A sports psychologist on... pre-workout tactics

How to create a performance-enhancing game plan

Welcome to our second installment of A Sports Psychologist On...For this new series, running during the month of March, we'll bring you insight from top sports psychologists each week on various psychological issues athletes face. Here, how to amp yourself up before a big race or even a tough workout.

I encourage athletes to not only develop pre-practice and pre-workout routines, but to make them similar to what they'll do before a meet, game, or a race. We know the practice or workout environment doesn’t have the same intensity as a competition. However, it’s imperative for an athlete’s mental focus to develop consistent habits before workouts so when the event itself comes, there’s already a plan in place.

A good pre-workout routine should do three things. First, it establishes goals, such as planning to run a 5K at a certain pace. Second, it allows you to gain composure, slow down, and think about what you’re going to accomplish in the class or training session ahead. Third, it improves your focus for the workout by minimizing the amount of decisions and stressors you have to go through.

Here, four tactics to try before any workout, game, or race.

1. Write Down Distractions

You have to compartmentalize. When you first get to the locker room, you need to find a way to get all the baggage you’re bringing in out of your head. Try putting your to-do list down on paper (or in your phone). Once you’re done, you can put that away and shift your focus as you’re getting changed towards what your goals are for this workout.

2. Calibrate Your Energy

Now that you're focused, you can do a quick energy check. If you feel flat, think about what you can do to get that motivation elevated, which can include listening to a playlist, looking at an inspirational quote on your phone, or doing some quick movements like jumping jacks to get blood flowing. At the same time, if your energy is too high (maybe you’re nervous because today’s a big workout) then focus on slowing down your breath, using a calming cue word, or using positive self-talk.

3. Adjust Your Goal

If you're having a low-motivation day—even after trying to improve your energy with the tactics above—tweak your goal to be something more achievable. For example, if you feel like you’re at 80 percent, your goal can be to give 100 percent of that 80 percent. A lot of people who are goal-directed are very perfectionistic and achievement-oriented, but one of the key effective strategies in goal setting is the ability to have a flexible goal.

4. Multi-Task Your Visualization

While you’re stretching and warming up, try a much briefer form of imagery than you'd normally do (ideally 20 to 25 minutes before bed). Picture how you want your start to be, the pace you want, and see yourself successfully executing your plan.

Chris Carr, Ph.D., is a sports and performance psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis.

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