That she did, and as a result accomplished a stunning upset, taking home the United States Open tennis title in 1990 at the age of 19.
The process that Sabatini used to give herself that mental edge is called imaging or visualization. Many top players in a variety of sports are using this process to make themselves ready for competition. In essence, they “run a movie” of a successful performance in their heads.
These successful athletes have learned that preparing for competition requires a combination of physical and mental preparation.
Let’s Get Physical
On the physical side, nutrition, rest, and relaxation all contribute to being optimally prepared to compete.
Anyone who has ever gorged on too much pizza can vouch for the fact that eating right (or wrong) has a direct effect on how you feel. A balanced diet is as important in gaining a competitive edge as physical training. In fact, if you don’t eat sensibly, your body may be extremely uncooperative as you try to push yourself to your limits.
When you want a quick energy boost before practice, DON’T reach for that candy bar. While candy packed with sugar may give you an initial surge of energy, it also brings you down quickly (even lower than your original energy level!). Snacks in the form of fruit, or a peanut butter sandwich, or cheese and crackers, or a bowl of cereal are a smarter choice when you’re gearing up for competition.
On the day of competition, be sure to eat your meal several hours before you are scheduled to compete.
Adequate rest in an important component in getting ready for competition. The excitement of the coming contest may make it difficult to fall asleep. You may even think that staying up late to get in more practice will give you that competitive edge. It won’t! Instead, lack of much-needed sleep is likely to cloud your mind, dull your senses, and slow your movement. Give yourself a break: Rest.
You Deserve to Relax
Relaxation is another important ingredient in preparing for competition. Watching a movie, listening to music, reading, talking to a friend, anything that puts you at ease and relieves stress helps to promote a healthy state of mind.
Determination Is the Key
While no one is perfect, practicing skills brings them to the highest level we can attain. Determination begins with a goal. Then decide how to achieve that goal. Start from where you are; take pride in what you’re doing; focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do; learn from your mistakes; don’t be afraid to fail; be willing to sacrifice to reach your accomplishments.
Once you get close to the day of a competition, the physical aspect of optimum performance is overshadowed by the importance of mental toughness. At this point, if you’ve prepared well, your body will “automatically know” how to perform. It is your mind that must be tough enough to handle the situation successfully.
Dr. Robert W. Burton, a sports psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, emphasizes that being the first to cross a finish line requires much more than strong muscles and good foot speed. To be at top performance, an athlete must be equally strong in mind and body.
“I’ve been doing visualizing exercises since I was 12,” says 19-year-old Jessica Mills from Evanston, Illinois. Jessica is a world-class figure skating champion who captured the Junior World Figure Skating Championship at the age of 14.
“About two weeks before every competition, each night I visualize one of the two routines I will be doing. I go through all the jumps and spins in my mind exactly as I want them to be,” she says. “Then, on the day of the competition, I get to the rink early, stretch, find a quiet corner and visualize my entire upcoming performance. I go through every move, feeling that the performance is flawless.”
It seems to run in the family. Jessica’s 22-year-old sister, Hilary, a National Speed Skater, also uses visualization as a tool to prepare for competition. “On the day of my competition,” she explains, “I usually close my eyes and go through the exact techniques I want to use. When I see the races in my head, I see all my split lap times, which are excellent, of course. Sometimes I see myself from different views,” she continues, “as if I am observing myself from inside out. Other times it’s as if I were a spectator watching myself. The night before a race I try to relax and do something I really like to do–go to a good movie, for instance. But don’t think I won’t be pondering how I’m going to skate tomorrow’s race,” she says with a smile.
Robert M. Nideffer, Ph.D., in his book Psyched to Win, offers the following advice on mental toughness.
1. You have the capacity to believe and to have faith in your own abilities. It is your responsibility, however, to develop that faith by making a commitment.
2. Faith is important because it quiets the voice of doubt inside your head. Unless you quiet self-doubt, you cannot become immersed.
3. Believe it is your responsibility to do the very best you can with the tools you have.
4. Accept the fact that faith is a growing process, not an absolute.
5. Faith and your ability to play “in the zone” (at a level of peak performance) grow slowly, hand in hand.
6. Responsibility for your life rests in your own hands.
Olympic sports psychologist Shane Murphy says, “To succeed in anything, think of yourself in a positive way. This means that when you get a negative thought, you must consciously stop and replace it with a positive one. In sports, such phrases as ‘I am a winner’ or ‘I deserve to be here’ are the kinds of thoughts that will enhance your mental outlook and facilitate your best ever!”