They run fast, they jump high, they’re strong, they’re in great shape, and they’re all amongst the best in the world. Who? Professional athletes. They have to perform at the highest level pretty much all the time, but most of the time it goes beyond just their physical abilities. With distractions, haters, injuries, losses, and setbacks thrown at them, they have to really dig deep and have the right mindset so that they can be the absolute best they can be. Every. Single. Day.
Sports fans and young athletes look up to and admire these professionals either because they want to be like them or they just appreciate their physical prowess. Most of these people work towards or focus on the athleticism needed to make it as a pro. Although this is very important, I mean that is the whole point of being an athlete, but most pros will argue that the mental game is way more important. Think about it for a second. There are millions of talented athletes around the world. You probably even know a couple people that belong to that group. How many actually made it? A very small percentage. Just looking at the NBA for instance, around 0,03% of high school basketball players in the United-States make it. So you can imagine the stat for basketball players around the world is even smaller. All this to say that the physical aspect of it is minor. Not only does the actual skillset have to be mastered to near perfection, but also the mindset is the most important part of making it to the big leagues. There is a famous quote that reflects this, which many athletes have used. It’s different depending on who is saying it but it goes along the lines of sports are 90% mental and 10% physical.
Now if you’re not going to take it from me that’s fine. Then take it from former Dawson Blue and now Olympic bronze medalist with Canada’s women’s rugby team, Bianca Farella. She says that “being in high-performance means much more than training […] physically”. “I have to know how to handle stress appropriately and make decisions in high-stake moments in games. Sevens (rugby) is a particularly fast sport, there is not much room for error, especially when playing the top teams like New Zealand. When my heart rate is high, I have to be able to objectively make a tactical game decision for the betterment of our team. Additionally, a mentally-sound mindset is a positive one. A skill is to mentally create a positive environment in my head,” she says. I rest my case. I’m not denying the physical aspect though. Especially not in an intense sport like rugby. Bianca would co-sign as well. “We always undergo harder fitness training than the games actually end up being, so that if there is a tough game ahead, we know we have worked harder in practice.” The actual games look scary enough for me so I cannot even imagine what these sessions are like. I think I’ll stick to watching it on TV.
Their job is very demanding and that doesn’t just go for rugby. You could imagine that a football player as well as has to be in great condition. I mean they’re grown men running into each other at full speed for god sake! John Bowman from the Montreal Alouettes trains 6 times a day in the off-season. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he’ll do field work and go to the gym and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he’ll lift weights. On Saturdays, he does cardio and stretching. To add to the training, he has a dietitian and a specific meal plan and weight goals. He claims it’s “extremely hard”. Mind you that he is 35 years old, which is a veteran in the sports world. Yet, he trains and plays to compete with these young guns and still play at a top level. He says, “I walk around with the mentality that there’s no one better than me and I train my body with the mindset that there are younger and better guys that I have to work harder than.” Again, all these factors all link to the mind. Without the strong mindset to accomplish these things, there is no way to do it on a daily basis.
You need to have a strong mental game not only to make it in professional sports but when you make it, it’s one of the most integral parts of the actual sport. What do I mean exactly? I’ll let another pro explain this. Johnny Berhane is a professional basketball player of Eisbären Bremerhaven of the German basketball league. He’s not the “species of an athlete” you would think of, he says. He doesn’t have the physical prowess of most pros. Standing at 6’2” and weighing around 175lbs, which is not a lot compared to average basketball players, his mind is one of the most important aspects of his game. “The mental aspect is important, you have to be able to visualize what you want to see out on the court and understand how to get your head in the right place to be in a position to be successful for practices and games,” he says. He then adds, “My mindset translates to my play in the sense that I try to be tactical and methodical because I’m not a species of an athlete on the court. So mentally I try to understand how I can be a smart player on the court.” That’s his advantage, to make up for his lack of size and height, but it’s safe to say it worked out for him.
These athletes go through hardships as well. Injuries affect them at times, obstacles come in their way, and people doubt them. These things are a given; they’re going to happen. John Bowman had to deal with people thinking he couldn’t last in football, but he used that as motivation. That can be hard at times because it’s easy to feed into that. Him sustaining an injury that kept him off the field for 3-4 years has people a reason to doubt him. The recovery was already hard on him, let alone the negative people. “The Toughest thing of my career has been dealing with losing these last 3-4 years. It mentally wears on you,” said Bowman. Setbacks are a part of sports as well. “Injuries are part of the sport I try not to think about them too much but have experienced some and try to do the right rehabilitation in order to get back properly,” says Johnny Berhane. There is no perfect road and that can be hard to deal with at times. Bianca Farella says, “I often think of injuries as an athlete’s main setbacks, but there are many. In my case, I’ll speak to injuries. I don’t get injured often, but when I do it requires surgery. But I really enjoy playing rugby, and I have learned that if I ever reconsidered this high-performance life, it is usually during a period of overtraining. As well, if I ever thought of quitting it was usually because I did not have enough life balance. This happened to me this past year after the Olympics, so I decided to go back to school. Having that balance again ignited my drive for the high-performance environment”. It’s important for them to say the right things to put them in the right state of mind and focus. Bianca adds, “If I experience a setback, for example, a long-term injury, I tell myself that I will be back on the field in no time, that being injured doesn’t last forever and that this is life telling you to slow the f**k down and focus on other things”.
This is just a portion of what goes on in an athletes mind. As much as they do physically, they do mentally and they have no choice if they want to be successful. Then again they had to grow up with this mentality to even make it, so it’s in them. “You develop it from the beginning. I always felt slighted so that’s my drive that I use,” said John Bowman. Their mindsets are what separates them from the pack. That’s why they’re pros. So if you think of being a pro, just remember, it’s all in the mind.