This weekend sees the World Cup final, sadly without England, the finals of Wimbledon and the continuation of the Tour de France. You'll see men and women at the very pinnacle of their sports, performing at the highest level. It's not just physical ability that sets them apart; they're also mentally strong and have developed a range of psychological tools to help them stay focused, positive and calm when the pressure is on.
You might not want to be amongst the best athletes on the planet but you can still learn from them and use their techniques to help you achieve your health, fitness and wellbeing goals. So what exactly do they do that makes such a difference?
Chase your dreams
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that people who set themselves tougher goals were more likely to achieve them. The reason proposed is that tougher goals enable you to maintain higher motivation levels for longer. Don't just accept average, go after the dream.
Focus on the process
Whilst you might do better having a bigger goal to work towards, you then also need to be capable of focusing on the things you need to do to get there. Whilst Serena may say to herself that she wants to win Wimbledon, her first goal will be to get her first serve in. Mark Cavendish will set himself the target of being in bed early enough to ensure he gets enough rest ahead of tomorrow's stage, and we all know how Gareth Southgate got the England players thinking about their roles for every single set piece in the game. It's the repeated achievement of these smaller goals that makes the big one possible. For you it might be to have a healthy breakfast every day before leaving for work or making sure you've made your food and snacks for the next day the night before. It might be having your gym kit packed and having your lights out by 10:30 so you can be in the gym for 6:30.
"I was expecting a few more baby steps, but every time I go out there, I want to take a giant step forward, keep improving."
Serena Williams, on wanting to make small improvements after coming back from giving birth, but surprising herself by reaching the Wimbledon Final.
Chunk it down
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. If you think about the epic goal you're working towards, it can feel overwhelming. How many times do you hear sportspeople say 'we'll take it one game at a time.' It sounds a bit boring when they keep repeating it, but it's true and it's this fantastic ability to make it seem smaller that helps them through it. Marathon runners don't think about the whole 26.2 miles, they just focus on getting over the crest of the hill. You can focus on just eating healthily today; worry about tomorrow when it comes.
Tennis players can be 0-40 down on their serve and fight back to win the game. Only the other day, Kevin Anderson came from two sets down against the mighty Roger Federer to win in five sets, taking the last one 13-11. He was only capable of this because he could forget what had gone and focus on the next point, and the next, then the next.
You can do the same if you choose something less healthy for lunch or if you miss a gym class. Does it matter? Not if you pick yourself up and get back to it. It matters if you let it matter and get yourself on that negative hamster wheel - 'I ate something bad, I feel rubbish, so I can't be bothered to go for my run tonight - and that makes me feel down so I'll have a few drinks.' Athletes don't let the wheel start to turn; they recognise that something hasn't gone well, forgive themselves, forget about it and go again. You can too.
Use the power of words and pictures
Top athletes are very good at using their mind to good effect. They can visualise the successful outcome they're after. Jess Ennis-Hill used to picture herself performing the precise technique she was looking for and Jonny Wilkinson famously used to repeat the same routine before every kick, picturing in his head the feeling of the ball as it struck his foot and watching it fly straight between the posts. You can practice seeing yourself lifting the weight you've been targeting, getting into the clothes you want to feel comfortable in again, or crossing the finish line in that race. When you do, really take yourself there; imagine what it looks like, the sounds you'd hear and the smells, tastes and feelings you'd experience.
They're also great at positive self-talk. Many clients have told me over the years how they struggle to manage the voice in their head, the one that tells them to eat the packet of biscuits in the cupboard or have some more of that cake in the office kitchen to celebrate Jennie's birthday. And why not? You won't achieve your goal anyway so it doesn't matter. Instead, use mantra's like the pro's. Gwen Jorgensen, two-time World Triathlon champion and Olympic gold medallist, says to herself 'These are not sacrifices, but investments. I truly believe they will pay me back ten-fold.' This could just as easily relate to dietary changes for a weight loss goal as it does to the hopes of a gold medal.
What about when you're exercising? What do athletes do to get through the hard training? Many people assume that they enjoy it because they're so fit but that just isn't the case. They get so fit because they can endure the pain and tiredness required to reach that level. And that means they need ways to distract themselves when the going gets tough. Here are a few things you can try to get you through those tough workouts:
1) Think about the process - if you've gone for a run and you're struggling, focus on the actions of moving your arms and legs, the soft landing of your foot, relaxing your shoulders, standing tall. If you're lifting a weight, talk yourself through the key technique requirements as you do it
2) Breath - hopefully that's a given, but sometimes focusing on your breathing, especially when doing cardio, can make a real difference. Try to make your breaths slower than your movements. In turn it will slow your heart rate and make it feel easier
3) Count - you might use your watch on a run to do some calculations in your head. 'If it's taken me this long to get here, it'll take another 7 minutes til I reach the corner'. Alternatively, you can break things down into numbers - 'I'll just do another 15 minutes on the bike', or simply count your steps or pedal turns - 'I'll just do another 20' and so on.
4) Drift off - especially helpful in repetitive exercise that doesn't need to much concentration, make your shopping list, plan your holiday or one of mine and Vicky's favourites, think about what you'll have for dinner.
Any one of these techniques done regularly can help take you a step closer to your goals. Give one a try, and if it doesn't work for you, don't give up, simply try something else until it does.