By Costa Kladianosz (@TempusStrength)
You may have heard the phrase “90 per cent of sport is mental.” At the top level of any sport, the physical abilities of athletes are roughly the same with only a razor-thin line between first and worst. The athletes with that extra mental edge, the ones who can “will” their body to win not only in the event but throughout the extra hours of the daily grind of practice and training are the ones who will have their hands raised. What mental components create that competitive drive and how does it help get athletes to the next level? How can this mental focus be harnessed and developed? We spend so much time talking about the physical aspects of sport that this is an area that often gets neglected but is unquestionably one of the most important.
As a strength coach working with athletes who are looking to or are already competing at the top level of their sport, it is important to quickly identify the ones who have the mental drive and perseverance that will take them from good to great or from great to legendary. They simply can’t survive the gruelling training and possess the commitment needed to be the best without it. But what is “it?” If an athlete is always finding a reason to endure instead of an excuse to quit, they probably got it. If they train with fire in their eyes every moment of every session, no matter how they feel, whilst ignoring the bed that’s calling, they probably got it. If they are concerned with nothing but the next set even though they have personal problems or a sickness to overcome, you better believe they got it! You can display the body and athleticism of a Greek god that makes you the envy of others, but without that mental edge to give you the ability to effectively handle distractions and push through your comfort zone, you will always hit a glass ceiling. The wannabes try and find the best “pump up” music on the gym radio — the ones who got “it” don’t even realize the radio is on.
Like any skill, this ability comes easier to some more than to others. After 15 years of working with high-level athletes, I’ve learned a few tricks to help them develop and hone that competitive fire needed to succeed. I am a strong believer that it can be developed through constant practice, self-awareness, and a positive environment, because I’ve done it with my athletes. At my gym, Tempus, I purposely group up athletes from different sports for a reason. I’ll put baseball players in a group with hockey players, or MMA fighters with soccer players. That’s when the competitive nature comes out. The last thing an athlete wants is to be seen as is weak compared to their peers, especially if those peers compete in another sport! This works an athlete’s mental focus, along with the physical. I’m a huge believer that environment determines your behaviour. If you are in an environment where everyone is focusing on the task at hand and pushing themselves and each other to get that last rep out no matter what, you will take on those characteristics and be better then you ever believed possible.
It doesn’t matter if it’s training or during a match, this intense focus is always present and ingrained in a competitors’ psyche. I recently had the pleasure in accompanying my client, professional kickboxer Joseph “Bazooka Joe,” as he competed in Los Angeles for the Glory World Championship at the Historic forum in front of 10,000 fans. As I sat with Joseph in his dressing room before the match, you could see a transition take place as he began to focus mentally. His eyes narrowed and his glance was cast downward as he visualized the task at hand. It was all running through his head as vividly as if it was happening live, from the opening bell to every combo, kick, punch, and block, to the belt being put around his waist in victory. Even during the training process leading up to his fight, these moments are played out in Joe’s thoughts thousands of times. The more Joe visualizes these moments, the more real each one becomes. When he steps in the ring he is at peace, because mentally he has already been in this moment a thousand times before. He went through a five-round war where both he and his opponent were knocked down and took unbelievable punishment that would’ve felled any normal person. It was that intense mental toughness honed through years of practice and training that allowed him to nab that victory and the championship.
There is a classic scene in Pumping Iron where Arnold deadpans to the camera that he had to miss his father’s funeral to train for a bodybuilding contest; Michael Jordan’s former coach Doug Collins once said about His Airness, “He wants to cut out your heart and show it to you.” While these may be extreme (and slightly exaggerated) examples, it still goes to show the obsession of a top-level athlete when they are focused on a goal and the measures they take to succeed. Take ten minutes to research anyone who dominated their sport and you will see your search littered with comments about their intense mental focus and drive. This not only applies to sport but also high-level businessmen and leaders like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Mark Cuban. They all had that drive to be great, and obstacles meant nothing.
The great Muhammad Ali said, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” The mind is the most powerful part of us. When we harness its power, we can push ourselves to live up to our maximum potential.
Costa Kladianos is the owner and head trainer of Tempus Performance, a sport-specific strength and conditioning facility in Toronto who has worked with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors.