Mental Conditioning and Sports Performance

Coach Daniel Domaradzki releasing his true power

What Is Mental Conditioning?

This text is aimed at athletes who want to learn how to improve their sports performance by using meditation and mental conditioning techniques.

Mental conditioning isn’t just about positive thinking. Mental conditioning is a system used by athletes, coaches and “modern-day ninjas” to improve their performance in sports and in life. It involves repetitively executing the same action, over time, until you can perform it flawlessly. However, these actions are performed with your mind, rather than your body. Just like strength and conditioning is a field of science focusing on improving certain physical qualities in athletes, mental conditioning is a system allowing to achieve the right mindset, improve cognitive function and utilise specific mental conditioning skills to achieve the desired outcome. Mental conditioning involves ancient meditation techniques, NLP, modern psychology, and many other techniques that can help you achieve previously set goals. This article will discuss how mental conditioning works and explain several examples of it in practice so you can understand the principles and apply them yourself to improve your sports performance.

While you might think that the mind is unrelated to sports performance, recent reports suggest otherwise. People who focus their minds on challenging tasks are more likely to have positive psychological outcomes (e.g., reduced anxiety and improved focus) than people who engage in sports tasks with a negative attitude. While some might still believe that mental exercise is overrated, more and more research reveals that successfully conditioning your mind has real benefits on your sports performance, training qualities and physical health.

Can Mental Conditioning Help You Get Stronger?

Mental conditioning is a mental activity that can help you become stronger in many ways, including increasing the neural drive (the signal sent from the brain to the motor units), improving your technique, motor skills, balance and even cognitive function such as memory, focus, or the ability to process information. These processes involve changing the way your brain interprets information and mental conditioning involves influencing it. Some martial arts such as Jiu-Jitsu and other forms of martial arts can be helpful as they involve mental techniques that specifically focus on the mental aspects of the art (e.g. kata). You can condition your body by doing physical activities and you can also condition your mind by practising mental conditioning. Mental conditioning helps you gain strength in all aspects of life, including powerlifting, strongman, martial arts, weightlifting and improving the ways your brain perceives and processes information.

Aa a strength athlete (or strength coach), you can use mental conditioning protocols to awaken your true potential and elicit your hidden power. True strength can manifest itself under certain conditions. If you convince your brain that you need to use 100% capabilities of your body to achieve your goals now, you will be able to override some inhibitory mechanisms that hold you back. It requires mental skills and they can be learnt with mental preparation protocols. Unlike classical conditioning, mental conditioning doesn’t train just your body but also your willpower. It can help you aggregate marginal gains by using techniques far more powerful than positive thinking (which also changes your attitudes and positively influences your mindset). A strength and conditioning coach must be able to use various techniques to get you stronger, help you achieve your goals, overcome fear and anxiety and discover your true potential.

In a nutshell, mental conditioning can help you get stronger by allowing you to overcome your fear, get rid of anxiety, increase your confidence, aggregate marginal gains and work on your mental skills so you can concentrate harder on what you are doing. This increases the chance of succeeding. Some of the techniques come from ancient meditation systems and despite their esoteric aura, they are backed up by science. These techniques increase your willpower, focus and provide many other benefits, especially, if they are combined with physical training. This gives you more control over the mental processes going on in your brain.

Japanese samurai holding a katana
Japanese samurai focusing before a fight

2 Approaches To Mental Conditioning

There are two approaches to mental conditioning. Regardless of which one you will use, you will still have to do the work but the difference lies in what techniques you (or your strength coach) plan to use as they will focus on different qualities.

One method relies on training your willpower and confronting your weaknesses while the other one uses meditation techniques to awaken your hidden power by maximising your strengths. Both of these methods work and both of them aim to help you discover your true potential and aggregate marginal gains by squeezing everything out of you so you can add your newly acquired mental skills to the equation. Unlike classical conditioning, mental conditioning will force you to work with your mindset and willpower so you can express your true strength in training and during sports events.

Remember, mind and body union is a holistic approach to strength and conditioning training. It’s not just about meditation, it’s about teaching you how to use meditation to achieve your goals in sports and in life. These techniques are being used purely to increase your performance, not just to make you feel better and force you into a positive-thinking mindset.

Confront Your Weaknesses

Confronting your weaknesses is an important step in improving your performance. Confronting weakness can be difficult because we have a natural tendency to avoid facing our shortcomings. However, confronting weaknesses can help you improve in many ways. One of the best ways is to confront your fear. By doing this you will increase your self-esteem and learn how you can overcome these weaknesses in order to become more confident. Confronting your weaknesses is a great way to strengthen your weak links and become mentally stronger. When you are able to identify your weak points, you can take steps to improve yourself, so that you are able to face whatever challenges life throws at you in the future.

The first step to becoming a stronger person is to identify your weaknesses. For instance, you might not be able to perform the clean and jerk fluently because of the fact that you are only fluent in strongman exercises. The same principle works in sports. The technique works by fixing your weak links and stopping them from holding you back. As you turn your weaknesses into your strengths, you can later maximise their potential by developing them even further. This will ensure that you develop a bulletproof mind that doesn’t yield before challenges.

The techniques involve mental travelling, deep meditation, working on your mental skills, and increasing your willpower by improving what you’re weak at. These techniques can help you overcome anxiety before the powerlifting meet, express your true strength while lifting weights (this is slightly more than your daily 1 rep max), ensure that your focus stays tight and you don’t fuck up doing tire flips due to the weather or lack of sleep. To put it simply, you will analyse your strength and weaknesses by doing a SWOT analysis (SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and working on the areas that need the most improvement.

Maximise Your Strengths

Maximising your strengths is a key concept to understanding the implementation of success. It is also a simple but powerful principle that can be used to create an environment in which you thrive. Maximising your strengths is important because it means that you can use them to the best of your ability and they are not being used in a way that compromises their effectiveness. If I was to put it in a single sentence, I would probably tell you to keep calm, develop a positive attitude and focus on your strengths (this is where positive thinking comes in handy).

First of all, you will have to go through a thorough analysis and identify what skills are your strongest. Then you will start using the mental skills that correlate with your physical strengths. Your strength coach should be able to help you with this. Remember that your true strength comes from your soul, your body, and your mind. It awakens with practice and all you have to do is actually train. The consistency will help you get even stronger.

If you want to achieve your goals, you will have to maximise your strength potential by exposing your strengths to the stimuli they are not used to. You can do that by combining physical training with mental skills and pure focus. You will have to start treating each session as a fight for life and death. Only then, you will be able to force your hidden power to awake. Your strength coach shall observe if you are really pushing yourself to the limit and using the right technique. As a strength coach, they should know what is it like to concentrate not just on your muscles but also to focus your mind on the task. They will simply know when are you close to expressing your true strength. Releasing it during training will give you the chance to master it. Unlike classical conditioning, this type of training allows you to grasp the true potential of your body. Meditation will help you with focusing on the training techniques. As it goes for your strength and conditioning coach, leave the programming for them. You will have one simple task and this will be taking your skills beyond master level.

Japanese katana - a symbol of power
Japanese katana – a symbol of power and courage

What Is Your Hidden Power?

What is your hidden power? This question may sound silly, but it has become very popular in the last few years. The idea behind this question is that anyone can do more than they think they are capable of doing. In other words, people always feel like they’re stuck and don’t know what to do during training.

Often, we have the ability to accomplish much more than we realise or believe we are capable of doing. You might be able to achieve your goals just now but be simply unaware of it. The idea of releasing your hidden power is to inhibit the inhibitors and maximise your performance. Strength athletes refer to this as the limit strength. This is the type of strength Eddie Hall managed to express as he approached the 500kg deadlift. He knew he was not ready for such weight yet and he had to concentrate hard and literally hypnotise himself to get the weight moving. With time, you will learn how to express your limit strength under certain conditions but it will take a lot of practice. A good strength and conditioning coach can help you with that. It’s the part of you that you have yet to discover and unleash. It’s a part of your personality, style, and talents that you haven’t been able to express because it doesn’t fit with what others think is right for you. Your hidden power may be something as simple as your ability to master the snatch in no time or as complicated as being able to dissect certain lifts into individual parts so you can strengthen them one by one.

Awaken Your True Potential

You were created to grow and become more than you are today. You have the power to awaken your true potential, achieve performance that reflects your purpose and become a demi-god. For many people, the idea of achieving true greatness seems far-fetched, but it is possible. It’s a process that involves working hard and having faith in yourself. To help you achieve your full potential, I have prepared some special information I don’t usually reveal to others but I’ll make a small exception in this article.

When it comes to your life, there is no denying that you have the power of choice. Whether it be a change in sports performed, introducing a new exercise or even simply changing your mindset, it can be very difficult. However, when you are ready to make these changes, all it takes is one simple decision – and this is where your power lies.

The first thing you should try to achieve is to aggregate marginal gains. As long as you are on the same page with your mind, you can quickly figure out how much extra work you need to put in to maximise your strengths. This is not only a great way to make sure that you are reaching beyond the limits but also to stress also the mind.

True potential comes from the mind and body union. Every good strength and conditioning coach knows that.

Usually, classical conditioning focuses just on your body, but the mental conditioning approach allows you to work with your fear, use meditation to your own advantage, strengthen your willpower and achieve more than you thought you were capable of.

Why Train Your Body With Your Mind?

Regular meditation improves postural stability, respiration, muscular coordination and strength but not only. The benefits of regularly meditating and applying mental conditioning techniques far exceed the qualities listed above. You might not know that but old-time bodybuilders would preach the mind-muscle connection approach which, in fact, is a mental conditioning technique. They would do so long before it became commonly used and researched by modern science.

Body and mind work together as they cannot exist separate from one another. Through mind training, you can develop physical qualities and skills that cause your brain to connect deeper with the working muscle groups and joints by creating more neural pathways. As a result, your mind will create solutions for body problems by strengthening vulnerable associations and neural pathways themselves. From the subconscious tegmentum, down to the physical movements, neuro-psychological processes involving muscular coactivation are ultimately primed by external stimuli. The outside environment forces your brain to create psycho-physical connections after every action. Only when you learn how to correctly use symbolism language in terms of neural communication, the transfer of information will be optimised, therefore, resulting in a state of “cognitive lightness”.

Untangled emotions cue your consciousness deep inside your soul, thus expanding the importance of the mind and body union beyond the currently perceived level. Primary permeating sources of information form foreign horizons which encounter reflexive adventures that open you to new insights manifesting in a greater understanding of the way your physical body and brain function.

A warrior practising kung fu
Chinese warrior practising kung-fu

How To Condition Your Mind With Meditation?

Have you ever wanted to dive deep into the benefits of meditation but didn’t know where to begin? This article will be a guidepost for your mind and after reading through it, you will understand the basic principles of mental conditioning along with the reasons why should you train your mind. On top of that, I will also provide you with a couple of simple, yet effective techniques that can be practised by yourself and trained to an acceptable degree in a matter of weeks.

It’s no secret that athletes who meditate tend to perform better, are mentally and physically healthier and lead less stressful lives. Just about everyone has heard about the benefits of meditation by now but does anyone really know how to do it? With a little practice, you can train yourself to truly relax anytime and improve the way your brain processes the information. Here are step-by-step instructions for practising this ancient method without leaving your home.

First of all, you will have to learn how to relax and achieve a state of trance. This might sound weird but is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is lie down, calm your mind and clear your head. Instead of fighting with your thoughts, acknowledge their existence and let them be. As you stop paying attention to them, eventually, they will stop bothering you and allow you to concentrate much harder on the mental processes occurring in your brain. On top of that, you will gain a deeper understanding of how your thoughts are programmed so you can rearrange them just as if you were programming a computer.

Achieving deep relaxation puts you in the alpha state. In this state, your mind is more concentrated and you can control your thought processes better. Think of it as a mental warmup. Achieving this state is the first step towards applying the mental conditioning techniques but before you do that, you must master the art of relaxation and concentration. The good news is that it can be learnt in just a couple of weeks assuming you practice every other day.

All you need to do for now is to learn how to relax and achieve deeper relaxation each session. As you reach the next levels of gnosis, you will understand how this works naturally and become able to sense a glimpse of the true understanding. Just as you figured out how to move in your physical body naturally after you were born, you will figure out how to move inside the mind-space. This is a very natural process and all it takes is a bit of dedication (however, a good coach wouldn’t hurt).

Upon mastering the relaxation, you will have to practise certain techniques that consist of sets of well-organised instructions. Executing these instructions in a specified order will result in forming of new neuronal pathways responsible for managing these processes. It will take some time but in the end, you will be able to use new skills effortlessly just as if you were doing a bench press or a squat.

Mental techniques are no different to physical exercises. You master them through repetitive training and you get better with time. You don’t need to be “born gifted” or anything like that. All you have to do is believe in yourself and actually do your homework.

Mental Conditioning Techniques

And here comes the interesting part. I will now reveal a couple of tricks you can try out by yourself and witness the results with your own eyes. The techniques will be basic in their nature as in order to effectively use the advanced ones, you will need some training first but don’t be fooled! Even the most basic techniques can be very effective if used properly.

Practising motionlessness will help you to resist the urge of the body to change its position. It’s an important skill to learn as moving around during meditation will deconcentrate you and make the techniques less effective. The trick that nobody wants you to know is to learn how to stay still so you can concentrate deep enough, and then practise the concentration itself. In the later stages of development, you will be able to focus without stopping. This is the key to the successful appliance of mental conditioning techniques as during sports events, you won’t have the time to lie down for an hour because you will lose the event before you even manage to get yourself into a state of trance. If you want to be able to apply these techniques in an instant, learn how to stay still first, and then focus purely on achieving deeper trance. This trance can allow you to enter “the zone” and increase your performance on the platform. To make using it more convenient, you can utilise the next technique to create associations within your mind and call upon it when desired.

Association techniques like mudra or kuji-kiri work by creating an anchor in your mind. The anchor creates a connection between a certain hand gesture and consciousness state. By entering a deep concentration state and performing the gesture, you are engraving its meaning in your subconscious mind. If you do it enough times, your brain will start associating the gesture with the state of the mind and you will be able to invoke this state by simply performing the gesture. The more you practise it, the more powerful it becomes.

Learning how to visualize situations in one’s future before they occur is known as pre-potentiation and it has been proven by multiple studies that are supported by strong evidence to activate certain brain regions responsible for managing specific tasks. Visualisation techniques are very powerful, especially, when combined with gestures. After attaining proficiency in previous techniques, you may add another component, that is, visualisation. Visualising things works like hypnosis. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between imaginary and real scenes. It only reacts to the stimuli. If you expose it to a stimulus, real or not, it will provide a reaction assuming you manage to convince yourself it’s real. Visualising a geyser of energy bursting up your spine will help you activate your sympathetic nervous system, increase your heart rate and body temperature, release stimulating hormones and point your mind in the desired direction. Using these techniques together will help you hypnotise yourself even further and enter a state of gnosis where you begin to understand the main principles and mechanisms of action. This state is the first step to shutting down the inhibition mechanisms and allowing your body to reveal its true capabilities. The only thing you must remember is that you have to believe it’s real so much that your imagination becomes even more real that the outside world. Remember pretending to be a superhero as a child? It’s exactly this state of mind.

Be aware that all of the listed techniques can be used in many more situations than just the ones listed. For instance, the gesture association technique can be performed every time you win a “pseudo competition” with your training partner to anchor a state of winning. This state can be later replicated during a real, important tournament to increase your chances of winning. As you execute the technique, you invoke the mindset of a winner. This increases your motivation and pushes you to work harder not only by changing your perception (which also affects the perceived exertion) but also by releasing certain hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.

On the other hand, visualisation techniques can be used to calm yourself down after an exciting event and bring the stress hormone levels down. You can do so by visualising the energy moving down from the top of your head towards the base of your spine. As you do so, you should feel your muscles relaxing and the tension going away. If you add a basic pranayama technique (breathing exercise) and start exhaling slowly with a slight pause at the end, you will stimulate the vagus nerve which directly activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It will deepen the relaxation, decrease your heart rate, increase recovery and improve digestion which will aid in transporting nutrients to the tissues. This technique is very useful if you suffer from issues falling asleep. If you want to take this technique to a next level, you can also cover your eardrums with your thumbs, close your eyes and also cover them with your index, middle and ring fingers and start rhythmically humming with your mouth closed while exhaling. Soundwaves will make the tissues around your whole face vibrate and it will give you a sensation of your head being massaged. This technique is called “bhramari pranayama” and it stands for “humming bee breath”. I like to use it to relieve stress before intellectual effort but in case you want to hype yourself up before a sporting event, you can use the “breath of fire technique” that involves fast-paced diaphragmatic breathing.

Finally, even the most basic motionlessness practice might come in handy to improve your performance. To give you some brief examples, one of my athletes completely abandoned stretching after 6 months of miserable results and incorporated a mental conditioning technique where he was lying down, moving his attention towards the hypertonic tissue and commanding it to relax. This technique resulted in significant mobility improvements after only a couple of weeks of practice. As he got more proficient with this method, he started moving his attention to the pectorals and triceps muscles to improve their contraction strength. Later on, he began to combine this approach with visualisation and proceeded to imagining that he is bench pressing with a technique he previously tried to master for the past 6 months without success. A couple of weeks later, he was able to alter his pressing technique and execute it flawlessly with a stunning 95% of his 1 rep max. All it took was to lie down with eyes closed and go through a specific thought pattern. Not to mention, just practising the motionlessness itself can teach you how to relax your body so you can disable muscle groups responsible for compensation patterns in the competition movements which results in better form and greater muscular development.

Although these techniques are very powerful, they are also very basic. If you are interested in more advanced “tricks” I recommend you check out my mental conditioning e-book.

Follow These 3 Tips To Condition Your Mind

In order to achieve peak sports performance, you need to ask yourself these important questions: “What is my purpose?”, “In what areas do I want to grow as an athlete?”, “What skills should I practise at this moment?”

Surveys conducted by psychologists indicate that most people strive for definite goals, which they envision in two forms: what they want themselves and what their lives will look like beyond the current point. Taking charge of your own mind can create lifelong opportunities and affect your sports development long run but it also requires a lot of effort. It’s all too easy to passively wait around for something good or even a best-case scenario to happen. Digging deep into your own subconscious mind, you can become aware of what it has been programmed with. Your experiences, emotions, expectations and self-judgments fundamentally shape your skills and perception of reality. When you actively try using techniques such as visualisation or active imagination (that according to NLP affect one’s perspective), it will lead towards understanding what you want your future performance to look like. The same goes for useful hypnagogic imagery before falling asleep, therefore, deducing present choices leads to almost 100% results achievement. As everything here is illusionary (that is you are not stuck with where you’re at now) and your skills can be improved with practice and a positive attitude, the data imprinted in your mind can help you believe in your future goals and push you towards the realisation phase sooner.

As a human being, you are being ruled by pure insights and emotions. Learning to control these emotions and validate the insights will help you take a step closer to becoming an awakened being. The difference between ordinary people and awakened beings is that woke people are able to restrain themselves from certain actions and control their urges as they are aware that reacting differently now, will pay off later.

Many beginners learn best by following directions unless they have a problem taking notes. Further on, I will offer you some suggestions for speeding your learning process by giving you three simple ways to condition your mind in a way that can be used to improve your sports performance.

Step 1: Figure Out What’s Going On In Your Brain

Think of your mind as the heart of your body. You wouldn’t go a mile if you didn’t have the proper circulation throughout all parts of your body. You also wouldn’t suffer any pain in any part of it. Brain cells send and receive signals every second through synapses. These signals are used for memory storage and retrieval as well as to produce brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and more.

Before you commit to the practice, you have to observe first. These observations will help you understand what’s going on inside your head and how your brain works. It’s a bit like watching your coach performing the exercise a dozen times before you actually try it yourself. It helps you create a mind map that can later be used to speed up the learning curve. Think before acting and I guarantee, you will learn much faster.

Step 2: Find The Right Tool To Fix Your Weakness

One person’s weakness could be another’s strength. Strength sports are no different from any other sport. Whether you are a powerlifter trying to work on your sticking points or a strongman looking to work on your power endurance, there can only be only one best way to reach your goals and that is through knowledge and training. Better preparedness helps you remain focused on your objectives regardless of which area you feel the need to improve. However, before you do that, you need to find the right tool to fix your weakness.

As everybody might react differently to the same stimulus, you need to carefully observe how your organism responds to certain techniques. Some of them will be more efficient while others, less efficient. One person might react well to calm, lying meditation while another one might prefer a more active approach that involves chanting, using gestures or affirmations during moments of sports excitement. Whichever method you choose, make sure it fits you well.

Step 3: Commit To Practice

If you want to learn something, it’s easy to do. But if you really want to master a skill, it’s not as easy. You have to be committed and practise until your skills are well developed. What’s more, you have to be willing to learn from your mistakes. The best way to do this is not by reading books or listening to lectures, but through practice and lots of feedback from your coach. In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” book, there’s a short chapter called “Be Proactive”. Where Stephen Covey talks about how important it is that we are proactive in our learning. You must be proactive in your learning. You can’t wait for someone else to teach you what you need to know; nor can you hope that some teacher will appear out of nowhere and will tell you everything on your first day of training. It’s up to you to take responsibility for getting the shit done.

To sum up, raw knowledge ain’t gonna get you far. To achieve mastery, you will have to practise your skills on a daily basis and be consecutive. It will pay off but you have to be patient and trust the process. Only then, you will be able to become a true master of the skill.

A martial artist practising kicks at sunset
Martial artist practising kicks at sunset

Summary: How To Start?

If you are serious about committing to the mental conditioning program, you will need a coach. It is important to find a mental conditioning specialist who is also a strength and conditioning coach because if you want to apply these techniques to increase your sports performance, you will need someone who is knowledgeable in both areas, that is, working with the physical body and the mind simultaneously.

Luckily for you, I have over 2 decades of experience in mental conditioning. After coaching 14 national and 2 world champions in strength sports, I might happen to know a thing or two about applying the mental conditioning techniques to increase willpower, focus, strength, power output, and sports performance in general so if you are serious about your goals, I recommend you check out my coaching program.

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