October 1, 2014 by Gene Jones

Hall of Fame baseball player and legendary wordsmith Yogi Berra famously said “90% of this game is 50% mental”.
While the math of this statement doesn’t add up, it points to a vital aspect of sports and athletic competition. Although the games we play and watch are visibly physical, the key to success in sports is based on mental preparation and approach. Whether you are a sports hobbyist or a top professional athlete, the mental component of sports is what differentiates those who are continually frustrated from those who succeed. It almost always determines the outcome between two opponents who are fundamentally “evenly matched.”

This means that breakthrough thinking is an essential element in all sports endeavors. How many times has it been said that an individual athlete or team ‘just has to get over the hump’ to win a championship, or that one athlete or team has the ‘mental edge’ over another?

In sports, better mental preparation leads directly to superior performance. Mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation. In fact, when properly implemented, mental preparation is actually more important, because it also facilitates better physical practice as well as game performance. A highly skilled athlete in a poor mental state will underperform his or her capabilities. Likewise, some athletes temporarily transcend their own abilities in flashes of greatness that result from ideal emotional and mental states crystallizing during a particular game or moment in time. Sustained greatness always requires great mental strength. The goal of all athletes and teams is to achieve repeated excellence under pressure.

This is where breakthrough thinking enters the picture. In the world of sports and athletic competition, breakthrough thinking can be defined as thinking that facilitates an athlete’s ability to reach new levels of awareness and clarity, which in turn leads to what is called the ‘flow’ state. Without going into great detail, flow states are states of peak performance where all aspects of an athlete’s energies and abilities are optimally functioning simultaneously. Flow states can occur on a team level as well. Flow states can be contagious, as one member of a team who is operating at a particularly high level can trigger a higher level of performance in other teammates. We often witness examples of this in basketball and football games, where suddenly one team goes on a ‘run’ that seems unstoppable after one particular player ‘gets hot’. On an individual level, professional tennis provides many thrilling moments in which players such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, or Serena Williams become invincible. The sports phrase used to describe such flow states is ‘in the zone’. Michael Jordan exemplified this state while winning multiple NBA championships. Tiger Woods in his prime was often in the zone. Athletes who are in the zone radiate special qualities that can be mesmerizing to observe.

Breakthrough thinking is the key for any athlete who wants to ‘turn the corner’ and become more adept at their sport. Whether you compete against others, or merely compete against yourself, achieving a breakthrough means more satisfaction and success. If you are a professional athlete, it may mean the difference between a struggling career and stardom.

Breakthroughs help us see new ways to perform better. They can occur on a number of levels ranging from better equipment, better training and better skills, to better teamwork, better performance and better strategies. Sometimes they manifest as small changes, and other times they are the basis for a major shift in tactics.

To best utilize breakthrough thinking, first identify each aspect of your sport. Then begin to analyze the components that go into each aspect. For instance, make sure you are using the best equipment. Perhaps there are some new equipment or training innovations you are not aware of. Some football quarterbacks throw better with a glove on, and some do not. It is very important to realistically evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses before deciding on how to proceed. It is essential figure out ways to fortify your weaknesses, hopefully turning them into advantages. This is where experimentation becomes important. For instance, a tennis player who cannot hit a hard first serve may develop a strategic ‘spin serve’, just as a baseball pitcher who cannot throw hard may develop alternate pitches. The career of R.A. Dickey is a perfect example. After failing as a starting pitcher, R.A. learned to throw a knuckleball. His incredible comeback led him to become the only knuckleball pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award (2012). By knowing and accepting his limits and weaknesses, R.A. Dickey was able to create a new strength.
Remember, Mariano Rivera was a failure as a starting pitcher. The breakthrough moment for him was his shift to focusing on a career as a relief pitcher. That is one of the great attributes of sports, as there is usually a way to re-invent yourself when necessary. Sometimes, the greatest breakthrough moment for an athlete is a re-directing of the original dream.

Aligning one’s unique skills with one’s abilities and mental strengths is a fundamental requirement. That is the foundation for all sports excellence and success. As an amateur athlete in high school, I experienced this necessity first hand. For some reason, I could never play up to my abilities as a singles tennis player. It took some time, but I eventually realized that I was inherently a team player who needed to be a part of something to thrive. Switching to doubles allowed me to become a part of a tennis team that won the New York City championship in my senior year.

There are many strategies to achieve breakthrough thinking. They all utilize a few essential core elements. Most important is the use of truth and freedom. This means that breakthrough thinking requires honest evaluation coupled with freedom of thought. Suspending judgment when weighing options is mandatory. Asking penetrating questions is most important. Once a wide variety of questions and ideas have been brought to the surface, it is time to evaluate each one of them to identify the best ideas, or combination of ideas possible. After unearthing numerous options and possibilities, focus on the best ones to establish your direction.

Here are the main areas to consider, whether you are a sports hobbyist, an aspiring athlete, or an experienced professional. Evaluate each sport you participate in as a separate entity:

*Physical Conditioning and Practice
*Support & Mental Conditioning

To clarify the above list, Physical Conditioning is different than Practice in that conditioning includes diet and should be designed to support practice techniques. Support covers vital areas such as coaching, mentoring, living situation, and emotional health. It also includes the concept of nurture, which is finding the support you need and the type of situation you thrive in. For instance, do you prefer individual or team sports? In team situations, support expands to relationships with teammates.
Mental Conditioning has multiple aspects as it applies to visualizing situations, creating strategies & tactics in advance to be better prepared for whatever unfolds. Mental conditioning is also an internal process of controlling emotions to facilitate optimal performance. The mind must connect with physical skills to create a positive cycle of reinforcement for all actions.

The study of mental conditioning brings up a major part of sports competition that is often overlooked. I call it ‘peripheral vision’. In basketball, it is called ‘court sense’. It goes beyond the common ‘sports IQ’ concept. Peripheral vision is an athlete’s ability to have ‘eyes in the back of his head’. It is the ability to know where everyone else is on a court or field, and to maximize your presence in each given situation. It is not only knowing your own tendencies, but also those of everyone on your team as well your opponents’ team. Peripheral vision is a particularly important skill for basketball point guards to develop. Basketball teams depend on their point guard’s ability to create opportunities for teammates. Therefore, peripheral vision is a necessary breakthrough skill for players at the point guard position. The ability to anticipate and spatially locate opportunities and pitfalls is what differentiates the great ones from the mediocre. This skill is honed by the use of breakthrough thinking.

For instance, it is well known that ‘rail horses’ rarely win big races. They often get hemmed in and are unable to make a stretch run, but every once in a while, a jockey sees a ‘surprising’ opening and wins a major race by taking his horse to the rail. This is not always a sudden epiphany, but more often a breakthrough strategy hatched in preparation and then waited for an opportunity. Capitalizing on strategic options is a major key to success in most sports, especially golf. Golfers must adapt to varying weather and course conditions that constantly mandate changes in club use and game strategy. Players must be well versed and prepared to make changes that may seem spontaneous, but are actually carefully planned in advance. Choosing the correct clubs for your bag, and hiring a brilliant caddy are critical factors as well.

The mental edge gained by the use of breakthrough thinking in sports is huge. It is very often the difference between winning and losing. Breakthrough thinking reminds us to hone our minds as diligently as we hone our bodies, to put some extra ‘mental sweat’ into everything we do. Breakthrough ideas can change key strategies, improve performance, and turn underdogs into champions. It is no mistake that the best conditioned, best-rehearsed athletes and teams with the best strategies usually emerge victorious. With some effective use of breakthrough thinking, that athlete can be you!