Mental Strength Key to Athletic Success


Dr. Mara Smith (Photo provided)

Mental strength is very important in sports but it is important to distinguish “mental health” from “mental strength” and “mental fitness” says Dr. Mara Smith, a sport psychology consultant. “What I focus on is mental strength and conditioning,” Smith said, “utilizing an educational framework to help the athletes I work with understand, work on and build the mental skills and strength they need to optimize their physical training and performance. People understand the importance of physical strength and conditioning – I want them to use mental strength and conditioning.  If they are only training their body, they are only training part of the athlete.”

According to Dr. Smith, the best way for an athlete to deal with stress before or during an important performance is to have great, efficient and effective training under your belt.  For athletes, stress often comes from unrealistic expectations like trying to have a “perfect” run or game.  When athletes can let go of their obsession with perfection and understand what their strengths are, feel good about those rather than focusing on their weaknesses, then they can dial down the stress at a competition.

Dr. Smith’s perspective rings true to me. In my experience, the best way to deal with stress is to focus on what you can control. You cannot control what the other team is going to do or how other racers are going to do on their runs. In skiing, you can only control your own skis and not your neighbor’s. This is why in training you should mainly focus on beating your own time and not always trying to know what the best time is. It has happened to me many times in training where knowing the best time made me stressed and made my performances worse, because instead of focusing on my performance, I was focusing on something I couldn’t control.


Sophomore alpine ski racer Sarah Bennett

It is important to know where all of the stress comes from, and I think that most of it comes from high expectations from the athlete and sometimes parents. Parents want what is best for their children, but most of the time, they put unnecessary pressure on them without realizing how much it affects the athletes. The parents might think they need to push their children to the limit, but they forget that that is the coach’s job. Some parents have never been in the athlete’s position and it is hard for them to understand what the right thing to do is. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to let them be and let the coaches take care of them.

It is very hard to deal with disappointment in sports, and It is normal to be disappointed after a poor performance. “I encourage everyone, not just athletes, to view failure as feedback,” Smith said. “The most important thing is utilizing that feedback to get information which you use to reflect and understand why there was a mistake or poor a outcome and how the process can change to make it better next time.  Reflection is a very powerful tool.”

I think that failure can be very hard to deal with, especially if you take your sport very seriously, like I do. I am definitely not the best person to talk about how one should act after a disappointing performance, but there is one thing I am sure of: failure has made me learn so much more than accomplishment. Bad runs and crashes have made me view things from a different angle than I could have ever learned from accomplishments. Even if it seems like no good will come out of failure, after awhile, you realize that all disappointment has a purpose.


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