

What will your life look like when you have become your own champion? This is the key champion question. Take some time right now to imagine that a major performance breakthrough in your game and life has just occurred and that you have become a champion all day, every day. In your mind's eye, work your way through a regular weekday, a practice or training session, and a future competition. Draw together as much detail as possible about what it will look like to be at a gold level, to be the best version of yourself consistently. What specific actions or behaviors do you see yourself doing better or differently?

Now that you have reshaped and redefined your game, what do you think others will perceive? What do you want them to observe? What would really surprise your teammates, coaches, or competitors? If you could step outside yourself and examine your new performance, what would you recognize in your new attitude and behaviors?

Identify precisely what you do that hurts your own cause the most. Eliminate that action or viewpoint immediately. To perform at a champion's level, you must break any bad habits, such as a tendency to arrive late to practice or just going through the motions when you get there. We are all champions until we lose to ourselves.

Make your new gold story compelling, one that is active and personal. You need to see it to achieve it. Each time you do this exercise, your vision of how you perform as a champion will become clearer and stronger. Your new mental picture will get the performance ball rolling in the right direction.

To go a step further, it is good to contrast the personal pride and peace of mind that results from having a champion approach to life with the future pain and regret of knowing in your heart that you settled for less than your best. Will you continue to sacrifice what you most want to achieve in your game for what is comfortable in the moment? Or will you keep putting your best foot forward, especially when you feel like doing it the least?

My favorite description of what excellence in the sports world looks like comes from Anson Dorrance, the legendary University of North Carolina women's soccer coach. He was driving to work early one morning, and as he passed a deserted field, he noticed one of his players off in the distance doing extra training by herself. He kept driving, but he later left a note in her locker: "The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching." The young woman, Mia Hamm, would go on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

Having a big dream--and a clear vision of what you will look like while pursuing competitive excellence--always inspires greatness. What is your dream goal? What does excellence in your game look like when you are fully dialed in and passionately pursuing your dream--becoming the best you can be in your sport? Make the description vivid and powerful enough to give you that burst of adrenaline when you need it, a burst that can come only from connecting completely with your heart's true desire.

Dame Kelly Holmes, a British track star, held on tight to her athletic dreams when she was faced with personal hardships and physical hassles. Specifically, Holmes had to prevail over both depression and physical injury to shine on sport's biggest stage--striking gold in both the 800- meter and the 1500-meter races at the 2004 Athens Olympics. In her book Just Go For It! 6 Simple Steps to Achieve Success, this double gold medalist explains the importance of always thinking in terms of possibilities: "We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible. A dream is not impossible, so go get yours!"

ACT LIKE YOU'RE A CHAMPION

Be great in act, as you have been in thought.

--WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

There is no golden road to excellence; excellence is the golden road. Until you start down this road, you'll never have a chance of getting there. As such, act as if you are a total champion for set amounts of time each day by exceeding normal expectations. This time is where the rubber meets the road. You are confident, focused, energized, and in charge.

How does it feel different when performing at peak levels versus just doing business as usual? Are you arriving early to practice or running late? Are you making weekly plans for training or just winging it because you're too tired or too busy? Are you giving the extra effort needed for excellence?

A nonmedalist says, "One day I will," whereas a gold medalist does it and says, "Today I did." Sergey Bubka of Ukraine, a record-setting pole-vaulter and gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, always advocated others to "Do it. Then say it." Actions really do speak louder than words, so take a moment right now to ask yourself, "Am I walking (or running) the talk with how I'm preparing myself for competition?"

Some days you will not feel motivated or your nerves will have gotten the best of you. You will feel as though you have only your B- or C-game ready. This moment will be your moment of truth. Imagine, for example, that you are experiencing prepractice dread. Resolve to spend the first 30 minutes attacking your workout with enthusiasm, as if you really do love it. Most of the time you will continue in the same manner because you will be rolling along and achieving and feeling better than you did.

The best and quickest solution for overcoming your inner resistance, challenging old patterns, and changing bad habits is to fake it until you either find your A-game and recover your form or finish it, and the game has ended. Slow it down and break it down. Panic is not an option for a champion.

Doing the one thing you don't want to do (going to the gym/sticking to your nutrition plan) rather than giving in to your fears/anxiety by clinging to the familiar (putting the workout off until tomorrow/eating the whole pizza) is your decision at the fork in the road that will determine whether you accomplish your sports goals. Realize that this choice is your choice-- you can either act like a champion or take the path of least resistance and not feel challenged.

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